Israel Drazin

Thoughts on the Biblical Portion Bo

The third parasha in Exodus, Bo, frequently mistranslated as “go,” despite meaning “come,” tell the last three of the ten plagues, God gives the Israelites the first of the 613 commandments concerning the Jewish calendar, a law that seems to be crystal clear, but Jewish tradition treated it as obscure and not mean what it seems to say, followed by the statutes of Passover, a holiday that most people do not realize no longer exists, and the sanctification of the firstborn even though until this time distinction was given to the second son and the firstborn never received any special recognition. The portion ends in the middle of chapter 13. The events were purposely stated obscurely to prompt us to think, and thinking leads us to the Torah goal of improving individuals and society.

  • The word Bo means “come.” It is the goal. Moses was ordered to come to Pharaoh. In contrast, lekh lekha, as in Genesis 12:1, when God ordered Abraham to travel to Israel, called Canaan at that time, means “go” because, for Abraham and his descendants, the goal was not to come but to go. The Jew should realize that Israel has many benefits that it can give to people. It is impossible to know and enjoy them all. Living in Israel is not sufficient. What is necessary is for Jews always to assert themselves to learn more about the values of Israel and Judaism as a whole. The goal is to constantly “go.”
  • There are not 613 commandments in the Torah. The first report that the Torah contains 613 commandments dates to the third century CE when Rabbi Simlaimentioned this concept in a sermon recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, Makkot  The Talmud states: “Rabbi Simlai gave as a sermon (darash Rabi Simlai): 613 commandments were communicated to Moses—365 negative commands, corresponding to the number of solar days (in a year), and 248 positive commands, corresponding to the number of the members (bones covered with flesh) of a man’s body.” Rabbi Simlai invented the number 613 because it fit his sermon: A person should observe the Torah with all his body parts (248) every day (365). The two numbers total 613. One hundred fifty years before Rabbi Simlai, ben Azzai said that there were three hundred biblical commands.[1] E. E. Urbach wrote, “In the Tannaitic sources, this number (613) is unknown.”[2] Maimonides not only knew that the notion of 613 biblical commands is only sermonic but that the general population accepted the notion and wanted information about what Judaism required and what it prohibited, so he listed the commandments that he felt the rabbis considered either explicit or implicit in the Torah.
  • The biblical Passover occurred on the fourteenth day of the first month, later called Nisan. It had only one ceremony. The Israelites were required to offer a Pascal sacrifice and eat it toward the evening of the fourteenth day. This holiday of Passover was followed on the fifteenth of the month by Chag Hamatzot, the festival of (eating ) matzot(unleavened bread). The biblical Passover lasted one day. Chag Hamatzot was seven days.When the temple was destroyed and sacrifices stopped, Passover could no longer be observed and, although biblically mandated, was discontinued. However, to remember this holiday, Chag Hamatzot was renamed Passover.[3]
  • Exodus 12:2 commands, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first for you of the months of the year.” This statement appears to be clear. It says the beginning of the year is the month later called Nisan. This is the month the Israelites were freed from Egyptian slavery and became a nation. The New Year was celebrated in the spring by Passover and Hag Hamatzot, on the 14th for one day and the 15th of the first month for seven days. Spring is the natural beginning of the year. It is the time when the earth begins to produce fruits and vegetables. It was only during the Babylonian exile of 586 BCE that the Judeans accepted the Babylonian concept that the year starts in the fall, and the first day of the seventh month begins the year, and the name Rosh Hashanah, New Year, was given to the first day of the seventh month.
  • In the third and fourth sentences of the biblical portion, Moses and Aron appear before Pharaoh and warn him that if he fails to release the Israelites, God will bring locusts to swarm over Egypt. It is well-known that Egypt was often affected by locusts. Was this infestation different? If so, how? Where there more locusts than usual?
  • How did the brothers manage to come and speak to Pharaoh? We would imagine that few people could do so, and certainly not slaves.
  • Moses and Aaron left after the warning. In their absence, Pharaoh’s servants pleaded with Pharaoh to “let the men go to serve Y-h-v-h their God.” Why do they only mention men?
  • The brothers are called back. Pharaoh agrees to let only male Israelites go to worship their God and warns them, “See evil is before your face.” Rashi cites a Midrash and explains that Pharaoh was referring to his astrologers who told him that they saw in the stars that blood would flow from the Israelites in the desert. Rashi God caused blood to flow, but it was the blood of circumcision. For God ordered the males to be circumcised. Did the rabbis in the Midrash and Rashi believe that astrologers could see the future?
