Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Era 5762/ January 12, 2002

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.
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Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

Parashat Va-Era 5762/ January 12, 2002

Signs and Marvels

Menahem Ben-Yashar
Department of Bible

The passage in the Passover Haggadah, "these are the ten plagues..." has accustomed us to thinking of ten plagues that were inflicted upon the Egyptians. However, the word makkot which is used to refer to these "plagues" in the Haggadah and Rabbinic writings only appears once in all of Scripture, and there it is put in the mouth of the Philistines: "He is the same G-d who struck the Egyptians with every kind of plague" (I Sam. 4:8).[1] This expression occurs in the Bible only in the mouth of non-Jews; Scripture itself always refers to these events as marvels (mofetim) or signs and marvels (otot u-mofetim). This is so in the story of the Exodus from Egypt (Ex. 7:3 - 11:10), and throughout the remaining books of the Torah (Deut. 6:22; 26:8), as well as the Prophets (Jer. 32:21), Psalms (Ps. 78:43; 105:27; 135:9), and Writings (Neh. 15:10).

The last plague is an exception: this is the only one referred to as a nega or plague (Ex. 11:1), and in Psalms is mentioned with the root m-k-h (to strike): "Who struck Egypt through their first-born" (Ps. 136:10). This is rightly so, for this action alone (irrespective of the plagues that preceded it) caused Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. The plague of the first-born was destined from the beginning to punish the Egyptians measure for measure, as Moses was told when he set out on his mission: "Thus says the Lord: Israel is My first-born son. I have said to you, 'Let My son go, that he may worship Me,' yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your first-born son" (Ex. 4:22-23).[2]

However, the plague of the first-born remains one of the "signs and marvels," in this respect serving a double purpose. All the plagues function as signs attesting the Lord's dominion in the world. This is shown both to the Egyptians, who represent the pagan world: "And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand over Egypt" (Ex. 7:5); and to the Israelites: "that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons' sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them - in order that you may know that I am the Lord" (Ex. 10:2). By singling out the Hebrews to protect them against the plagues of swarms of insects, pestilence, hail, darkness, and finally from the slaying the first-born, G-d attested His having chosen Israel.

For the Israelites themselves, the plague of the first-born was an additional sign, since the Lord only saved from death those first-born Israelites whose households offered the Paschal sacrifice, and indicated this publicly by painting their doorposts and lintels with blood. In other words, only those who themselves attested, by offering a sacrifice, that henceforth they would be servants of the Lord, were delivered from the deadly destruction that was brought upon the first-borns in Egypt. The Passover sacrifice indicated their covenant with G-d before the eyes of the Egyptians because it had been said earlier, "If we sacrifice that which is untouchable to the Egyptians before their very eyes, will they not stone us?" (Ex. 8:22). Presumably only these families would leave Egypt, as we read in the Passover Haggadah regarding the wicked son, who holds the Passover sacrifice in disdain: "Had he been there (in Egypt), he would not have been delivered."

Moses was instructed regarding the first plague - blood - at the burning bush (Ex. 4:5) to give him credibility in the eyes of the Israelites as the Lord's messenger. Turning water to blood was no more than a sign, devoid of any concomitant significance or accompanying feature of a plague. At the burning bush Moses was given an additional sign to be performed before the Israelites, namely turning his rod into a snake (Ex. 4:2-4). Later, when he returned from Midian to Egypt, Moses was commanded to perform these signs before Pharaoh as well (Ex. 4:21). Indeed, Moses performed them before Pharaoh and his servants,[3] but mutatis mutandis, instead of a snake, his rod turned into a crocodile (tanin), the serpent-like creature characteristic of the Nile. One other difference: Moses' rod turning into a frightful creeping creature was no more than a sign for Pharaoh, whereas blood, the last of the signs G-d instructed Moses to perform before the Israelites and for their sake, became before Pharaoh the first plague to strike Egypt.

Thus, counting the sign of the serpent at the beginning and the death of the first-borns at the end, we actually have eleven signs and marvels. Adding the final and most severe blow of all, which was also the greatest marvel of all - drowning Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea after the sea had parted let the Israelites pass through - we come to twelve signs and marvels. Twelve is a symbolic number; there are twelve months and zodiac signs, and twelve tribes. Similarly, ten is not an incidental number; it is the base of our arithmetic computations, human beings having ten fingers.

How is it, then, that the number ten became associated with the plagues - counting only the signs that were blows against Egypt, and only those blows that were performed within Egypt? In Jewish normative post-biblical writings, i.e., in the literature of the Sages, the notion of "ten plagues" first occurs in two tannaitic sources: Mishnah Avot and Sifre on Deuteronomy, along with a parallel text in Midrash Tannaim. In Sifre it is part of an interpretation of the passage about bringing first fruits (Deut. 26:509), a homiletical reading in fulfillment of the commandment to tell about the Exodus from Egypt while eating the paschal sacrifice, as stipulated in Mishnah Pesahim (10.4): "One is to interpret the text from 'My father was a fugitive Aramean' until the end of the entire passage." Verse 8 there reads: "The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents." The verse relates to those signs and marvels that were both "a mighty hand and an outstretched arm," that is, those which brought destruction and were effective in getting the Israelites out of Egypt; these were the ten plagues. By applying literary and numerical derashot to this verse, the homilist shows an allusion to the number ten.

