Commentators disagree as to whether the Egyptians intended to give the gold, silver, and clothing to the Israelites as gifts or only as loans. The dispute hinges on the meaning of the verb שאל in Biblical Hebrew, but is also impacted by the world outlooks of the various exegetes.
Viewing the articles as gifts is the simplest way of addressing the ethical issues involved in keeping the objects, but it raises the question of why the Egyptians would give presents to their former slaves. To account for this, Josephus and R. Hirsch look to the Egyptians' emotional state and their relationship to the Israelites after the plagues. They propose that some of the Egyptians viewed the nation with newly found respect and gave gifts as tokens of friendship, while others feared them as enemies and bribed them to hasten their departure. Rashbam also focuses on the immediate context of the departure, but he posits that the gifts were given in sponsorship of the Israelite worship, presumably to curry favor with their God. On the other hand, R. Saadia and Malbim look to the larger frame of the story, suggesting that the gifts served as reparations for the Israelite slave labor or were in exchange for the property left behind for the Egyptians.
The commentators who view the articles as a loan assume that they were lent to the slaves for use in their religious worship, but must deal both with the ethical issues involved in deceiving the Egyptians and with why Hashem would command this. Numerous exegetes justify the episode by looking to the larger context of the Israelite suffering, and seeing in the articles remuneration for centuries of slavery or compensation for expropriated property. Others, such as Philo and R. Yosef Bekhor Shor, focus instead on the more immediate bellicose behavior of the Egyptians, viewing the items either as spoils of war or as property forfeited by the Egyptians when they expelled the Israelites. In contrast, Ibn Ezra claims that no justification is needed, as Hashem can do as He wants with His possessions.
The various approaches have implications for understanding a number of related questions. How did the Egyptian masses relate to the Israelites, both during the enslavement and the Exodus itself? Was there only state slavery or were the Israelites also subjugated by individual Egyptians? Did each of Paroh and the Egyptians know that the Israelites were departing forever and not just for three days? Finally, did the borrowed or gifted articles have substantial value, are they connected to Hashem's promise at the Covenant of the Pieces of departing Egypt with "great wealth," and does this story impart any insights about the morality of accepting reparations?
In explaining the nature of the transfer of possessions, commentators offer two main approaches, each of which further subdivides:
According to this approach, the root שאל in this story means to ask for a gift1 – see שאל for a discussion of the lexical issue. As the articles were outright gifts, there was no moral problem with the Israelites keeping them. This position subdivides regarding the nature of the gifts and what motivated the Egyptians to give them:
"רֵעֵהוּ" – Support for such a reading can be found in the verse "וְיִשְׁאֲלוּ אִישׁ מֵאֵת רֵעֵהוּ וְאִשָּׁה מֵאֵת רְעוּתָהּ" which seems to imply that friendly or neighborly3 relations existed between the Israelites and Egyptians.4 Writing for a Roman audience which had subjugated Israel, Josephus seizes the opportunity to portray friendly relations between oppressor and oppressed.5 R. S"R Hirsch similarly proposes that in the aftermath of the plague of darkness, during which the Children of Israel proved their morality and honesty by not taking advantage of the Egyptians,6 the latter's feelings changed and they gave happily and out of respect.7 R. Hirsch is thus able to depict the Israelites as widely admired by Gentile society and prototypes of his ideal of the Mensch-Yisroel.8
Polemical backdrop – Josephus appears to be responding to anti-Jewish polemics of the Greco-Roman era which accused the Jews of stealing Egyptian valuables.9 See Josephus in Against Apion 1:26 where he cites Manetho10 who accuses the Israelites of pillaging the Egyptian temples as they left Egypt.11
Leaving permanently or just for three days – Josephus and R. Hirsch assume that the Egyptians were giving parting gifts as they knew the Israelites were leaving for good.12 Josephus, in fact, never makes mention of any request to leave for only three days – see Three Day Journey.
