Parshiyot Va'eira uBo: Let My People Go!

Did Hashem violate Pharaoh's free will by "hardening his heart"?

The image above, from the 17th-century Venice Haggadah, illustrates the text which says that Hashem will send evil angels to punish the Egyptians. The evil angels are depicted like demons, the breath of each emitting one of the 10 plagues. One of the figures crouches by the shore of the Nile while breathing on it and causing the water to turn to blood, another emits lice from his mouth, and a third - locusts.

The Jewish concept of free will finds is hinted at in the creation account of Genesis, wherein Adam is formed from the dust of the earth. The verb "formed" is vayyitzer (וַיִּ֩יצֶר֩; note the doubling dot in the yod), which is said to be the point at which humankind was imbued with the two inclinations - the good inclination, or yetzer hatov (יצר הטוב), and the evil inclination, or yetzer hara (יצר הרע). It is taught in Bereshit Rabbah and Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi) that the doubled yod in vayyitzer (וַיִּ֩יצֶר֩) represents the two yetzers. Thus, from Adam's first breath, he had the ability to choose between the good inclination within him and the evil inclination (also within him; he had free will.

(ז) וַיִּ֩יצֶר֩ יְהֹוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֗ם עָפָר֙ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה וַיִּפַּ֥ח בְּאַפָּ֖יו נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים וַֽיְהִ֥י הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽה׃

(7) the LORD God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.

(א) וייצר ה' אלהים את האדם עפר מן האדמה, זכר העפר אע"פ שארבע היסודות היו מעורבות בו, זכר העפר לפי שהוא עיקר היצירה בנבראי היבשה, ובנבראי המים הם העיקר, אע"פ שהם משרר היסודות ג"כ ולפיכך חיותם במים; ובעוף האויר הוא עיקר יסודו לפיכך הוא עף באויר. ואמר שיצר את האדם עפר כלומר צוה שיעשה גולם אחד מזה משאר הגלמים וצורת איבריו עפר מוגבל והיה אותו הגולם ברצון האל בשר עצמות וגידים, ואמר מן האדמה כלומר מן המשובח שבה, כי גוף האדם הוא תואר נקי משאר ב"ח, וצורתו השלמה בצורות, לפיכך הוא הולך בקומה זקופה. וכתב החכם ר' יוסף בן צדיק כי זה לפי שהחמר שלו זך ודק בין שאר הגופים כמו שאנו רואים שמן הנר בעודו זך תעלה השלהבת ממנו על קו יושר לזכות השמן, ואם לא יהיה זך אלא עכור תהיה השלהבת עולה ממנו מעוותת ולא תלך על קו יושר. והעילה האחרת שהאדם צומח מן השמים, כלומ' שכל צמח צומח מעקרו ונהיה העיקר בזה ממול השמי' לפיכך אנו צומחים מן השמים, ומפני זה נקרא אדם פרי מהופך. (ב) ויפח באפיו נשמת חיים, נשמת רוח חיים, נפחה בו מהרוחות העליונות לא מן הארץ כמו שאמר תוצא הארץ נפש חי' למינה, אלא האל נפח בו, כמ"ש בצלמינו כדמותינו לפיכך שנה שמה, ולא אמר רוח ונפש אלא נשמה, אע"פ שרוח ונפש נשאלים ג"כ פעמים לנשמת האדם, נשמה הוא שם מיוחד לנשמת האדם. ואע"פ שאמר "כל אשר נשמת רוח חיים באפיו" פירוש נשמת חיים ורוח חיים, כי שניהם סמוכים לחיים כמו "מבחר וטוב לבנון" (יחזקאל ל"א י"ו) "חכמי יועצי פרעה" (ישעיה י"ט י"ח) נשמת חיים על האדם ורוח חיים על שאר ב"ח. (ג) ואמר באפיו כי בהם חי האדם וכל חי, כי בהם יכנס האויר הצונן לנשב על הלב ומהם יוצא האויר הנותר מן העכול וממוקד הלב, והיא נחלקת באדם לג' חלקים וכמו שפרשו חכמי המחקר, כח הצמיחה וכח ההרגשה והתנועה וכח השכל. (ד) ויהי האדם לנפש חיה, כשאר ב"ח שמתנועעים והולכים על רגליהם בכח הנפש החיה תכף לצאתם, כן הוא הלך על רגליו מעת שנפח בו האל רוח חיים לא כמו התנוקות שנולדו אחרי כן, וזה כי בקומתו ובגדלותו נברא לשעתו כשאר ב"ח והצמחים; ועוד עילה אחרת, כי הנולד מן האדם אינו הולך על רגליו מיד שנולד לפי חולשת גופו מפני שנזון במעי אמו מדם הוסת שהוא יותר מעופש ולא כן שאר ב"ח שנזונין במעי אמם ממזון האם, לפיכך הם חזקים בעת לדתם והולכים על רגליהם מיד, ונפש אדם הראשון וכן נפש אשתו, כח החיות אשר בו יתנועעו היה ככח שאר ב"ח שוה בשוה לפיכך אמר לנפש חיה. ומה שתרגם אונקלס והוה באדם לרוח ממללא, ידוע. ויתכן לפרש ויהי האדם לנפש חי', אחר שהאל נפח באפיו נשמת חיים ראוי לו שהיה דבק לנפש חיה, חיי עד, לא לנפש מותה במות הגוף, ומפני זה סמך ויטע אלהים וכל הענין:

