There is a principle in Judaism that it is possible to repent for any transgression, even idolatry. My question is, how is this reconciled with the fact that hashem hardened pharaoh’s heart in the book of exodus? Why wouldn’t god allow for pharaoh to repent for his sins?


2 Answers 2


This was discussed in this question, and my answer there.

Rashi on Shemos 7:3 writes:

וְגָלוּי לְפָנַי שֶׁאֵין נַחַת רוּחַ בָּאֻמּוֹת לָתֵת לֵב שָׁלֵם לָשׁוּב - and it is manifest to Me that the heathen nations find no spiritual satisfaction in setting their whole heart to return to Me penitently

He goes on to say that "it is better that his (Pharaoh's) heart should be hardened in order that My signs may be multiplied against him so that ye may recognise My divine power. Such, indeed, is the method of the Holy One, blessed be He: He brings punishment upon the nations so that Israel may hear of it and fear Him.".

This seems problematic, since should it be obvious that G-d gives us the ability to truely return to Him? Why did G-d did not give Pharaoh this option?

See the Rambam in Shemonah Perakim (chapter 8) in which he says that all what happened to B'nei Yisrael in Mitzrayim was done with free will of the pharaoh:

This they did through the dictates of their own free will and the evil passions of their hearts, without any external constraint forcing them thereto. The punishment which G-d 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. The fact that they were prevented from repenting manifested itself by Pharaoh's not dismissing them.

The Siftei Chakhamim on Rashi explains:

It is better for Me that his heart be hardened. . . In other words, if I do not harden Pharaoh’s heart he will surely repent. But it is revealed to Me that he will not really repent wholeheartedly. And then, if I smite him with plagues and punish him, people will say that Hashem brings punishment upon repenters — for they will not know that Pharaoh’s repentance was not wholehearted. Therefore I will harden his heart so that he will not repent at all, and then I will be able to increase My wonders and punish him for all to see.

The most important part of this Siftei Chakhamim is: "not really repent wholeheartedly." - this would suggest that even if G-d did not hardened pharao's heart, the "repentance" of him would not have been wholeheartedly and would not have been true teshuvah.

The Ramban (Shemos 7:3) asks a famous question:

If G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart, what then was his transgression [since he had no choice]?

The Ramban answers:

There are two answers, which both hold true: First, Pharaoh, in his wickedness, had unjustifiably treated the Jews terribly, so he was punished with the withdrawal of the path of repentance, and there are many verses regarding this in the Torah and the Writings, and he was punished by his original deeds. Secondly, only the second half of the [ten] plagues were brought upon Egypt due to Pharaoh’s transgressions, as the Torah states, And Pharaoh’s heart was strengthened, (Shemot 7:13, 26; 8:15), and Pharaoh hardened his heart (ibid. 8:28, 9:7). He did not want to send the Jews out of Egypt for the glory of God; rather, when the plagues increased and he was becoming too worn out to withstand them, his heart softened and he decided to send them out because of the severity of the plagues themselves, but not in order to do the will of his Creator.

So based on these meforshim, it would seem that Pharaoh, even by the tenth plague, never truly repented, he just wanted to "get it over with".

The Tur, Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, in his commentary Tur HaAroch on Shemos 9:12 explains that Gd had to harden Pharaoh's heart to prevent Pharaoh from letting the Jewish people go sooner. This, the Tur explains, is to ensure that the full range of plagues were exposed to Mitzrayim.

The Malbim says that G-d hardened the heart of pharaoh because then, the Jewish people wouldn't be let go by him, so that pharaoh and the Egyptians could see G-ds excistence and to let them see that G-d rules the world.

Rav Moshe Feinstein (Darash Moshe al HaTorah, parashas Vaera, p. 106) explains that after the 6 plagues, pharaoh only would wanted to let the Jewish people go, because solely out of fear for further plagues, not because he acknowledged G-d.


The Rambam, Raavad (Hil. Teshuva 5:5), and Ramban (Shemos 7:3) have lengthy discussions of Pharaoh's free will. These opinions are relatively well known and mentioned by others here, so I would just like to add a slightly lesser known opinion.

The Seforno, on the verse הנה אנכי הרג את בנך בכורך, says the following:

כפי המשפט האלהי שהוא ׳מדה כנגד מדה׳, כאמרו ״וכארח איש ימצאנו״ (איוב ל״ד:י״א). כי אמנם מכת בכורות לבדה היתה למשפט עונש לפרעה מכל המכות, אבל שאר המכות היו לאות ולמופת למען ישובו, ״כי לא יחפץ במות המת״ (יחזקאל י״ח:ל״ב), כי לא נעל בפניהם דרכי התשובה האמתית כלל, לו חכמו (עפ״י דברים ל״ב:כ״ט) לשוב אל האל יתברך מאהבת טובו ויראת גדלו, שהיא התשובה המגעת עד כסא הכבוד, אשר היא המצלת ונותנת חן בעיני אלהים, כאמרם זכרונם לברכה ״עונות נחשבים לו כזכיות״ (יומא פ״ו:), או לפחות לשוב כעבדים מיראת מה שיוכל להעניש. אבל מכת בכורות וטביעת פרעה וחילו בים היו שפטים אלהיים, מדה כנגד מדה.

Translation (my own):

Following the Divine Justice, that is to say, measure for measure [Israel is my firstborn son, and if you oppress him, I will kill your firstborn son], as it says "the ways of a man will find him". Indeed, the plague of the firstborn was the only one which was meted for Judgement and Punishment for Pharaoh, as opposed to all the other plagues which were for miracles and signs so that they would repent, "as he does not desire the death of the dead". He did not close the door on their repentance at all, had they but become wise enough to return to God the Blessed from the love of his goodness and awe of his greatness, which is the repentance that reaches even the Glorious Throne. That [type of Teshuva] is what saves a man, and gives him grace in they eyes of God, as our sages of blessed memory say, "his sins are now counted as commendments". Or, at least, they could have returned like slaves who fear punishment of what He would punish. But the plague of the firstborn and the drowning of Pharaoh and his army in the sea, those were Divine Judgement, measure for measure.

What I see from here is that the Seforno understood that what God was preventing from Pharaoh wasn't teshuva, but letting the nation leave. In each instance that Pharaoh's heart is hardened, he refuses to let בני ישראל go. That is what God had told Moshe - that he would prevent them from leaving (וַאֲנִי אֲחַזֵּק אֶת לִבּוֹ וְלֹא יְשַׁלַּח אֶת הָעָם.) Teshuva was always open to him, and he chose not to take that path. This resulted in his final punishment.

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