Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael Pisḥa, (Bo), parasha 5

When in Egypt, the Israelites did not slander, engage in prohibited sexual relations, change their names or their language – the significance of these practices for Jewish life under Roman rule

3d CE
Syria Palaestina
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Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael

Pisḥa, (Bo), parasha 5


This midrash focuses on the notion that adherence to the commandments was necessary for Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. In a previous passage (not included here), Rabbi Matyah ben Ḥeresh, a fourth- or fifth-generation tanna who was active in the mid-second century CE, teaches that Israel could not practice mitzvot (religious commandments, good deeds; sing. mitzvah) in Egypt; therefore, God gave them just two, the Passover sacrifice and matzah(unleavened bread). When Israel followed these observances, God delivered them. By contrast, Rabbi Eleazar Haqapar, a fifth-generation tanna who was active in the last third of the second century CE, states that Israel already practiced four mitzvot that related to preserving their distinct identity as a minority in Egypt, which also pertained to Jewish life in the Greco-Roman world. Section A cites Rabbi Eleazar Haqapar’s teaching, which lists these mitzvot, and the remaining sections (B to E) provide biblical references that affirm their observance in Egypt. It is unclear whether the midrash attributes these passages to Rabbi Eleazar Haqapar as well or whether they are included as supplemental material.

Section B provides evidence that the people of Israel “were not suspected of forbidden sexual relations” This sin is among the three most egregious offenses in rabbinic texts. According to Jerusalem Talmud Shevuot 4:2, 35a, a Jew may violate any law in the Torah to avoid being killed, with the exception of idolatry, forbidden sexual relations, and shedding blood (see also Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 3:3, 21b; Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 74a). Whereas the Bible lists many prohibited relationships (for example, in Leviticus 20:10-19), including various incestuous possibilities and a married woman who commits adultery, the verses cited here (Leviticus 24:10-11) detail that a certain man had an Israelite mother and an Egyptian father. Thus, this text focuses on Israelites with exogamous familial bonds. The midrash highlights the Israelites in Egypt who – but for this single woman – refrained from sexual involvement with outsiders and, thus, adhered to this commandment. In the Roman milieu, intercourse and even marriage between Jews and non-Jews was common enough that rabbinic texts discuss several aspects related to the offspring of such interactions. In that context, avoiding such engagement is considered a virtue.

Section C demonstrates that the Israelites in Egypt “were not suspected of evil speech (lit. evil tongue; lashon ra‘).” In Exodus 3:22, God reveals himself to Moses at the burning bush and instructs him to tell the people of Israel: “Each woman shall ask her neighbor and any woman living in the neighbor’s house for jewelry of silver and of gold, and clothing, and you shall put them on your sons and on your daughters; and so you shall plunder the Egyptians” (NRSV). In Exodus 11:2, immediately before the final plague, God again commands Moses: “Tell the people [that every man is to ask his neighbor and every woman is to ask her neighbor for objects of silver and gold]” (NRSV). Indeed, the Israelites are depicted as having brought these items with them when they left Egypt (Exodus 12:35-36). This midrash cites God’s instruction to Moses at the burning bush to show that the Israelites knew that they would take valuable objects from the Egyptians for twelve months before their departure, yet no one divulged their plan. This reading is difficult since Scripture does not specify when Moses gave this instruction to the Israelites. The midrash therefore stretches the biblical text to support its claim that none of the Israelites became informants. Thus, this source considers it sinful to reveal incriminating evidence about fellow Israelites, while guarding such confidential information is praiseworthy.

Section D expounds on the assertion that the people of Israel “did not change their names” in Egypt by highlighting that the genealogies of Israelites in the desert are comprised of Hebrew names. The first census in the wilderness is then cited: “They registered themselves in their clans, by their ancestral houses” (Numbers 1:18, NRSV), followed by their tribal names, starting with Reuben and Shimon (verses 20 and 22). Then Jacob’s blessing of the sons of Joseph is quoted: “Let my name be named on them, and the name of my ancestors Abraham and Isaac” (Genesis 48:16 based on NRSV). Using these biblical references, the midrash commends the Israelites for retaining their Hebrew names. In the Greco-Roman world, the choice of whether to use Hebrew names was quite relevant, for many Jews adopted non-Jewish names. This midrashic message that God delivered Israel from Egypt for having maintained Hebrew names underscores the link between names and identity. Interestingly, Horace, Odes III.5.1-56 (verses 5-12) states that Crassus’s Roman troops, who were captured by the Parthians after being defeated at Carrhae in 53 BCE, forgot their Roman names and married foreign women. This description (with several other elements) indicates that they abandoned all that had defined them as Romans. Analogously, our midrash is not concerned with names per se but as an affirmation Israelite lineage.