Timing of the gift and its repetition – Josephus places the actual giving of the gifts at the hour of the Exodus (Shemot 12:35–36), as this is an appropriate point for a farewell gift.13
"וַיַּשְׁאִלוּם" – Josephus and R. Hirsch suggest that the Egyptians gave gifts of their own initiative.14
"וַיְנַצְּלוּ" / "וְנִצַּלְתֶּם" – R. Hirsch explains that the root means to remove from one's self,15 and that the subject of the verb is the Egyptians. Josephus simply makes no mention of any despoiling of Egypt.
Reason for command and relationship to the "בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל" promised at the Covenant of the Pieces – While R. Hirsch views the gifts as fulfilling the Covenant, Josephus makes no mention of gold and silver and gives no indication that the presents were of considerable value.16
"דַּבֶּר נָא" – R. Hirsch suggests that the Israelites did not want to lose their moral high ground and honorable reputation by asking for gifts.17 Thus, Hashem needed to urge and command them to do so, with "נָא" meaning please.18
The gifts were given out of fear and to hasten the Israelites' departure.
In addition to their first explanation, they suggest that other Egyptians gave merely so that the Israelites would leave quicker and the plagues would cease.19
"מֵאֵת רֵעֵהוּ" – As compensation was exacted from individual Egyptians, the Israelites must have been slaves to private Egyptians. This is, in fact, the position taken by R. Bachya Shemot 1:10 "הפקיר פרעה את ישראל שכל אחד ואחד מהמצריים יהיה לו רשות לקחת מישראל לעבוד עבודתו".25 See Nature of the Bondage.
Leaving permanently or just for three days – This approach assumes that everyone (both the Israelites and Egyptians) knew that the Israelites were leaving for good, and thus it was time for compensation or parting הענקה. See Three Day Journey.
Timing of the gift and "דַּבֶּר נָא" – Chizkuni interprets "נָא" as now,26 i.e. at the time of Chapter 11 and before the last plague. This would have been a better time for negotiating reparations than waiting for the harried hour of the Exodus, at which time the Israelites were packing and the Egyptians were burying their dead.27
Reason for command and relationship to the "בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל" promised at the Covenant of the Pieces – R. Saadia Bereshit 15:14 says that this promise was fulfilled through the gold and silver gifts.28
Contemporary moral dilemma over accepting German reparations – R. Zalman Sorotzkin in Oznayim LaTorah Shemot 11:2 brings this quandary to life by drawing a contemporary parallel to the debates which raged in Israel in the early 1950s over the propriety of requesting and accepting West German reparations.29 He suggests that there was a similar situation in Egypt, where many bereaved Israelite parents were opposed to negotiating a settlement and accepting "blood money" from the Egyptians,30 and thus Hashem had to make a special request for them to do so.31
The items were given in exchange for Israelite property left behind in Egypt.
Chizkuni and Malbim propose that the Israelites were instructed to make a swap with their Egyptian neighbors, according to which the Egyptians would give the Israelites portable valuables in exchange for all of the property the Israelites were leaving behind in Egypt.
"מִשְּׁכֶנְתָּהּ וּמִגָּרַת בֵּיתָהּ" – Malbim explains that the verse specifies Egyptian neighbors and tenants, as they were the ones who were poised to take possession of the Israelite houses and non-portable property.34
Real estate holdings – Chizkuni cites Bereshit 47:27 to prove that the Israelites amassed significant land holdings in Egypt. Chizkuni is following Ibn EzraLong Commentary Shemot 3:22About Ibn Ezra who notes that the words "וּמִגָּרַת בֵּיתָהּ" indicate that the Israelites had Egyptian tenants.35 This has ramifications for understanding the nature of the slavery and the living conditions of the Israelites – see Where in Egypt Did the Israelites Live?.
Leaving permanently or just for three days – This approach assumes that both the Israelites and Egyptians knew that the people were planning on leaving for good. See Three Day Journey.36
Timing of the gift and "דַּבֶּר נָא" – Chizkuni and Malbim both explain that "נָא" means now,37 i.e. at the time of Chapter 11 and before the last plague. This would have been the last opportunity for orderly transactions and property swaps.
