Friday, December 27, 2013

Frogs Challenge Rationalism

(I posted this a few years ago - I am re-posting it because of its relevance to the parashah.)

Once in a while, I come across something that I personally cannot reconcile with the strict rationalist Maimonidean-type approach. Previously, I have discussed two such cases. One is antisemitism (discussed here); but I am quite content to reject the strict rationalist view in such a fundamental issue. Another is the Pi gematriya (see here and especially here), which is somewhat more difficult to integrate into my worldview, but at least it's Scripture. But this one is really challenging: The strange reality that relates to the Midrashic account of the frog plague.

The Torah speaks about the "frog," in the singular, coming up from the Nile. Previously, I have discussed how many people are oblivious to the pshat in this passuk. But for now, let's discuss the famous derash - that there was one frog, which multiplied to become hordes:
“And the frog came up, and it covered the land of Egypt” …Rabbi Akiva said, there was one frog, which then multiplied all over the land of Egypt. Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya said, Akiva, Why do you involve yourself with aggadata? Finish with your words and go to study nega’im and ohelos. There was one frog, it called to the others, and they came. (Talmud, Sanhedrin 67b; Midrash Shemos Rabbah 10:5; Yalkut Shimoni Shemos 8:183)

Rabbi Akiva states simply that the frog multiplied, without explaining how this took place. It could well be that he means that it procreated in the way that frogs usually do. However, the Midrash cites a more unusual version of Rabbi Akiva’s opinion:
One verse says, “and the river swarmed with frogs,” and another verse says, “and the frog came up.” Rabbi Akiva said, There was one frog, and the Egyptians were beating it, and many frogs showered from it (matezes). (Midrash Tanchuma, va’era 14; Tanna D’Vei Eliyahu Rabbah 7)

There is also a well-known version of this Midrash (I have seen it cited from Midrash Aggada, but I haven't yet been able to track down the original) in which it produced new frogs from its mouth.

Now, the phenomenon of childbirth, as with all other areas of life, takes on remarkably diverse forms in the natural world. However, whether producing eggs or live young, most animals are identical and ordinary in that the young emerge into the world from an orifice located at the rear end of their mother's body. Of the entire animal kingdom, the only exceptions to this rule that I know are seahorses, in which the male takes the eggs into a pouch until they are ready to hatch, and certain species of frogs/ toads (scientifically, there is no distinction between the two names).

The female pipa toad (also known as the Surinam toad) carries her eggs embedded in a spongy layer of skin on her back. After four weeks, the young pop out of her back as perfectly formed toadlets, as you can see in this amazing video:

Then there is the remarkable Darwin's frog, Rhinoderma darwinii. After the female Darwin’s frog lays 20-30 eggs on land, the males gather around and wait for the eggs to begin to hatch into tadpoles, which takes 10-20 days. When the tadpoles move inside the eggs, the males flick several of the eggs into their mouths with their tongues and place them into their vocal sacs. Inside the vocal sacs, the eggs hatch and develop into froglets, whereupon they emerge from the males’ mouths.

A similar but even more extraordinary amphibian is the Australian gastric brooding frog. The species include the Northern gastric brooding frog (Rheobatrachus vitellinus) discovered in 1972, and the Southern gastric brooding frog (Rheobatrachus silus) found in 1984. These frogs are already presumed extinct; the former was last seen in the wild in March 1985 and the latter in September 1981. In the few years that they were known to man, however, they made a remarkable impression.

The female gastric brooding frog actually fully swallows her 18-30 fertilized eggs, which then develop in her stomach. The tadpoles have undeveloped tails, lack teeth and do not feed; they live off their yolk sacs. As the tadpoles grow inside their mother, her stomach expands until it occupies most of the body cavity and she cannot even fully inflate her lungs. Remarkably, the stomach does not produce hydrochloric acid (the digestive juices) during the brooding, period; this prevents the digestion of the young, but it also prevents the female from feeding. The gestation period inside the mother is 6-8 weeks; she then gives birth by opening her mouth. Baby frogs come up to her mouth and then gradually leave, while the mother keeps her mouth wide open. If a baby tadpole does not leave the mother’s mouth, she re-swallows it, to be born later.

Remarkably, then, the same extraordinary birthing procedures that are attributed to the frog of Egypt are actually found in real frogs today. What are we to make of this?

I would not infer that it was those species of frogs that acted in the Egyptian plague. After all, these frogs are not found anywhere near Egypt and were unknown until quite recently; nor are they capable of giving birth to enough young to swarm over the entire country.

