What’s the Truth About…the Jews in Egypt Keeping Their Jewish Names, Language and Dress?

Misconception: The Midrash states that after centuries of servitude, God redeemed the Jews from Egypt in the merit of the rigorous preservation of their own names, language and mode of dress.

Fact: While these three factors certainly would have contributed to the Jews maintaining an independent identity, and some of them are mentioned in various midrashim, there is no known classical midrash that presents a list of exclusively these three points of merit.

Background: The question of why the Jews merited a miraculous redemption from Egypt was addressed explicitly in the Book of Yechezkel (20:5-10). There God explains that He had desired to redeem the Jews from Egypt and bring them into “a Land of Milk and Honey, the most beautiful of all lands”; but wanting them to “deserve it,” He requested that they remove the Egyptian idols from their midst. However, God tells Yechezkel, the Jews refused, and ultimately they were redeemed not based on any merit of their own but solely for the sake of God’s Name, so that there not be a chillul Hashem.

There are later sources that similarly portray a meritless people. The Mechilta (to Shemot 14:29 [Beshalach:6]) and Shemot Rabbah (21:7) portray angels complaining to God that the Jews were idolaters and unworthy of the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea.1 The Zohar Chadash (Yitro 31a) describes the Jews in Egypt as having descended to the forty-ninth (lowest) level of impurity.

The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 3:4, quoted by Rashi to Shemot 3:11) finds the question of the Jews’ worthiness in the initial conversation between God and Moshe, reading into Moshe’s question to God (Shemot 3:11): “What merit do they possess that I should be able to take them out?” The Midrash continues (on Shemot 3:12) that God responded that indeed at that time they lacked merit, but they were being redeemed on the future merit that they would accept the Torah at the very place where God and Moshe were speaking, Har Sinai. The Mechilta (to Shemot 14:29) similarly suggests future merit, either Torah and prayer or the merit of mezuzah and tefillin. Midrash Tehillim (114) says the anticipated merit was the Torah they would receive or the mishkan they would build.

In this scenario in which the Jews lacked merit at the time of the Exodus, they were redeemed either: 1) for God’s Name (as stated in Yechezkel); 2) in the merit of the forefathers and the covenant God had made with them2 (as it seems from the simple reading of the text [Shemot 2:24; 6:53]); or 3) based on future merit (as in the midrashim just quoted).

Alternatively, although they were unworthy, God gave the Jews in Egypt the ability to “earn merit” immediately before the Exodus. Rashi (to Shemot 12:6) quotes the midrash (Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael, Bo, Masechta D’Pischa, parashah 5; Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer [Heger], Chorev: 28; Ruth Rabbah 6:1) that based on Yechezkel 16:7, the Jews were naked of mitzvot and thus God gave them the mitzvot of korban Pesach and brit milah, which they faithfully performed. Furthermore, they were asked to reject idolatry (by taking a paschal sacrifice). Through these mitzvot, they earned the right to be redeemed, and this enabled God to fulfill His promise to Avraham.

Merits of the Jewish People

There is also the school of thought that the Jews did indeed have merits.4 A well-known statement of Rav Avira (Sotah 11b; also found in the name of Rabbi Akiva in Shemot Rabbah 1:12) states that in the merit of the “righteous women of that generation,” Israel was redeemed from Egypt.5 The Rashbam (Pesachim 108b, she’af; cf. Tosafot, s.v. ha’yu) understands Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s explanation that women are obligated in Megillah, Chanukah lighting and the four cups of wine because “af hen hayu be’oto haneis—they too were in the miracle” to mean that the women were instrumental in the miracle. Regarding the four cups, he quotes the gemara in Sotah that the Exodus was in the merit of the righteous women.

The Mechilta (Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael, Bo, Masechta D’Pischa 14 [Shemot 14:31]), based on Shemot 4:31 (“The people believed…”) says that the Jews were redeemed as a reward for their emunah (faith).

