Parsha and Manuscript: Va’era - ‘The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart’

Thursday, 23 January, 2020 - 7:29 pm

Manuscript - Vat.ebr.448 Vaera.pngIn the Torah portion of Va’era it discusses how after Pharaoh having enslaved the Israelites,[1] G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart and brought on Egypt the ten plagues before persuading Pharaoh to let the Jews free. In the justification for the first plague of the River Nile turning into blood, it states: ‘The Lord said to Moses, "Pharaoh's heart is heavy; he has refused to let the people out.’ In fact, there are twenty occasions in the book of Exodus where it says that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened: once in the introduction of G-d to Moses before sending him on his mission to Pharaoh to let the Jews free,[2] a second, pertaining to the miracle of the staff that turned into a serpent,[3] once, as mentioned, in justifying to Moses the plague of blood,[4] ten times in the context of Pharaoh refusing to take heed to eight of the plagues, including twice by the plague of hail and twice by locust,[5] twice in the justification of the plague of the firstborn,[6] and five times in connection with the justification for the splitting of the sea and retribution against the pursuing Egyptians.[7]


The notion that G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart, in contradiction with the principle of free choice, may be understood in the following ways: a. G-d did not remove his free choice at all but rather it should be read that G-d allowed Pharaoh to survive the plagues to know G-d.[8] b. G-d did not remove his free choice but rather allowed for the rationalisation of the plagues - magic or nature - so Pharaoh would choose on his own not to heed.[9] c. G-d removed his free choice to repent but only after three warnings and the first five plagues,[10] since the repentance at that point would have been insincere, as it would have been under duress.[11] d. G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart while ultimately desiring him to repent if he truly persisted.[12] e. The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart by G-d is different than G-d decreeing that the Jews will not leave Egypt due to Pharaoh’s choice.[13] f. The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart by G-d is not in contradiction to the fact that Pharaoh also enslaved the Jews of his own freewill, thus justifying punishment.[14]




There are three terminologies used when describing the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart: in two places it uses the description: ‘his heart was hardened’ – ‘a’kshe,’[15] in eleven instances it uses the phrase: ‘his heart was strengthened’ – ‘a’chazek,’[16] and in eight places it uses the phrase: ‘his heart had become heavy’ - ‘kaved.’[17]

In this essay, we will focus on the third phrase: ‘heavy’ - ‘kaved,’ which can be seen to be structured in two ways: in the past tense – his heart became heavy,[18] or in the present – his heart is heavy.[19] This distinction is made in the context of the phrase: ‘Pharaoh's heart is heavy (kaved); he has refused to let the people out’ – serving as a justification for the first plague of blood.


MS. Kennicott 3, fol. 60 (1299) Vaera.pngOnkelos


The distinction between the two is manifest in the early Aramaic translations of Onkelos. In the Onkelos Aramaic translation, as found in 13th century manuscript of the Penteteuch with Targum Onkelos at the British Library, Add MS 26878,[20] as well as early printed editions of the Torah – incunabula of the Ixar Bible (Hijar, Teruel-Spain)[21] published in 1490 with Onkelos and Rashi, and Bomberg Rabbinic Bible (Mikra’ot Gedolot) published in 1517, it states for the Hebrew word ‘kaved’ (heavy) – the Aramaic word: ‘yakir’ – ‘is heavy.' This is as opposed to ‘kaved’ as found in Genesis:[22] ‘But the hunger was severe in the land,’ where the Targum Onkelos is ‘takif’ – ‘strong.’


In other early versions of Onkelos’ translation, however, the term used is ‘ityekar’ – ‘his heart had become heavy.’ This can be found in the Sephardic Pentateuch found in the Vatican Library, probably from Spain (or North Africa), dated to the late 11th–early 12th century,[23] with Onkelos after each verse, as well as MS. Kennicott 3 from 1299.[24] This is also how it is found in the version of Onkelos according to Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler in his commentary on Targum Onkelos, Netinah La-Ger, published in 1886,[25] though he testifies that he saw manuscripts with Onkelos that also states ‘yakir,’ as we mentioned earlier.




