Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Era 5768/ January 5, 2008

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,



A Difficulty in Rashi’s Text


Dr. Meir Rappeld


Department of Talmud


Below we shall discuss briefly a famous question that has been dealt with by many Jewish scholars throughout the generations:   clarifying the meaning of a certain word that appears in Rashi’s commentary on this week’s reading, Parashat Va-Era. [1]   Our question is not what difficulty in the text Rashi was dealing with, but what Rashi actually wrote.

Scripture describes the plague of hail, saying, “For (=ki) this time I will send all My plagues upon your person, and your courtiers, and your people” (Ex. 9:14), on which Rashi comments:   “From this we learn that the plague of first-borns (bekhorot) outweighed all the other plagues.”   The strangeness of this interpretation is strikingly apparent, as one of Rashi’s supercommentators, Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrahi (Re’em), noted: [2]   “Why bring up the subject of first-borns?  Why did he not interpret the words, ‘all My plagues,’ as referring to the hail itself, which is mentioned here?”

If we review the attempts of commentators on Rashi to explain this strange interpretation, we come up with a wide variety of views.  Several commentators have suggested emending the text in Rashi; others have suggested different readings for the word bekhorot, such as bikkurot (=first ripe ears or corn), so that it can be identified as the object of the plague of hail.   Some commentators have gone to efforts to uphold the literal meaning of what is written in Rashi, insisting that Rashi indeed meant the plague of the first-borns here, even though it is the plague of hail that is mentioned in the verse.  Others claim to be citing Rashi’s “original manuscript” in order to understand what he meant.  However, looking at early manuscripts, presented briefly below, does not yield an unequivocal answer, because some scribes were influenced by the various suggestions regarding the word’s interpretation.  Below we give a survey of the explanations: emendations, different vocalizations, individual traditions, and a description of the evidence from manuscript versions.

A.  Emendations:

1.  Batzoret/Batzorot” (=drought, or famine) instead of bekhorot, i.e., a plague that causes famine (the crops being ruined by hail). [3]

B. Different Vocalization:

  1. Bikkurot” (=early-ripening ears), based on biblical Hebrew bikkurah in the singular, “first fruits.”  A reference to the plague of hail, meaning that the hail only ruined these early-ripening crops. [4]

C.  Different traditions in Rashi’s name:

Now we come to an interesting phenomenon:   contradictory traditions as to what Rashi actually wrote, found among the Tosafists:

  1. “Rabbi Abraham said he examined a manuscript of Rashi’s commentary and found that it said ‘the plague of killing first-borns,’ contrary to the interpretation of Rabbi Moses, who wished to interpret it as bikkur – ripening – as in bakhir and lakish (meaning early crop and late crop).” [5]

However, the same Rabbi Abraham is cited in another Tosafist tradition:

  1. “I heard that Rabbi Abraham saw in the commentary that Rashi himself wrote:  ‘Hence, the plague of famine (reading: batzoret) is equivalent to…,’ and this seems the proper reading.” [6]

These conflicting statements, attributed to the same Rabbi (Abraham) are indicative of the commentators’ confusion when it comes to resolving this acute difficulty.  The first tradition upholds the text which reads “plague of first-borns,” supporting it with the claim that Rashi added the word “the death of” before “first-borns.”  Thus, all the suggestions that essentially propose another reading have no foundation.  The second tradition brought in Rashi’s name, contradicting the first one, views the insertion of the tenth plague into the plague of hail as a total corruption of what Rashi wrote.

D.  Bekhorot (=first-borns), plain and simple:

Some of the later authors of tosafot on the Torah have presented other views, preferring to read Rashi as bekhorot (=first-borns), explaining their decision in several ways.   Rabbi Haim b. Rabbi Paltiel, [7] a contemporary of the Maharam of Rothenburg, first quoted some of the suggestions presented above, which change the simple meaning of the word bekhorot in order to make it fit in with the text, but in the end he opts for a different approach that does not change the word.  This is what he says:

