If Sefer Bereshit was the book of beginnings—of the universe, of life, of humankind, and then of the future Jewish nation through the selection of our forefathers and mothers—Sefer Shemot is the culmination of processes begun by Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, and Yosef. It is at once the apex of our story, when we escape enslavement in Egypt, receive the Torah, and become a nation, and at the same time our middle act: at the end of Sefer Shemot, we are left in the middle of the desert, constructing the Mishkan and dealing with the outcome of Chet ha-Egel, the Sin of the Golden Calf. Also known traditionally as Sefer Yetziyat Mitzrayim, emphasizing the centrality of the exodus to the book, or Sefer ha-Brit, emphasizing the Covenant of Sinai (more on this in the introduction to Sefer Bereshit),1 Sefer Shemot includes copious amounts of both narrative and law.
Table of Contents
- Overview of Sefer Shemot
- Structure of Sefer Shemot
- Major Midrashim on Sefer Shemot
- Major Mefarshim on Sefer Shemot
- Parsha Guides for Sefer Shemot
Overview of Sefer Shemot
Sefer Shemot takes place over a period of 210 years, in contrast to Sefer Bereshit, which spans eons. Similarly, Bereshit opens with a universal history that includes global humanity. It covers the movement of the Avot and Imahot (patriarchs and matriarchs) over a large territory—from the cradle of civilization in southern Mesopotamia into Aram, Canaan, and Egypt. Shemot, in contrast, concentrates on the creation of the Jewish polity and takes place in just two distinct locations: Mitzrayim (Egypt), literally “The Straits,” and Sinai/Chorev, the site of revelation.
The narrative arc of Sefer Shemot picks up where Bereshit left off, with Yosef’s numerous descendents, who, as foretold, become enslaved by a new pharaoh. Also as promised to the Avraham, Bnei Yisrael are redeemed and brought out of Egypt to serve One alone: Hashem. When the people approach Har Sinai (Mount Sinai), they encounter the Divine and accept upon themselves the Torah. They are given the Aseret ha-Dibrot (Ten Commandments) and Moshe ascends the mountain, returning after forty days and forty nights with much Torah and the Luchot ha-Brit (the Tablets).
Sadly, the people have given up on Moshe’s return and mistakenly prompt Aharon to make them (women and Levites excepted) a golden calf, Egel ha-Zahav, to worship. This sin, Chet ha-Egel, results in a protracted period of repentance that concludes with Hashem forgiving the people and giving Moshe a second, though less holy, set of Luchot. After this, the Mishkan (Tabernacle), the “portable Temple,” is constructed, with G-d’s Shechina (Presence) coming to dwell within it as Sefer Shemot concludes.
Structure of Sefer Shemot
Sefer Shemot is constructed in three broad sections. The first deals with the fate of Bnei Yisrael (the children of Israel) in Egypt and culminates in the first Pesach and Yetziyat Mitzrayim (the exodus from Egypt). The second, Maamad Har Sinai (the assembly at Mount Sinai), deals with Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah). The final section of Chumash Shemot records the construction of the Mishkan.
Yetziyat Mitzrayim: Shemot 1-18
- Slavery in Egypt: Shemot 1:1-22
- Introduction of Moshe Rabbenu: Shemot 2:1-25
- The Burning Bush (Moshe’s Mission): Shemot 3:1-4:17
- Moshe’s Return to Egypt: Shemot 4:18-31
- “Let my people go”: Shemot 5:1-6:1
- Hashem appears to Moshe: Shemot 6:2-7:6
- The Ten Plagues: Shemot 7:7-11:10
- The First Pesach: Shemot 12:1-28
- The Exodus and Parting of the Reed Sea: Shemot 12:29-14:31
- The Song of the Sea: Shemot 15:1-21
- Mei Meriva: Shemot 15:22-27
- The Man (Manna) and the Quails, Part 1: Shemot 16:1-36
- Striking the Rock, Part 1: Shemot 17:1-7
- Amalek: 17:8-16
- Reunion with Yitro: 18:1-27
Maamad Har Sinai: Shemot 18-31
- Arriving at Har Sinai and Preparations for Revelation: Shemot 19:1-25
- Aseret ha-Dibrot (the Ten Commandments): Shemot 20:1-23
- Mishpatim (Laws): Shemot 21:1-23:23
- Brit Sinai—Kohanim and Korbanot: Shemot 24:1-11
- Moshe’s Forty Days on Har Sinai and the First Luchot ha-Brit (Tablets): Shemot 24:12-18
- Donations and Instructions for the Mishkan: Shemot 25:1-31:16
Chet ha-Egel: Shemot 31-34
- Chet ha-Egel: Shemot 31:17-32:29
- Moshe’s Second Set of Forty Days: Shemot 32:30-33:23
- Moshe’s Third and Final Set of Forty Days and the Second Luchot: Shemot 34:1-35
Constructing the Mishkan: Shemot 35-40
- The Construction of the Mishkan: Shemot 35:1-39:43.
- The Completion of the Mishkan and the Indwelling of the Shechina: Shemot 40:1-38.
Major Midrashim on Sefer Shemot
The classical (Tannaitic) midrash on Sefer Shemot is Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, a halachic midrash focused on the legal implications of Shemot and associated with the school of the Tanna Rabbi Yishmael, but also including earlier material. Mechilta in Aramaic is equivalent to the Hebrew midda, as in the thirteen middot (“rules” or “principles”) by which the Written Law is authoritatively interpreted. There is another mechilta on Shemot known as Mechilta de-Rashbi (Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai), associated with the school of the Tanna Rabbi Akiva. It was lost over the centuries and reconstructed in the late 19th century from large fragments cited in medieval texts, especially the Yemenite Midrash ha-Gadol.
The aggadic midrashim of Sefer Shemot are later and less often cited. There is a “Rabba” collection of midrashim on it, Shemot Rabba, which came together later than the prominent Bereshit Rabba, probably during the Gaonic period, though, again, incorporating earlier material. There is another recension of aggadot on Shemot, Tanchuma (or the Tanchuma-Yelamdenu literature), which includes a compilation on Sefer Shemot.
Major Mefarshim on Sefer Shemot
Of the Chumash, Sefer Bereshit has the most commentators, and some do not go on to Sefer Shemot, such as Radak. The character of Ramban’s commentary also changes with Shemot, as he includes Kabbalistic hints primarily in Bereshit. However, the two versions of Ibn Ezra’s commentary, the so-called “Long” and “Short” or standard, are extant for Shemot. Rashi continues apace (with Mizrachi’s supercommentary), as do Seforno and Abravanel. There’s also Rashbam, Bechor Shor, Chizkuni, Rabbenu Bachya, and Ralbag, among others, from the Rishonim, and among Achronim, Gur Aryeh, Kli Yakar, Shadal, Malbim, and R. S. R. Hirsch.
Parsha Guides for Sefer Shemot
Image: “Mount Sinai,” El Greco, 1570-72, Historical Museum of Crete, Iraklion.