It is unclear which version of the Onkelos Rashi had when writing his Biblical commentary. Rashi comments that the Aramaic translation should be ‘yakir.’ Rashi comments:


Is heavy: Heb. kaved. Its Aramaic translation (targumo) is ‘yakir’ (heavy), and not ‘ityakir’ (has become heavy), because it is the name of a thing, as in for the matter is too heavy ‘kaved’ for you.[26]


MS. Oppenheim 35, fol. 34 (1408) Vaera.pngManuscripts


There are a number of versions of the commentary of Rashi as found in the manuscripts at Oxford:




In MS CCC165,[27] MS. Canon. 88, MS. Opp. 35, as well as early Spanish printed Pentateuch with Rashi, 1490 and Bomberg Rabbinic Bible, 1517, it is as the printed edition of Rashi: ‘Its Aramaic translation ‘targumo’ is ‘yakir’ (heavy).’ In MS Oppenheimer 34, and MS Canon. Or. 35, it however states: ‘Like its Aramaic translation (k‘targumo) ‘yakir’ (heavy).’


According to the former, where it says: ‘Its Aramaic translation is Yakir,’ the version of Rashi may have been in fact different - ‘ityakar’ (has become heavy), as found in the above-mentioned 12th and 13th century manuscripts of the Pentateuch with Onkelos, and as is the view of the original text of Onkelos, according to the view of Rabbi Nathan Adler.[28] The point of the commentary of Rashi may have been then to correct the Aramaic translation from ‘ityakar’ to ‘yakir’ (heavy). Alternatively, he’s not addressing what the correct version of the Onkelos is at all but rather commenting that in his view the correct Aramaic translation should be ‘yakir.’


According to the latter, where the version is: ‘Like its Aramaic translation (k‘targumo) ‘yakir’ (heavy),’ the version Rashi had of the Onkelos would have indeed been ‘yakir’ (heavy),’ as is found in the early printed versions of the Torah in Spain and Italy (Bomberg).




Whether the original version of Onkelos was in fact ‘yakir’ (heavy) or ‘ityakar’(has become heavy), Rashi maintains that in the text of the Torah in Exodus,[29] the correct Aramaic translation should be ‘yakir’ (heavy) and not ‘ityakir’ (has become heavy).  Rashbam, the grandson of Rashi,[30] however argues and maintains that the correct translation is ‘his heart has become heavy’ (poel sh’avar).


Difference between ‘yakir’ and ‘ityakar’


What is Rashi's reason that in this case the correct Aramaic translation of the Hebrew word ‘kaved’ is ‘yakir’ (heavy) and not ‘ityakar’ (has become heavy)?


There are two reasons given for the insistence of Rashi that the correct translation of ‘kaved’ is ‘it is heavy’ and not ‘it has become heavy:’


If the translation of ‘kaved’ is that Pharaoh’s heart ‘had become heavy’ - in the past tense, then conceivably it may now in the present have changed, thus undermining the justification for the plague of blood and the commandment that follows[31] by G-d to Moses:


Go to Pharaoh in the morning; behold, he is going forth to the water, and you shall stand opposite him on the bank of the Nile, and the staff that was turned into a serpent you shall take in your hand. And you shall say to him, 'The Lord G-d of the Hebrews sent me to you, saying, "Send forth My people, so that they may serve Me in the desert," but behold, until now, you have not hearkened. So said the Lord, "With this you will know that I am the Lord." Behold, I will smite with the staff that is in my hand upon the water that is in the Nile, and it will turn to blood.


A further reason for the preference of ‘kaved’ as ‘heavy,’ as opposed to ‘had become heavy’ is connected not to the subsequent commandment: ‘Go to Pharaoh in the morning’ - that may in itself suggest a probing to whether Pharaoh’s obduracy has changed[32] - but rather the earlier verses:[33] ‘But I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and I will increase My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. But Pharaoh will not hearken to you.’


How could the fact that Pharaoh’s heart ‘had become heavy’ - in the past - by G-d be a moral justification for the punishment of the River Nile turning into blood?[34] The translation of ‘kaved’ - ‘it is heavy,’ in the present, however, based on Pharaoh’s own free will, would indeed explain why it serves as a justification for the plague of the firstborn.[35] For these two reasons Rashi chose the Aramaic translation of the word that reflects the free choice of Pharaoh in the present to not let the Jews out of Egypt, thus justifying the sending of Moses to Pharaoh to warn him and the moral justification for the onset of the first plague.[36]




In conclusion, the use of the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew word ‘kaved’ as ‘yakir’ – ‘his heart is heavy’ – in the present may be viewed in two ways: its linguistic framework, as Rashbam and Ibn Ezra argues, whereby it means in the past that Pharaoh’s heart had become hardened. While this may be justified linguistically, Rashi argues that the translation should rather be in the present – his heart is hard. This is consistent with the view of Rashi that there was not the complete removal of free choice from Pharaoh to repent and certainly in the beginning of the plagues[37] had he chosen a different path with sincerity the plagues could have been averted.



