Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Bo 5765/ January 15, 2005

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan , Israel . A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University 's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


“In thy blood live”

Dr. Hayyim Burgansky
Department of Talmud


The first commandment given the Israelites as a people, prior to the exodus from Egypt, was the Pascal sacrifice.   This commandment includes a variety of details, only some of which are spelled out in the Torah.   For example, we know the reason for placing the blood on the doorposts and lintel:   “When I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt” (Ex. 12:13); but the Torah does not explain why the meat had to be eaten roasted over the fire, with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, or why the Israelites had to eat it fully dressed and in haste. [1]   Prominent among the details that have no explanation in the text is the commandment to select the lamb for the Pascal sacrifice on the tenth of the month, even though nothing was done with it until the fourteenth of the month, at twilight.

The Sages, however, attempted to explain these difficulties. Here we shall consider one of the better-known homilies dealing with the question (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Masekhta de-Pis’ha 5, Lauterbach ed., p. 33):

And Ye Shall Keep It until the Fourteenth Day of the Same Month.  Why did the Scripture require the purchase of the paschal lamb to take place four days before its slaughter?  R. Matia the son of Heresh used to say:  Behold it says:  “Now when I passed by thee, and looked upon thee, and, behold, thy time was the time of love” (Ezek. 16:8).  This means, the time has arrived for the fulfillment of the oath which the Holy One, blessed be He, had sworn … to deliver his children.  But as yet they had no religious duties to perform by which to merit redemption, as it further says:  “thy breasts were fashioned and thy hair was grown; yet thou wast naked and bare” (ibid.), which means bare of any religious deeds.   Therefore the Holy One, blessed be He, assigned them two duties, the duty of the paschal sacrifice and the duty of circumcision, which they should perform so as to be worthy of redemption.   For thus it is said:   “And when I passed by thee, and saw thee wallowing in thy blood, I said unto thee:   In thy blood live” (ibid., 6). … For this reason Scripture required that the purchase of the paschal lamb take place four days before its slaughter.  For one cannot obtain rewards except for deeds.

Rabbi Matia the son of Heresh used verses from Ezekiel’s prophecy which in his opinion shed light on the story of the exodus from Egypt.  The following picture emerges from these verses:  the Holy One, blessed be He, had promised Abraham that he would deliver Israel from Egypt, however when the time came for fulfilling His promise (“the time of love” in Ezekiel’s expression) he found that they had no mitzvot to their credit (“yet thou wast naked and bare”) and therefore were not worthy of the promised redemption.  In order to make it possible to redeem them, He commanded them to perform two duties, the Pascal sacrifice and circumcision, [2] beginning on the tenth of the month. By virtue of these commandments, both of which had to do with blood, they would be redeemed on the night of the fifteenth of Nisan.  This is hinted at by Ezekiel when he says that the Holy One, blessed be He, passed by and saw Israel wallowing in their blood, and He said to them twice, “In thy blood live, In thy blood live.” By virtue of this blood-- the blood of the Pascal sacrifice and the blood of circumcision-- they would be worthy of redemption.

To fully understand what Rabbi Matia son of Heresh was driving at we must remember that the Israelites were not actually involved in the process of being taken out of Egypt, save for the fact that it was they who were taken out.  The original attempt in Parashat Shemot to make them partners in the negotiations with Pharaoh failed, [3] and in Moses’ second mission, at the beginning of Parashat Va-Era, the task is assigned to Moses and Aaron alone, as emissaries of the Holy One, blessed be He. [4]   Moreover, whereas initially the Israelites responded enthusiastically to Moses’ mission, as we know from Exodus 4:31 (“and the people were convinced... they bowed low in homage”), later on their enthusiasm lagged, as we read in Exodus 6:9:   “They would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” 

Henceforth the story of the exodus from Egypt was no longer the story of the Israelites going forth to freedom, but the story of the Holy One, blessed be He, in a contest against Pharaoh, king of Egypt. The Israelites simply waited on the sidelines to see who would be the victor, who would win their hearts and their servitude.  The Israelites ostensibly did not lift a finger in order to win their freedom, and their freedom did not come to them by virtue of their actions.

