Saturday, March 17, 2007

A Passover Story

We are coming up on Passover, which is a joyous time of year. I thought it would be fun to break away from the serious stuff and post this story, which I wrote last year.

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Passover is a family holiday, where, over a sumptuous meal, we read the story of the exodus from Egypt. It is a very happy time and most Jews have very good memories of family seders.

The text of the story is contained in a book called the Haggadah. Along with the text, the Haggadah also contains commentaries and prayers. It used to be, the only Haggadah you could find was distributed by Maxwell House Coffee. It contained the traditional Hebrew text, along side of a translation written in King James English. Today, there are many different versions available, written with new text and translation into modern English.

The modern Haggadahs written by non-orthodox movements have eliminated a small section from the traditional text. It contains an interplay between three Rabbis, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Eleazar, and Rabbi Yose (pronounced, “Yo-say”), in which they recount the number of plagues visited on the Egyptians.

In Exodus we are told there were ten plagues, but through Talmudic logic and deduction, Rabbi Yose concluded there were fifty plagues visited on the Egyptians at the Red Sea. Rabbi Eleazar deduced there were forty plagues visited on the Egyptians in Egypt, and two hundred plagues visited on the Egyptians at the Red Sea. Rabbi Akiva deduced that in Egypt there were fifty plagues, and at the Red Sea there were two hundred and fifty plagues.

For years, I read this as Talmudic pilpul (hairsplitting), and was not sorry to see it go in our current Haggadah. However, I've come to realize that the Haggadah doesn't tell the full story, and I think there's an important message in this commentary.

In the Jewish tradition of the Midrash, I've taken liberties and fleshed out the story. I've interspersed the traditional text in the story below, signified by boldface. The entire text from the traditional Hagaddah is there. But first, we start with some background.


Rabbi Akiva was the dominant thinker of his day. He was not only a great Rabbi, but he was also a leader in the resistance against the Romans. He was later martyred by them in a particularly gruesome manner. So, Rabbi Akiva was not your typical locked-in-the-Yeshiva Rabbi. He was a very smart and very tough guy. Rabbi Eleazar was a contemporary of Akiva's. Not as brilliant, but no slouch, either. Rabbi Yose was one of Rabbi Akiva's students, conceivably one of his best.

In those days, there were no Haggadahs and the recounting of the Exodus was spontaneous. Everybody did it differently. Being invited to a seder with Rabbi Akiva would have been a great honor. The learned, the wealthy, and the powerful would all have been there. His seder would have been a great event, with everyone hanging on Akiva's words as he told the story of the Exodus in his own way.

The Scene

Rabbi Yose was thrilled to be invited to Akiva's seder, and wanted to impress him with his intellect. He spent weeks thinking about the Exodus, studying the Torah, trying to find something there to impress Akiva. On the night of the seder, he was ready.

There were many people present at Akiva's seder. The table was set, and the master expounded on the Exodus with incredible brilliance. Rabbi Yose was in awe of him and almost forgot what he prepared.

It is traditional at the seder to drink four cups of wine, which always adds to the merriment. Akiva seemed bent on blurring the distinction between a cup and a barrel. As the seder wore on, Akiva began to nod off. There was a lull, and Yose realized that this was the best chance he was going to have. He hoped he could wake up Akiva by speaking loudly. Raising his voice, he asked,

How can we say that the Egyptians were smitten with ten plagues in Egypt, and in the Red Sea, fifty plagues?” The room was silent. He hoped Akiva was listening. He continued,

Of Egypt, it is said the magicians told Pharaoh, 'This is the finger of God.' But of the sea, it is said, 'And Israel saw the mighty hand with which God smote the Egyptians, and believed in God and believed in Moses, God's servant.' If one finger smote the Egyptians with ten plagues in Egypt, it may be deduced that in the Red Sea they were smitten with fifty plagues.”

The others at the seder were awestruck. They applauded and cheered. They congratulated Rabbi Yose for his insight.

Except for Rabbi Akiva, who was snoring quietly.