(1) וייצר ה' אלוקים את האדם, the word is written with two letters י as is appropriate. We find this fact commented on allegorically in Bereshit Rabbah 14,2 where it is suggested that these two letters י allude to man’s basic urges, contradictory tendencies of either being obedient to G’d or rebelling against His dictates. [there is an obscure reference to two different kinds of development of the fetus before birth, i.e. a seven month pregnancy or a nine month pregnancy respectively, being alluded to by the two letters י. If that is the meaning of the spelling, there is no moral lesson involved here. Ed.] עפר מן האדמה, the Torah here mentions only one of the four raw materials man is made of, seeing it is the predominant one, at least quantitatively, in all land based living creatures as opposed to the creatures whose habitat is the water, whose predominant raw material is the water. In the case of the birds, air is the quantitatively predominant raw material. This fact enables the birds to fly in the air. Mention of the raw material עפר means that this raw material distinguishes man, is the most visible, the result of G’d’s directive to earth to bring forth a lifeless human being beautifully shaped, functional, awaiting only the soul G’d would insert to turn it into a living creature. מן האדמה, the prefix ה was used here to let us know that only the choicest earth was employed in constructing this golem. Man’s body is superior to the bodies of the other mammals that had also been produced by primarily using earth as their raw material. Proof that this claim is correct is the fact that man alone of all the mammals on earth walks upright. The scholar Rabbi Yoseph ben Tzadik (in a book called olam hakatan) writes that we can understand this by comparing pure oil and impure oil respectively supplying a wick with its fuel. When pure oil is used, the flame rises perpendicularly, not flickering from one side to another, whereas when impure, insufficiently refined oil is used, the flame does not rise in an uninterrupted upward motion. Similarly, the fact that man walks upright is a reflection of the purity of the raw material used in his composition. An additional reason why man is able to walk upright is the fact that he contains the soul whose origin is in heaven. This fact would reflect that whatever grows reflects its origin in the manner in which it grows. Seeing that man’s head is his most important part, it being higher than the rest of his body, it is no more than natural that he would walk in a manner which illustrates the superior importance of his head, i.e. walking upright, head held high. By holding his head high, he symbolically points toward heaven, his origin. (2) ויפח באפיו נשמת חיים, G’d blew into man some of the spirit prevailing in the highest regions on earth. Whereas the life force of the animals is described as נפש חיים, something abstract but originating in physical earth, man’s life force is called here נשמה, to alert us to the fact that the origin of this life force is not physical, has not been supplied by earth, in fact could not have been supplied by earth. Our verse illustrates what G’d had meant when He had announced that man would be בצלמנו כדמותנו, “in Our image, Our likeness.” (1,24). This is so in spite of the fact that sometimes man is equipped additionally with רוח and נפש. The expression נשמה is reserved exclusively for describing man, whereas the other two expressions, describing non-tangible animalistic forms of energy called “life-force,” are shared by man and beast. You may argue that the Torah describes all of the living creatures by invoking the term נשמה in Genesis 7,22. We are told there: כל אשר נשמת רוח חיים באפיו וגו', “every creature which had the soul and spirit of life in its nostrils… died.” We must understand that verse as meaning that man who possessed both a נשמה as well as רוח חיים, died.” (3) באפיו, all land-based living creatures, man as well as mammals, need the nose to breathe, i.e. to stay alive. It is the organ through which cold air enters man from the outside and blows on the heart. It is also the organ through which the air exits after it has performed its task. The air exiting through the nostrils is the one left over after digestion, having previously nestled around the warmth of the heart. It (the heart’s task) is divided into three parts as the biologists and anthropologists have told us. It comprises growth potential, sensitivity i.e. ability to move, and the ability to think. (4) ויהי האדם לנפש חיה, man now appeared similar to other living creatures that move on their feet, propelled by the נפש, life-force which becomes active as soon as the baby leaves the mother’s womb. Original man is described here as fully mature, not like subsequent human beings who were born by woman, and who could not walk, etc., as soon as they were born. The reason why he could walk immediately was because he was created as a grown up, did not have to grow from being an infant first. The weakness of human beings at birth, and therefore their inability to walk from birth, etc., stems from the fact that while in the womb, the nourishment provided by the mother’s menstrual blood is impure, unlike the animal young who had shared the same food as their respective mothers while inside the womb. This is why these animals are practically able to fend for themselves soon after they have been born. [mobility, i.e. the ability of moving about on its own is considered a crucial part of the definition נפש חיה being a living creature. Ed.] Both Adam and Chavah resembled the animals in that respect, never having been fed polluted food. This is the reason why our verse uses the term לנפש חיה, to alert the reader that the first pair of human beings was different from subsequent humans in that they were fully developed as soon as they could breathe.
As to Onkelos’ translation of נפש חיה, as רוח ממללא, “talking spirit,” a well known commentary, perhaps the way we have to understand his commentary is that only after G’d blew the נשמה into Adam’s nostrils did he become a creature that could express his feelings and thoughts in words. It is also possible to interpret the expressionויהי האדם לנפש חיה, as man now becoming capable to possess eternal life by being directly connected to the source of eternal life. The words לנפש חיה are to be contrasted to נפש מתה, a life force which is mortal, i.e. which dies as soon as its body dies.

