by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek
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Parashas Va'eira (71)This week's sedra begins the ten plagues which led eventually to the dramatic Exodus from Egypt.
When Pharaoh speaks to you saying: Give yourselves a (miraculous) sign then you should say to Aaron: 'Take your staff and throw it before Pharaoh it will become a Tanin".
A Tanin: Rashi: A serpent.
This is a simple enough comment. Rashi is telling us the meaning of the Hebrew word Tanin.
But there some questions, though not obvious ones, we could nevertheless ask.
A Question: Rashi has already given us the meaning of Tanin previously. See Genesis 1:21. There Rashi explains that the "big Taninim" means "big fish in the sea." So in one place he says Tanin means fish but here he says it means serpent.
Mizrachi explains that this creature is a fish when in the water (as in Genesis) but a serpent when on dry land (in our verse). This conforms to what we call an alligator. But this is not likely the main thing that is bothering Rashi.
WHAT IS BOTHERING RASHI?
See above verse 4:3 where G-d told Moses to throw his staff earthward "and he threw it earthward and it was a serpentů" So in that verse enacting the same act which was to be a sign, the staff became a serpent. In our verse it became a Tanin. This apparent change in terms is what was bothering Rashi.
How does he deal with this problem?
An Answer: Rashi tells us that there is no contradiction,. Because this Tanin is the very same as the "nachash" in verse 4:3; it is a serpent.
But we could ask why the Torah switches terms - using two different words for the same creature.
An Answer: The Bechor Shor ( late 12th century) points out that this word is used here when Moses confronts Pharaoh because Pharaoh is referred as a Tanin in Ezekiel 29:3. There it says Ezekiel speaks to Pharaoh and says: "Behold I am against you Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great Tanin that crouches in the riverů"
So the switch in terms is deliberate, and accidental.
"What's Bothering Rashi?" is produced by the Institute for the Study of Rashi and Early Commentaries. The five volume set of "What's Bothering Rashi?" is available at all Judaica bookstores.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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