The Pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx in Egypt. Credit: Alex Anton/Shutterstock.
The Pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx in Egypt. Credit: Alex Anton/Shutterstock.
featureJewish & Israeli Holidays

Passover 2024

Egypt is in the Haggadah and the news this Passover season

“The pyramids represent people being forced to work for a central power, not being allowed to be important in and of themselves,” Yeshiva University professor Aaron Koller told JNS.

Every Passover, Albert Gabbai smiles when he gets to the part of the Haggadah, towards the end of Magid, stating that each Jew in every generation must “view himself as if he left Egypt.”

“It’s very easy for me,” the Egyptian-born rabbi told JNS. “Other people, they have to imagine it.”

Not only did Gabbai—rabbi emeritus at the nearly 285-year-old Sephardic synagogue Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia—leave Egypt, but he fled the country in 1970 after spending three years in an Egyptian prison.

He is one of a small minority of American and world Jews who have firsthand experience with life in the setting of the biblical story at the center of the Passover holiday.

Before Hamas’s terror attack on Oct. 7, Egypt existed in the imaginations of many Jews as a biblical rather than a modern nation. But the country, which began to expel its Jews in the 1950s, has become more than Haggadah illustrations of Hebrew slaves laboring over half-finished pyramids or the Nile River turned to blood.

The Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has been the focus of much attention of late. Even if the United States and other countries have been loath to mention that Egypt could take in Palestinian refugees, Cairo is in the news regularly as a site for diplomacy and attempts to negotiate the release of hostages still being held captive in Gaza by Hamas terrorists.

After Oct. 7, the land of the pharaohs is a viscerally real location, captured in images and video in the news, with humanitarian aid trucks waiting to enter Gaza and anti-Israel demonstrations in Cairo streets.

Rabbi Albert Gabbai
Albert Gabbai, rabbi emeritus of Sephardic Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia. Credit: Courtesy.

The Haggadah doesn’t “really care about Egypt,” according to Aaron Koller, professor of Near Eastern studies at Yeshiva University in New York City, who has written often on ancient Egypt.

“It cares about pharaoh,” Koller said of the central Passover text. “He is the real threat to liberty and freedom, but Egypt itself is really just in the background.”

“It’s not the place—not the sand and pyramids—but the idea. Passover stands against a society that builds itself literally on the backs of others,” Koller added. “It’s against the idea of Egypt that the Haggadah rebels—tonight each person is wealthy and worthy.”

‘Exodus in reverse’

Ancient and modern-day Egypt are separated by 3,000 years of history and a radical ideological change, from polytheism to Islam.

“The Egypt of the Bible and the Haggadah is the Egypt that rejects God. I don’t think that’s where we are anymore,” Joshua Berman, professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, told JNS.

“Of course, when we say, ‘Let my people go,’ this year, that has a resonance that it hasn’t had for a long time,” added Berman, who is also an Orthodox rabbi.

Joshua Berman
Joshua Berman, a rabbi and professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. Credit: Courtesy.

Like Gabbai, Berman has hands-on experience with Egypt. Since 2022, he has led what he calls “Exodus in reverse” kosher tours of Egyptian sites mentioned in the Bible. Although modern Egypt has persecuted Jews, he has found that his group of visibly Orthodox Jews has been welcomed warmly without fail.

“It’s a testament to how strong Israel is and how important Israel is to Egypt as an ally,” Berman said. “I see a lot of cooperation.”

That doesn’t mean he sees Israeli flags on the streets of Cairo, he noted wryly, or that Egyptians are breaking out in song with “Hatikvah,” although he does credit the tailwinds of the 2020 Abraham Accords and a desire to boost the economy with warming Egyptian feelings toward Israel.

Rich history

The Egypt of the Bible is a world leader and a place of vast physical wealth—ample food supplies that drew biblical forefathers and Jacob’s sons in times of famine.

Aaron Koller
Aaron Koller, professor of Near Eastern studies at Yeshiva University in New York City. Credit: Courtesy.

“From the beginning, Egypt was famously fertile,” Koller told JNS, noting the reliability of Egyptian agriculture due to the annual flooding of the Nile.

“This doesn’t happen anymore since the Aswan Dam was built,” he said. “But it was a huge deal in pre-modern times.”

Today’s Egyptian politics and religion contrast starkly with those articulated in the Torah when idolatrous Egyptians held the all-powerful pharaoh—now believed to be Ramesses II—to be both Divine and a political leader.

“In Egyptian thought, the pharaoh truly was a god, son of Horus,” Koller said. “So Egypt was the only place where theology and political power went together.”

Anachronistic images in Haggadahs and Disney’s 1998 animated film “The Prince of Egypt” show Israelites laboring over the pyramids, though those structures were completed 1,000 years prior to Moses’s birth, according to Koller. Still, the ahistorical images embody the Jewish idea of Egypt, he told JNS.

“Everyone understood that massive projects like the pyramids could only be built by hundreds of thousands of people,” Koller said. “So the pyramids represent people being forced to work for a central power, not being allowed to be important in and of themselves.”

The Torah appears to prohibit Jews—or at least Jewish kings—from returning to Egypt after the Exodus, and there is a long tradition of rabbinic responsa and debate on whether something like an “Exodus in reverse” is permitted. That debate aside, Jews have a rich history in the country.

Cairo, Egypt
A panorama of older buildings in Cairo against the skyline of newer construction in the capital of Egypt. Credit: Alex Anton/Shutterstock.

A large community flourished in Roman-ruled Alexandria, home to the Jewish philosopher Philo, during the first century BCE. Some 1,100 years later, Cairo hosted one of history’s most famous Jewish thinkers, Maimonides, in the 12th century.

For generations, Jews must have differentiated the Egypt where their community prospered as distinct from that of the Torah. During their Passover seders, Egyptian Jews presumably thought of a spiritual redemption from the country in biblical times, as they celebrated the holiday there in modern ones.

One of the earliest apparent references to Passover outside the Bible comes from the so-called “Passover Papyrus,” dated between 419 and 418 BCE, written by a Jew living on the southern Egyptian island of Elephantine. (Modern scholarship questions whether the text, in the collection of Berlin’s Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection, actually references Passover.)

‘A second Exodus”

The establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948 and the rise of pan-Arab nationalism under Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser brought an end to Jewish life in Egypt. In 1950, the government began confiscating Jewish property, though many Jews, who had established livelihoods around the Suez Canal, remained.

Statue of Ramesses II, Thebes, Egypt
A statue of Ramesses II, Thebes, Egypt, about 1250 C.E., at the British Museum in London. Credit: Pbuergler via Wikimedia Commons.

Gabbai, the rabbi and cantor in Philadelphia, recalls attending at-capacity Shabbat morning services at Cairo’s Sha’ar Hashamayim Synagogue in the early 1960s. (The shul was founded in 1899.)

In June of 1967, with the onset of the Six-Day War, Gabbai and his older brothers were rounded up with the rest of the Jewish men in Egypt and sent to detention camps.

When he was finally released three years later, he was taken directly to the airport.

“Nasser made life unbearable,” Gabbai told JNS. “We needed a second Exodus.”

Two bloody wars and a long “cold peace” later, relations between Egypt and Israel are warming as the two reportedly cooperate in some ways against Hamas.

For Gabbai, however, the lessons of the Bible and modern history are clear. “The hatred of the Jews is still ongoing,” he warns. “One day or another, your freedom can be taken away.”

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