There are indeed midrashim that list some of the traits that are included in the famous list mentioned in the beginning of this article. Among the earliest sources are the Mechilta (Bo [12:6], Masechta D’Pischa, parashah 5, s.v. v’hayah) and Vayikra Rabbah (Emor 32:5), which state: “Rav Huna said in the name of Bar Kappara, ‘On account of four things Israel was redeemed from Egypt: they did not change their names, they did not change their language, they did not speak lashon hara [slander; reveal their secrets], and not even one of them was found to be promiscuous.’”6 Variants of this popular midrash that list these same four items are found in many other places.7 Midrash Lekach Tov (also known as Pesikta Zutrata [eleventh century], Shemot 6:6 [Solomon Buber, 1880], p. 16a) has a slightly different list of four merits: they retained their language, did not change their clothing, did not reveal secrets, and did not neglect brit milah.8

Etz Yosef (Vayikra Rabbah 32:5, s.v. bishvil) points out that some midrashim list only three or fewer of these merits. Midrashim that list three include Bamidbar Rabbah 13:20, which omits not speaking lashon hara and can thus almost be interpreted as a precursor to the famous teaching (quoted in “Misconception” above) if one understands the final merit (avoiding promiscuity) to mean that the Jews of Egypt maintained the practice of wearing modest clothing. Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer (end of ch. 48) says that in the merit of three things the Jews left Egypt: they preserved their language, did not speak lashon hara, and, as per Radal’s (Rabbi David Luria, d. 1855) emendation, did not change their names.9 Tanna D’vei Eliyahu (Eliyahu Rabbah 24:1 [parashah 21 and 22 in Ish Shalom ed. of Eliyahu Rabbah]) mentions that the Jews who left Egypt made a pact to do chesed with one another, to perform brit milah, and not to abandon their ancestral language.

The Triad of Merits

The earliest mention of the triad of merits practiced by the Jews in Egypt (preserving their names, language, and mode of dress) appears to have been made en passant by Eliyahu Levita, also known as Eliah Bachur (1469-1549).10 In the first page of his introduction to his Sefer Meturgeman, in the course of discussing the history of language (and not in the context of discussing by what merit the Jews were redeemed from Egypt), he wrote that Chazal said there were three things the Jews in Egypt did not change: their names, dress and language. The source for his statement is unknown, and the scholar Solomon Buber (d. 1906) asserted (commentary to Pesikta D’Rav Kahana [1868], Beshalach, 83b, note 66) that the common saying that the Jews did not change their clothing is not found anywhere and that Bachur erred in his quote.11

The triad is not referred to again until the early nineteenth century,12 when it re-emerged with renewed significance during that century’s battle against the Reform movement. Perhaps the most important purveyor of this “new” midrash was Rabbi Moshe Sofer (Chatam Sofer; d. 1839), who, in a derashah on 7 Tevet 5574 [1813] (Chatam Sofer, Derashot, vol. 1, 5689, p. 82a), said that it was in the merit of these three traits that the Jews were redeemed from Egypt; he then expounded on how not adhering to them leads to assimilation. He returned to this theme in several later instances and famously included in his ethical will that his descendants should be careful in these three areas. He referred to the triad of shem (name), lashon (language) and malbush (dress) by the acronym shalem (whole), referring to Yaakov who survived “shalem” from his encounter with the foreign culture of Lavan (Bereishit 33:18).

The significance of the triad was further popularized by Rabbi Akiva Yosef Schlesinger (1837-1922), a firebrand follower of the Chatam Sofer, in his Lev Ha’ivri, a lengthy commentary on the Chatam Sofer’s ethical will. Following his explication of these three points, he concluded (p. 76, 1990 ed.) that being strict about them will preserve the Jewish people until Mashiach comes.

Let us see the significance these three traits have in halachah.13

The Significance of a Jewish Name

Regarding the Midrash’s mention of Jewish names, Kli Yakar (Shemot 1:2) understands it to refer specifically to the names of the Twelve Tribes, names that each referenced the redemption, and thus not as a general mandate for future generations to use specifically “Jewish” names. In the halachic literature, there is a diversity of opinion about using non-Jewish names.14 On one extreme, the Maharam Schick (Rabbi Moshe Schick,15 1807-1879; a teacher of Rabbi Schlesinger) has a long responsum on the importance of Jewish names and regards using non-Jewish names as a Biblical prohibition (Shu”t Maharam Schick, YD:169).

On the opposite pole, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe, OC:4:66, OC 5:9:10 and EH 3:35) writes it is distasteful to use non-Jewish names,16 but there is no prohibition. He suggests that in Egypt before Matan Torah, name, language and dress were all that distinguished the Jews from the surrounding nations. Because of their belief that they would be redeemed, they maintained their distinctiveness. But now it is the Torah that sets us apart.17

In a recent teshuvah, Rabbi Asher Weiss (Minchat Asher, Shemot, p. 2), demonstrates (based on Gittin 11b) that in the time of Chazal, most Jews outside of the Land of Israel had non-Jewish names; this Talmudic source was also used by Maharashdam (Rabbi Shmuel de Medina, 1505-1589; shu”t Maharashdam, YD 199) in permitting anusim (Jews forcibly converted to Christianity) who returned to the fold to maintain their non-Jewish Portuguese names. Rabbi Weiss agrees that there is a problem when one wants to blend into the surrounding culture by abandoning Jewish names, dress and language, but maintains that using a non-Jewish name in business is permissible.

