Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat VaEra

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.

Parashat VaEra 5759/1999

The Frog was a Crocodile

Prof. Daniel Sperber

Dept. of Talmud

The second of the Ten Plagues, Zefarde'a, is translated as "The frogs shall retreat from you and your courtiers and your people; they shall remain only in the Nile" (Ex.8:7), is interpreted in Midrash ha-Gadol as follows:[1]

R. Isaac says there are still deadly beasts in it that come out and kill people every year ... [because] Moses did not pray that the frogs be wiped out, but that they not harm Pharaoh, as it is said, "And Moses cried out to the Lord in the matter of the frogs which He had inflicted upon Pharaoh" (v. 8).

From this we learn that the zefarde'a, commonly rendered as frog, belongs to the class of beasts that kill. This seems quite perplexing. Is the frog indeed a dangerous death-dealing beast? Indeed, the medieval commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra suggested two possible identifications of the animal referred to here:

Commentators differed in their understanding of zefarde'im, "frogs." Many said it referred to a sort of fish found in Egypt, known as al-timsah in Arabic, which comes out of the river and seizes human beings. Others say they are found in most of the rivers and that they make a sound. I agree with the latter view, which is well-known.

According to the first identification, the zefarde'a is the same as the timsah in Arabic, or what we know as the crocodile. According to the second identification, preferred by Ibn Ezra, it is apparently the frog, which makes a croaking sound in lakes and rivers.

Even though Ibn Ezra is less inclined to agree with the view that it is a crocodile, that is the theory set forth by Nahmanides in his commentary on Exodus 10:12 (in the name of R. Hananel, who wrote a commentary on the Torah). R. Bahya, a disciple of Nahmanides' disciple, goes into greater detail:

What Moses said in his prayer held for that time and for all generations. In accordance with his words, "they shall remain only in the Nile," to this very day the creeping water creature known as the timsah remains there. There it breeds, and it is said that sometimes it comes out of the Nile where it lives, rising onto the river's bank and swallowing whatever it finds, even two or three humans at a time. Neither spear nor arrow can overcome its body, unless aimed for the belly. Physicians say it is venomous and that touching its body, even after its death, is harmful to man. It is a sort of frog... This is how R. Hananel interpreted the text.

According to Sefer ha-Mivhar la-Torah, by the Karaite Aaron b. Joseph ha-Rofe (circa 1250-1320), "Some say it looks like a fish, that it is the timsah, moving its upper jaw, unlike all other lowly creatures, and that it seizes humans and animals passing by along the shore..."

Although the etymology of the word is unknown (cf. E. Ben Yehuda's Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, p. 5606, under zefarde'a), it is generally held to refer to a small, vocal animal. Egypt indeed has crocodiles in the Nile, but it is not clear why the rabbis should have identified this creature with the "frogs" associated with Moses.

Midrash Lekah Tov (on Exodus 7:28; cf. Yalkut Shimoni, I, 182) gives a clue to the answer:

Ba-zefarde'im -- what is this word, zefarde'a? There was a bird (zipor) in the Nile that had intelligence (de'a), and when this bird called to them they came, and so they were named after this bird with intelligence: zefar-de'a.

According to this midrash, the crocodile was called zefarde'a after the intelligent bird that sat on it.

Under crocodile in the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, I found that a certain bird, the Plover Pluviancis Aegyptus, has a habit of sitting on the crocodile, but since the crocodile usually rests with its mouth open (=i.e., with its upper jaw raised), these intelligent birds peck at the crocodile's teeth in search of parasites. The bird is extremely cautious and gives a call when fleeing from danger, thus also warning the crocodile.

The ancients knew these things, as evidenced by the writings of Herodotus, in the fifth century B.C.E., who described the beast as follows:

... it cannot move its underjaw, and in this respect, too, it is singular, being the only animal in the world which moves the upper jaw but not the under. It has strong claws and a scaly skin, impenetrable upon the back. As it lies quietly in the river, it has the inside of its mouth constantly covered with leaches; hence it happens that, while all the other birds and beasts avoid it, with the trochilus it lives at peace, since it owes much to that bird: for the crocodile, when he leaves the water and comes out upon the land, is in the habit of lying with his mouth wide open, facing the western breeze: at such times the trochilus goes into his mouth and devours the leeches. This benefits the crocodile, who is pleased, and takes care not to hurt the trochilus.

A similar description may be find in the second-century work by Aelian, De Natura Animalium, 3.11 (in this regard see H. Schwartzbaum's remark in his book on the fox fables of R. Berakhya Nakdan, Kiron 1979, p. 54).

Thus, the search for a (popular or folk) etymology for the word zefarde'a, coupled with an attempt to identify this word with an animal that lives in the Nile today, led to the crocodile, a creature that lives symbiotically with the "intelligent bird," as the best candidate for the biblical zefarde'a.

At Maresha, near Beit Guvrin, some ancient burial tombs were discovered, as well as color frescos, all dating to the 2nd and 3rd centuries B.C.E. These are the most ancient paintings of their type discovered in Israel to date. The frescos faded and disappeared, and record of them remains only in the book describing them, published at the beginning of the century: J. Peters and H. Thiersch, Painted Tombs in the Necropolis of Marrisa, London, 1905. One picture comes from the northern wall of the tomb, and portrays among other things, a crocodile with an Egyptian water-bird on its back. Above the creature and below the bird the word "crocodile" can be made out, and above the bird, the letters IBIS (the name of the bird), in minuscule Greek letters.

[1] Margaliyot edition, pp. 121-122; originally from Mishnat R. Eliezer, p. 354.