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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    It's possible that the Egyptians kept sheep in pens, rather than shepherding them around. Egypt was an agrarian society, which means they had large farmlands for growing things like wheat, and one thing you never wanted was some random stranger walking onto your land with a herd of goats eating all of your crop. In America we have lots of cows, but no shepherds, i don't see why this couldn't apply to the Egyptians as well.
    – Aaron
    Commented Jun 18, 2015 at 17:28

6 Answers 6


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). The Egyptians ate sheep, except the firstborn sheep, which they worshiped.

[Based on this, I would say that Egyptians wouldn't eat the meat of non-Egyptians, since it was possible the firstborn sheep were mixed into the meat. Only Egyptians made sure that the meat they ate did not come from any firstborn sheep]

  • "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
    Commented Dec 28, 2011 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
    Commented Dec 28, 2011 at 22:22

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.

  • 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.) Commented Dec 28, 2011 at 21:23
  • Could you please add a translation of the Midrash quotation?
    – Isaac Moses
    Commented Dec 28, 2011 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
    Commented Dec 28, 2011 at 23:47

If "Toeva" means "taboo", either because of the godlike status of sheep, or vegetarianism, it's indeed very hard to understand how they could have had shepherds (without saying, as answered above, that they kept them for worship or wool.)

However if it was more of a great disdain, perhaps as a reaction to the Hyksos, then it is possible that they would have had low-caste shepherds, (just as our society has IRS agents...).

In addition, as pointed out in a comment, the antipathy might have been directed more against the nomadic lifestyle of the Hebrews, rather than sheep farming itself. (See Hirsch Chumash, Genesis 4:1). If so, they may have farmed sheep in a non-nomadic fashion.


Egyptians did not sheep worship or any animals. They were monotheists. The symbols represented different concepts of the creator. In this, the creator is praised through respect of nature. Shepherds were not allowed because there sheep would not only eat the herb of the field, but the sheep would pull the entire plants up from the root. This could have negative effects to Egyptian agriculture. Cows only grazed and eat herbs on the ground surface. They did not eat with Hebrews because sheep are some of the most unintelligent of the animals, and Egyptian would not eat sheep or lamb.

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    – mevaqesh
    Commented Jun 18, 2015 at 3:28

It seems that it is was all about religious, traditional, and cultural differences. The word "Shepard" seems synonymous with "Hebrew".To own any amount of animals in those days you were considered "rich". So it wasn't the animals in question, it was all about how they were to present themselves unto pharaoh so they wouldn't highly offend him, there Gods, religion, cultural practices and banish them or even kill them. 1) The Egyptians already thought themselves the best class in the world, as there religion/gods, so they couldn't eat with anyone who wasn't Egyptian because they were unworthy to dine with, all other cultures were slaves/and or servants to the Egyptians, so pharaoh allowed them to live by the city but not in the city because of the respect he had toward Joseph. 2) Livestock owners were considered the most rich in all the world and Egyptians even considered them gods, so you can't go to pharaoh and say you are a "Hebrew Shepard" which implies you are equal/and or better then them and there gods because your a Hebrew owner of many livestock, that would highly highly offend him and there pagan gods. So by saying you WORK with livestock and all each have some is different then saying "here is my vast rich livestock kingdom". 3)Religious, cultural and traditions were so different in every way, even with there livestock. How they were raised, killed, eaten, sacrificed, etc.. It all comes into play, so if you didn't do it like the Egyptians, then if was offensive to them period. Obviously how they presented themselves to pharaoh worked because he wasn't offended by them and offered them JOBS, meaning if they had skills that were worthy of SERVING pharaoh then they could SERVE him and his kingdom.

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    I'm having trouble following your reasoning. Also, do you have sources for any of this? Thanks. Commented Oct 19, 2016 at 1:01
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    – mevaqesh
    Commented Oct 19, 2016 at 2:43

Vegetarianism was pretty much common among ancient Egyptian cultures, with their diet largely consisting of wheat and barley - something discovered by a French research team who analysed the carbon atoms in mummies that had lived in Egypt between 3500 BC and 600 AD to find out what they ate, Inside Science News Service (ISNS) reported ... which probably explains why the ancient Egyptians considered the farming/herding/shepherding of livestock for food an abomination.

Source: https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-evolution-human-origins/new-study-reveals-ancient-egyptians-were-mostly-vegetarian-001638

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