(טו) הַכֹּל צָפוּי, וְהָרְשׁוּת נְתוּנָה, וּבְטוֹב הָעוֹלָם נִדּוֹן. וְהַכֹּל לְפִי רֹב הַמַּעֲשֶׂה:

(15) Everything is foreseen yet freedom of choice is granted, And the world is judged with goodness; And everything is in accordance with the preponderance of works.

(א) רְשׁוּת לְכָל אָדָם נְתוּנָה. אִם רָצָה לְהַטּוֹת עַצְמוֹ לְדֶרֶךְ טוֹבָה וְלִהְיוֹת צַדִּיק הָרְשׁוּת בְּיָדוֹ. וְאִם רָצָה לְהַטּוֹת עַצְמוֹ לְדֶרֶךְ רָעָה וְלִהְיוֹת רָשָׁע הָרְשׁוּת בְּיָדוֹ. הוּא שֶׁכָּתוּב בַּתּוֹרָה (בראשית ג כב) "הֵן הָאָדָם הָיָה כְּאַחַד מִמֶּנּוּ לָדַעַת טוֹב וָרָע". כְּלוֹמַר הֵן מִין זֶה שֶׁל אָדָם הָיָה יָחִיד בָּעוֹלָם וְאֵין מִין שֵׁנִי דּוֹמֶה לוֹ בְּזֶה הָעִנְיָן שֶׁיְּהֵא הוּא מֵעַצְמוֹ בְּדַעְתּוֹ וּבְמַחֲשַׁבְתּוֹ יוֹדֵעַ הַטּוֹב וְהָרַע וְעוֹשֶׂה כָּל מַה שֶּׁהוּא חָפֵץ וְאֵין מִי שֶׁיְּעַכֵּב בְּיָדוֹ מִלַּעֲשׂוֹת הַטּוֹב אוֹ הָרַע. וְכֵיוָן שֶׁכֵּן הוּא פֶּן יִשְׁלַח יָדוֹ:

(1) Every man was endowed with a free will; if he desires to bend himself toward the good path and to be just it is within the power of his hand to reach out for it, and if he desires to bend himself to a bad path and to be wicked it is within the power of his hand to reach out for it. This is known from what it is written in the Torah, saying: "Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil" (Gen. 3.22), that is as if saying: "Behold, this species, man, stands alone in the world, and there is no other kind like him, as regards this subject of being able of his own accord, by his reason and thought, to know the good and the evil, and to do whatever his inclination dictates him with none to stay his hand from either doing good or evil; and, being that he is so, 'Lest he put forth his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever'" (Ibid.)

