Some deeper insights into the many afflictions that Hashem visited upon the Egyptians
By: Aron Ziegler
The modern Pesach Haggadah is chiefly a text that guides us in the performance of our obligation to relate the story of our being redeemed from having been slaves in Egypt. The title ‘Haggadah’, ‘The telling over’, is drawn from the large ‘Magid’, ‘Narration’, section which, in turn, stems from the Torah verse, “And you shall narrate (v’higadeta) to your child on that day (Pesach eve) saying ‘for this reason did Hashem do (all of this) for me when I went out from Egypt”. The textual format that we use today has clear origins in the Mishna found at the end of Tractate Pesachim.
The main narration of our story, which ‘begins with our humble beginnings and concludes with our glory’, is an analysis of the verses of the declaration of the Bikurim, ‘first fruits’, which one would declare upon presenting his first fruits at the Temple. The concluding segment of these verses, as elaborated in the Haggadah – “And Hashem took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm and with great awe and with signs and wonders” – leads the Haggadah into the narration of all the ten plagues.
A proper accounting
Rabbi Yose HaGelili then expounds for us that we can actually derive that, since the Egyptians were inflicted with ten plagues in Egypt, they must have been stricken with fifty plagues at the Sea (where they chased after us and were ultimately all drowned). As regarding the ten plagues in Egypt the Torah reads, “Then the magicians said unto Pharaoh, ‘It is (these plagues that are) the finger of G-d’, and at the sea the Torah tells us, ‘And the Jews saw the Great Hand that Hashem used upon the Egyptians’. Therefore, Rabbi Yose haGelili points out, if the ten plagues in Egypt are described as being the manifestation of the finger of Hashem – then the hand of Hashem must be five times greater – as a hand has five fingers! And hence the plagues inflicted upon the Egyptians in their ultimate destruction at the sea can be shown to have consisted of fifty plagues.
A somewhat obscure verse from the book of Psalms, Chapter 78, is then brought by Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva to expand upon Rabbi Yose HaGelili’s drasha. “He (Hashem) sent upon them (the Egyptians) the fierceness of His anger, wrath and fury; and trouble – a delegation of angels of evil.”
Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva both use this verse to indicate to us that the ten plagues in Egypt (which collectively comprise ‘the finger of Hashem’) should in fact be considered 40 or 50 plague-miracles, as each of the 10 plagues should actually be considered four or five individual plague-miracles. This is derived from the various harmful forces that Hashem set against the Egyptians as enumerated in the verse from Psalms.
Rabbi Eliezer counts four separate elements in the verse – indicating that each of the ten plagues had four plague-miracle components, and Rabbi Akiva understand the verse to say that there were actually five plague-miracle aspects to each of the ten plagues.
Hence, according to Rabbi Eliezer, there were a total of 40 plague-miracles throughout the ten plagues in Egypt, and, therefore, following the finger to hand ratio (1:5) expounded by Rabbi Yose haGelili, there must have been a grand total of 200 plague-miracles inflicted upon the Egyptians at their drowning at the sea. And, according to Rabbi Akiva, there were a total of 50 plague-miracles throughout the ten plagues in Egypt, and, therefore, following the finger to hand ratio (1:5) expounded by Rabbi Yose haGelili, there must have been a grand total of 250 plague-miracles inflicted upon the Egyptians at their drowning at the sea.
The Psalmist’s recording
With some help from the Malbim, let’s take a closer look at the context of this verse from Tehillim that both Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva use to enlarge the number of plague-miracles in each plague, and get a deeper understanding to this part of the Haggadah.
Psalm 78 relates the story of our nation’s history, meandering through time and reminding us of how we sometimes were closer to and at other times drifted away from Hashem, and that, ultimately, Hashem’s purpose for us is to arrive at a juncture where we can be so closely connected to Him that His Presence can come to rest among us, as was ultimately achieved by us under the kingship of Hashem’s servant, King David.
In the cluster of verses where the above verse is found, the Psalmist is relating how in the wilderness we were not always loyal to Hashem and tested Him on many occasions on our way to the Promised Land, and that this behaviour was seriously disappointing [the various plagues referred to have been numbered below in brackets according to the chronological order in which they occurred in Egypt]:
42 – ‘We did not remember Hashem’s hand that He showed us (at the sea) when he redeemed us from distress, 43 – (and we forgot Hashem) who placed His signs against Egypt and His wonders in the field of Tzoan (the country of Egypt). 44 – And He turned their canals into blood  and their flowing waters were not drinkable. 45 – He sent against them hordes of wild beasts  which devoured them as well as frogs  that destroyed/mutilated them. 46 – He gave their crops over to grubs and their produce to locusts . 47 – He killed their vines with hail  and their sycamore trees with hailstones. 48 – He gave over their animals to hail and their cattle to fiery bolts. 49 – He sent upon them the fierceness of His anger, wrath and fury and trouble – a delegation of angels of evil. 50 – He navigated a path for His anger (which would otherwise) have not spared their souls from death, and He handed over (only) their livestock to pestilence . 51 – And He smote every firstborn  in Egypt…’
Immediately we can notice two glaring questions about the Psalmist’s account of the plagues. Firstly, he only mentions seven of the ten: blood , wild beasts , frogs , locusts , hail , pestilence , and the smiting of the firstborn . Secondly, he mentions them in a sequence totally different than their true chronological order.
