Walk like an Egyptian

parshat bo (exodus 13)

A live recording of Disruptive Torah recorded on the Madlik Clubhouse with Geoffrey Stern, Rabbi Adam Mintz, Rabbi Abraham Bronstein and “The Haftorahman”, Reuben Ebrahimoff on January 6th 2022.

Can Biblical commandments evolve and have alternative meanings at different times and to different people? Mitzvot; for some an obligation, for others a political, cultural or fashion statement and for still others a magical charm. In Exodus 13 we are introduced to the first formal commandments given in the Torah; a book of Law. These laws relate exclusively to the celebration of the first and subsequent Passovers. Out of nowhere we discover the first reference to what was to become the commandment of Tefillin. We explore the classical commentators and modern scholarship to discover the multiple layers and nuances behind tefillin and possibly all mitzvot.

Sefaria Source Sheet: www.sefaria.org/sheets/373717


Geoffrey Stern  00:04 Welcome to Madlik. My name is Geoffrey stern and at Madlik we light a spark was shed some light on a Jewish text or tradition. We also host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8pm. Eastern. And this week with Rabbi Adam Mintz we learn of the first commandments the Jews were given as they left Egypt. They were instructed to mark their doorposts with blood and put a sign on their hands and between their eyes. We explore how a commandment like this can mean different things to different people and at different times. So get ready for our weekly journey and walk like an Egyptian. Well, welcome. It’s great to have you here. Very excited about this discussion. You know, we’ve been studying the Torah week in and week out those of you who remember when we studied Bereshit, we studied a very famous Rashi. Which said Why does the Torah begin from when God made the first commandment? It’s a book of law. It should be “HaHodesh Ha’zeh L’chem” (Exodus 12: 10), and here we are in Parshat  Bo, and we’re getting some commandments. Things are changing, we’re moving from stories, from narratives to actual commandments, the rubber is hitting the road.


So today, we're going to focus on the beginning of one commandment, we're going to start with Exodus 13, where it kind of starts by talking about the stuff we'd expect it to talk about. It says: "Throughout the seven days, unleavened bread shall be eaten. No leavened bread shall be found with you, and no leaven shall be found in your territory. And you shall explain to your children on that day, it is because of what the Lord did for me, when I went free from Egypt. And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand. And as a reminder on your forehead, in order that the teaching of the Lord may be in your mouth, that with a mighty hand, the Lord freed you from Egypt, you shall keep this institution at its set time from year to year." So I like to read the posture of fresh every year. And when I read it this year, I was absolutely struck by this introduction of what many of us will recognize to be a law of Tefillin; these frontlets these phylacteries, these leather objects that traditional Jews put on their arms and put on their heads, and it's smack in the middle of what we absolutely expected to hear, which is the story of unleavened bread, how they had their first Seder, how they had their first Passover, and how that influenced further celebrations of the Passover. But right in the middle, is this law that resonates clearly the the law of Tefillin, but it doesn't really say anything about writing, it says "this shall serve to you as a sign". So the first question is, what is this? When we read it later into Devarim; in Deuteronomy, we kind of say, oh, okay, so it's this, this paragraph that we need to put inside of the Tefillin. But here there's a question of what is the this in the this, and then an Exodus 13" 16. Just a little bit later, it says, "and so it shall be a sign upon your hand and a symbol on your forehead, that with a mighty hand, the Lord freed you from Egypt." And here we have this strange word in the Hebrew that not only should it be a sign an "Ot", a word that we have come across before, but it should be "ul'totafot bein enecha" , this "Totefot" between your eyes? So am I the only guy who read the parsha this week, and said, What is Tefillin doing here? It's not something that we normally associate with either leaving Egypt, or with the first commandments that are given. And it's not quite talking about writing anything. And it just seems so strange to appear. And this was, frankly, the first year that I realized that here when we're listing the first mitzvot the first commandments, boom, we're hit by this non sequitur, I would say, of the law of what ultimately became Tefilin. Anybody share my surprise?