Maintaining Distinct Jewish Clothing

The prophet Tzephaniah (1:8) implies that there is a concept of distinctive Jewish garb. The eleventh-century Pesikta Zutrata (Lekach Tov, Devarim, Ki Tavo [26:5], 41a) says that the Jews in Egypt were distinct in that their clothing, food and language were different from the Egyptians.18 Note that it does not say it was a “merit” earning them redemption, just that it made them separate. And it also includes the concept of Jewish cuisine.

There is an explicit halachah (Smag, negative, 50;19 Rambam, Hilchot Avodah Zarah 11:1; Shulchan Aruch, YD 178:1) that in general Jews should be identifiable by their distinct dress. The Rema (YD 178:1) is much more lenient and follows the Maharik who rules that only garments worn by non-Jews without reason or meaning or that contain an idolatrous or immoral element are prohibited. The Shach (YD 178:4 and 157:17) and Gra (YD 178:7) disagree with the Maharik’s ruling. Rabbi Avraham Danzig (d. 1820), in both his halachic work (Chochmat Adam, 89:1) and an entire paragraph in his ethical will (Beit Avraham, 31), stresses the importance of Jewish clothing and says that it is one of the reasons the Jews were redeemed. Rabbi Menashe Klein has a long teshuvah on the importance of maintaining Jewish-style clothing (Mishneh Halachot 10:115).

The Importance of Jewish Language

In censuring the Jews in Israel for intermarrying, Nechemiah (13:24) is critical of the fact that their children no longer speak Hebrew. Learning to speak the Jewish language—“lashon hakodesh20 (Hebrew)—is a mitzvah according to the Rambam. In explaining Rebbi’s statement (Avot 2:1) that one should be careful with “minor” mitzvot as with “major” ones, the Rambam (Peirush HaMishnayot) gives two examples of mitzvot that people perceive as minor: simchat yom tov and the study of Hebrew. Sources for the Rambam’s assertion seem to be the Sifrei, which is cited by Rashi (to Devarim 11:19, the first parashah of the Shema), that when a child begins speaking the father should speak to him in Hebrew and teach him Torah, and the Tosefta (Chagigah, ch.1) that a father should teach his son Shema, Torah and Hebrew.21 The Yerushalmi (Shekalim 3:3) says that one who lives in Israel, speaks Hebrew, eats fruits in purity and recites Shema every morning and evening is guaranteed Olam Haba.

The Torah Temimah (Devarim 11:19:52) expresses surprise that the legal codifiers, including the Rambam himself, omitted this from their legal works. He references the reader to an entire article he had previously written devoted to the obligation and importance of Hebrew. My esteemed rebbe, Rabbi Shlomo Wahrman (d. 2013; Shearith Yosef, vol. III, ch. 6 [pp. 62-66]), discusses the background and parameters of this mitzvah.

The simple fact that Hebrew is holy led the Rema (OC 307:16) to rule that certain types of literature that may not be read on Shabbat in the vernacular may be read in Hebrew. Rabbi Yaakov Emden (Siddur Beit Yaakov, second section, musar na’eh, p. 38, 1920 ed.; p. 314, 1904 ed.) bemoans the lack of knowledge of Hebrew among the Jews of his time (eighteenth-century Germany) and stresses the importance of studying the language. Rabbi Menashe Klein (Mishneh Halachot 9:204) explains in clear terms that it is imperative to learn Hebrew; he brings interesting sources and concludes that there is no excuse for late-twentieth-century American yeshivot to be teaching in English rather than Hebrew.

In a strange twist, Rabbi Yekutiel Yehudah Halberstam (the Sanz-Klausenburg Rebbe, 1905-1994; Divrei Yatziv, YD:52), writing in New Jersey in 1977 and quoting the Chatam Sofer, uses our opening midrash to emphatically insist that one speak only Yiddish and not the local language or Hebrew. He argues that the unique Jewish languages that the Jews created in the various exiles, which were a deliberate corruption of the local language [e.g., Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Malayalam, Judeo-Tat, et cetera], are the true Jewish languages that should be preserved. Minhag Yisrael Torah (OC:1, p. 202) quotes a curious suggestion that even in Egypt, the language they did not change was the Jewish-corrupted form of Egyptian!

