One of the most exciting highlights of the Passover liturgy is a poem written by a payytan named Yanai, who probably lived in the Holy Land under Byzantine rule during the sixth century. That work consists of a poetic list of different miracles recorded in the Bible that were said to have happened in the middle of the night. The poem is traditionally recited twice: once on Shabbos HaGadol, and once in the Nirtzah portion of the Passover Seder.
When the poem references the Plague of the Firstborn, it says “You smote the seed of the firstborns of Patros in the midpoint of the night.” Why does the poem use the word “Patros” instead of Mitzrayim or the Mitzrim for Egypt or the Egyptians, respectively? In this essay, we discuss the basis for the Hebrew word Mitzrayim as well as its apparent synonyms that refer to the land now known as Egypt.
The word Mitzrayim first appears in the Bible in the genealogical tables that detail the descendants of Noah’s son Ham (Genesis 10:6, I Chronicles 1:8), specifically the name of one of Ham’s sons whose progeny later inhabited the land known throughout the Bible as Mitzrayim. According to the Bible (Genesis 10:10:13-14, I Chronicles 1:11-12), Ham’s son Mitzrayim fathered six sons: Ludim, Anamim, Lehavim, Naftuchim, Patrusim, and Kasluchim (the latter two begat the nations of the Plishtim and Kaftorim). All in all, the term Mitzrayim appears 680 times in the Bible, making it quite a common word.
When the Bible relates the aftermath of the Egyptian pursuit of the Israelites during their passage through the Red Sea,, it says: “And [the] Israel[ites] saw Mitzrayim dead on the shore of the sea” (Exodus 14:30). The Midrash Sechel Tov (there) explains that Mitzrayim in this context refers to “Grandfather Mitzrayim” – the progenitor of all Egyptians – whom Hashem took out of his grave and revived so that he may witness the annihilation of his wretched descendants. Some Tosafists even had a tradition that the word Mitzrayim earlier in that narrative (Exodus 14:10, 14:25) does not refer to the Egyptians collectively but rather to “Grandfather Mitzrayim” individually (see Ateret Zekanim to Exodus 14:10, Hadar Zekanim to Exodus 14:10, Sefer Chassidim §607, Siddur Rokeach pp. 213, 222, Peirush Rokeach to Ex. 14:30).
In his commentary to Genesis, Radak (on Genesis 10:13) notes that we do not know why Noah’s son Ham named his son Mitzrayim with the yod-mem suffix that otherwise serves as an inflection to denote the plural; Radak suggests that it may have had something to do with the circumstances surrounding Mitzrayim’s birth. Radak does posit that once Mitzrayim was given a personal name that looks like a noun in plural form – for whatever reason that happened – Mitzrayim himself named his descendants in the same fashion, giving each one a name with the letters yod-mem at the end. Elsewhere, Radak (Sefer HaShorashim and in his comments to Isaiah) notes that sometimes the Bible refers to Egypt in singular form by the name Matzor (II Kings 19:24, Isaiah 19:6, 37:25). In the same vein, the Arabic equivalent to the Hebrew word Mitzrayim is Misr, which seems to just be the singular form of Mitzrayim. However, commentators see the Biblical word matzor as a common noun referring to “narrow places,” and not as a proper noun referring specifically to Egypt.
In discussing Mitzrayim’s sons, the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah §37:5) notes that all of their names were coined with a suffix related to the yam (“sea”), but the Midrash does not explicitly explain why. Maharzu (there) explains that this refers to the fact that Mitzrayim and his descendants all settled along the coast of the (Mediterranean) Sea and thereabouts (see also Nachmanides to Genesis 10:13). But Rabbeinu Bachaya (to Genesis 10:13) says the plural marker yod-mem appended to the name Mitzrayim and his sons actually alludes to the fact that all of these family-nations were destined to be annihilated at the Splitting of the Red Sea when they drowned not long after the Jews exited Egypt.