Except for Rabbi Eleazar, who was thinking, “Pretty clever, Junior, but not clever enough. Time to put you in your place.” Rabbi Eleazar thought for a moment more. Then he said,

How can we say that every plague, which The Most Holy, blessed be the One, brought upon the Egyptians actually consisted of four different plagues? Because it is said God was angry at the Egyptians, sending them wrath, indignation, trouble, and a band of evil angels. Wrath is one; indignation is two, trouble is three, and a band of evil angels is four. Hence, we can deduce that while in Egypt they were smitten with forty plagues, and in the Red Sea, two hundred plagues.”

The onlookers at the seder applauded more. They knew they were watching a rabbinical smackdown in progress and wanted to hear how Rabbi Yose would respond. Unfortunately, Rabbi Yose's mind had gone blank and he was thinking that discretion was the better part of valor. He was about to concede gracefully, happy that Rabbi Akiva was asleep. Then came a snuffle and a snort from the head of the table.

Rabbi Akiva opened his eyes and said, “How can we say that each plague which The Most Holy, blessed be the One, brought upon the Egyptians in Egypt consisted of five plagues? Because, it is said, “God sent against the Egyptians the fierceness of God's anger, wrath, indignation, trouble, and a band of evil angels. The fierceness of God's anger is one, wrath is two, indignation is three, trouble is four, and a band of evil angels is five. Hence, we deduce that while in Egypt, the Egyptians were smitten with fifty plagues, and in the Red Sea, two hundred fifty plagues.

All of the onlookers exploded into cheers and applause. Rabbi Eleazar and Rabbi Yose looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders, raised their glasses to Rabbi Akiva, and both took a long drink of wine. Rabbi Akiva took another drink of wine and slowly slid under the table.

The Moral

The Haggadah says that all who recount the story of the Exodus are worthy of praise. This story teaches that no recounting is complete without joy, humor, and some friendly competition.


Murray Gewirtz said...

So you're saying that those rabbis of two millenia ago could not have been serious or sober when deducing multiple plagues from various descriptions in the Torah of how God brought about the exodus of the Israelites. Unfortunately, their preposterous deductions are in line with how the Pharisees and their real and spiritual descendents have interpreted scripture since that time. They had a number of principles they used for interpretation which they claimed to have been taught to Moses on Mt. Sinai by God. For example, it was their contention that the Torah, as God's word, could contain no redundancies, superfluities or contradictions. Therefore, every apparent instance of such, was not actually so, but was there to teach something additional, and they were not hesitant about determining what that was. I think that, for instance, from the repitition of the prohibition of cooking a kid (juvenile goat) in its mother's milk they derived all the regulations about separating milk and meat food and utensils in general. There are numerous other such examples which someone familiar with the arguments and rulings in the Talmud could cite. Ultimately, Orthodox Judaism, with its plethora of minute and petty regulations touching every waking moment, as well as some sleeping ones (nocturnal emissions are sinful)evolved from the labors of such rabbis.

Free Operant said...


I'm not saying those rabbis couldn't have been serious; I'm saying they probably weren't. I think they were having fun with "preposterous deductions" that you talk about.

As a liberal Jew (I don't keep kosher and I turn on lights on Shabbat), I reject many of those practices. Not, by the way, because I am embarrassed by them. Because I've tried them and they don't do anything for me spiritually.

Nevertheless, I still believe that there is some value in the Orthodox approach to Judaism. All of the Orthodox practices teach one thing: Behavior matters. Behavior matters more than good intention and it matters more than good belief. This is what Judaism is really about.

When one says that behavior matters, then the next step is to define which behaviors are acceptable and which are unacceptable. That's what the Rabbis did. Did they go too far and get involved in pilpul (hairsplitting)? Yeah, I think so, but so what?

I feel free to embrace and reject their teachings as part of my own spiritual growth. I even feel free to invent my own practices. I think that's what God really wants of us: To struggle with our spiritual growth, to have a few laughs, and to make the world better by just a few JND's (Just Noticeable Differences).

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