Counting Plagues: A Pre-Pesach Reflection

No matter how hard we try to bring a fresh perspective to each Seder, there’s no getting around the fact that the text of the Haggadah that we recite at each year’s Seder (both Sedarim in the Diaspora) contains the same words that we recited last year, and the year before that.   Yet the Haggadah instructs us that to fulfill the mitzvah of  sippur yetziat mitzraim  (telling the story of the exodus from Egypt) we are obligated to view ourselves as if we personally had been redeemed from Egyptian bondage.  Rote recitation alone is not enough.  We must strive to internalize the Seder’s lessons.

Of course, the Haggadah was designed to discourage rote recitation.  If the Torah merely commanded us to remember yetziat mitzraim , there would have been a far easier way to achieve that goal.  All we would have needed to do was to create a single authoritative text,  perhaps excerpted from the narrative portions of the first four parshiyot (weekly portions) of the book of Shemot (Exodus), which tells the story of the exodus in a fairly straightforward fashion.

But the central mitzvah of the Seder is not remembrance but transmission.  To perform it properly, we must not merely recite a narrative but rather to delve into its details, thus forging connections between the story we tell and the lives we lead.  The Haggadah seeks to facilitate that process by utilizing scriptural and rabbinic references that are at best peripheral to the primary narrative.  The more obscure the reference, the more it should encourage us to ponder the implications of the underlying narrative.

In that spirit, let’s take a look at one of the least scrutinized segments of the Haggadah, the disagreement between two tanaitic sages, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva, concerning the number of plagues (or, perhaps more precisely, plague equivalents) suffered by the Egyptians at the Red Sea. Each of these sages is constructing his homiletical edifice on the foundation laid by Rabbi Yossi Haglili, in the immediately preceding paragraph of the Haggadah.   Rabbi Yossi Haglili utilizes a somewhat anthropomorphic exegesis to conclude that at the Red Sea the Egyptians suffered the equivalent of fifty plagues.

Neither Rabbi Eliezer nor Rabbi Akiva challenges Rabbi Yossi’s exegesis.  Instead, they use a homiletical interpretation of an otherwise obscure verse from Psalm 78 to further increase the number of plague equivalents suffered by the Egyptians.  That verse (Psalms 78:49, JPS translation)  reads: “He inflicted His burning anger upon them, wrath, indignation, trouble, a band of deadly messengers.”

Rabbi Eliezer understands that verse to mean that each of the ten plagues in Egypt was enhanced in four ways:  through (1) wrath,(2)  indignation, (3) trouble and (4), a band of deadly messengers.”  Thus, each plague in Egypt was the equivalent of four plagues, so that the total number of plagues that the Egyptians suffered in Egypt was the equivalent of 40 plagues.  Combining that with the prior exegesis of Rabbi Yossi Haglili, Rabbi Eliezer posits that the total plague equivalents suffered by the Egyptians at the Sea was 200.

Rabbi Akiva also accepts the exegesis of Rabbi Yossi Haglili.  He agrees, moreover, agrees with Rabbi Eliezer’s methodology in understanding the verse from Psalm 78, though he applies it slightly differently.  His only disagreement with Rabbi Eliezer concerns the phrase “His burning anger.”  Rabbi Akiva understands that phrase to be a plague enhancer like the four cited by Rabbi Eliezer.  He thus concludes that each of the Egyptian plagues was really the equivalent of five plagues, so that the total number of plagues suffered in Egypt was 50, and the total at the Sea was 250.

What purpose is served by counting plague equivalents?  It would appear that not only Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva, but also Rabbi Yossi Haglili, are using all the exegetical tools available to them to get the plague count as high as possible. But why?

Running up the numbers of plague equivalents is an attempt to take advantage of God’s promise ( Ex.15:26, JPS translation)  that “I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought on the Egyptians, for I the Lord am your healer.”  Thus, the larger the number of plagues suffered by the Egyptians, the more plagues that the Jewish people will be protected virtue of God’s promise.

There’s a problem with that approach, however.  God’s promise to spare us from the plagues inflicted on the Egyptians was not unconditional but rather dependent upon the Jewish people fulfilling its end of the covenant.  The first half of  the verse that ends with the promise quoted above begins by making the conditions clear: “If you will heed the Lord your God diligently, doing what is upright in His sight, giving ear to His commandments and  keeping all His laws”.  Only if the Jewish people fulfill those requirements, has God promised to protect us from the plagues He brought against the Egyptians.

