Congregation Ohave Shalom - Young Israel of Pawtucket

Haggadah: A Plaguing Number

by: David Pliskin

The lengthy discussion which begins after the enumeration of the plagues in the Haggadah, concerning the number of plagues actually experienced by the Egyptians, has always been puzzling to me.

First we are told by Rabbi Yose the Galilean that in Egypt the inhabitants were struck by 10plagues, and at the sea by 50.

Now along comes Rabbi Eliezer who tells us each plague actually consisted of 4plagues. Therefore, in Egypt the inhabitants experienced 40plagues, and at the sea 200 plagues.

Last comes Rabbi Akiva, who informs us each plague consisted of 5parts. He continues to say that in Egypt the people experienced 50plagues, and at the sea 250.

Four, five, ten, forty, fifty, two hundred, two hundred fifty - what is going on here? A plague on these numbers already!

One might come to think that there really is some great disagreement among the rabbis about the number of plagues, but that is not the case. Rather, our rabbis are in fact trying to explain mystical ramifications of Gd's acts in Egypt.

Rabbi Yose, using two sentences from the Torah, shows us that in Egypt only the "finger of Gd" was used for the plagues. At the sea, Gd used His "great hand" on the Egyptians. He points out that a hand has five fingers, indicating that five times the plagues that came from Gd's finger, came from His hand.

Perhaps Rabbi Yose is trying to tell us that in Egypt the Jews only saw a limited impact from the plagues, but at the sea the Jewish people saw the full impact of Gd's power, when the Egyptians were totally destroyed. Rabbis Eliezer and Akiva do not dispute this concept, and that is why both also use that ratio, telling us that the number of plagues at the sea was five times higher than in Egypt itself.

Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva have no disagreement with Rabbi Yose at all. They are looking at an even higher level of understanding. In fact, they both look at the same verse (Tehillim 78:59) for support of their opinions. Rabbi Eliezer says the verse indicates that each plague had 4aspects, while Rabbi Akiva finds support for his opinion that each plague had 5aspects. Why be concerned at all?

The numbers 4and 5represent the number of letters in two names of Gd, Yud-Hei-Vav-Hei (pronounced Ad_nai) and Alef-Lamed-Hei-Yud-Mem (pronounced Elo_im). Ad_nai represents Gd's quality of mercy, and Elo_im represents Gd's quality of justice.

The plagues had dual aspects, in liberating the Jews and punishing the Egyptians. Rabbi Eliezer sees the plagues as an aspect of the 4-letter name, representing Gd's mercy. Rabbi Akiva sees the same plagues as aspect of the 5-letter name, representing justice. Now it becomes clear. Rabbi Eliezer believes the plagues are primarily Gd showing mercy to the Jews, while Rabbi Akiva believes the plagues are primarily Gd punishing the Egyptians for their treatment of the Jews.

So the discussion in the Haggadah concerning the number of plagues is not a plague of confusion after all. Our sages teach us a lesson; the words of our Torah have much to teach us. There is the simple translation of the words, but there are higher levels of meaning to be found. It is up to each of us to strive to those higher levels of wisdom.

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