It seems to me that Rashi surely meant to say the plague of first-borns.   For from his saying that it “outweighs all the other plagues” we see that it cannot be a plague of drought, for that does not outweigh all the others; moreover, several of the plagues were more severe than that.   After all, in Scriptures the word ki (beginning the passage in Rashi, rendered above as “for”) can be used in four different senses:   if, lest, except that, and for; here it is used in the sense of “if.”  Thus, according to Rashi, the verse (Ex.9:14) says:   “If I were to send all my plagues against you this time – that would be the plague of first-borns, the plague outweighing all the others.  Against you (lit. “at your heart,” using the preposition el) – for Pharaoh was a first-born; and against your courtiers (using the preposition b’) – meaning some of your courtiers; and against your people (using the preposition b’) – meaning some of your people, i.e., the first-borns; this we learn since Scriptures does not use the preposition el with the “your courtiers” and “your people” as it does with “your heart.”

E.   The Manuscript Evidence:

Examining the important manuscripts of Rashi’s commentary on the Torah yields the following data:   the Vienna 24 manuscript, as well as Paris 48 and 49, read bekhorot.   Apparently Parma 181 reads likewise, and the dagesh in the letter kaf in bekhorot is only an inadvertent drop of ink from the scribe’s quill.   In this manuscript, the vav is punctuated with a holem, not a shuruk, so the reading cannot be bikkurot, as in one of the suggestions above.  Paris 155 reads bekhirot, clearly showing the influence of one of the early interpretations on the text at hand.  Note that there are several manuscripts which have unusual readings, such as Vienna 23, which states:  “From this we learn that be`irot ( domesticated animals, cattle?) was equivalent to all the other plagues.”  It is patently evident that this text has been corrupted and is possibly the result of some evolution from the proposed emendation to bekhirot.   An exception to our list is Bodleian 186, whose formulation, “From this we learn that the plague of … is equivalent,” indicates that the key word is missing; the manuscript shows clear signs of a word having been erased.  Looking closer at the area of the erasure, we see that the spacing between words is such as to leave room only for a three-letter word, apparently barad (= hail).   Presumably the scribe or redactor erased the word “hail” because of the evidence of other versions, which read “first-borns.”  Further, we note regarding the important 13th century manuscript, Leipzig 1, that the scribe who wrote it apparently copied from a text in Rashi’s own handwriting on which were glosses by his disciple, Rabbi Shemaiah.   This source shows signs of a conflict between “bekhorot” and “batzoret,” with the letter tzadeh written over the kaf, and there too one sees signs of erasure.   So, we see that the manuscripts presented here do not enable us to say unequivocally or even approximately what was the original formulation in Rashi’s commentary.

The question of this puzzling text, with its wide range of repercussions and broad spectrum of explanations, has been discussed in dozens of studies reflecting various approaches to scholarship, through which one can learn much about Jewish scholars, their works and approaches, throughout the generations.   These sources are openly available to all who wish to delve into them. [8] However, whoever would study them must keep in mind the well-put words of Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe, author of Ha-Levushim on Rashi:   “Rashi’s way is to interpret everything according to the plain sense (kifshuto) of the language of the Bible.” [9]   I sought here to do no more than shed some light on an interesting question and stimulate further study, leaving it to the reader to choose his or her own way.


[1] Cf. Rabbi M. M. Kasher, Torah Shelemah, vol. 10, Va-era, pp. 132-133 (hereafter TS); Tosafot ha-Shalem al ha-Torah, ed. Y. Gellis, vol. 6, Jerusalem 1983, pp. 243-246 (hereafter Tos), and many others.

[2] R. M. Philip ed., Petah Tikvah 1993, p. 100.

[3] TS, Va-era, vol. 10, p. 132.

[4] Ibid., p. 133. 

[5] B Tos, p. 244, par. 9, citing Pa’ane’ah Raza.

[6] Ibid., p. 243, citing Imre No’am.

[7] Y. Sh. Lange ed., Jerusalem 1981, pp. 202-203.

[8] For a listing of supercommentaries on Rashi, see A. Grossman, Hakhmei Tzorfat Ha-Rishonim, 1995, p. 213, notes 268-270.

[9] Levush ha-Orah, Genesis 3.7, s.v.le-inyan.”