Adam Mintz  04:50

There's no question that that point is right. Let's just review for a minute that in the tefillin that you described, there are actually four selections from the Torah. Two of those selections are from this week. Actually, chapter 13 is divided in half, because there were two references, as you said to tefillin. So, there's the first portion, that's "Kadesh Li" and then the second portion "Vehaya Keviacha". And then there are two more portions, the first two paragraphs of the Shema, which are found in the Book of Devarim of Deuteronomy, also which have mentioned Tefillin. And they're also included. So there are four selections in the Torah, that talk about Tefillin, all those four are in the Tefillin that we wear. And the question I think, is, as you said, Why is it here? What does that have to do with the Exodus? So let me Geoffrey, make the question bigger. This is actually the first parsha that we have, in which we have a combination of law and narrative. Up to now the Torah has been completely narrative, and there've been a couple of little laws here and there. But basically, the Torah has been completely narrative. All of a sudden, in this week's portion, chapter 12, we switch. And we have a combination of law and narrative. That's the first important lesson. And that is that the Torah is a combination of law and narrative, Each one plays on the other to understand the laws, the rituals of Passover, you have to understand the narrative of the Exodus. So that's interesting. Now, why fill in here, the reason tefillin in this here is very simple. And that is because the remembering the exodus is primary in everything that we do. That seems to be the most basic, if not one of the most basic laws that we have, and therefore the villain in chapter 13, those paragraphs remind us of the Exodus, and we put them on our hands and on our head, because we need to remember the Exodus, we need to remember the slavery and then we need to remember how God took this out of out of Egypt.

Reuben Ebrahimoff  07:17

I just wanted to first say, every morning, we have this zoom Parshat HaShavua class. So I'm following along. You know, Yetziat Myzrayim, Pharaoh and all this and then I it just struck me this year, I didn't understand what was this text doing, like smack in the middle of your storyline? So just to say I resonated with your question. I did.

Geoffrey Stern  07:46

Reuben, there must have been something in the water this year. I don't know.

Reuben Ebrahimoff  07:49

Oh, so then the other thing Rabbi Mintz you taught me about the website, Al Hatorah (https://alhatorah.org/) And in the morning as they're reading, I try to find the Hapax legomenons (see:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hapax_legomenon ) in the parsha or words with very low frequency. And here 'l'totafott" is once in this parsha. And then when it comes around back in Devarim it mentions it two more times. So it's a very, very rare word in the Torah.

Geoffrey Stern  08:26

But, but let me just you know, add to the question a little bit, if you look at Rashi when Rashi says "VeHaya l'cha l'Ot", it should be to you a sign, he says "The Exodus from Egypt shall be to thee a sign" "Yetziat Miztrayim ti'hie l'cha l'Ot" There's already a sensitivity to what is this in the this? What is the sign? Now, we sometimes talk about this personalities that we're talking about. I think the Rashi family had a little bit of a monopoly on tefillin. First of all, it's pretty well known that the daughters of Rashi wore tefillin and the Rabbenu Tam was a grandson of Rashi and the very very observant Jews put on two pairs of tefillin every day, they put on Rashi tefillin and Rabbenu Tam tefillin.  because the the grandson argued with the grandpa about the order of the parshiot (scrolls). But there was another grandson; Rabbenu Tam had an older brother, and his name was Rashbam, and Rashbam says something amazing on this verse. He says, "According to the true meaning and exhortation that this memory should be with you permanently, "as if", "K'ilu". The matter is literally inscribed upon you hand. And he says we have similar metaphorical expressions about putting things on your body. He says in Song of Songs, it says place it on your heart, as if it had been engraved there." And take it. On my, my word. There are commentaries like the Ibn Ezra and others who understand exactly what the Rashbam is saying. He's saying, don't talk about the other instances of the mention of this law that ultimately became tefillin, these black boxes of leather that we put on our body parts. Here. It is a metaphor. Here it is in the tradition of a Jeremiah who says, "and you should write these words on your heart", he goes and quotes multiple verses, where this concept of wearing God on one's body is a metaphor. So there's clearly a fascinating aspect of how........ it's easy for us to say we're talking about tefillin. But it's not totally clear that we're talking about tefillin as we know it, we're talking about an aspect of tefilin. And that blew me away,

Avraham Bronstein  11:19

I want to say something to what you just said. And then something back to what Rabbi Mintz just said, I think that when the Rashbam is talking about the metaphor of you know, "on your heart", "between your eyes", in those ways, he's talking more about where you wear the tefillin, right, because he's telling you that you wear the tefillin on your arm corresponding to your heart. You don't wear literally on your chest. And likewise, you wear that go on your head, between your eyes on top of your head, not literally on your nose between your eyes. And I think he's trying to use the term metaphors that way. So that the practice of wearing tefillin corresponds with the verse But even so, even if you take them metaphorically, he's describing a very, very embodied experience. You're literally taking these reminders of the Exodus, and you're strapping them to your physical body and you're walking around with them, you're wearing them and feel them and you're touching them. And they're part of how you get around your day. And so much of what we do to remember the Exodus on a day-to-day basis are the mitzvot that are connected to it, are very embodied mitzvot, right. We eat things, we drink things, we say things, we hear things. And what I meant and was talking a little bit about before about the combination between law and narrative and how those two formats kind of play into each other and inform each other. I think what this is showing you also is that there's even a deeper level to it or a deeper connection, because even the remembering even the mitzvah itself is so physical, it's so embodied and still it really sums it up more than almost anything else

