The Egyptian Avodah Zorah Was it the River or the Sheep?

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Interestingly enough, we find that the Egyptians had two different gods or possibly
even three, if you include Pharaoh himself. In one place we find them worshipping
the Nile River, while we are also told that they served sheep. Let’s begin to reflect.
1) Could it be that the Egyptians had two different gods?
2) Why, of all the animals available, did the Egyptians decide to worship a sheep?
Why not choose the king of them all, such as the lion; or perhaps the biggest, the
elephant; or the tallest of all animals the giraffe? Why pick such a meek little powerless
animal as a sheep as their idol? Did they choose it just because it looked cute? That’s
absurd! Certainly they must have believed that it possessed a power that no other
animal had! But what was it?
3) How could they choose a sheep as a god if they surely saw them die constantly?
How could something that dies, or that you can easily slaughter or kill be a god?
4) A wonderful talmid Michael Feld added a beautiful question of his own. Why
would Hashem tell us to eat something that’s really an avodah zorah? Are we allowed
to benefit from an avodah zorah?
This question caused a little debate in the class. Eli Kryksman said that there’s
really nothing wrong with it, because the Jews first slaughtered the sheep before they
ate it. So if they slaughtered them, then it’s not an avodah zorah anymore! Terrific
Actually, here I already had to put in my own two cents, and showed them the
Rambam in Perek 8 of Hilchos Avodah Zorah that states that if someone bows down
to a live animal, the animal does not become forbidden to be eaten yet it is not
permitted to be brought for a korbon. Yet this doesn’t apply in this case since the
Jews used their own sheep. (The Egyptians didn’t have any left). So there goes Feld’s
kashe down the drain. But wait a minute!
5) This question has been asked many times already, but let’s just repeat it once
again. Why was the sheep only allowed to be roasted on an open fire? What’s wrong
with cooking the korbon? I know there are plenty of answers al pi drush but see if
we can come up with מקרא  של  פשוטו
6) Why was it so important to put the blood on the door-post? Certainly Hashem
did not need this blood. If he knew which Egyptian was a bechor, then he certainly
knew which Jew brought a korbon Pesach. Hashem should just skip over the houses
of those Jews that were makriv korbon pesach. What was the blood on the doorpost
all about? Anyone who kept the Mitzvah of eating the korbon should get saved? Why
put the blood on the inside door-post?
7) Why of all places was the blood smeared on the inside door-post? Why is this
spot better than any other spot in the entire house? Why was the blood put on both
sides and on the top?
8) We are told that Hashem could not take us out of Mitzrayim unless we did a
Mitzvah. Therefore, He gave us two Mitzvos. One was פסח  דם and the other was
מילה  דם . Why two Mitzvos? Why wasn’t one Mitzvah enough?
9)Why do we need the Mitzvah of פסח  דם Isn’t the Mitzvah of eating the korbon
pesach פסח  קרבן  אכילת  מצות .enough?
10) There were other Mitzvos such as Matzoh and moror. Why weren’t these two
mitzvos counted?
11) This next question was asked to me by my wonderful talmid Yossi Cukier.
We all know that Pharaoh also made himself into a god. He asked people to worship
him! Now how many gods did the Egyptians actually worship? The Nile? The sheep?
Or was it Pharaoh? Or maybe they were given freedom of choice?
Now that we have concluded with our many questions let’s take a little break
and see if we can find some answers. And the best thing of all is if we can find one
answer to all the kashes. If a piece in a puzzle fits perfectly in all of its sides, then
surely it must be the right answer!
My first search of course was to check Rashi, but I didn’t notice anything. I guess
we’ll just have to search more. My next stop was the Ramban. Boruch Hashem, he
realized the problem and says the following, and I quote- כי  בעבור  הזאת  המצוה  טעם 
ולאכול  טלה  לשחוט  צוה  לכך  הצומח.  מזל  הוא  כי  הגדול  בכחו  ניסן  בחדש  טלה  מזל 
עליון….וכו’.  בגזירת  אלא  משם  יוציאנו  מזל  בכח  שלא “This mitzvah,” explains the
Ramban, “has to do with the mazal of the sheep in the month of Nissan, which is
extremely powerful. Because it (the sheep) is the  צומח mazal of– growth.” This, of
course, in simple words means that the sheep – which is one of the twelve constellations
of the zodiac, represents the power of growth.
If we didn’t have enough trouble before looking into the Ramban, now we’re really
asking for problems. What is the Ramban saying? The sheep represents growth?
How? Isn’t a sheep in the category of חי living, and not- צמח ? growth?
Note: For those not so familiar with these terms, let’s explain. We are all aware
that all things in the universe are classified into four general categories:
I) The lowest form of creation is called דומם -which represents the 92 elements
which are unable to move on their own.
2) The second catagory is צומח called – growth, which represents all growing
things such as trees, flowers, vegetables, etc.
