|This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H, my maternal grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H, my paternal grandfather Moshe Ben Yosef A”H, uncle Reuven Nachum Ben Moshe & my great aunt Rivkah Sorah Bas Zev Yehuda HaKohein.
It should also be in Zechus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandmothers Channah Freidel Bas Sarah, and Shulamis Bas Etta
-MY BROTHER: MENACHEM MENDEL SHLOMO BEN CHAYA ROCHEL
-HaRav Gedalia Dov Ben Perel
-Mordechai Shlomo Ben Sarah Tili
-Yechiel Baruch HaLevi Ben Liba Gittel
-Noam Shmuel Ben Simcha
-Chaya Rochel Ettel Bas Shulamis
-Nechama Hinda Bas Tzirel Leah
-Amitai Dovid Ben Rivka Shprintze
-And all of the Cholei Yisrael
-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamos of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L, Miriam Liba Bas Aharon—Rebbetzin Weiss A”H, as well as the Neshamos of those whose lives were taken in terror attacks (Hashem Yikom Damam), and a Z’chus for success for Tzaha”l as well as the rest of Am Yisrael, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Galus.
וָאֵרָא ● Va’Eira
● What is the difference between a “Nachash” and “Tanin”? Does it actually make a difference? ●
“Serpents & Sea Monsters – the Chosen Staff”
After refusing to release the B’nei Yisrsael from the Egyptian bondage, Pharaoh suffered the wrath of the famous Ten Makkos, or Plagues, at the hands of Moshe Rabbeinu by the command of G-d. However, before that brutal process could indeed proceed, there was a “preamble” to the Makkos in the form of a duel between the team of Pharaoh and his magicians and the team of Moshe and his brother Aharon involving staves turning into serpents or something of that nature. Now, what was that scene all about?
In preparation for this duel, G-d told Moshe, “Ki Yidabeir Aleichem Pharaoh Leimor T’nu Lachem Mofeis V’Amarta El Aharon Kach Es Matcha V’Hashleich Lifnei Pharaoh Yehi L’Sanin”-“When Pharaoh will speak [back] to you saying, ‘Provide for yourself a wonder,’ then you shall say to Aharon: ‘Take your staff and cast it before Pharaoh; it will be as Tanin.’”1
And as the story goes, Moshe and Aharon went before Pharaoh, performed this “wonder,” whereupon Pharaoh’s necromancers imitated it with ease. And although Aharon’s staff miraculously swallowed those of the necromancers, Pharaoh remained unshaken and unwavering.
Tanin = Nachash?
Aside from the general question as to why this “introductory scene” is significant and at all necessary, there is a question to be asked concerning a particular detail in the story.
In this scene, the Torah describes how the staff somehow turned into a “Tanin.” Now, what exactly is a Tanin? In the initial, vague description of the story, we used the general word “serpent” as do various commentators. Indeed, Rashi simply identifies “Tanin” as “Nachash,” a serpent.
However, there is some difficulty with this “simple” interpretation. Firstly, if a “Tanin” is just a synonym for the word “Nachash,” why didn’t the Torah just call it a “Nachash”? In fact, “Nachash” is the more familiar word, especially as the word appeared first and most famously as the label for the cunning serpent in Gan Eden, back in Bereishis.2 Perhaps, more recently, one may recall the Nachash which Moshe encountered one Sidrah ago in Shemos, when Moshe unwittingly turned his staff into a serpent at the Burning Bush.3
Now, certainly, one might argue that the earlier scene in Shemos could set some sort of precedent for staves turning into serpents which would provide some basis for Rashi’s explanation here, however, the question still unanswered is why, then, the Torah would employ a different word, “Tanin,” if we’re really just dealing with a simple Nachash. If indeed, the Torah was setting a precedent for the concept of a staff turning into a serpent in that earlier scene and yet chose to use the term “Nachash” earlier for Moshe, why would it suddenly specify “Tanin” in our context?
“The staff which was turned into a Nachash…”4
One might be inclined to suggest that the Torah was really just not being specific and that we’re just splitting hairs here. Perhaps, one could make the argument that “Nachash” and “Tanin” are arguably interchangeable. The problem though, is what happens right after this scene of the Tanin, just before the Makkos begin. Hashem would command Moshe, “Leich El Pharaoh BaBoker Hineih Yotzei HaMayimah V’Nitzavta Likraso Al S’fas HaYe’or V’HaMateh Asheir Nehpach L’Nachash Tikach Biyodecha”-“Go to Pharaoh in the morning; behold he will be going out to the water, and you shall stand towards him on the edge of the river, and the staff that was turned into a Nachash [serpent], take in your hand.”4
Hashem specified that He wanted Moshe to take the staff that was turned into a Nachash, when only a couple of verses earlier, He had told him to turn a staff into a Tanin. Even if the two expressions were virtually interchangeable, the text itself should have at least been consistent with terms; however here is not just a change in expression from Parshas Shemos to Parshas Va’eira, but, within a few verses, Hashem Himself differentiated between the terms.
