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Avraham Avinu says in Bereishit 18:25:

חָלִ֨לָה לְּךָ֜ מֵעֲשֹׂ֣ת ׀ כַּדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֗ה לְהָמִ֤ית צַדִּיק֙ עִם־רָשָׁ֔ע וְהָיָ֥ה כַצַּדִּ֖יק כָּרָשָׁ֑ע חָלִ֣לָה לָּ֔ךְ הֲשֹׁפֵט֙ כָּל־הָאָ֔רֶץ לֹ֥א יַעֲשֶׂ֖ה מִשְׁפָּֽט׃

That be far from Thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked, that so the righteous should be as the wicked; that be far from Thee; shall not the judge of all the earth do justly?’

However, with regards to Makkat Bechorot we are taught (Shmot 12:29-30):

וַיְהִ֣י ׀ בַּחֲצִ֣י הַלַּ֗יְלָה וַֽיהוָה֮ הִכָּ֣ה כָל־בְּכוֹר֮ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַיִם֒ מִבְּכֹ֤ר פַּרְעֹה֙ הַיֹּשֵׁ֣ב עַל־כִּסְא֔וֹ עַ֚ד בְּכ֣וֹר הַשְּׁבִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּבֵ֣ית הַבּ֑וֹר וְכֹ֖ל בְּכ֥וֹר בְּהֵמָֽה׃ וַיָּ֨קָם פַּרְעֹ֜ה לַ֗יְלָה ה֤וּא וְכָל־עֲבָדָיו֙ וְכָל־מִצְרַ֔יִם וַתְּהִ֛י צְעָקָ֥ה גְדֹלָ֖ה בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם כִּֽי־אֵ֣ין בַּ֔יִת אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵֽין־שָׁ֖ם מֵֽת׃

And it came to pass at midnight, that the LORD smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the first-born of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the first-born of cattle. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead.

This begs the question: Were all of the Egyptian firstborn evildoers?

And if the answer is yes, a follow-up: What was unique about the firstborn that only they were killed, whereas all the other evildoers lived?

While this question-and-answer deals with part of the issue, it:

a) Does not give definitive proof that no Egyptian firstborn was innocent.

b) Leaves our second question undealt with (albeit asked by DanF); and surely, middah k'neged middah is no excuse for missing the target!

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  • 1
    possible dupe judaism.stackexchange.com/q/68636/759
    – Double AA
    Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 20:44
  • That actually increases my question-- will edit accordingly.
    – user9907
    Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 21:07
  • Care to explain the comment-less downvote, or want to leave me to my devices (including a chainsaw)?
    – user9907
    Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 0:43

6 Answers 6

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chabad.org points out that Tehillim 136:10 uses the phrase לְמַכֵּה מִצְרַיִם בִּבְכוֹרֵיהֶם which means that the Egyptians were punished through (or by means of) their bechorim. An analogy could be if Hashem decrees a punishment by a famine, drought, or plague, people will die unless they are tzadikim enough to merit rescue from the "destroyer". In this case as well, once the destroyer was unleashed, it would have required a special miracle (or an extra level of piety - which none of the Egyptian bechorim had) to be spared.

Additionally, the Yalkut Shimoni stateds that a major part of the "makat Bechorot" was that the bechorim, fearing that they would die (as did the cattle during dever), rose up in rebellion against their own parents to force them to send the Bnai Yisrael out.

In Psalms (136:10), Hashem is praised for “lemakeih Mitzraim bivchoreihem” — “striking the Egyptians through their firstborn.” It does not say that Hashem struck the firstborn of Egypt but rather that He struck the Egyptians through their firstborn. This is explained in the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni) as follows:

Upon hearing that they would be victims of the last plague, the “bechorim” — “firstborn” — insisted that Pharaoh and their parents release the Jews immediately. When their pleas were refused, a civil war broke out and the desperate firstborn attacked and killed their parents and fellow Egyptians. Thus, the tenth plague dealt a double blow to Egypt, killing both firstborn and non-firstborn.

In the Haggadah, the ten plagues are listed as “dam, tzefardei’a...makat bechorot” — “Blood, frogs...plague of the firstborn.” The word “makat” is not mentioned for any of the plagues except for “bechorot” — why?

It can be explained that Rabbi Yehudah argues with the author of the Haggadah as to what was the major part of the double-blow plague. According to the author of the Haggadah, the main part was “makat” — the smiting of the Egyptians by their own angry and violent “bechorim” — firstborn.