[1] Exodus 1:9-22: (9) And he (Pharaoh) said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. (10) Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.” (11) So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Raamses. (12) But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out, so that the [Egyptians] came to dread the Israelites. (13) The Egyptians ruthlessly imposed upon the Israelites (14) the various labors that they made them perform. Ruthlessly they made life bitter for them with harsh labor at mortar and bricks and with all sorts of tasks in the field. (15) The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, (16) saying, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.” (22) Then Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, “Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.” According to Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 6:3 the big sin of Pharaoh was the statement (Exodus 1:9): ‘Let us deal shrewdly with them.’ See Likkutei Sichot 6:63 that explains that although the action itself should have been the sin, the ‘shrewdness’ (nischakmah) of Pharaoh was what was countered by the confusion (alilah) that G-d gave the impression in the ten plagues that Pharaoh had free choice but it was actually removed from him.

[2] Exodus 7:3.

[3] Exodus 7:13.

[4] Exodus 7:14.

[5] Exodus 8:11 (frogs); 8:15 (lice); 8:28 (wild beasts); 9:7 (epidemic); 9:12 (boils); 9:34 and 9:35 (hail); 10:1 (introduction to locust) and 10:20 (locust); 10:27 (darkness).

[6] Exodus 11:10 and 13:14.

[7] Exodus 14:4 (v’chizakti); 14:4 (v’ikavda); 14:8; 14:17 (mechazek); 14:17 (v’ikavda).

[8] Rav Saadia Gaon in Emunot v’de’ot 4:4.

[9] Rabbi Joseph Albo in Sefer H’ikrim 4:25.

[10] Rabbeinu Bahya on Exodus 7:3.

[11] Exodus Rabba 11:6. Rashi on Exodus 7:3. Nachmanides on Exodus 7:3. Sforno on Exodus 7:3. Rashi on Exodus 7:3. See Sifsei Chachamim that adds: had Pharaoh been allowed to repent partially and still punished for enslaving Israel, people, unaware that the repentance was incomplete, would have questioned the justification for the punishment.

[12] Exodus Rabba 13:6. Likkutei Sichot 6:66 according to the view of Rashi.

[13] Likkutei Sichot 6:65, footnote 46.

[14] Likkutei Sichot 31:31.

[15] Exodus 7:3 and 13:14.

[16] Exodus 7:13; 8:15 (lice); 9:12 (boils); 9:35 (hail); 10:20 (locust); 10:27 (darkness); 11:10; 14:4; 14:8; 14:17.

[17] Exodus 7:14; Exodus 8:11; 8:28 (wild beasts); 9:7 (epidemic); 9:34 and 9:35 (hail); 10:1 (introduction to locust); 14:4; 14:17.

[18] Exodus 14:4; 14:17.

[19] Exodus 7:14 and 18:18.

[20] Fol. 59.

[21] P. 38.

[22] Genesis 43:a. See Netinah La-Ger on Exodus 7:14. In Netinah La-Ger it has the source Genesis 42:1 but should be 43:1.

[23] Vat.ebr.448, fol. 87. Previously owned by the Ottoboni family, it was eventually acquired by Pope Benedict XIV in 1748, along with the whole Ottobonian manuscript collection.

[24] Fol. 60.

[25] P. 31. Rabbi Nathan Adler writes that in ‘our Targumim the word is ‘ityakar.’

[26] Exodus 18:18.

[27] Fol. 42.

[28] Although Rabbi Nathan Adler has the version of Rashi that states: ‘Its Aramaic translation is ‘yakir’ (heavy),’ and not ‘Like its Aramaic translation,’ he clearly states that the version of ‘our Targumim is ‘ityakar,’’ suggesting that Rashi’s version was also thus, but his to change the translation

[29] Exodus 7:14.

[30] Ibn Ezra also maintains that it is past tense.

[31] Rabbi Judah Lowe on Exodus 7:3.

[32] L’vush Ha’orah by Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe on Exodus 7:3.

[33] Exodus 7:3-4.

[34] Taking into consideration that G-d already promised Moses that ‘I will harden his heart’ before the miracle of the staff turning into a snake and Pharaoh in fact did not listen to Moses.

[35] Likkutei Sichot 31:31.

[36] The moral justification for punishment despite the hardening may be understood in more than one way as explained earlier in this essay.

[37] In Likkutei Sichot 6:65, it argues this in the view of Rashi throughout all the plagues.



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