Adam Mintz  12:59

Rabbi Avraham. I think that's really such a good point. That actually the relationship between law and narrative is reflected in the in the selections that we use for the villain, and that actually when we put them on our arms, and on our head, we're thinking about that relationship, not just the law of putting on tefillin, but the narrative, the Exodus from Egypt. I just will add one thing, Geoffrey. And that you made reference to the fact that there are two traditions, Hasidim put on two pairs of tefillin, they put on Rashi tefillin at the beginning of davening (prayer) and at the end of davening, they take off their Rashi tefillin they put on the Rabbenu Tam and they look the same, but inside there's a difference. And the difference is what the order of the portions is. Rashi's tefillin which is the tefillin that are generally used by most people have the order of the portions in the order they appear in the Torah. So therefore, you have the two portions from Exodus chapter 13. Then you have the portion of Shema. And then you have the pope the portion of V'haya im Shemoha". And that's the order in which they appear in the Torah. Rabenu Tam has it different.  Rabenu Tam says you start with the two selections from this week's parsha "Kadesh" "VayaHi kiviyach"  but he switches the order of the two chapters in Devarim and he says first is "V'haya im Shemoa" and finally is Shema. He switches the order of "Shema" and "V'haya im Shemoa". The question is what difference does it make? It would make sense....  Rashi makes sense. You should have the port the selections in the order in which they appear in the Torah. And Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik gave an amazing explanation. He said actually the four selections are actually two different themes.... This is what Rabbi Avraham was referring to.... the selections from our portion are talking about the Exodus. The selections from the book of Deuteronomy, talk about tefillin as an expression of our acceptance of God's kingship over us. So actually, according to Rabbenu Tam, they are in order, but one you read from left to right, and one you read from right to left. So the two portions from our from our chapter, you read from left to right, "Kadesh" "VayaHi kiviyach" , but the portions from Devorim, you read from right to left "Shema" and "V'haya im Shemoa". And the reason we do it that way is because we want to separate the two, to show those are two different things. One is about remembering the Exodus, and one is about remembering that God is King over the world. And those are two very distinct themes in our Jewish lives. So I think that that's just interesting, at least for a moment to, you know, to pay respects to rabbenu Tam and his different villain than Rashi tefillin.

Geoffrey Stern  16:14

So I love this discussion, because we are discussing the first mitzvot that are commanded to the Jewish people, in a sense, and some of the commentaries make this distinction there pre-Sinai revelation as well. And here we are, and we're looking at all of the different perspectives that you can have on this one; I would say it's a seed of a mitzvah, because I am not willing to concede yet that the mitzvah of tefillin is fully played out yet. I want to get back to the rush bomb. One of the commentaries that I have in the source sheet says

רשב"ם אינו רואה בפסוקנו אזכור של מצוות תפילין, אלא מפרשו כמטפורה.

This commentary is saying is at this point in time, does the Rashbam believe that there's a commandment of tefillin? He does, he's not a Karite. He's not a Samaritan. There were fundamentalists who read not only these verses, but the later verses. And they said, you know, it says you should write these words on your door post, the Samaritans wrote them literally on their door post. They talked about writing these words on your arm and on your head, they took it as a metaphor, the Rashbam is "Lahavdeel", not in that camp. But what he is saying is at this point, it's a metaphor. And what I love when we discuss Rabbenu Tam and Rashi and their different views of what should be inside of the to fill in, is here we have the first commandment. Yes, the first commandment that piqued Reuben and my curiosity... because it was literally made as a commandment, it didn't fit into the narrative that much. And all of a sudden, we can parse it in so many ways. And I'd like to think that this is an example of all the mitzvot to that are to come. And yes, there is an aspect of this commandment that is totally physical. But the Rashbam is saying something very profound; that you can take a commandment as a metaphor. And that doesn't detract from taking it also, as a physical, tactile directive as to what to do in the first four hours of the morning. And that I think, is an amazing thought. And I'd like to use that as a segue to then get into the various interpretations and explanations that Reuben talked about which is; what does this "totafot" mean at this point in time? Where are we? What does this mean? It's clearly using a foreign term and making reference to something that the audience that it was written to understood but that we do not. What what do you all feel is going on here in terms of what is "totafot"?