"וַיְנַצְּלוּ" / "וְנִצַּלְתֶּם" – Malbim maintains that the root means to rescue (הציל), and that by this method, the Israelites will salvage some of their wealth.38
Reason for command and relationship to the "בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל" promised at the Covenant of the Pieces – If the Israelites were compensated for significant land holdings, it would have indeed amounted to significant wealth.
The gifts were given to sponsor the Israelites' religious worship.
The Egyptians' motives – Although Rashbam himself does not elaborate, his approach may view the giving of gifts as an attempt to find favor with the God of the Hebrews and avert further plagues.40 For similar Biblical cases of Gentile support of Israelite worship in order to ward off plagues or gain Divine favor, see the offering of gold vessels with which the Philistines returned the ark in Shemuel I 6:1-941 and the Persian sacrificial contributions in Ezra 6:8–10.
"כְּלֵי כֶסֶף וּכְלֵי זָהָב" – Rashbam identifies the gold and silver articles as jewelry to be worn (together with the requested holiday clothing) when the Israelites sacrificed at Mt. Sinai.42 Rashbam Shemot 12:36 also links to the verse in Shemot 33:6 which mentions the ornaments that the Israelites were wearing at Mt. Sinai.43 According to Rashbam, the items were actually used in religious worship, and this was not merely a ruse to get the Egyptians to part from their possessions.44
"וְשַׂמְתֶּם עַל בְּנֵיכֶם וְעַל בְּנֹתֵיכֶם" – Shemot 3:22 specifies that the articles were to be placed on the Israelites' sons and daughters, and Shemot 32:2 records that even the children were bedecked with ornaments at Mt. Sinai.45
Leaving only temporarily for three day journey – According to Rashbam, the Egyptians thought the Israelites were going to return to Egypt after their holiday,46 but were nevertheless giving outright gifts to be used in the religious worship.47
"וַיַּשְׁאִלוּם" – Rashbam emphasizes that also the hiphil form of the verb refers to the act of giving a gift.48
"וַיְנַצְּלוּ" / "וְנִצַּלְתֶּם" – Rashbam appears to explain that the root means to remove.
Reason for command and relationship to the "בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל" promised at the Covenant of the Pieces – As according to Rashbam, the genuine purpose of obtaining the items was for use in religious worship, there is no need to postulate any connection to a fulfillment of the Covenant with Avraham.49 Accordingly, the "בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל" promised in the Covenant may refer to the significant livestock with which the Israelites left Egypt (see Shemot 12:38) and not to the jewelry.50 See רכוש for more.51
Polemical backdrop – Rashbam notes that his interpretation counters the claims of the (Christian) heretics ("ותשובה למינים").52 See Josephus above and Rabbinic sources below that this episode was the basis of anti-Jewish polemic already in the Greco-Roman period.
According to this approach, the root שאל in this story means to borrow (i.e. ask for a loan), and the objects were originally given only as a loan for the Israelites' religious worship. See שאל for elaboration on the lexical issue. This approach subdivides in explaining the moral and legal justification for deceiving the Egyptians and ultimately keeping the objects:53
The items served as partial remuneration for hundreds of years of slave labor.
Wages or הענקה – Most of these sources view the borrowed items as a replacement for owed wages. However, the Sifre, HaRekhasim LeVik'ah, and Cassuto suggest that it was intended to guarantee the fulfillment of the practice of a slave owner giving parting gifts (הענקה) to their slaves upon their emancipation. Cassuto points out that the language of the laws of הענקה in Devarim, "וְכִי תְשַׁלְּחֶנּוּ חָפְשִׁי מֵעִמָּךְ לֹא תְשַׁלְּחֶנּוּ רֵיקָם" is parallel to the language used by Hashem here,"וְהָיָה כִּי תֵלֵכוּן לֹא תֵלְכוּ רֵיקָם".58
"מֵאֵת רֵעֵהוּ" – As compensation was exacted from individual Egyptians, the Israelites must have been slaves to private Egyptians. See Nature of the Bondage.
"וַיְנַצְּלוּ" / "וְנִצַּלְתֶּם" – Ibn Ezra Short Commentary Shemot 3:22 and Radak Sefer HaShorashim s.v. נצל explain that the verb means saving (הציל), as the Israelites were salvaging some of what was owed to them.59 Cassuto, on the other hand, renders the word as despoil or empty,60 explaining that the verse is speaking from the perspective of the Children of Israel; taking even just a few possessions seemed to them to be "emptying" Egypt.