Rabbi Yehudah’s third acronym is "באח"ב". The final "ב" stands for “bechorot.” He did not make the acronym ",באח"מ" which would have meant, “Makat bechorot,” because in his opinion the major part of the plague was Hashem’s slaying of the firstborn, and not the smiting of the Egyptians by their own firstborn.

(הגש"פ צוף אמרים בשם יסוד התורה)

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There are several answers:

  1. Shemos Rabbah 15:27 - It writes in Shemos 4:22:

וְאָמַרְתָּ֖ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה כֹּ֚ה אָמַ֣ר ה' בְּנִ֥י בְכֹרִ֖י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל

Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says Hashem: Israel is My first-born son.'

Thus Hashem was demonstrating to Pharoah that he knew how much G-d loved his firstborns. Like it says in Devarim 15:19 - "לֹ֤א תַעֲבֹד֙ בִּבְכֹ֣ר שׁוֹרֶ֔ךָ וְלֹ֥א תָגֹ֖ז בְּכ֥וֹר צֹאנֶֽךָ" - "You must not work your firstling ox or shear your firstling sheep." In such a case, anyone who works these firstborns receives lashes. So in much the same way it was middah knegged middah (measure for measure) and Egypt's firstborns were correspondingly smitten.

  1. Yalkut Meam Loez 12:29 - It was measure for measure, as when Pharoah was suffering from tzaraas he slaughtered the firstborns of Bnei Yisrael in order to bathe in their blood.

  2. Malbim - Firstborns were a source of worship / avodah zara and so by killing the firstborns it was a source that Hashem was the true G-d.

באשר המצריים קדשו בכוריהם לע"ז ואז עשה ה' שפטים באלהי מצרים לכן המית הבכורים

  1. Toldos Adam (as brought in Hagaddas Migdal Eider):

לפי שהמיתו החשובים מישראל הנקראים בני בכורי לפיכך המית בכוריהם

Since they killed the important ones of Israel (i.e. the leaders / well respected personalities etc.) who are called "my firstborn son" - therefore Hashem killed their firstborns.

  1. Kli Yakar on Bamidbar 3:13 - the pasuk there recounts:

וַיְהִ֣י ׀ בַּחֲצִ֣י הַלַּ֗יְלָה וַֽה' הִכָּ֣ה כׇל־בְּכוֹר֮ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֒יִם֒ מִבְּכֹ֤ר פַּרְעֹה֙ הַיֹּשֵׁ֣ב עַל־כִּסְא֔וֹ עַ֚ד בְּכ֣וֹר הַשְּׁבִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּבֵ֣ית הַבּ֑וֹר וְכֹ֖ל בְּכ֥וֹר בְּהֵמָֽה׃

For every male first-born is Mine: at the time that I smote every [male] first-born in the land of Egypt, I consecrated every male first-born in Israel, human and beast, to Myself, to be Mine, Hashem's.

The Kli Yakar explains that the firstborns deserved to be punished for the sins of the generation as they were honoured/respected too much - similar to the instance in Bereishis 19:15 when it says by Lot that he was told to leave, " פֶּן־תִּסָּפֶ֖ה בַּעֲוֺ֥ן הָעִֽיר" - "Lest you be swept away because of the iniquity of the city.”

Similarly note the Tzror Hamor on Shemos 12:2:

ואז המית השם את בכוריהם. שבימים ההם הם היותר נכבדים מהם. הם הכהנים העובדים וכל האנשים והנשים נושקים ידיהם עד אביהם

  1. Abarbanel - It balanced the heavenly "account".

ולפי שהמצריים הרעו להם בכלל באה מכת בכוריהם שהיא כוללת בערך הרעה הכוללת שעשו להם בשעבודם

And according to the fact that the Egyptians harmed them in general, there came a plague of their firstborn, which includes in the value of the total harm they did to them in their slavery

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I just read this Chabad article and it says that the Egyptions regarded firstborns as gods, in the passuk it says:

I will pass through the land of Egypt on this night, and I will smite every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast, and upon all the gods of Egypt will I wreak judgments I, the L‑rd. (Exodus 12:12)

Probably also some innocent (i.e baby’s/young kids) or moral firstborns were killed. This seems unjust, but if G-d were to let them live, their evil* parents will claim that they are somehow good because their firstborns didn't die, or that an Egyptian god saved them. Or the Egyptians would say that the plague was not specifically targeted at them because some of the Egyptians firstborns were not killed etc.

*Evil because all the Egyptians participated in murdering the Hebrew boys, as it says in the passuk:

Then Pharaoh charged all his people (לכל עמו) saying “every boy that is born you shall throw in the Nile and let all the girls live” (Exodus 1:22)

and there is such a thing as group responsibility and punishment.