The Malbim first explains to us why the Psalmist omits three of the plagues. He has left out the plagues of lice , boils , and darkness . There were two types of plagues in the ten plagues of Egypt, ‘Signs’ (Osos) and ‘Wonders’ (Mofsim). ‘Signs’ are miracles that come or are brought to prove and illustrate a point, whereas ‘Wonders’ are miracles that manifest just out of the blue without a pre-stated goal or purpose, something at which we just ‘wonder’ and look upon in astonishment.
If we analyse the development of the story around each plague we find that all of them, with the exception of the three omitted plagues, came to prove and illustrate a point which Hashem wanted the people to know. At the onset of the first series of plagues before the plague of Blood , Hashem instructs Moshe to go and tell Pharaoh that the following plague is going to come about because you refuse to listen to let my people go, so therefore – “with this (the following miraculous sign) you should know that I am Hashem.” And, similarly, there is a declaration stated before the plague of Frogs  to remind Pharaoh of this point.
Since Pharaoh and the Egyptians did not learn this lesson (who Hashem is) from these plagues, so Hashem sent them a third plague as a slap, an insulting punishment for disregarding His signs. This was the plague of lice  which was a ‘Wonder’ (Mofes), not intended to bolster any specific message that was pre-stated, but rather just to punish the Egyptians for their refusal to accept the ‘Sign-miracles’ of Blood  and Frogs .
This same pattern was also followed in the 2nd and 3rd set of 3 plagues.
Plagues number 4 and 5, wild beasts  and pestilence , also had a message to be learned, which was announced to Pharaoh in the pre-emptive warning before the onset of the plague of hordes of wild animals, “You shall know that I am Hashem in the midst of the land.” And, since Pharaoh and the Egyptians had still not learned this lesson even after the second of these two plagues, pestilence , so Hashem again punished them with the plague of boils  as a punitive measure. And, again plagues number 7 and 8 were introduced with a declaration: “…in order that you should know that there is none like Me in all the Earth.” Again, since Pharaoh did not accept this lesson, so Hashem slapped Egypt with a third punitive punishment of darkness , which was not forewarned with any message.
So, now we can see why the Psalmist omits these three plagues from his account of the plagues in Egypt, because he is mentioning the plagues to highlight the fact that we “did not remember Hashem who set signs and wonders…” And, since the plagues of lice , boils , and darkness  came simply as punitive punishments to the Egyptians and did not come specifically to teach about Hashem, as they were not introduced by a message or warning ‘to notice and point out the identity, greatness, and uniqueness of Hashem in the miracle that was about to occur’, therefore these three plagues need not be referred to in reminding us of our failure to remember Hashem.
A show of force
To explain the odd sequence in which the plagues are brought in our Psalm, the Malbim unveils for us a deeper analytical insight into Hashem’s choice of plagues and illustrates how their purpose was to demonstrate His might and strength. If we put aside the plague of blood  for the mean time (we will return to it later), we will notice that the six remaining plagues – are brought in pairs:
Wild animals  and frogs  (verse 45)
Locusts  and hail  (verses 46-47)
Hail  (again) and pestilence  (verses 48-49)
Pestilence  (again) and the smiting of the firstborn  (verses 50-51)
The theme of each of these pairs of plagues could really have been accomplished with just the greater or more severe of the two plagues, and the fact that there were two plagues to each theme indicates to us that Hashem’s intention was ‘to multiply His signs’ before us – so that we would be thoroughly taught to know Hashem’s presence and power.
The first pair – that of wild animals  and frogs  – was a theme of Hashem bringing animals against the Egyptians. In the plague of wild animals  all sorts of harmful animals were brought to the Egyptians. Surely, if the frogs  were harmful, they would have again come along with the plague of swarms of wild animals . But, Hashem separated the theme into two plagues in order to reiterate the lesson to us of Hashem’s presence and power. Therefore the psalmist says, “He sent against them hordes of wild beasts  which devoured them as well as frogs ”, independently.
