The Torah portion of Bo begins: “And G-d said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his servants so that I will place (shat) these signs of Mine within him, and so that you shall tell in the ears of your sons and your son’s sons that I had toyed with Egypt, and of My signs which I placed (sam) within them, and then you shall know that I am G-d” (Ex. 10:1–2).
In these two verses, the Torah uses two different words to denote G-d’s act of placing or putting his signs within the Egyptians. Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785–1865) takes note of this apparent inconsistency, and uses this question to explain how the two words in question are not quite synonymous.
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740–1814) explains that there are three different terms that refer to putting or placing something: natan, sam, and shat. The way he explains it, these terms become increasingly more specific:
The verb natan – whose root is the biliteral tav-nun (“giving”) – refers to the most random way of simply placing something somewhere.
Sam, in contrast, refers more specifically to placing something in a designated spot, thus implying that it is part of a greater plan or system.
Rabbi Pappenheim notes that in many instances natan and sam can be interchangeable, because they basically refer to putting something somewhere.
Case in point: When the Torah describes erecting the walls of the Tabernacle, it says, “And he placed (natan) its sockets and he placed (sam) its beams and he placed (natan) its support bars” (Ex. 40:18). In this passage, the sockets and support bars were placed in a less deliberate fashion because it was not important where each particular socket or support bar was placed, so an inflection of natan is most appropriate. In contrast, the beams were placed in a more deliberate arrangement, as the Talmud (Shabbat 103a) explains that they wrote letters on each beam to help them identify where each beam ought to be placed. Because of this, explains Rabbi Pappenheim, the word sam is used.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Pappenheim notes that shat refers to an even more specific way of placing than sam: The way he has it, sam denotes placing something in a specific place for an unspecified amount of time, but the verb shat refers to placing something in a deliberate way as part of a greater order/system (like sam) that will remain in place for an inordinate amount of time – in other words, a more permanent type of putting something somewhere.
For example, the first time a cognate of shat appears in the Torah is when G-d punished the snake for its role in the sin of the Tree of Knowledge, saying: “I will place (shat) enmity between you and the woman….” (Gen. 3:15).
Had the word sam been used in this context, Rabbi Pappenheim argues, it would have implied that there would be only a temporary animosity between the snake and womankind. But because the Torah used a cognate of shat, it means that the animosity will be long-lasting – and in fact, it continues to this day.
Based on this, Rabbi Pappenheim says that when describing how G-d’s signs (i.e., the Plagues) will affect the hearts of Pharaoh and his servants, the Torah uses the term shat because it implies placing something in their hearts long-term. Rabbi Mecklenburg expands on this point to answer the question posed at the beginning of this essay by noting that the Torah’s phraseology is quite deliberate.
When the Torah spoke about how G-d’s signs will affect Pharaoh and his servants who lived through them and saw them first hand, the Torah uses the term shat to denote placing those signs in their hearts, because for those direct participants, the memory of these signs will be permanently etched in their hearts, for shat denotes placing something that it is intended to remain long-term.
On the other hand, when the Torah spoke about how G-d’s signs that were placed upon the Egyptians would be relayed to future generations, the word sam is used, because the survivors of the Plagues will no longer be alive and their memory will only remain a religious tradition. The word sam is used to denote placing those signs in their hearts for an unspecified amount of time.
I would like to point out another explanation as to the difference between sam and shat. Rabbi Avraham Shick of Slonim (d. 1820) writes in Eshed HaNechalim (to Shemot Rabbah §32:2) that most times that cognates of shat appear in the Torah, the word appears in a negative context. For example, as we see above, the first time a cognate of this word appears is when G-d punishes the snake. In contrast, the term sam more often has a positive or even neutral connotation. What remains to be seen is whether this idea can be used to explain all the instances of shat and sam in the Torah.