Rebbe Yehudah’s Mnemonic of the Ten Plagues
The redemption from Egypt was preceded by ten plagues. The Pesach Haggadah lists these plagues. Then the Haggadah tells us that the Sage Rebbe Yehudah created a three-word mnemonic from the initials of the ten plagues. This mnemonic cannot be accurately transliterated from Hebrew to English. This is because some Hebrew letters have alternate pronunciations. In some instances a letter is pronounced in one manner in as part of the Hebrew name for the plague and in another manner in the mnemonic for the ten plagues.
The commentaries discuss the purpose of this mnemonic. We usually employ such devices in order to commit complicated or intricate material to memory. This is not the likely explanation of Rebbe Yehudah’s device. Ten plagues are not terribly difficult to memorize. What was Rebbe Yehudah’s objective in creating this mnemonic?
There are various approaches to answering this question. Many of these Sages note that the plagues are recorded in Sefer Tehillim in a somewhat altered order. This might create some confusion as to their actual sequence of occurrence. Rebbe Yehudah wished to indicate that the actual sequence of occurrence is found in the Torah. He created a mnemonic that represents the plagues in the order that they occur in the Torah’s narrative.
This explanation implies that the order in which the plagues occurred was significant. In other words, there was a specific reason for the plagues to occur in this sequence and in no other. The Midrash seems to confirm this assumption. The Midrash comments that the names of the plagues were carved onto Moshe’s staff. These names were arranged in the order of their occurrence. This seems to confirm the importance of the order.
Why did the plagues occur in a specific sequence? Again, the commentaries offer a variety of responses. One well-known explanation is offered by the Midrash. The Midrash explains that the order corresponds to the strategy that would be followed by a king putting down a rebellion. First, the king places a siege around the rebellious city. He cuts off the water supply. Similarly, Hashem turned the water in Egypt into blood. Then, the king commands his troops to sound their trumpets. This is an attempt to confuse and discourage the rebels. The frogs fulfilled this function. Their constant croaking unnerved the Egyptians. The Midrash continues to delineate the similarities between the sequence of the plagues and the strategy of the king.
Other commentaries offer a completely different explanation of Rebbe Yehudah’s mnemonic. They explain that Rebbe Yehudah was not merely attempting to indicate the sequence of the plagues. Instead, his three-word mnemonic divides the plagues into three distinct groups. What are these three groups? The first three plagues were plagues of the earth or water. The water was turned to blood. Then, an infestation of frogs was generated from the water. Next, the dust of the earth turned to lice.
The next group is harder to characterize. These seem to be plagues that emerge from the general surroundings. The first of these was an infestation of wild beasts. These animals emerged from the surrounding wilderness. Pestilence and boils also emerged from the surrounding environment.
The final group of plagues descended from the heavens. These were the plagues of Hail, Locusts and Darkness. Appended to this last group is the Plague of the Firstborn. This plague is not truly a member of this group. However, it is attached to the last group in order to preserve the three-word mnemonic.
There is a basic difference between these two approaches to explaining Rebbe Yehudah’s mnemonic. In order to better understand this dispute, it will help to consider a pasuk in the Torah. Hashem sends Moshe to Paroh to warn him of the coming plague of Hail. Moshe makes an interesting statement. He tells Paroh that Hashem could immediately end the bondage of Bnai Yisrael in Egypt. He could bring a plague of pestilence upon Egypt that would obliterate the Egyptians. However, Hashem does not choose to do this. Instead, it is His will to extend His conflict with Paroh. Why does Hashem wish to prolong the struggle? Moshe explains that Hashem wishes to demonstrate and publicize His omnipotence.
What is Moshe’s message to Paroh? Moshe is explaining that Hashem could destroy Paroh and his nation immediately. Why is Hashem not acting more forcibly? Moshe explains that this part of Hashem’s will to demonstrate His omnipotence.