When I was more mystically inclined, I used to explain it as follows: that the concept of giving birth through the mouth, or from the skin of the body, must relate to the fundamental spiritual essence of the frog. This therefore has manifestations in both the unusual frog species, and in the unique frog of the Egyptian plague. I related this to how the frog often appears in rabbinic literature as symbolic of a Torah scholar (who studies at night, just as the frog croaks at night), and of a tzaddik who is mosar nefesh (see Perek Shirah for details). The frog that gives birth through its mouth is parallel to the Torah scholar who produces his students – rated as his progeny – through his mouth, the medium of teaching Torah. The other explanation, of the frogs being produced from the frog’s skin, parallels the Torah scholar producing students through his body’s actions and good deeds. The Egyptians, who tried to suppress all this (which is given in the Zohar as the reason for the frog plague), were thereby taught a lesson.

But this whole idea of spiritual essences which are manifest as various creatures in this world, while considered by many to be an absolutely normative understanding of Judaism (as per the Torah being "the blueprint of the world,") is not at all consistent with a rationalist, Maimonidean style understanding. Yet on the other hand, it seems just too extraordinary to dismiss as coincidence - that the two bizarre methods of reproduction described in the Midrash just so happen to actually occur with frogs, of all the different creatures in the world.

I'd be interested to hear readers' thoughts on this.


  1. it seems just too extraordinary to dismiss as coincidence - that the two bizarre methods of reproduction described in the Midrash just so happen to actually occur with frogs, of all the different creatures in the world.

    The first question I would ask is 'how many other creatures use vaguely similar methods of reproduction.' I think your pattern matcher is working overtime, personally.

  2. The first question I would ask is 'how many other creatures use vaguely similar methods of reproduction.'

    None at all beyond what I discussed in the post.

  3. In the classic movie "Airplane" one of the passengers who consumed the tainted fish is able to push eggs out through her mouth. Perhaps this is similar?

  4. Surely you can't be serious!

    That's not what's happening. The person taking the eggs out of her mouth is palming the egg into her mouth. There's only ever one egg in her mouth.

  5. There was a rationalist explanation of the frog plague in the YU Torah To Go Pesach edition by a YU professor. I think it was last years or two years ago

  6. I am serious, and don't call me Shirley!

    Ba dum bum!

    And no, of course I don't believe that was just palming eggs into the mouth. Leslie Nielsen cracked one and an actual bird flew right out! How do you explain that??

    At any rate, being a Canadian and annoyed with Quebec, I simnple translate the second plague as "the French". They come after the blood and bring the lice in their armpit hair. After that, it all makes sense...

  7. Then there are the opinions that tzfardea doesn't refer to frogs at all, but crocodiles, which would make more sense as a plague as the Nile Crocodile is to this very day quite dangerous.

    Another possibility: There was a frog in ancient times in the middle east that had the same characteristic of the frogs you mention, but it is now extinct.

  8. How do we know the frogs back then in Egypt were not of such a varaiety? I do not suggest that there was actually only one frog, but perhaps the frogs that came out further multiplied from thier backs especially when hit by Egyptions, leading to the oral tradition that eventually was put into the midrash?

    As far as I know, frogs do not leave remains that last 3300 years to find, and we do not have such a precise records of which species were found where, and migrations of species is not unheard of.

  9. No matter what approach you take (I mean rationalist, mystically inclined, whatever) there are going to be problems it is particularly suited for, and others, less so. We're human, our understanding is necessarily limited. Even Rambam's understanding isn't comprehensive.
    So the thing to do seems to be to find the approach whose problems bother you less than the problems with other approaches, (or maybe one whose problems you're more interested in thinking about.)

  10. Charlie and Reuven - while the possibility that you raise cannot be ruled out, it's just very unlikely from a zoological perspective, for reasons that are too complex to explain here.

  11. Can any crocodiles do that?

  12. When you have all sorts of fantastical midrashim, isn't it likely, statistically speaking, that at least a few of them accidentally coincide with reality?

    Second, the question isn't what types of frogs were in Egypt. The question is if the chazal who wrote this medrash were aware that some frogs reproduced in the manner you describe. If yes, the midrash should not raise any eyebrows.

  13. Can any crocodiles do that?

    No. And the crocodile thing is a red herring - tzefardea is frogs.

    The question is if the chazal who wrote this medrash were aware that some frogs reproduced in the manner you describe.

    But these frogs live in S. America and Australia and were unknown until a few decades ago.

  14. I posted something but I dont see it here [and from certain computer signs you probably never got it.]The gist of it is:

    If you are sufficiently impressed by the Pi Gematriya to think it an exception to Maimonidean rationalisim, what do you think of the small letters in the ten sons of Haman corresponding to the Purimfest of 1947, and the hanging of 10 (not 11) nazis?