The few moral Egyptians wil be compensated in the afterlife (it was probably not such a painful death, and G-d may reincarnate them in fortunate lives etc.)

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Hashem did not "miss the target". The bechorim were not being punished. They died, of course! But they were not the target of the makah, any more than Hashem was trying to punish the wheat and barley of Egypt during the Makos of Barad and Arbeh. The firstborns were the stick used for the makah. But all Egyptians were punished - the same as every one of the plagues.

כִּֽי־אֵ֣ין בַּ֔יִת אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵֽין־שָׁ֖ם מֵֽת
There was no house where there was not someone dead

The plague was on each Egyptian house. Each family lost their pride and joy.

The Midrash says that some Egyptians tried placing their firstborns with a Jewish family for that night, where the Angel of Death would not go. It didn't help; the house was smitten and the firstborn died wherever he was.

In three of the last four plagues, the Torah says that what happened was completely unique.

הִנְנִ֤י מַמְטִיר֙ כָּעֵ֣ת מָחָ֔ר בָּרָ֖ד כָּבֵ֣ד מְאֹ֑ד אֲשֶׁ֨ר לֹא־הָיָ֤ה כָמֹ֙הוּ֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם לְמִן־הַיּ֥וֹם הִוָּסְדָ֖הֿ וְעַד־עָֽתָּה
A very heavy hail, such as has not been in Egypt from the day it was founded until now.
וַיַּ֣עַל הָֽאַרְבֶּ֗ה עַ֚ל כׇּל־אֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם וַיָּ֕נַח בְּכֹ֖ל גְּב֣וּל מִצְרָ֑יִם כָּבֵ֣ד מְאֹ֔ד לְ֠פָנָ֠יו לֹא־הָ֨יָה כֵ֤ן אַרְבֶּה֙ כָּמֹ֔הוּ וְאַחֲרָ֖יו לֹ֥א יִֽהְיֶה־כֵּֽן
Never before had there been so many [locusts], nor will there ever be so many again.
וְהָ֥יְתָ֛ה צְעָקָ֥ה גְדֹלָ֖ה בְּכׇל־אֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲשֶׁ֤ר כָּמֹ֙הוּ֙ לֹ֣א נִהְיָ֔תָה וְכָמֹ֖הוּ לֹ֥א תֹסִֽף
There shall be a loud cry in all the land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again;

In this case, what was unique was the screaming. Not the plague, but the impact on those left alive.

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One must realise that the only reason the world isn't reverted to Tohu v'vohu is because of Torah learning (see Nefesh Hachaim 4:11). Basically what I am saying is that it is a misconception that we all simply deserve to live, and Hashem needs a good reason to kill us, otherwise He is not just. Our attitude should be closer to the truth, we have to earn the life we are given, and we should be infinitely grateful that Hashem has created a way in which we can do so (a miracle of miracles, it beggars belief that it's even possible - I can't create myself, or life, or anything, yet somehow I can earn it?!), and enables it, and sustains it, and is very very patient with us as we grapple with it and fail miserably over and over and over...

Given that the Mitzrim were a) steeped top to bottom in idol worship and b) were collectively culpable for oppressing the Bnei Yisrael cruelly, they of course deserved complete destruction without a trace. The innocent children as well, as the adults (although one should argue that the innocent children would not be expected to suffer, and this indeed was the case [ריש מסכת שמחות, פסיקתא דר״ך, ר׳ אפרים עה״ת, רוקח בא יב:כט, חזקוני ילקוט ראובני נג, ילקו״ש בהעלותך תקך, ראה במדבר לג:ד])

Hashem, in His mercy, instead chose to "teach them a lesson" that would make them do teshuva and remove all idolatry from the land. By the time the 10th plague was over, truly Hashem stood alone in the eyes of the Egyptians as true God and Creator of the Universe (See Zohar on parashat Bo.)

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The killing of the firstborn was a plague issued from the highest spiritual level of Nukva, that is, from the source of chayut/vitality of malchut, our universe including its spiritual component. This high-level plague was needed to be able to smite the evil levels that were still active, for they were the evil intellect, known as (K)eter, (R)eshit chochmah, (B)inah, forming thus the acronym bechor "firstborn". This was so because up to that point in the story, all lower-level manifestations of evil were destroyed, that is, all the lower sefirot of evil. But the highest levels of evil still needed to be dealt a tremendous and inescapable Divine blow to subjugate and annul its force. This was the said final plague.

Note: Chochmah is also known as reishit chochmah “the beginning of wisdom” based on “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of G-d” (Tehillim 111:10). Also, chochmah is the first conscious sefirah, and is therefore known as “the beginning”.

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