Oz Torah: Ask the Rabbi – Were we really slaves in Egypt?


We all acclaim the redemption from Egypt, but did the slavery really happen?

No, I haven’t become a revisionist.  My question is, were we really slaves? People all think so.  Did the Egyptians degrade us?  Certainly.  Did the taskmasters give us a hard time?  Of course.

But were we slaves?  Not if you know the difference between real slavery and the bondage that our ancestors experienced in Egypt.

A real slave is a nobody.  He is a chattel owned by his master.  He has no rights.  He can’t dream, hope, pray for release.  He has no options.  He can’t make decisions.  His life is a relentless grind.

Is this the type of servant the Israelites were in Egypt?  Not really.  Pharaoh and his taskmasters were certainly harsh and demanding, but no-one could take away the bondmen’s dignity.  The Hebrews maintained four things and never abandoned them – their language, morality, identity, and faith.  Life was hard, but nothing could sap their belief in God.

When God told Pharaoh, “Let My people go!”, Pharaoh retorted, “Who is God?” But the Israelites didn’t echo the king’s defiant retort. Pharaoh tried hard to break their spirits, but they still believed in themselves, and in God, and the women were said to be even greater believers than the men.

Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik (Reflections of the Rav, 1979, chapter 19), distinguishes between “juridic” (physical) and “typological” (moral and intellectual) slavery.

The first category suffers because of the political system: his status is at issue. In the second category, it’s his mind and will that are crushed: the question is his psychology.

Once the dash across the sea has concluded, a paradoxical thing happens. The Israelites march towards Sinai, but what awaits them? Not unrestrained liberty, but a new life of servitude – accepting God’s word and becoming His servants, constantly subject to the service of God.

Rav Soloveitchik explains the paradox: “In surrendering to God, man truly achieves freedom. He is no longer tormented by psychologically depressing anxieties. He is bolstered by his faith in the transcendental orderliness of things and in God’s ultimate compassion”.

Cross the generations to the time of the Holocaust, and encounter Victor Frankl’s concept of logotherapy, which says that a person with a value system is more likely to survive than one who believes in nothing.

Historic parallels are never exact, but they are often relevant. In the Sho’ah the persecution was unprecedented and horrific, but the enemy could not break our spirit. Part of the evidence is the low numbers of Jewish suicides during those terrible years.

Logotherapy says: if you have something to live by, something to live for, you will probably live. Even if you don’t, your life will still have meaning. When you have something to live for, all the persecution in the world cannot engulf or enslave you.

What is the right word for our ancestors in Egypt? Not helpless drones or “slaves” but “bondsmen”, people held physically in a tight grip with little freedom of movement, but still able to maintain their dignity, their dreams, their minds, their aspirations.

They were bondsmen. They were not held in “the house of slavery” but in “the house of bondage”.


Q. Why do we call “karpas” by this name?

A. Though Cecil Roth links the karpas with the bunch of hyssop which, dipped in the blood of the paschal lamb, marked the Israelite houses in Egypt, he does not seem to give a satisfactory explanation of its name.

Others say we have karpas not so much because of what it is (celery, radish, lettuce, potato, onion or parsley) but because of its name:

The Maharil (Rabbi Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller, 1579-1654), points out that the letters of karpas are the same as “s-p-r-ch”, read “Samech” (60) “Perech” – 60 times ten thousand sufferers of toil.

However, karpas is actually a Biblical word found in the Book of Esther, chapter 1, where it denotes a textile.

Rashi uses this word in describing the coat of many colours which Joseph wore (Gen. 37:3) and since the coat was dipped into blood the idea might have developed to dip a vegetable in salt during the Seder.

In a sense this tells us something about how the Egyptian persecution began – by an innocent coat besmirched by blood, symbolic of persecution throughout the ages in which blood was death and not life.

Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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