Indeed, many other sources view the word Mitzrayim as a portmanteau of meitzar (“narrow,” “border,” “strait”) and yam (“sea”). Each of those sources has a different way of explaining exactly how those two words relate to Egypt, but the earliest explanation that I found is proffered by Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620). He writes that Mitzrayim is so called because it places a “border” or “limit” on the Upper Seas. Meaning, because Egypt’s fecundity hinged on the Nile River, it was not as heavily reliant on rain (“the Upper Seas”) as other countries were. This reality could – Heaven forfend – lead people to forget about Hashem in their quest for agricultural success, as they no longer felt the need to look upward toward Him to bring rain (see Genesis 13:10, Deuteronomy 11:10).
The work Sodei Semuchim ascribed to Rabbi Elazar Rokeach of Worms (a late 12th century Asheknazi scholar) notes that the word Mitzrayim uses a type of grammatical inflection typically used for words that come in pairs (e.g. einayim (“eyes”), apayim (“face”), oznayim (“ears”), me’aim (“intestines”), kirbayim (“innards”), raglayim (“feet”), yadayim (“hands”), shinayim (“teeth”), kiryatayim (“twin cities”). In relating this specifically to Mitzrayim, he simply notes that that nation was born from a conglomeration of various descendants of Ham, so it deserves to be in the plural. He also compares Mitzrayim to Yerushalayim (Jerusalem), which likewise appears in this paired inflection because it is a united city that represents the joining of two cities. [See “Twin Cities: Zion and Jerusalem” (July 2018) for more about this.]
The term Patros or Patrus appears seven times in the Bible: five times in reference to the land of Egypt (Isaiah 11:11, Jeremiah 44:1, 44:15, Ezekiel 29:14, 30:14), and twice in reference to the Patrusim people who were said to have descended from Ham’s son Mitzrayim (Genesis 10:14, I Chronicles 1:12).
Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916) explains that the word Patros in Egyptian literally means “the land of the south.” It is a reference to Upper Egypt (i.e., Southern Egypt, because the Nile River flows northwards), near the border with Nubia/Ethiopia (probably in modern-day Sudan). The Hungarian Maskil Solomon Löwisohn (1789-1821) and Shadal (to Genesis 10:14) further explain that Patros (known as Pathyris in Greek) was a major city in Upper Egypt; on account of that city, the entire region was called Patros. They compare this to the fact that later in Greek times, the dominant city in that region was Thebes, and the entire region of Upper Egypt was called Thebias/Thebae, while the term Aegyptus referred specifically to Lower Egypt).
Essentially, the word Patros is a term that is closely associated with Mitzrayim, but is not quite synonymous with it. It refers either to a genealogical descendant of the original person Mitzrayim, or to the entire southern region of Egypt. Either way, it seems that Yanai referred to Egypt by the moniker Patros, instead of the usual Mitzrayim, as a sort of poetic way of referencing Mitzrayim by a more obscure term. He employed his poetic license to loosely use the term Patros as though it meant the same thing as Mitzrayim, even though technically it does not. I came to this conclusion after consulting with Professor Shulamit Elitzur (the world’s expert in piyyutim), who confirmed that there is probably no deeper meaning in the use of these synonyms for Mitzrayim.
Yanai’s more well-known student, Rabbi Eliezer HaKallir, wrote in a famous piyyut recited every weekday of Sukkot: “Like You saved the strong ones [the Jews] in Lud with Yourself, when You took out Your nation [from Egypt] for salvation, so shall you save [us] now!” In this poem, the word Lud appears instead of Mitzrayim. As mentioned above, Ludim — who are mentioned five times in the Bible (Genesis 10:13, Ezekiel 27:10, 30:5, I Chronicles 1:11, Jer. 46:9) – is the name of one of Mitzrayim’s sons. In the same way that Yanai used the name Patrusim to refer to the entire Egyptian nation, HaKallir also used a name of a son of Mitzrayim to refer to the entire Egyptian nation – he just used the name Ludim instead of Patrusim.
