Mystery at the Malon
Mystery at the Malon
An Interactive Learning Module by Rivka Kahan
The Circumcision of the Son of Moses
One of the most enigmatic stories of the Torah is the narrative of the
(bridegroom of blood), found in
During Moshe's family's journey back to Egypt, when stopped by a lodging place, one of the family members finds themselves in danger of
under mysterious circumstances. Zipporah performs a
on her son and removes the threat.
This module will explore the textual, literary, and theological questions that arise from this narrative. Perhaps the most central of these is:
seek to kill
Moshe or his son while they are on their way to Egypt to fulfill His mission?
An in-depth analysis of this issue can be found at
Mystery at the Malon
. As you use this module, you are invited to compare your own analysis with the analysis found there.
2. The Verses
Let's begin by examining the verses of the narrative and their context by reading
. The core of the story is found in verses 24-26.
What questions do you have about the story on the
How do you think this story fits into the
of the leadership of Moshe and the redemption of Israel?
Some of the questions that arise from the narrative are:
is Hashem trying to kill and
How does Zipporah
that she is meant to perform a circumcision?
How is this story connected to the surrounding narrative of the Exodus?
In context of the preceding chapters, why would Hashem seek to
immediately after Moshe finally agreed to return to Egypt to free the Jewish people?
This is a particularly pressing question in light of the Rabbinic concept that
"שלוחי מצוה אינן ניזוקין"
(people on a mission to do a mitzvah are not harmed).
4. Analyzing the Language of the Narrative
Let's begin by analyzing the language of the narrative to gain insight into its meaning and themes.
Go to the
to analyze the components of Shemot 4:18-31 and find the words that appear with the greatest frequency.
Which words appear four or more times in this section and how do you think those words
reflect the themes
of the narrative?
Which word(s) appear with
relative to the rest of Tanakh? Which of these are ambiguous in meaning and worth exploring further?
5. Analysis Continued
appear multiple times within the unit, underscoring that the theme of this story is Moshe's journey to fulfill Hashem's mission. How does this theme
deepen our question
about Hashem's intent in disrupting Moshe's journey?
appears twice in this section and nowhere else in Sefer Shemot, and is 220 times more common in this section than in the rest of Tanakh.
To understand the
of this root, in the table on the left side of the Tanakh Lab, click on the תנ"ך column next to the entry "פגש" (where it says 220x). This will display all of the verses in Tanakh in which this root appears.
Based on the 14 verses that appear, what
does the root "פגש" have in Tanakh?
Where else in Tanakh is Hashem the subject of this verb? What is the
of the verb in that context?
How many times does the precise form "וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ" appear? How does this serve to connect our narrative to its context?
Our search indicates that the root
sometimes has the meaning of “meeting" (as in Shemot 4:27 and Mishlei 22:2), but more often connotes a contentious encounter or
(as in Bereshit 32:18 and 33:8, Shemuel II 2:13, and Yirmeyahu 41:6). Notably, this is the connotation in the only other verse in which Hashem is the subject of the verb (Hoshea 13:8).
How does this knowledge
affect your understanding
of what occurred in Shemot 4:24?
The only two verses in Tanakh in which the specific form
appears are both in our chapter, in the core story (4:24) and in the subsequent narrative (4:27). This is an example of a
(a term that connects two sections of Biblical text).
What other מונח מקשר can you find, which
4:19 and 4:24, and connects our story to the immediately preceding narrative?
What do these מונחים מקשרים imply about the
of the story of the "חֲתַן דָּמִים" to the larger narrative of the Exodus from Egypt?
7. Commentators: Rashi
Let's explore how our commentators have understood the meaning of the narrative. Return to the
4:24 and 4:26
According to Rashi,
does Hashem intend to kill in 4:24?
led to this divine response? Why do you think this sin would warrant such a
In Rashi's view, how does Zipporah know to perform a circumcision?
do you have about Rashi's interpretation? What questions about the narrative remain unanswered?
8. R. Shemuel b. Chofni Gaon
We saw that Rashi believes that Moshe was punished for not performing a circumcision on his son with sufficient alacrity. Let's now turn to a variation of this interpretation. Read
R. Shemuel b. Chofni Gaon's
comments as cited by
Ibn Ezra (Second Commentary) on 4:24
ד"ה ויבקש המיתו (beginning with "ורב שמואל בן חפני אמר").
How does R. Shemuel b. Chofni Gaon's interpretation of the verses
from Rashi's? What is his motivation?
do you have about R. Shemuel b. Chofni's approach?
What moral and philosophical questions about this narrative remain not fully answered by both Rashi and R. Shemuel b. Chofni Gaon?
