There were HOW MANY plagues?
Rabbi Benjy Myers, Educational Director, Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel Emissary Programs
Ask any child how many plagues there were in Egypt, how many times the Almighty struck the subjugators of the Jewish people, and the answer would be straightforward: Ten. Indeed, one of the experiential highlights of my seder growing up was chanting in unison the names of each of the ten plagues while removing a drop of wine from my glass with a finger, making sure, of course, not to lick my finger afterwards. The notion that there were ten plagues was so ingrained and seemingly important, that immediately after recalling each plague by name, we continue the wine-dripping ‘ceremony’ by mentioning the mnemonic used by R’ Yehuda – DeTzaKh, ADaSh, B’AḤaV.
It is the certitude and clarity with which the ten plagues are presented in the haggada that makes the section immediately thereafter all the more complicated. R’ Yossi haGlili, R’ Eliezer and R’ Akiva each present a varied understanding of biblical verses whose aim – it seems – is to increase retroactively the number of plagues suffered by the Egyptians. Not only do they add to the number of plagues that befell them in Egypt, but they add an extra category – plagues that occurred at the sea.
This passage, based on the Mekhilta d’Rashbi, raises two underlying questions:
- What difference does it make to me, in this day and age, to inflate the number of plagues from ten to several dozen or several hundred? The same question can be asked of the three tana’im whose opinion is brought in the midrash – what difference did it make to them?
- The focus of the seder is the exodus from Egypt, and in particular, the slavery and then the actual moment of salvation – not the splitting of the sea. Indeed, no mention is made of that great miracle except in this section, and one line in the song of Dayeinu. Why, therefore, do we include this section of homiletic gymnastics in our seder?
One answer is brought in the name of the Vilna Gaon. The verse states that “all the sicknesses that I have visited upon Egypt I will not visit upon you, for I, the Lord, heal you” (Shmot 15, 26). The Vilna Gaon remarks that the more plagues, sicknesses and afflictions visited upon the Egyptians of old, the fewer can visited upon the Jewish people. As such, even though the number of plagues was midrashically increased after the fact, it still serves a purpose for the Jewish people.
While this may answer the first question, it still does not explain how the passage made its way into our haggada and seder night.
The answer, I believe, lies in understanding the historical timeframe of the three rabbis, as well as understanding the aim of seder night.
Rabbi Akiva’s interaction with and ultimate execution by the Romans is well documented. The occupying empire did its best to kill off the spirit and practices of the Jews, as well as implement a violent subjugation, including numerous battles and executions. Rabbi Yossi haGlili was one of Rabbi Akiva’s contemporaries, and the gemara cites a number of instances where the two entered into a Talmudic dispute with one another (Pesahim 74a, Ketubot 38a, Sanhedrin 111b and others). One of Rabbi Akiva’s main teachers was Rabbi Eliezer, and it was during his time that the Romans decreed against circumcision (cf. Shabbat 130a; G. Alon, Toldot Hayehudim vol. 2, p. 10).
It is clear that living through the time of the Roman occupation and the accompanying strictures and decrees placed upon the Jewish people was difficult, and indeed at times required the ultimate sacrifice to be made in upholding the values, traditions and mitzvot that the Jews have held dear for generations. It is during this time that the three rabbis presented their midrashic reading of the plagues. It is, in fact, an anti-Roman polemic and a way for the rabbis, through their sermons, to strengthen their flock. The underlying message, I believe, is that while the rabbis were supposedly teaching about the plagues of Egypt and the ultimate exodus from that house of slavery, their real goal was to show that the same fate would eventually befall the Romans. One could not speak openly about the occupying force without fear of reprisal, and so the rabbis were forced to speak in code.
In later generations, it became safer to speak about the Roman Empire not just as an actual occupying force, but also as a concept (the exile from the time of the destruction of the second Bet HamiKdash is often referred to as the Roman exile, even though historically many generations have passed since the Empire itself ended). Indeed, we find later midrashim that spell out in clear terms what I believe the three tana’im were trying to present in more subdued tones in their midrash.
In Shemot Rabba 9:13:
Said Rabbi Elazar ben Padat: Just as the Almighty brought on the Egyptians, so he will bring on Tyre, as it is written (Isaiah 23, 5): “Like the report concerning Egypt, shall they quake at the report of Tyre (צֹר).”
Rabbi Elazar said: When Scripture writes Tyre in brief (צֹר) it speaks of the Evil Empire (Rome), and whenever it uses the full spelling (צוֹר) it speaks if Tyre, the city-state.
The Pesikta D’Rav Kahana (7) brings this midrash and takes it a step further:
R’ Levi said in the name of R’ Hamma bar R’ Hanina: May He who sought retribution from the former seek retribution from the later; just as was with Egypt, so too may it be with Edom (Rome).
The midrash then goes on to list the ten plagues of Egypt and brings scriptural support to show that such plagues will also be visited upon Rome.
As such, the answer to the questions above are that it doesn’t really make a difference how many plagues there really were, nor does it really matter how many were on land or at the sea. What really matters is where we see ourselves. Seder night is an experience; it is the night on which we are supposed to relive the exodus, the night when we are supposed to see ourselves leaving the house of slavery and having a taste of freedom. Throughout Jewish history there have been times when experiencing freedom was easy. There were no external elements forcing us to hide who we are, our beliefs and practices. During those times, it is perhaps harder to imagine slavery and the feelings of subjugation. However, at other times in Jewish history, the opposite was true. Living as an open, proud Jew brought with it challenges and dangers, oftentimes mortal dangers. During those times it would have been harder to picture a life of freedom.
Nevertheless, whatever stage of Jewish history one is in, the obligation on Seder night remains – experience the exodus! Taste the bitterness of slavery and the sweetness of deliverance; discuss the horrors of forced containment and wonders of freedom; sing about the past, of how we were slaves, and revel in the promise that while in every generation they rise up against us to destroy us, the Almighty has promised to deliver us from their hands.
This is the message that R’ Yossi haGlili, R’ Eliezer and R’ Akiva gave their communities and it is the reason this passage is in the haggada – while at times life may be hard, we must remember that we have a Divine, eternal promise that God will look out for and deliver His people. This is worthy of us looking for the light at the end of the tunnel, and worthy of us raising our glass in a toast to God and, in the words of the haggada as we conclude the section of maggid and move on to our matza and festive meal, “and let us give thanks to You with newfound song for our redemption and deliverance of our souls. Blessed are You, redeemer of Israel.”