Almost everyone you ask will tell you that Tzefardei’a, the creature involved in the second Makkah (plague) visited upon Egypt, was a frog. People find it shocking when they are told that some Rishonim identify Tzefardei’a as crocodiles. In this essay we shall analyze the various approaches to this fascinating question. I acknowledge the contributions of my 5768 Talmidim at the Torah Academy of Bergen County and the members of Congregation Rinat Yisrael who attended I delivered a Shiur I delivered on this topic in Nissan 5768.
Frogs or Crocodiles?
Ibn Era (in his lengthy commentary to Shemot 7:27) frames the issue as follows:
The commentaries disagree about the meaning of the word Tzefardei’a. Many argue that it refers to an aquatic creature found in Egypt that is called in Arabic “altzamach”, which emerges from the Nile and snatches people [what we refer to as the Nile crocodile, the world’s most ferocious crocodile]. Others explain that it refers to the creatures found in all rivers that make much noise (frogs), and this is the correct view in my opinion and this is what is well known.
Proofs to the Frog Identification
Ibn Ezra prefers the frog identification for a number of reasons. One is that he notes that this is “well known”, i.e. the most common identification. Ibn Ezra does not explain further the reasons for his preference for the frog opinion but we shall suggest some possibilities. Shemot 7:28 may be marshaled as evidence for this opinion as it describes how the Tzefardei’a entered even people’s ovens and kneading bowls. A crocodile, especially the large Nile crocodile, cannot fit into an oven or kneading bowl (unless it is a baby crocodile).
Another reason for Ibn Ezra’s preference for the frog identification might be what appears to be his opinion that the Makkot were not lethal until the last plague, Makkat Bechorot (the smiting of the first born). Such a view is compelling since Paroh freed Bnei Yisrael only at Makat Bechorot and not as a result of other Makkot, quite possibly since only the last Makkah was lethal. Accordingly, the preference for the frog explanation is that frogs are a nuisance, but not deadly, unlike the lethal Nile crocodile.
Ibn Ezra seems to adopt this approach in the context of other Makkot as he explains (brief commentary to Shemot 10:23) that during the plague of darkness Egyptians did not see each other in the daylight but were able to see with candles. He explains the statement in the Passuk that the Egyptians were not able to stand for three days as referring to the Egyptians inability to leave their homes during this time or what we today call “house arrest” due to it being pitch black outside their homes.
By contrast, Rashi (commentary to Shemot 10:22 s.v. Vayehi Choshech) explains that during three days of Choshech (darkness) the Egyptians were unable to move even in their own homes, “those who were sitting could not stand and those who were standing could not sit”. In Rashi’s version of Makkat Choshech, people must have died as many cannot survive three days without moving, whereas according to Ibn Ezra, it was a severe annoyance but not a life threatening one.
Chazal (Shemot Rabbah 11:3) similarly debate the identity of the creatures involved in the fourth Makkah, Arov, which literally means a mixture [of creatures]. One opinion identifies it as a mixture of wild animals (which is the more popular identification and is adopted by Rashi, Shemot 8:17 s.v. Et Ha’arov). Rabi Nechemiah argues, though, that it was species of hornets and mosquitoes. The root of this debate might be whether the plagues where lethal before Makkat Bechorot, as wild animals are far more dangerous than irritating insects.
On the other hand, Ibn Ezra (long commentary to Shemot 8:17) does identify Arov as wild animals such as lions, tigers and bears even though we suggest that Ibn Ezra believes that the Makkot were not fatal until the plague of the firstborn. One may answer that Makkat Arov was not necessarily fatal even if wild animals were involved as it simply could have forced the Egyptians to remain inside their houses due to the danger. Indeed, the Ibn Ezra does not state that the wild animals harmed the Egyptians, unlike Rashi who specifically states (Shemot 8:17 s.v. Et Haarov) that the wild animals attacked the Egyptians.
