What Does a Serpent Prove?

Parshat 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 Parshat Va’eira is devoted to the plagues. Before Pharoah (Hebrew: 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 parsha.

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

Also, Moses and his brother Aaron /Aharon are told to show Pharaoh 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 – Exodus 7:8-13:

Exodus Chapter 7

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.

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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, but for the reader’s sake I will usually use the familiar spellings.

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:

Exodus 7:8

Why is Hashem speaking to both Moses and Aaron?

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

Also, based on Exodus 7:1, isn’t the idea that Hashem speaks to Moses, then Moses tells Aaron who then speaks to Pharaoh?

Exodus 7:9

Why would Pharaoh 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 Aaron’s staff? Wasn’t this Moses’s staff (see Exodus 4:17, 20)

What is a tanin (translated here as serpent)?

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

Exodus 7:11

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

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

Exodus 7:12

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

Exodus 7:13

Who made Pharaoh’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 Pharaoh have free will?

Overall question

What was so compelling about this demonstration of the staff turning into a serpent that Pharaoh 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.

A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
Click here to grab your copy of my free ebook How to Learn Chumash with Rashi.