The Quarantine of the Jewish People in Egypt

Gavriel Cohn,

לבן ריק
לבן ריק
צילום: ערוץ 7
Gavriel Cohn
grew up in the Jewish community of London. He is currently a student at University College London (UCL).

The threat of the virus, with the accompanying realisation of human vulnerability and the uncertainty of the future, compounded further by the stress of quarantining oneself in one’s home have created a grim reality. Yet, perhaps due to our present predicament— secluded and trapped within our houses— one critical value within the Passover story, often unnoticed, now catches one’s eye. An essential component of the ancient drama stands out. Namely, the importance of the home.

Over three thousand years ago, just before our ancestors were about to leave Egypt, the place of their slavery, God informs Moses, “one more plague shall I bring against Pharaoh and against Egypt and after that he shall send you forth from here.” At midnight, God was to smite all the Egyptian firstborns.

In order to be protect the Jewish People from this final blow against Egypt, they were instructed to take shelter in their houses. Each Jewish household was to take a sheep, roast it, and place its blood on the doorway of their home. God was to go through the Land of Egypt on that night, and kill every firstborn— “from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the maidservant who is behind the millstone.” However, “The blood shall be for you a sign on your houses… I shall see the blood and I shall pass over you; there shall not be a plague of destruction upon you” and no Jewish firstborn was to be harmed. Therefore, Moses forbade the people from leaving their homes: “No man shall leave the entrance of his house until morning.” Thus, the Jewish houses in Egypt acted as their fortress, saving them from the Divine plague of destruction that swept throughout Egypt.

Yet why was it this way? What is the significance of God “saving our homes”; could we not have been protected through other means?

Perhaps, at least according to the plain meaning of the text, the home as a unit was of extreme importance for the Jewish People throughout their stay in Egypt. The opening verses of Sefer Shemot, in describing the arrival of Jacob and his sons to the country, remarks how “each man and his household came.” That they entered as discrete tribes and households. Later, when God commanded Moses and Aaron to take the Jewish People out of Egypt, the Biblical text seemingly digresses, listing an entire genealogy: “These are the heads of their fathers’ houses: the sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel: Hanoch and Palu, Hezron and Karmi. These were the families of Reuben. The sons of Shimon… these were the families of Shimon…” In truth, however, the Torah was not going off topic, it was defining the term “the Children of Israel,” namely, that they were composed of individual families and households, and further noting that they steadfastly preserved this form in Egypt. Indeed, Moses and Aaron were subsequently instructed to take the Jewish People out of Egypt “according to their legions,” ensuring that these households remained as distinct groups.

Even prior to that, Pharaoh, at the early stages of his persecution of the Jews, brutally ordered the Hebrew midwives to murder all the male infants upon their delivery. The midwives, however, “feared God and they did not do as the king of Egypt said to them… and they caused the boys to live.” As a reward for their morality and courageousness, God “made them houses.” According to a literal understanding of the text, the reward bestowed upon them, in accordance with their act of saving these Jewish babies, was that they were built homes of their own. Primarily, then, what they had done in rescuing those children was ensured the continued existence of the Jewish households, and in return for this they were given the same.

Furthermore, in principle, it is within the family unit that the commandment to retell the story of our Exodus from Egypt is to be fulfilled. On Seder Night, as the verse describes, each father is to recount to his son what "God did for me when I went out of Egypt." In fact, even the obligation to teach Torah is a mandate imposed, in theory, upon a father to his son, a generational transmission to take place within each household. Additionally, as the verse expresses, the requirement to dispose of all leaven bread for the week of Passover pertains specifically to our homes.

Thus, individual homes were a unit of tremendous importance throughout Jewish People’s sojourn in Egypt. The subdivision of families and households was how the Jewish People were to be structured, their ideal form. It was precisely due to this that God commanded the Jewish People to confine themselves within their houses in order to shield themselves from the Plague of the Firstborns, to use its four walls as protection on the night before they left Egypt. On the eve of their freedom, when they stood with “their shoes on their feet and their staff in their hand,” ready to abandon their physical homes, God commanded them to gather together as families in order to make them recognise that they each belonged to a certain household and that they should maintain it even when they leave the confines of their houses in Egypt and journey out into the desert.


May God guard us and save us from all malady and disease.