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Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. The views reflected in his columns represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated. For more Double Mitzvahs by Sender Rozesz, check out A Woman’s Vow, Sexual Motive, Choose Your Own Spouse, The Post-Honeymoon Journey, A Wise and Understanding People, The Blessing of Fertility, Abominations, Coitus Interruptus, Sexual Struggles,The Unspeakable Language of Passion, Cut vs. Uncut, The Silence of Bitterness, Sex and the Holiest Day of the Year, Shifting Beds and Sex in the Sukkah,Sex…In the Beginning, A Sexual Reboot, She’s My Beautiful Sister,Kosher Incest?, How They Met, Male-Female Intercourse, The First Kiss, The Power to Transform, Onanism, Daughters-in-Law and Moshiach, Issues with the In-Laws?, The Undoing of Captivity and Shift Beds – Part II.
Because sex is both an intense pleasure and our means of reproducing, it is no wonder that, historically, it has featured prominently as a weapon against insular communities, or cultures that refused to unravel and be quietly dispersed and assimilated into the larger society in which they often found themselves.
Thus, jus primae noctis, or “the right of the first night,” which permitted noblemen to take the virginity of common-folk brides, was a tool frequently employed as both a sexual reward to loyal nobles, as a method of control over the commoners, and even as a means of forcing biological assimilation.
In fact, the Midrash relates that the uprising against the Syrian-Greeks that resulted in the Chanukah story was triggered by the Syrian-Greek Governor’s practice of deflowering Jewish virgin brides on their wedding night before they could join their husbands. Indeed, it was the exercise of such prerogative with one particular Jewish girl that gave us one of our great heroines, Judith, who fed the governor dairy foods, causing him to become drowsy, and then assassinated him – one of the reasons that there is a custom of eating dairy on Chanukah.
The Pharaoh of Shemot appears to have implemented a variation of jus primae noctis. After having subjugated and enslaved the Hebrews, he then summons the chief Hebrew midwives, and orders them to kill every firstborn Hebrew male. Why the males? According to Rashi, this is because Pharaoh was warned by his astrologers that a male savior would be born to the Hebrews, and Pharaoh was seeking to cheat the fate that had been set out in the stars.
According to the Or Hachayim, however, Pharaoh had a much more pragmatic purpose in his decree. He understood that, with a significant reduction in the male population, the Hebrew women would far outnumber the Hebrew men. These women would inevitably – regardless of how reluctantly – turn to Egyptian men for husbands, rather than spend a lifetime of lonely chastity. This would serve a dual purpose: First, it would create family ties and roots between the Hebrews and Egypt, which would make the prospect of leaving an unattractive one. Second, it would pull the Hebrews down off of their high horse, by mixing the bloodlines and assimilating them with the Egyptians. There would no longer be a “holy” nation. There would no longer be a distinct homogeneous family known as the Children of Israel. There would just be…people.
Today, ideas of nationalism and bloodlines are not as popular as they once were. We have learned the beauty of diversity, the appeal of blending cultures, customs and genes. We cherish the melting pot of America, in which one can experience all cultures or no cultures, and we have cast off anything that might characterize us as being too “provincial.”
But imagine the consequences if Pharaoh had succeeded. If we had merged with Egypt, become as one family. There would never have been a Jewish people. There would never have been a Torah. There would never have been a “light unto the nations,” or the moral compass which – despite how distant it may sometimes seem in today’s society – still guides our basic sensibilities of right and wrong.
Instead, however, the Hebrews held steadfast to their sense of destiny, holding on with a death-grip to their Hebrew names and families. The chief Hebrew midwives ignored Pharaoh’s orders and did all they could to protect to baby boys. And even when Pharaoh took matters into his own hands and ordered his soldiers to kill all of the baby boys, his plan did not have its desired effect. Regardless of whether he able to influence the Hebrew demographics, the Hebrew women did not seek Egyptian husbands. They married their own or not at all, and did all they could to preserve their national identity.
Indeed, there is a fascinating anecdote surrounding Moses’ first foray into the kingdom as a young man and heir-apparent to the Egyptian throne:
Now it came to pass in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brothers and looked at their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers.
He turned this way and that way, and he saw that there was no man; so he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.
