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In Shemos 4:1 Moshe expresses his concern to God that the people will not believe that he was commanded by God to take them out. God then gives him 3 signs (4:2-9) stating that if they won't believe [that Moshe was sent by God as a result of] the first sign they will believe the later (2nd) and if they don't believe as a result of either of those they will do so as a result of the 3rd sign.

Later on (4:30) he (Aron? Moshe?) performs the signs and (4:31) the people believed. My questions are

  1. Did the need to perform only 2 of the signs or all 3
  2. If the needed to perform all 3 why were the first 2 not enough
  3. I recall learning (I believe in Gemarah Sotah) that the Jews were instructed not to believe any would-be savior until he spoke the words 'Pakod Yifkod' and that when Moshe came and performed the signs the people went to Serach bas Asher and told her, she said to ignore it. But when they told her he used the phrase 'Pakod Yifkod' she said to believe. - If so what was the point of the signs at all?
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+50

See my first answer before you read this...

Ibn Caspi's approach:

Ibn Caspi here provides the simplest answer to the philosophical question raised above. Hashem of course knows that they will need all three signs, and he is speaking "Kelashon Benei Adam", in the language of man. What is even more interesting in his approach to this story is the understanding of the nation believing.

והיה לדם ביבשת – הנה לא באר שיאמינו אחרי זה השלישי, ועוד כתוב ויאמן העם, היחכן שיהיה דבר לעתיד לא ידעו השם קודם היותו וחלילה, אמנם נשמט זה במקום הזה, למה שידע השם כי אותה ההאמנה לכלל המון העם, לא היתה ההאמנה רק על דרך העברה, והראיה ע״ז כי במעט רוח נעקרה, עד שאמרו למשה ירא י״י, גם כתוב אח״כ ולא שמעו אל משה, ולכן להעירנו ע״ז השמיט מלומר במקום הזה ואז יאמינו, ואעפ״כ צדק אמרו ויאמן העם, איזו אמונה שהיתה

What he basically says is that even after all three signs, the nation believed only partially or "some sort of belief". He supports this by noting that despite the verse 4:31 stating that they believed, in 4:9 Hashem does not say that they will believe him after the third sign. We also see later on (6:9) that they did not listen to Mosheh because of the mental state they were in because of the hard work. He repeats this specifically in 4:31:

ויאמן העם – אי זה אמונה שהיתה כמו שביארנו למעלה.

Therefore, all three were performed because Hashem knew that the nation would not believe, and in fact, they only believed a bit after all three. Ibn Caspi certainly does not subscribe to the Maamar Chazal in this case, as he seems to conclude that they did not really believe, even after "Ki Pakad Hashem Es Benei Yisrael" (4:31)

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See my first answer before you read this...

Ralbag's approach:

Ralbag's understanding of this story is much simpler, and unrelated to how he deals with our philosophical question raised above. According to Ralbag, these signs showed the nation that an honest prophet had come forward (meaning he would predict these signs would happen, and they would come true, 4:5).

ואמר אליו שיעשה זה האות בפני בני ישראל, למען יאמינו כי נראה אליו ה׳ יתעלה, כי הודעת חידוש המופתים קודם חידושם לא תגיע כי אם לנביא, כמו שביארנו בששי מספר מלחמות ה׳ (מאמר ששי חלק ב פרקים יא, יג).

Hashem showed Mosheh these signs to prove to Benei Yisrael that Mosheh was a Navi Emes by "probability". The Ralbag essentially says that to predict one of these signs correctly would be unlikely, but technically possible for it to happen by chance. To predict 2 of these in a row would be highly unlikely, but still technically possible. To have Mosheh predict 3 in a row would be (so close to) impossible by chance if he was not a Navi. Here are his words:

ואם לא יאמינו גם לשני האותות האלה, ויאמרו שכבר אפשר היות הידיעה בהם למשה בקרי, הנה נתן ה׳ יתעלה למשה אות שלישי, והוא שישפוך ביבשה ממימי היאור ויהפכו לדם ביבשה. וזה ממה שלא יתכן שיאמרו שלא יהיה בְּדרך נבואה מה שהודיעם משה מאלו האותות, כי לא יתכן שיגיע הצדק בדבריו במקרה באלו השלושה דברים יחד, וזה מבואר בנפשו, כי לא יתכן במה שבמקרה שיהיה בו מאֹדִיּוּת וריבוי.