  15. Re possibilities of tzaferdeah being crocodiles - Rabbi Slifkin was being humble, but it should be noted that he published an article (all right, "monograph") on this exact topic in the Jewish Bible Quarterly last year. Danny Sperber also wrote about it somewhere or other, recently. [And I will plug myself, because I've got an article of my own coming up iyh in the next issue.]

  16. Re crocodiles. I didn't see any of thos articles or monographs, but Ibn Ezra has 1 pshat that defines it as a crocodile.

  17. I don't think that chazal are saying that they had a massores of there having been one big frog. No one claims that shishim ribo had seen it. They are deriving the idea from a drush, so why is this a problem?

    I agree with Yehuda here.

  18. Thanks for sharing the awesome video (which happens to be the same one I shared with you back in January.)

    For more on R' Slifkin and frogs, see:

    "I come across something that I personally cannot reconcile with the strict rationalist Maimonidean-type approach. "

    Perhaps if we say that the Maimonidean-type approach is usually strictly rationalist, then you could reconcile it.

    "Now, the phenomenon of childbirth, as with all other areas of life, takes on remarkably diverse forms in the natural world."

    But is it ever so remarkably diverse within one order (or should I say family)?

  19. DF: The smll letters are not found in all the codexes. IIRC, they are not to be found in the Lenigrad codex.

    Lawrence kaplan

  20. The question you're asking is, "How likely is it that by pure chance, the Midrash would contain such a striking coincidence?" This is the wrong question. It's like being dealt a hand of bridge, and asking "How likely is it that I would happen to be dealt this exact hand?" The answer is one in 52C13, or 1/635,013,559,600, which is such low odds that it's fair to call it impossible. But you'd be silly to be amazed every time you're dealt a bridge hand.

    The correct question to ask instead is, "In a text as long as the Midrash, how likely is it that by pure chance, there will be one or more coincidences at least as striking as this one?" The answer is "pretty high". Given any large enough text, carefully studied enough, there will be at least a few amazing coincidences. We mostly don't see them in non-Torah-related matters, because a) people don't study such texts as closely looking for deep meaning, and b) if they find a coincidence they'll probably shrug it off as meaningless, since they have no other explanation.

    The non-rationalist explanation would be that this actually signifies supernatural knowledge by Chazal, carefully encoded. However, for this argument to bear any weight, you'd have to fairly and systematically analyze texts written by Chazal alongside other texts of comparable subject matter and length. I'm pretty sure that if you did that, you'd find no significant difference in hints at secular knowledge or secret codes or such. Until you try, though, you're left with a couple of anecdotes that maybe you could argue somehow indicate carefully-encoded supernatural knowledge, which are overwhelmingly outweighed by the huge number of places where it's clear as day that Chazal do *not* have any supernatural knowledge of science.

    So the correct response to things like this is to remember that even if this particular thing seems overwhelmingly unlikely, so do many, many other possible things. The probability of this thing happening by chance is low, but the probability of some comparably unlikely-seeming thing happening by chance is high. There's no reason to be troubled by individual unlikely things unless there are more unlikely things overall in the text than you would have expected.

    All the above applies to the kav/kaveh issue too. I also don't think anti-Semitism poses any problem to rationalism, but that's a separate issue.

  21. Outstanding comparative observation.,

    It has been taught that a miracle is a phenomenon of nature.

    Science is constantly proving the legitimacy of many of the Torah's miracles and teachings.

    Several years back the HISTORY CHANNEL had featured a program on how it was possible through the laws of nature for the plagues of Egypt to have occurred and showed that within the laws of nature could have only occurred in the order put down by the Torah.

    Your findings shown here is a furthering of this prove.

  22. I must say that I am not impressed with either the pi or frog reproduction issues. The verse in question in Kings I only states that Shlomo's temple reservoir had a diameter of 10 amot and could be encompassed by a string of 30 amot length, i.e. the ratio of the circumfrence to the diameter was 3. That ratio is a practical measure of a very large vessel with a nearly circular cros-section at the top. The talmudic sages chose to regard the ratio as the definitive ratio of circular circumfrence to diameter for all kinds of halachic applications. In truth, however, the value of 3 is a poor approximation to pi (it underestimates it by some 4.5%). The ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, and Greeks had much better values. The use of 'kri' and 'ketiv' ("kav" and "kaveh", respectively) to arrive at a reasonable correction factor to 3, 3(111/106)= 3.1415 vs. 3.14159..., is cute but doesn't demonstrate that the editor of the Masoretic text in question used Gematriot and intended the 'kri' and 'ketiv' as forming a ratio to correct the nominal value of 3. Certainly, the talmudic sages had no such tradition since nothing other than 3 enters into their halachic discussions.