In Jewish hashqafah, free will is inviolable and the idea of absolute fatalism is farcical. Given the centrality of the free will concept to Judaism, the question arises in light of the English translations of Shemot (Exodus) re: how Hashem could "harden Pharaoh's heart" without violating his free will. The English translations are troublesome with regard to the "hardening" of Pharaoh's heart, as there are three unrelated roots all rendered with the same English word.


The first of these - חזק - is a root meaning "to strengthen" and is understood in its usage in Shemot to mean strengthening one's resolve.

Rabbi Marcus Jastrow defined the root thus:

חזק to be or grow strong, to hold fast.
— Qal - חָזַק 1 he was strong; 2 he held fast.
— Pi. - חִזֵּק 1 he made strong, strengened, reinforced; 2 he encouraged.
— Pu. - חֻזַּק was strengened, was reinforced.
— Hith. - הִתְחַזֵּק 1 he strengened himself, took courage; 2 he put for strength, exerted himself.
— Hiph. - הֶחֱזִיק 1 he made strong, strengthened; 2 he seized, took hold of; 3 he clung to; NH 4 he kept, held; PBH 5 it contained, held.
— Hoph. - הָחֳזַק, הֻחְזַק PBH 1 was seized, was held; NH 2 was kept; PBH 3 was regarded; PBH 4 was sure, was certain; NH 5 was maintained.

It occurs at Shemot 4:21 (piel impf 1cs), 9:35 (qal wci 3ms), 10:20 (piel wci 3ms), and 10:27 (piel wci 3ms).

(כא) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהֹוָה֮ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה֒ בְּלֶכְתְּךָ֙ לָשׁ֣וּב מִצְרַ֔יְמָה רְאֵ֗ה כׇּל־הַמֹּֽפְתִים֙ אֲשֶׁר־שַׂ֣מְתִּי בְיָדֶ֔ךָ וַעֲשִׂיתָ֖ם לִפְנֵ֣י פַרְעֹ֑ה וַאֲנִי֙ אֲחַזֵּ֣ק אֶת־לִבּ֔וֹ וְלֹ֥א יְשַׁלַּ֖ח אֶת־הָעָֽם׃

(21) And the LORD said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the marvels that I have put within your power. I, however, will stiffen his heart so that he will not let the people go.

(לה) וַֽיֶּחֱזַק֙ לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה וְלֹ֥א שִׁלַּ֖ח אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה בְּיַד־מֹשֶֽׁה׃ {פ}

(35) So Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he would not let the Israelites go, just as the LORD had foretold through Moses.

(כ) וַיְחַזֵּ֥ק יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶת־לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֑ה וְלֹ֥א שִׁלַּ֖ח אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ {פ}

(20) But the LORD stiffened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go.

(כז) וַיְחַזֵּ֥ק יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶת־לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֑ה וְלֹ֥א אָבָ֖ה לְשַׁלְּחָֽם׃

(27) But the LORD stiffened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not agree to let them go.


The second verb - קשה - is only encountered in the plague pericope at Shemot 7:3 (hiph impf 1cs). The meaning here is more in line with the rendering of "harden, stiffen." It is the same root used in the description of Israel as a "stiff-necked people" (עם־קשה־ערף) in Shemot 3:29, in which context it carries the adjectival meaning of stubborn-hearted, as it also does here in verb form.

(ג) וַאֲנִ֥י אַקְשֶׁ֖ה אֶת־לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֑ה וְהִרְבֵּיתִ֧י אֶת־אֹתֹתַ֛י וְאֶת־מוֹפְתַ֖י בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

(3) But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt.

