Growing up I was a big fan of Monty Python; I would listen to their recording “Live at Drury Lane” over and over again, so much so that I could recite some of the sketches by heart. One of my favorites was entitled ‘The Four Yorkshiremen’, and it involved four Yorkshiremen (as the name suggests) talking about how terrible and how difficult their lives were as children. Each one tried to outdo the other with their exaggerated descriptions of childhood suffering; so that ultimately there can be no truth to the claims which include: paying for the privilege of going to work, living in a shoebox, and working a 29 hour day in the mill. At the end the punchline is “But you try and tell the young people today that … and they won’t believe ya.”
In a blog post one writer drew a connection between these four Yorkshiremen and the three Rabbis, who discuss the Ten Plagues, within our Hagaddah. Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Eliezer, and Rabbi Akiva engage in a conversation in which they exaggerate, or perhaps grow, the number of plagues that actually took place. The author suggests that this is a way of competing to praise and glorify God, but I think something else is taking place.
As we read about the Ten Plagues, both in our Torah and the Hagaddah, many of us are uncomfortable at the fact that so much suffering had to befall the Egyptians in order that we might emerge from slavery to freedom. Our Passover ritual of taking a drop of wine from our cups for each plague reveals that our joy is somewhat diminished because of the suffering that the plagues inflicted. But I think that the words of the Hagaddah are designed to express further discomfort with the plagues and remove us from thinking too hard about the suffering that actually took place.
Immediately after reciting the Ten Plagues we read: “Rabbi Yehuda used to abbreviate the plagues with the acrostic: D’Tza’Ch, A’Da’Sh, B’A’Cha’B.” While an acrostic does serve as a memory device, the words of the acrostic itself have no meaning. In this way we remove ourselves from the reality of the plagues. We remember that there were ten plagues, and we remember the initials of each plague, but what those plagues actually were is lost in the three made up words he uses as a memory device.
This is then followed by the three Rabbis and their story of exaggeration. First up is Rabbi Yossi who claims that there were 10 plagues in Egypt, along with 50 plagues at the sea. He uses two verses of Torah to prove this. While the Israelites were in Egypt we read “the Egyptian magicians said to Pharaoh: ‘This [plague] is the finger of God’” (Ex. 8:15); and then at the Red Sea we read: “Israel saw the great hand that God used against the Egyptians” (Ex. 14:31). If it was a finger in Egypt and a hand at the sea it stands to reason that if there were 10 plagues in Egypt, then there would have been 50 plagues at the sea.
Rabbi Eliezer builds on Rabbi Yossi’s theory, accepting that there were five times as many plagues at the sea as there were in Egypt, but he adds a new dimension. Referencing Psalms 78:49 “God cast upon them the fierceness of God’s anger, wrath, and indignation, and trouble, by sending evil angels among them” he claims that each plague was really four rolled into one. The four dimensions in that verse are “wrath”, “indignation”, “trouble”, and “evil angels”. This leads to the claim that there were 40 plagues in Egypt and 200 plagues at the sea. Rabbi Akiva goes one step further and divides the verse from Psalms so that there are five dimensions: “God’s anger”, “wrath”, “indignation”, “trouble”, and “evil angels”, for a grand total of 50 plagues in Egypt and 250 plagues at the sea.
This might appear like a competition to see who can glorify God the most, but there is something else going on, which is especially striking when following Rabbi Yossi’s acrostic. Whether we accept that there were 60 plagues, 240 plagues, or even 300 plagues, with the potential for so many plagues the original 10 plagues in Egypt get lost in the mix, accounting for just a small percentage of the suffering that was actually inflicted. While we might accept the reality of the Ten Plagues, as the exaggeration goes on we begin to doubt the veracity of what we were originally told.
The structure of the Hagaddah ensures that after reading the plagues we then essentially try to avoid the reality of what was actually done. Our discomfort with the plagues is not new, the Rabbis who put together the Hagaddah felt the same discomfort and so they used their editorial power to minimize them, avoid them, and even lose sight of them. And perhaps, after claiming that there were actually 300 plagues the final line, adapted from Monty Python, might have to be: “But you try and tell the people around the Seder Table that … and they won’t believe ya” – any maybe, in some way, that is what the Rabbis were going for.
Rabbi Danny Burkeman serves the Community Synagogue of Port Washington, New York.