9. HaKetav VeHaKabbalah
We have seen that R. Shemuel b. Chofni Gaon attempts to resolve the question of why Hashem would attack His own messenger by suggesting that Eliezer, not Moshe, was in danger.
is similarly troubled by the notion that Hashem would choose to kill Moshe at this point in Sefer Shemot, especially for a seemingly minor sin. Read
HaKetav VeHaKabbalah Shemot 4:24
(ד"ה ויבקש המיתו) to see his novel interpretation.
does HaKetav VeHaKabbalah raise as an objection to Rashi's interpretation?
How does HaKetav VeHaKabbalah address these
driving philosophical questions
about Hashem's actions?
How does he strengthen his approach by comparing this text to
in Tanakh? In your opinion, are the cases comparable?
What textual or philosophical
exist for the interpretation of HaKetav VeHaKabbalah?
We have seen that HaKetav VeHaKabbalah is so troubled by Hashem's actions in this narrative that he reinterprets the verses to mean that Moshe
out of a feeling of overwhelming remorse.
For another innovative approach to understanding Hashem's apparently harsh response, see
, beginning about halfway through his comments, from: "ואמנם מה ענין אמרו ויהי בדרך במלון".
How does Abarbanel interpret the word
? Based on our analysis of this word, do you think there is textual support for Abarbanel's approach?
How does Abarbanel
the meaning of
and how does this resolve the question about Hashem's punishment of Moshe in these verses?
In Abarbanel's opinion, what other action does Moshe take in this chapter that might be considered
, and for which Zipporah thinks perhaps the family is being punished?
According to Abarbanel,
does Zipporah perform a circumcision? What
does she take to rectify Moshe's actions?
do you have about Abarbanel's interpretation? What textual or philosophical challenges exist for his opinion?
As we have seen, Abarbanel resolves the difficulty of understanding the harsh divine punishment by suggesting that Hashem did not seek to punish Moshe at all. Rather, Moshe experienced the
of not being sufficiently prepared for prophecy.
For a third innovative interpretation of the narrative, see
Shadal on 4:24
How does Shadal
the story of the "חֲתַן דָּמִים" to the
In Shadal's opinion, what is Moshe's
and what two actions does he take in this chapter that reflect the flaw in his approach?
How does Zipporah know to perform the circumcision and how does this action rectify the problem?
In what ways does Shadal
from Abarbanel in his interpretation of Zipporah's righteousness? In what ways do they have
ideas about the actions she takes to ameliorate the situation?
12. Shadal: Analysis
Shadal interprets Moshe's actions as demonstrating
to Hashem's mission, both by waiting until age 13 to circumcise his sons and by taking his family with him to Egypt without articulating to them the mission upon which he is embarking.
Additionally, Shadal reinterprets the verses to mean that
is the one in danger, due to his special status as Moshe's firstborn.
At the outset of our study, we saw that the text indicates the
between the "חֲתַן דָּמִים" story and the surrounding narrative of the Exodus through the use of connecting phrases. How does Shadal's approach rely upon this connection?
What are the
of Shadal's approach in resolving the textual and philosophical questions that arise from this narrative?
do you have about Shadal's interpretation? What textual or philosophical challenges exist for his position?
13. Narrative in Context
We have seen that, according to several commentators, the narrative of the "חֲתַן דָּמִים" centers on the need for Moshe's son to be circumcised before Moshe embarks on his mission to free the Nation of Israel. What is the
between the mitzvah of "ברית מילה" and the Exodus?
The commandment of circumcision is given to Avraham in
. In context, it represents the
of Hashem and the Jewish people: Hashem promises to give the land of Israel to Avraham's descendants and Avraham commits that he and his children will serve Hashem.
How does our story, which integrates the notion of Hashem's covenant with the Jewish people into a personal story about Moshe Rabbenu, represent an important step in the development of Moshe's leadership and the process of redemption?
We have seen a wide range of interpretations of the narrative of the "חֲתַן דָּמִים". On the textual level, commentators suggest that Moshe, Gershom, or Eliezer was in danger. They offer different suggestions as to
Zipporah knew to perform a circumcision and
this effectively resolved the crisis.
On the philosophical level, several commentators suggest that Hashem's punishment of Moshe was due to Moshe's decision to
delay his son's circumcision
or, more generally, to Moshe's
to his prophetic mission.
Some commentators are uncomfortable with the idea that Hashem sought to punish Moshe so severely, and instead suggest that either Moshe
sought his own death
or that his illness was not a divine punishment but a natural consequence of his
lack of preparation
While the narrative is interpreted in a rich variety of ways, many of the commentaries point to the importance of Moshe's
to the covenaמt (ברית) between Hashem and the Jewish people as he enters the stage of Jewish history.
Through Moshe's demonstration of personal identification with the covenant and Jewish destiny, he develops into the redeemer of the Jewish people. The narrative thus reminds us of the importance of personal commitment to the totality of the covenant as a necessary element of national redemption.
15. Additional Reading
For further discussion of this topic, see:
Mystery at the Malon
For other topics related to Parashat Shemot, see:
Parashat Shemot – Topic List
the beginning of this module
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