  • Moses requested that Pharaoh allow children to accompany the Israelites going for three days to make sacrifices to God. Pharaoh refuses. Rashi imagines that he declined because “it is not customary for youngsters to sacrifice.” Why does Rashi say this? Don’t Jews and non-Jews take children to religious services to accustom them to the services and teach them lessons?
  • As a result, a plague of locusts covered the land and ate all the herbs of the land. Is this a customary biblical hyperbole? If not, how did the Egyptians survive after the plague?
  • Pharaoh called Moses and said, “I have sinned against Y-h-v-h your God. Please forgive my sin this time, and entreat Y-h-v-h your God to remove this death from me.” Should we understand that Pharaoh recognized the existence of the Israelite God?
  • Moses did what Pharaoh requested, and “not one locust remained in all the border of Egypt.” Is this another exaggeration? Or is it another miracle? Rashi multiplies the event writing, even the locust the Egyptians salted (apparently, although Rashi does not say so, to eat) disappeared. Why did he say this? There is no hint of this in the Bible.
  • Rashi also multiplied the next plague of darkness. Moses and Aaron did not announce this ninth plague, like the third and sixth, the former plagues associated with the number three. Three is repeated in that the plague lasted three days. While 10:22-23 states, “there was darkness in the land of Egypt three days, they did not see one another nor rise from his place three days,” Rashi writes that there were two plagues of thee each. One where the Egyptians could not see one another and a second one when the darkness was so intense it kept the Egyptians in their seats for three days. Why does Rashi say this?
  • He also writes that the plague did not affect the Israelites. They could enter Egyptian houses unannounced, look at their possessions and then ask if they could borrow them when they left Egypt. Why does Rashi say this?
  • The same question should be asked regarding the Haggadah read at the Seder on Passover. It also states that there were plagues in addition to those mentioned in the Torah. Why do the Haggadah writers feel a need to say this?
  • In Genesis 15, God tells Abraham that his descendants will be enslaved for four hundred years. In Exodus 12: 41, the Torah says, “It came to pass at the end of four hundred and thirty years…the entire host of the Lord went out of Egypt.” Is this a discrepancy? Should we understand that the Genesis number was a rounded approximant figure?
  • Why does Exodus 13:12 command that the firstborn male of cattle is given to God? How is it given? The Bible does not say. Why only males?
  • Why is the firstborn of asses an exception? No reason is given. It is possible that the ass was considered ritually unclean. A lamb is provided as a substitute. If he does not redeem the ass, he should kill it by breaking its neck from behind. Killing from the back may be for kindness, to not disclose to the ass that it will be killed. But why kill it? Relying on the Talmud, Rashi states, “He caused a loss of the value of the ass to the priest. Therefore he should lose his own money.” But why punish the ass?
  • Not only animal firstborn males are to be redeemed, and human males. Why? Why are the details of the human redemption not mentioned here but in Numbers 18:16?
  • The section of redemption continues with verse 13:14. “And it shall be when your son asks you ‘What is this?’ tell him” about the exodus from Egypt when God killed the firstborn humans and animals and “therefore I sacrifice all that opens the womb of males, but I redeem the firstborn (human) sons.” Should we understand that the Torah says that the redemption procedures are designed like the holiday of Passover to recall God saving the Israelites?
  • Is this understanding reinforced in verse 13:16, which states, “And it shall be a sign upon your hand and frontlets between your eyes,” meaning the various redemptions prompt us to recall God saving the Israelites? If so, this shows that the words do not refer to tefillin, as Rashi maintains. Can we go so far as to say the laws of tefillin are rabbinical?
  • The Israelites’ first Passover, celebrated in Egypt just before the exodus and described in Exodus 12:1-11, was radically different from the Torah-mandated holiday observed after the flight. It raises at least thirteen Questions.