With that, we now have two questions on the table. Firstly, what does “Tanin” actually mean? If it is basically the same as a Nachash, as Rashi seems to say plainly, why use a different word here? And secondly, why did G-d care that Moshe use the staff that was “turned into a Nachash” before performing the Makkos? Is there a practical difference between this staff and the one that turned into a Tanin?
Rashi seems not to think there is a major, practical difference. Moreover, according to some, there was only one staff—the same one Moshe had earlier that became a Nachash, Aharon was using before Pharaoh and turned it into a Tanin.
Now, maybe one could argue that the staff that became a Tanin was really only Aharon’s, and it was Moshe’s staff that was turned into a Nachash, but the question still stands as to why it matters at all. Whether there was really only one staff or two different staffs, Hashem did voice a preference that Moshe take the staff that turned into a “Nachash,” seemingly opposed to the one which, moments ago, became a “Tanin.” What, then, is the difference?
Aside from the contextual issues, there are other issues with interpreting Tanin as simply meaning a Nachash. It happens to be that the word Tanin does appear in other forms and contexts sporadically throughout Tanach, many times referring to some sort of sea monster.5 In fact, back in Bereishis, the word first appears, well before we meet the Nachash in Gan Eden, when G-d was creating sea creatures.6 Accordingly, many suggest that the word “Tanin” can refer to a “serpent,” but perhaps specifically refers to a sea serpent, as the word “Tanin” has connotations of some seat creature.
The problem now is how the creature in front of Pharaoh could be a sea serpent if, presumably, the wonder is being performed in Pharaoh’s palace, on dry land. Was there a pond or fountain that can fit a sea serpent in the palace?
Maybe yes and maybe not. Perhaps, there was just a miracle within a miracle in that the staff turned into a sea serpent which could live on dry land. But, what would be the point of that? It is likely for this reason that the Sifsei Chachamim argues, in line with the suggestion of the Radak and in defense of Rashi, that we must assume that whenever the word “Tanin” appears in application to a creature on dry land, it must be referring to a serpent or snake, as opposed to a sea monster.
This approach would perhaps answer that particular question, but it does not explain why Hashem would go “out of His way” to express a preference and differentiate between the terms within a single paragraph.
Perhaps, though, the mystery of the Tanin can be solved with a different approach.
The King of the Nile
Perhaps our “Tanin” can be understood in light of the tradition cited in Yalkut Shim’oni7 based on the passage in Yechezkeil8, 9, which actually appears in this Sidrah’s Haftarah. The Navi and the later Midrash describe the Tanin as a sea monster of sorts which was meant to serve as a symbolic reference to Pharaoh.
More specifically, the Yalkut Shim’oni understands G-d’s wonder as having been designed to denounce Pharaoh, as if to say, “See this staff, it is a piece of dry wood; it shall become a Tanin with life and soul and swallow up all the other staves, and it is destined to revert to a dry piece of wood. The same is true of you; I created you from a putrid drop and gave you an empire and you boasted and said, ‘My river is my own and I have made it for myself.’ Behold I shall tum you back to utter nothingness. You swallowed up all the staves of the tribes of the B’nei Yisrael, behold I shall cause you to expel all you have swallowed…”10
The clear takeaway is that although Pharaoh considered himself to be the “King of the Nile” fitting to enslave whomever he pleased, the true G-d would diminish him to nothing and free the B’nei Yisrael.
Why the Nachash Preference?
The above analysis provides a solid explanation, and not to mention a powerful and exhilarating lesson, however, the matters are not completely resolved. It explains the semantical issue regarding the meaning of Tanin in our context, and how we can differentiate it from Nachash, but it doesn’t tell us why G-d wanted Moshe to later take the Nachash-staff as opposed to the Tanin-staff. In fact, one might argue that on the contrary, if the Tanin was meant, as the Midrash explained, to denounce Pharaoh, why not use that same symbol for the Makkos?
Furthermore, this Midrash doesn’t help us understand the basis for the differing expression according to Rashi’s interpretation. As far as the Yalkut Shim’oni goes, all it is well, but again, as far as Rashi is concerned, Nachash and Tanin are not all that different. The problem for Rashi is that context clues would seem indicate a vital dichotomy between the two. If practically, they’re actually the same, what is the basis for the textual difference?