    It is a stretch to believe that the talmudic sages were aware of some unique reproductive stratagems by a few frog species not native to the middle-east. They merely used their verse interpretion proclivities to postulate that 1 frog multiplied enormously in setting off the 2nd plague. If you give them credit for intuiting a rare biological fact, what about all the instances where their biological assumptions were incorrect?

  23. Re the first comment: Look up mouthbrooding cichlids. This is common knowledge among freshwater aquarium hobbyists

  24. I still have trouble with the whole idea of frogs as a plague


  25. Mouthbrooding cichlids just take their young into their mouth for brief intervals to protect them.

  26. Why can you not reconcile this with the strict Maimonidean rationalistic approach? Is it because you believe these midrashim cannot be based on a mesorah? The Sanhedrin Gemara doesn't like there's a mesorah, but there might be and the midrashim could be based off a mesorah.

    With regards to the Pi thing, why are you so against saying that it was written with Divine inspiration/prophecy? How is this an anti-rationalist approach even if on other occasions you may wish to use dibra Torah k'lashon bnei adam? I'm not totally against saying it was written by an extremely sharp author and I'm not even completely against someone saying it was coincidence (which I would say if I didn't believe that Tanach is the word of Hashem), but why is saying that it was Divinely inspired anti-rationalist.

    Same thing goes for the Haman hangings.

    Also, if people are impressed by the genius of somebody encoding Pi into Solomon's passuk, I think a lot more impressive is how the different passages in the Torah and Tanach hint at each other and shed on one another. If you really want to understand what I'm talking about listen to R David Fohrman at:
    (Listen to Joseph, Coat, Goat for starters.)

  27. There are two other "far-out" midrashim that also fit with modern science:

    1. There is an animal called the legless lizard. So the midrash which talks about the nachash losing its legs all of a sudden doesn't sound so odd.

    2. Another midrash talks about mountains that traveled. Talk about far-fetched! Welllll....

  28. Abarbanel argues, quite convincingly in my opinion, that "tzepardim" were crocodiles. Later I will upload a translation of his commentary.

    Meanwhile, I haven't seen Abarbanel's arguments addressed by Rabbi Slifkin or any current proponents of the idea that the plague consisted exclusively of frogs.

    I am ready to accept that the plague may have consisted of both crocodiles and frogs, but the primary plague was surely the more deadly of the two: crocodiles.

  29. 1. incredible

    2. Where “is” this species of “frog” found? If they are indigenous to medinat ha’medrishators, this wouldn’t seem as much of a coincidence. Still interesting though.

    3. Aside from the facthat tzefardea “are” commonly known as frogs, which are easier to imagine in the ovens and the dough? piling up and smelling? frogs or crocs? Also crocs are dangerous. There was a separate makah of dangerous animals.

  30. A couple of comments:

    ...many frogs showered from it...

    But R. Akiva's main point is that the frog multiplied when beaten. The more the Egyptians tried to eradicate the plague the worse it got.

    The idea of eggs embedded on a frog's back is a nice biological drash, but I'd hardly consider it a threat to rationalism!

    Which leaves us with...

    it produced new frogs from its mouth

    The most outstanding feature of the frog is its huge mouth. Where else would other frogs be imagined to pop out of?!

    It's a fun coincidence about the unique oral birthing of a couple of frog species, but that's all it is. No "super-rational" assumptions necessary.

  31. Dr. Kaplan - thanks for that interessante info. When did those small letters become part of the "masorah" then, if they are not in the codexes or? I ask, because the Discovery program makes an enormous ado about these letters, practically making it the linchpin of orthodoxy in their presentations.

    [I myself am ambivalent, which is why I'd like to know more about it, and why I asked Rabbi Slifkin, who has thus far failed to answer. The rationalist in me tells me its just a coincidence. On the other hand, this is a pretty darn whopping big coincidence if so, especially when you consider that the ten nazis would have been 11 if not for one's suicide, the bizarre shout of "purimfest!", and all sorts of other strange things. I dont say its a proof of divine existence, but I do find it fascinating, and would love to hear some level-headed analysis of it.]

  32. Moshe F. - Abarbanel Part 1May 2, 2011 at 4:19 AM

    As I said I would provide, here is a translation of Abarbanel’s commentary on the plague of "tzepardeia," contending that the correct interpretation is not “frogs” but “crocodiles”:

    What are the creatures that Scripture calls Tzefarde’im? Generally the commentators said they are the small fishlike creatures that regularly croak in the ponds (frogs), but R’ Chananel interprets that they are the large creatures found in the Nile that in Arabic are called 'al t'msch,' crocodiles, however most Torah commentators do not accept this opinion. Really though R’ Chananel’s words are better than theirs, and there is Scriptural evidence for this from the verse (Shmos 7:27) “Behold I will smite all you boundaries with tzefardim,” for Scripture only uses the term “negifah,” “smite,” for the plagues that involved death.

