Mystery at the Malon

Exegetical Approaches

Overview

When trying to comprehend the incident at the inn, commentators find themselves in a quandary. On one hand, the verse appears to say that Hashem sought to kill Moshe or his son, implying that there was some serious transgression. But on the other hand, the text contains little hint of any such wrongdoing, and attributing a terrible deed to Moshe would make him unworthy of being God's messenger. The exegete is thus left in a Catch-22, as the more defensible one tries to make Moshe's actions, the less justified Hashem's appear to be, and vice versa.

The most prevalent approach suggests that Moshe is in fact being punished for some sin. Tannaitic sources, working backwards from the circumcision at the story's conclusion, suggest that Moshe must have been lax in circumcising his son. Some attempt to minimize Moshe's guilt by explaining that there was merely a slight delay due to the journey, and R. Saadia even casts off all responsibility from Moshe by positing that he was not present for the entire episode. In contrast, R. Elazar HaModai tries to find a crime more befitting Hashem's harsh response, and he proposes that Moshe has sealed a pact with Yitro that one of his sons would never be circumcised.

Others look instead to the larger backdrop of our story, suggesting that such a severe Divine reaction must have resulted from issues with Moshe's national mission which had much more global ramifications. These exegetes need to explain why the seemingly unrelated circumcision served to quiet Hashem's anger. Rashbam explains that Moshe tarried in carrying out his mission, and that the circumcision was an atoning sacrifice. Ibn Ezra views Moshe's bringing his family along, not as a sin, but rather a tactical error which could potentially demoralize the nation. Hashem's reaction was thus intended only to rectify this error and ensure that the family stayed behind. Finally, Ibn Kaspi suggests that there was no sin or even an error on Moshe's part; it was just that Moshe's great anxiety from the daunting mission caused him to become gravely ill.

In assessing Moshe's actions and Hashem's reaction in this episode, commentators offer a spectrum of approaches. These can be divided into three main categories:

Sin and Punishment

Either Moshe or Zipporah sinned and was deserving of punishment. The commentators propose different possibilities as to the nature of the misconduct:

Uncircumcised Son

Moshe or Zipporah sinned by not circumcising one of their sons. The obvious motivation for this approach is that circumcision is what averts the crisis.1 The variations of this position differ as to why the circumcision had not yet been performed:

Moshe Delayed Because of the Journey

This is perhaps the most straightforward reading of the text as it requires making the least additional assumptions. However, it encounters difficulty in justifying the severity of the punishment.

