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There's a famous Midrash cited by Rashi (Shemoth 2:5), that says Pharaoh's daughter stretched out her arm and that it extended beyond its natural length to pull in the basket containing the baby from the Nile river (whom she would name Moshe). This is based on the words of the Pasuk, "וַתִּשְׁלַח אֶת-אֲמָתָהּ", which are usually translated as, "And she sent her arm," suggesting that the sending is somehow awkward for a limb. But that's not really the meaning of the words, and Rashi himself first says that אֲמָתָהּ actually means "her handmaid". (See also, "וְיוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבָּת לַה אֱ-לֹקֶיךָ: לֹא-תַעֲשֶׂה כָל-מְלָאכָה אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ וּבִתֶּךָ, עַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתְךָ וּבְהֶמְתֶּךָ, וְגֵרְךָ, אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ.‏ " -- "But the seventh day is a sabbath to HaShem your G-d: do not do any creative labor, you, your son and your daughter, your (male) slave and your handmaid and your animal, and the stranger that is within your gates.") Even after citing the Midrash, Rashi further explains that the Midrash doesn't even work grammatically, because the word אֲמָה needs a Dagesh in the Mem to mean "arm".

So the Midrash is using the visual of Pharaoh's daughter miraculously extending her arm beyond its natural length to explain why the word "(and she) sent" is used in the Pasuk - even though, if we just translate it the more natural way (ie., her handmaid), it would make sense without any obvious miracles or any unusual linguistic tricks. Not only that, but the forced translation also creates a new awkward phrasing (at least in my opinion). The very next word says, "וַתִּקָּחֶהָ" - "and she took it". Once the Midrash has defined the meaning of the Pasuk that she herself extended her hand, it makes this word awkward, because it could have just said, "to take it," or something equally generic and passive. It's not really fixing any awkwardness. It's only the assumption that she did it herself that created the awkwardness it then seeks to fix, and then it accidentally creates another (admittedly slightly less) awkward phrasing.

So why should Rashi go to such great lengths (the pun wasn't originally intended, but it's a good one, isn't it) to cite this Midrash? Isn't his whole modus operandi to bring Peshat unless Peshat isn't adequate and the Pasuk calls for Derash?

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Are you assuming that the Midrash is attempting to give peshat in the pasuk and not, say, to make some homiletic point or transmit a tradition regarding what happened? –  Isaac Moses Jul 12 '13 at 18:57
I don't see anything wrong with "וַתִּקָּחֶהָ" if the pasuk is read as referring to an arm; nor do I understand why you think "וַתִּשְׁלַח" makes more sense for an arm than for a servant. –  msh210 Jul 12 '13 at 19:04
@IsaacMoses, of course it isn't giving us Peshat. But my assumption is that - usually - where Midrash comes in is when Peshat is inadequate and calls for Derash to explain it. –  Seth J Jul 12 '13 at 20:02
@SethJ, really? I've certainly heard that assumption about Rashi in his choice to quote a midrash, but I thought the point of midrash was was transmit traditional lessons and narratives that are associated with the verses. –  Isaac Moses Jul 12 '13 at 20:04
@msh210, regarding וַתִּקָּחֶהָ, I didn't say there's anything wrong, just that the Pasuk eliminates an awkward word (that it made awkward by assuming it's her arm), but left this word seeming ... less natural. –  Seth J Jul 12 '13 at 20:05

3 Answers 3

Based on the the Sefer Zikaron (I didn't look it up) and the Sefer HaShoreshim LeHaRadak (entry אֲמָה), the Chumash Shai LeMorah says that there are some who say the correct version is with a dagesh in the mem. (He says that R' Sadeya Gaon says so, and R' Hai Gaon brings both versions.)

If that is the case, it seems that Rashi brings the Midrash in order to refute that version.

(See Gur Aryeh on the verse for something similar)

Alternately (and I'm not sure if this is correct), the previous Rashi quotes our Rabbis as saying that the handmaidens died because they tried to protest Pharaoh's daughter's action of saving the child. Rashi then says that the words of the verse support this explanation.

[The Talmud that Rashi is quoting does say one handmaiden was left alive, but Rashi here does not bring that point].

If so, Rashi is left with a problem. If the maidservants died, which maidservant did she send to take the basket. To resolve this, Rashi brings the Midrash, even if he finds it problematic.

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Rashi's modus operandi is NOT just to bring peshat. The quote is to bring peshat, and to bring aggadah which works well and explains aspects of the text. Rashi to Bereishit 3:8:

ואני לא באתי אלא לפשוטו של מקרא ולאגדה המיישבת דברי המקרא דבר דבור על אופניו

I would estimate that about 80% of Rashi is citations of midrashim.

