From the sources by Eliezer Segal: Where the wild things were

by Eliezer Segal

(AJNews) – What exactly was the fourth of the ten plagues that were inflicted upon the Egyptians? It goes by the Hebrew name “arov,” but the Haggadah does not provide us with clues to its exact meaning.

The ancient Greek Septuagint translation, the writings of Philo of Alexandria, and the Greek version of the Torah by Aquila (composed under the supervision of prominent rabbis in the second century C.E.) all rendered the word as “kunumuia”: dog-fly, an insect pest that often plagued Egypt (and apparently still does).

Philo discoursed at length, seemingly from personal experience, on the malevolence of this insect, which epitomized the worst traits of both dogs and flies. Under normal conditions “it shoots in from a distance with a whizzing sound like an arrow, and when it has reached its mark it pierces very closely with great force… But these dog-flies were prompted by the Almighty to be even twice as treacherous and hostile against the Egyptians.”

Most non-Jewish translators, including the King James English version, translated arov as “flies” or another insect species. This option also had Jewish advocates, such as Rabbi Solomon David Luzatto (Shadal) of Trieste. Shadal reasoned that it must refer to tiny creatures because larger animals could have been kept out of people’s houses by strong doors and barriers. He understood that when the Torah speaks about the arov “devouring” the Egyptians, the expression should be read as hyperbole, as we speak of being eaten alive by insects.

However, most of us were brought up on the assumption that arov alludes to an incursion of diverse kinds of wild beasts. It’s an occasion for children to pull out the lions, tigers and bears that have been lying in their toy-boxes since reading about Noah’s ark; and it generates some vivid artwork in illustrated Haggadahs.

This is indeed in keeping with Rashi’s explanation of the original passage in Exodus: “All manner of evil beasts, snakes and scorpions mixed together [“be-irbuvia,” from the same root as arov].” He cites a midrash that compares the strategy underlying the Egyptian plagues to conventional siege tactics that seek to throw the enemy into a panic with horrifying noises. In the Midrash, Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish referred to the fourth plague as a “mixture of birds and animals.”

As we see, Rashi took his cue from the root meaning of the word: “mix.” He did not really enter into the question of which species of beasts made up the mixture. (It is in fact most interesting to compare the varied examples of animals that different commentators included in their lists of arov species.)

Other French exegetes of the period, such as Rabbis Joseph Kara and Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam) narrowed the zoological range of arov candidates—to wolves and other beasts of the night. They adduced texts in Jeremiah and Zephaniah in which the prophets spoke of the retribution that will be inflicted on the wicked when “a wolf of the evenings shall spoil them, a leopard shall watch over their cities: every one that goeth out thence shall be torn in pieces.” In Hebrew the “wolf of the evenings” is ze’ev ha-‘aravot, employing the Hebrew root “arov.” Rashbam explained that nocturnal predators are the most deadly and fearsome.

For some interpreters, the vital clue to identifying the arov was the verb employed by the Torah when G-d threatened to unleash them on Egypt: “I will send arov.” Maimonides’ son Rabbi Abraham assembled several scriptural passages where the verb “to send” is applied to wild beasts. For instance, in Moses’s admonitions in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, he threatens the disobedient Israelites that the Lord will “send beasts upon them.”

Formulating an idea that would be shared by several subsequent authors, Rabbi Abraham located the significance of this detail in the fact that, unlike other plagues, this one did not involve the creation of miraculous new beings with which to chastise Pharaoh, but rather modifications to the behaviour of existing species. Normally, nature maintains a balance in which wild creatures occupy a separate domain and restrain themselves from intrusions into human habitations. However, on this unique occasion G-d chose to suspend those restraints and thereby “send” the creatures into the Egyptian population centres and private residences. It was in this sense that it was deemed a miracle when large numbers of animals broke out of their normal nocturnal enclaves and made their way by day into the Egyptian habitations.

Rabbi Bahya ben Asher pointed out that, unlike most of the other plagues, the word “arov” is acompanied by the definite article. This indicates that they were not new creations but the same beasts that had been there all along; however it was only now that were they unleashed to assail the Egyptians. Rabbi S. R. Hirsch claimed that the miracle consisted of removing the animals’ fear of humans.

(Rabbi Isaiah Berlin took a contrasting view, suggesting that beasts that had hitherto been tame and docile were now miraculously transformed into vicious predators.)

Several authors offered reasons why this plague was particularly appropriate. For instance, Rabbi Jacob Zvi Mecklenburg discerned poetic justice in the choice of animals to serve as weapons against the Egyptians, when viewed in the context of the veneration of zoological forms that was so central to their idolatrous religion, with its menagerie of sacred bulls, cats, crocodiles and the like.

Don Isaac Abravanel found a measure of divine justice in the way that the animals (with a little help from angels of destruction) confined the Egyptians captive to their homes and fields, in retribution for Pharaoh’s own treatment of the Israelites. The same type of Egyptian “hospitality” that he had imposed on his unwilling Hebrew guests, Pharaoh was now forced to extend to the savage arov as they stampeded “into the house of Pharaoh, and into his servants’ houses, and into all the land of Egypt.”

And the uninvited guests probably behaved like a pack of rowdy party animals.

Eliezer Segal is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter. 

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