1/12/2007

A Manufactured Midrash - Name, Speech, Garb, part II

[sorry it's longer than usual; it's good, though]

In my previous post, I discussed the fact that the ‘well-known’ Midrash that states that the Israelites in Egypt never changed their names, lanuage, or clothing, doesn’t actually exist. I also discussed (a bit) what I think similar midrashim really mean.

But I want to address some other questions which have bothered me since that last post, namely:
  1. What motivates the different lists that we get in the various midrashim?

  2. Perhaps more importantly, how is it that this non-midrash gained such currency? That two midrashim are conflated isn’t a great surprise, but that the conflation, and this particular conflation, gained such wide popularity in Orthodox circles? (if you don’t believe me, look at this, this, or this). Most discussions of Jewish identity in Egypt will list at least these three elements.

There are two basic lists in the midrashim. There are variations within each list, but it seems that there are only two groups of lists. Here’s one example of each (translation mine):

ויקרא רבה (וילנא) פרשה לב
רב הונא אמר בשם בר קפרא בשביל ד' דברים נגאלו ישראל ממצרים שלא שנו את שמם ואת לשונם ולא אמרו לשון הרע ולא נמצא ביניהן אחד מהן פרוץ בערוה

פסיקתא זוטרתא (לקח טוב) דברים פרשת תבא דף מו עמוד א
דבר אחר ויהי שם לגוי. מלמד שהיו ישראל מצויינים שם. שהיה מלבושם ומאכלם ולשונם משונים מן המצריים. מסומנין היו וידועין שהם גוי לבדם חלוק מן המצריים:

Yayikra Rabbah section 32
R’ Huna said in the name of Bar Kapparah: Because of 4 things Israel was redeemed from Egypt: They didn’t change their names or their language, they didn’t speak lashon ha-ra (we’ll leave the translation for now), and none of them was promiscuous.

Minor Pesikta, Devarim (Ki Tavo) 41a
Another interpretation: “And there they became a nation” – this teaches that the Israelites were distinct there, in that their clothing, food, and language was different from the Egyptians’. They were identified and known as a separate nation, apart from the Egyptians.


The first midrash describes four things that the Israelites actively maintained. Their non-change was reactionary and counter-cultural. The two non-cultural elements on the list can be understood in this way as well. Their chastity prevented an intermingling of bloodlines, preserving the ethnic character of their group, and perhaps also can be read in a way that’s similar to Malcolm X’s call (as told in his Autobiography) for black men to recognize that his infatuation with white women is a vehicle of oppression (indeed, Malcolm X’s thought provides a lot of insight into the complete annihilation of identity which slavery entails; jettisoning his ‘slave name’ was another manifestation of his countercultural assertion of separate identity).
Lashon Ha-ra fits with the group if we recognize that it doesn’t mean gossip. In fact, there are versions which say ‘lo hilshinu’ – they didn’t slander or incriminate each other. When the Egyptian cops came around with a photo of a wanted Israelite, they got a lot of ‘never seen him before’.
Thus, the sense of this midrash is that the Israelites actively maintained a sense of reactionary ethnic pride in the face of a persecuting and enslaving culture.

The latter Midrash is an expansion of the Sifra which is recited as part of the Haggadah. Some early commentaries, such as Ritv”a, Rashbam, and R”I b. Yakar mention that the Jews wore distinct dress, even suggesting that they wore tzitzit! (as can be seen in the astounding artwork of the Katz Haggadah). The Midrash is describing the manner in which the Israelites remained metzuyanim (or, according to some versions, mesuyamim). This can have one of two connotations (which are similar in English as well): they were distinct or they were distinguished. If the former, then the point of the midrash is that they remained a separate nation even within Egypt – which is even the sense one gets from the verse (“and there they became a nation”). As I mentioned in the previous post, there’s nothing to redeem if there’s no distinct entity. If the former, then it’s suggesting that the Israelites did more than simply maintain an ethnic identity; they remained proud and dignified about it.

Regarding the second question, as folks pointed out in the comments of the previous post, the three elements of the popular version of the midrash already appears in the Abarbanel’s Zevach Pesach, and in a book called the Meturgeman by R’ Elijah (Bachur) Levita, both composed around the late 15th, early 16th centuries.

However, this version doesn’t really ‘take off’ until the 19th century, and following the trail backwards leads to the document I mentioned in the previous post, namely, the Tzava’ah (Ethical Will) of the Chatam Sofer (translated in the work ‘Hebrew Ethical Wills’), in which he instructs his descendants:

Beware of altering your Jewish names, language, and attire. A clue to this is found in the verse, 'Jacob arrived in peace (shalem), in Shechem' (Genesis 33:18) The Hebrew word shalem is a pneumonic (sic) for Shem = name, Lashon = language, Malbush = attire…

His spiritual heirs, which included the Mahara”m Schick and R’ Akiva Yosef Schlesinger, began to take this statement as normative. The Divrei Yatziv, who was Rebbe of the Sanz-Klausenberg Chassidim for the latter part of the 20th Century, invokes this ethical will when prohibiting speech in any language but Yiddish in a Jewish home (though I doubt that Sephardim were part of his intended audience), explicitly mentioning Hebrew and English as verboten alternatives!

R’ Ovadya Yosef (in a Responsum on using the ‘Christian’ secular calendar) mentions these three together, and specifically mentions that they were singled out in the European milieu of emancipation and haskalah, when name, dress, and spoken language became bones of contention between modernizing and reactionary elements of Jewish society. The Chatam Sofer’s instruction (which, incidentally, doesn’t mention the Israelites in Egypt) must be read in this light (which isn’t such a great chiddush).

What I find interesting is that it appears that only after these three cultural elements – name, dress, and language – became rallying cries for the nascent Haredi movement in Austria-Hungary that they were made a part of the movement’s ‘meta-narrative’. In other words, the popular ‘version’ of this Midrash was manufactured by the Haredi movement to see its own values in the very infancy of the Nation of Israel.

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