"The Egyptians could not eat bread with the Hebrews”
(Genesis 43:32) Tevet 4, 5778/December 22, 2017
In this week's parasha, Vayigash, Yosef and his brothers are finally reunited, as Yosef reveals his identity to the stunned brothers and they all draw near and embrace. This is the moment that G-d has been waiting for since the beginning of time as there is nothing dearer to G-d's heart than brothers living in harmony, as King David expressed years later, "Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers also to dwell together!" (Psalms 133:1)
Yet, while the court of Pharaoh is excited for Yosef and Pharaoh himself will invite the brothers to return with their father Yaakov and dwell permanently in Egypt, the actual welcome the brothers receive from the Egyptians is rather icy.
Earlier, when the brothers, whose identity was still unknown to the Egyptians, sat and ate with Yosef, we learn that "they set for him [Yosef] separately and for them [the brothers] separately, and for the Egyptians who ate with him separately, because the Egyptians could not eat bread with the Hebrews, because it is an abomination to the Egyptians." (Genesis 43:32) But even now, after Pharaoh has called upon Yosef's family to dwell in Egypt, Yosef needs to warn them: "And if it comes to pass that Pharaoh calls you and asks, 'What is your occupation?' You shall say, 'Your servants have been owners of livestock from our youth until now, both we and our ancestors,' so that you may dwell in the land of Goshen, because all shepherds are abhorrent to the Egyptians."(ibid 46:33-34) While translated in one verse as an abomination and in the other as abhorrent, the Hebrew word in both instances is the same, toe-evah. The Hebrews were simply unacceptable, repulsive, in fact, to the Egyptians. Why?
First we must understand that the Egyptians weren't repulsed at the prospect of dining with the Hebrews, per se. They were repulsed at the idea of eating bread with the Hebrews: "the Egyptians could not eat bread with the Hebrews, because it is an abomination to the Egyptians." (ibid) Historians agree that the secret of leavening bread was discovered in Egypt shortly before the time in which our story takes place. Egypt, which at that time was the jewel of the ancient world, whose culture and science and technology far outstripped any rival, took national pride in their leavened bread, and the idea of breaking bread with the Hebrews was out of the question. For the Hebrews baked and ate flat bread, unleavened bread, what Torah will refer to as matzot. These ancient matzot were not like the hard matzot commonly consumed today, but more akin to modern pitot (pitas), soft, flat and unleavened. Egypt was the the world's 'big city,' the cultural capital of humanity and as far as they were concerned, Canaan was a backwater, and the Hebrews, who shared few, if any cultural similarities with the pagan Egyptians, were looked upon as particularly uncouth. Sharing bread with them at a meal was unthinkable.
The Hebrews also brought with them to Egypt their sheep and livestock, as they were shepherds from time immemorial. This practice was also shunned by Egypt, whose entire economy and diet and religion was dependent upon the Nile river, and therefore held shepherding in contempt. Furthermore, the ram was considered a deity in ancient Egypt, and the raising of sheep for consumption was taboo. Nevertheless, as Yosef shares with his brothers, there is a land in Egypt called Goshen, far from the Egytian capital, where the raising of sheep was tolerated, and this is where the Hebrews would be resettled.
Torah makes it very clear, even as Yosef and his family are rejoicing together, that, while the family's descent into Egypt was a life saver, their prolonged stay in the land was ultimately an impossibility. The double motif of the lamb and the eating of bread has persisted throughout the story of Yosef. After selling him to Ishmaelites, Yosef's brothers dipped his cloak in the blood of a lamb they slaughtered, and then sat down to eat bread. When Yosef is granted the task of overseeing Potiphar's household, we are told that Potiphar "left all that he had in Yosef's hand, and he knew nothing about what was with him except the bread that he ate." (ibid 39:6) (Again, the Hebrew is kept away from the precious Egyptian leavened bread.) While in prison, Yosef interprets the dream of Pharaoh's chief baker.
The lamb has been an integral part of Israel's spiritual and national identity from the moment that a ram appeared before Avraham "and Avraham named that place, HaShem will see, as it is said to this day: On the mountain, HaShem will be seen." (ibid 22:14) "That place," of course, was Mount Moriah, the future home of the Holy Temple. Yitzchak was a spectacularly successful shepherd, as was Yaakov, who received his father's blessing while robed in sheep skins.
In our current Torah reading Israel is entering into a long and brutal exile. But, as Yosef is quick to point out to his brothers, G-d has a plan. The Egyptian disgust with shepherds and with the unleavened bread of the Hebrews, far from being a curse, was a blessing for the sons of Yaakov. It would keep them far from the intoxicating enticements of Egyptian culture, which Torah later emphasizes, was decadent in the extreme. G-d has also supplied for Israel, even as they first set foot in Egypt, the keys to their ultimate redemption and escape from Egypt. It will be the Passover offering of a lamb for each Hebrew household, and the baking of fabulously unleavened bread that will mark not only Israel's departure from Egyptian slavery, but Israel's re-embrace, forever, of her own personal and national identity, and her eternal covenant with G-d.