Mnemonics are commonly used throughout the Talmud as memory devices. After reciting the ten plagues what is the point of mentioning Rabbi Yehudah’s abbreviations for the ten plagues? In Psalms, however, we find other combinations of the plagues. In order not to confuse the order of the plagues with the ones in Psalms, Rabbi Yehudah came up with this order. Rabbi Ettlinger now finds other explanations for Rabbi Yehudah’s mnemonics. RMBG
Why did Rabbi Yehudah use abbreviations for the plagues, and why were the plagues given in this manner? Also, why did God give Moses power over the natural order to carry out the plagues against Pharaoh?
We notice that there was a difference between the first three plagues, the middle three plagues, and the final three plagues. Moses warned Pharaoh during the first two plagues (blood and frogs) but not before the third plague (lice), which occurred without any warning. Similarly, there was a warning before the fourth and fifth plague (wild animals74There are different interpretations of the fourth plague, arov. Sometimes it is said to be swarms of noxious insects while others interpret it as wild animals. The word arov means a mixture - but a mixture of what? and pestilence) but not the sixth plague (boils). The same thing pattern took place during the third grouping of plagues. There were warnings before hail and locust but not before darkness. The Ramban already pointed this pattern out.
There are other differences as well. During the first two plagues, Pharaoh's magicians were able to replicate Moses' plague but they were unable to replicate the third plague. They acknowledged that it was "the finger of God" (Ex. 8:15), and they were unable to perform such an act. During the second grouping of plagues, even though the Torah does not say that the magician replicated the plagues, it implies this. During the sixth plague the Torah says: "the magicians were unable to confront Moses because the inflammation, for the inflammation afflicted the magicians as well as the other Egyptians." (Ex. 9:11) This implies that there is the same pattern as the first three plagues; when there was a warning during the first plagues of the grouping the magicians performed their magic or at least performed acts to protect themselves. When the third plague of the grouping occurs without warning the magicians did not know how to protect themselves and they too were stricken by the plague. That might be why God performed the plagues, so that God could strike the magicians and thereby show Pharaoh that the magicians deeds were ineffective.
The division of the plagues by Rabbi Yehudah implies other things as well. The commentators point out that during the first grouping, the plagues were performed with the use of Moses' staff while the second grouping was performed without the staff. This may have been because God wanted Pharaoh to err at first so he would recognize God's true power. God had Moses perform the first plagues through Aaron and with the staff so that Pharaoh would think that it was all magic (one needs certain tools to perform magical acts). Once the magicians acknowledged that the plagues were performed by the finger of God, God had the next group of plagues carried out without the use of the staff.
During the first six plagues, God wanted Pharaoh to understand that God rules over the earth. During the third grouping of plagues, God wanted Pharaoh to understand that God also rules over the heights of the heavens as well. In this grouping God sent hail which came from the clouds above the earth, locusts which are moved about by an east wind, and darkness to show that God also controls the sun, the moon, and the stars which are above the clouds. When these plagues did not convince Pharaoh and Egypt, God sent the tenth plague, the death of the first born, which came from an even higher source. The tenth plague was not carried out by one of the forces of nature but by the Holy One, as the author of the Haggadah has explained: "I passed through the land of Egypt - I and not an angel; I struck the first born of Egypt - I and not a fiery being…I and not another."
Another explanation for why Rabbi Yehudah divided up the plagues in this fashion is offered by my father and teacher of blessed memory in his discussion of the question: "How could God punish Pharaoh for refusing the let the Israelites leave Egypt since God hardened his heart?"
Actually, God did give Pharaoh a choice when he first sent Moses to see him. From the very outset God told him what to expect. When God sent Moses back to Egypt, God said to him: "When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the marvels that I have put within your power. I, however, will stiffen his heart so that he will not let the people go. Then you will say to Pharaoh, 'Thus says the Lord: Israel is My first-born son. I have said to you, "Let My son go, that he may worship Me," yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your first-born son.'" (Ex. 4:21-23) In this verse, Moses informs Pharaoh how he would be treated by God. But since God desires kindness, God warns Pharaoh of the worst plague from the very beginning, hoping that Pharaoh wouldn’t harden his heart and ignore God's threats. God was letting Pharaoh know that he could save Egypt from the other plagues. God does not desire to strike down people if it was not necessary, so he did not initially send the plague against the first born. But doing this, the plagues became a snare to Pharaoh. Pharaoh was convinced that since God threatened the first born and didn’t slay them immediately, God had power over nature but not over life itself, like Pharaoh's magicians. Thus God said: "I will harden his heart and he will not send the nation." God did not mean that He would direct Pharaoh's will to do evil. Rather, when this didn’t happen Pharaoh assumed that God did not have power to strike down the first born. The other plagues taught those who believed in God that God has power over everything and that there is none like God, and that he would not strike down lives at first.
Based on this explanation we can now understand the division of the plagues into three groupings: d'tzakh, adash, baachav. Each group became progressively harsher and brought the people closer to death. The first group (blood, frogs and lice) brought discomfort upon the Egyptians but there wasn’t even a distant fear of death in these plagues. While people need water to live, God made it possible for the people to dig around the shore of the Nile River to find water for themselves. In the second grouping (wild animals, pestilence and boils) the dread of death came closer. Even though the wild animals were all about them they did not kill the Egyptians but caused the Egyptians to fear for their lives. The pestilence that killed the animals caused them to fear that it might kill the people as well. And the boils was a direct attack on their bodies so it caused them to live in the dread of death. In the final group the fear of death was even more imminent. The hail was the first plague that was a direct threat to the lives of the Egyptians, for Moses said: "Every person and beast who is found outside, not having been brought indoors, shall perish when hail comes down upon them." (Ex. 9:19) In the warning to this plague the Torah says: "Let My people go…for this time I will send all My plagues upon your person, and your courtiers in order that they may know that there is none like Me." (Ex 9:14)
The sages explain that this plague was meant to be a reminder that God had power over the life of each individual, just what they had not believed until now. He was telling them again that in the end he would send the plague against the first born. Similarly, the plague of locust made them terrified for their lives, as we hear in the words of Pharaoh: "Remove this death from me." (Ex. 10:17) After the plague of hail and locust, people began to die of hunger. The plague of darkness also inspired the terror of death; about this plague it is written: "no one rose from his place for three days.” so that the people were dying of hunger and thirst. It is only with the tenth plague that death comes to the nation. Based on this division Rabbi Yehudah divided the plagues into three groupings.