Shemot Rabbah suggests that Pharaoh himself was the active party in the hardening of his own heart. This seems to find support in Rashi, who opines that Hashem passively "allowed his heart to harden."

Midrash Rabbah (9th-11th century CE)

(ב) דָּבָר אַחֵר, הַשְׁכֵּם בַּבֹּקֶר, אָמַר לוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְמשֶׁה, הָרָשָׁע הַזֶּה הִקְשָׁה אֶת לִבּוֹ בַּשְּׁלשָׁה הָרִאשׁוֹנוֹת וּמַכָּה רְבִיעִית קָשָׁה הִיא יוֹתֵר עַל הָרִאשׁוֹנוֹת, לֵךְ וְהַזְהֵר אוֹתוֹ כְּדֵי שֶׁיְּשַׁלַּח עַמִּי וְלֹא תָבוֹא עָלָיו הַמַּכָּה.

(2) Another word came in the morning; the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, saying: this wicked one [Pharaoh] hardened his heart against the first three signs and the fourth plague hardened him....

(א) ואני אקשה. מֵאַחַר שֶׁהִרְשִׁיעַ וְהִתְרִיס כְּנֶגְדִּי, וְגָלוּי לְפָנַי שֶׁאֵין נַחַת רוּחַ בָּאֻמּוֹת לָתֵת לֵב שָׁלֵם לָשׁוּב, טוֹב שֶׁיִּתְקַשֶּׁה לִבּוֹ, לְמַעַן הַרְבּוֹת בּוֹ אוֹתוֹתַי, וְתַכִּירוּ אַתֶּם אֶת גְּבוּרָתִי. וְכֵן מִדָּתוֹ שֶׁל הַקָּבָּ"ה, מֵבִיא פֻּרְעָנוּת עַל הָאֻמּוֹת כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּשְׁמְעוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִירְאוּ, שֶׁנֶּאֱ' "הִכְרַתִּי גוֹיִם נָשַׁמּוּ פִּנּוֹתָם … אָמַרְתִּי אַךְ תִּירְאִי אוֹתִי תִּקְחִי מוּסָר" (צפניה ג'); וְאַעַפִּ"כֵ בְּחָמֵשׁ מַכּוֹת הָרִאשׁוֹנוֹת לֹא נֶאֱמַר וַיְחַזֵּק ה' אֶת לֵב פַּרְעֹה, אֶלָּא וַיֶּחֱזַק לֵב פַּרְעֹה (תנחומא):

(1) ואני אקשה AND I WILL ALLOW [PHARAOH’S HEART] TO HARDEN — Since he has wickedly resisted Me, and it is manifest to Me that the heathen nations find no spiritual satisfaction in setting their whole heart to return to Me penitently, it is better that his heart should be hardened in order that My signs may be multiplied against him so that ye may recognise My divine power. Such, indeed, is the method of the Holy One, blessed be He: He brings punishment upon the nations so that Israel may hear of it and fear Him, as it is said, (Zephaniah 3:6, 3:7) “I have cut off nations, their corners are desolate etc. … I said: Surely thou wilt fear Me, thou wilt receive correction” (cf. Yevamot 63a). Nevertheless, in the case of the first five plagues it is not stated, “The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart” but “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened” (Midrash Tanchuma, Vaera 3).

Ibn Ezra and Ramban both read the passage differently than the Sages cited above, i.e. understanding Hashem to be the active party.

(א) ואגי אקשה. יש לשאול אם השם הקשה את לבו מה ' פשעו ומה חטאתו. והתשוב' כי השם נתן הכמה לאדם ונטע בלבו שכל לקבל כח עליון להוסיף על טובתו. או לחסר מרעתו. וזה אפרש בפרשת כי תשא. ובפסוק מי יתן והיה לבבם זה. והנה טעם אקשה את לבו למען רבות מופתי. ורבי ישועה אמר כי טעם אקשה את לבו לסבול את המכות. ולא דבר נכונה:

(1) AND I WILL HARDEN PHARAOH’S HEART. The question arises: “If God hardened Pharaoh’s heart what was his transgression and what was his sin?” The answer is: God granted wisdom to man and implanted in his heart the intelligence to receive power from on high to add to his good or to diminish his evil. I will explain this in the Torah portion Ki Tissa and when I comment on the verse Oh that they had such a heart as this alway (Deut. 5:26). Now the meaning of our verse is: I will harden his heart in order to multiply My signs and My wonders. Rabbi Joshua says that its meaning is: I will harden his heart so that he will be able to bear the plagues. However, he spoke incorrectly.