  • (1) Why does the Torah command that “this month,” the month of the exodus, should be “the first month of the year,” and what connection does this calendar requirement have to Passover? (2) Why did the celebration start on the tenth day of this month; why not the fourteenth when the meal was eaten? (3) Why was a lamb of the sheep or goat taken and not an ox? (4) Why did the Torah require that the lamb be consumed at home and not at a holy place or a community area? (5) Why, if the family was too small to eat the entire lamb, does the Torah say that the family should invite neighbors; why not anyone who wants to come? (6) Why does the Torah require that the lamb, which was not a sacrifice to God but a meal for humans, be “without blemish, a male of the first year”? (7) Why roast and not boil the lamb? (8) Why did the people have to kill the lamb on the fourteenth of the month at dusk? (9) Why did the Israelites need to put blood “on the two side-posts and the lintel, upon the houses”? (10) Why did the people have to eat unleavened bread – the command was given long before the fourteenth, and the people had sufficient time to bake bread with leaven. (11) Why must they eat maror, “bitter herbs”? (12) Why were they prohibited from leaving any part of the food until morning? (13) Why dress up for the eating “with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand”?
  • There is a fundamental question underlying these thirteen queries. Why eat this meal? Once the purpose of the meal is identified, everything else falls into place. Exodus 12 follows the narrative in Exodus 11, where the Israelites are assured that they will leave Egyptian servitude shortly. Exodus 12 describes how the Israelites should celebrate this forthcoming freedom. As most commentators assume, it is not a commemorative event as the post-exodus Passovers came to be, but an anticipatory celebration of what will soon occur. The festivity discussed in Exodus 12 was unique to this particular year and was not repeated because it was appropriate at this time only but not subsequently.
  • Before describing the festive meal, the Israelites were told that their impending deliverance would be so important and meaningful that (1) they should recollect it yearly by marking the month in which their freedom occurred as the year’s first month.
  • They should begin (2) their celebration on the tenth day of this month because the tenth day had special significance for the ancient Israelites; Joshua crossed the Jordan on the tenth of the first month; Yom Kippur falls on the tenth of the seventh month, and this date marked the onset of the Jubilee year; the tenth of the month of Teves later served as a fast day to recall the beginning of the battle that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the first Temple in 586 BCE; and one biblical source states that the Temple was destroyed on the tenth of the month Av.
  • Since the Israelites were descendants of pastoral ancestors who shepherded lambs and were probably accustomed to marking special occasions by eating them, they were told to celebrate the upcoming exodus (3) by eating their traditional festive food, the lamb, in the usual domestic close-nit (4) family, or (5) neighborhood celebration, much like the American holiday of Thanksgiving. Slavery destroys family ties. Now, this meal afforded the erstwhile slaves an opportunity to strengthen both family and neighborliness. The lamb’s slaughter also ended the Israelites’ fear of killing, showcased to the Egyptians (8:22). This act of defiance to their masters was celebrated triumphantly and joyously.
  • But did slaves own lambs? Not all of the Israelites were enslaved. For example, a tradition identifies the tribe of Levi as remaining free. The Bible itself supports this tradition; Aaron, Moses’ brother from the tribe of Levi, was able to move about freely and even go into the wilderness to meet his brother upon his return to Egypt (4:27); some Israelites continued to live in the northern pastoral area of Goshen (8:18, 9:26) and they owned cattle (9:4-7, 10:9, 24-26). Other Israelites lived in the same neighborhood as Egyptians and were considered neighbors, not slaves (11:2). Thus, free Israelites continued to possess lambs, and these animals were available for the pre-exodus ceremony.
  • Unlike the post-exodus Pascal sacrifice, which was instituted to commemorate what had happened on this day in Egypt, this lamb was not a sacrifice. Yet, because of the significance of the event, the Israelites were told not to stint on the celebration but to take the very best food available; (6) a lamb “without blemish, a male of the first year,” just like the sacrifices they were to offer later to God.
  • So, too, they were required to prepare the lamb in the most favored way, (7) roasted, not boiled. In his Mikra Ki-pheshuto, Arnold Ehrlich points out that the ancients ate their meat roasted, not boiled, as seen in the Greek epic Although the Israelites also ate boiled foods, they used the ancient roasting method to add a sense of history and awe to the practice. This is similar to Tziporah using the ancient flint to circumcise her son rather than a bronze blade which was certainly available, and our use of a Torah scroll written by hand rather than a printed book, and lighting the Sabbath lights with candles instead of light bulbs.
  • Yet, while preparations began on the symbolic tenth day, the highlight, as one would expect, came during the hours just before the exodus (8) on the fourteenth day before the evening, at dusk. The people were commanded to (9) place blood on the sides of their doors at that time.
  • Blood symbolizes life. The use of the blood served as a symbol to the Israelites of their severance from the indignities of the past and the beginning of a new life, even as the shedding of blood at the circumcision welcomes the newborn infant into the Israelite fold. By placing the blood on their doorposts, the boundary between the Israelite home and the outside world, the Israelites were reminded of this message at least twice daily as they left and entered their dwellings before secluding themselves in their homes before the onset of the tenth plague.