Presumably then, all three were required to prove to the nation without doubt that he was a Navi from Hashem by predicting all 3 in advance. Two would still be a remote enough possibility that it could be by chance. Again, Ralbag likely does not follow Chazal here.

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READ ME FIRST:

There are a lot of unclear points in this story, I will try to provide some clarity to it based on my understanding of the points made by the Mefarshim. Due to the length, I would like to post them as separate answers, and MY readers can vote on answers based on their content.

The 3 signs, as you mentioned, are explained in Shemos 4:2-9. Of those verses, two are of special importance to this conversation, verses 8 (commentaries here) and 9 (commentaries here).

4:8 - וְהָיָה֙ אִם־לֹ֣א יַאֲמִ֣ינוּ לָ֔ךְ וְלֹ֣א יִשְׁמְע֔וּ לְקֹ֖ל הָאֹ֣ת הָרִאשׁ֑וֹן וְהֶֽאֱמִ֔ינוּ לְקֹ֖ל הָאֹ֥ת הָאַחֲרֽוֹן׃

The Lord said to Moses, If they do not believe you and are not convinced by the first miraculous sign, they will be convinced by the second sign (NLT)

4:9 - וְהָיָ֡ה אִם־לֹ֣א יַאֲמִ֡ינוּ גַּם֩ לִשְׁנֵ֨י הָאֹת֜וֹת הָאֵ֗לֶּה וְלֹ֤א יִשְׁמְעוּן֙ לְקֹלֶ֔ךָ וְלָקַחְתָּ֙ מִמֵּימֵ֣י הַיְאֹ֔ר וְשָׁפַכְתָּ֖ הַיַּבָּשָׁ֑ה וְהָי֤וּ הַמַּ֙יִם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּקַּ֣ח מִן־הַיְאֹ֔ר וְהָי֥וּ לְדָ֖ם בַּיַּבָּֽשֶׁת׃

And if they don’t believe you or listen to you even after these two signs, then take some water from the Nile River and pour it out on the dry ground. When you do, the water from the Nile will turn to blood on the ground. (NLT)

Ibn Ezra's approach:

The first point that needs to be addressed is the following philosophical issue: Obviously, Hashem knows how many signs they will need in order to believe, so why bother telling Mosheh this? Just tell him to do the number of signs that it will take.

Ibn Ezra explains that God was saying this in order to reassure Mosheh - Hashem is basically saying "if you will be nervous that they will not accept you after just one sign, so perform the second and third signs":

אם לא יאמינו – ידענו כי השם ידע כל העתידות, רק הדיבור כנגד משה. אחר שאמרא לו השם: ושמעו לקולך (שמות ג׳:י״ח), אמר משה מפחד אני שלא ישמעו כולם בקולי. ואם לא יאמינו – טעמו: אם תאמר שלא יאמינו, וכן: והיה אם לא יאמינו (שמות ד׳:ט׳).

He basically says that Hashem knows how many signs, but does not specify, because it doesn't matter. What is important is that technically speaking Mosheh might not know whether or not all of those present will accept it fully, and this is for Mosheh, so when it comes to performing the signs, he performs them all for the nation (likely to ease his own fears), as specifically stated by Ibn Ezra there:

...ויעש האותות – המטה, ואות היד, ולקח מים מהיאור והיה לדם ביבשה

Therefore, all three were performed, in order for Moshe to calm his mind. Ibn Ezra likely does not subscribe to this view of Chazal, as he does not mention it.

