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Three Approaches to Pharaoh’s “Heavy Heart” (Bo)

The weaknesses of classical heroes were often associated with particular body parts. Narcissus, for instance, so admired his own appearance that he couldn’t tear himself away from the reflection of his face. Oedipus was named for his swollen feet, and it was this feature which eventually tipped off the elders of Thebes that he had murdered their former king, Laius. Achilles, of course, died when an enemy arrow pierced him in the heel, giving rise to the idiom “Achilles heel,” which we use until today. So even the mightiest of men, it turns out, can be felled — as long as you know where to strike.  For Narcissus, it was his attractive face which brought about his downfall; for Oedipus, it was his swollen feet; for Achilles, his unarmored heel.

For Pharaoh, meanwhile, it was his heavy heart.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moshe, the leader of the Israelites, continues his appeal on his people’s behalf, demanding that Pharaoh release his slaves so that they can serve their God freely. Pharaoh, for his part, refuses this request time and again, and he is punished with a series of plagues as a result. After each plague, the king of Egypt considers freeing the Hebrews. Yet he never does, for he inevitably undergoes a change of heart. Sometimes, the text tells us, Pharaoh “hardens [lit. “makes heavy”] his heart” himself; other times, God “hardens Pharaoh’s heart” for him. What is clear, either way, is that the Israelites will not be freed.

Less clear is the role that Pharaoh’s “heavy heart” plays in this narrative. For centuries, scholars have struggled to understand this cryptic phrase, “hard heart.” What precisely does it mean? The simplest explanation is that it means “stubborn,” with a particularly cruel connotation, as in the English adjective “hard-hearted.” However, the conventional way to say “stubborn” in Biblical Hebrew is קשה ערף: not “hard-hearted,” but “stiff-necked.” (Indeed, the mystical commentators point out that Pharaoh’s name is a semordnilap for this particular kind of stubbornness: arranged backwards, the word פרעה, “Pharaoh,” spells הערפ – literally, “the [stiff] neck”). Either way, we’re going to need to investigate further if we wish to comprehend the motif of the “hard heart,” since the term most probably does not refer to “stubbornness” alone. Let’s look at three approaches together.

Approach #1: Theological / Philosophical

Perhaps the most famous explanation of the “heavy heart” was offered by Maimonides (otherwise known as the Rambam), a twelfth-century rabbi, physician, philosopher and astronomer who authored some of the most foundational and comprehensive Jewish texts ever written. In “The Eight Chapters,” which he wrote as an introduction to his commentary on “Ethics of our Father,” Maimonides states:

 As regards, however, the words of God, “and I will harden the heart of Pharaoh”… Pharaoh and his followers, already of their own free will, without any constraint whatsoever, had rebelled by oppressing the strangers who were in their midst, having tyrannized over them with great injustice, as Scripture plainly states, “And he said unto his people, Behold, the people of the children of Israel is more numerous and mightier than we, come let us deal wisely with it”… The punishment which God then inflicted upon them was that He withheld from them the power of repentance, so that there should fall upon them that punishment which justice declared should he meted out to them. (שמנה פרקים להרמב”ם פ”ח)

For Maimonides, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart carries theological and philosophical significance. It doesn’t merely predict stubborn behavior; it symbolizes, more specifically, the inability to repent. Though each person possesses free will, and though God grants man the opportunity to repent for his misdeeds, the invitation is not extended indefinitely. At some point, it’s too late to file a plea bargain. This is true of secular law, and, Maimonides tells us, it is true of Jewish law, too.

Approach #2: Archaeological / Mythological

Another approach towards understanding Pharaoh’s “hard heart” comes courtesy of the Papyrus of Ani. This hieroglyphic manuscript, which scholars date to the thirteenth century BCE, recounts an ancient Egyptian myth surrounding a Theban scribe by the name of Ani. It has been aptly summarized by Biblical professor and archaeologist John Currid as follows:

The Papyrus of Ani

After someone died, the heart was weighed in the balance of truth to determine the kind of afterlife the deceased would receive. The heart of the deceased, on one side of the scale, was balanced on the other with a feather. If the heart outweighed the feather, the deceased was in trouble…. If a person’s heart was heavy-laden with misdeeds, the person would, in effect, be annihilated; if the heart was filled with integrity, truth and good acts, the person would earn an escort to heavenly bliss. (“Why Did God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart?” Bible Review)

Not only Hebrew texts but also Egyptian ones, it turns out, incorporate the motif of a “heavy heart.” The implication, at least for Currid, is obvious:

When the biblical text tells us that [God] hardened Pharaoh’s heart, this is a polemic against the prevailing thought of Pharaoh’s pure and untainted character (ibid.)  

On this reading, God “hardens Pharaoh’s heart” as a way of satirizing the monarch’s mistaken self-righteousness. Pharaoh is not innocent, and he will be punished, the symbolism suggests.

Approach #3: Linguistic

In addition to these two approaches, let us propose a third one of our own. In the very first verse of this week’s Torah portion we read:

The Lord said to Moses: “Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, in order that I may place these signs of Mine in his midst (Exodus 10:1).

