A ma’amar from HaRav Yaakov Sasson Shlit”a, Maran’s zt”l grandson
(translated by our dear friend Rav Daniel Levy Shlit”a, Leeds UK)
At What Point Did the Egyptians Firstborns Die, at Night or in the Day?
It states in this week’s Parashah, when Moshe stood and spoke with Paro king of Egypt, “Moshe said to [to Paro] in Hashem’s name, ‘Around midnight, I will go out in the midst of Egypt. Every firstborn in Egypt will die, from the firstborn of Paro sitting on his throne, to the firstborn of the slave girl behind the millstones. Every firstborn animal [will also die]. There will be a great cry of anguish throughout all Egypt. Never before has there been anything like it, and never again will there be the like. But among the Israelites, a dog will not even whine because of man or beast. You will then realise that Hashem is making a miraculous distinction between Egypt and Israel” (Shemot 11:4-7).
After this it states, “It was midnight. Hashem killed every firstborn in Egypt, from the firstborn of Paro, sitting on his throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner in the dungeon, as well as every firstborn animal. Paro stayed up that night, along with all his officials and all the rest of Egypt. There was a great outcry, since there was no house where there were no dead. [Paro] sent for Moshe and Aron during the night. ‘Get moving!’ he said. ‘Get out from among my people - you and the Israelites! Go! Worship Hashem just as you demanded! Take your sheep and cattle, just as you said! Go! Bless me too!’ The Egyptians were also urging the people to hurry and leave the land. ‘We are all dead men!’ they were saying” (Shemot 12:29-33).
Meaning, first Moshe said to Paro, that if he won’t free Am Yisrael, then Egypt will be smitten with the Smiting of the Firstborn. Later on Hashem fulfilled His proclamation and killed the Egyptian firstborn. Afterwards the Egyptians hurried Am Yisrael to speedily leave from Egypt, for they were afraid lest they all die.
We must consider, after Moshe warned Paro about the Smiting of the Firstborn, why did the Egyptians come under such great pressure when they saw their firstborns dying? And why did they hurry Am Yisrael out of Egypt? As it was understood that all of the firstborns died at midnight, and from now on the rest of Egypt was not in any danger!
In order to explain this, we shall mention the question and answer that was expressed by the Gaon Rebbi Shlomoh Zalman Auerbach zt”l (1910-1995) (quoted in the work Torat Chessed). In the Shacharit prayer just before the Amidah prayer we say, “Hashem, our G-d, freed us from Egypt, from a house of slavery He redeemed us, You killed all their firstborns, and Your firstborn Yisrael You liberated”. In contrast to this we say in the Arvit prayer, “Who smote in His anger all of the Egyptian firstborns, and He brought His people Yisrael from them from slavery to permanent freedom”.
It appears that there is a problem here. In the Arvit prayer, we say the events in their correct order, “Who smote in His anger all of the Egyptian firstborns”, meaning, first of all there was the Smiting of the Firstborns, and only afterwards “and He brought his people Yisrael from them”. But in the Shacharit prayer, the order is totally reversed! We first say, “from a house of slavery he redeemed us”, and afterwards, “You killed all their firstborns”, and then we further repeat and say, “and Your firstborn Yisrael you liberated”. Why do we precede the Shacharit prayer with the redemption before the Smiting of the Firstborns?
The Gaon Rebbi Shlomoh Zalman Auerbach zt”l answered, everyone thinks, that the firstborns in Egypt died at midnight, but this is a mistake! The firstborns died in the day! How is this?
Chazal asked (in their opening comments to Masechet Semachot), on the one hand it states “It was midnight. Hashem killed every firstborn in Egypt”, (Shemot 12:29) implying that the Smiting of the Firstborns was at night, and in contrast to this in Chumash Bamidbar (3:13) it states, “…on the day I killed all the firstborn”, implying that the firstborns were killed during the day!
Rebbi Yochanan said, Hashem Yitbarach smote the firstborns at midnight, but they actually died in the day, they became very ill, dying and deteriorating, and only in the morning did they die!
Why was this the case? Rebbi Yochanan explained, Hashem killed the firstborn Egyptians for the sake of His firstborn Yisrael, but how will Am Yisrael know about the Smiting of the Firstborns? Everything was in the middle of the night, in darkness and dimness! Therefore Hashem smote the firstborns in this way, their souls were about to leave [this world] languishing for a few hours, until morning, after Am Yisrael were in the process of leaving, they saw with their own eyes the punishment that Egypt were penalised with. Therefore it is also understood [answering our initial question] why the Egyptians were afraid when they said, “we are all dying”, for they saw their relatives dying, and they were afraid lest the plague continue to strengthen, and they will all die!
Therefore Rebbi Shlomoh Zalman’s explained that this explains the question that we asked concerning the language of the prayers. In Shacharit we thank Hashem for what happened in the morning, because Shacharit is the morning prayer, therefore we mention that we came out of Egypt with sunrise and only afterwards we mention the miracle of the Smiting of the Firstborns, who died after sunrise.
However, during Arvit, we thank Hashem for the miracles that happened at night. Therefore we first mention the Smiting of the Firstborns, because the beginning of their plague was indeed at midnight and only afterwards we mention the redemption, the literal leaving from Egypt.
A moral lesson may be learnt here. This observation of Rebbi Shlomoh Zalman about the texts of prayer is a simple observation and although we say these words every day, we didn’t contemplate the order of things!
Rebbi Shlomoh Zalman would concentrate on his prayers in an amazing way. It once happened that his pupils saw that his face was shining and he was especially happy after he finished Shacharit. One of them boldly asked him, why is the Rav so happy at this time? Perhaps he has a family simchah? Rebbi Shlomoh Zalman replied, I am happy, because today I merited to pray the whole of Shacharit with concentration (kavanah) and I didn’t lose even one word in the whole prayer without attentiveness!
When a person prays in this way, they merit to their prayer being heard, and they merit also to understand and to discover additional meanings in their prayer.
Shabbat Shalom umevorach!