5773 - #18




            The ten makkot [plagues] that God brought upon Egypt, obviously, had a purpose. The two most well-known reasons are that: (a) they were intended to demonstrate the truth of God’s Existence; specifically the Existence of a singular Deity, above nature, involved in the world;1 and (b) they were a full, proper punishment for how the Egyptians had treated the Jews.2 Yet, such answers, on their own, still, demand further explanation. While in its broadest sense, these answers may explain why God brought such a massive infliction upon the Egyptians, an understanding of the specific details of the plagues and their overall pattern would still be lacking without a further investigation. We can ask: why these specific afflictions? Why were the plagues in this particular order? We can also wonder about the manner in which the plagues were presented to Pharaoh and his nation. The plagues, it would seem, were interspersed within an on-going dialogue between Moshe and Pharaoh. What was, then, the role of this dialogue in God’s ultimate purpose for the plagues?

            Rabbi Moshe Hochman, Sefer Morasha, Parshat Bo, Makkot Mitzrayim addresses an aspect of this issue in an investigation of what was the role of Moshe’s warnings to Pharaoh presented before certain3 plagues. One approach found in the commentaries, building upon the view that the plagues were a punishment, compare these warnings to the warnings that Halacha demands be given to one about to sin, legally necessary under Jewish Law in order to make a perpetrator punishable.4 These warnings normally demanded by the Halacha, though, had to be given before the crime is committed.5 As Moshe’s warnings to Pharaoh. It would seem, came after the sin, it would actually be difficult to compare Moshe’s warnings to this halachic category of hatra’ah [warning]. The lesson may be, though, that this comparison to the normative case of hatra’ah is actually offering us an understanding of this extended dialogue between Moshe and Pharaoh that we otherwise may not have recognized.

            The Pesach Haggadah informs us that Rabbi Yehudah contracted the ten plagues into three abbreviations: Detzach, Adash and B’achab.6 The commentaries point out that in so doing this Rabbi Yehudah was not simply creating a mnemonic by which one could remember the makkot but, more significantly, was offering an important structure to the plagues; he was separating them into three significant divisions.7 He was informing us that each of these three sections – the first three plagues, the middle three and the last four – had its own distinct marking.7 An understanding of this unique characteristic is that each of these three sections had its own different lesson about the nature of God. Within such a perspective, the dialogues between Moshe and Pharaoh could then possibly be seen as important aspects of these distinct lesson plans, yet such a view could only honestly be entertained if the dialogue integrated with this distinction between these sections. This, in fact, is actually the case. In regard to all three of these sections, Moshe gives a warning to Pharaoh concerning the first two plagues in each division but does not do so in regard to the third. Each of these three sections has its own self-contained discussion. The dialogue found in regard to these lesson plans was two warnings and then none. The question is: why?

            How can we view these warnings? On the surface, they, indeed, appear to be unconnected to sin and punishment but rather seem to fall into a realm more similar to a type of ‘blackmail’ – do this, i.e. free the Jews – or else. What if, however, Pharaoh’s refusal to free the Jews was in itself a sin? Within such a perspective, we could understand Moshe’s warnings indeed to be more similar to the normative warnings of Jewish Law: Pharaoh, do not to sin through not freeing the Jews as the punishment will be this plague.8 Each of the three sections of the makkot would thus represent a different category of sin that Pharaoh was committing in not letting the Jewish People leave Egypt and the specific plagues were in response to these sins (as well, of course, the overall treatment of the Jews over the years). In each of these cases, Pharaoh’s sin of not freeing the Jews reflects a sin in his rejection of specific aspects of the knowledge of God. The dialogues with Moshe, specifically including the warnings, were part of this education just as the normative warnings of the Halacha were intended to educate the person that they would be violating Jewish Law if they continued with this sinful behaviour.

            Machzor Vitri, Pesach Haggadah thus explains why with the third plague in each section there was no warning. T.B. Sanhedrin 81b states that a person, on committing the same sin a third time, is punished even without a warning. So was the case here. On the third plague in each section – on this third manifestation of this particular sin in not freeing the Jewish People – Pharaoh was punished without warning.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht



1 In support of this view are the very verses of Shemot 7:5, and, earlier, Shemot 6:7. It should, perhaps, be mentioned that these two explanations are not to be seen as mutually excusive. There could have been many simultaneously existing reasons for the plagues, all with validity.

2 See, in support, Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 6:3. For a slightly different approach to this specific issue, though, see Rashi, Shemot 7:3.  

3 While, for the majority of the plagues, Pharaoh was warned in advance as to what was going to happen, in regard to the plagues of Lice, Boils and Darkness no mention of a warning is recorded. Part of our issue must thus include why no warning was given in connection to these plagues. Rabbi Hochman, however, points out that there would seem to be a disagreement in the midrashic literature as to whether warnings were not actually given or whether the text, in these cases, just did not record the warnings that were given. Pursuant to this latter approach, the subsequent question we would now have to include would be why the text did not so record these warnings?

4 The requirement that a criminal within Jewish Law, in order to be subject to punishment, must be forewarned before committing this crime would seem to create an onerous difficulty within this justice system. This is not the place, however, to deal with this problem. In terms of the necessities of law and order, though, see Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Rotze’ach 4:8,9 amongst other sources that ensure that the justice needs of society are maintained.

5 Their goal was to ensure the court that the person knew that he/she was sinning; otherwise the sin/crime might not have really been intended. Punishment is very much tied to this intent within Jewish Law.

6 These three words are formed from the first Hebrew letter of each of the plagues.

7 See, for a presentation of various different understandings of these different distinct characteristics, Haggadah Shelaima, Perushim 277-285.

8 Other problems, it should be noted, still do exist with such a comparison. For example, the halachic need for warnings before punishment, does not apply to God’s right of punishment and, thus, would not seem to pertain to the plagues. I leave these problems, though, for the reader.

Nishma 2013   


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