The 10 Plagues: New Insights

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

The book of Exodus commences with God prophecy to Moses. God wanted the speech-impeded Moses to be His sole emissary to Pharaoh. Torah’s repetitive recording of Moses’ impediment is no accident. God wishes us – the Torah student – to pick up on primary messages. God is not simply recording every Prophet’s conversation. We see gaps of decades within the accounts of the Prophets. Why then, select someone with poor verbal skills?

God also gave Moses signs – proofs of his encounter with Him. But only one sign incorporated Moses’ staff: the staff transformation into a live snake. Other than this sign, the staff was absent. It was only after Moses declined to act as emissary, that God said Aaron will accompany Moses, and only then God added, “And this staff take in your hand to perform the signs (Exod. 4:17).” It appears, had Moses initially accepted the mission without Aaron, the staff would be used just once, and not with the subsequent plagues. What was the staff’s true significance? Also, if God accepted Aaron to act as emissary, why was Moses needed any further? What consideration prevented Aaron to speak to Pharaoh alone, without Moses? We notice God says that Moses will feed Aaron his lines. (Exod. 4:15)

Clues About the Staff

Ibn Ezra teaches that 4 of the 10 plagues were performed without the staff (Exod. 8:12). They were Mixture (wild animals), Pestilence, Boils and First Borns. What consideration demanded the staff not be used in these 4 plagues?  Let’s define what these 4 plagues addressed:

Mixture = man’s life (beasts killed him)

Pestilence = man’s property (death of livestock)

Boils = man’s status (astrologers were defamed) 

First Borns = Egypt’s leaders were killed

The first three plagues performed by Aaron (Blood, Frogs, Lice) taught that God controls the Earth. These plagues demonstrated God’s rule over water and land. The last 3 plagues performed by Moses (Hail, Locusts and Darkness) demonstrated God’s reign over the heavens. But why was man required? God could perform the plagues alone!

A reason God performed the plagues through man’s involvement is to demonstrate that (human) wisdom is required in understanding reality, in contrast to the idolatrous view of Egypt. Pharaoh and his nation imagined a reality where inventions of human fantasy were accepted as reality; inanimate statues were believed to possess control over the universe; insects were more powerful than men. 

It was essential that men (Moses and Aaron) were involved in the onslaught of the plagues, just as Prophets are essential for delivering God’s words in general. And that the level of each human performer indicated the level of wisdom within that sphere. Thus, Aaron performed miracles in the lower world, while Moses performed miracles in the heavens. Taking this cue from the respective performers, hopefully Pharaoh and his people would recognize that human wisdom is the only tool for understanding how the universe operates. 

But we find something intriguing. Not only was the staff absent in the 4 plagues noted above, but also God’s instruction to Aaron and Moses differed. God tells Aaron during Blood, Frogs and Lice to wave the “staff”:

“Speak to Aaron that he take the staff and raises it on the waters…(Exod. 7:19).”

“Speak to Aaron that he raises his hands with the staff on the rivers…(ibid 8:1).”

“Speak to Aaron that he lift his staff and smite the dust…(ibid 8:12).”

But when addressing Moses’ plagues, God does not say to wave the staff, but to wave his “hand”:

“And God said to Moses, “Raise your hands on the heavens…” (Exod. 9:22).”

“And God said to Moses, “Raise your hand…” (ibid 10:12).”

“And God said to Moses, “Raise your hand on the heavens…” (ibid 10:21).”

God always told Aaron to use the staff and God always told Moses to use his hand. Why?

Interesting, Moses didn’t stop using the staff until Darkness. It seems to me that Moses initially thought that when God said, “wave your hand” to bring the Hail and Locusts, that it meant to use the staff. But when, for a third time God said, “wave your hand” Moses realized it meant literally his hand. Then, Moses stopped using the staff and waved his hand. The first time God said, “wave your hand,” Moses thought that’s no different than saying “wave the staff.” By the third time, Moses heard God say “wave your hand” he now realized that was a different command than the three times God said to Aaron, “wave the staff.” Therefore in Moses’ third plague – Darkness – when God said to Moses to “wave his hand”, he did so, “And Moses raised his hand on the heavens…(Exod. 10:22).”