Moshe's sin – Rabbi in the Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael and R. Yehoshua b. Korcha in the Bavli say that Moshe was lax or negligent in performing the commandment of circumcision. R. Yosi2 tries to minimize the infraction, suggesting that Moshe's only sin was busying himself with lodging arrangements before circumcising his son.3
Which son was uncircumcised and why not? Shemot Rabbah and Rashi identify the uncircumcised son as the newly born Eliezer.4 Had it been Gershom, Moshe's delay would have been more incomprehensible, and one would have expected Hashem to punish Moshe earlier rather than wait until sending him on his mission to Egypt.
Who was at the lodging place? According to this approach, the entire family was at the inn, including Moshe, Zipporah, and both of their sons.
"וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ ה'‏" – Most of these commentators suggest that Hashem sent an angel to do the killing.5 R. Shimon b. Gamliel goes a step further and identifies the angel as Satan.6 The most ancient and extreme formulation of this position is found in JubileesCh. 48About Jubilees which suggests that Mastema (a Satanic figure) was attempting to kill Moshe to prevent him from punishing the Egyptians.7 Ralbag, however, says that the verse refers merely to a severe illness.
"וַיְבַקֵּשׁ הֲמִיתוֹ" – Who was near death? Most assume that Moshe was the one in danger, presumably because he is the one who sinned.8 R. Shimon b. Gamliel, though, disagrees and asserts that the baby was the endangered one as he is the one referred to as "חֲתַן דָּמִים"‎.9 R. Shimon b. Gamliel is likely also motivated by the problem of why Hashem would attempt to kill His messenger immediately after sending him on a mission.10
Disproportionate punishment? One of the difficulties with this approach is that the potential punishment seems to be disproportionate to the crime.11
Circumcision is the solution – Since the lack of circumcision is the problem, it is the obvious way to rectify the situation.
Why Zipporah and not Moshe? Those commentators who maintain that Moshe was endangered and incapacitated can thereby explain why Zipporah had to perform the circumcision.
How did Zipporah know the solution? R. Yehuda b. Bizna in the Bavli and Shemot Rabbah explain that Moshe was being swallowed until the place of his circumcision,12 and thus Zipporah understood the cause of the problem.13
"וַתַּגַּע לְרַגְלָיו" – Whose legs? The Yerushalmi brings three opinions – Moshe's, the angel's, or the son's legs. Rashi chooses the position that it was Moshe's legs,14 while Ralbag adopts the option that it was the son's legs.15
"חֲתַן דָּמִים / לַמּוּלֹת" – R. Shimon b. Gamliel assumes that the phrase is referring to the bloodied baby,16 while Shemot Rabbah and Seforno say that it refers to Moshe, who was saved by the blood from the foreskin.17 Rashi combines the possibilities, suggesting that Zipporah is in fact speaking to the baby, but saying that he almost caused her groom to be killed.18
Context – One of the disadvantages of this approach is that there is no obvious connection between this episode and the verses which precede it.
"אַחַר שִׁלּוּחֶיהָ" – Shemot Rabbah and Rashi think that originally Zipporah was returning with Moshe to Egypt, and that she only later returned to Midyan. Seforno, though, suggests that the incident at the inn occurred while Moshe was accompanying his family back to Yitro in Midyan. For further analysis, see When Did Zipporah Return to Midyan.
Zipporah Delayed Because of the Journey

Moshe was not present at the inn, and Zipporah bore full responsibility for the entire episode. This position also does not explain the need for such a dramatic punishment.

Did Moshe sin? This approach avoids attributing any sin or blame to Moshe.20
"אַחַר שִׁלּוּחֶיהָ" and who was at the lodging place? R. Saadia explains that, at some point after departing for Egypt, Moshe decided to send Zipporah with their children back home to Midyan while he continued alone to Egypt.21 For further analysis, see When Did Zipporah Return to Midyan. Thus, only Zipporah and her sons were present at the inn.22
Context – According to R. Saadia, Shemot 4:20 serves as a dual introduction, telling the reader where each of Zipporah and Moshe were headed. The text then continues as a split screen, first recounting the prophecy received by Moshe as he embarked on his mission, and then relating the simultaneous incident which occurred to Zipporah at the lodge.
Which son was uncircumcised and why not? The newly born Eliezer is the uncircumcised son. According to R. Saadia, Zipporah was either negligent or thought it could wait until she arrived home.
"וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ ה'‏" – R. Saadia and R. Chananel both explain that this was an angel, with R. Chananel suggesting like the Midrash above that the angel was in the guise of a snake and was swallowing the baby until the point of his circumcision.23
"וַיְבַקֵּשׁ הֲמִיתוֹ" – Who was near death? As Moshe is not present, it can only be his son (Eliezer) who is endangered. This opinion thus avoids the question of why Hashem would endanger His messenger.
Disproportionate punishment? It is difficult to understand why Hashem would want to kill Moshe's baby merely because his circumcision had been slightly delayed.
Circumcision is the solution – As circumcision was the cause of the situation, it was also the obvious way to solve the problem.
Why Zipporah and not Moshe? One readily understands that Zipporah performs the circumcision as Moshe was not there. In fact, this is R. Chananel's point of departure.
How did Zipporah know the solution? According to R. Saadia, Zipporah received heavenly inspiration. For R. Chananel who adapts the Midrash that a snake was swallowing the baby until the point of his circumcision, this provided a clear signal as to the nature of the problem.
"וַתַּגַּע לְרַגְלָיו" – Whose legs? This approach could maintain that it was the baby's legs, but R. Saadia may understand that Zipporah presented the foreskin in front of the angel.
"חֲתַן דָּמִים / לַמּוּלֹת" – R. Saadia and R. Chananel explain that Zipporah is referring to the baby who was almost killed.
Pact with Yitro to Not Circumcise