(א) ואני אקשה את לב פרעה אמרו במדרש רבה (שמו''ר ה ו) גילה לו שהוא עתיד לחזק את לבו בעבור לעשות בו הדין, תחת שהעבידם בעבודה קשה. ועוד שם (יג ד) כי אני הכבדתי את לבו (שמות י׳:א׳), אמר רבי יוחנן מכאן פתחון פה למינין לומר לא היתה ממנו שיעשה תשובה. אמר רבי שמעון בן לקיש יסתם פיהם של מינין, אלא אם ללצים הוא יליץ (משלי ג לד), מתרה בו פעם ראשונה ושניה ושלישית ואינו חוזר בו והוא נועל בו דלת מן התשובה כדי לפרוע ממנו מה שחטא. כך פרעה הרשע, כיון ששגר הקב''ה אצלו חמש פעמים ולא השגיח על דבריו, אמר לו הקב''ה אתה הקשית את ערפך והכבדת את לבך, הריני מוסיף לך טומאה על טומאתך:
והנה פירשו בשאלה אשר ישאלו הכל, אם השם הקשה את לבו מה פשעו, ויש בו שני טעמים ושניהם אמת האחד, כי פרעה ברשעו אשר עשה לישראל רעות גדולות חנם, נתחייב למנוע ממנו דרכי תשובה, כאשר באו בזה פסוקים רבים בתורה ובכתובים, ולפי מעשיו הראשונים נדון. והטעם השני, כי היו חצי המכות עליו בפשעו, כי לא נאמר בהן רק ויחזק לב פרעה (להלן פסוק יג, כב, ח טו), ויכבד פרעה את לבו (להלן ח כח, ט ז). הנה לא רצה לשלחם לכבוד השם, אבל כאשר גברו המכות עליו ונלאה לסבול אותם, רך לבו והיה נמלך לשלחם מכובד המכות, לא לעשות רצון בוראו. ואז הקשה השם את רוחו ואמץ את לבבו למען ספר שמו, כענין שכתוב והתגדלתי והתקדשתי ונודעתי לעיני גוים רבים וגו' (יחזקאל לח כג):
ואשר אמר קודם המכות (שמות ד׳:כ״א) ואני אחזק את לבו ולא ישלח את העם, יודיע למשה העתיד לעשות בו במכות האחרונות, כענין שאמר (שמות ג׳:י״ט) ואני ידעתי כי לא יתן אתכם מלך מצרים להלוך וזה טעם ואני אקשה את לב פרעה והרבתי את אותותי, כלומר שאקשה לבו למען רבות מופתי בארץ מצרים. כי בחמש מכות האחרונות גם בטביעת הים נאמר ויחזק ה' (שמות י״ד:ח׳), כי לב מלך ביד ה' על כל אשר יחפוץ יטנו (משלי כא א):