The second pair of plagues – locusts  and hail  – share a theme of destruction of the food and crops of the Egyptians. But, since we see that the locusts ate up everything in the entire borders of Egypt, even those things which the hail left over, then what was the specific need for the plague of hail  that destroyed the crops but left over some of them that were too young and undeveloped to be destroyed by it? It was because Hashem wanted to multiply His miracles to help us to never forget Him and His presence and power. Therefore, He separated the destruction of the crops of Egypt into two different plagues. Hashem did not only bring the devastating plague of locusts , but, before it, He first arranged the plague of hail  and, only after that, did he call upon the locusts. By first mentioning the plague of locusts  and only afterwards mentioning the plague of hail , the Psalmist shows us that Hashem was deliberately adding plagues to magnify His miracles for us.
Regarding verses 48–49, the Malbim adds that since we have mentioned hail  in relation to how it destroyed the crops, we again mention that not only did the hail destroy their crops, but it also killed their animals that were left out and exposed. The hail  and pestilence  in verses 48–50 share a common theme, that of killing the Egyptian’s animals. Hashem ‘navigated a path’ in administering the various plagues in such a way that some of the animals were killed in the plague of pestilence  and some were killed in the plague of hail .
Finally, the last pair of plagues, pestilence  and the smiting of the firstborn  also share an obvious theme of death. Hashem could have killed all of Egypt – man and animal – with the fifth plague, the plague of pestilence, but “He navigated a path for His anger (ie. the plague of pestilence ) (which would otherwise) have not spared their souls from death, and He handed over (only) their livestock to pestilence .” Thereby, a further plague of smiting the firstborn  could be added to the plagues to further demonstrate Hashem’s total power.
And then there was one
Regarding the plague of blood , the Malbim says that since it does not have a partner-plague with which to pair, therefore it was simply mentioned first in its chronological position, as it was a straight forward Sign-plague to teach Hashem’s presence. But, the rest of the Sign-plagues are recalled in a sequence that highlights to us how Hashem wanted to multiply his miracles so that He would come to be acknowledged and celebrated by us – His nation.
And, therefore, the Psalmist chastises the Jewish people for ‘not remembering Hashem’ in their travels in the wilderness so soon after this elaborate exhibition of compounded miracles was played out before their very eyes during their exodus from Egypt.
With this deeper understanding of the context of our verse, we can perhaps better appreciate why and how Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva want to expound from it that each of the individual plagues in Egypt were comprised of numerous plague-miracles, and therefore the plague-miracles at the sea were actually many times more numerous than the basic fifty that Rabbi Yose HaGelili proved.
More importantly, however, we can also suggest that we have uncovered an insight into the overall purpose of this piece of Rabbi Yose HaGelili, Rabbi Eliezer, and Rabbi Akiva being inserted into the Haggadah. Perhaps it could be the very purpose of the Haggadah itself, Hashem’s purpose for the Exodus and His wish and goal for Mankind – namely, to magnify the miraculous power of Hashem in our eyes, hearts, and minds so that we should never forget and always remember Him, His infinite and absolute power and Kingship, and His special providence over His Jewish people. And, thereby, we will become and remain devoted to His purpose for us – to grow to become ever more connected to Him, so that He will cause His presence to rest upon us. And we as, “Your nation – Hashem – all Tzaddikim (righteous)” , “will sit with our crowns on our heads and bask in the glory and splendour of the Shechina (Divine presence)”.
Aron Ziegler has learned for over 15 years at the Yeshivah Gedolah of Johannesburg, including five years full-time. He was among the first students of Hirsch Lyons School. For more than 10 years, he served as the spiritual leader of the Kensington Hebrew Congregation. He regularly leins at the Doornfontein Lions Shul Shabbos Morning Minyan and also leads a learning group weekday mornings at Cyrildene Shul. He strives, in the words of his beloved Rosh Yeshivah’s rebbe, to be a ‘Torah Jew’.
- Shemos 13:8 ↑
- See Devarim 26:5-8 ↑
- Shemos 8:15 ↑
- Shemos 14:31 ↑
- Tehillim 78:49 ↑
- Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel, 1809 – 1879 ↑
- Tehillim 78:42-51 ↑
- Or crocodiles – Rabbeinu Bechaya Shemos 10:19, Ibn Ezra Shemos 7:27, See also He’emek Davar Shemos 7:28-29. ↑
- Shemos 7:17 ↑
- Shemos 18:26 ↑
- Shemos 8:18 ↑
- Shemos 9:14 ↑
- See Shemos 10:5 ↑
- See Yeshaya 60:21 ↑
- From the benching at the Seder ↑