According to this version of the text, our difficulty can be resolved by explaining that the Haggadah simply means we would have been enslaved in Egypt in every generation, to whichever power was ruling the country at the time. Our version of the Haggadah, however, is cited by the geonim (Seder Rav Amram Gaon), Rambam (Hilchos Chametz Umatzah, nusach haHaggadah), and the version of Machzor Vitri that we possess (sec. 97). According to all these authorities, our question applies – and in fact, Abudraham’s assertion that Pharaoh’s dynasty had ended by the time the Haggadah was written only makes the question more powerful. See Maaseh Nissim on the Haggadah (by the author of Nesivos Hamishpat) for a lengthy discussion of this issue.
Perhaps we can answer this question by introducing a new understanding of the nature of the Jews’ servitude in Egypt. Halacha defines two different types of slaves mentioned in the Torah: an eved Ivri, a Jewish slave, and an eved Canaani, a non-Jew who is acquired by a Jewish person to be a slave. The essence of an eved Ivri is not affected by the fact that he is a slave; he is required to work for his master but remains intrinsically the same person he was before his enslavement. His “slavery” does not define his essence. It is his way of paying off a debt.
An eved Canaani, on the other hand, becomes so deeply enmeshed in slavery that he is intrinsically considered to have lost the status of an independent being. Proof of this can be found in the Gemara (Pesachim 88b). The Gemara rules that anything an eved Canaani acquires belongs to his master. Another proof is that the halacha also states that if an eved Canaani sells an object or gives it away as a gift, his master has the power to decide whether or not the transaction is valid; if the master wishes the transaction to take effect, then it does, but if he wishes to cancel it, it is considered null and void (Rambam, Hilchos Mechirah 30:2). In fact, even if someone injures an eved Canaani, the payments the assailant is required to make are given to the master, as per the Gemara (Gittin 12b).
Moreover, an eved Canaani of a kohen is permitted to eat terumah (Vayikra 22:11 and Toras Kohanim, ibid. ch. 5). Usually only immediate family members of a kohen are allowed to eat terumah. Even the daughter of a kohen who has married a non-kohen cannot eat terumah because she is not considered part of her father’s family anymore. Nevertheless the eved Canaani of a kohen is permitted to eat terumah.
The reason for all these laws is that the very essence of an eved Canaani is considered to be subjugated to his master. The eved Canaani is viewed as an extension of his master; he lacks any independent power or significance of his own.
We suggest the Jews’ subjugation to the Egyptians was similar to the enslavement of an eved Canaani, and in fact it was far more profound. Not only were the Jewish people forced to engage in backbreaking menial labor in Egypt, but we find their spirits and souls were also crushed by the servitude, as they sank to the depths of the spiritual impurity of Egypt and became corrupted by Egyptian society and religion. They were in essence Egyptian slaves who had become the Egyptians’ possessions. Their identity as Jews has been lost.
This complete, crushing enslavement was planned by the Egyptians. It was with this objective that they subjected Bnei Yisrael to backbreaking labor that did not even have a purpose, as Chazal infer from the names of the cities the Jews built, Pitom and Ramses. The Gemara (Sotah 11a) explains the significance of these names: “Pitom” alludes to the fact that the pi tehom, the “mouth of the abyss” (i.e., the earth), would open up and swallow whatever they built, and “Ramses” is an abbreviation for the Hebrew phrase rishon rishon misroses, which means that everything they built would immediately collapse.
The clear implication is that the Egyptians forced the Jews to toil over the cities purely for the sake of making them work; the slave labor brought no actual benefit to the Egyptians, since nothing the Jews built was lasting. The Jews were thus forced to engage in work whose entire purpose was to make them do the bidding of their Egyptian overlords. The Egyptians’ intent was to cause them to feel like slaves, to be completely subjugated in an emotional and spiritual as well as a physical sense.
About the Author: Rav Dovid Hofstedter is the founder and nasi of Dirshu and mechaber of the Dorash Dovid sefarim on the Torah and Moadim.
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