Rashi, (ad. loc.) however, identifies the Tzefardei’a as frogs even though he views Arov as lethal. Rashi, though, clearly states his view that the Makkot were not lethal until Makkat Arov.
We should note an alternate analysis of the dispute regarding the nature of Egyptian suffering during Makkat Choshech. This dispute, in addition, expresses another general difference between the approaches of Rashi and Ibn Ezra to Chumash. Rashi tends to favor maximizing miracles whereas Ibn Ezra tends to minimize miracles. Indeed, TABC Talmid Eli Bierig notes that this is a major difference between a Peshat approach and a Derash approach to Chumash, as Derash tends to maximize miracles and Peshat tends to minimize them.
In regards to Makkat Choshech, Rashi expands the plague to include the immobilizing the Egyptians whereas Ibn Ezra limits it to the completing darkening of Egypt during those days. For further discussion of the question of minimizing or maximizing miracles, see my series of essays on Rabi Akiva: Role Model for Religious Zionism archived at www.koltorah.org.
Proof for the Crocodile Approach
Rabbeinu Chanannel (Shemot 11:2) is a staunch proponent of the crocodile approach. He notes that Moshe Rabbeinu (Shemot 8:5) promised Paroh to remove the Tzefardei’a from the homes of the Egyptians, but that they would remain in the Nile. One may ask why was it necessary for Moshe Rabbeinu to state that the Tzefardei’a would remain the Nile – after all, are not rivers the natural habitat of frogs? Rabbeinu Chanannel explains that Moshe Rabbeinu tells Paroh that although the lethal crocodiles will be removed from homes, nonetheless they shall remain in the Nile as a permanent remembrance to the Makkot. Rabbeinu Chanannel concludes that for this reason lethal crocodiles, the descendants of the crocodiles who were part of the second plague, remain in the Nile until this day.
One may ask why the Egyptians deserved the punishment of having lethal reptiles inhabiting the Nile. The answer is that Hashem punishes an individual and a nation Middah Keneged Middah, in proportion to the sin or sins committed. In this case, since the Egyptians sinned by throwing Jewish baby boys into the Nile (Shemot 1:22), they are punished with having the Nile serve as a source of deadly attacks on their people.
We should note parenthetically that this is one of many examples in the Torah where descendants suffer due to the sins of their ancestors. All of humanity’s suffering due to Adam and Chavah eating from the tree of knowledge is a prime example of this phenomenon. This issue merits further attention at another opportunity.
Compromise View of the Malbim
The nineteenth century commentator Malbim (7:27) adopts a compromise view on this issue, as later commentaries often do. He notes the evidence for the frog view and the crocodile view and argues that the frogs filled the ovens and kneading bowls were as lethal crocodiles remain in the Nile until this very day.
Despite the appeal of the Malbim’s approach, there is a major problem with his approach. How can the word Tzefardei’a mean both frog and crocodile? An answer might be that the word Tzefardei’a does not mean either frog or crocodile but rather refers to the general category of aquatic creatures. Another approach is based on the fact that the text of the Torah scroll is not vocalized. Thus, the letters Tzadi, Peh, Reish, Dalet, Ayin can be read Tzefardei’a to mean frog or it can be read to mean something else.
I have heard a suggestion that these letters can be read as Tzipor-dei’ah, wise bird. This refers to the legend described by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus of a bird that lives in a symbiotic relationship in the mouth of Nile crocodiles. This legendary wise bird picks out the leeches from the crocodiles teeth which eliminates an annoyance to the crocodile and serves as a reliable source of food for the bird. The crocodile could be referred to as a Tzipor-dei’ah due to the stunning sight of a bird that resides in its mouth.
The simple stories we heard as children have a great deal of depth to them and merit much deeper exploration beyond that which we are already familiar. A challenge of the Seder is to each year explore issues associated with Yetzi’at Mitzrayim (the exodus from Egypt) in greater depth in order to enrich our Pesach experiences, similar to the assemblage of great Talmudic personalities who gathered in Bnei Brak and delved into the stories of the Exodus until dawn.