(1) AND I WILL HARDEN PHARAOH’S HEART. The Rabbis said in Midrash Rabbah: “G-d revealed to Moses that He was destined to harden Pharaoh’s heart in order to bring judgment upon him for he caused them to work in cruel bondage.” It is also stated there [in Midrash Rabbah]: “For I have hardened his heart. Rabbi Yochanan said, ‘This provides a pretext for the heretics to say that G-d did not allow Pharaoh to repent.’ Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said, ‘The mouths of the heretics be closed! Only, if it concerneth the scorners, He scorneth them. When He warns one on three occasions and he does not turn from his ways, He closes the door of repentance on him in order to punish him for his sin. Such was the case with wicked Pharaoh. After the Holy One, blessed be He, sent him five times [the request to let His people go] and he paid no attention to His words, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: You have stiffened your neck and hardened your heart; I will double your defilement.’”
The Rabbis [in the above Midrash] have thus discussed the question which all ask: “If G-d hardened his heart, what then was Pharaoh’s sin?” For this there are two explanations, and both of them are true. One is that Pharaoh in his wickedness had unjustifiably perpetrated such great evils against Israel that justice required that the ways of repentance be withheld from him, as is so indicated in many places in the Torah and in the Writings. He was judged according to his wickedness which he had originally committed of his own will. The second explanation is that half of the plagues came upon him because of his transgressions, for in connection with them it is only said: And Pharaoh’s heart was hardened; And Pharaoh hardened his heart. Thus Pharaoh refused to let the children of Israel go for the glory of G-d. But when the plagues began bearing down upon him and he became weary to suffer them, his heart softened and he bethought himself to send them out on account of the onslaught of the plagues, not in order to do the will of his Creator. Then G-d hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, so that His name may be declared [throughout all the earth]. Similar in meaning is the verse, Thus will I magnify Myself, and sanctify Myself, and I will make Myself known in the eyes of many nations, and they shall know that I am the Eternal. And that which He said before the plagues, And I will harden his heart, and he will not let the people go, was merely His warning to Moses of that which He was destined to do to Pharaoh in the last [five] plagues, it being similar to that which He said, And I know that the king of Egypt will not give you leave to go. This then is the meaning of the verse [before us], And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply My signs. That is to say, “I will harden his heart so that My wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt,” since in the last five plagues, as well as at the drowning in the sea, it is said, And the Eternal hardened the heart of Pharaoh, for the king’s heart is in the hand of the Eternal; He turneth it whithersoever He will.

Sforno's explanation for the hardening of Pharaoh's heart attempts to harmonize Ezekiel 33:11 with the passage to find a rationale for it.

(א) ואני אקשה הנה בהיות האל חפץ בתשובת רשעים ולא במיתתם, כאמרו חי אני נאם ה', אם אחפוץ במות הרשע, כי אם בשוב הרשע מדרכו וחיה, אמר שירבה את אותותיו ואת מופתיו, וזה להשיב את המצרים בתשובה, בהודיע להם גדלו וחסדו באותות ובמופתים, כאמרו בעבור זאת העמדתיך, בעבור הראותך את כחי ועם זה היתה הכונה שישראל יראו וייראו, כאמרו למען שיתי אותותי אלה בקרבו, ולמען תספר, ואין ספק שלולא הכבדת הלב היה פרעה משלח את ישראל בלי ספק, לא על צד תשובה והכנעה לאל יתברך, שיתנחם מהיות מורד, אף על פי שהכיר גדלו וטובו, אלא על צד היותו בלתי יכול לסבול עוד את צרת המכות, כמו שהגידו עבדיו באמרם הטרם תדע כי אבדה מצרים וזאת לא היתה תשובה כלל. אבל אם היה פרעה חפץ להכנע לאל יתברך, ולשוב אליו בתשובה שלמה, לא היה לו מזה שום מונע. והנה אמר האל יתברך ואני אקשה את לב פרעה, שיתאמץ לסבול המכות ולא ישלח מיראת המכות את ישראל, למען שיתי אותותי אלה בקרבו, שמהם יכירו גדלי וטובי וישובו המצרים באיזו תשובה אמתית. ולמען תספר אתה ישראל הרואה בצרתם, באזני בנך להודיע שכל אלה יפעל אל עם גכר להשיבו אליו, וזה כשיפשפשו במעשיהם בבוא עליהם איזה פורענות:
(1) ואני אקשה, seeing that G’d is interested in the sinner’s repentance rather than his death (as we know from Ezekiel 33,11 חי אני, נאום ה', אם אחפוץ במות הרשע כי אם בשובו מדרכו וחיה, “by My life, I do not want the death of the wicked but that he return from his wicked path and live”), G’d told Moses that He would bring on numerous plagues, all in order to increase the chances that Pharaoh would finally see the light and become a genuine penitent. He hoped that by demonstrating His greatness and His power this would eventually cause the Egyptians to recognise all this. At the same time, G’d also spelled out a similar thought in 9,16 but aimed at the Israelites, when He said: “that the only reason He had not yet killed Pharaoh was so that in the course of more plagues you, the Jewish people, would come to recognise both G’d’s greatness and His patience.“ He also wanted the Jewish people to learn how to both love and revere Him when they witnessed and thought about the meaning of all these plagues. There can be no question that without G’d stiffening Pharaoh’s attitude from time to time, he would have collapsed much sooner and would have sent the Israelites on their desired journey. However, this would not have been the result of his repentance and humbling himself before the Lord, involving genuine regret about his previous errors, but the result of his impotence to withstand the pressure applied to him. He would have acted out of terror of what the next plague would do to him and to his country. If we needed confirmation of this, all we have to do is look at what his servants said to him when Moses threatened with the plague of locust. They said to him: “how long will you be obstinate, do you not see that Egypt will go down the drain?!” There was not a single word of regret of past errors, no word of recognition that G’d could have killed them all long before this and that He must therefore be very patient, and kind, but mere terror forced them to utter these words. (10,7) Keeping all this in mind, it is foolish to ask how G’d could punish Pharaoh after he Himself had interfered with his decision-making process by “stiffening his heart,” ואני אקשה את לב פרעה, I will stiffen the heart of Pharaoh, etc.” not in order to punish him but in order to finally trigger repentance in his heart. The operative clause is “in order that I can demonstrate all these miracles of Mine in his midst” (10,1), the purpose being to bring about his humbling himself in repentance and genuine contrition. If that wish of G’d would indeed materialise, the Jewish people also would tell of G’d’s greatness, (למען ספר את שמי, having observed at first hand how the mightiest secular power on earth turned into G’d fearing human beings.) They would tell their children and children’s children the lesson they had learned that G’d’s apparent cruelty is actually an act of loving kindness as it results in His creatures coming to love and to revere Him. [Noach, who had survived the destruction of mankind by a deliberate act of G’d’s kindness to him and his family, had not been able to relate to his children what G’d hoped that the Israelites would be able to relate to their children. Ed.] The basic lesson in ethics we derive from all this is that when suffering an affliction we must first and foremost examine our past actions to find out where we went wrong, and try to find out what these afflictions are intended to trigger in our memory so that we can improve our conduct both vis-à-vis G’d and our fellow man.