In this instance, Rashi's concern is indeed the peshat and the dikduk, rather than the miracle:

את אמתה: את שפחתה. ורבותינו דרשו לשון יד. אבל לפי דקדוק לשון הקודש היה לו להנקד אמתה מ"ם דגושה. והם דרשו את אמתה את ידה, שנשתרבבה אמתה אמות הרבה:

her maidservant: Heb. אֲמָתָהּ, her maidservant. Our Sages (Sotah 12b), however, interpreted it as an expression meaning a hand. Following [the rules of] Hebrew grammar, however, it should have been vowelized אַמָּתָהּ, with a dagesh in the mem. They, however, interpreted אֶתאֲמָתָהּ to mean her hand, and her arm grew many cubits (אַמוֹת).

That is, the word אמה could be interpreted in three ways:

  1. hand
  2. maidservant
  3. cubit

Of these three, a pashtan could think that #1 was peshat. Therefore, Rashi points out that: A) it really means maidservant B) Chazal said hand; C) this was midrash, rather than peshat D) and it must be midrash because the dikduk does not work out on peshat level E) very slight elaboration of Chazal's derasha, to show their engagement in wordplay, that they incorporate definition #3.

Look to see how much space Rashi devotes to each of these tasks.

Rejecting the midrash and explaining why (or even accepting it, had he done so) is well within Rashi's agenda.

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"Rashi's modus operandi is NOT just to bring peshat. The quote is to bring peshat, and to bring aggadah which works well and explains aspects of the text." Right. And what does the Midrash explain? (You've already demonstrated that it doesn't work well except for the wordplay about the cubit.) –  Seth J Jul 12 '13 at 21:42
Or are you saying that he had to bring it in order to reject it? –  Seth J Jul 12 '13 at 21:44
the midrashic 'hand' translation (stripped of extending) is one that could conceivably be peshat. indeed, shadal considers it as possible peshat even with the nikkud against it: parsha.blogspot.com/2007/12/… so had rashi endorsed it, it would have been just the sort of midrash he would bring. it operates on the level of pshat. plus, he had to bring it in order to reject it –  josh waxman Jul 14 '13 at 16:22
btw, it does not seem awkward to have the next word "and she took it". compare to Noach, in Bereishit 8:9. וַיִּשְׁלַח יָדוֹ וַיִּקָּחֶהָ. it seems to be idiomatic, and indeed a better reason to think that indeed amata means her hand. –  josh waxman Jul 14 '13 at 16:27

Rashi's quote from the text is "את-אמתה" so his question must arise from within the quote or from the quote's relationship with the context. He may have been dissatisfied with understanding the quote as 'her handmaiden' because that would raised the following questions:

1) Why does the text specify who was sent? (It was 'only' a maidservant, after all. Shemoth 9:7 is one example of not specifying who was sent)

2) Why does the text use את before אמתה? (Not all objects of verbs have את in front, so this seems to raise the status of the אמה in the action. Rashi might even understand it to mean 'with', leading to 'with something additional', namely a miraculously extended arm.)

3) Handmaidens have already been introduced in this verse, as נערתיה - her youths (female). Why now switch to the term אמה? There must be something special about that word - cue similar words with different meanings. (Unclear why Rashi included את in the quote. Perhaps because it's joined by Maqqef)

4) If the next word 'and she took it' is meant in the physical sense, then the phrase becomes odd - how (and why) did she take it herself if she had sent her handmaiden to it? (Unclear why Rashi did not include ותקחה in the quote)

5) Assuming Pharaoh's daughter acted through a handmaiden, for what purpose does the text tell us that detail? Surely it doesn't state explicitly whenever royalty act through their staff? (Unclear why Rashi did not include ותשלח in the quote)

6) Why did Pharaoh act through an אמה? The subsequent actions, in this and the next verse, are all done by Pharaoh's daughter herself. The story shows us Pharaoh's daughter personally saving an unknown abandoned child; she appears less concerned with status roles and more with compassion and action. Physically, too, she may have been closer to the baby's location in the reeds (she had come to wash) than her handmaidens were; they were 'walking next to the Nile' just before Rashi's quoted phrase. (Unclear why Rashi did not include ותשלח in the quote)

Rashi could have answered these questions in various ways but the derash does deal with them convincingly - and it has Chaza"l behind it.

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Welcome to MY! This is an amazingly detailed answer, +1. You might want to poke around some of our other rashi and parshanut questions for something you find interesting. I hope to see you around the site :) –  Shokhet Dec 11 at 0:56

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