In Parshas Bo, 11:5, the Torah says:

"Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, to the firstborn of the slave-woman who is behind the millstone, and all the firstborn of the animal".

We know what kings do; they sit on thrones. We know what slaves do; menial labor.

Why does the Torah use these extra words ( in bold above)?
What do we learn out from them?

(The assumption being that the Torah is exact in every way and every word can be learned from.)

  • 1
    I'm just pointing out my last comment to avi's answer here because it might be overlooked at the end of our discussion, but as far as I can tell his answer is wrong, because if מבכור פרעה היושב על כסאו refers to Par'oh himself, as avi contends, then 12:29 would imply that Par'oh was actually killed.
    – Double AA
    Commented Nov 11, 2012 at 17:38
  • Related: judaism.stackexchange.com/q/53027
    – msh210
    Commented Jan 25, 2015 at 19:11

3 Answers 3


Rashi explains that from the most illustrious to the lowliest ones were afflicted.

There are different levels of slaves, and those behind the millstone were the absolute lowest level. And Pharaoh was on the absolute highest level.

  • 3
    How does this answer the question? Take away the words in bold above and the implication Rashi mentions (from illustrious to lowly) remains intact.
    – jake
    Commented Jan 26, 2012 at 2:39
  • 3
    @jake, in a way it wouldn't. Having these words adds the nuance that it's not only the highest and lowest people, but the highest and lowest ranks of society. (If, for example, "Pharaoh's son" was, because of some strange circumstance, "behind the millstone" in jail, he'd still retain his personal dignity as an aristocrat, and vice versa.)
    – Alex
    Commented Jan 26, 2012 at 4:47
  • I would have thought cess pit cleaner would be the lowest of the slaves Commented Jan 25, 2015 at 20:01

The first bold term is obvious. Without the words "Who sits on his throne", you would think that only Pharoh's son, and not Pharoah himself would be threatened with the plague.

Once that phrase is required, then the next phrase 'behind the millstone" is also needed. Because if it only mentioned the throne, then you might think that only the slaves of Pharaoh's house were threatened. Alternatively, if the Pharoah is in charge of all grain production as we were told with the story of Yoseph, then perhaps the first born of the slave woman behind the mill house is telling us that it was only the first born of the aristocrats that were threatened, but even their slaves.... Yet on the other hand, we are told that all of Egypt became slaves to pharaoh, so that might have been redundant. Regardless, the phrase allows us to think and ponder about the heirachy of Egyptian society, and to know that the plague affected them all. Without the second phrase, we might think it was only a limited group.

  • But Par'oh is not par'oh's son. It seems to actually exclude par'oh himself from the plague! I think sitting on the throne is to say that par'oh might have had many bechor's through different wives and this is specifying even the highest one.
    – Double AA
    Commented Jan 26, 2012 at 16:16
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    @DoubleAA What do you mean Paroh is not parohs son? The current paraoh is the son of the Paroah that knew Yosef.. or the paraoh that actually talked to yosef if you read the verse differently. In addition, your reading makes all the questions about why Paraoh didn't die, with fancy midrashic answers non-questions.
    – avi
    Commented Jan 26, 2012 at 16:18
  • Indeed it makes all the fancy midrashic answers not according to peshuto shel mikra. What's the problem with that?
    – Double AA
    Commented Jan 26, 2012 at 16:21
  • @DoubleAA No, it makes the question not a question.
    – avi
    Commented Jan 26, 2012 at 16:23
  • Your question is on the midrash not me. I'm saying a pshat. If it fits the text then it's fine. You should now ask why the midrash did or did not take the view and what it did with it.
    – Double AA
    Commented Jan 26, 2012 at 16:27

A twist on Avi's answer:

"Who sits on his throne" is to include even the highest ranking of Par'oh's many sons from his many wives (as is likely for a monarch at his time).

"Who is behind the millstone" is then needed either for parallelism or to avoid unintended inferences from the throne quip as outlined in Avi's answer.

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