Tanin vs. Nachash
What we’ve established thus far is that whether Tanin is some sort of crocodile or just a serpent, the Torah narrative, particularly G-d Himself, differentiates between Tanin and Nachash. In Shemos, Moshe’s staff turned into a Nachash. In front of Pharaoh here in Va’eira, it was a Tanin. Then shortly after, Hashem tells Moshe to take the staff that turned into a Nachash. There is some unavoidable difference. Similarly, we’ve established that whether there was one staff all along or multiple staffs, Hashem is particular in His description of His staff of choice.
All of these clues show that the Torah text itself used the two staff-snake scenes to set the stage for Hashem’s preference now. Moshe saw the staff transforming twice, but Hashem, in essence, said, “For the moment, I’m more in favor of the Nachash-staff. The staff of the earlier Nachash scene is the one I want you to use when you go to perform the Makkos.” The question is what the difference is between the Nachash scene and the more recent Tanin scene. And why has Hashem chosen to make the Nachash scene the backdrop of the Makkos?
In order to answer these questions, we have to understand what the purpose of each scene was. Why did Moshe’s staff turn into a Nachash, and why did the staff later turn into a Tanin before Pharaoh?
A “Wonder” to Pharaoh or a “Sign” for Israel?
As far as the Tanin is concerned, we already spelled out what the significance was. Hashem instructed that when Pharaoh challenged Moshe and Aharon to provide a “Mofeis,” or a wonder for themselves—to prove themselves to Pharaoh, they would compete with the necromancers and put on a little show for Pharaoh. They would demonstrate the credibility of their cause. We even cited the Midrash which demonstrated how the word Tanin (whether referring to a serpent or a crocodile here) actually symbolized Pharaoh, and the retribution coming to Pharaoh. Although Pharaoh thought he was an unbeatable deity, he was to be struck down. When the staves of Pharaoh’s men were swallowed by Aharon’s staff, Pharaoh would be overwhelmed by the “wonder” and begin to learn that there are forces more powerful than he. The point is, the Tanin, in this context represents a well-put message in response to Pharaoh.
The question is why this theme was not the most suitable to introduce the Makkos. Why did G-d specifically want “the staff that was turned into a Nachash”? With that, I redirect you to the Nachash scene. What function did Moshe’s staff serve when it turned into a Nachash?
Looking back at the context of the Nachash scene, Hashem was in the midst of selecting Moshe to be His messenger to redeem the B’nei Yisrael from Egypt. Moshe was told to tell the B’nei Yisrael that he was coming in G-d’s Name. As we know, Moshe was reluctant to go. He famously argued, “…V’Hein Lo Ya’aminu Li V’Lo Yishm’u B’Koli Ki Yomru Lo Nirah Eilecha Hashem”-“…Behold they will not believe me, and they will not heed my voice, for they will say, ‘Hashem did not appear to you.”11
It was at that point where Hashem ordered Moshe to throw down the staff so that it would turn into the serpent to Moshe’s astonishment.12 After the serpent was turned back into a staff, Hashem declared, “L’Ma’an Ya’aminu Ki Nirah Eilecha Hashem Elokei Avosam Elokei Avraham Elokei Yitzchak VEilokei Yaakov”-“In order that they believe that Hashem the G-d of their forefathers, has appeared to you, G-d of Avraham, G-d of Yitzchak, and the G-d of Yaakov.”12
Hashem would proceed to refer to this trick as an “Os,” a sign for the people; indeed, Ramban suggests that Moshe was supposed to later perform this sign for the people. As for what the serpent represented in this scene, Rashi quotes the Midrash which understands the serpent as an allusion to the fact that Moshe slandered the people (and the serpent represents slander as the Primordial serpent slandered G-d).13 But this message is the hidden meaning of this miracle. The plain meaning of the miracle, though, was for Moshe to provide a sign to the B’nei Yisrael that he was sent by G-d and that the wonders they are about to behold are coming from Hashem. Whether one takes the Midrashic approach or the simple approach, or both, the point of the Nachash staff was to serve as a sign to educate Moshe and the B’nei Yisrael. They are signs attesting to G-d’s Presence, His worldly involvement, and His Oneness.