    Although Rashi wrote that “negifah” does not connote death, but this is incorrect, and the evidence he brings for this interpretation does not suffice, because the verse (Shmos 21:22) “v’nogfu isho horoh,” “and they smite a pregnant woman…,” which Rashi cites, is indeed a type of ‘smiting’ that involves loss of the pregnancy, the death of the fetus, as the verse continues, “…so that her offspring come out.”

    As for Rashi’s other proof texts, “and before your feet are smitten” (Yirmiyah 13:16) and “Lest you smite your foot against a stone” (Tehillim 91:12), these are irrelevant because in those verses the word “negef” is modified to indicate not the smiting of the whole man but the smiting of just the foot, and therefore the word does not connote absolute death in those verses. But when it occurs plainly, without a modifier, it means a smiting that results in utter death, as in “Hashem will pass through to smite the Egyptians” (Shmos 12:23).

    Compellingly, frogs, the small fishlike creatures that croak, do not kill people and do not “smite” them, and therefore it is evident that the “tzefardeah” that the Torah mentions is a creature whose custom is to smite and to kill. As the the Psalmist explains (Tehillim 78:45), “tefarde’ah vatashchisaim,” “(He sent….) the tzfarde’ah which destroyed them,” where "hashchosoh," “destruction” means death, as in the verse (Breishis 6:13) “behold I am destroying the earth.”

  33. Moshe F. - Abarbanel Part 2May 2, 2011 at 4:30 AM

    Part 2 of Abarbanel's commentary on the tzefardeah:

    Another proof of this interpretation is that it states “only in the river shall they remain” (Shmos 8:5), a statement which is unlike what is stated by the plague of Orov (wild animals) and by the plague of locusts, although they too remained in certain places. Further, how could it state “only in the river shall they remain,” which implies that they will remain only in the Nile, if the intent is to the small croaking frogs which remained in all of the rest of the rivers, streams, and ponds throughout the world?

    All of this proves that tzfardeim are not frogs, but rather the large sea serpent-like creature which are called ‘al t’msh,’ the crocodile, which has a form similar to a serpent and a mouth that opens by the movement of the upper jaw. This creature is an enormous eater that is able to consume a whole calf or human child.

    These creatures came out of the Nile to seek food due to the decaying of the river (from the plague of blood), when they were unable to sustain themselves from the fish that died and were decomposing, so they went out to the dry land to eat. Even in our times they occasionally leave the Nile River and go onto the shore to seized and kill humans and animals, and at the time of the plague they multiplied exceedingly and went out by Divine decree, and they went out of all boundaries, killing domesticated animals where they found them – concerning this it sates “Behold I shall smite all your boundaries with crocodiles.”

    They continued going far away from the river until they came into the houses and the bedchambers and upon the beds to find and kill children who were unable to flee away from them. Our sages o.b.m. alluded to this when they stated (Shmos Rabba 10) that the tzefardeim “castrated the Egyptians,” meaning, that they ate their children, and they were left bereft of offspring as though they were castrated. It is even possible that they bit and ate the generative organs of the Egyptians. This also proves that the tzfardeim were not the small croaking frogs but rather these giant serpent-like creatures, i.e., crocodiles.

    They then also went up into the Egyptian’s ovens and into their kneading-troughs to eat their bread and also the adult people who were in the city, and when they caught them they killed them. This is what is meant by “and upon you and upon your people and upon all your servants the crocodiles shall come up” (Shmos 7:29).

  34. RNS:

    I generally very much like your posts but I honestly don't understand the point of this post.

    The midrash refers to frogs being beaten and emerging from the mouth of other frogs. There are certain frog species whose young are born from the mouths of their mothers. So what?

    Either the sages were familiar with these frog species or they weren't. If they were, they were using knowledge of this species to inform their midrashim on the pesukim.

    If they weren't then they coincidentally describe the plague in a way that conforms with how certain frogs with which they were unfamiliar birth (without the beating of course).

    What other alternative is there? That they mystically knew of the frog species they had never seen and used this knowledge to midrashically describe the frog plague as a way of conveying a moral message?

    Why assume this? Would their message have been diminished if there were no actual species that reproduced the way they describe it in the midrash?
    After all this is derash, not peshat.

    Please enlighten me.

  35. Moshe F. - R' Slifkin's mistaken opinionMay 3, 2011 at 5:43 AM

    Thanks DF for referencing R’ Slifkin’s essay “Tzefarde’a: Frogs Or Crocodiles?” in Jewish Bible Quarterly (an extract from his The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom currently in preparation). Based on my comments above concerning Abarbanel, R’ Slifkin’s conclusion that Tzfarde’a means frogs is clearly mistaken.