Why via deception? Commentators offer two suggestions to explain why Hashem instructed to mislead the Egyptians into thinking that the objects would be returned:
Ran, though, assumes that Hashem could have enabled the Israelites to take the Egyptians' possessions by force. He therefore proposes that the entire stratagem as well as the 3 day ruse itself63 was intended to induce the Egyptians to chase after the nation (in order to retrieve their loaned belongings)64 and drown in Yam Suf.65 According to Ran, Hashem worked his plan through natural means (דרך הטבע). For more, see A Three Day Journey.66
Who knew that the Israelites would not return?Ibn Ezra Short CommentaryShemot 11:4About Ibn Ezra says that the Israelites knew, but they kept this secret from the Egyptians because otherwise the Egyptians would not have loaned them their objects.67 Alternatively, it is possible that even the Israelites did not know that they were leaving for good. For more, see Three Day Journey.
Reason for command and relationship to the "בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל" promised at the Covenant of the Pieces – Radak views the remuneration as a fulfillment of the Covenant.
Timing of the loan and "דַּבֶּר נָא" – There are two possibilities within this approach:
Ibn Ezra Short Commentary Shemot 11:2 and Radak Sefer HaShorashim s.v. נא interpret "נָא" as now,68 i.e. at the time of Chapter 11 and before the last plague.
In contrast, Ran, following R. Yannai in Bavli Berakhot 9a69 interprets "נָא" as please.70
The objects were partial compensation for all of the property the Israelites were forced to leave behind in Egypt.
"מִשְּׁכֶנְתָּהּ וּמִגָּרַת בֵּיתָהּ" – Akeidat Yitzchak and Abarbanel explain that the verse specifies Egyptian neighbors and tenants, as they were the ones who were poised to take possession of the Israelite houses and non-portable property.73
Who knew that the Israelites would not return? As the items were a loan, the Egyptians did not know. The Akeidat Yitzchak further explains that the Israelites needed to leave much of their property in Egypt, so that the Egyptians would not realize that they were leaving for anything more than a brief holiday. R. Yehuda HeChasid, in contrast, suggests that the Israelites were candid with the Egyptians that the possibility existed that they might not return, and thus left their property as collateral.
"וַיְנַצְּלוּ" / "וְנִצַּלְתֶּם" – R. Yitzchak Arama and Abarbanel propose that the word is related to התנצלות (excuse), and that the verse is saying that the Israelites have a good excuse and explanation for not returning the loaned objects.
Why via deception? Akeidat Yitzchak and Abarbanel suggest like the Ran above that the borrowing of the valuables was intended to induce the Egyptians to chase after the Israelites and drown in Yam Suf.
Reason for command and relationship to the "בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל" promised at the Covenant of the Pieces – Abarbanel explicitly connects our episode with the fulfillment of Hashem's promise to Avraham.
Philo and Netziv view the Egyptian enslavement of the Israelites as creating a state of "as if they were at war", thus validating the Israelites' right to "carry off the treasures of the enemy, according to the laws of conquerors."75
Seforno and Michaelis, in contrast, focuses on Yam Suf as an actual battle.76 At Yam Suf, the Egyptians schemed to despoil the Israelites,77 and are thus despoiled themselves measure for measure.
Moral or legal justification?
Philo and Netziv present a fundamental moral justification for borrowing the items with no intention of returning them.
According to Seforno, the items originally needed to be returned, and it was only a subsequent legal loophole which obviated that obligation.
Michaelis maintains that indeed the Israelites initially intended to return the objects.78
Who knew that the Israelites were leaving for good?
According to Seforno, the Israelites themselves knew that they would not return, but the Egyptians did not know and thus gave chase to retrieve their valuables.79
Netziv Shemot 7:5, 11:1-2, 12:35 posits that Paroh expelled the Israelites for good, but that the rest of the Egyptians were not aware of this.80 See Three Day Journey.