3) The third catagorey is חי – life – the entire animal kingdom of fish, animals
and birds;
4) The fourth and highest catagoreyis מדבר – speech- which refers to human
Certainly if we want to represent the second level of growth צומח – then we must
choose some kind of fruit, tree or vegetable to represent growth. How does a sheep
fit the bill of growth? Don’t Sheep belong in the category of חי ? How does an animal
which represents צמח , suddenly represent צמח – growth? I’ve asked this question to
numerous people who study Ramban but received no Satisfactory answer.
Actually it’s this one word in the Ramban that gave me the clue to solving the
entire mysterious puzzle. It’s just that we may not really be thinking properly. The
answer stares us in the face! Just open your eyes and you can’t fail to understand
it! Let’s explain!
The Ramban says that the Egyptians worshipped the power of growth. What does
this mean? The answer is quite simple. The most important thing in life is the ability
to grow and reproduce. If you put a seed into the ground, will it grow? Of course not!
It needs water in order to grow. Only with water will it begin to grow and reproduce.
All vegetation must have water to grow. Without water one can plant all the seeds
in the world yet absolutely nothing will happen. This shows us the unbelievable
power of water. It is the most important commodity in the universe. Can humanity
(or animals) survive without things that grow? Of course not! Everything that grows
must have water. No water – no growth!-no world! What unbelievable power
water has.This is why the Mishnah in Mesechta Tannis refers to rain as “Gevuras
g’shomim.” Of course, we all know that one needs the power of the sun as well.
True! But which is more important? Which is more powerful? Without water the
plant would not even begin to sprout forth from the earth. Therefore the Egyptians
felt that the most important and greatest power on earth was the god of water,
which represented the god of growth. Without water there would be absolutely no
vegetation. Without vegetation, life could not exist. Therefore, the god that has the
greatest power of all other gods must be the god that makes things grow. Since it is
water that makes things grow, then surely the god of water must be the All Powerful
One. Egypt gets little rain and it was the Nile River that would always overflow and
water their fields. That’s why the Egyptians worshipped the the Nile River. They
depended on their river for all growth. Without it they were lost. Life could not exist.
And as we all know, it was when Yaakov Ovinu came to Mitzrayim and met Pharaoh,
that he gave him the great blessing that whenever he would walk toward the banks
of the Nile River, it would rise toward him and overflow its banks. This gave Pharaoh
enormous power. Whenever he wanted the waters to flood the fields, all he had to
do was walk toward the river and it would automatically come toward him. He did
not have to wait for the high tides to come and fill the cannals. Since he possessed
this great power over the most important of Egypt’s water supplies, it was no wonder
that he therefore considered himself as having godly powers.
After all, we all know that Egypt owed its entire success to the seven years of
plenty. This is how Egypt became the wealthiest country in the world. Every country
depended on Egypt for its food during the severe famine. Egypt became rich and
filled its coffers with gold and silver. And, of course,this was all on account of the
Nile River. As Rashi tells us already in the very beginning of Bereishis on the posuk:
י”א)  פסוק  ב,  (פרק  הזהב  שם  אשר  החוילה  ארץ  כל  את  הסבב  הוא  פישון  האחד  .שם
The River Pishon הזהב  שם refers to the Nile. Its waters are blessed and rise up and
flood the land and in turn was responsible for Egypt’s great wealth. this can possibly
be interpreted as meaning that the river is responsible for the great growth of
vegetation and flax [ פשתן ], which, in turn makes the country rich with gold.
No wonder they threw Yosef’s body into the Nile River. They realized that it was
he that had the great power over its flow. He had saved the country in the time of
famine. In fact, a look into Rashi in Yecheskel where Pharaoh says “To me is the
river, I made it”, Rashi explains Pharaoh’s boast as follows. I have the Nile River and
therefore have no need to pray to G-d. It is I that made all of Egypt wealthy. Pharaoh
wanted to give absolutely no credit to G-d for any of Egypt’s wealth. He claimed that
it was all of his own doing. After all, he controlled the tide of the Nile River and he
could get it to overflow its banks anytime he felt like it.
Yet, if you will think carefully you will notice that things don’t only grow out of
the ground. Wool’s hair grows from a sheep’s body. Goat’s hair grows from a goat.
This hair is used to make clothes – a very important use that we have from sheep
and goats even after the animal dies. The animal itself is classified in the category of
חי the living. Yet the wool that is sheared off it is still classified as צומח growth since
it grows on an animal’s body.
שבחי  צומח This form of growth is on a much higher level than the ordinary
vegetation that grows from the ground. It doesn’t need water or earth to grow.
It doesn’t have to be planted! It grows from an animal’s body rather than from the
ground. What unbelievable powers the god of sheep and goats has! The important
things like wool grow on their body! No need to plant seeds in the ground as is done
to grow cotton or flax.
In fact, wool is so important that the bottom cover of the Mishkon was made out
of wool and linen. Linen is derived from the flax plant that grows from the ground,
which also grows in Egypt. The second cover of the mishkon was made out of goat’s
hair. Clothing was of great importance in Egypt’s industry and was also responsible
for the country’s great wealth.
