You would think that the ten plagues of Egypt, as you’ve always known them, are terrifying enough. But you’d be wrong. While I wouldn’t wish the plagues, even as we generally understand them, on anyone but an ancient Egyptian, they may have been even worse. Think about that at this year’s seder table.
For example, take the arov, the wild animals of the fourth plague. They’re often depicted as lions or tigers. But what were they? Rabbi Nathan Slifkin, in his extraordinary work of Jewish crypto-zoology, Sacred Monsters, cites Mishna and Gemara on the adnei ha-sadeh: the man of the field. This is a man-like creature that grows from the ground like a plant, and remains connected to the earth through a root or cord connected to its navel.
No less an authority than the Vilna Gaon, according to Slifkin, connects these creatures to the plague of wild animals:
“The Torah states that the houses of Egypt would be smitten by the plague of wild animals ‘and the ground upon which they are’… (T)he Vilna Gaon concludes that it refers to God bringing the adnei ha-sadeh with its piece of ground attached to it.”
In case you’re envisioning some type of animated topiary, the adnei ha-sadeh was unfortunately more formidable. “No creature can approach it, to the length of the cord, for it mauls and kills everything,” writes Slifkin, quoting Ohr Zarua, Hilchos Kilayim.
Think of it: a vegetable monster that wants to turn you into a salad! This idea fascinated me when I read Slifkin’s book years ago, and the legend presented itself anew when I needed a terrifying creature for my novel, The Hidden Saint. Using the Torah’s name for this creature, Yedoni, I created a scene in which my protagonist, Rabbi Adam, and his companion, a golem, encounter three Yedonim at night, in the woods. Here’s the opening:
A sound arrested Adam’s attention: a snort from a creature he couldn’t identify. It was a ways off, but not that far off. Adam moved closer to the golem. Again all was quiet, for a while.
At first he was unsure he had heard anything at all; the sound almost wasn’t there. Then Adam heard it again, a sound different from the one he’d heard moments earlier, this time slight and scratching and rhythmic and low to the ground. The golem turned the higher of his mismatched ears toward the sound. Adam clambered to his feet. The golem, instantly alert, followed Adam to investigate. Something was moving in the underbrush just beyond the curtain of light cast by their fire. Adam picked up a long branch at the edge of the fire and thrust the impromptu torch ahead of them into the darkness.
His eyes snapped open wide. Nothing was moving in the underbrush. It was the ground itself that was moving. It pushed upward in little spurts, as though someone or something was digging from below. The earth continued to fall away from whatever was making its way upward, toward them. A root appeared in the center of the disturbed earth, thick as a man’s wrist. But this was like no root that Adam had ever seen before, because no force was moving it: the root was moving the earth. Adam could feel his heart hammering at his chest. The root was undulating, rising from the ground and creating a hole of increasing size. With a sense of panic, Adam realized what this was. They had to get away from it now.
“Back!” he barked at the golem who, although startled by the urgent tone of his creator, retreated quickly, almost stumbling. Adam ran back too and they reached their fire just in time to see a shape moving purposefully out of the hole. It was a hand. Not the hand of any animal, and not quite the hand of any man, but mottled and hairy like the coiled root through which it was rising steadily into the air. The hand opened and closed vigorously. Another hand punched up through the earth nearby and the pair rose into the night, capped by long, sharp, claw-like fingertips. Adam stared, riveted by the sight. He could see a pair of forearms, elbows, and upper arms. The earth now rose and fell away from the ground between them. What appeared to be a monstrous gourd rose up: gourd it was, but also a head, with mouth, nose, and eyes—hungry eyes that popped open as it sensed its liberation from the ground. The Yedoni—for that was what Adam had recognized the thing to be—planted its two hands on the ground and pushed down on them to pull itself up out of the earth. It did so with amazing power and speed and came to stand no more than twenty feet from them.
The Sages say that the wild beasts that the Holy One, Blessed be He, loosed upon the ancient Egyptians at the time of the ten plagues were not lions or tigers, but the Yedoni, and that this was why the Egyptians grew fearful of the Lord. Scripture specifically warned man against contact with the Yedoni, for such contact meant almost certain death. In Adam’s time and place, most towns and villages were safe because the Yedoni grew only in uncultivated ground. But more than one traveler who failed to reach his destination, particularly those who traveled by night, knew the Yedoni, though it was the last thing they knew…
So this year, when you open your door for Elijah, don’t open it too wide. You never know quite what’s out there, hungry in the dark…