    In the summation of his essay R’ Slifkin writes:

    “There are, however, factors militating against the tzefarde'a being seen as a crocodile: the Torah clearly indicates that the tzefard'ea was quite troublesome to the Egyptians but never posed a threat to their lives…”

    --- This is incorrect: As clear from Abarbanel, as well as the Netziv and other commentators whom R’ Slifkin does cite in his essay, not only did the tzfarde’a pose a threat to the lives of the Egyptians, they actually did kill many of them. The plague was more than “troublesome,” it indeed was very deadly.

    "Crocodiles would not be able to enter . . . your ovens and kneading bowls (Ex. 7:28)…”

    --- This is incorrect: First of all, it is possible to interpret “u’v’sanurecho u’v’misharosecho” as large, bakery-sized ovens and kneading-throughs, as Abarbanel understood, and large crocodiles could have entered there seeking food and causing great damage, destruction and even deaths. Secondly, there would also have been many baby crocodiles, since as explained they swarmed at the time of the plague, and they would have been able to enter even smaller-sized ovens and kneading bowls and cause great havoc there with their presence.

    "and, according to Gesenius, the term tzefard'ea denotes "leaping in the marsh" which is unquestionably a frog."

    --- This is incorrect: Even we could rely on Gesenius about the etymology of the name tzefarde’a, this term could apply to crocodiles just as well as to frogs, for crocodiles also live in marshes and they also leap and lunge quickly to snare their prey. Indeed, since as R’ Slifkin writes, Gesenius compared tzefarde’a with the tzefir izzim [billy goat], which certainly is a larger-sized animal, it seems likely that the term would be more fitting for a larger marsh-dwelling creature, i.e., the crocodile, instead of the comparatively insignificant frog.

    As for the current academic understanding of “Gesenius-style” interpretation - see - where it states that “Forms such as צְפַרְדֵּעַ‎ frog, חֲבַצֶּ֫לֶת‎ meadow-saffron, צַלְמָוֶת‎ shadow of death, were long regarded as compounds, though the explanation of them all was uncertain. Many words of this class, which earlier scholars attempted to explain from Hebrew sources, have since proved to be loan-words, and consequently need no longer be taken into account.”

    At any rate, there is no need to accept Gesenius as authoritative in this matter. It is possible to imagine many other possible etymologies for the name “tzefarde’a.”

  36. This seems more to be connected to a general issue of if one has enough midrashim eventually some of them are going to start vaguely resembling something real. When there are only a handful of species of frogs that do something like this, it isn't very impressive.

  37. Moshe F. - A Possible SolutionMay 5, 2011 at 12:22 AM

    A possible solution could be that the word “tzefarde’a” should be understood as meaning – neither frog, nor crocodile, but rather simply – “amphibian,” and that the plague of Tzefarde’a consisted of several species of amphibians.

    Some sources stress one aspect of the plague, frogs, and some sources stress another aspect, crocodiles, but they all occurred simultaneously (as mentioned in R’ Slifkin’s essay from the Netziv).

    When understood this way, this plague fits into to pattern of all the rest of the plagues, which all consisted of more than one aspect. As it states in the Hagada, “each and every plague that the Holy One, blessed be He, brought on the Egyptians in Egypt” was composed of ”four” or ”five” plagues (the discussion of R’ Eliezer and R’ Akiva). What are these subdivisions of each plague?

    It is possible to say:

    Dom – The water became tinted with different kinds of blood, either from the mass dying of different kinds of animals and fish in various areas, and/or from the water’s acquisition of different blood-colored compounds.

    Tzefarde’a – Various species of amphibians, including crocodiles, frogs, snakes, lizards and the like.

    Kinim – Various kinds of lice, gnats, fleas, mosquitoes and other insects.

    Orov – Mixed kinds of attacking wild animals, lions, tigers, bears, wolves and other fierce animals.

    Dever – Several different kinds of pestilence, viruses, bacteria and disease causing germs.

    Shechin – Various kinds of skin irritations, itchiness, inflammations, sores and lesions.

    Borod – Different forms of deadly precipitation, rain, lightning, hail, fire, brimstone.

    Arbeh – Various kinds of locust and swarming grasshoppers.

    Choshech – The various stages in the degree of the “thickness” of the darkness.

    Makas Bechoros – The various kinds of death that befell the firstborn Egyptian royalty, common citizens, their servants and their animals.

  38. Moshe
    I like it but you now have to give pshat why the admixture of different elements is the name for the maka of orov. It should be called "Lions" for example, or "Mammals".

