Tips for the Seder from the Book of the Dead

An exhibition on ancient Egypt gives Dr Raphael Zarum some ideas for Pesach

April 7, 2011
Ancient Egypt’s worst nightmare: Ammit the Devourer

Ancient Egypt’s worst nightmare: Ammit the Devourer

Last month I visited the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead exhibition at the British Museum. As well as being a fascinating glimpse into the fears, hopes and beliefs of ancient Egypt, it also gave me new insight into our Exodus story.

There is no one Book of the Dead. The name refers to a genre of beautifully illustrated papyrus rolls containing religious texts and magical spells written in hieroglyphics, which are intended to protect a dead person's hazardous passage to the afterlife.

Defeating death was a mainstay of Egyptian culture. A well-to-do Egyptian would commission such a papyrus to be placed in their tomb at the time of their death and mummification. They believed that it would give them guidance and special powers to overcome the dangers of Duat, the underworld.

I believe that some phrases in the Torah and Haggadah are conscious counterpoints to the mythology of the Book of the Dead. The Talmud states: "The Torah speaks in the language of bnei adam, human beings" (Berachot 31b, Yevamot 71a). Maimonides read bnei adam as "the general masses" and a century later Rabbi Joseph ibn Kaspi understood this to mean that the Torah expressed things in the context of the common experiences of its time.

Texts of the Book of the Dead date back to 1500 BCE, just a few centuries before the Israelite Exodus. Our ancestors would have been familiar with some particulars of Egypt's obsession with death. This explains God's warning to them later, "Do not imitate the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt... You shall keep my statues... and live by them" (Leviticus 18:3-5). The phrase "live by them" is the origin of the injunction to break almost every Jewish law in order to save human life.

Ours is a religion committed to life, while ancient Egyptians spent their days preparing for death. Every Rosh Hashanah we hope to be written in the Sefer Hachayim, the Book of Life, while the thousands of Book of the Dead rolls that still survive testify to ancient Egypt's death fixation.

Here then are four (for Seder, it has to be four) examples of Pesach connections with key components of the Book of the Dead. You can find the images I refer to on Google.

The Four Sons... of Horus

One interpretation of the Four Sons is that they represent four aspects of the human personality: our wise, wicked, simple and unquestioning sides - and the Haggadah has an educational message tailored to each.

In contrast, the Book of the Dead has multiple illustrations of the four sons of Horus that protect the deceased. They were personifications of the four canopic jars that accompanied mummified bodies, each containing a vital organ that had been removed: stomach, liver, lungs and intestines.

The Haggadah's Four Sons have their minds inspired, while Horus's sons simply preserve body parts.

The Weighing of Pharaoh's Heart

We all know that Pharaoh's heart was "hardened" after each plague, but the Torah often uses another word to describe his heart (Exodus 7:14; 8:11,28; 9:7,34; 10:1). Ve'hachved libo means he had a heart that was heavy or weighed down.

This is remarkably apropos to a crucial illustrated episode in the Book of the Dead. The deceased's heart is depicted as being weighed against a feather, the symbol for ma'at, meaning truth and justice. The jackal-headed Anubis checks the scales and the ibis-headed scribe Thoth records the result.

If the heart is lighter than the feather, they are allowed to pass into the afterlife. If not, it is eaten by the waiting hybrid beast, Ammit. Clearly, the language of the Torah is mindful of the well-recognised moment of ultimate Egyptian judgment. Pharaoh is being told: your cruelty has weighed down your heart, the scales are tipping and you will be

The Fourth Plague and Ammit the Devourer

Ammit, the Devourer of Hearts, had the head of a crocodile, the body of a lion and the back end of a hippopotamus: the three largest man-eating animals known to ancient Egyptians. If she swallowed your heart in the underworld, your soul would be restless forever and you would "die a second time". Ammit was their worst nightmare.

I think she came to this world in the fourth plague, arov. Rashi (on Exodus 8:17) explains that arov, which literally means mixture, consisted of "all kinds of wild beasts in a mixture that devastated the Egyptians". So maybe, in fact, arov was just one horrific beast made of a mixture of animals, ie the dreaded Ammit. God brought to life the Egyptian sum of all fears.

The Passover Ram and the Ba-Soul

Like us, the Egyptians believed in the power of wordplay: the words for soul and ram were phonetically similar, ba. The ba-soul emerged only after death and was sometimes depicted as a ram. So it is fascinating that as the final plague (the slaying of the first-born) raged and countless ba-souls were emerging, the Israelites were sat in their homes eating the Korban Pesach, a young ram for all the family. The very soul of Egypt was devoured that night too.

Dr Zarum is chief executive of the London School of Jewish Studies

Last updated: 11:03am, April 7 2011