Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

One of the culminating moments in the seder night involves the recitation of the ten plagues. There is an almost climactic aspect to it, as it is positioned towards the end of maggid, serving to demonstrate God’s complete control over nature, as well as reminding us of the pivotal role played by the plagues in our exodus from Egypt. Upon completing this, we recite, almost as an afterthought, the following:

Rabbi Yehudah gave them simanim:  דצ"ך עד"ש באח"ב

Is it really that important that the ten plagues be placed in the form of an acronym? It turns out (no big surprise) that there is a debate amongst the Rishonim as to the intent of this acronym, revealing how this teaching of R’ Yehudah helps us gain a greater understanding of the seder experience.

The one intial question raised by nearly all of the commentators on the Haggadah is quite simple: it does not take a rocket scientist (assuming that analogy still applies in the 21st century) to take the first letters of the plagues and create this acronym. We know R’ Yehudah was a tremendous talmid chacham, and yet one of his most famous contributions to the Haggadah is this??? 

The most common interpretation of the acronym involves looking at the plagues beyond their individual identities, seeing them as distinct groups which each reflect a particular theme. This will soon be taken up, but let’s first see some of the less advertised explanations. This first is brought in the name of Rashi by the Ritvah (see the Haggadah of the Ritva). Rashi reinforces the above question, writing that an elementary school student could come up with this formulation. He then explains that without this acronym, one might come to say that there is no chronological order to the Torah – “ein mukdam umeuchar baTorah.” This is due to another recounting of the plagues, in Perek 105 of Tehilim, where Dovid HaMelech offers analysis of these instances. When writing about the different plagues, Dovid did not follow the historical order found in the Torah. For example, he first writes about the plague of choshech, then dam, and then tzferdeah –clearly not the order found in the Torah. Rashi, then, is emphasizing that the order of plagues found in the haggadah, as codified by the acronym, serves to distinguish from the order (or lack thereof) posited by Dovid HaMelech. What is odd about this opinion is that Rashi himself, throughout his commentary on the Torah, writes that there is no chronological order to the Torah. How do we understand this contradiction? And how does his explanation resolve his initial question?

Let’s take one other opinion before answering Rashi. The Rashbatz (R’ Shimon Ben Tzemach Duran, 1361-144, see his commentary on the Haggadah) writes that using simanim, or acronyms, was a common practice of R’ Yehudah, in order that his students not make an error. He does the same in Menachos (96a), where he uses an acronym to prevent errors in the area of measurements of the two loaves used in the Bais Hamikdash. He emphasizes (somewhat similar to Rashi) the importance of this specific order being clear, versus the order espoused by Dovid HaMelech. He concludes by writing that it is important, via this technique of acronyms and their value for students, to emphasize this exact order of plagues as found in the Torah. What is the main idea being presented by the Rashbatz?

It would seem that both agree about the acronym’s main purpose– it is a kiyum in the re-telling of the events of our exodus from Egypt (sipur yetzias mitzrayim), the primary mitzvah of the seder night. As the Rambam writes in the Mishneh Torah (7:1), it is a mitzvah on the night of the fifteenth to tell the story (mesaper) of the miracles and wonders that were done for our forefathers in Egypt. This acronym serves as an enhancement in the performance of this mitzvah. According to Rashi, the reason for the acronym is to stress the importance of the chronological order of the plagues. In general, one would not be primarily concerned with the order, and would instead focus on each individual plague as an area of study. That is not to say there is no idea in the order itself. However, the necessity of following the timeline would be secondary, at best. Therefore, Rashi is telling us at that the acronym emphasizes the need to focus on the plagues in the order they occurred. This makes sense in the context of re-telling events – following the chronological order is critical in transmitting historical records. So when reciting this acronym, we are emphasizing the necessity of following the historical order, and how it fits into the theme of re-telling the events. According to the Rashbatz, there is a different aspect of the sippur that is being brought to light with this acronym. As he points out, R’ Yehudah used acronyms to teach students not to err, and this was used simply as a method of memorizing. In the case of the seder night, as we all know, there is a pivotal concept involving teaching our children what took place in Egypt. From the very first inquiry via karpas, through the different ideas found in magid, the entire seder night takes on the context of a back and forth between parent and child. As the theme of the education plays such a crucial role, R’ Yehuda’s use of this acronym becomes much clearer. It is a simple acronym, but it reflects the importance of the seder in the education of our children. It helps emphasize the importance of not just studying the plagues for our own benefit, but to ensure we are teaching our children as well.

In next week’s article, we will take up two other opinions.

Part II

In last week’s article, we analyzed two opinions regarding the famous acronym of R’ Yehudah, דצ"ך עד"ש באח"ב. This week, we will take a look at two other opinions, one very well known, one a bit more obscure.

The Ritvah offers the most well-known opinion regarding how to understand this acronym. In his commentary on the haggadah, he explains how the grouping reflects a specific theme regarding the plagues. For example, the first three established the reality of God, the second group signifies that God communicates with man, and the final group explores the concept of God and prophecy. He offers numerous other examples, ranging from philosophical to political to economic, all following this general approach.

There is no question that each of the multiple possibilities offered by the Ritvah (and still more by other commentaries) requires its own analysis. However, it is important to understand the overall approach of the Ritvah – what does this system of organization demonstrate about the plagues? 