  39. Tzvi, that is precisely the point, the plague is called "Orov," which does not mean lions or tigers, etc., it means only “mixed (“orov”) beasts of prey" that generally come out to hunt at night, as indicated in the word "Erev," "evening," and it is for this reason too that they are called “Orov” (this pshat I found in meforshim but I cannot provide the source right now).

    Similarly "Tzefarde'a" may not originally have meant specifically either frogs or crocodiles, but only the general class of creatures to which they belong, i.e., "amphibian," and thus any species that lives in both water and on land is automatically understood as being involved in this plague.

    My own speculation on the etymology of the word "tzefarde'a" is that it is a combination of "tzipor" and "de’a" (as in a Medrashim that R' Slifkin mentions in his essay), only it is not because a bird tells it things, but rather because "amphibians" are "creatures" (“tzipor”) which are "skilled" and "know" (“de’a”) how to live in different environments, i.e., both in the water and on land, which from the human perspective, especially in ancient times, must have seemed like a wonderful talent requiring special knowledge and ability.

  40. A most fascinating blog Rabbi Slifkin! I understand the plague of frogs was a middah keneged middah for Shemot 1:12: "But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew. And they were grieved because of the children of Israel." Why must either be taken quite so literally? It's called hyperbole, no? Wouldn't the Rambam hold this way?

  41. For further research into aquatic males that care for young, I would recommend my 3 year old's current favorite, Mister Seahorse, by Eric Carle.

  42. How do rationalist evolutionists explain this strange birth phenomenon? I'd like if you (R Natan) can reply.

  43. R' Natan, are you really giving credibility to some obscure midrash on frogs emanating from the mouth of the 'original' frog? Even the examples of such exotic, non-native frogs that you cite don't account for the spread of frogs throughout the land - assuming that the plague happened quickly rather than over the maturation period for successive generations of frogs. While you understandably wish to retain interest in the innovative explanations of your former self, they remain derashot which may or may not add to the understanding and appreciation of the text.

    I say the above with some empathy since there was a time when I was involved in Gematriot and had come up with some clever ones. However, I concluded that ferreting out 'meaningful' Gematriot from the text deterred a more serious study, and I consequently dropped the matter. This could account for the lack of interest that I expressed when you originally mentioned the 'kave'/'kav' (111/106) correction factor for the 30/10 measurement of Shlomo's reservoir. The sages were unaware of such a correction factor and always took pi as 3. Nor was such use regarded as a convenient approximation. Someone, apparently in the 20th century, later arrived at the above Gematriot and 'correction'. If the 'correction factor' is valid, then the sages were wrong in many halachic matters in which they used 3 to represent pi, based on that verse in Kings I and, correspondingly, in Chronicles I.

  44. Seems to me very simply that "ha-tzefardea" (singular) is to be taken as a collective noun, in the sense of "the frog plague," and that there is no need to take it literally as denoting just one frog. Now *that's* rationalist.

  45. I have an idea: it's called a neis. End of discussion.

  46. Moshe: Crocodiles are reptiles, not amphibians.

  47. When reading the text in shul this morning, my thought was that it must be some type of scribal error. The text uses the word "hetzefardeim" many times in close proximity; only this one is singular. Other clues that it should be plural - it says "hatzefardea" - THE frog, not just A frog, which in singular would imply we knew the frog, and it says the frog covered the whole earth, which would be one really big frog. It is not inspiring but it seems to be the most rationalist explanation.

    As for PI, I think it's cool, but think about how many potentially cool things there are that were never discovered because they are not there. Finding one doesn't prove the divine. For example, the cute idea that the first two letters of the names of VaEra and Bo indicate the number of plagues. But plenty of other parshiot have numbers of things that have no connection whatsoever to the names of the parsha, so we never talk about them.

    A similar "cool" finding was passed around in emails a while back. Why do mathematicians confuse Halloween and Christmas? Because OCT 31 = DEC 25 (31 in octal is the same as 25 in decimal; also the dates of the holidays). The email I saw marveled at the number of coincidences required to make this work. Maybe so, but again, lots of other dates have no apparent similarity and thus no "cool" finding. And I doubt this proves the divinity of Halloween, Christmas, and the Gregorian calendar (at least I hope not!).


    Gastric brooding frog - cloned, as in back from the dead.

  49. @BenSira

    Clearly the first two letters of Va'era and Bo have no special meaning, as the divisions into Sedrot are more or less arbitrary. I learned that gematria as a handy way to remember how many plagues are mentioned in each, and nothing more.

