What Does a Serpent Prove?

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Parashat Va’eira 5772

The question is really quite simple.

Suppose I want to prove to you that I am the best at something. For an easy example, I claim to be the best at kicking a football.

We go out to a field and I kick a football 200 feet. You then call over five other people who all proceed to do exactly the same thing.

On what basis can I maintain my claim to be the best?


Most of Parashat Va’eira is devoted to the plagues. Before Paro relented and sent the Jewish people out of his land, Egypt was subjected to ten plagues. The first seven of those plagues are recounted in this week’s parasha.

Before the first plague, Hashem sends Moshe to Paro. The basic message to Paro is to send the Jewish people out of Egypt (see Shemot 6:10).

Also, Moshe and his brother Aharon are told to show Paro a sign. This is recorded in the Torah as the incident of the staff turning into a serpent.

Here is the Judaic Classics translation of Shemot 7:8-13:

8. And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying,

9. When Pharaoh shall speak to you, saying, Show a miracle; then you shall say to Aaron, Take your rod, and throw it before Pharaoh, and it shall become a serpent.

10. And Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh, and they did as the Lord had commanded; and Aaron threw down his rod before Pharaoh, and before his servants, and it became a serpent.

11. Then Pharaoh also called the wise men and the sorcerers; now the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments.

12. For they threw down every man his rod, and they became serpents; but Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods.

13. And he hardened Pharaoh’s heart, that he listened not to them; as the Lord had said.

Translation Issues

I feel compelled to point out that every translation has pluses and minuses. I’m using this translation since I have easy access to it on a CD that I own.

The Judaic Classics translation (as well as many others) uses the familiar English rendering of Biblical names. I prefer to use a more precise transliteration into English.

Also, what they are calling a “rod” is what I am more used to calling a “staff.”

I hope this isn’t too confusing.

Always, the best practice is for you to read the relevant verses in Hebrew. The English translation is meant to help you follow the discussion that follows.


Here are the questions that I am thinking about on this passage:

Shemot 7:8

Why is Hashem speaking to both Moshe and Aharon?

For example 6:10 and 6:29 are addressed only to Moshe.

Also, based on Shemot 7:1, isn’t the idea that Hashem speaks to Moshe, then Moshe tells Aharon who then speaks to Paro?

Shemot 7:9

Why would Paro ask for a sign?

The literal translation of the phrase is “give for yourselves (lachem) a wonder.” What does “for yourselves” mean in this context?

Why in this verse is it called Aharon’s staff? Wasn’t this Moshe’s staff (see Shemot 4:17, 20)

What is a tanin (translated here as serpent)?

Shemot 7:10

The verb “went” is in the singular. Shouldn’t it be plural? Note, the next verb, “did” is in the plural.

Why are Paro’s servants mentioned here? We’re not surprised that a ruler is usually surrounded by his servants, so why mention them?

Shemot 7:11

What does the word “also” indicate here? It’s used twice – once with Paro and once with the magicians.

What is the difference between wise men, sorcerers, and magicians?

Shemot 7:12

Why does the verse say Aharon’s staff swallowed their staffs? Why doesn’t it say Aharon’s serpent swallowed their serpents?

Shemot 7:13

Who made Paro’s heart strong?

Why does it say “he didn’t listen to them”? Why doesn’t it say more directly he did not accept them or did not accept the sign?

The verse concludes, “as Hashem had said.” Did Paro have free will?

Overall question

What was so compelling about this demonstration of the staff turning into a serpent that Paro should have been moved to let the Jewish people leave Egypt.

Assuming that Hashem knew the Egyptians could do the same “trick,” what was gained with this exercise?

Your Turn

What other questions do you have on this passage? Please share your questions and suggested answers in the comments.

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Picture by 50 Watts.