Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Frogs, Crocs and Birds

Here's a piece that I published in the Jewish Bible Quarterly a decade ago. I'm reposting it, because I took this wonderful photo in the museum yesterday which is perfect to accompany this article!

The second plague to befall Egypt was that of tzefardea. It is widely believed that the term tzefardea refers to frogs, but Ibn Ezra notes that there are actually two views on this matter:
"The commentators differed in their understanding of the word tzefarde'im. Many said it referred to a sort of fish found in Egypt, called al-timsah in Arabic, which comes out of the river and seizes human beings. Others say they are the creatures found in most of the rivers and that they make a sound. This explanation, which is well known, seems correct in my view." (Ibn Ezra to Exodus 7:27)
The former explanation is describing a crocodile. It is referred to as a fish, even though it is a reptile, because the Torah concept of fish also includes other aquatic creatures. Support for this identification is advanced from the description of how the frog plague ceased. The Midrash comments on the statement that the tzefarde'im shall remain in the river:
" 'The tzefarde'im shall retreat from you and your courtiers and your people; they shall remain only in the Nile' (Exodus 8:7) - Rabbi Yitzchak said, There are still deadly beasts in it that come out and kill people every year ... Moshe did not pray that the tzefarde'im be wiped out, only that they not harm Pharaoh, as it says, 'And Moshe cried out to the Lord in the matter of the tzefarde'im which He had inflicted upon Pharaoh'(Exodus 8:8)." (Midrash haGadol[1])
Rabbeinu Bachya elaborates at greater length:
"Moshe's words in his prayer stayed true for that time and for all generations. In accordance with his words, 'they shall remain only in the Nile,' to this very day the creeping water creature known as the al-timsah remains there. There it lives, and it is said that sometimes it comes out of the Nile where it lives, rising onto the river's edge and swallowing whatever it finds, even two or three humans at a time. Neither spear nor arrow can overcome its body, unless aimed for its belly. Physicians say it is venomous and that touching its body, even after its death, is harmful to man. It is of the tzefardea type, and from the power of Moshe's words, this creature remains there... This is also how Rabbeinu Chananel explained it, and regarding this it states, 'Speak of all His wonders' (Psalms 105:2)." (Rabbeinu Bachya, Exodus 10:19)
According to the second identification, preferred by Ibn Ezra, the tzefardea is the commonly found animal that makes a sound - the frog. This is also the explanation preferred by others:
"Some say it looks like a fish, that it is the timsah, which moves its upper jaw, unlike all other lowly creatures, and that it seizes humans and animals passing by the river's edge. But the correct explanation is that they are the known creatures of rivers and pools." (Sefer haMivchar[2])
We find the following evaluation in Sefer HaToda'ah:
"This type of destructive tzefardea did not exist in the Nile previously. After it was then created, it remains in the Egyptian river forever. It grows in the Nile to a great size, and damages and swallows creatures big and small. It is the tamsah, which is found in the Nile until today, as a memorial to that plague. And there are some of the commentaries who say that the tzefardea referred to here is the small croaking creature, and so it appears from the words of our rabbis in the midrashos." (Sefer HaToda'ah 23)
The midrashim to which he refers describe the frog as a small and weak creature, prey to snakes and aquatic creatures, that is extremely vocal. This description can only match the frog and does not match the crocodile at all.

What of the etymology of the name tzefardea - does that give an indication either way? Some claim it to be a word from an unknown foreign source.[3] It may be a combination of the root tzafar, meaning to chirp (as frogs do), along with the root rada, "muddy marsh," which is the frog's favored habitat. But there are those who state that the name tzefardea is a combination of two words, tzipor de'ah, "the bird of knowledge." Some explain this to refer to the frog, which chirps like a bird and knows when to stop:
"Tzefardea - a creeping creatures that emits cries all night, until morning, and it is tzipor da, 'the knowing bird,' that it knows the time of morning, to cease from its cries." (Chatzi Menasheh[4])
There is another explanation of "the knowing bird" that is more difficult to ascribe to either animal:
"Ba-tzefarde'im" - what is this word, tzefarde'a? There was a bird (tzipor) in the Nile that had intelligence (de'a), and when this bird called to them they came, and so they were named after this bird with intelligence: tzefar-de'a. (Midrash Lekach Tov to Exodus 7:28; cf. Yalkut Shimoni 7:182)
Pin by Flo iams on The far side | Gary larson cartoons, Funny ...
Neither frogs nor crocodiles are known to respond to the calls of birds. But there is a suggestion based on this midrash that there are similar reasons for positing that tzefardea refers to the crocodile.[5] There is an account by Herodotus, who visited Egypt in 459 B.C.E., of a small bird picking food from the teeth of a gaping crocodile. It has been suggested that this refers to the Egyptian plover, Pluvianus aegyptius, which has since also earned the name of "crocodile plover." It is said that while the crocodile rests with its mouth open, these intelligent birds peck at the crocodile's teeth in search of parasites. The crocodile makes no attempt to eat the bird and is apparently aware of its benefits. The bird is extremely cautious and gives a call when fleeing from danger, thus also warning the crocodile. Perhaps the tzefardea is the crocodile, named after its symbiotic partner, the intelligent bird that cleans it and warns it of danger.