In view of this, it becomes clear that Rabbi Matia’s homily is very innovative, since in his opinion setting aside the Pascal lamb and performing circumcision made the Israelites partners in the process of redemption; henceforth redemption would occur not only by virtue of the promise made to Abraham, but also by virtue of the deeds of his progeny, choosing to perform the Lord’s commandments even before He took them out of Egypt.

Rabbi Matia uses Ezekiel’s prophecy in his homily.   But when we look closely we observe something surprising:  he cites the verses from Scripture in the reverse order from their appearance in the prophecy, first using verse 8 (“Now when I passed by thee, and looked upon thee, and, behold, thy time was the time of love”), and then verse 7 (“thy breasts were fashioned and thy hair was grown; yet thou wast naked and bare”), and lastly verse 6 (“And when I passed by thee, and saw thee wallowing in thy blood, I said unto thee:  In thy blood live”).  What motivated Rabbi Matia to use the verses in reverse order?

To understand this, we must look closely at Ezekiel’s prophecy (16:3-14; New JPS Translation):

Thus said the Lord ... to Jerusalem:   By origin and birth you are from the land of the Canaanites – your father was an Amorite and our mother a Hittite. As for your birth, when you were born your navel cord was not cut, and you were not bathed in water to smooth you; you were not rubbed with salt, nor were you swaddled.  No one pitied you enough to do any one of these things for you out of compassion for you; on the day you were born, you were left lying, rejected, in the open field.   When I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you:  “Live in spite of your blood.”  Yea, I said to you:  “Live in spite of your blood.”

I let you grow like the plants of the field; and you continued to grow up until you attained to womanhood, until your breasts became firm and your hair sprouted. You were still naked and bare when I passed by you and saw that your time for love had arrived.   So I spread My robe over you and covered your nakedness, and I entered into a covenant with you by oath ... thus you became Mine.

I bathed you in water, and washed the blood off you, and anointed you with oil.  I clothed you with embroidered garments, and gave you sandals of tahash-leather to wear, and wound fine linen about your head, and dressed you in silks.   I decked you out in finery and put bracelets on your arms and a chain around your neck.   I put a ring in your nose, and earrings in your ears, and silver, and your apparel was of fine linen, silk, and embroidery.   Your food was choice flour, honey, and oil. You grew more and more beautiful, and became fit for royalty.   Your beauty won you fame among the nations, for it was perfected through the splendor which I set upon you – declares the Lord G-d.

In these verses Ezekiel compares the beginning of Israel to the birth of a child that no one wants and that therefore was not properly cared for at birth.   Instead of being swaddled and nursed, the baby was cast into a field, bare and dirty with the blood of its birth.   The baby almost died, except that the Lord in His mercy saw it and blessed it with life.  Note that G-d helped the infant for no apparent reason, for a newborn of one day has no good deeds to its merit, so His blessing was entirely a present freely given.  By virtue of the blessing, the infant grew up and turned into a young girl, yet no one took her into his home, so she lived in the field, naked, wild, and dirty.   The girl reached maturity, yet still no one wanted her, for who would marry a maiden who was like an animal living in the fields?

Then, again, as on the day she was born, G-d turned her and saved her, for no apparent reason and with no appeal made on her part.   The one who saved her in the past became the one who brought her deliverance in the present; He entered a marriage covenant with her and then bathed and anointed her, gave her clothing and shoes, adorned and beautified her until the daughter of the fields was turned into a queen whose name became renowned among the nations. [5]

This is the motif of the exodus from Egypt according to Ezekiel:  the Israelites had almost ceased to exist, but then for some reason they were touched by Divine Grace, brought back to life against all odds, and in the end chosen as His partner.  There is no reason for the Holy One, blessed be He, to have wanted them; they brought no dowry to their “marriage” with the Holy One, blessed be He, and the marriage covenant was entirely due to G-d’s grace, choosing them despite the bad state they were in.