Geoffrey Stern  16:57

Haftorahman what do you think?

Reuben Ebrahimoff  19:40

I'm gonna digress for a second, on purpose. These prayers are in two places. One on the Mezzuzot and two on the tefillin. And not that this adds credibility But the story was told to me by Mr. Shlomo Musayev. And Shlomo said, originally, they didn't have doorposts. They lived in tents. And that this, this scroll was a Kamia, and they would hang it like a lintel. And that when somebody would go into their tent, they would have to move their hand in front of them across to the side, and they would touch the mezzuza, thereby merging the heaven and earth by touching the Mezuzah, which was this go-between area. So, to me, that sounds beautiful on a thought level. Then the other thing I think about is the name of God. You only have two places .... Rabbi Mintz, correct me if I'm wrong, where you have the shin on the Mezuza bayit and the Shin on the tefillin boxes for the shin dalet Yud name of God. So I always found that interesting, too.

Adam Mintz  21:13

Okay, what is uh, how does that relate to the word "totafot"?

Reuben Ebrahimoff  21:17

Okay, so I'm just gonna read what they had Al Hatorah....  it says, bands, so they must have just tied these things. And I think also, Geoffrey, that the Samaritans, like put it like in between their eyes there to fill in, like right down on the forehead. If I'm not mistaken

Geoffrey Stern  21:41

Well, let's get to the band's the the most straightforward explanation is in the Gomorrah in Shabbat 57B. And it says, "The Mishna said that a woman may not go out with the ornament called a totefet. The Gemara asks: What is a totefet? Rav Yosef said: A packet of spices to ward off the evil eye. Abaye said to him: And let the legal status of this packet be like that of an effective amulet, whose effectiveness is proven, and it should be permitted, as an effective amulet may be moved on Shabbat. Rather, Rav Yehuda said in the name of Abaye: A totefet is an appuzainu, an ornament worn on the forehead. This opinion was also taught in a baraita: A woman may go out with a gilded hairnet worn to hold the hair in place, and with the totefet, and with the sarvitin that are fastened to the hairnet, since a woman would not remove her head covering to show her friend those ornaments. And they said: Which is a totefet and which is sarvitin? Rabbi Abbahu said: Totefet is that which goes around her forehead from ear to ear...." and I think that's the opinion that you quoted. But the point is even modern scholarship and if you look at the notes on Safera to this episode, it gets into great detail and basically says, you know, I think the rabbis of the Talmud had it right. Totafot, as you said, Reuben; a headband. And we come across for the first time, it's to ward off [evil]. It's an amulet. Again, the tefillin strikes us Western, Moderns, as very strange. But my guess would be that, whether you called it a Kamia or Oh, whatever. In the ancient world, people wore charms people wore amulets, and it was an accepted practice to wear an amulet as a headband and on one's arm. I'd like to point out that one of our faithful listeners, Bob, who's in the audience today, pointed out a few weeks ago, that they just discovered a pharaoh. They were able to do a scan of him without actually touching him. And they found that he was circumcised which is interesting. Yeah, but they also found a bunch of amulets, a bunch of jewelry on his arm and stuff. So I gave the subject matter of tonight's talk "Walk like an Egyptian". It seems to me that, number one, we can all assume that unlike us, when the Torah said "totafot", everybody understood what it was referring to. It wasn't speaking in riddles. And so it seems pretty clear that this was some sort of an amulet both on one's head and on one's arm. You know this question... and I'll just give two other references to trigger further discussion. It has this strange expression of "between the eyes" , "l'zicharon Beyn Eynecha". Those of us whose children ask us, are you allowed to have a tattoo? We always said, no, no, no, no, you can't have a tattoo. It says in in the Bible itself. In Deuteronomy 14, "You are children of the Lord your God, You shall not gash yourselves or shave the front of your heads because of the dead." Now I just read a translation. But the Hebrew says, "Lo Karocha beyn einechem l'Meit" You can't make a mark on yourself. You can't cut yourself "beyn einechem"  between your eyes. And it's fascinating that when the rabbi's discuss that Karocha means to make oneself bald. So they actually learn from here that tefillin is not to be actually between one's eyes, but it's to be above the hairline. So they actually learned from the law against gashing and pulling out one's hair, maybe making tattoos and signs that it is above the hairline. There's a real connection here. And these are not stuff that was made out of nowhere. Yesh, me'ayin these were amulets, these were signs that were made. The other word that's used is an "Ot". And of course, we find that with Cain, the sign of Cain. And in the Midrash, it says, What is the sign of Cain the "ot" of Cain? Well, God took one of the "otiyot", one of the letters of the 22 letters of the alphabet and wrote it on Cain. So we almost have tattooing here, which is kind of fascinating. So that kind of really opens up the discussion, in terms of what.... from a metaphor to a tattoo, to an amulet, what this could be referring to and what its antecedents are.