A poem entitled Yom L’Yabashah (or Yam L’Yabashah) describes the Splitting of the Red Sea and is customarily recited on the Seventh Day of Passover and at the celebratory meal following a circumcision. In that poem, the Egyptians are referred to as Anamim – a term which is also used in many other less popular piyyutim. In light of the above, we may explain that in this case too, the poet exercised his poetic latitude in using a term that technically refers to a son of Mitzrayim as a reference to the entire slew of peoples who descended from Mitzrayim.
As mentioned before, one of Mitzrayim’s sons was named Lehavim. Rashi (to Genesis 10:13 and possibly to Isaiah 13:8) presumes a connection between the proper name Lehavim and the Hebrew root lammed-hey-bet (“flame/blade”), saying that the faces of the Lehavim resembles a lahav, but not explaining what that exactly means.
Elsewhere in the Bible, there is a nation called Luvim. For example, when the Egyptian king Shishak (identified by some as Pharaoh Shoshenq sacked Jerusalem during King Solomon’s reign, and the Bible reports that along with him came a countless amount of Luvim (II Chronicles 12:3). Luvim soldiers were mentioned again a few generations later in the time of King Asa (II Chronicles 16:8), and are referenced twice more in the Bible (Nachum 3:9, Daniel 11:43). Commentators like R. Yishaya of Trani and Pseudo-Radag (to Daniel 11:43) clearly state that Luvim are the same Lehavim (probably due to the interchangeability of hey and vav).
Luvim also appears in the Talmud. Bechorot 5b reports that every Jew who exited Egypt during the exodus had with him ninety Luvim donkeys carrying Egyptian gold and silver. Shabbat 51b discusses which accouterments it is common for a Luva donkey to be adorned with. In the first case, Rashi simply comments that Luvim donkeys were of especially high quality, but in the second case, he clarifies that these donkeys came from Lub, the land of the Luvim nation (see also Rabbeinu Chananel there). Tosafot (to Bechorot 5b) and Tosafot Chitzoniyot (cited by Shitah Mekubetzet there) further explain that Luvim is another word for Lehavim, while Rabbeinu Tam (cited by Tosafot to Shabbat 51b) states that the term Luvim actually refer to Egyptians (see also Rabbeinu Nissim Gaon to Shabbat 90b).
The term Kaftor refers to the original homeland of the Philistines (Amos 9:7, Jeremiah 47:4, Zephania 2:5), who – as mentioned earlier – are said to descend from the original Mitzrayim. Shadal (to Genesis 10:14) explains that Kaftor refers either to the island of Cyprus or Crete (also known as Kandia).
Rabbi Aharon Marcus claims that the name “Copt” is a corruption of the Hebrew name Kaftor for this island, and from that corruption came about later terms like the Greek Aíguptos and the Latin Aegyptus — the ultimate etymon of the English word Egypt. Others argue that those antecedents to the English word are derived from the native Egyptian word that meant “temple of the soul of Ptah.” Ptah was the deity associated with the Egyptian city of Memphis, and the Greeks applied the name Aíguptos to the region as a whole.
Scholars like Rabbi Aharon Marcus and Dr. Alexander Kohut (1842-1894) postulated that Lub – the homeland of the Luvites and the Lehavim – is a reference to the modern-day north African country of Libya, located west of modern-day Egypt. Alternatively, Lehavim/Luvim can be an alternate term for Nubians (who lived north of Abyssinia/Ethiopia, i.e. just to the south of Egypt), as the letters lammed and nun are often interchangeable.
Before we conclude, I wanted to share another fascinating idea presented by Rabbi Elazar Rokeach of Worms. He notes that verse that describes the Plague of the Firstborn (Exodus 12:23) contains every single letter of the Hebrew alphabet except for the letter tet, which has a numeric value of nine. Based on this, he explains that that plague affected nine different genealogical families – that is, the very names we have been discussing until now: Mitzrayim, Ludim, Anamim, Lehavim, Naftuchim, Patrusim, Kasluchim, Plishtim, and Kaftorim.