By Rabbi Yitzchok D. Frankel
Agudath Israel of the Five Towns
Pharaoh called Moshe and said, “Go worship Hashem. Only your flocks and your cattle will remain behind; even your small children may go with you.” Moshe said, “Even you will put peace offerings and burnt offerings in our hands, which we will perform for Hashem our G‑d.”
It is hard to understand how Moshe Rabbeinu made this promise. He seems to have committed himself to offer Egyptian animals as korbanos, on behalf of Pharaoh. How could he bring korbanos from the animals of the Mitzriyim when they worshipped their animals as avodah zarah! Even if they would be mevateil avodah zarah, i.e., take certain animals and strip them of the designation of avodah zarah, the now “secularized” animals would still be considered a to’eivah—a repugnant and unfitting thing to offer to Hashem.
This was the question of the Ramban, who writes that Moshe Rabbeinu did not mean his offer seriously:
“Moshe did not say this with intention to do it, and he did not do it at all. Rather, it was for emphasis: to convey that the hand of Hashem will be very heavy upon Pharaoh and his people, to the point that he will even give peace offerings and burnt offerings and everything he has in order to save his life.
“In truth, when Pharaoh said, ‘And bless me, too’ (12:32), he would have willingly given all his livestock to atone for himself. But Moshe had no intention to bring a ‘repugnant offering of the wicked’ (Mishlei 21:27). This is because Hashem desired to crush Pharaoh, not to atone for him; only to punish him and fling him and all his army into the sea.”
No one wanted to help Pharaoh get a kapparah. On the contrary, Hashem wanted Pharaoh destroyed. The Ramban continues:
“Our rabbis say (Mechilta 13; Tanchuma Bo 7) that when Pharaoh said, ‘As you have spoken’ (12:32), he was referring back to his statement of ‘Even you will place in our hands shelamim and burnt offerings.’ Perhaps the rabbis meant that Pharaoh was hinting to the Israelites that he would give them whatever they asked for—but not that they actually took anything from him at all. Alternatively, it meant that the shelamim and burnt offerings were for the Israelites in order for them to leave Egypt, but not to be sacrificed on behalf of Pharaoh. But this [alternate explanation] is not correct.”
We see that the Ramban vigorously rejects the idea that the Jews accepted any animals from the Egyptians even for their own sacrifices. But what will the Ramban do with the following Gemara?
“It was said: Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Yosi bar Chanina disagree. One said that Noachites would bring shelamim, and the other said they would not. . . . But is it not written, ‘Moshe said, “Even you will put zevachim and olos in our hands, which we will perform for Hashem our G‑d”’? (Zevachim 116a)
“Zevachim and olos—Zevachim means shelamim. And before the Torah was given, all people were Noachites. The Gemara rejects this proof by saying that zevachim does not mean shelamim; it denotes the ordinary slaughtering of animals for the sake of eating meat.” (Rashi, ad loc.)
We see there is a machlokes whether people brought such a thing as a korban shelamim before the Torah was given. Rashi goes on to explain that burnt-offerings (which were burnt entirely on the mizbeiach) were surely brought. But what about the unique korban shelamim, much of whose meat was eaten by the worshipper himself? The Gemara attempts to prove that shelamim were indeed brought, and cites our verse: Moshe offered to Pharaoh to bring shelamim from his animals.
Now what exactly was Moshe offering to Pharaoh? Rashi emphasizes that everyone—including the Israelites—were considered Noachites at that time. Only when the Torah was given were the Israelites completely separated from the rest of humanity. Rashi is thus saying that the Egyptian animals were brought for the sake of the Israelites, as we explained earlier. Why? Because if the animals were brought for the sake of the Egyptians themselves, Rashi would not have needed to point out that all people were Noachites before the Torah was given. The Egyptians remained Noachites even afterwards!
This certainly does not accord with the opinion of the Ramban. It remains to be explained how the Ramban understands this Gemara. Since, according to him, Moshe never really meant his offer to Pharaoh seriously, his offer cannot serve as a proof for the Gemara’s point one way or another.
The following is another possible approach according to Rashi. First, let us recall which Egyptians still had animals after all their livestock was destroyed in arov, dever, and barad: “Those among Pharaoh’s servants who feared the word of Hashem hurried their slaves and their livestock into the houses.” (Sh’mos 9:20)
Only the G‑d-fearing still had animals. The others, who obviously weren’t terribly concerned about their money and finances, were antagonistic toward Hashem and left their animals outside just to make a point. But those who feared the word of Hashem brought their animals inside to protect them from the plague of hail. Even these “good” Egyptians later drowned in the Sea! Nevertheless, we may assume that the animals of these relatively G‑d-fearing Egyptians were not avodah zarah. These animals were, in fact, brought as korbanos, not to atone for the Egyptians, but for Klal Yisrael’s benefit.
The Ramban does not take this approach, perhaps for the following reason: when Pharaoh had enough of the makas barad, he called Moshe and asked him to plead with Hashem that the hail should stop. Moshe said, “When I leave the city, I will spread out my hands in prayer” (9:29). Why does Moshe need to go past the city limits in order to daven? Rashi there says it was because the city was full of avodah zarah.
Rashi explains (9:29) that Moshe was suddenly concerned about davening within the city because, until now, the animals were out in the fields. However, now, the G‑d-fearing Egyptians brought their animals inside because of the plague of hail so the city was full of these idolatrous animals!
It thus appears as if the animals of the G‑d-fearing Egyptians were avodah zarah, contradicting the approach we are putting forward. But there is an answer to this.
Although the G‑d-fearing ones surely brought in their animals, as the above-quoted pasuk says, it is reasonable to assume that a few of the other avodah zarah animals were still alive, either inadvertently, in the big rush to herd all the animals into town before it was too late, or for some other reason.
How much avodah zarah was needed in a city for Moshe not to want to daven there? Assumedly, one would have been enough to make Moshe prefer another location. And perhaps there were even more.
With this alternate approach, the pesukim read straightforwardly. And what’s more, we are not forced to say that Moshe Rabbeinu was making a facetious offer to Pharaoh in order to stress a point. v
Rabbi Frankel can be reached at email@example.com. At local stores: Machat shel Yad Sh’mos.