In order to marry Zipporah, Moshe made a bizarre prenuptial agreement with Yitro24 that one of his sons would "be for idolatry"25 and the other for Hashem.26

Moshe's sin and proportionate punishment – By providing a broader backdrop for the lack of circumcision and amplifying its problematic ramifications, this approach makes the severity of the potential punishment more understandable.
How could Moshe make such a deal? Ibn EzraShort Commentary Shemot 4:25About R. Avraham ibn Ezra dismisses this entire approach, claiming that it is impossible that Moshe Rabbeinu would have agreed to such terms "ונביא לא יעשה כן. ואף כי נביא הנביאים".‎28 Others disagree, attempting to either defend or at least understand Moshe's actions:
  • Midrash Vayosha says that Moshe actually had no intention of keeping his side of the bargain. Thus, as soon as Eliezer was born, he left for Egypt, planning to circumcise the boy there.29
  • It is possible that Moshe, having found refuge from Paroh in Yitro's home, had no choice but to accept the conditions set by Yitro or find himself once again on the run.30
  • One must also consider the possibility that at this stage of our story, having grown up in Paroh's palace, Moshe's Jewish identity was not fully developed, and he had no qualms about accepting Yitro's request. For more, see Moshe's Character.31
Textual basis – One of the main disadvantages of this approach is that there is no mention of any such agreement in the book of Shemot. Nonetheless, there are a number of possible hints which may have served the Midrashim as textual hooks for the existence of such a contract.32 These include:
  • R. Elazar HaModai notes that the Biblical derivation of Gershom's name ("גֵּר הָיִיתִי בְּאֶרֶץ נָכְרִיָּה") alludes to being "foreign to God."
  • R. Elazar HaModai understands "וַיּוֹאֶל מֹשֶׁה לָשֶׁבֶת אֶת הָאִישׁ" in Shemot 2:21 as a language of oath-taking.
  • Chazal's identification of the idolatrous priest of Shofetim 18:20 as Moshe's grandson.33
Context – It is possible that the proximity of verses 23-24 to our story influenced the development of the original Midrashic motif. It might have understood the second person direct speech of "וָאֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ" in verse 23 as Hashem turning to speak to Moshe (rather than Paroh who is not present), and saying, "I have told you to send your son to worship me (i.e. circumcise him) but you have refused; I will therefore kill your firstborn son."34 "בִּנְךָ בְּכֹרֶךָ" would then refer to Moshe's firstborn son, Gershom.
Which son was uncircumcised and why not?
  • Gershom – R. Elazar HaModai in the Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael, Targum Yerushalmi (Yonatan).35 R. Elazar HaModai's choice of Gershom rather than Eliezer appears to be motivated by the Torah's derivations of the two names.36 Additionally, Eliezer has not yet been mentioned explicitly,37 and the context of "בִּנְךָ בְּכֹרֶךָ" may tip the scales toward Gershom.
  • Eliezer – Midrash Aggadah and Midrash Vayosha.38 Their choice of Eliezer explains why Moshe was punished only at the inn, and not already at the time of Gershom's birth.39
Who was at the lodging place? If the son was Eliezer, then Moshe and his entire family were present. However, if the son was Gershom, it is possible that Eliezer was not yet born.40
"וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ ה'‏" – Most of these sources suggest that Hashem sent an angel to attack Moshe. Midrash Vayosha goes a step further and identifies the angel as a "שטן" in the guise of a snake.41
"וַיְבַקֵּשׁ הֲמִיתוֹ" – Who was near death? Most of these sources maintain that Moshe was endangered, presumably because he was the one who sinned. However, if "הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הֹרֵג אֶת בִּנְךָ בְּכֹרֶךָ" is directed at Moshe, it is Moshe's son who is in danger.
Circumcision is the solution – Since the lack of circumcision is the problem, it is the obvious way to rectify the situation.
Why Zipporah and not Moshe? If Moshe was being attacked, he was unavailable. If the son was being attacked, Zipporah may have performed the circumcision because she or her father was the one who had initially refused to have him circumcised.42
How did Zipporah know the solution? If "וָאֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ שַׁלַּח אֶת בְּנִי וְיַעַבְדֵנִי..." in verse 23 is directed at Moshe, Hashem stated explicitly what was imperiling Moshe's life. Alternatively, Midrash Vayosha adopts the motif of R. Yehuda b. Bizna that Moshe was being swallowed until the place of his circumcision, and Zipporah thus was able to intuit the cause of the problem.
"וַתַּגַּע לְרַגְלָיו" – Whose legs? Targum Yerushalmi (Yonatan) understands that Zipporah is presenting the foreskin as a penance offering in front of the angel's legs. Midrash Vayosha, on the other hand, cannot explain it as the Satan-snake's legs, as snakes do not have legs. It thus depicts Zipporah sprinkling blood on Moshe's legs,43 perhaps as protection.44
"חֲתַן דָּמִים / לַמּוּלֹת" – Targum Yerushalmi (Yonatan) says that Zipporah was referring to Moshe, as he was the one endangered.