How did the plagues illustrate Hashem’s omnipotence? This demonstration required two elements. First, the plagues could not be mistaken for a natural set of catastrophes. Second, they demonstrated the extent of Hashem’s control over all elements of the environment. The plagues included both of these elements. They followed a plan. This is the message of the Midrash. The plagues followed the strategy of a king suppressing a rebellion. The expression of this strategy in the sequence of plagues demonstrated the element of design. Clearly, these plagues were not a series of natural catastrophes.
The plagues also affected every element of the environment. The first three plagues originated in the earth and water. The second set of three was produced by the general surroundings. The last three descended from the heavens. This demonstrated Hashem’s control over every element of the environments.
We can now understand the dispute between the commentaries. Which of these elements is represented by Rebbe Yehudah’s mnemonic? According to the first interpretation, the mnemonic represents the element of design in the plagues. According to the second interpretation, the mnemonic communicates Hashem’s control over the various elements of the environment that was illustrated by the plagues.
Discussion of the Pesach Sacrifice, Matzah and Marror
Raban Gamliel explains that at the Seder we are obligated to discuss the various mitzvot that are performed during the evening. He comments that any person who does not discuss the mitzvot of the Pesach sacrifice, Matzah, and Marror does not fulfill one’s obligation. This statement is included in the Pesach Haggadah. The author derived the statement from the mishne of Tractate Pesachim.
Raban Gamliel’s statement is somewhat mysterious. He asserts that it is absolutely necessary to discuss the various mitzvot performed on the Seder night. One’s obligation cannot be fulfilled without this discussion. However, he does not identify the specific obligation to which he refers. Exactly, which mitzvah is fulfilled with this discussion or if this discussion is omitted, which commandment is incompletely performed?
Maimonides seems to provide an answer to this question. In his Mishne Torah, he places Raban Gamliel’s law in the seventh chapter that deals exclusively with the laws Sipur Yetziat Mitzrayim – retelling the account of our redemption from Egypt. The placement of Raban Gamliel’s requirement in this chapter indicates that it is essential to the mitzvah of Tzipur. One does not fulfill the obligation to recount the events of our redemption without a discussion of the mitzvot of Pesach, Matzah, and Marror. In other words, the redemption must be described through a discussion of the significance of the Pesach sacrifice, Matzah, and Marror.
The Tosefot offer a different perspective on Raban Gamliel’s law. In order to discuss this perspective, a brief introduction is needed. The Talmud provides a source for Raban Gamliel’s law. We are obligated to offer a Pesach sacrifice each year. We cannot perform this commandment in our age. However, during the Temple Period, this commandment was performed. The Torah tells us that our children will ask for an explanation of this sacrifice. We are to respond by providing an account of the offering of the first Pesach sacrifice in Egypt. Through the merit of offering that sacrifice, the families of Bnai Yisrael were spared from the final plague – the plague of the Death of the Firstborn. In other words, the Torah clearly states that the Pesach sacrifice must be accompanied by discussion.
Tosefot ask an interesting question. Raban Gamliel asserts that we must discuss the Pesach sacrifice, Matzah, and Marror. The Talmud provides a source for the obligation to discuss the Pesach sacrifice. However, Raban Gamliel insists that we must also discuss Matzah and Marror. What is the source for the obligation to discuss these two mitzvot?
Tosefot answer that the Torah does not explicitly state that we are obligated to discuss Matzah and Marror. However, the Torah does equate Matzah and Marror to the Pesach sacrifice. Tosefot apparently refer to the injunction to eat the Pesach with Matzah and Marror. Through the Torah’s equation of the Pesach sacrifice, Matzah, and Morror, Raban Gamliel derives the obligation to discuss Matzah and Marror in addition to the Pesach sacrifice.