  50. My version of rationalism allows for people inspired with an "aspaklarya lo meira" to see with their inner eye aspects of the Truth that they do not consciously know of, and that are not necessarily yet known by science. So a midrash can allude to something they could not (or were unlikely to) have known about - such as the Earth "flying through the air like a loom shuttle", or indeed frogs coming out of the mouth of a larger one. Since it is a "blurred image" the reference is not always precise, but without our more modern knowledge we can identify the truth of the reference.

  51. Mike S. said... "Moshe: Crocodiles are reptiles, not amphibians."

    --- Thanks for the correction, you are right of course. To the point though, although "amphibian" was the wrong word to use, what I meant was a group of creatures that "live double lives," i.e., partly in water and partly on land, which would certainly include Nile crocodiles. Any other comments about what I wrote?

    --- BTW, although I have never seen a swarm of crocodiles, I have seen swarms of frogs (or were they toads?) near a marsh in Far Rockaway, which was quite amazing. They were so plentiful that it was necessary to watch one's step to avoid stepping on them. It was quite creepy. You can see other examples on the internet. It could be that due to the prevalence of such swarms eventually the plague of "Tzefardeah" became synonymous with frogs. Just speculating.

    --- R' Slifkin, do you still believe that the only interpretation of "Tzefardeah" is frogs and it cannot include anything else, or will you now concede that crocodiles are also a possibility?

  52. "When there are only a handful of species of frogs that do something like this, it isn't very impressive."

    If all frogs behaved this way, would that somehow make the midrash impressive?

  53. For a rational (and satisfying upon much consideration) explanation of anti-semitism, I recommend Pinsker's "Auto-Emancipation".

  54. We know very few specifics about the Jews' enslavement in Israel. Two of the things we do know are: 1) the Egyptians worried that in time of war they would join with other nations to fight Egypt, 2) "the more they oppressed them, the more they multiplied".

    Both of these are closely paralleled in the midrash on the frogs. 1) resembles R' Elazar ben Azarya's opinion that a single little frog called to countless other frogs and together they created the plague. 2) resembles R' Akiva's opinion that the Egyptians hit the frogs and they split into multiple frogs.

    It therefore seems that both opinions are variations of the idea that the plague was punishment "midah keneged midah" for each aspect of the enslavement.

    I think that's where the basic idea here came from, but the frog reproductive behavior you discuss is very interesting, and perhaps it led R' Akiva to make the specific interpretation that he made.

  55. Just a few afterthoughts about crocodiles:

    (1) The fact is that crocodiles do indeed also engage in swarming activity, similar to what is describe concerning Tzefardea, "V'shoratz hayeor Tzefardaim," that the river swarmed with them.

    (2) If crocodiles are not included in "Tzefardea" it would come out extremely strange, for even today crocodiles are responsible for killing hundreds of people a year, more than any other wild animals in Africa. Wouldn't it be expected that such events were likewise relatively common occurrences in ancient Egypt, and that at certain times such as during times of swarming these incidents would increase? As Abarbanel noted, the Torah says that in the first plague "all the fish in the river died," and even naturally it would be expected that the crocodiles would need to emerge from the water to seek meals on land. How could it be then that no plague mentions the crocodiles? The obvious answer is clearly that the attack of the crocodiles is indeed mentioned, right where it would be expected to be, i.e., in the plague of Tzefardea.

    (3) It is known that the ancient Egyptians also worshiped crocodiles. It is likely that the Jewish babies that were thrown into the river were drowned and then consumed by crocodiles, or even fed right from the start to crocodiles. It was therefore "mida keneged mida" that Hashem would punish the Egyptians in a similar way, by having their "gods" turn on them with a vengeance and seize and maim them and kill them.

    --- And "nizcorim v'na'asim," may all our people's enemies be similarly destroyed, soon in our time, when"like the days of your going out of Egypt I will show you wonders" (Micha 7:15).

  56. Rabbi Slifkin,
    do forgive me; I have read your book Sacred Monsters and while I understand your premise that the organisms which exist according to the laws of science (that G-d put into play) have always such existed and mystical beings are irrational and thus metaphorical, I am perplexed at the idea in this post. Surely you do not think that G-d is a limited being; why, then, must G-d create miracles (nissim w'niphlaoth, othoth umoph'thim) in the most non-miraculous way possible?
    I happen to agree with much of your rationalist approach (although I find the rationalist argument obsolete and most "contradictions" between science and Torah totally irrelevant)in regards to HaZ"aL (but only to an extent) and some other issues; however, when discussing miracles, and I'll say this with a mashal, "why search for a molecule that can fall from the sky and provide human sustenance to explain the mann in the desert? And if you agree that do so would be ridiculous, why have a problem with the fact that mann could have tasted like anything? or that it melted and animals ate it and Goyim tasted it in the animals?"
    Kol tuv,


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