Delayed Mission

Moshe tarried in executing his mission to redeem the Israelites.45 This approach must explain how the circumcision of Moshe's son fixed the situation.

Moshe's sin – These commentators suggest two possible infractions which constituted the delay:
  • Lodging at the inn46 – Midrash Yelamedeinu and Midrash Aggadah (Buber) say that Moshe procrastinated by staying at the inn.47 This approach likely understands "בַּמָּלוֹן" as an actual guest lodge and not just any place where Moshe pitched a tent for the night.48
  • Bringing his family with him to Egypt – Rashbam49 and the Tzeror HaMor suggest that Moshe taking his family caused unnecessary delay.50
Proportionate punishment – Hashem's reacted harshly because Moshe's action (or inaction) had consequences for the entire nation.51 Hashem's attack was intended to send a message to Moshe to execute his mission in a timely manner.
How does circumcision help? This approach encounters great difficulty in understanding the role of circumcision.
  • According to Rashbam, the circumcision functioned as some form of sacrifice52 to appease the angel who was trying to kill Moshe.53
  • R. Avraham Ibn Daud says that the drawing of blood can have an astrological influence and save people who are in life threatening danger.54
  • The Tzeror HaMor, on the other hand, maintains that Moshe rectified his mistake by hurrying off to Egypt and leaving Zipporah with their sons at the inn.55 The account of the circumcision, according to him, is wholly unconnected to either the sin or punishment.56
  • Alternatively, Moshe's procrastination was a sign of his lack of identity with his Jewish brothers; performing the circumcision actively showed his connection to his people.57
"וַיְבַקֵּשׁ הֲמִיתוֹ" – Who was near death? According to most of these sources, the target of Hashem's wrath was Moshe as it was his sin.58 However, R. Yosef Kimchi claims that Hashem came to kill Gershom.59
Which son was uncircumcised and why not? Most of these commentators probably hold that Eliezer was the uncircumcised son who had just been born. R. Yosef Kimchi, though, combines this approach with the Midrash above, suggesting that a deal was made with Zipporah and her family not to circumcise Gershom.60
Why Zipporah and not Moshe? Those who hold that Moshe was endangered can say that he was incapacitated. R"Y Kimchi says that Zipporah was compensating for not previously allowing this son to be circumcised. According to Tzeror HaMor, as soon as Moshe became aware of Hashem's anger, he hurried to Egypt, leaving Zipporah behind to circumcise their son.61
How did Zipporah know the solution? According to R"Y Kimchi,62 Moshe told her that the cause of the danger was that Gershom was uncircumcised. The Tzeror HaMor, who says that Moshe was not present, would probably simply maintain that the baby was eight days old.
"וַתַּגַּע לְרַגְלָיו" – Whose legs?
  • Moshe's – Rashbam says that Zipporah touched the foreskin to Moshe's feet as a way of appeasing the angel.63
  • The son's – R. Yosef Kimchi64 maintains that "וַתַּגַּע לְרַגְלָיו" describes the act of circumcision itself, with "לְרַגְלָיו" being a euphemism for genitals.65
"חֲתַן דָּמִים / לַמּוּלֹת" – According to Rashbam, Zipporah meant that Moshe was saved because of the circumcision. Tzeror HaMor, though, maintains that Moshe was not there and thus understands the "חֲתַן" to be the son with whom Zipporah was playing.
Context – R. Yosef Kimchi suggests that verse 23 is integral to our story. Hashem instructs Moshe to command Paroh to let His "son" (The Children of Israel) go and then Hashem turns to Moshe telling him "You have refused to go on my mission to take them out,66 and therefore, I will kill your (Moshe's) firstborn."67 The words "בִּנְךָ בְּכֹרֶךָ", according to him, refers to Moshe's firstborn son, Gershom. R. Avraham Ibn Daud adopts a similar approach, arguing that the verse was really directed at Paroh, but that it applied to Moshe as well because he had also caused a delay of the nation's redemption from Egypt.
"אַחַר שִׁלּוּחֶיהָ" – According to the Tzeror HaMor, after the circumcision, Zipporah returned with her children to her father's home.68