This carries over from the description found at the very end of last week’s Torah portion:

And Pharaoh saw that the rain, the hail, and the thunder had ceased; so he continued to sin, and he strengthened his heart, he and his servants (Exodus 9:34).

Notice that, in these verses, it is not only Pharaoh’s heart which becomes hardened, but also the hearts of Pharaoh’s servants. Never before and never again are the hearts of the palace servants “hardened;” the only stage in the entire saga of the ten plagues at which this occurs is in the brief period between the end of the seventh plague (hail) and the beginning of the eighth (locusts).

Now, we know that Pharaoh, for his part, responds to the plague of hail in precisely the same way he had responded to all others:

Thus Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he did not let the children of Israel go out, as the Lord had spoken through the hand of Moses (Exodus 9:35).

But how will Pharaoh’s servants act, now that their hearts have become hardened, too? This is the question that lingers at the end of last week’s Torah portion—and it is promptly answered at the beginning of this week’s:

So Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh and said to him, “So said the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me? Let My people go, and they will worship Me. For if you refuse to let [them] go, behold, tomorrow I am going to bring locusts into your borders. And they will obscure the view of the earth, and no one will be able to see the earth, and they will eat the surviving remnant, which remains for you from the hail, and they will eat all your trees that grow out of the field.  And your houses and the houses of all your servants and the houses of all the Egyptians will be filled, which your fathers and your fathers’ fathers did not see since the day they were on the earth until this day.'” So Moses turned and left Pharaoh. Then Pharaoh’s servants said to Pharaoh, “How long will this one [i.e. Moshe] be a stumbling block to us? Let the people go and they will worship their God. Don’t you yet know that Egypt is lost?” (Exodus 10:6)


Up until now, Pharaoh’s servants have remained silently in the background. Yet the first (and last) time in the story they speak out against their master happens to coincide with the first (and last) time in the story that their hearts are “hardened.” Only after the Egyptian servants have had their hearts “hardened,” in other words, do they challenge Pharaoh’s policies, and pressure him to free the Hebrew slaves.

Yet this seems backwards! After all, a “hardened heart” should increase resistance, not decrease it–if, that is, a “hardened heart” really means a “stubborn heart,” as we’ve been trained to think.

But maybe that’s not what it means. Let’s go back to basics, and consider the term linguistically.

In Hebrew, the word for “heavy,” כבד, and the word for “respect,” כבוד, are of the same root: “heavy” equals “respected.” Likewise, in ancient Rome, “gravitas” – the term for respect and dignity, which we still use today – was derived from a term which meant “heavy.” Not by accident, then, is that force which we call in the physical sciences “gravity” a function of mass (“weight,” in imprecise laymen’s terms). Even in English, we often describe something deserving of our consideration as something that “matters” – semantically, something that is composed of much matter.  More explicitly, we might say that somebody’s opinions “carry a lot of weight” if we wish to communicate that those opinions are ones to which we afford tremendous respect. To be heavy, after all, is to be a person of presence – and thus, figuratively, to be a person who commands respect. This is true in many languages.

What we’ve established, then, is that something which is made heavy is something which is made important. What happens if we apply that concept to our text? Read thus, to “make the heart heavy” simply means to infuse its owner with self-worth, dignity, or honor. For Pharaoh, who is prideful by nature, such a “hardening” produces adverse effects: the king only becomes more stubborn and arrogant as a result. For his servants, however – who have been trained to conduct themselves submissively and deferentially – the opposite holds true. Only when they begin to view themselves as competent, independent and responsible do these servants muster the courage to assert their moral agency, and the strength to protest injustice, instead of falling behind the excuse of “following orders.” What Pharaoh needs least is, ironically, what his servants need most: the self-confidence to voice what’s on their minds and the self-respect to believe that their opinions are reasonable and justified.

Now we understand how the mechanism which prompts Pharaoh to defy the Hebrew God and the mechanism which spurs his servants to take the side of that very God are indeed one and the same. A heart which is hardened so that it is כבד, weighty, is a heart that is made heavy with כבוד: the attribute of pride. This attribute, “pride,” can be either constructive or destructive — it all depends on how it is channeled.

Other Approaches?

Our sages teach us that “there are seventy faces to the Torah” – that is, there are seventy (and possibly more) ways to interpret the teachings of our tradition. The search for multiple layers of meaning within our texts is, in no small part, what makes its study so enjoyable and personally rewarding for those who engage in it.

Together we have considered three different approaches to understanding what the Bible means when it speaks of Pharaoh’s “heavy heart:” a philosophical / theological approach, an archaeological / mythological approach, and a linguistic approach. There are certainly many more approaches one could take, and I would love to hear other insights if you feel you have something to share!

In the meantime, we close with the timeless of words of the sage Ben Bag Bag:

“Ben Bag Bag says: ‘Turn the Torah over, then turn it over again — for everything is to be found within it.” (Avot, 5:25)

 Shabbat shalom!


  1. Atara Siegel says:

    Alex-this is beautiful. I am always impressed by your integration of literature, etymology and history into your divrei torah. Fascinating connection to the death-myth of the heart and the feather.

    Yasher Koach,


    On Thu, Jan 2, 2014 at 9:03 PM, What’s P’shat?

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