Our דין תורה with מצרים – The Story of גביהא בן פסיסא

In פרק ק”ה of תהילים, which recounts the wonders of יציאת מצרים, there is an unusual תרגום יונתן בן עוזיאל on the words “ויוציאם בכסף וזהב ואין בשבטיו כושל” – “And ה’ took them out with gold and silver; and in His ‘שבטים’, there is no stumbling block.” (פסוק ל”ז)

The word שבטים is normally translated as tribes, and, indeed, the מצודת דוד explains the word in this fashion.  However, the תרגום translates the word שבטים to mean judgements, as we find in various places in תנ”ך, and he explains the פסוק to mean that בני ישראל did not stumble when they “entered into judgement” (litigated) against מצרים.

What does this mean?  When did we enter into litigation against מצרים, and what was the potential stumbling block?  The מהר”ץ חיות in מסכת סנהדרין דף צ”א gives a most interesting answer.

The גמרא in סנהדרין relates that there is a special holiday that was instituted on the 24th of ניסן due to the following incident.  In the days of Alexander the Great, the Egyptians came before him with a claim against the Jews.  It says clearly in the תורה in the פסוק in this week’s פרשה that the בני ישראל asked of the Egyptians to lend them their silver and gold vessels, and that the Egyptians did so.

“We demand payment for all of those vessels that were borrowed and never returned!” said the מצרים.  Alexander the Great took the claim seriously, and it was incumbent on the Jews to come up with an answer.  The חכמים sent גביהא בן פסיסא to respond, and this is what he said.

“Inasmuch as your claim is based on a פסוק in the תורה, I will also answer you with a פסוק.  The פסוק (also in this week’s פרשה) says that the בני ישראל dwelled in מצרים for four hundred and thirty years.  We demand payment for the work of the six hundred thousand able-bodied men (the number mentioned in the תורה) over the course of those four hundred and thirty years!”

Alexander the Great then turned to the מצרים and said (no doubt with a smile), “Now you must answer the claim of the Jews.”  The מצרים realized that they had been checkmated, and so they asked for three days and then ran for their lives, leaving behind fields and vineyards for the בני ישראל to enjoy.  That year happened to be a שמיטה year.  Thus, not only were the בני ישראל saved from the claims of the מצרים, but they also were provided with plenty, despite not having grown anything in their own fields and vineyards that year.

The מהר”ץ חיות says that this is what the תרגום had in mind.  Many years after יציאת מצרים, when we would have to stand in judgement against the מצרים, we would not stumble then, either, and, instead, would enjoy more additional benefits from the Egyptians’ gold and silver!

If you are planning on visiting Eretz Yisrael, make the most of your visit in the Eretz HaKodesh, and spend a night or several nights learning with a kollel member in one of Kollel Aish Tamid’s six branches. Please contact Rabbi Calev Unger for details:  calevunger@gmail.com


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