Error of Judgment and Corrective Action

Moshe erred in planning to bring his family to Egypt, and the circumcision of Moshe's son prevented the implementation of this plan.

Moshe's error – These exegetes suggest two possible negative consequences that would have resulted had Moshe's wife and children arrived in Egypt:
  • Ibn Ezra70 and R. Yosef Kimchi71 suggest that it could have demoralized the Israelites in Egypt72 by causing them to believe that Moshe was merely coming to live with his family in Egypt and that the redemption was not imminent.73
  • Shadal posits that Hashem was concerned that Zipporah and Gershom would dissuade Moshe from his dangerous mission out of their fears that Paroh would kill him.74
Proportionate reaction – Moshe's action was more of a miscalculation than an actual sin, and Hashem's reaction was intended more as a corrective warning than as a punishment.
Circumcision is the solution – Ibn Ezra and Shadal explain that by reminding Moshe of the need to circumcise his son,75 Hashem arranged that Zipporah would need to stay behind with the children and not accompany Moshe to Egypt.
"וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ ה'‏" – Ibn Ezra says that Hashem sent an angel.76 According to Shadal, however, this merely indicates that Hashem brought an illness.
"וַיְבַקֵּשׁ הֲמִיתוֹ" – Who was near death? Ibn Ezra says that it must have been Moshe, as otherwise he would have performed the circumcision. He further argues that if the son were sick, one would not circumcise him as doing so would increase the pain and danger. However, R. Yosef Kimchi and Shadal claim that it was Moshe's son Gershom who became ill.77
Which son was uncircumcised and why not? Ibn Ezra assumes that Eliezer was the uncircumcised son, having just been born. R. Yosef Kimchi, though, combines this approach with the Midrash above, suggesting that a deal was made with Zipporah and her family not to circumcise Gershom. Shadal holds the somewhat incongruous position that although Gershom was the son whose life was in danger, Eliezer was the uncircumcised one.78
Why Zipporah and not Moshe? Ibn Ezra maintains that Moshe was incapacitated by illness, while R"Y Kimchi and Shadal says that Zipporah was correcting her mistake of not previously allowing this son to be circumcised.
How did Zipporah know the solution? Ibn Ezra, R"Y Kimchi, and Shadal all explain that Moshe told her that the circumcision would remedy the situation.
"וַתַּגַּע לְרַגְלָיו" – Whose legs? Ibn Ezra says that Zipporah dabbed the blood on Moshe's legs as a protective charm, similar to the role played by the Paschal blood on the doorposts in Shemot 12.79 Shadal also says that it was Moshe's legs.80
"חֲתַן דָּמִים / לַמּוּלֹת" – Ibn Ezra says that newly circumcised babies are referred to as a "חֲתַן". In contrast, Shadal explains that the "חֲתַן" is Moshe.
"אַחַר שִׁלּוּחֶיהָ" – According to Ibn Ezra and Shadal, Zipporah returns to Midyan after this episode.81

Natural Consequences

There was neither a sin nor a punishment.82 The near death experience was simply the natural result of the circumstances in which Moshe found himself.