Adam Mintz  27:21

So I would add the following. And that is that maybe we don't know what the word totafot leads. And maybe that's the idea. Maybe tefillin is the perfect model of the integration of the Written Torah, and the oral tradition, that without the oral tradition, we can't know what tefillin in really are. The Gemara says and another Gemara, it says that Tat means two and pat means two. And totafot just means for that we have four selections from the Torah. And maybe that's what we need, maybe we have to be willing to admit that if all we have is the Written Torah that's not enough. We need an oral tradition; we need a living tradition. A bunch of years ago, there was an exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls have the things they found in Qumran. And one of the things they had in the exhibition was a pair of tefillin. And I was always struck.. Qumran is about 2,100 years ago. And the tefillin from 2,100 years ago, looks basically the same as the tefillin we put on today. That's an amazing statement about Jewish tradition. Jews have been thrown out of places Jews have been prosperous in places, a lot has happened to the Jews over 2,100 years. But the tefillin are still the same tefillin that we had. And probably 1,000 years before that they were the same tefillin. And that's part of our living tradition. It's similar, by the way, Geoffrey to the Etrog. You know, the Torah says you should take a fruit of from a tree. We don't even know what the fruit is "Pree Etz Hadar" and the way we know what an Etrog is, that's part of the living tradition. We need the living tradition without the living tradition, we have nothing. And I think that totafot the tefillin actually is a great model of that.

Geoffrey Stern  29:28

I totally agree with you. The only thing that I would add .... and we've talked about so many facets of one of the first commandments that we've come across, is .... you know, one of the questions and I'll save this for my Shabbat Hagadol drasha is the obvious question of why Mezuzah isn't mentioned here after they put the blood on the doorposts and maybe Rabbi you'll talk about that on Shabbat

Adam Mintz  29:59

That's good also

Geoffrey Stern  30:00

But it seems to me that there's another element here. And in the New Testament, when Jesus talks about the Jews wearing tefillin, he says in Matthew 23:5-7, "everything they do is done for people to see they make their phylacteries wide and tassels on their garments long." And what he captures is this sense of pride, their sense of who we are. And it seems to me and you were talking about this living tradition, I'm not a scholar, I thought of the Egyptians have every time you see an Egyptian pharaoh, you see that little snake [uraeus snake] that comes out, right on the forehead, as a sign, it was not one by a foreigner, it was not one by a layman. It was only worn by a king. And I'd like to think that another aspect of tefillin is that these Jews, they might have put on the blood on the doorposts, so that the God would pass by and spare them. But then when they were told to put these ornaments on, they were like kings, a "Mamlechet Cohanim v'goy kadosh". And I would like to think that, that is also part of the aspect of what we're talking about, that this tefillin and this commandment here is this sense of being like a pharaoh walking like an Egyptian so to speak. And the ultimate lesson and the ultimate takeaway is in half an hour, I think we've probably touched upon 13, or 14 different ways of looking at one of these first commandments of mitzvah. And I think what we can learn from this, and I'd like to extrapolate going forward, is that not only are there "shivim Panim L'Torah"  70 faces to every verse and every idea of Torah, but a mitzvah, whether it's Shabbat, whether it's tefillin, whether Pesach can be taken at a metaphorical level, it can be taken as an amulet and a little bit of superstition. It can be taken as a political statement; it can be taken as a fashion statement. It's all there. It's all acceptable. And all that we are asked to do is to study the texts and become a part of that tradition. And I'd like to think that's the element of living that you were describing in terms of what the Oral law is.

Adam Mintz  32:35

That's beautiful Geoffrey. What a way to end enjoy the parish everybody. Shabbat Shalom and look forward to taking the Jews out of Egypt and crossing the sea next week. Shabbat shalom,

Geoffrey Stern  32:49

Amen. Shabbat shalom. We will see you all next week and discover another hidden aspect of the Torah and hopefully find something that resonates with us. So, with that I bid you all Shabbat Shalom, and let's all leave Egypt together this week. Shabbat shalom.



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