This week’s Torah portion describes our exile in Egypt. According to the text, we know that Pharaoh enslaved us and put us to work building the treasury cities of Pithom and Raamses (Shemot 1:11). The million-dollar question is, “Did we build the pyramids as well?”
Archeological evidence seems to point to the contrary.
Researchers at the site of the pyramids in Giza uncovered archeological remains of industrial bakeries and breweries. The ancient Egyptians are credited with inventing beer, and were also the first to make fermented breads. The proximity between the breweries and the bakeries is not incidental, as the two were closely intertwined. The bakers used the yeast froth from the brewing to ferment their breads.
Legend tells how an ancient Egyptian housewife accidentally discovered yeast one day when she forgot her bread dough, only to discover hours later that it had risen. While very romantic, this “old wives’ tale” is highly unlikely, since the Egyptians were expert brewers, and the addition of yeast froth to the dough was in all likelihood part of their experimentation rather than something that occurred by chance.
The excavations revealed huge ceramic vats recessed into the ground for kneading dough (by foot), together with thousands of “bedja” – pottery fragments in which the bread was baked. So far, this evidence does not rule out the fact that the ancient Hebrews might have built the pyramids – a large workforce requires a lot of bread!
However, in addition to the bread, researchers found evidence of copious amounts of meat at the site, indicating that aside from the bread the workforce also ate meat. This fact seems to indicate that we did not build the pyramids, as it is unlikely the Egyptians would have fed enormous amounts of meat to their slaves. Similarly, the text makes no mention of the pyramids and even mentions the fish eaten in Egypt (Bamidbar 11:5) – nothing about meat. From all this, it seems that the workforce that built the pyramids was well fed and therefore unlikely to be Israelite slave labor.
However, the Midrash (Shemot Rabba 11:5) fills in a few blanks about the story of our enslavement in Egypt and once again opens the possibility that we might have indeed been instrumental in building the pyramids. When the verse says that Pharaoh forced us to do hard labor, the Hebrew word used is “pa-rech” (Shemot 1:13). The Sages interpret this word in a different way, with pe-rach meaning a “soft mouth.” The Midrash says that Pharaoh cunningly tricked Am Yisrael into slavery; they did not immediately send troops to beat them into submission but instead declared a “national building project” in Pithom and Raamses, in which the great Pharaoh himself would participate and for which all the participants would receive handsome pay. The next day, Pharaoh donned work clothes and, accompanied by throngs of Egyptians, appeared at the building site and helped lay the foundation stone for the project. Am Yisrael could not stand idly by without being a part of the national effort, so they too joined in. Slowly but surely, the Egyptians started to take their leave, and suddenly the Israelites found themselves ensnared by Egyptian police wielding whips.
So the project began as a joint Egyptian-Israelite workforce and it is therefore possible that the archeological evidence is true in that there was meat – initially – but when the Egyptians left, the situation changed. The process of enslavement was a gradual one that probably took decades.
The distance between Raamses and Giza is only 80 miles. It is possible that the pyramids were part and parcel of the Pithom/Raamses project and that our blood was spilled in building them.
Some historians say that the pyramids predate the Israelite presence in Egypt by 1,000 years. Others say they were only built 100 years after the Exodus. There are even some crazy theories that the pyramids were built by aliens. This topic is so heavily affected by religious and nationalistic agendas, each bringing so-called “evidence” to support their agendas, that it is almost impossible to study it objectively.
Whether the ancient Israelites built the pyramids or not is not really important. What is important is that we and our culture are still alive and kicking while the ancient Egyptians and their culture are long gone.
Parshat HaShavua Trivia Question: Who were the two midwives, Shifra and Puah?
Answer to Last Week’s Trivia Question: When Yosef presented his sons, Menashe and Ephraim, to Yaakov for a blessing, Yaakov asks (Bereishit 48:8) “Who are these?” Did Yaakov not recognize his own grandsons? According to the commentaries, Yaakov did not know that Yosef’s wife, Osnat, was the daughter of Dina; he thought she was Egyptian and was therefore questioning Menashe and Efraim’s Jewish lineage. Then Yosef, at his father’s deathbed, showed him the amulet that Yaakov himself had placed on Osnat’s neck with the name of Hashem, when he sent her away following the episode with Shechem and Dina.