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14.01.2015 13:00    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  vaera  

“Sperber” in this Week's Reading - And Pharaoh's Cruelty

By Daniel Sperber*

Rashi comments on the verse in this week's reading, "Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is coming out to the water, and station yourself before him at the edge of the Nile, taking with you the rod that turned into a snake" (Ex. 7:15), as follows: "As he is coming out to the water—to ease himself. For he claimed to be a god and asserted that he did not need to ease himself; he used to rise early and go to the Nile and there eased himself [in secret]." Rashi bases his commentary on Tanhuma Va-Era 14 (and the parallel text in Exodus Rabbah 9.8):

"And the Lord said to Moses, 'Early in the morning present yourself to Pharaoh, as he is coming out to the water'" (Ex. 8:16). Why did he come out to the water? Because this wicked man used to boast that he was a god and had no need of easing himself; therefore he used to go early in the morning to the water, so that he would not be seen in his disgrace by human beings. Hence the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: rise early, and catch him in the act as he tends to his needs.

Also see Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer:[1]

What is meant by early in the morning? That is to say, accost him early, before he has time to ease himself. And if he should say to you, "I must ease myself," answer him, "Does a god have need of easing himself?"

These and other similar homilies assume that Pharaoh presented himself as a god, as we read in Exodus Rabbah (5.14):

He [Pharaoh] said [to Moses and Aaron]: From the very outset you have spoken falsehood, for I am the Lord of the Universe, and I have created myself and the Nile; as it says: My Nile is my own; I made it for myself (Ezek. 29:3).[2]

This, indeed, is the better-known and generally accepted interpretation, for thus Rashi interpreted the text. However, there is another interpretive tradition, less known today, that was widespread in the Middle Ages. Rabbi Joseph Bekhor Shor (12th century France) writes:

It is customary for ministers and kings to go walking along the banks of the river, carrying birds in their hands, such as ostoir and esparvier,[3] and catch other birds…and there you shall speak with him, for he will not have many people with him, so you will be able to have words with him there.[4]

* Prof. Daniel Sperber is President of the Ludwig and Erica Jesselson Institute for Advanced Torah Studies and a recipient of the Israel Prize, 1992.

[1] Enelau edition, New York 1934, ch. 19, p. 357.

[2] For further elaboration, see Tanhuma, loc. cit., 9.

[3] First appears in Lex Salica as sevarius, and from there into German as Sperber, meaning sparrow-hawk, and into the French espervier, épervier (as presented above). Lex Salica is the law code of the Frankish kingdom, dating back to the fifth century with the reign of Clovis; however the earliest extant manuscripts are from the eighth century, in Latin. Cf. Katherine Fischer Drew, The Laws of the Salian Franks, Philadelphia 1991. Also cf. Rashi on Shabbat 94a: "Bird hunters who take with them on horseback live birds, such as the hawk and its ilk, to hunt other birds," etc.; Hullin 3.1, and Rashi, loc. cit., 44a: "clawed by a hawk—espervier," and likewise in Tosfot. on Hullin 63a.

[4] Also in the Oxford Manuscript: to hunt birds, and they are called ייברי"ש.

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