The order of the verses in Ezekiel suits this story:   birth and being cast into the field, wallowing in blood (v. 6); the blessing of life (ibid.); growing up wild (v. 7); reaching marriageable age (v. 8); entering a marriage covenant with G-d, and G-d caring for His bride after the marriage (vv. 8-14).

If we compare this story with the one told by Rabbi Matia, we see that the two stories go in diametrically opposing directions:   Ezekiel does not give the Israelites any role to play, and their redemption is due solely to the grace of the Holy One, blessed be He, whereas Rabbi Matia contends that were it not for the good deeds done by Israel, they would not have been delivered.

It follows that the reversal of the order of the verses in Matia’s homily was deliberate and precise, its purpose to invert the meaning of the story in Ezekiel.  Rabbi Matia is not interpreting the prophecy in Ezekiel, rather he is waging a polemic against it;  he is not prepared to view the Israelites as having been redeemed for naught.   He seeks to emphasize their merits and does so by reversing the original order of the verses, giving them a different meaning.

A concluding remark:  Rabbi Matia’s homily apparently had an impact on the text of some Passover Haggadahs.  The verse from Ezekiel, “I let you grow like the plants of the field [revavah ke-tzemah ha-sadeh; and you continued to grow [va-tirbi] ...,” is used to interpret the biblical passage “My father was a fugitive Aramean,” explaining the words “very populous [rav]” in the sentence, “but there he became a great and very populous nation [goy gadol atzum va-rav]” (Deut. 26:5).  This verse in Ezekiel describing the growth of the young maiden who represents Israel is worked into the interpretation through the similarity between the word rav (in the verse in Deuteronomy) and the words revavah and va-tirbi in Ezekiel.

But in some editions of the Haggadah, this verse is followed by the additional verse, “When I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you:  ‘Live in spite of your blood,’ ... ‘Live in spite of your blood,’” which is actually the previous verse in Ezekiel’s prophecy.   This verse is ostensibly out of place here, for it neither explains “My father was a fugitive Aramean,” nor is it truly the continuation of the verse, “I let you grow like the plants of the field.”  The explanation for adding this verse is none other than that Rabbi Matia’s homily was so well known that the verse, “When I passed by you …:  ‘Live in spite of your blood,” had come to be perceived as the actual continuation of the verse, “and you continued to grow,” contrary to the way it appears in the prophet.

[1] The widespread idea that being dressed and eating in haste were in anticipation of the hasty exodus seems hard to maintain, since the Torah itself commands the Israelites not to go out of their houses until morning, and as far as we can tell they did not know that they were about to leave Egypt, for they had not prepared themselves provisions for the road; if so, why the haste?

[2] The assertion that the Israelites circumcised themselves prior to the exodus from Egypt is apparently based on Joshua 5:2, 4-9.   The circumcision in Joshua took place as Passover was approaching.  To Rabbi Matia’s homily, which associates circumcision with the Pascal sacrifice, we must add the circumcision of Abraham, which, as a combination of several homilies indicates, some of the Sages thought also occurred prior to Passover.   The composite picture indicates that the Sages made a connection between the three important covenants concluded by circumcision and the festival of Passover:   that of Abraham, the first to be circumcised; of the Israelites on the eve of the exodus from Egypt; and the circumcision on the eve of entering the land.  Of course we must also mention the unique halakhic connection between circumcision and the Pascal sacrifice, the two of them being the only positive commandments that are dependent one on the other and that carry with them the punishment of being cut off from one’s people, for a non-circumcised person is forbidden to partake of the Passover sacrifice.

[3] The Holy One, blessed be He, had commanded, “then you shall go with the elders of Israel to the king of Egypt” (Ex. 3:18), but in actual practice only Moses and Aaron appeared before Pharaoh (Ex. 5:1).   The Sages commented on this (Exodus Rabbah 5.14) that the elders “stole away and escaped,” not having the courage to participate in the delegation to Pharaoh.

[4] Many verses indicate this.  For example, Ex. 7:1.

[5] The continuation of the prophecy, with its harsh depictions of the young woman’s betrayal of the one who saved and redeemed her, is not relevant here.