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Parashat Shemot

January 7, 2016

by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

Parashat Shemot describes not only the development of the Israelites as a people in Egypt, but also that of their leader Moses. While the Torah does not describe in detail all of Moses’s earlier years, it does offer us a glimpse at some of the formative moments of his life. One of these moments was when Moses, floating on the Nile, was found by Pharoah’s daughter.

When she opened it, she saw that it was a child (yeled), a boy (na’ar) crying. She took pity on it and said, “This must be a Hebrew child (mei-yaldei ha-ivri’im zeh). (Exodus 2:6)

The ambiguity of how Moses is described has drawn the attention of many commentators. Was he a “child” (yeled) or a “boy” (na’ar)? We find the following comment in the Talmud (Sotah 12b).

A boy (na’ar) crying”–he is called a ‘child’ (yeled) and then a ‘boy’ (na’ar)! — A Tanna taught: He was a child but his voice was like that of a grown boy; such is the view of R. Judah. R. Nehemiah said to him, If so, you have made our master Moses into one who has a blemish;  but it teaches that his mother made for him a canopy [such as is used at the marriage] of boys (ne’urim)  in the ark, saying: ‘Perhaps I may not be worthy [to be present at] his marriage-canopy’.

The Talmud offers two explanations for the uses of both “child” and “boy” to describe Moses. The first seems to distinguish between his chronological age and certain aspects of his physical development. He may have been chronologically a young child, but his voice manifested the characteristics of an older boy.

The second explanation found in the Talmud is the result of an unease with the claim that while Moses may have chronologically been a child, his voice reflected age and maturity. This reality would inevitably have resulted in Moses being less than perfect and hence less than ideal for being a Levite and serving God in the Temple. Therefore, what was the boyishness of which the Torah was speaking? It was that of the wedding canopy, hupat ne’urim.

Many of the classical Biblical commentators have offered their own understanding of the use of both “child” and “boy.” The Ramban, Moses Nachmanides (Spain, 13th c.), said that there was really was no reason to find the use of both words to be problematic. He wrote:

According to my opinion there is no reason for all of this, for a child (yeled) from the day that he is born is called a boy (na’ar), as it is said “and let him instruct us how to act with the child (na’ar) that is to be born” (Judges 13:8); and also “David therefore pleaded with God for the child (na’ar)” (II Samuel 12:16)…

Nava Greenfield Kosovsky feels that in the Bible there is a difference between child (yeled) and boy (na’ar). She draws our attention to the uses of child and boy in Genesis 21 in the description of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael.

In verse 12 it is written:

But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed over the boy (na’ar) or your slave; whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you.

The use of the word boy (na’ar) in this verse serves as a paradigm for the future ways in which God describes Ishmael. On the other hand, when Abraham and Hagar are being described with Ishmael, he is called a child (yeled).

Early next morning Abraham took some bread and a skin of water, and gave them to Hagar. He placed them over her shoulder, together with the child (yeled), and sent her away. And she wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. (Genesis 21:14)

Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child (yeled).” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. (Genesis 21:16)

We then read:

And God heard the voice of the boy (na’ar); and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy (na’ar) where he is. (Genesis 21:17)

Greenfield Kosovsky explained the distinction between child (yeled) and boy (na’ar) as being related to the different types of relationships of children. The word child (yeled) emphasizes the relationship between parent and child, while the word boy (na’ar) is already reflective of a forward looking perspective towards the future.

We can therefore understand the verse describing Pharoah’s daughter’s first encounter with Moses as symbolic of the transitions in Moses’s life. While she may have first encountered him as a child, we are already presented with a hint of what the future holds for both him and the Children of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom.


Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky is the AJR Rabbinics Curriculum Coordinator.