April 19, 2024
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Although the Children of Israel lived in ארץ גשן, when they left Egypt, they left from רעמסס (Shemos 12:37). The land they lived in when they first moved to Egypt was also referred to as רעמסס (Bereishis 47:11; actually ארץ רעמסס). Why is גשן called רעמסס in these two instances?

Before trying to understand why, even though it’s almost always called ארץ גשן, it’s sometimes called רעמסס, we first have to determine if they are in fact the same location. [Whether the city of רעמסס that the Children of Israel built (Shemos 1:11) is the same רעמסס mentioned elsewhere is a separate issue (the two are not vocalized the same way); although Ibn Ezra (Bereishis 47:1 and Shemos 1:11) says they are different places, Rav Saadya Gaon and Targum Yonasan (ibid and Shemos 12:37), as well as Chizkuni (Shemos 12:37), say they are one and the same.] I have come across three opinions regarding the relationship between גשן and רעמסס (not including Mizrachi’s mischaracterization, in his commentary to Rashi on Bereishis 47:1, of Ibn Ezra’s opinion).

Radak (Bereishis 47:11) says רעמסס was near גשן. If they are not the same place, there is obviously no need to explain why they have different names. However, since גשן was where Yosef wanted his family to live (Bereishis 45:10 and 46:34)—which is why Yaakov sent Yehuda there to prepare for their arrival (46:28), and גשן was where Yosef reunited with his father (46:29), and the place his brothers specifically requested from Pharaoh to live in (47:4)—a request that was granted (47:6), it seems very strange that rather than living in גשן, they lived in רעמסס.

Alshich (Bereishis 47:5/6) quotes how Rav Shaul Ninterei reconciles Pharaoh describing גשן as the best part of Egypt (47:6), with רעמסס being its best part when the Children of Israel took possession of it (47:11): During the famine, when crops didn’t grow, גשן was better, since cattle could graze there, but after Yaakov arrived and the famine ended, רעמסס surpassed it, since crops would grow again. Although this could explain why there was a change in plans, since Yaakov and his family were shepherds (not farmers), I would think they’d still prefer גשן. Even if they couldn’t turn down Pharaoh’s offer, since גשן was where the Children of Israel lived during the plagues (Shemos 8:18 and 9:26), why did they gather in רעמסס before leaving Egypt?

The most common approach to the relationship between גשן and רעמסס (e.g. Rashi on Bereishis 47:11, Ibn Ezra on 47:1 and Ralbag on 47:6) is that רעמסס was located within גשן. When the Children of Israel first settled there, they only lived in the part of גשן that was called רעמסס, but as they multiplied, they spread out over all of גשן (and gathered back in רעמסס before they left). [Accordingly, גשן was the best part of Egypt, and רעמסס was the best part of גשן.]

Kanfay Yonah, quoted by Yalkut Reuveini (end of Vayigash) and the Chidah (Midbar Kedaimos, Ma’areches Reish #19; see also Mizrachi on Bereishis 47:11) says that גשן and רעמסס are one and the same; it was called גשן because it was a gift from Pharaoh to Sara when he tried to come close to her (“שנגש אליה”). It would therefore seem that גשן was its Hebrew name, and רעמסס was its Egyptian name. [This would be true even according to Pirkay d’Rebbe Eliezer (26), which says גשן was given to Sara before Pharaoh tried to marry her.] Based on this, it can be suggested that the Torah referred to it as רעמסס, its Egyptian name, when the Children of Israel first moved there in order to highlight the fact that the Egyptian exile was beginning—despite living by themselves, in the part of Egypt that belonged to them. Similarly, it was referred to as רעמסס when they left to signify that they were leaving Egypt, and the Egyptian exile was ending.

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A discussion about רעמסס would not be complete without discussing the Pharaohs with the same name. As Yoel Elitzur put it (“Places in the Parasha,” Shemot), “Many scholars assumed that if Rameses II reported that he built a city in his honor called ‘the House of Rameses,’ this certainly fits the Torah’s description in the verse: ‘And they built garrison cities for Pharaoh; Pithom and Rameses.’ Thus, this notion has become very accepted, including in many historical atlases and encyclopedias, which state unequivocally that Ramses II was the pharaoh who enslaved the people of Israel and during whose reign the Exodus occurred.”

One of the problems with this association is that Rameses II (as well as Rameses I) didn’t rule until the 13th Century BCE, which was after the Exodus. [Chronology can be tricky, including, and perhaps especially, Egyptian chronology. I will just point out that according to the traditional chronology, the Exodus was in 1313 BCE (i.e. the end of the 14th Century BCE), and the “garrison” city of Rameses was built in the 15th Century BCE; according to Elitzur (ibid), the Exodus took place around 1450 BCE (Mitchell First says it was 1447 BCE), which means Rameses was built in the first half of the 16th Century BCE.] How could the city (or area) have been called רעמסס so many years before any Pharaoh with that name ruled?

Alexander Hool, who makes many astounding claims, suggests (Pharaoh, page 7) that “the name Rameses in the biblical narrative may be referring to the land and city that got its name many years after the giving of the Torah in the time of Rameses the Great” (referring to Rameses II). I prefer Elitzur’s approach (which was Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s opinion as well; see his footnote in The Living Torah on Bereishis 47:11), that the name רעמסס preceded the rulers who took on this name. I would add the possibility that the rulers of Egypt’s 19th dynasty, who started using the name Rameses, specifically chose this name because they were trying to portray themselves as leaders who would reclaim Egypt’s former greatness, including erasing the memory of the time when the area was called גשן because of the Children of Israel, and reestablishing its original Egyptian name, רעמסס.


Rabbi Dov Kramer grew up in Kew Gardens Hills, although many who live there refer to it as Kew Garden Hills (sic). Either way, the mailing address is Flushing, NY. He lives in Passaic, which is in Passaic County, but works in Manhattan, where the mailing address is New York, NY. If that’s not confusing enough, the radio station he works for, WFAN, broadcasts the New York Giants, who play (and practice) in New Jersey.

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