The Shakh’s Dayenu Pilpul, Part 1

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by R. Gil Student

Rav Shabsi Kohen, author of the brilliant Sifsei Kohen on parts of Shulchan Arukh and commonly known as “the Shakh,” lived in Vilna and Czech in the 17th century. Among the works he wrote during his short life (he died at the age of 41) is a pilpulistic commentary on the Haggadah passage commonly known as Dayenu. It was written in 1661 and first published from manuscript in 1840. What follows is my attempt to summarize his complex analysis.

The Gemara (Bava Kamma 27b) records a disagreement whether a person can institute judgment for himself (avid inish dina le-nafsheih), e.g. take back an object that you know is yours from someone who stole it, without going to court. Both agree that if you will otherwise lose money, you can enact judgment on your own. The Jewish people in Egypt were close to the final level of impurity, after which they would have permanently assimilated into the Egyptian people. Therefore, seeing that if He did not act immediately He would suffer a loss, God enacted judgment on his own and redeemed us from Egypt. This was justified even though the 400 years of exile had not passed because the hardship of the servitude made the 210 years as difficult as 400 years.

But that leads to another question. The commentators ask why God punished the Egyptians when He told Avraham that the Jews would be enslaved (Gen. 15:14). The Shakh quotes the answer of “the commentators” (see Ramban, ad loc.) that the Egyptians went too far in subjugating the Jews. However, asks the Shakh, that justifies God’s redemption of the people quicker. The hardship is used to make 210 years equal to 400 years. If so, the hardship can’t also justify punishing the Egyptians. Then why did God punish the Egyptians?

This is the meaning of: If He had taken us out of Egypt and not punished them; Dayenu (it would have been enough for us).

The commentators ask why the Ten Commandments begin with a reference to the Exodus and not the Creation (see Ibn Ezra, Ex. 20:2). The Shakh quotes an answer that the Exodus showed God’s existence and might through intervention in the world, more than Creation does (see Kuzari 1:25).

The Shakh quotes Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Teshuvah 6:5) who, contrary to Ramban, says that the Egyptians deserved punishment because no individual was forced to enslave the Jews. Therefore, any individual who did so deserved punishment. However, the Shakh adds, this punishment could have been accomplished privately. God made public plagues to demonstrate His existence.

But if plagues proved God’s existence and total power, why did they have to target Egyptian deities specifically?

This is the meaning of: If He had punished them and had not made (punished) their gods; Dayenu (it would have been enough for us).

We could say that God targeted the Egyptian deities to prove His power because the Egyptians were the most ardent idolators in the world. The midrash asks why God attacked the Egyptians forty years before the Canaanites, since both nations were steeped in idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed. According to one opinion (Sifra 6:9:6), the Egyptians were the worst nation in the world, the most steeped in these cardinal sins. According to another opinion (ad loc., 7) the Canaanites were worst and according to a third opinion (ad loc., 8), the Egyptians and Canaanites were equally bad (and the Canaanites were punished later than the Egyptians because the Canaanites had merit from having honored Avraham). According to the first opinion, that the Egyptians were the worst idolators (among other sins), we understand why God attacked their deities. But this raises another problem.

Many explanations are given for the reason that God killed the Egyptian firstborns. One is that doing so proved that despite the rampant Egyptian immorality, no Jewish women had succumbed to their captors. If they had, then Jewish boys who were firstborn to an Egyptian man would have perished in the plague. Since none did, this demonstrated the Jewish family purity.

The Gemara (Kiddushin 68b) asks how we know that the son of a Jewish woman and a gentile man is Jewish. The Gemara suggests learning it from Deut. 7:4 but that verse specifically refers to the Seven Nations of Canaan (including the Canaanites). If the Canaanites were the most steeped in idolatry, then certainly the rule applies to all other nations, that the son of any gentile man and a Jewish woman is Jewish. But if the Egyptians were more steeped in idolatry than the Canaanites, then maybe this rule does not apply to Egyptians. If the Egyptians were the most ardent idolators, then the son of an Egyptian man and a Jewish woman is not Jewish.

Following this logic, if the Canaanites were the most steeped in idolatry, any firstborn of an Egyptian man and a Jewish woman would be Jewish. The lack of deaths among Jewish boys would prove the family purity of the Jews. But if the Egyptians were the most steeped in idolatry, then the child of an Egyptian man and a Jewish woman is not Jewish, and the plague does not prove that Jewish women did not succumb to immorality with Egyptians. However, we explained that the reason for plague of the firstborn was to show that Jewish women did not succumb to the Egyptians.

God attacked the Egyptian deities because the Egyptians were the most steeped in idolatry. But the plague of the firstborn only makes sense if the Canaanites were the most steeped in idolatry. Therefore, we have to ask, why did God kill the firstborn?

This is the meaning of: If He had made (punished) their gods and had not killed their firstborn; Dayenu (it would have been enough for us).

Rather, we have to say that God punished the Egyptian firstborns because the Egyptians enslaved God’s firstborn, the Jewish people (Ex. 4:22). It was a divine punishment of measure for measure. But that raises a further difficulty.

Some midrashim describe the Jewish people in Egypt as very sinful. The Gemara (Bava Metzi’a 73b) says that Rav Se’oram used to force sinners to carry Rava’s chair because the Torah says “Of them you may take as slaves forever and over your brothers” (Lev. 25:46). Meaning, sinful Jews deserve to be enslaved.

If the Jews deserved to be enslaved, and therefore not paid for their work, why did God give them Egyptian money?

This is the meaning of: If He had killed their firstborn and had not given us their money; Dayenu (it would have been enough for us).

There are two reasons offered for why the Jews received Egyptian money at the Exodus. One is that they deserved it for their work as slaves (Sanhedrin 91a). As we saw above, this is problematic. Another explanation is that this was the money that Yosef collected in Egypt.

Regarding Yosef, the Gemara (Shabbos 49b) has a disagreement whether when Yosef went to Potiphar’s house “to do his work” (Gen. 39:11) he literally went to do his work or he went to sleep with Potiphar’s wife, and only fled when he saw an image of his father.

The Shakh asks why the second view would read the text negatively about Yosef. What textually or theologically could prompt such a reading? He suggests that if Yosef was Potiphar’s bookkeeper, as one midrash suggests, then he was not an actual slave but a forced worker (see Shakh, Yoreh De’ah 267:41). Anything an actual slave acquires belongs to his owner (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 267:22). If Yosef was an actual slave, then any money he collected in Egypt belonged to Potiphar (the Shakh assumes neither Potiphar nor Pharaoh freed Yosef from slavery). If he was Potiphar’s bookkeeper, then he was not an actual slave and the fortune he later amassed belonged to him.

Therefore, the Shakh suggests, since the only viable explanation to the Jews taking Egyptian money with them is that this was Yosef’s money, and if Yosef was an actual slave then his money never belonged to him, in order to protect the Jewish people from accusations of theft the midrash had to suggest that Yosef was not a house slave and therefore must have gone to the house to sleep with Potiphar’s wife.

But that raises another question. The midrash (Shemos Rabbah 21:7) says that the sea split in the merit of Avraham chopping wood with which to bring Yitzchak as a sacrifice. Elsewhere, the midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 87:8) says that the sea split in the merit of Yosef running away from Potiphar’s wife. But if Yosef went to the house in order to sin and only fled because he saw his father’s image, what merit did he have for fleeing? Why did God split the sea?

This is the meaning of: If He had given us their money and had not split the Sea for us; Dayenu (it would have been enough for us).

God-willing, to be continued…

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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