According to Michaelis, it would seem that the Israelites themselves may not have known.
Why via deception? Seforno Shemot 11:2 and Netziv Shemot 11:2, 12:35 explain that the borrowing of the articles lured the Egyptians into chasing after the Israelites and ultimately drowning in Yam Suf.81 In contrast, Michaelis sees no deception on the part of the Israelites as they fully intended to return the objects.
"מִשְּׁכֶנְתָּהּ וּמִגָּרַת בֵּיתָהּ" vs. "מֵאֵת רֵעֵהוּ" – Netziv 11:2 attempts to account for this discrepancy between the original command in Shemot 3 and the later command in Shemot 11.82 According to him, the Israelites originally had friendly relations only with their immediate neighbors,83 but the assistance they provided to the Egyptians during the course of the Plagues gained them more friends and admirers.84
"וְשַׂמְתֶּם עַל בְּנֵיכֶם וְעַל בְּנֹתֵיכֶם" – Netziv Shemot 3:22 explains that this was instructed in order to maximize what the Israelites could borrow without making it obvious that they had no intention of returning.
"וַיְנַצְּלוּ" / "וְנִצַּלְתֶּם" – Philo and Seforno likely understood these verbs as to despoil,85 as they describe the loaned items as "spoils." Netziv 3:22, though, appears to render these verbs as to save (הציל).
Reason for command and relationship to the "בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל" promised at the Covenant of the Pieces – According to this approach, the command may be intended to fulfill the Covenant, or to symbolize the totality of the Egyptian defeat.
The Egyptians actively forfeited their claims to the objects or their hostile actions prevented the Israelites from returning them.
Already in Egypt or only at Yam Suf – HaRekhasim LeVik'ah suggests that the forfeiture occurred already in Egypt when the Egyptians permanently expelled the Israelites. R"Y Bekhor Shor, though, suggests that Hashem commanded the Israelites to "return" ("וְיָשֻׁבוּ") in Shemot 14:2 in order to fulfill their promise to return after the three day journey with the borrowed articles. Accordingly, it was only when Paroh chased after them to do battle with them and did not permit them to return, that the Israelites no longer bore responsibility to return the items.86
Who knew that the Israelites would not return? According to R"Y Bekhor Shor, Paroh and the Egyptians sent the Israelites for a three day journey only and expected their return.87 HaRekhasim LeVik'ah, though, says that the Egyptians entertained this illusion only until the Exodus when they chased out the Israelites for good.
Reason for command – HaRekhasim LeVik'ah explains that Hashem arranged for this transfer of wealth because He knew that the Egyptians would not abide by the established custom of sending slaves away with gifts (הענקה) – see compensation option above.
Why via deception? Neither commentator is explicit as to why Hashem resorted to deception, but they could adopts the options available to the positions above.
Timing of the loan and "דַּבֶּר נָא" – R"Y Bekhor Shor and HaRekhasim LeVik'ah interpret "נָא" as now,88 i.e. at the time of Chapter 11 and before the last plague, rather than at the time of the harried departure. This interpretation is critical for HaRekhasim LeVik'ah's position as the act of borrowing must precede the forfeiture of the loan which, according to him, took place at the time of the Exodus.
"וַיְנַצְּלוּ" / "וְנִצַּלְתֶּם" – According to HaRekhasim LeVik'ah, the verb has the specific connotation of removing jewelry and valuables.
No Need to Justify
No justification is needed for Hashem's command since He owns everything in the world and is thus entitled to take from one nation and give to another.
Hashem gives and Hashem takes – This idea is echoed in the words of Shemuel in Berakhot 119a who traces how the world's possessions move from one hand to another. They are collected from all the nations to Egypt by Yosef, transferred to the Children of Israel when they leave Egypt, returned to Egypt with Shishak, etc.91
Reason for command – These commentators do not address this issue directly, but they could adopt the approach of Shadal Shemot 3:22 who suggests that the directive was intended to demonstrate that Hashem punishes the wicked92 and rewards the righteous.
Who knew that the Israelites would not return? This position would assume that the Egyptians did not know.
Why via deception? This position does not address this issue.