God Took Us Out of Egypt “Because of This”
In Exodus chapter 13, Moses gives a long speech containing instructions for future commemoration of the day of the Israelites’ departure from Egypt (vv. 3–16). As part of this discourse, Moses says that once the Israelites have settled in the Promised Land,
שמות יג:ה… וְעָבַדְתָּ אֶת הָעֲבֹדָה הַזֹּאת בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה: יג:ו שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תֹּאכַל מַצֹּת וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי חַג לַי־הוָה: יג:ז מַצּוֹת יֵאָכֵל אֵת שִׁבְעַת הַיָּמִים וְלֹא יֵרָאֶה לְךָ חָמֵץ וְלֹא יֵרָאֶה לְךָ שְׂאֹר בְּכָל גְּבֻלֶךָ. יג:ח וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה י־הוה לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם:
Exod 13:5 …And you shall observe in this month this practice: 13:6 Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a festival of YHWH. 13:7 Throughout the seven days unleavened bread shall be eaten; no leavened bread shall be found with you, and no leaven shall be found in all your territory. 13:8 And you shall tell your child on that day, “On account of this YHWH did for me when I went out of Egypt.”
The final verse is puzzling, especially the phrase that begins בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה:
- בַּעֲבוּר (baʿavur)—This word is typically a preposition meaning “because of” or “on account of” (or a conjunction meaning “in order that”). But in this verse, what is the parent saying is on account of what?
- זֶה (zeh)—The most common use of this word is deictic, i.e., pointing at something; but to what is it pointing in this verse? Does it point at something tangible, or to an event in the past, present, or future?
- עָשָׂה (asah)—This word typically means “did” or “made,” but then it should have a direct object complement, telling us what it was that God did or made. Perhaps the verb should be translated here with its less common meaning of “acted [on someone’s behalf]”?
Various commentators have grappled with the meaning of this phrase, בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה, yielding very different results.
Explaining Why God Took Us Out of Egypt
One possible understanding is that the parent is telling the child why God took the Israelites out of Egypt: “God took us out of Egypt for this purpose.” Interpreters who go this route understand “this” to refer to the practices that have just been prescribed for the commemoration of the exodus.
Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040–1105) comments, for example:
בעבור זה—בעבור שאקיים מצותיו, כגון פסח ומצה ומרור הללו.
“On account of this”—so that I will fulfill His commandments, such as these, the paschal lamb, unleavened bread and bitter herbs.
This is also how Abraham Ibn Ezra (ca. 1090–1165) explains the verse. In his short commentary, he says:
וכן פירושו: "ועבדת את העבודה הזאת", היא עבודת הפסח, ותאמר לבנך כי בעבור זאת העבודה שעשיתי עשה לי האות שעשה לי עד שיצאתי ממצרים.
This is its meaning: “You shall observe this practice” [v. 5], the paschal-lamb practice, and you shall say to your child, “On account of this practice that I have performed He made me the sign that He made me before I went out of Egypt.”
Grammatically, this understanding works smoothly. It takes the word zeh as the common Hebrew demonstrative pronoun meaning “this,” serving here as the one-word object of the preposition baʿavur. The parent is to say, “On account of this,” referring to the mandated commemorative practices, “YHWH acted [or, according to Ibn Ezra, made a sign] for me when I went out of Egypt.”
Nevertheless, the assertion that God freed His people from bondage because, or so that, they would offer paschal sacrifices and eat unleavened bread is somewhat peculiar. What is more, it is not in keeping with the overall biblical narrative, which suggests that the Israelites were liberated because of an oath to the patriarchs or because of Egyptian cruelty.
Explaining Why We Perform These Ritual Acts
Other interpreters read the parent’s declaration as an explanation to the child of why we observe the ritual practices of Passover. In other words, the direction of causation is reversed: it is not that God freed us on account of these practices, but rather that we observe these practices because God freed us. Commentators have justified this interpretation in different ways.