Let us analyze Tosefot’s reasoning more carefully. Tosefot explain that the Torah equates the mitzvot of the Pesach sacrifice, Matzah, and Marror. They reason that because of this equation a requirement that is fundamental to the Pesach sacrifice is also essential to the mitzvot of Matzah and Marror. We are required to discuss the Pesach sacrifice. Therefore, discussion is also essential to properly perform the mitzvot of Matzah and Marror. It is clear from Tosefot’s reasoning that they regard the requirement for discussion as fundamental to the proper performance of the mitzvah of the Pesach sacrifice. The mitzvot of Matzah and Marror are associated with the commandment of the Pesach. Therefore, discussion of these mitzvot is also essential for their proper performance.
This analysis indicates that Tosefot disagree with Maimonides. According to Maimonides, the discussion of the Pesach sacrifice, Matzah, and Marror is part of the commandment of Sipur. Tosefot seem to regard the discussion of the Pesach sacrifice as an aspect of the commandment to offer the Pesach. They associate the obligation to discuss the mitzvot of Matzah and Marror to these mitzvot. In other words, these three commandments – the Pesach sacrifice, Matzah, and Marror – are only performed in their entirety when they are accompanied by discussion of their significance.
The Dual Symbolism of Matzah
One of the mitzvot of Pesach is the prohibition against eating leavened bread. We eat matzah in place of leavened bread. The first night of Pesach we are obligated to eat matzah. The remaining days of the festival, we are not obligated to eat matzah, but we are prohibited from eating chametz – leavened products.
In the above passage, the Torah explains that the matzah recalls the bread eaten during bondage. How does the matzah recall the bread eaten during bondage? Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno explains that while in bondage, the Jews were forced to constantly labor for their Egyptian masters. The Egyptians would not provide their Jewish slaves with the time required to mix the dough for their bread and then allow it to rise. Instead, once the dough was mixed, the Jews were forced to immediately bake the bread. The resulting loaves had the unleavened form of matzah.
Another fundamental commandment performed on Pesach is Sipur Yetziat Mitzrayim – the recounting of our redemption from Egypt. This mitzvah is fulfilled through the Pesach Seder. One of the early steps in the Seder is Yachatz – breaking the middle matzah from among the three matzot that are before the person leading the Seder. Shulchan Aruch explains this process. The middle matzah is broken and half is retuned to the Seder plate. The plate is then lifted and the reader recites: “This is the bread of affliction which our fathers ate in Egypt.” In other words, the reader explains that the broken matzah recalls the bread that the Jews ate during their bondage in Egypt. The identification of matzah with the affliction in Egypt is based upon our passage in which the Torah refers to the matzah as “bread of affliction.”
In the above passage, the Torah explains that Bnai Yisrael left Egypt in tremendous haste. They did not have the opportunity to prepare adequately for their journey. They could not allow their dough to mix. Instead, they mixed the dough and immediately baked it. The product was unleavened cakes.
Based on this passage, the Talmud explains the significance of the matzah. Raban Gamliel explains that the matzah recalls our redemption. He explains that at the Seder we are required to explain that the matzah we will eat is intended to remind us of the haste with which our ancestors left Egypt. His comments are based upon our passage in the Torah. The comments of Raban Gamliel are incorporated into the Seder and read prior to fulfilling the commandment to eat matzah.
In short, the Torah suggests two alternative explanations for matzah. In Sefer Devarim, the Torah explains that matzah recalls our affliction in Egypt. In Sefer Shemot, the Torah suggests that matzah recalls that haste of our redemption from Egypt.
Paradoxically, both of these messages are associated with matzah during the course of the Seder. At the opening of the Seder, we declare that the matzah recalls our bondage. Later, before eating the matzah, we read Raban Gamliel’s interpretation of the significance of matzah. In this interpretation, the matzah is associated with the redemption from bondage. In other words, the process of sipur requires that we recall both our bondage and our redemption. Both of these phenomena are symbolized by the matzah.
We can easily understand the importance of recalling our bondage and our redemption. The full meaning and significance of our redemption can be fully appreciated when we remember the bondage from which we were redeemed. However, it is odd and paradoxical that the same object – matzah – is used to symbolize both of these elements of our experience in Egypt. Why did the Torah not create two separate objects – each designed to recall one of the two elements?
