My friend, up and coming comedian Eli Lebowicz, issued the following comment on Twitter during this past week, which is the traditional “Yeshiva Week” vacation. “When yeshivas come back from winter break, the school makes the kids get a “lice check,” zecher l’yetzias Mitzrayim” (a memorial to the exodus from Egypt).
Children today, identify the ten plagues with flying animals and dolls at the Seder. You can even go to your local Jewish bookstore and find a pre-arranged pack of “plagues” to be transformed into Seder trajectories. I still remember going to the local toy store and going from the snake department, to the frogs, to the locusts… If you google “Passover 10 plagues kit” you will find several options, including the finger puppets.
I’d like to look at the second plague, tzfardeyah, which is most commonly translated as frogs, although some argue that it refers to crocodiles.
The Torah relates (Shmos 7:26-) that Hashem commanded Moshe to approach Pharaoh and demand that “his nation” be released so that they can worship Hashem. If you do not agree, your land will swarm with frogs, who will emerge from the waterways and teem your rooms, your beds and those of your servants, and into the ovens and kitchens. Then (Shmos 8:1) Hashem commands Moshe to tell Aharon to lift his staff upon the waterways and bring forth the plague upon the land of Egypt. Then verse 2 states that “Aharon stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt, and the frogs came up and covered the land of Egypt.”
The verse where the plague begins does not say that Aharon used the staff. It states that it used his hand.
I was surprised by this detail and sought some answers to this question. I thank my friends and colleagues who responded. While such details can teach profound lessons, as every letter and vowel in the Torah is pregnant with meaning, a Midrash (Seichel Tov) notes that the verse implies that Aharon used the staff, even if not mentioned explicitly. Someone else suggested that one also sees something similar where Hashem instructs Moshe to split the Red Sea (Shmos 14:16). Hashem instructs Moshe to “lift his staff and stretch out his hand over the sea it and split it.” Five verses later, the Torah claims that “Moshe stretched out his hand over the sea…” The Malbim writes that there was no need to detail Aharon’s holding the staff because he had just used it regarding the plague of blood. If this is so, why did HASHEM command Moshe to tell Aharon to take it? Perhaps because Moshe may have thought he put it down… I don’t know.Any discussion here does not challenge the simple meaning of the verse. Claiming that Aharon disobeyed both Moshe and HASHEM would have serious consequences, and I do not believe that nor would advance that.
But I’m still intrigued by this missing detail. Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky notes that word “bamatecha” (with your staff) should have been vocalized as bamat’cha (with a shva instead of a segol), which he understands as teaching us that this word is not viewed as a cadence in the verse. He also notes that the word is sung to a zakef katan, which is a minor stop, not a major one.
Maybe, however, a lesson can be advanced about the frogs.
Of all the plagues, the only ones that are described as having choice and some level of intelligence are the frogs. The Talmud (P’sachim 53b) asks where did Chananya, Misha’el and Azarya learn about sanctifying God’s name by jumping into a furnace of fire. The Talmud answers that they learned from the frogs that jumped into the furnaces. If a frog, which is not obligated to sanctify God’s name is capable of facilitating such a Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name) by submitting itself to the fire, how much more so Jews, who are commanded to sanctify Hashem’s name, should be willing to do so.
The Sha’agas Aryeh notes that the frogs were indeed commanded to travel into the furnaces. How does the Talmud relate this story? When the Vilna Gaon was seven years old, he came up with a response to the Sha’agas Aryeh’s question to defend the Talmud. He reasoned that while the frogs were told to invade the kitchens, bedrooms, homes and yes, furnaces, of the Egyptians, no individual frog was told it had to go into the furnace. It could have “delegated” that responsibility to another frog.
This story and this back-and-forth lead us to believe that frogs seem to be somewhat evolved in terms of their knowledge and piety. The following episode will solidify this understanding.
A fascinating question came to the desk of Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein, a prolific posek (son in law of Rabbi S.Y. Elyashiv zt’l) whose decisions have been preserved in many books, many of which have been translated to English. Here was the query (Chashukei Chemed, Nidah 18a). A bunch of religious Israeli soldiers were involved with operational activities, and slept all night in ambush. These soldiers knew that they would need to depart shortly after dawn (well prior to sunrise) and could not guarantee that they would have time during the day to daven. They knew they would need to rely on an opinion (Orach Chaim 89:8) that in cases of exigency, one may daven after dawn and before sunrise. But the soldiers did not have access to a halachic calendar, and did not know what time dawn broke, in order to even rely on that minority opinion. One astute soldier noticed that frogs were croaking all night, but at a specific time (around dawn), their noises all ceased. The soldiers asked may they rely on the frogs to determine the time of dawn. [It goes without saying that a solider whose life is in danger is certainly exempt from davening.]
Rav Zilberstein has an encyclopedic mind and responded by quoting the Sefer HaMinhagim (the Book of Customs) attributed to the Maharil (likutim, #95) that frogs are called tzfardeah in Hebrew because the Hebrew word is a combination of two words tzafra (morning in Aramaic) da (know). Why are frogs called “morning know?” Because, writes the Maharil, it knows when the dawn breaks, since it croaks all night, and is silent at the crack of dawn. The footnotes in the Chashukei Chemed point to another Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni on Psalms, # 889) that relates that when King David concluded the book of Psalms he stated that nothing in this world can praise God as I do. At that moment, a frog appeared and communicated to him that frogs praise God in a more intense way. The volume “Ma’or vaShemesh,” (Va’era, v’ner’eh) claims that the ability of frogs to praise God is almost unquantifiable. They have knowledge and wisdom to praise the Almighty. Rabbi Zilberstein concluded that perhaps there are reasons to rely on the cessation of frog croaking to determine the time to begin davening in a case of great need.
While I once again stress that I am certain Aharon used the staff as commanded, perhaps the absence of the detail was meant to teach us that the frogs were themselves somewhat intelligent. If they have knowledge to determine the dawn and if their piety was a model for some great Jews who were willing to sacrifice themselves before an idolatrous king to sanctify Hashem’s hallowed name, maybe they needed less direction than the other inanimate and animate objects that served as God’s proxies to punish the Egyptians and demonstrate to them the futility of their gods and the Omnipotence of the True Creator and Sustainer of the World.
If we as Jews can learn from frogs, we can learn from each other. Maybe “frogs here, frogs there” can be used to help us appreciate the lessons and wisdom we can learn from everyone. Our sages teach us that a wise person learns from every person. Maybe a very wise person can learn from animals and objects as well.
Is there something unique about the frogs, which allowed them to have greater knowledge than we would expect?