Redefining Makas Bechoros: NOT Plague of the Firstborn! – Part 1

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13 Apr 2022
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Part 2


(1) WHY IS IT THE ONLY PLAGUE THAT CONTAINS THE WORD ‘MAKEH’? Since all of the plagues were makos, it would not be unreasonable to name them all as ‘Plagues’—e.g. Makas Dom, Makas Tz’fardei’a, etc. Since the author of the Hagadah does not do this, there is an implied distinctiveness to the plague, or perhaps the word MAKAS may mean something other than just ‘plague of’ (i.e. Makas B’choros may not be just one more plague among nine other similar events).

(2) IT IS A VERY PERVASIVE MAKEH. The pesukim give us some idea of who died in the course of the plague. These included not only freeman MITZRIM (as we would of course expect, since after all it was the trespass of the Mitzri taskmasters—the ‘ruling class’—that God is coming to redress and to PUNISH). However, also included are “the firstborn of the maidservant who is behind the millstone, and all the firstborn of the animals” (11:5), and “the firstborn of the captive who was in the house of the pit [prison]” (12:29).  These inclusions create problems for various M’forshim, who feel compelled to offer explanations for what all these other entities did ‘wrong’ to DESERVE punishment alongside the Egyptian taskmasters whom we all consider to be the REAL villains! How is that ‘fair’?

(3) IT IS MUCH MORE PERVASIVE THAN IT LOOKS. Both the ‘poshut p’shat’ of the pesukim (noted above) and the title of the plague as we commonly understand it would suggest that firstborn male creatures in Mitzrayim died in the course of the plague. This idea is reinforced by the laws that the Torah introduces as a consequence of our survival through the plague. These laws form the Halachik definition of what a ‘b’chor’ is—i.e. (a) it must be the first male offspring of the mother; and (b) it must also be the ‘peter rechem’—that is, the first offspring having developed the potential for independent life to emerge from the womb. If this birth was preceded by a prior sister, or even if just a single limb of a fetus previously emerged from the womb and then was subsequently retracted, or there was a prior miscarriage, or even the prior delivery a single body part of an abortus, then the male child which subsequently is born to that mother is NOT considered the Halachik b’chor (Rambam, Hilchos Bikurim 11:14-15).

Yet the Midrash makes it abundantly clear that the scope of the makeh in Mitzrayim was MUCH more inclusive than just this strict Halachik definition.

(4) WHY DOES IT INCLUDE THE DESTRUCTION OF EGYPTIAN IDOLS AS WELL AS THE DESTRUCTION OF THE FIRSTBORN? For every other makeh the action is defined precisely by the name given to it by the author of the Hagadah, or at least all the manifestations of the plague are obviously derivative from the main action (e.g. Choshech, absence of light to provide human guidance and direction, leads to total palpable immobilization). ‘Dom’ means “Blood.” ‘Tz’fardei’a’ means “Frog.” This is NOT true however for Makas B’choros. The Chumash makes it quite clear that ANOTHER action is an intimate and inseparable aspect of the plague: the simultaneous destruction of all Egyptian idols. Says HaShem: “I will pass across in the land of Egypt on that night and I will strike every firstborn in the land of Egypt from man until animal, and upon all the gods of Egypt I will perform judgements, I am HASHEM!” (12:12). At the moment of midnight the Midrash tells us that all the wooden idols burned, the metal ones melted, and the clay and stone ones shattered, as HaShem “performed judgements upon their gods.”  On the surface this action does not seem at all connected to the name Makas B’choros. While it certainly seems somehow appropriate that HaShem should complete everything He needs to do in this one last masterstroke, how can we understand how this action is intimately intertwined, part and parcel with the main purpose of Makas B’choros?

(5) WHY WAS IT SO IMPORTANT THAT IT WAS PERFORMED PERSONALLY BY GOD HIMSELF presumably in contrast to the other makos that are performed indirectly?—“Ani v’lo malach, Ani v’lo soroph…” What is the deeper understanding of why this is so important for Makas B’choros where it was apparently superfluous for every other makeh? And if God indeed performed it without any intermediary, may we inquire into by what mechanism did He execute it?

(6) WHY IS IT THE ONLY PLAGUE DIRECTED AT JEWISH TARGETS AS WELL AS MITZRI TARGETS? The Jews were exempt and unaffected by the effects of every other makeh. This was certainly true in a geographic sense, as the makos made very sharp demarcating boundaries between land belonging to Mitzri and land belonging to Jew. It was even true to the extent that Jews moving amongst the Mitzrim were unaffected by the same process afflicting their Egyptian neighbors just inches away (e.g. choshech). Indeed, this characteristic was an important pedagogical part of the underlying message of all the makos to both Mitzri and Jew: the makos were not simple natural catastrophes, or even the work of limited gods able to turn some natural process on or off. Rather they resulted from the dictates of The Grand Commander, The Creator of Heaven and Earth, Who absolutely controls every aspect of His universe in a conscious fashion, and Who can direct natural and unnatural forces alike with surgical precision. Yet, when it comes to Makas B’choros, for the first time the Jews are not automatically ‘immune’! In fact they are CLEARLY potential victims of this particular makeh. They are given very specific instructions, which they must perform exactly if they are to survive the holocaust. They must huddle in their houses, around their Paschal lambs, the blood on their doorposts as a sign to God that He should not visit destruction on those within. Why does God suddenly require a sign to demarcate whom to avoid? It would seem more logical especially for this plague that God apply devastation with absolute surgical precision to whom He wishes. As the story ACTUALLY unfolds, one could even come away with the terribly mistaken impression that the JEWS are the ones directing the destruction, and are able to use magical signs like the blood on the doorposts to protect themselves from their own devices.