Since the Egyptians worshipped the god responsible for the power of growth
(which in turn brought them their great wealth, then certainly the sheep and goat,
which were the cause of this phenomenal growth, must also be worshipped. They
may not have worshiped the sheep itself, but rather the heavenly power that was
responsible for this growth. This is why they kept sheep sacred.
We can therefore now understand why it was the sheep that represented the god
of growth in the heavenly zodiac. The sheep itself classified as a חי but it represents
the שבחי  צומח highest form of growth – .Sure sheep die. Everybody knows that
they don’t live forever, and therefore can’t be a god, but they were sacred because
of the great heavenly power of growth that a sheep (or goat) representedWe now
clearly understand what the Ramban means by saying that the sheep represented
צומח  !מזל
How does this answer all our questions? Quite simply! Just like the source of
plant life is water, the source of animal life is blood. Everybody knows that whatever
we eat goes into the bloodstream and from there it goes to all parts of our bodies. In
scientific terminology, we say that the blood brings all the food we eat and the
oxygen to all the cells of our body. Therefore, it’s the blood that brings the life to all
animals. That is the meaning of the blood is in control of all life and it’s in the blood
that the nefesh resides. הנפש  הוא  הדם  כי
It follows, that blood is what is responsible for the growth of the sheep’s (or goat’s)
hair. While water is responsible for the growth of a seed, blood is responsible for
the growth of hair on the body. Actually, anyone that’s studied elementary science
knows this quite well. At the root of every single hair that grows, there must be a
blood vessel. If no blood reaches the root of a hair, then the hair can’t grow!
If blood is the key to the growth of a sheep’s hair, naturally it gets the same
treatment as water, which is the key to the growth of a seed! I’m sure you notice
quite clearly the similarity between the two. Both water and blood are responsible
for growth
. Suddenly, it all makes sense! They worshipped the Nile god that was responsible
for the growth of vegetation, who was the same god who controlled the growth of the
sheep’s hair! A different god? Of course not! He’s one and the same. He’s the god of
growth! And since Pharaoh controlled the power of the waters of the Nile River, he
too got in on the action and was considered to possess godly powers and demanded
that he be worshipped as well.
This is the god that now must be totally destroyed. With the first makkoh Hashem
destroyed the god of water. He simply changed it into blood! That took good care
of him. He was totally demolished. It showed the Egyptians that the Jewish G-d had
superior powers over the god of growth and over the waters and could change them
at will.
Before the Yidden could go out of Mitzrayim they had to destroy the growth god
of sheep’s’ hair. He had to be totally destroyed. This was quite easy! First you have
to slaughter the sheep and roast it over an open flame. You can’t cook it. It has to be
roasted over the fire that’s because fire hardens the blood and it can no longer flow.
Its power of growth is completely destroyed.
It’s interesting to note that even though the Torah forbids us from eating blood,
this prohibition only refers to the blood that has flowed out of the body. The blood
that has not flowed out of the vains is permitted to be eaten. It is only שפריש  דם that
is forbidden. That is because it is flowing blood that causes the growth. When the fire
hardens it, and it can no longer flow out of its source, then its power is destroyed.
That’s why we can roast a liver on an open fire and eat it even though it contains
Now we get to the source of its power. We take the blood that flowed out during
the slaughter and smear it on our door-post, a place that everyone has to pass in
order to enter or exit his home. This way we degrade those who worship the god
of blood. In fact we smear it on the doorpost using the lowest form of grass called
esov-grass just to show that it has no power whatsoever. This symbolizes that blood
on its own (without Hashem’s power) is totally worthless and can cause us no harm.
By wiping the blood on our doorpost we are totally mevatel the avodah zorah. We
thereby show Hashem that all the power of blood is really His. By putting the blood
on the doorpost it protects all those who live in the house and not only the one who
slaughtered the korban. When one lets blood by a bris milah the blood represents
a treaty – bris – between us and Hashem. What greater demonstration of our total
connection to Hashem can there be!
From where is the blood taken? It’s taken
from that part of the body that is responsible
for the power of human growth, which
represents the highest order of growth which
is the planting of another human being. See
the Ramban in Bereishis (perek17 posuk 9)
and it will even give you a greater insight into
this matter.
In order for Hashem to take us out of
Mitzrayim, we first had to destroy the power
of the Egyptian avodah zorah. That was
represented by the blood of the sheep, which
is the source of the growth of all hair, since it
liesat the root of every hair. It is also interesting
to note that is the דם gematriyah = 44 •אדם
by the way is 45. That’s because א-דם has an
aleph in front of it.
In Egypt, the month of Nissan is the month
when the growth of all vegetation is at its peak. It is at its highest point of the year.
One looks around at everything growing so beautifully and is overwhelmed by the
power of growth. The 15th day of each month is always the high point of the month,
as we see by the full moon. It’s always on the 15th day of the Hebrew month that the
tide is at the highest. That’s when the Nile River overflows. That’s when all growth is
at its fullest. That’s when the Egyptian avodah zorah stands at its prime. That’s the
night Hashem chose to clip its wings and show us that all powers of growth are in the
total control of Hashem Alone.