A problem with this charming explanation is that the described phenomenon may not actually be true. Whether such a mutual relationship exists is hard to determine; in the zoological literature, few apart from Herodotus are actually recorded as having seen it.[6] One ornithologist claims that ".no reliable observer since then has seen [it] acting as a crocodile toothpick... The myth has been perpetuated in the literature and needs finally to be laid to rest, unless contrary proof can be found."[7] On the other hand, Israel's legendary crocodile hunter Ofer Kobi, who spent decades hunting and farming crocodiles in Africa, informed me that he has observed it.[8] If it does exist, it is rare, and seems more likely to be opportunistic rather than symbiotic.

In conclusion, while there are those who have explained the tzefardea of Egypt to refer to the crocodile, its usage in Midrashic sources and its etymology indicate that the frog is the more likely contender, as several of the commentaries conclude. Some suggest that the name tzefardea refers to amphibious herptiles in general, and could thereby include both frogs and crocodiles. This is the explanation given by the Netziv, who states that whereas most of Egypt was plagued only by frogs, Pharaoh and his entourage were attacked by crocodiles.[9]

[1] Margaliyot edition, pp. 121-122; originally from Mishnat R. Eliezer, p. 354.
[2] Cited in Torah Sheleimah, Shemos 8:16.
[3] Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, Emes LeYaakov, Shemos 7:27.
[4] A collection of manuscripts cited in Torah Sheleimah 7:108. This explanation is also given by Maharil, cited in B'Shmi U'lekavodi Berasiv, tzefardea.
[5] Prof. Daniel Sperber, "The Frog was a Crocodile," Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center, Parashat VaEra 5759/1999.
[6] "Despite being corroborated by two eminent German ornithologists in the 19th and 20th centuries, this alleged behavior has never been properly authenticated." Richford, Andrew S., and Christopher J. Mead, "Pratincoles and Coursers," in Christopher Perrins (Ed.). Firefly Encyclopedia of Birds (Firefly Books 2003) pp. 252-253.
[7] Maclean, G. L., "Family Glareolidae (Coursers and Pratincoles)" in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., & Sargatal, J., eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World (Barcelona: Lynx Edicions 1996) vol. 3 pp. 364-383.
[8] Personal conversation at the Crocoloco ranch, September 2008. For further information on Kobi, whose amazing ranches I visited in Kenya and Israel, see
[9] See HaEmek Davar, Shemos 7:28-29 for his ingenious method of deriving this from the verses.

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  1. This url on Kobi works better
    than this

  2. Read this a long time ago (a decade already?!) Still a fascinating post.

  3. Is there any possibility of the word tzfardea being an Egyptian loan word? What were the Ancient Egyptian words for frog and crocodile?

  4. Regardless of the origin, google translate gives ضفدع for frog in Arabic (צ'פדע), which sure as heck looks like a cognate to צפרדע. And the proto-Semitic consonant ض, which becomes צ in Hebrew, often becomes ע in Aramaic, so we would have a probable cognate in ערדעניא (found in the Targum). While I don't know which animal the Targumic word means, the word itself reinforces the probability of the Arabic word being a cognate to the Hebrew. So unless a semantic shift has occurred, the linguistic evidence of modern Arabic seems to be very strong evidence in favor of "frog".