God is the Focus

 The preferred emissary was Moses, with his speech impediment. God highlights in His Torah that Moses was concerned about this, but God nonetheless desired Moses. Why? Moses’ flaw would prevent him from Egyptian deification. Imagine seeing someone waving his hands in front of the superstitious, Egyptians and miracles occur. The Egyptians would readily view him as a deity. Not so Moses. His speech impediment prevented the Egyptians from deifying him, and this served God’s objective. He possessed a flaw, while gods are perfect. God’s objective was to teach Egypt that one God exists. God must retain the limelight. Moses was the perfect candidate as emissary, as he would not obscure God’s focus.

However, Moses declined the mission. Aaron was selected. But Aaron’s articulate persona threatened to overshadow God, operating in the “background.” The solution: Aaron had to be obscured through the use and presence of the staff. Just as a magician waves his magic wand to redirect the audience’s attention away from his other hand reaching in his pocket…the staff redirected Egypt ways from the man Aaron, and kept them focused on God’s miracles. Moses was not told wave the staff, since his speech impediment did not threaten a loss of focus on the miracles that he performed. 

This staff represented God’s exclusive reign over all creation. It is for this reason that the staff did not transform into a snake, while Moses still held it. It transformed only once on the ground. Similarly, the Nile’s waters transformed into blood, but only once on the ground. This removed any notion that Moses used sleight of hand like Pharaoh’s astrologers. Moses was not responsible for these miracles: it was God.

Now that the staff represented God’s sole reign, Aaron was instructed to employ it when the plagues commenced, lest the Egyptians deify Aaron and attribute to him some role in the plagues. Waving the staff signified, by association, that each new plague was God’s exclusive performance, just like the original transformation of the staff into a snake. It refocused Egypt away from the articulate man, Aaron, and on God’s miracles. And Moses feeding Aaron his lines further removed the possibility that the Egyptians deify Aaron. Aaron was taking orders, not a fit role for a deity.

Reward and Punishment

Why were there 4 plagues without a staff, or man’s hand waving? These 4 plagues were unlike all others, which were broad phenomena, affecting even the Jews. These 4 directly targeted individuals. To repeat:

Mixture = man’s life (beasts killed him)

Pestilence = man’s property (death of livestock)

Boils = man’s status (astrologers were defamed) 

First Borns = Egypt’s leaders were killed

As such, man cannot share the limelight. Reward and Punishment – God’s justice – is a realm exclusively under God’s guidance, and cannot tolerate any association with man. God alone possesses total knowledge of each individual, his actions and his thoughts, that God alone must to mete out justice. Thus, Moses and Aaron could not take part in any act in these 4 plagues. So it was not that the staff was absent in these 4 plagues, but that man was absent. 

Proof that these specific plagues were to teach God’s Reward and Punishment is derived from the verses. God says he will set a “salvation” (Exod. 9:19) for the Jews during Mixture. In Pestilence, “And God distinguished between the cattle of the Jews and the cattle of Egypt (ibid 9:4).” And only the first born of Egypt died. 

But you will ask, was not Moses commanded to throw the soot into the air to create boils? Was not Moses’ involvement a danger? Perhaps this exception was necessary, as the intent of Boils was to diminish the astrologers’ status in relation to Moses. Thus, Moses had to be the one who initiated a plague, one, which the astrologers could not remove. And so it says, “The astrologers could not stand before Moses, because the boils were on the Egyptians and the astrologers (Exod. 9:11).” This emphasizes the equation between the astrologers and regular people: they both had boils, and the astrologers could not remove this plague, just like the regular people. Thereby, the astrologers were exposed as charlatans. They were too embarrassed to stand before Moses, who initiated this plague.  

The ordering of the plagues

Perhaps God chose the middle set of plagues to address His control of man, to demonstrate that this realm (God’s justice) is no less out of His control than natural law. These 3 plagues sat amidst the other 2 sets of plagues that addressed natural laws. Perhaps Egypt harbored a view where they baselessly distinguished between nature and man. This could explain why God says regarding the Mixture, “In order that you shall know that I am God in the midst of the land (Exod. 8:18)”. These words aimed to teach Egypt that God’s reign has no limitation. This was something the Egyptians never realized, as they prayed to inanimate objects and human creations that never responded. Now they understood that not only does God respond, but also His reign is not limited to the heavens. His will equally penetrates one’s very home and body. (Mixture attacked Egyptians in their homes).


We further appreciate God’s precision in the plague’s design: who performed each one, whether a staff was used, and many other considerations. We must arrive at an increased appreciation for God’s complete knowledge and control over the universe. He knows precisely how to set certain nuances that direct a studious mind towards deeper lessons. And the lessons are not elusive, but rather, their subtle form teaches us that to gain God’s wisdom, we must search below the surface of the Torah verses.