This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Thanks for the Mnemonics*

During the course of the Passover Seder, after we recite the ten plagues, the Haggadah adds a detail that seems altogether superfluous. It informs us that the second-century sage Rabbi Judah ben Ilai composed a mnemonic acronym to help remember the correct order of the ten plagues: D'Za"Kh, 'ADa"Sh, Be'aCha"V.

Similar mnemonic signs occur frequently in the Talmud. This should not surprise us, if we consider that the hefty folios of Talmud and Midrash that now fill up library shelves were then classified as "oral Torah." As such, they could not be written down, but had to be learned and transmitted through rote memorization. Therefore, aids to memory were very useful for students.

The tenth-century French scholar Rabbi Judah ben Yakar acknowledged that a need exists for such mnemonics, since many people have difficulty mastering the exact order of the ten plagues.

Against those who might contend that the order of the plagues is so well known that no extra help is necessary to remember them, the Spanish-Algerian scholar Rabbi Simeon Duran insisted that there are indeed specific reasons to fear that the order could get confused.

For one thing, the Talmudic rabbis occasionally entertained the possibility that the Bible did not always present events in their historical order. In the present instance, the Scriptural evidence is particularly perplexing, since there are passages in Psalms 78 and 105 that enumerate the plagues in different sequences.

Hence, Rabbi Duran concluded that there was a necessity for Rabbi Judah's mnemonic sign in order to demonstrate that the book of Exodus should be accepted as the primary version of the story of the plagues.

Other Jewish authorities found it hard to fathom why such a celebrated Talmudic sage should be given credit for the trivial-looking achievement of assembling the initial letters of ten items. They therefore proposed ingenious rationales for Rabbi Judah's mnemonic.

Rabbi Eliezer ben Nathan suggested that Rabbi Judah had intended his acronym to function as a replacement for the full recitation of the plagues, as an object lesson of how people should always strive to express themselves as concisely as possible.

(This explanation invites some interesting speculations about how to shorten the Seder by compressing the entire Haggadah into a series of acronyms...)

A midrashic tradition relates that the names of the plagues were all etched on Moses' wondrous staff. A commentary attributed to Rashi pointed out that this would be easier to visualize if we assume that Moses followed Rabbi Judah's approach of inscribing only the initial letters of each plague.

A popular interpretation, cited in early French and Italian commentaries, focused on the numerological value of the letters, according to the system known as gimatria. They pointed out that if we compute the numerical values of all the letters in Rabbi Judah's abbreviation, the total comes to 501.

Now compare this with the discussion in the following section of the Haggadah, where the sages try to outdo each other in calculating ever-larger totals of the plagues that were inflicted on the Egyptians at the Red Sea. Rabbi Yosé the Gallilean found fifty plagues, Rabbi Eliezer 200, and Rabbi Akiva surpassed them all with 250. Add those sums together and we come up with: five hundred.

That's just one less than Rabbi Judah's gimatria.

Some commentators asserted glibly that single-digit discrepancies are overlooked or rounded off for purposes of numerological computations. Others suggested that the extra unit alluded to the actual drowning of the Egyptians, or to the "finger of God" that was manifested in that great miracle.

Several exegetes focused on the fact that Rabbi Judah's sign divided the plagues up into three distinct groups, consisting respectively of three, three and four items. Alternatively, there are three sets of three, with the final plague (the smiting of the firstborn) constituting a class of its own.

These scholars noted that there are numerous criteria according to which the plagues can be classified into groups of three. For example, a commentary ascribed to Rashi's grandson Rabbi Samuel ben Meir explains that the first set of three plagues were all connected to the earth, the last to the air, while the intermediate group occurred in a natural manner.

Another threefold pattern that appears in the Torah's narrative is that the first two plagues in each triad were preceded by forewarnings of the impending disaster; whereas the third plague was inflicted on them without prior notification. The Talmudic rabbis derived from this pattern a judicial policy of "three strikes and you're out," to streamline the sentencing of incorrigible criminals.

Other commentators pointed out an additional pattern: The first three plagues were all performed by Aaron, the next three either by Moses and Aaron together, or by neither of them; and the third set by Moses acting alone. According to an alternative reading of the text, the groups of plagues were inflicted through Aaron, Moses and the Almighty respectively.

Rabbi Yom-Tov Ishbili (Ritba) observed that each of the three groupings was intended to teach Pharaoh a fundamental theological lesson:

The first set, where the plagues were announced with the declaration "I am the Lord," affirmed the existence of God.

In the second group, the declaration is worded "I am the Lord in the midst of the earth," thereby proclaiming the principle of ongoing divine providence over the affairs of our world.

Regarding the last triad, Pharaoh is admonished for not heeding the word of the Lord, reinforcing our belief that God communicates with human beings.

What a remarkable testimony this is to the ingenuity of our Jewish scholars, that they can derive such profound theological insights from a ten-letter abbreviation in the Haggadah!


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Sanctified Seasons
Sanctified Seasons

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

 

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