Question: How can there be a famine in egypt?

Parshas Miketz and Vayigash discuss a famine in Egypt and the world. Rashi's comments to Eikev 11:10 imply that the Nile's annual flooding was critical for Egyptian agriculture as Egypt does not rely on rainfall (like the land of Israel).

How can there be a famine in Egypt? Did the river dry up?

I am looking for sources that discuss this concept.

  • 5
    The flooding of the Nile varied from year to year, and there were years when the flooding was insufficient to prodice sufficient crops. Moreover, lack of water is not the only cause of famine. Crops can fail due to disease, or poor weather conditions, or be destroyed by insects. And political, economic, and military factors, the primary causes of famine in the modern world, certainly played a role back then as well.
    – LazerA
    Dec 19, 2012 at 7:07
  • 2
    Just my idea (no source), but the text says "famine", not "drought". Insufficient water is a common way to get famine, but perhaps something happened to the seed supply, the soil, or something else. (Plus, y'know, HKBH.) Dec 19, 2012 at 13:59
  • 3
    Some of the commentaries on Pharaoh's dreams say that the cows represented cattle and the wheat represented harvest. They would be affected by the famine. As mentioned in other comments, there is no indication that this would happen through the nile. See however, Kli Yakar 47:8, which seems to imply that the famine was related to the nile not overflowing: hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=9597&pgnum=605
    – Menachem
    Dec 19, 2012 at 18:34
  • it does say when Yaakov went to egypt the Nile rose to him and the famine ended. this implies that the Nile was insufficient level and that caused the famine. i.e. it was insufficient level to irrigate the fields.
    – ray
    Nov 14, 2013 at 22:06

2 Answers 2


The Vilna Gaon explains (full text here) that the reason why each set of cows are described with two descriptions is because there are two different types of famine - רעב and כפן. The former word refers to a time when the fields are not producing good produce, whereas the latter is when the fields are producing good produce but Hashem does not place in the produce the ability to satiate the appetite, like the posuk in Vayikra (26,26) says - “and you shall eat and not be satisfied”.

This is what our posuk means: “handsome appearance”, that is, the appearance of the produce is good, and “robust flesh”, that it satisfies, because the ability to satiate has not been taken from it. But with regard to the bad cows both these qualities are reversed - “bad appearance” and also “lean of flesh”. Thus the famine which was being shown to Pharaoh was to contain both types of famine.

So, the issue was not crop quantity but crop quality, which could be caused by factors other than sufficiency of water.


Ancient Egyptain civilization heavily relied on the Nile for sustenance. This included flooding of the Nile river and the various irrigation systems (redirecting water, sometimes 'far') that were built to support agriculture in and around the Nile basin. The river was also used as a transport channel, eventually bridging Lower and Upper Egypt in the 'unification'. Since the reliance on the Nile was so pervasive in all walks of life, changes in conditions could considerably hamper efforts at maintaining a stable harvest and distributing it throughout Egypt.

If rainfall was low in one particular year (or several years) this could impact transport of crops along the Nile, irrigation of surrounding fields, crop yields, etc. and also lead to conflict. Here is one example where the authors suggest that a decrease in rainfall led to the fall of the Old Kingdom.

Furthermore, different pharaohs and rulers in ancient Egypt had vastly different temperaments. This impacted their social policy. Poor planning together with unexpected climate conditions (and more) could certainly have caused or contributed towards widespread famine or even local famine due poor to distribution.

Aside: In the modern age, conflicts arising from water disputes are widespread. In one National Geographic (April 2010) edition on Water the authors attributed 30+ wars in the middle-east to be water related in the 20th century. Just for interest: note that Yaakov (and family) came to Egypt and lived in the land of Goshen (partly in the Nile delta) with enough grazing land to support their livestock (despised but tolerated by Egypt, see Bereishit 46:31-34)

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