This article originally appeared in Destiny, Melbourne

An Embarrassment of Riches*

If God had merely killed their firstborn, but not given us their wealth, it would have been enough for us. These words appear in the Dayyenu segment of the Passover Seder, and are usually sung with gusto by the participants.

As with several of the other stanzas in that passage, we should be exceedingly careful about accepting this statement at face value. A broad survey of the relevant biblical texts would indicate how crucial it was for the divine historical plan that the Israelites make their departure from Egypt with great wealth.

This detail was foretold to Abraham, and repeated to Moses at the outset of his career. On the eve of the exodus, the Hebrew slaves were given explicit instructions to ask their Egyptian neighbours for goods. The construction of the lavish sanctuary in the wilderness would have been incomprehensible without some explanation of how a ragtag band of freed slaves had come into possession of such immense amounts of gold, silver, textiles and precious stones.

The precise details of how the Israelites acquired the Egyptian wealth have proven problematic to Jewish interpreters and apologists. God instructs Moses Speak now in the ears of the people, and let every man borrow of his neighbour, and every woman of her neighbour, jewels of silver and jewels of gold (Exodus 11:2). As translated here (according to the King James Bible), our ancestors were being told to participate in a divinely authorized scam. Although they knew that they would soon be fleeing from Egypt, and had no expectation of returning the valuables, they disingenuously approached their neighbours on the pretext that this was merely a temporary borrowing.

The moral difficulties inherent in this narrative were acutely evident to Jews throughout history, and hostile gentiles were quick to cite it as evidence for the Torah's questionable ethical standards.

A distinguished roster of Jewish exegetes--including such luminaries as Sa'adiah Ga'on, Hananel of Kairowan, Abraham Ibn Ezra, David Kimhi and Samuel ben Meir--tried to counter this accusation with the help of some scholarly lexicography. They pointed out that, although the Hebrew root Sh'L can sometimes have the sense of borrow, its basic meaning is simply ask. In the present context, therefore, we must presume that the Hebrew slaves had not approached their neighbours under false pretenses, but had made it clear to them that they were asking for permanent gifts. The Egyptians (with some supernatural prodding) were favourably disposed towards the Hebrews, and were sincerely generous with their farewell gifts.

A few years ago, the newspapers reported that an Egyptian jurist was launching a lawsuit against Israel calling for the return of this ill-gotten wealth (to be multiplied exponentially to cover three thousand years of inflation). Readers familiar with traditional Jewish literature were overcome by a feeling of déjà vu. According to the Talmud, an identical scenario unfolded long ago, in the days of Alexander the Great, when the Egyptian people took the Jews to court to recover their ancestors' fraudulently extracted wealth. The ancient lawsuit was withdrawn when the Jewish pleader began to compute the total wages accruing to 600,000 slaves for 240 years of unpaid labour. Realizing that a good chunk of salary was still owing, the plaintiffs quietly abandoned their litigation.

Whether or not such a trial was ever brought before Alexander, historians have observed that the issues in the talmudic tale accurately reflect attitudes that existed during the Second Temple era. The Book of Jubilees, composed early in the Hasmonean era, states clearly that the Israelites despoiled Egypt in return for the forced labour that was imposed on them. In a similar spirit, the first-century C. E. commentator Philo Judaeus of Alexandria, was impelled to point out that the Egyptians were reimbursing the Hebrews for their services, their suffering, and for the deprivation of their liberty. Philo, who resided in Egypt, indicates that he was responding to charges raised by his contemporaries.

Don Isaac Abravanel introduces another factor to this argument. According to his reading of the Exodus narrative, the Hebrews must have owned substantial property of their own, which had been abandoned when they fled Egypt, so that the riches that they took away with them on their departure was nothing more than a fair reparation for what they had lost.

It is hard to escape the suspicion that Abravanel's interpretation of the events in ancient Egypt was influenced by his personal experiences, as an affluent courtier who was forced to relinquish his property when the Jews were banished from the Iberian peninsula in 1492.

Philo provided yet another justification for the Hebrews' seizing of Egyptian property: In effect, Israel and Egypt were in a virtual state of war. It was the universally acknowledged right of a victor to plunder a vanquished enemy. Had the sandal been on the other foot, the Egyptians would have been the last to question the validity of that convention; even though the Geneva Conventions no longer allow us to presume, as previous generations did, that to the victor go the spoils.

Philo's writings were not preserved or studied in subsequent Jewish tradition, so that, his argument about the victor's right to take booty found almost no echo among the standard Jewish commentators. An intriguing exception was Rabbi Obadiah Sforno, the sixteenth-century Italian scholar and exegete whose commentary on the Torah enjoys an honoured position on the pages of the standard editions of the Rabbinic Bible. Sforno was not troubled in the least by the premise that the Hebrews had asked the Egyptians for only temporary use of the precious vessels. Evidently, they were perfectly sincere at the time in their readiness to return the goods to their owners at some unspecified future time. The situation was decisively transformed, however, when the Egyptians reneged on their commitment to let the Israelites leave peacefully, and began to pursue them towards the Red Sea. This was an unprovoked declaration of war, and, as Sforno reminds us, those who are attacked have the right to plunder their attackers, as is the acceptable custom in any war.

Steeped as he was in the classical scholarship of Renaissance Italy, Rabbi Sforno might have been familiar with Philo's similar arguments many centuries previously. One is tempted to characterize his affirmation of spoils of war as Machiavellian. And in fact, Sforno was a younger contemporary of the famous political philosopher, so it should not strike us as all that surprising if he shared some of the attitudes that were current in Renaissance society.

As always, this survey of traditional Jewish scriptural interpretation has revealed to us a dynamic world of insightful scholarship, ideological diversity and cross-cultural conversation. These spiritual riches may well prove to be of more lasting value than the precious metals and jewels that our ancestors carried out of Egypt.

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For Signs and for Seasons

For Signs and for Seasons

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  • First Publication:
    • Destiny: Quarterly Magazine of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation, Melbourne, Australia, Issue 5 (Adar - Tammuz 5766 / March - June 2006, p. 21.
  • For further reading:
    • Blidstein, Gerald J. Studies in Halakhic and Aggadic Thought. Beersheba: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Press, 2004.
    • Lévi, Israel. La Dispute entre les Egyptiens et les Juifs. Revue des Etudes Juives 43 (1912): 211-215.
    • Levy, Johanan Hans. Studies in Jewish Hellenism. Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1969 [Hebrew].