In order to include the last blow, namely the splitting of the Red Sea, the Passover Haggadah adds a series of tannaitic homilies (Mekhilta, Be-Shalah 6, H-R ed. p. 113 and the parallel text in Mekhilta de Rashbi) that multiply this blow to fifty, two hundred, and even two hundred and fifty blows. It seems reasonable that these homilies, as well as many others in Midrash Tannaim about the splitting of the Red Sea and the Song on the Sea, were formulated by the rabbis as they sat at the Seder table on Passover eve. Presumably the tannaim who used to sit and tell stories about the Exodus all through the night, as is described in the Haggadah, were developing such homilies.

The other tannaitic source for the idea of ten plagues is Mishnah Avot (5, 4). This chapter of the Mishnah lists eleven things, each of which had ten elements, including ten plagues in Egypt and ten miracles that happened to the Israelites, who were saved from the plagues.[4] A closer look at this list shows that only three of the sets of ten are actually precise: ten generations from Adam to Noah, and ten from Noah to Abraham, and ten times that our ancestors tried the Lord in the wilderness, as is said in Numbers 14:22.[5]

All the other sets of ten mentioned in the Mishnah are problematic. So, for example, we read there, "The world was created with ten sayings," but in Genesis we only read nine times, "G-d said," leaving the commentators with the task of trying to find a tenth "saying." Neither the ten plagues on Egypt nor the ten miracles by which the Israelites were delivered at the Red Sea are listed in detail in Scripture or in the Mishnah.[6] They apparently were mentioned only in order to contrast them to the miracles in Egypt. Thus the entire series in Mishnah Avot is more schematic than precise. This can also be said regarding the ten plagues on Egypt in that list. Had there been a series of elevens or twelves, the plagues in Egypt could equally well have been included there, as we mentioned above.

The idea that there were ten plagues in Egypt is ancient, dating to the Book of Jubilees (40.7). It also appears in the writings of Philo of Alexandria (Life of Moses 1.94-139). According to the text of Jubilees (40.5-6), however, it appears that boils and pestilence were counted as a single plague, and the alternate tenth plague was "and He meted out punishments to all their gods and burned them in fire."[7]

Perhaps the insistence of the Sages on ten plagues, with Rabbi Judah even developing a mnemonic device, detza"kh, ada"sh, be'aha"b, to remember them, was to contrast with the mention of the plagues in Psalms, where the number and order is different from the Torah. Psalms 78:43-51 lists seven plagues, and Psalms 105:27-36 refers to eight. It is as if the number ten and Rabbi Judah's mnemonic device wished to say that the correct number and order follow that of the Torah and not Psalms. In other words, the Rabbis are telling us that the psalmists were using poetic license. They were not historiographers and were under no obligation to list all the facts in their precise order.

As for the inner arrangement of the ten plagues, the first nine (which did not serve to release the Israelites) are divided by Rashbam into three groups of three (Ex. 7:26). R. Abarbanel follows this approach of three groupings, basing his interpretation on the mnemonic signs of R. Judah (Ex. 7:14). In terms of the nature of the plagues, they can be arranged in pairs: blood and frogs came from the Nile; vermin and beasts are troublesome creatures of dry land; pestilence and boils are diseases; hail and locusts are a blow to agriculture; and darkness and the plague of the first born go together since darkness signifies death (see Job 18:18 and elsewhere). It is worth recalling that the Sages (Mekhilta, Beshalah, proem) also associated death with the plague of darkness: it was then that the wicked among the Israelites died.

In the final analysis the plague of the first-born and the miracle of the Red Sea were the two decisive plagues and marvelous signs that delivered the Israelites. Therefore the Israelites took an active part in these two events alone, whereas they remained passive observers in all the other plagues.

The plague of the first born delivered the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, but the people could not free themselves of bondage to Pharaoh without becoming servants of their new master, serving the Creator. Therefore the paschal offering, in which the entire community of Israel worshiped the Lord while still on Egyptian soil, took place before the plague of the first-born and the Exodus from Egypt. As homilists have put it, spiritual deliverance had to precede physical deliverance. However, the Israelites were not beyond Egypt's borders and Pharaoh's control until after they had crossed the Red Sea and the Egyptian hosts had been drowned. Only then were they truly free, and therefore the Song on the Sea, recited by Moses and the children of Israel in praise of the Lord, could only be sung then.

[Editor's note: Save this one for Pesah!]

[1] I did not cite the concluding words of the verse, "in the wilderness," which are problematic. Rashi's interpretation seems plausible, namely that the reference is to the blow struck against the Egyptians at the Red Sea, which is located in the wilderness. Of all the miracles that happened in Egypt, Rahab the harlot chose to mention the splitting of the Red Sea, an event which was well-known to all the peoples in the area, as we learn from the Song on the Sea: "The peoples hear; they tremble..." (Ex. 15:14).
[2] See R. Obadiah Sforno on Ex. 4:23.
[3] The sign of the leprous hand was not performed before Pharaoh, perhaps because it did not reflect honorably on Moses and Aaron.
[4] This is assuming that the Israelites were delivered from all the plagues in Egypt, not only from the five that Scriptures mentions explicitly.
[5] Nevertheless, according to the plain sense of the text there, ten is not a precise number, rather a schematic one. See Rashbam and Ibn Ezra on this verse. According to Rashi on this verse, who treats the number as precise (see Arakhin 15a-b), the reckoning is not complete because it does not include the sins that happened after the sin of the spies.
[6] Avot de Rabbi Nathan (version A, 33) says explicitly that the ten plagues and miracles on the Red Sea were in correspondence to those in Egypt. However, the text only lists six plagues on the Egyptians at the Red Sea, and then the miracles that happened to the Israelites.
[7] In his edition A. Kahana renders this as "the Lord meted out revenge," but following Exodus 12.12 the Hebrew source of Jubilees reads "punishments."