Trepidation

Moshe's anxiety at having to confront Paroh and warn him of his son's impending death made Moshe himself gravely ill.

Context – The context is integrally connected to our story. Hashem's charge to Moshe to speak to Paroh which appears in these verses are what leads to Moshe's fear and sickness.
"וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ ה' וַיְבַקֵּשׁ הֲמִיתוֹ" – This verse needs to be read metaphorically, as according to Ibn Kaspi Hashem was not actively trying to kill Moshe.83
Was Moshe's son uncircumcised? Ibn Kaspi claims that the son was already circumcised,84 and Zipporah was simply drawing more blood. He finds support in the plural form of the word "לַמּוּלֹת" (in the phrase "חֲתַן דָּמִים לַמּוּלֹת"), which suggests that this was a second circumcision.
Drawing blood is the solution – Zipporah drew blood (הטפת דם) because of her belief that blood acts as a charm (a סגולה) to calm nerves.85
Why Zipporah and not Moshe? As Moshe was in a state of high anxiety, Zipporah took the initiative to try to tranquilize him.
"וַתַּגַּע לְרַגְלָיו" – Whose legs? Ibn Kaspi explains that Zipporah dripped blood onto Moshe's legs either because that was the custom or so Moshe wouldn't see and think that her actions were simply "women's silliness".86
"חֲתַן דָּמִים / לַמּוּלֹת" – Zipporah was fearful of losing her husband and so she cried out to him that he is a "חֲתַן דָּמִים" (a bridegroom of blood). When he was saved, she modifies her statement to make it more positive by adding "לַמּוּלֹת".
"אַחַר שִׁלּוּחֶיהָ" – Ibn Kaspi maintains that Zipporah and family arrived with Moshe in Egypt and only returned to Midyan after some time had passed.87 Ibn Kaspi contends that Moshe's bringing of his family to Egypt was done with Divine approval, and gave the Children of Israel a critically needed morale boost, strengthening their confidence in Moshe's leadership and their belief that the redemption was imminent.88

Unprepared for Prophecy

Since Moshe was occupied with his lodgings and family, he was not in an appropriate state when the Divine prophetic spirit came upon him,89 and this resulted in a near fatal experience.90

"וַיְהִי בַדֶּרֶךְ בַּמָּלוֹן" – Similar to many of the above approaches, Abarbanel explains that these words identify the preoccupation with lodgings as the cause of the problems which ensued.
"וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ ה' וַיְבַקֵּשׁ הֲמִיתוֹ" – Abarbanel explains that "וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ ה'‏" means that prophecy came to Moshe. The words "וַיְבַקֵּשׁ הֲמִיתוֹ" don't mean that Hashem wanted to kill Moshe, but rather that his lack of preparedness for prophecy led him near death.
Circumcision is the solution – Zipporah didn't know the cause of Moshe's sickness, but she assumed that it was either because he had not circumcised his son or because he had erred in bringing his family with him to Egypt. She therefore acted to correct both, first by circumcising her son and then by returning to Midyan.91
"חֲתַן דָּמִים / לַמּוּלֹת" – Zipporah referred to Moshe as a "חֲתַן דָּמִים" , her almost dead groom. At first she cast blame on herself (לִי = בגללי) but when she saw the effects of the circumcision she said that Moshe was a bridegroom of blood "לַמּוּלֹת" due to the circumcision.
Which son was uncircumcised and why not? Abarbanel explains that Eliezer was born just before they left to Egypt. As Moshe didn't want to postpone his mission, he left immediately but delayed the circumcision due to the dangers posed by the journey.
Why Zipporah and not Moshe? As Moshe was too sick to act, Zipporah took the initiative.
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