Section E shows that Israel “did not change their language (lit. their tongue; leshonam)” by presenting four biblical quotations to show that they continued to speak Hebrew in Egypt. At times, the Israelites are called Hebrews, as in Exodus 2:13-14: “When he went out the next day, he saw two Hebrews fighting; and he said to the one who was in the wrong, ‘Why do you strike your fellow?’ He answered, ‘Who made you a ruler and judge over us?’” (NRSV). Here identity is cited as an indicator of language. In Genesis 45:12, Joseph speaks with his brothers in Hebrew while in Egypt. In Exodus 5:3, Moses and Aaron tell Pharaoh that “The God of the Hebrews has revealed himself to us” (NRSV). Once more, the midrash links the appellation “Hebrews” with their language. The last verse refers to “Abram the Hebrew” (Genesis 14:13, NRSV), to demonstrate that one who speaks Hebrew is called a Hebrew. Much like names, language is a sign of identity and, according to this midrash, by speaking Hebrew, Israel observed one of the mitzvot that prompted God’s deliverance from Egypt.

In the Greco-Roman world, especially beyond Jewish settlements in the land of Israel and the diaspora, Jews often spoke Greek. Scholars do not agree when Hebrew ceased to be a spoken language in Judea. In contrast to an earlier view, several scholars posit that, alongside Aramaic and Greek, Hebrew remained a spoken language in the land of Israel at least until 200 CE. As Moshe Bar-Asher writes: “The view is generally accepted that the Hebrew preserved in tannaitic literature reflects living speech current in various regions of Palestine” (“Mishnaic Hebrew,” p. 369; for a general discussion, see Smelik, “The Languages of Roman Palestine”). Even though our midrash attributes this teaching to Rabbi Eleazar Haqapar who, as noted above, was active in the final third of the second century, this composition was edited in the third century, when it is uncertain whether Jews in Syria Palaestina still spoke Hebrew. Several tannaitic texts emphasize the obligation for fathers to teach their sons Hebrew: for example, Tosefta Hagigah 1:2 states “When he (the child) is able to speak, his father teaches him [the] Shema (to recite “Hear O Israel”), [the] Torah and the holy tongue”; similarly, Sifre Deuteronomy 46 instructs “When a child begins to speak, his father should speak with him in the holy tongue and teach him Torah. If he (the father) does not speak with him in the holy tongue and [does not] teach him Torah, it is as if he buries him…” (Finkelstein edition, p. 104). These sources indicate that speaking Hebrew might not be readily assumed; offering further evidence for the merit that our midrash ascribes to the continued use of Hebrew. 

This midrash presents four mitzvot that were observed by the Israelites in Egypt. Each contributes to maintaining a minority identity in the diaspora or under foreign rule, specifically, Jewish identity under Roman rule: avoiding intercourse or marriage beyond the Israelite community; condemnation of informants who share incriminating information with outsiders; and, preserving both Hebrew names and language. This text encourages its audience to practice these mitzvot and, thereby, to be worthy of God’s deliverance, as their biblical forebears had been.

Bibliographical references: 

“Mishnaic Hebrew: An Introductory Survey”

Moshe Bar-Asher,article-in-a-bookThe Cambridge History of Judaism: Volume IV: The Late Roman-Rabbinic PeriodSteven T. Katz369-403“Mishnaic Hebrew: An Introductory Survey” CambridgeCambridge University Press2006

“The Languages of Roman Palestine”

Smelik, Willem article-in-a-bookThe Oxford Handbook of Jewish Daily Life in Roman PalestineCatherine Hezser122–144“The Languages of Roman Palestine” OxfordOxford University Press2010
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