Whether or not Chazal portray the Israelites in Egypt as remaining distinct because of these three characteristics, it is certainly accurate to suggest that if in today’s various exiles Jews would speak Hebrew, use Jewish names and dress in a distinctive manner, they would stand out as a distinctive people, preventing assimilation. Indeed, the Meshech Chochmah (Shemot 12:22) attaches great significance to the distinguishing characteristics that preserve the Jewish national identity while in exile. Although Yechezkel 36:20-28 predicts that the first step of the final redemption will be when the Jews are undeserving, and they will be gathered to Israel only because continued exile would result in chillul Hashem, the Chatam’s Sofer’s description of the merits in Egypt can be a recipe for us to prepare for the future redemption, may it arrive speedily.

Notes

1. See also Vayikra Rabbah 23:2. Many later sources introduced/used the well-known phrase in which the angels complained that “these [the Jews] and these [the Egyptians] are idolaters,” so why should the Jews be saved? (Zohar, Terumah 170b; variant in Yalkut Shimoni, Va’etchanan 828). It is also used in a future context (Midrash Tehillim [Shochar Tov], 1:20 and 15:5).

2. Similarly, Shemot Rabbah (21:8) attributes the splitting of the Red Sea to the merit of Avraham or Yaakov. Based on Shir Hashirim 2:8, Shemot Rabbah (Bo 15:4) has God saying: “If I look at Israel’s deeds, they will never be redeemed!” and thus He redeems them in the merit of the Patriarchs. The continuation of that verse is applied by the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 11a) to the Matriarchs, and thus the Maharal (Gevurot Hashem, ch. 60), when quoting this derashah, mentions that the redemption was also in the merit of the Matriarchs. Bamidbar Rabbah (3:6) says the redemption was in the merit of Yaakov or the Matriarchs, or the Tribe of Levi (who, unlike the other Israelites, did not worship idols). Similarly, Shemot Rabbah (Bo 15:3) says that God was searching for something to warrant redeeming the Jews; not finding anything, He redeemed them due to the merit of Moshe and Aharon. A similar statement is found in Shemot Rabbah 1:34, s.v. va’yizkor (Israel was not worthy of being saved as they were wicked; rather, it was in the merit of the Patriarchs that they were redeemed) and Shemot Rabbah 1:35 (God saw that the Israelites did not possess good deeds in whose merit they could be redeemed).

3. A few verses later (Shemot 3:7-10), it seems as if God has decided to rescue the Jews because of the sincerity of their cries and the brutality of the Egyptians. Nehama Leibowitz (Studies in Shemot, Va’era 1), in hewing to the plain meaning of the text, utterly rejects the suggestion by Ibn Ezra (Shemot 6:5) that the text alludes to the fact that the crying out by the Jews to God was a result of repentance. Note that unrelated to the verses in Shemot, Shir Hashirim Rabbah 2:1:13 does posit that the Jews in Egypt did teshuvah, as does Yerushalmi Ta’anit 1:1. Devarim Rabbah (Va’etchanan 2:23) mentions merit of the forefathers, Divine mercy and also repentance as components of the redemption.

4. In this category can possibly be included the Targum Yerushalmi to Shemot 13:18. The verse says that the Jews left Egypt chamushim, literally “armed.” The Mechilta (quoted by Rashi after he explains the literal meaning) gives it a negative twist. The Jews were so unworthy that only a fifth left Egypt; the rest perished during the plague of darkness (Rashi, Shemot 10:22). Targum Yerushalmi says the exact opposite—they left “armed” with good deeds. For a brilliant, creative explanation of what good deeds they may have suddenly acquired, see Rabbi Yosef Zvi Salant, Be’er Yosef, 5769, pp. 234-235.

5. The righteousness of the Jewish women in Egypt as described by the Gemara was in their deep belief in and working toward building the future of the Jewish nation.

6. Some midrashim, including some that list all four, include an opinion that this last item alone was a sufficient merit (Vayikra Rabbah, Emor 32:5; Bamidbar Rabbah, Naso 9:14; Shir Hashirim Rabbah 4:1:12).

7. For example: Shemot Rabbah 1:28; Bamidbar Rabbah, Balak 20:22; Shir Hashirim Rabbah 4:1:12; Yalkut Shimoni (Beshalach:226; Emor [24:20]:657, Pinchas: 773 and Shir Hashirim: 985); Pesikta D’Rav Kahana [1868], Beshalach, 83b; Tanchuma (Buber), Balak:25=Tanchuma (Warsaw), Balak:16; Midrash Tehillim (Shochar Tov, Buber) 114:4;

8. This midrash implies that they were circumcising all along, as opposed to the midrash cited above that they were given the mitzvah (anew) to “earn” redemption. Shemot Rabbah (1:28 and 5:18) implies that the Jews kept Shabbat, and the Ba’al HaTurim (Shemot 1:1) says that they were redeemed in the merit of Shabbat and milah.