With most of the plagues, the verb used is כבד - to be heavy, stubborn - and it is used of Pharaoh's own decisions regarding the state of his heart. This aligns with what would be his own (Egyptian) soteriology. In the Egyptian worldview, at death a person's heart (specifically the ka, i.e. "life spirit," within it) is weighed against a feather. If his or her sins weigh less than the feather, admission into the afterlife is granted, but if they are heavier admission is denied. Pharaoh's decisions are adding weight to his heart. This verb כבד ​​​​​​​is used at 8:11 (hiph inf abs), 8:28 (hiph wci 3ms), 9:34 (hiph wci 3ms), and 10:1 (hiph pf 1cs).

(יא) וַיַּ֣רְא פַּרְעֹ֗ה כִּ֤י הָֽיְתָה֙ הָֽרְוָחָ֔ה וְהַכְבֵּד֙ אֶת־לִבּ֔וֹ וְלֹ֥א שָׁמַ֖ע אֲלֵהֶ֑ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהֹוָֽה׃ {ס}

(11) But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he became stubborn and would not heed them, as the LORD had spoken.

(כח) וַיַּכְבֵּ֤ד פַּרְעֹה֙ אֶת־לִבּ֔וֹ גַּ֖ם בַּפַּ֣עַם הַזֹּ֑את וְלֹ֥א שִׁלַּ֖ח אֶת־הָעָֽם׃ {פ}

(28) But Pharaoh became stubborn this time also, and would not let the people go.

(לד) וַיַּ֣רְא פַּרְעֹ֗ה כִּֽי־חָדַ֨ל הַמָּטָ֧ר וְהַבָּרָ֛ד וְהַקֹּלֹ֖ת וַיֹּ֣סֶף לַחֲטֹ֑א וַיַּכְבֵּ֥ד לִבּ֖וֹ ה֥וּא וַעֲבָדָֽיו׃

(34) But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he became stubborn and reverted to his guilty ways, as did his courtiers.

(א) וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה בֹּ֖א אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה כִּֽי־אֲנִ֞י הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי אֶת־לִבּוֹ֙ וְאֶת־לֵ֣ב עֲבָדָ֔יו לְמַ֗עַן שִׁתִ֛י אֹתֹתַ֥י אֵ֖לֶּה בְּקִרְבּֽוֹ׃

(1) Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them,