To understand why both sages relied on verse 78:49, we need to read that verse in the context of Psalm 78 as a whole.  It’s, a fairly lengthy psalm, and since it has no current liturgical use, it is unfamiliar to most of us.  The first 7 verses are introductory, focusing on the transmission of Torah to future generations – which is, after all, the purpose of the Seder: “that a future generation might know – children yet to be born – and in turn tell their children that they might put their confidence in God, and not forget God’s great deeds, but observe His commandments”  (78:6-7)

Beginning with verse eight (“and not be like their fathers, a wayward and defiant generation …”), the overarching theme of the Psalm is Israel’s ingratitude despite all the miracles God did for them…  To underscore how egregious that ingratitude was, the Psalmist alternates between descriptions of the miracles God performed for the people  (vv.9-16, 22-29,38-39,42-55) and condemnation of the ingratitude displayed by them in response (17-21,30-37,40-41, 56-64). At three points in the Psalm (vv.23-24, 38-39, 52-55),  moreover,  we are reminded that despite that ingratitude — i.e., even though they didn’t deserve it —  God continued to perform miracles for our ancestors.

The verse quoted by Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva is part of a nine-verse segment (vv. 43-51) that contains the Psalmist’s account of the plagues God brought on the Egyptians.  Given its location within the Psalm, that verse clearly refers to the plagues brought against the Egyptians.  Since that segment of the Psalm is constructed using pronouns rather than nouns, however, it could conceivably be misread to refer to God’s anger at the Jewish people for their faithlessness.  Relying on that verse as a plague-intensifier is a way of seeking God’s mercy on the Jewish people while at the same time reminding us that, at so many points in our history, God has dealt with us far better than we deserve.

There is another context for Psalm 78 that may bear on its use in the Haggadah.  In the last eight verses (65-72), the Psalmist records God’s choice of the tribe of Judah, and particularly the House of King David, and His rejection of the tribes descended from Joseph, which had led the Northern kingdom.  That concluding segment of the Psalm follows a nine-verse segment (vv.56-64) that describes the defeat and exile of the northern kingdom.  Those references suggest that the Psalm was a product of the period after the northern kingdom of Israel had been exiled by Assyria but before the kingdom of Judah had fallen to the Babylonians. There thus may be a link between Psalm 78 and the events that occurred during the rule of King Josiah of Judah, as recorded in the Second Book of Kings.

According to the narrative recorded in that book, the discovery of a Torah scroll in the course of renovating the Temple led Josiah to command the people to “offer the Passover sacrifice to the Lord your God as prescribed in this scroll of the covenant. Now the Passover sacrifice had not been offered in that manner in the days of the Judges who judged Israel, nor during the days of the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah.”   (2 Kings 23:21-22).  Precisely what was different about the Passover sacrifice in the days of Josiah is not clear, but whatever defect existed in the Passover celebrations of earlier generations reflected the people’s insufficient gratitude for God’s miraculous redemption – precisely the fault that Psalm 78 discusses in such excruciating detail.

The narrative in the Book of Kings praises Josiah, saying that “[t]here was no king like him before who turned back to the Lord with all his heart and soul and might …nor did any like him arise after him.” (23:25). Despite his merit however, the text continues, “the Lord did not turn away from His burning anger [Heb. charon  appo] which had blazed up against Judah ….” (v. 26)..    Josiah’s revitalization of Israel’s covenant with God, it seems, was too little, too late.

What was the nature of the disagreement between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva concerning the plague count? Why did Rabbi Akiva count “His burning anger” (Heb. charon  appo) as a fifth aspect of each plague that could be used to increase the count of plague equivalents while Rabbi Eliezer apparently considered it a description of the plague process as a whole that did not enhance the intensity of the plague experience.   According to the Malbim, the dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi  Akiva was essentially grammatical,  revolving around  the fact that “His burning anger”, unlike the other elements on the list, is possessive and the lack of a vav connecting  that phrase to the others in that verse.

I suspect that there was a bit more substance to the disagreement than the Malbim suggests.  The best way to transmit the experience of yetziat mitzraim  from generation to generation is to see in it a paradigm for subsequent Jewish history.  If God treated our people as they deserved, we would not have continued to be the beneficiaries of His miraculous intervention.  Despite Israel’s history of ingratitude, God directed His burning anger against the Egyptians, not the Jews.  In the time of Josiah, God momentarily lost patience with our ancestors, but He soon redeemed them from the Babylonian exile

Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva lived at the beginning of our current exile, and we know that Rabbi Akiva tended to a more activist approach to the termination of that exile than did many of his colleagues.  That approach might well have inclined him to assume that God’s burning anger would be turned on our oppressors even though we deserved it as well.  Adding that anger to the other plague-enhancing characteristics, he might have assumed, might increase the suffering of our enemies and might even speed up the process of redemption.

Nearly two millennia later, alas, that exile has not yet ended.  Many of us believe that the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel is a sign that the end of the exile is really near, but we have no prophets who can tell us that for certain.  Our task in the meantime is to fulfill our end of the covenant that the Torah links to God’s protection from the plagues suffered by the Egyptians:  “heed[ing]  the Lord your God diligently, doing what is upright in His sight, giving ear to His commandments and  keeping all His law.” (Ex. 15:26).

A happy and kosher Pesach to all.


About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.