This reading begins in the geonic era with Saadia Gaon (882–942):
בעבור זה עשה, זה בעבור מה שעשה ה' לי.
“Because of this He did”—this is because of what God did for me.
Saadia Gaon achieves this interpretation by deliberately flipping the order of the words baʿavur and zeh; he understands those words to mean not “because of this,” but rather “this [is] because of.” This reading was adopted by the grammarian Jonah ibn Janah (ca. 990–1055) in his Sefer HaRiqmah, in a chapter dealing with reversed word or letter order in biblical verses (ch. 32):
בעבור זה עשה ה' לי—השעור "זה בעבור עשה ה' לי," כלומר, זאת העבודה בעבור כך וכך.
“Because of this God did for me”—should be understood as “this is because of what God did for me,” meaning, this service is on account of such and such.
A similar interpretation was later advanced by Rashbam (R. Samuel ben Meir, ca. 1085–1158), who glossed the parent’s declaration as:
בעבור זה שעשה י"י לי ניסים במצרים אני עובד עבודה הזאת.
Because of the fact that God did miracles for me in Egypt, I am performing this service.
Rashbam, however, does not base this interpretation on reversing the word order; instead, he understands בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה י־הוה לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם to mean (translating into rough English) “on account of this that YHWH made [miracles] for me when I went out of Egypt.”
This interpretation was also adopted (independently) by Ramban (R. Moses ben Nahman, 1194–1270).
In modern times, Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto, 1800–1865) also advocated this interpretation, and he provided yet another explanation. He notes that in Biblical Hebrew, the word zeh serves sometimes not as a demonstrative pronoun meaning “this,” but as a relative pronoun equivalent to English “that” or “which.” This can be seen in the following verse, for example:
תהלים עד:ב זְכֹר עֲדָתְךָ קָנִיתָ קֶּדֶם גָּאַלְתָּ שֵׁבֶט נַחֲלָתֶךָ הַר־צִיּוֹן זֶה שָׁכַנְתָּ בּוֹ׃
Psalm 74:2 Remember the community You made Yours long ago, Your very own tribe that You redeemed, Mount Zion, on which You dwell.
If we read zeh in our verse as a relative pronoun, it introduces a relative clause that may be translated as “that which YHWH did for me when I went out of Egypt”; and this entire clause, not just the word zeh, is then the object of the preposition baʿavur. “Because of that which YHWH did for me when I went out of Egypt” is thus the parent’s explanation of his or her observance of these practices.
This is the approach adopted by most modern translators. So, for example, Everett Fox translates: “It is because of what YHWH did for me, when I went out of Egypt.” Variations on this approach appear in the translations of the Jewish Publication Society (NJPS), William Propp, Richard Elliot Friedman and Robert Alter.
But there is a problem with this interpretation as well. “Because of that which YHWH did for me when I went out of Egypt” is a sentence fragment, not a complete sentence. It might make sense if it were in response to a question of the child’s, such as “Why do we engage in the practice of eating unleavened bread?”—but no such question appears in the text.
A Midrashic Reading?
Jewish tradition has a third way of reading the text, which is found in a midrashic commentary on the verse and appears most famously in the Passover Haggadah. To explain why the story of the exodus must be told specifically during the Seder, the midrash adduces our verse.
The passage reads:
יָכוֹל מֵרֹאשׁ חֹדֶשׁ, תַּלְמוּד לוֹמַר "בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא."
It might have been thought that the telling should begin on the first day of the month [of Nisan]. Therefore, the text teaches us “in that day.”
אִי בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא יָכוֹל מִבְּעוֹד יוֹם, תַּלְמוּד לוֹמַר "בַּעֲבוּר זֶה"—בַּעֲבוּר זֶה לֹא אָמַרְתִּי אֶלָּא בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁיֵּשׁ מַצָּה וּמָרוֹר מֻנָּחִים לְפָנֶיךָ.