  • I’m not sure that this is worth dividing up, actually. Maybe throw it all in one post and slap a TLDR at the bottom of it? – DonielF Jan 4 '18 at 5:54
  • @DonielF I want people to be able to at least see one of the shorter approaches if they don't want to read through the entire thing. (Also, they likely won't even look at it if its a 4 page essay.) – רבות מחשבות Jan 4 '18 at 6:06
  • Hence my comment about the TLDR. Maybe on second thought you can slap that one on at the top. – DonielF Jan 4 '18 at 6:12
  • @DonielF, oh no, I read every word, and wrote and categorized. Everything is valuable. If you disagree, you can edit it all in tomorrow when I'm done the last part, but I'd prefer not. (This is now my Parsha Shiur for this week, hence the outrageous amount of time invested...) – רבות מחשבות Jan 4 '18 at 6:16
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See my first answer before you read this...

Chizkuni's Approach (likely what you were taught in school, some version of this is adopted by many of the other Mefarshim):

Chizkuni (and others) consider each additional sign an added proof/incentive to believe. He doesn't comment on the first sign (snake/staff trick), but on the second, he says that this is a bigger proof, because only Hashem can heal people (verse 8):

והאמינו לקל האת האחרון – כי מי יכול לרפוא נגע צרעת רק הקב״ה ויראו כאן שתרפא.

For the third sign, he notes that this is the biggest proof, as the change created by the miracle did not return to its original form (verse 9):

והיו לדם ביבשת – ולא יחזרו לקדמותם ובזאת ידעו כי מאת הקב״ה הוא כי כל דבר שנעשה על ידי כשוף חוזר לקדמותו, והללו יהיו דם.

Note that Ri Bechor Shor gives different reasons for each level (based on symbolism to the severity of punishment to the non-believer), and also assigns them to Tzaddikim (believed the first sign), Beinonim (believed the second sign), and Reshaim (who only believed the third sign:

והיה אם לא יאמינו – כלומר: מי שלא יאמין לראשון – יאמין לשיני, שלא יאמין לשיני – יאמין לשלישי, שיש בהם צדיקים ובינוניים וקשים. כשהיה מהם שלא היו מאמינים לראשון, לפי שלא משמע אלא שבא בשביל יגיעתם, והאמינו לשיני, דכיון שישלח נגעים ודאי יוצאים. ויש מהם שלא האמינו, עד שאעשה אות שימיתם.

Based on the above, when Chizkuni specifically states that all three were performed in front of the nation (verse 30 ויעש האתת – מהנחש ומידו ומהמים.), he is implying that Mosheh saw that some of the group was had not listened to the first/second signs, and therefore he had to do them all.


In terms of Chazal's approach to the end of the story, the source is Pirkei Derabbi Eliezer, which is brough in Tosfos Sotah 13a (to answer why Mosheh went to Serach to ask where Yosef was buried rather than to Menasheh's children):

י"ל שסוד הגאולה נמסר לסרח כדאיתא בפירקי ר"א (פרק מח) וכיון שבא משה הלכו זקני ישראל אצלה לפי שכבר נכשלו על ידי בני אפרים שיצאו שלשים שנה לפני הקץ ונמלכו עתה בה ואמרה להם מה לשון אמר לכם המושיע הזה אמרו לה פקוד פקדתי אמרה להם א"כ הוא הוא לכך הלך גם משה אצלה.

For the Rishonim who do follow Chazal's approach (surprisingly, none of the mefarshim on mg.alhatorah.org mention it here or to 3:16), here is how I would tell you to understand the end of the story.

  1. The only people who came to Serach were the Elders, or those who needed the least convincing. The signs that Mosheh showed the nation were for the rest of them.
  2. Another possibility is that only once Mosheh performed such signs would they have even considered him significant enough to ask him for the "password" (or even accept it from him).

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