  • This is also why slaves who opt to refuse to listen to the law that allows their release and who insist on remaining as slaves have their ears pierced at the doorpost so that they can constantly be reminded of their shameful decision. And, if they were sufficiently schooled, they would realize the ironic difference between the blood from their pierced ears and that placed on the doorposts by their ancestors.
  • Exodus 12:23 states that when the Lord “sees the blood upon the lintel and the two side-posts, the Lord will pass over the door” and not allow any inhabitant to be killed. This statement was not intended to be taken literally. The blood was not placed on the doors to aid God in identifying Israelite homes. God, who knows all, does not need blood placed on a door to understand that the dwellers are Israelites. Hadn’t He previously saved the Israelites from plagues without the need for marked doors? Besides, if the purpose was identification, why use blood? The 12:23 statement is a figure of speech, meaning that no Israelite child will die that night.
  • The festive food, as stated, was the best, the tastiest, and the traditional Israelite manner of celebration. Thus the people were told to eat the lamb with the best kind of bread, (10) matzot, unleavened bread, and season the lamb and make it tasty with (11) sharp herbs.
  • The traditional view is that unleavened bread is poor bread consumed because the Israelites had to rush out of Egypt without time to allow the bread to rise, and bitter herbs recall the painful toils of slavery. This idea is problematic. It is inapplicable to the pre-exodus celebration. The Israelites were commanded to have unleavened bread at the festive meal some days before the tenth of the month, more than sufficient time to bake leavened bread.
  • Arnold Ehrlich suggests that the ancients considered leavened bread inferior to matzot, unleavened. He points out that Abraham, in 18:6, served his three guests a sumptuous meal that included ugot, and ugot are unleavened bread, as indicated in 12:39, where Scripture states ugot matzot. Abraham had ordered an animal be taken from the herd, slaughtered, cooked, and prepared for his guests. This takes time, time enough for the leaven to rise. Similarly, Lot gave his guests matzot in 19:3. Abraham and Lot certainly had leavened bread at home, yet they offered matzot with the elaborate meals they gave their guests. King Saul was also served a sumptuous meal in I Samuel 28:24 with unleavened bread. This explains why leavened bread was prohibited with sacrifices burnt on the altar for God (23:18 and Deuteronomy 16:3); only matzot were offered to God because it was the better bread.
  • Thus, the bread used at the pre-exodus celebration was However, the matzot of the post-exodus Passover marked another event unrelated to the 12:1-11 festivity. Ehrlich does not discuss the issue, but the current association of matzot with leaving Egypt in haste is based on 12:34 and 39. The Israelites had matzot for the festive meal, but they still needed to prepare food for their journey from Egypt. So they “took their dough before it was leavened” (12:34) and left in haste with unleavened bread “because they were thrust out of Egypt, and could not tarry, neither had they prepared for themselves any victual” (12:39).
  • Bitter herbs were also not a symbol of servitude, but a spice, like salt and pepper and garlic, a condiment used by free people to enhance the flavor of their meals.
  • The final food rule was that people should not be concerned about the morrow (12) but eat, enjoy, and leave nothing until morning. People who relish their food finish it. This foreshadows the same rule with the same purpose regarding the manna in the desert.
  • Another requirement for this special celebratory meal, spelled out nearly a week before the exodus, was that the families should (13) gird their loins, wear shoes and take their staff in their hands. These institutions most likely symbolized the purpose of the meal, the celebration of the forthcoming exodus. It might also have served as a metaphor and meant be ready for the announcement to leave. Or it may have been part of the actual preparation to leave. The first or second explanation seems more likely since the announcement did not require more important preparations such as packing and the herding of the animals.
  • Thus, the Exodus 12 Passover activities were unlike all subsequent Passovers. It had a different agenda. It was a joyful family or neighborly meal in which the Israelites demonstrated their happiness that they would soon be free. In contrast, the purpose of subsequent Passovers was to recall the exodus event.

[1]      Sifrei Deuteronomy 76.

[2]      The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987). See my book Mysteries of Judaism II, chapter 23, “There are not 613 biblical commands,” for more information on this subject, including the views of sages agreeing the 613 is sermonic, not real.

[3]      The siddur and all prayers associated with Chag Hamatzot do not use the revised name but calls the holiday by its biblical name Chag Hamatzot.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.