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Yosef tells his family to say they're shepherds because that's taboo to Egypt:

you must say, 'We and our fathers have dealt in livestock all our lives'. You will then be able to settle in the Goshen district, since all shepherds are taboo in Egypt.' (Gen 46:34)

Commentary from bible.ort.org says about this:

Some say that this was because sheep were sacred to Egyptians, and hence, those who raised them for food were considered an abomination (Rashi; see Genesis 43:32). Others say that the Egyptians were vegetarians (Ibn Ezra). If this was after the Hyksos were driven out, it might have been a reaction against the Hyksos, who were 'shepherd kings' (Josephus, Contra Apion 1:14). Others say that it was a social taboo (Rashbam).

Ok, Egyptians have a problem with shepherds. Clear enough, or so it seems.

But when Yosef is managing the famine later the Egyptians pledge their livestock, and sheep are specifically mentioned:

They brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them bread in exchange for horses, flocks of sheep, herds of cattle, and donkeys. He saw them through that year with bread in exchange for all their livestock. (47:17)

So we learn from this that the Egyptians kept sheep. So what does it mean that there was a taboo against shepherds?

In today's parsha chat someone suggested that the Egyptians didn't eat their sheep but might have gotten wool and milk from them, and we speculated that maybe the word "shepherd" specifically applies to herding food animals. Did that distinction matter historically and would there have been separate terms for it? Did farmers of that time have the practice of fattening up livestock for slaughter, and if you're not going to eat them you feed/graze/herd them differently?

So my question is: if shepherds were taboo in Egypt, then how to we explain the Egyptian flocks of sheep?

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2 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Rashi (46:34):

כי תועבת מצרים כל רעה צאן: לפי שהם להם אלהות:

are abhorrent to the Egyptians: Because they (the sheep) are their gods.

The Siftei Chachamim (46:34) (in his second answer) gives a different twist to the word "To'evah", and explains Rashi a little differently. He says that Yosef is telling his brothers that the Egyptians greatly honored shepherds, and in their eyes the shepherds were indistinguishable from the "gods" they took care of (and the Torah is using the term To'evah (abomination) to refer to the way the Egyptians treated the shepherds, as if they themselves were gods - since the Torah refers to idol worship as an abomination). Therefore they would settle the family in Goshen, which is the best of the land.

While he doesn't say it explicitly, it appears the Siftei Chachamim is basing his explanation on Rashi Shemot 8:22, who brings both translations of the word "To'evah".


The Kehot Chumash Interpolated Translation, based on a footnote of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Likutei Sichot Vol. 5, pg. 266, note 23) says as follows:

for all non-Egyptian shepherds are abhorrent to the Egyptians, for they raise sheep for food, and the Egyptians worship firstborn sheep.

In the footnote, the Rebbe explains as follows. From Shemot 11:5 we see that the Egyptians only worshiped the first born animal. (Even though it says "animal" and not "sheep", the Rebbe points out Bereshit 4:20, where Rashi explicitly interchanges "sheep" and "animals").

Rashi (Bereshit 43:32), tells us that Onlekos gives a reason why the Egyptians wouldn't eat with the brothers:

because it is an abomination to the Egyptians: It is a hateful thing for the Egyptians to eat with the Hebrews, and Onkelos gave the reason for the matter.

Onkelos says:

אֲרֵי בְּעִירָא דְּמִצְרָאֵי דָּחֲלִין לֵיהּ עִבְרָאֵי אָכְלִין.

Because the Hebrews ate the sheep that the Egyptians worshiped.

So the Rebbe concludes that the Egyptians problem was with non-Egyptian shepherds, who ate all sheep (including the firstborns, which were worshiped by the Egyptians).

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"Egyptians worshiped shepherds like gods": very interesting. One wonders, though, why they needed to buy food. After all, even the priests in Egypt were fed by the king; all the more so, the gods themselves. –  Barry Dec 28 '11 at 22:16
    
@Barry: While you're question still applies, I'm going to edit my wording of the Siftei Chachamim to be more in line with what he actually says. –  Menachem Dec 28 '11 at 22:22
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Idol worshipers would buy and sell their gods. For example, Terach, Avraham's father, owned a god-market. It therefore follows that when the Egyptians were faced with starvation, they brought all their possessions, including their gods, to trade in for food.

We see this from the following passage in Beraishis Rabsi (p. 217):

אינו אומר וישמעו אל יוסף ויביאו את מקניהם, לפי שכשאמר להם יוסף הבו מקניכם לא רצו לקבל עד שאמר להם פרעה שיעשו כדבר יוסף. מיד הלכו אצלו וקנה את אלהיהם ואת האדמה

...They then went to Joseph and he purchased their gods and their land...

So the answer to your question is: they weren't "shepherds" in the regular sense of the word, which connotes raising of livestock for profit, but rather "caretakers" of the livestock which they viewed as gods.

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And they had flocks of gods, not individual ones? (This might be covered in the BR passage, which I'm not fluent enough to read.) –  Monica Cellio Dec 28 '11 at 21:23
    
Could you please add a translation of the Midrash quotation? –  Isaac Moses Dec 28 '11 at 21:29
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In a similar vein, Be'er Yitzchak quotes Tzeidah Laderech (though I haven't been able to find it there), who in turn quotes "the great rabbi R"A" (maybe R. Avraham ibn Ezra? though I haven't found this in his commentary either) that the difference is this: the Egyptian shepherds would treat their sheep with reverence, while shepherds from other nations would feel free to hit the sheep if they're getting out of line, etc. –  Alex Dec 28 '11 at 23:47
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