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Is Rashi Bothered by Bowing?

Posted on א׳ בטבת ה׳תש״ע (December 18, 2009) | in Chanukkah, Mikeitz | by

One of the famous stories of Channukah is that of Channah, who instructed her seven sons to be killed rather than bow down to Antiochus. Jews, even now, have a very strong aversion to bowing, and are often perturbed when visiting countries in the Far East, or participating in martial arts, where bowing is used as a formal greeting.

When the ten brothers go down to Egypt and meet Pharaoh’s vizier (Yosef) to buy food, however, they all bow down to him. Where was the brothers’ Jewish pride? Was it even an aveirah for them to have bowed down? What’s more, Rashi’s explanation makes things worse. He explains here that it was a complete, full-body bow, with arms and legs spread out. (Ber. 42:6).

To see if Rashi had any consistent thoughts on Jews bowing down to other people, I checked his commentary on a number other instances where similar situations occur: Yaakov bowing down to Eisav, Avraham bowing down to the Children of Heth, and Moshe bowing down to Yisro.

Where Yaakov and his entire family bow down to Eisav upon their return to Canaan (Ber. 33:3, 33:6-7), Rashi says nothing.

When Avraham bows down to the Children of Heth (Ber. 23:7, 23:12), Rashi also says nothing, despite the fact that there is a Midrash Rabbah which comes to explain that he bowed to thank Hashem for the good news (that a burial ground for Sarah could be purchased), and was not, in fact, bowing to the Children of Heth. This is particularly striking, since Rashi clearly demonstrated his awareness of this very Midrash by quoting it to explain why Eliezer bowed down to Hashem after Lavan and Bethuel allowed Rivka to go with him (Ber. 24:52).

When Yisro comes to meet Moshe, the pasuk is not completely clear who bows to whom.

“וַיֵּצֵא מֹשֶׁה לִקְרַאת חֹתְנוֹ וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ וַיִּשַּׁק לוֹ וַיִּשְׁאֲלוּ אִישׁ לְרֵעֵהוּ לְשָׁלוֹם וַיָּבֹאוּ הָאֹהֱלָה ” (Ex. 18:7)

Even though Rashi could have easily opted to have Yisro bow down to Moshe, Rashi admits that he doesn’t know who bowed to whom, and then volunteers his suggestion that it was Moshe who bowed down to Yisro!

Despite my initial surprise, Rashi appears to express no concern about Jews in the Chumash bowing to others in greeting.

If bowing to people per se is not a problem, what was the reason behind Channah’s refusal to bow down to Antiochus? The difference was that Antiochus forced the Jews to bow down to him as part of a policy of establishing idolatry and eradicating the Jewish religion. He set himself up as a god to be worshipped instead of G-d.

In answering the question of why Mordechai refused to bow down to Haman, Rashi explains that Mordechai’s refusal was justified because Haman had set himself up as a god to be worshipped. Given the analogous situation with Antiochus, Rashi could very well have agreed with Channah’s decision in the terrible choice she faced.

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One Response to “Is Rashi Bothered by Bowing?”

  1. Ephraim says:

    Nice vort.

    Antiochus’ title gives the game away: he called himself Antiochus Epiphanes, which means, IIRC, “Antiochus, the Risen G-d” (l’havdil).

    [Reply]

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