If this [i.e., that the telling is not to begin on the first day of Nisan] is learned from “in that day,” we might have thought that we should begin while it is still day [and not at night, as is customary]. Therefore, the text teaches us baʿavur zeh: I say baʿavur zeh only when unleavened bread and bitter herbs are lying before you.
The meaning of the derashah is not entirely clear. Why can baʿavur zeh only be said with unleavened bread and bitter herbs on the table? Two scholars, Moshe Bar-Asher of Hebrew University and Azzan Yadin-Israel of Rutgers, have independently offered the same answer: The rabbis are reading the word baʿavur here not as the familiar preposition or conjunction, but rather as a combination of (i) the common preposition בְּ־, be-, “in” (or “with,” in the sense of “by means of”) and (ii) a rare noun. That noun is עֲבוּר, ʿavur.
Avur zeh as “this Produce”
The noun ʿavur appears in the Tanakh just twice, in two successive verses in the book of Joshua. But from those two occurrences, as well as from its Akkadian cognate, ebūru, we know that its meaning was “[food] produce.” The verses in Joshua read:
יהושע ה:יא וַיֹּאכְלוּ מֵעֲבוּר הָאָרֶץ מִמָּחֳרַת הַפֶּסַח מַצּוֹת וְקָלוּי בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה׃ ה:יב וַיִּשְׁבֹּת הַמָּן מִמָּחֳרָת בְּאָכְלָם מֵעֲבוּר הָאָרֶץ וְלֹא־הָיָה עוֹד לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מָן וַיֹּאכְלוּ מִתְּבוּאַת אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן בַּשָּׁנָה הַהִיא׃
Joshua 5:11 On the day after the passover offering, on that very day, they ate of the produce of the country, unleavened bread and parched grain. 5:12 On that same day, when they ate of the produce of the land, the manna ceased. The Israelites got no more manna; that year they ate of the yield of the land of Canaan.
Reading baʿavur zeh in our verse then not as “on account of this,” but rather as “with this produce,” we can understand the rabbinic exposition: “I say ‘with this produce’ only at the time that unleavened bread and bitter herbs are lying before you.”
Of course, a midrashic reading does not necessarily tell us the original meaning of a biblical verse, or even how the biblical verse was commonly understood when the midrashic interpretation was composed. It would be well within their exegetical practice for the rabbis to take this verse, even if they understood the plain meaning of baʿavur to be “because of,” and reinterpret it playfully as referring to the commemorative Passover food. Nevertheless, in this case there is reason to suggest that the midrash may well either preserve, or reflect rediscovery of, what the biblical text originally meant.
Read this way, the parent’s statement is neither puzzling nor fragmentary. What the parent is to tell the child is, “With this produce YHWH acted on my behalf when I went out of Egypt.” And what is the produce in question? The answer is the topic of the immediately preceding verses—the unleavened bread that the Israelites have just been commanded to eat annually at this time of year.
According to Exod 13:8, in other words, having just been commanded to eat unleavened bread in the future to commemorate the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites were instructed to explain to their offspring that the reason for this practice was that unleavened bread figured significantly in their redemption by God from Egypt.
Why was this point emphasized? Most likely because, as others have noted, the inclusion of the laws relating to unleavened bread in Exodus chapter 13 is part of a relatively late effort to integrate an originally independent Matzot festival with the commemoration of Passover.
The parent’s declaration thus serves to support that connection by pointing out that unleavened bread—an element tenuously added to the exodus story, in Exod 12:34 and 39—was involved in the exodus. So in this case, it may well be that the ancient midrashic interpreters are the ones who got the translation right!
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January 30, 2020
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Harvey N. Bock is the Hebrew Language Coordinator in the Hebrew College Rabbinical School, where he teaches Hebrew and Aramaic. A graduate of Yale College and Yale Law School, he was previously general counsel of Discover Card.
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