9. The current text reads “yichud Hashem,” the unity of God. But in light of the many sources indicating they were not innocent of idolatry, Radal suggests reading it as “yichus ha’shem,” the purity of their names.

10. At about the same time, the Abarbanel describes (Zevach Pesach, p. 32a in ed. 1557 and 18a in 1872 ed.) how nations often assimilate into a host nation, yet in all the years in Egypt the Jews maintained an independent identity because they did not change their names, language, religion (da’at) or clothing. He does not quote this in the name of Chazal, nor does he say this was the merit by which they were redeemed, but rather as a sociological explanation of how they remained a separate nation.

11. It is interesting that Buber says it is found nowhere because in his own edition of Lekach Tov (cited above), clothing is mentioned. Rabbi M. M. Kasher (Torah Sheleimah vol. 9, Va’era, p. 116, miluim 2) says that many of the manuscripts have “shemotam” (their names) instead of “simlotam” (their clothing) and that simlotam is a simple printer’s error in which a lamed was added after the mem. Rabbi Kasher does note (Torah Sheleimah, vol. 8, Shemot, p. 239, miluim 3) that there must have been some source for the idea that the Jews did not change their clothing, as it is mentioned in the thirteenth-century Ritva [and the twelfth-century Judah ben Yakar, teacher of the Ramban] on the Haggadah in the section “va’yehi sham l’goy.

12. See Elli Fischer, “‘They did not Change their Names, their Language, or their Dress’: The Life-cycle of a Peculiar Midrashic Variant.” https://www.academia.edu/28574595/_They_did_not_Change_their_Names_their_Language_or_their_Dress_The_Life_cycle_of_a_Peculiar_Midrashic_Variant.

13. It is interesting to note that the first Jew in Egypt, Yosef, does not seem to have been particularly careful about this triad. After being appointed to his position of viceroy, he wore the clothing he was given in Egypt (Bereishit 41:14 and 41:42), accepted a new name (41:45), and spoke to his brothers via a translator (42:23). Rabbi Schlesinger (p. 71, note 55, 1990 ed.) suggests that the reason Yaakov cried upon seeing Yosef (Bereishit 46:29) was because he was dressed like an Egyptian.

14. For a summary of this topic, see: Rabbi Matis Blum, Torah Lodaas (1997) Ki Tavo, and Steven Oppenheimer, “Secular Names,” Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, 34 (Succot 5758/Fall 1997): 66-76.

15. Legend has it that when the government ordered all people to take a family name, his grandfather chose “Schick” because it was roshei teivot (an acronym) of “sheim Yisrael kodesh.”

16. Defining what makes a name “Jewish” is not easy. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe, OC:5:10:5) suggests it may not simply be dependent on it being Hebrew (as opposed to Spanish, English, Yiddish, et cetera) but rather on the origin of the name. In the late First Temple period, a typical Jewish name often ended in yudhehvav.

17. This idea was suggested and rejected by Rabbi David Sperber (d. 1962; Shu”t Afarkasta D’anya 2:140, p. 352).

18. Accepting as a given that the Jews and Egyptians had different style clothing led the Siftei Chachamim (to Shemot 12:35, note 40) to explain that Egyptian clothes promised by God (Shemot 3:22) and then “borrowed” by the Jews (Shemot 12:35) were altered before being worn.

19. The Smag says that the Jews should be distinct from non-Jews in their clothing, practices and speech, although dibbur (speech) likely does not mean language but rather manner of speech, similar to how Rashi (Bereishit 27:22) explains that “hakol kol Yaakov” refers to the style of his speech rather than the voice.

20. On why Hebrew is called “lashon hakodesh” (e.g., Sotah 7:2), the holy language, see Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:8), Ramban (Shemot 30:13), and Maharal (Gur Aryeh to Devarim 1:22, comment 51).

21. The Yerushalmi (Shabbat 1:4, as explained by Korban HaEidah) says that one of the “eighteen decrees” enacted by Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai was to not accustom oneself or one’s children to speak in the vernacular.

Rabbi Ari Z. Zivotofsky is a professor of neuroscience at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. 

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This article was featured in the Spring 2021 issue of Jewish Action.
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