Sforno’s comments also address this issue. He explains that the Torah intends to communicate a message. During their bondage in Egypt, the Jews were oppressed by their masters. The oppression of Bnai Yisrael was epitomized by the bread they were forced to eat. The Egyptians would not even afford their Jewish slaves the time to bake their bread properly. They pressured the Jews to hurriedly prepare and bake their bread. The result was unleavened matzah. At the moment of redemption, the demoralized Egyptians urged the Jews to hurry. Again, the bread that the Jews baked epitomized the urgency of the Egyptians. But this urgency was not motivated by their desire to oppress the Jews. Instead, their urgency was motivated by panic. They could not endure another moment of suffering!
Sforno is explaining that the Egyptians demonstrated
urgency in two situations. In both
instances, their urgency was expressed in a similar behavior. They hastened Bnai Yisrael to prepare their
bread without allowing their dough to rise.
But in the first instance – during their oppression of the Jews – this
urgency was an expression of oppression.
In the second instance – at the moment of redemption – this urgency
expressed the complete humiliation and defeat of the Egyptians.
Sforno’s comments indicate that the urgency of the Egyptians in these two different situations in some manner communicates a fundamental message regarding the redemption. What is this message?
Apparently, the miracle of the redemption from Egypt is not merely that a nation of slaves was liberated from the oppression of the most powerful nation in the civilized world. The miracle can only be fully appreciated if we recognize the total and sudden reversal that Bnai Yisrael and the Egyptians experienced. Bnai Yisrael did not gradually achieve liberation from oppression and freedom through a prolonged struggle, or as the result of the gradual decline of power and authority of their masters. Instead, in a few months, the Jewish people emerged from a condition of abject subjugation and tyranny into a state of total freedom. Their masters – who once would not allow them a few moments to properly prepare their bread – were reduced to trembling petitioners. They begged their former slaves to spare them and to leave posthaste to end their suffering! It is this total and abrupt reversal that captures the gravity and magnitude of the miracle of the redemption.
Still, why is matzah
used to symbolize both the severity
of the oppression and the totality of the Egyptians’ demise? Sforno is answering this question. An illustration will help explain this
point. It is difficult to appreciate
the speed of a fastball thrown by an accomplished pitcher. We lack a basis for comparison. But if we want to truly appreciate the
talent and skills of this pitcher, we must create a contrast. We can do this by placing on a
single-viewing screen a video of two pitches being thrown. One is the fastball of the professional and
the other is the best effort of an accomplished amateur. On the split screen, we can see the rate of
speed both pitches progress toward
s the batter. Now, we can more fully comprehend the
remarkable speed of the professional’s pitch.
According to Sforno, the full miracle of the redemption can only be appreciated by recognizing the totality and abruptness of the reversal experienced by Bnai Yisrael and the Egyptians. The reversal only becomes clear when the severity of the oppression is contrasted with the panic of the Egyptians at the moment of redemption. But, like the two pitches in our illustration, the contrast between the oppression and the redemption can only be fully appreciated when they are viewed side-by-side, on a “split screen.” The matzah provides this “split screen.” A single object – the matzah – captures and communicates the degree of oppression and the total demise of the Egyptians. In matzah, the two experiences are communicated side-by-side. This dual symbolism within a single object eloquently communicates to us the totality and suddenness of the redemption, and thereby, the extent of the miracle of the redemption.
 Sefer Tehillim, Chapters 78 and 105.
 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on the Hagaddah of Pesach.
 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on the Hagaddah of Pesach.
 Midrash Tanchuma, Parsaht Bo, Chapter 4.
 Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam), Commentary on the Hagaddah.
 Sefer Shemot, 9:15-16.
 Tosefot, Mesechet Pesachim 116a.
 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Devarim, 16:3.
 Mesechet Pesachim 116:a.
 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Devarim, 16:3.