Amoraim / Babylonian Talmud / Passover

“Through their sharp political interpretations of the Passover story, Rav and Shmuel described the political condition of the Jewish people long after the Exodus from Egypt”

In its transition from Joseph’s death to a new era, the book of Exodus records: A new king arose over Egypt, who did know Joseph (Exodus 1:8). This “new king” proceeded to enslave the Jews.

Who was this “new king”? The Talmud (Sotah 11:a) records a debate between Rav and Shmuel on the meaning of the words “new king.” According to Rav, the “new king” was actually a new pharaoh. Never having met Joseph, this new king ignored his predecessor’s policy of friendship with the Jews.

Shmuel argued that the “new king” was actually the same pharaoh under whom Joseph served. The word “new” does not imply a “new person,” rather “new policies.” This means that the exact same pharaoh who was friendly to the Jews ultimately turned on them.

Through their sharp political interpretations of the Passover story, Rav and Shmuel described the political condition of the Jewish people long after the Exodus from Egypt. Rav teaches that cordial relations with one leader in no way guarantee that the next administration will behave the same way. Things are as good as they are today, but in no way can today’s policies indicate what tomorrow will bring. Leaders change, and each administration will act in its own political self-interest.

Shmuel’s lesson is a bit harsher. When it served the pharaoh’s political interests with Joseph, he was friendly toward the Jews. But now that he perceived them as problematic, he changed his policy from friendship to enslavement. Shmuel reminds us that even while in power, the same leader who acted as our friend yesterday can change his policies at the drop of a dime.

Rav and Shmuel never lived in Egypt under the pharaoh. They offered their interpretations thousands of years later, through the lenses of their own political reality in third-century C.E. Babylonia.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, “Passover: A Lesson in Political Science”, Jewish Journal (27 March – 2 April 2015), 57.