What emerges from this setting is the difference between G-d’s usages of the Tanin and the Nachash. With the Tanin, G-d would make a “wonder” to overwhelm Pharaoh. With the Nachash though, G-d would provide a “sign” to show Himself to His very own people, the B’nei Yisrael. Both of these functions play a major role in the Geulah—our Redemption and Exodus from Egypt. However which one does G-d place at the forefront of this larger mission? He commanded Moshe to take “the staff that turned into a Nachash,” the prescribed “sign” for His people.
And if one looks back in our Sidrah, immediately after Hashem told Moshe to take the staff that was turned into a Nachash, He commanded him: “V’Amarta Eilav Hashem Elokei HaIvrim Sh’lachani Eilecha Leimor Shalach Es Ami V’Ya’avduni BaMidbar V’Hineih Lo Shamati Ad Koh”-“And you shall say to him [Pharaoh]: ‘Hashem, G-d of the Hebrews has sent me to you saying: Send forth My nation and it shall serve Me,’ and behold you have not listened thus far.”14
Indeed, Hashem would spell out the cause for Moshe again, the main message being that Hashem is the One Who has sent him. Who is it though that has not listened? The B’nei Yisrael believed in Moshe. It is Pharaoh who had not listened. And if one continues to read through the story, Pharaoh would continue to be stubborn and not listen. Even after Pharaoh would eventually admit defeat and acknowledge G-d, he still wouldn’t fully give in. Why would Hashem continue to push the buck with Pharaoh instead of finishing him off? It’s not like there was ever any competition. The wonders and plagues were sure to overwhelm him to his breaking point if G-d so pleased. G-d didn’t need to do much to gain acquiescence from Pharaoh if that was all He really wanted. We know that by the end of the plagues, Pharaoh’s stubbornness is not a result of his ignorance. He would have already been long convinced of G-d’s dominance. His heart was just hardened. So, why was G-d still pushing then?
A most crucial answer may be that Pharaoh was not the sole addressee of the “Makkos,” nor was he necessarily the main addressee. Yes, he was the target and example, but he was not the primary student here. G-d intended a greater mission which would see the B’nei Yisrael being educated by the experience. It was not merely about the “wonders,” but about the “signs” which the wonders would serve for the B’nei Yisrael. It was not about the overwhelming power of the plagues, but about their deeper implications to those who would behold them and learn from them.
Already from the beginning, we could have determined that G-d was and always would be superior to Pharaoh. That reality was demonstrated before the Makkos even began. That reality was taught in the scene of the Tanin. Pharaoh was immediately proven powerless against G-d. That was the warning, the preamble for Pharaoh. He could have taken it or left it. Either way, as Pharaoh and the Egyptians would try to hold their own throughout the plagues, little by little, they would be awakened more and more to the reality, which they really already knew, that G-d was always the All-powerful.
The true function of the Makkos, though, G-d hints, is far deeper. He wanted Moshe to come with the staff that He turned into a Nachash, the “sign” for the B’nei Yisrael that Hashem was orchestrating their redemption, the “sign” that would remind them to believe in their own destiny as Hashem’s people.
Hashem had a plan which involves what we know commonly as the Makkos, the plagues. Of course, the Torah doesn’t actually refer to them as plagues. It is because they were more than plagues. They were a means of education. They were G-d’s signature written all over Egypt. Pharaoh wanted to not believe, or to at least pretend that he didn’t believe, etc. That was his prerogative. He would be judged accordingly. But he was not G-d’s priority. Hashem didn’t need to “exert” Himself if He merely wanted to convince Pharaoh by way of wonders. Yes, to a degree Hashem schooled Pharaoh, but again, He primarily does His wonders to serve as signs to teach the B’nei Yisrael.
In the end, it is this staff of education that Hashem provides for the redemption of the B’nei Yisrael. It is up to the B’nei Yisrael, in this generation no less, to heed the sign that Pharaoh was too stubborn to meditate on. When we do so, we will be able to acknowledge G-d’s hand in nature and be ever faithful in the coming of redemption.
May we all be Zocheh to recognize Hashem’s voice and hand in our lives, understand that His works in history are addressing us, and allow ourselves to be educated by His deeds, and we should see His manifest wonders once again with the coming of final Geulah in the days of Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu! Have a Great Shabbos Mevarchim Shevat!
-Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂
- Shemos 7:9
- Bereishis 3
- Shemos 4
- See Yishaiyah 27:1 and Yechezkeil 29:3
- Bereishis 1:21
- Yalkut Shim’oni, Shemos 7:181
- Yechzkeil 29:3-6
- In Yechzkeil, the word is spelled “Tani”
- This Midrash can be found in the Ba’al HaTurim as well.
- Shemos 4:1
- Shemos Rabbah 3:12
- Shemos 4:16