    1. If the word is borrowed, how can you tell which language did the borrowing?

    2. I wonder whether the word עורדעניא is an onomatopoeia, further supporting the translation as frog.

    3. The presence of צ,ض,and ע in the same position in Arabic, Hebrew, and Targumic Aramaic respectively, is all regular. For another example, compare ארץ, أرض, and ארע. I don't think you would expect this correspondence in a word borrowed from one of those Central Semitic languages to the other.

      However, a four or five letter root of this type is so unusual that it makes me strongly suspect that the word was borrowed into (Central?) Semitic from a foreign source, although I suppose for an animal with such distinct sounds, onomatopoeia should also be seriously considered. Interestingly, when you type in "frog" into this dictionary ( you get nothing similar, but "crocodile" does yield the option of "dpy". If Egyptian "d" was often borrowed into Semitic as ض, we may have ourselves a very good case for a borrowing, and you can see that the hieroglyph looks like a crocodile, so you don't have to guess which animal was meant in Ancient Egyptian. The last two letters of the Semitic "דע" might come from some sort of reduplication brought on by the emphatic consonant in the beginning, possibly inspired by the onomatopoeia (Onomatopoeia might also explain how the ר got in there). But the semantic shift from crocodile to frog would then need to be explained.

      Note that a borrowing from Hebrew into Egyptian is highly unlikely for an animal that is much more present in Egypt. The long form of the word צפרדע makes it doubly unlikely.

  5. There are many parts of the Bible that are obscure. It is probably impossible to know for certain whether the tzefardea refers to frogs or crocodiles. It seems more likely that it refers to crocodiles (ibn Ezra). But at the end of the day, this is purely speculation. We simply do not know and may never know. We can only speculate. But this makes the Bible more interactive and helps encourage interpretation. However, I am more inclined to agree with ibn Ezra. Thank you for the essay.

    1. Ibn Ezra says he thinks they're frogs.

    2. Whoops, my mistake. Thanks for the correction.

  6. Nice to see you getting back to interesting material! Thank you for the informative piece. Just one nit-pick (pun intended) if I may: the name of the sefer is likely vocalized Chitzei Menasheh, not Chatzi Menasheh.

  7. Great discussion. tzefar (the probable root) means to skip about thus suggesting a frog. Unlikely a croc since crocs would not seem consistent Exodus 7:28 unless by a GIANT stretch. It was a Giant Frog. When younger it is just like a regular frog. When large then it can eat people.

    1. How on earth can a frog eat a person?? Crocodiles makes more sense (see ibn Ezra to Exodus 7:27).

    2. It was not a regular frog. It was a giant frog, and they can eat people. It was a miracle afterall. Crocs do not fit in well with Exodus 7:28

    3. Where does it say giant frog in the text? Crocs seem more likely.

  8. The sign of a talmid chacham. An unusual zoological conjunction in the museum conjures up an old devar Torah.

  9. Actually, identifying the tz'fardea' as the timsah (isn't that the smaller species of crocodile?) would fit well with what you once told me about the "tzav" being a big lizard, as per the Arabic. There are several Talmud passages suggesting that the tzav and tz'fardea' are similar in appearance and could be confused with one another, which only makes sense if either the tzav is a toad or the tz'fardea' is a big lizard.

    1. Many hold that the meaning of Tzav as "turtle" comes from Numbers 7:3 עגלות צב which means "covered wagons", a good definition for a turtle covered by a shell. Also of note is Nedarim 41a, where we find the word אקרוקתא which the Rishonim understand to be onamatopeaia for a frog ("croaker.")

      I have more on this in my notes to Shas, but I cant seem to paste the hebrew here without messing up the format.

  10. I remember reading the article in the JBQ when it came out. I published there myself, twice. R. Yaakov says the word צפרדע is specifically Egyptian. Although in the source you cite in fn 3 he says "foreign", in his comments to Genesis (which that source leads to) he says explicitly Egyptian, as the editor there points out. His proof is intriguing: All or nearly all of the Egyptian names in the Bible have a פ, ר, or ע. Examples include שפרה, פועה, פרעה, פוטיפר, פענח, פתום, רעמס. There are others also, including the name Ephraim which he addresses. The word צפרדעא would fall within this. (And lest you call this "folk etymology", let it be admitted that much of "regular etymology" is no different at all from folk etymology, and both methods apply associative techniques and rely ultimately upon guesswork for conclusions.)


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