Moreover, the language of the posuk: “…and He will not permit the destroyer [hamashchis] to enter your homes to smite” (12:23) causes various m’forshim to postulate that more than one destructive force was unleashed that night, myriad mazikim that had the potential to cause indiscriminate harm even to the Jews. If so, why does God not protect and sustain His people, JUST as He protected every single Jewish-owned animal from death by natural causes during the Dever? Even if God does use OTHER mazikim to do some of His dirty work here (BTW apparently contradicting the Hagadah’s statement that God handled Makas B’choros PERSONALLY), He would indeed be a very POOR Commander if He can’t even control His own troops and stop them from raping and pillaging indiscriminately in the heat of battle. In summary it’s a VERY confusing message to leave the Mitzrim with, if a major purpose of the makos is to show Who’s Boss!

(7) WHY DOES EVERY JEW HAVE TO BRING A KORBAN PESACH EVEN IF HE IS NOT A B’CHOR? Since the Chumash makes it clear that that the Korban Pesach was brought to protect those attached to it from Makas B’choros, only those actually threatened by the makeh should have need of the korban. Yet, both in Mitzrayim and thereafter, EVERY Jew – even those that are NOT firstborn – MUST bring this particular korban! In fact it is such an important requirement that it appears to be a DEFINING mitzvah for who is part of the Jewish congregation. It is one of only two positive commandments that carry a punishment of korais—spiritual excommunication—if one purposefully neglects it. (BTW, the OTHER positive commandment that carries this penalty is circumcision, certainly a defining mitzvah for the Jew, and is curiously connected to the mitzvah of the Korban Pesach in multiple dimensions. It would appear that these two mitzvos are somehow intimately connected, or perhaps are two related aspects of a single unified concept!)

(8) The Midrash tells us that a minimum of 4/5 of the Jewish people (at least 4.8 million people!) died in Egypt shortly before the remaining 1/5 left Egypt on Pesach. Says the Michilta (13:18), God caused their deaths “during the 3 days of Afeilah—inky black paralyzing Darkness where the Chumash states ‘No man saw his brother…’ so [the Egyptians] could not see the Jews burying their dead [which would have been humiliating for the Jews]. So [the Jews] thanked and praised the Holy One Blessed Be He that their enemies did not see and rejoice in [the Jews’] sudden fall in status.”

Would not the Egyptians have noticed afterwards that their slave workforce had abruptly diminished? If they died because they had already elected NOT to leave Egypt with their brethren, wouldn’t it have made more sense for God to kill them during Makas Bechoros—when they wouldn’t have brought their Paschal lambs anyway? Moreover, that would result in a much better chance that those Jews’ deaths would go unnoticed— since we were leaving the following morning anyway and could take our deceased out with us for secret burial in the desert—and because the Mitzrim would have been preoccupied with their OWN horrendous losses!

(9) Lastly,  (or actually FIRSTLY!) WHY DOES THE BA’AL HAHAGADAH COUCH ‘MAKAS B’CHOROS’ IN THE FEMININE?? (ie, it is not ‘Makas HaB’chorim’ as we would expect from a back- translation of ‘Plague of the Firstborn’!)

For second segment of the shiur:

(10) HOW CAN WE MAKE SENSE OF THE GEMORAH OF “KACHATZOS HALAYLAH”?  Rashi on 11:4 brings the Gemorah’s famous statement (Meseches B’rachos 4A) that although Moshe understood that HaShem would come at EXACTLY the stroke of midnight to execute judgement on MILLIONS of Mitzrim, [Vay’hi BAchatzi Halaylah VaHaShem hichah chol b’chor… (12:29)], he communicated to Paroh the warning that HaShem had stated that the plague would occur APPROXIMATELY around midnight—KAchatzos halaylah (11:4)—Thus changing what God had obviously actually told him. Rabi Zeira’s famous answer was that Moshe did this intentionally, so that the Egyptians would not accuse him of lying. His concern was that the Egyptian astrologers would miscalculate the exact moment of midnight and claim that HaShem did not come at that precise moment as advertised, and that Moshe’s truthfulness would thus be faulted. How are we to understand that Moshe would go so far as to MISQUOTE and DISTORT the Word of God over what seems like a triviality when the awesomeness of the plague was indisputable regardless of this particular detail?