It could easily be that there are two ways one could view the plagues. On the one hand, each one has its own individual identity, needing to be understood as a particular manifestation of God’s control over nature. However, the Ritvah is adding another dimension to this analysis. One needs to look at the interrelationships between the plagues, with each plague functioning as part of an entire system.  The grouping creates a tziruf, a mechanism of binding the different plagues together. By viewing the individual plagues as part of a greater system, he gains a greater insight into yediyas Hashem.  The above example helps prove the point. Each plague demonstrates the idea of God’s complete control.  Yet tying them together demonstrated other objectives, such as the truth of prophecy. 

The Rid (Rabbi Isiah di Trani ben Mali 1180-1250, one of the baalei Tosafot) offers a little known and extremely difficult explanation for the acronym. Astonishingly, he writes that the acronym is not being directed towards the ten plagues. Instead, it is actually referring to the section of the haggadah immediately following the recitation of the acronym. In this section, we are introduced to a debate between R’ Yosi, R’ Eliezer and R’ Akivah regarding the quantity of plagues both in Egypt and by Yam Suf. R’ Yosi explains that while God brought ten plagues in Egypt, he brought fifty plagues at Yam Suf (based on a drash). R’ Eliezer applies a factor of four to R’ Yosi’s explanation, leading to forty plagues in Egypt and two hundred by Yam Suf. Finally, R’ Akivah applies a factor of five, meaning fifty plagues in Egypt, and two hundred by Yam Suf. The Rid explains that when adding up the total plagues by Yam Suf, one gets a total of five hundred. This number corresponds to the numerical total of the acronym.

For all the mathematicians out there, one might notice that the gematria of the acronym is actually 501, not 500. The Rid points this out, and offers what would seem to many strict adherents to gematria to be a faux pas. As he puts it, “in gematria, one does not concern himself about an extra or missing number.” In other words, the objective of gematria is not the “coincidence” achieved by the exact number. Instead, it should serve as a vehicle to greater knowledge. 

Notwithstanding the exactitude of the calculation, there are obvious questions about this explanation. The fact that the acronym is referring to the next set of plagues discussed, rather than the original ten, is certainly a unique take. While one can intuitively see the importance of focusing on the ten plagues, and the acronym emerging from its analysis, it seems strange, to say the least, to assume it is related to these “other” plagues by Yam Suf. How can we understand this explanation? There is also the overall issue of these plagues by the sea, as well as the additional plagues that took place in Egypt according to two of the opinions. The Torah never records these plagues as occurring; furthermore, we have no knowledge of the particulars of these plentiful plagues. One could argue that the point is that if you thought there were only ten plagues, you were way off. What is the overall importance of these additional plagues? (Due to a lack of space, the specific issue as to the understanding the nature of the debate between R’ Yosi, R’ Eliezer and R’ Akivah will not be taken up).

When one studies the ten plagues, as presented in both the Torah and the Talmud, one sees the primary objective of the realization of God’s complete control over nature manifest to both the Egyptian and Jewish people. Each plague reflects, in its own particular way, insights into this fundamental idea. For example, God explains (Shemos 7:5) that the Egyptians will know God once He raises His hand against them and takes Bnai Yisrael out of Egypt. What knowledge is being referred to here? The Rashbam explains that they will know God is the Master and Ruler (Adon U’Moshel), as they could claim not to know Him before this. The Rashbam is reinforcing the above concept, namely that the plagues would demonstrate God as being in control of the natural world. If this were the only message, its understanding would easily be accomplished through the recitation and analysis of the ten plagues during the seder night. Yet we see another feature to the plagues, expressed through this debate and the Rid’s subsequent understanding of the acronym. When discussing Moshe’s impending mission, God explains (ibid 3:20) as follows:

I will then send forth my hand, and strike Egypt with all My wondrous deeds that I will perform in their midst. Then he [Pharaoh] will send you out.

The Malbim points out that the focus here is on the plagues being a punishment to the Egyptians, alluded to with the use of “strike” (hikah). One can therefore deduce from this another middah of God being expressed through the plagues – God’s system of justice, schar v’onesh. It is crucial that the plagues be viewed from this perspective as well, serving as the basis for the Rid’s position, as well as the need to emphasize the “extra” plagues both in Egypt and by Yam Suf. The plagues, as listed in this debate, are never individually identified. We have no idea as to the specifics of these plagues by Yam Suf, whether they followed the general theme of the ones in Egypt, or were completely different. We also have no inkling as to the additional plagues that, according to two opinions, were inflicted on the Egyptians in Egypt proper. Rather than focusing on the individual identity of each plague, we are instead presented with a vast quantity of plagues, indistinguishable from one another and serving to help us focus on their role in punishing the Egyptians. The middah of schar v’onesh, then, was on full display as well, understood through these supplementary plagues.  It could be that according to this approach, R’ Yehudah had a very different objective in mind when developing this numerical calculation. When studying the plagues, one should see both of these fundamental ideas about God reflected in them. At first, we see God’s hegemony over the natural world. We then transition to the next concept, seeing the manifestation of God’s justice through these plagues. The two ideas, of course, work hand in hand. R’ Yehudah, though, was assisting us in balancing the two ideas, seeing how they work concurrently, bridged together through this acronym. It is composed of the ten plagues of Egypt, at the same time alluding, through gematria, to the vast quantity of plagues inflicted on the Egyptians. One can see, then, these two fundamental concepts contained in this seemingly innocuous acronym.