An odd story. Surely, Moses was aware that Egyptian taskmasters beat the Hebrew slaves. Was this an unusual occurrence? Was he going to kill every taskmaster who did so? And why was he so furtive about it? He was the prince of Egypt! Surely he had the latitude to kill one Egyptian taskmaster without that becoming a scandal. Then, sure enough, “Pharaoh heard of this incident, and he sought to slay Moses; so Moses fled from before Pharaoh.” Exodus, 2:15. What was the big deal?
The makers of both the Ten Commandments and the Prince of Egypt struggled with this question. In the former, Moses is sentenced to die, not because he killed an Egyptian, but because he was identified as the Hebrew savior, and a rallying point for a Hebrew rebellion. In the latter, Moses runs away amidst his own confusion about his identity, pursued only by his own conscience.
The Midrash, however, cited in Rashi, explains that there was more to this biblical story than meets the eye.
This particular Egyptian, the Midrash relates, was a taskmaster appointed over the Israelite officers, who, in turn, were appointed over groups of Israelite slaves. He would wake these officers when the rooster crowed, to call them to their work. The particular Hebrew who was the victim of the Egyptian’s wrath was the husband of a woman known as Shelomit the daughter of Dibri. The Egyptian taskmaster laid his eyes on her, and found her a comely woman. So he woke her husband in the middle of the night, and took him out of his house, and set him to work. With her husband occupied, the Egyptian crept into bed with Shelomit and was intimate with her. Shelomit, half asleep, thinking him to be her husband, opened herself to his intimacy. When her husband returned home, however, he felt that something was not right. The mid-night wake-up call; the strewn sheets; his wife’s demeanor – and he suspected what had occurred.
In the morning, when the husband was called to work, the Egyptian sensed that he had become aware of the matter, and so he singled him out for particularly savage blows. Moses could see that the blows that this Egyptian was raining down on the Hebrew were not the typical blows of a taskmaster; they were not designed to motivate him to increase his output. Perhaps he heard snippets of their conversation, or perhaps he had some other sense of what had occurred. But Moses understood all that had transpired.
And the thought that, despite everything the Hebrews had gone through to preserve their distinct nationhood and the purity of their bloodlines, this Egyptian had now gone and sullied this married Hebrew woman, was something that Moses could not abide. He knew, however, that the sullying of the Hebrew bloodlines had been an important project of Pharaoh’s, and that killing this Egyptian would be taking a stand against Pharaoh, and in favor of Israelite nationhood. He knew that he stood on the cusp, and that his next act would define him as either a Hebrew nationalist, or an Egyptian who sought the ultimate assimilation of the Hebrews into Egyptian society. Still, he hoped that he might be able to kill the Egyptian in secret, and to postpone publicizing his choice. Alas, as the subsequent verses bear out, this was not to be; as he had feared, Pharaoh learned of Moses’s act; and as he had expected, Pharaoh viewed Moses’s act as an act of defiance towards Pharaoh’s “Hebrew policy,” earning him the death penalty.
As it turns out, the Egyptian taskmaster succeeded in impregnating Shelomit on that fateful night, and she ultimately gave birth to a baby boy. Many years later:
the son of an Israelite woman – and he was the son of an Egyptian man – went out among the children of Israel, and they quarreled in the camp this son of the Israelite woman, and an Israelite man. And the son of the Israelite woman pronounced the [Divine] Name and cursed. So they brought him to Moses. His mother’s name was Shelomit the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan.
It is unclear whatever became of Shelomit’s husband, or how her son’s paternal lineage came to be common knowledge. Did Shelomit and/or her husband freely publicized that he had been cuckolded? Some commentaries suggest that Shelomit was an overly talkative woman, so perhaps her night of sex with the Egyptian was something that she freely shared with others.
The commentaries do, however, highlight the fact that, after hundreds of years in Egypt, there was only a single child born of an Egyptian father – the product of one night of sleepy unknowing intimacy with an Egyptian taskmaster. As Rashi states there: Why is Shelomit’s name mentioned? This teaches us the praise of Israel, for Scripture publicizes only this one, effectively telling us that she alone among all the women of Israel was involved in an illicit relation, albeit unwitting on her part.
Thus were the Israelite women successful – even prior to the miraculous and awe-inspiring plagues – in defeating Pharaoh’s efforts to assimilate the Jewish people, and to prevent them from carrying out their long-ordained destiny.