The Ten Plagues
Seder Night Companion
Seder night is a highlight of the Jewish calendar for parents and children alike. It is the night that revolves around children, and parents are reminded of the importance of their role as educators.
Rabbi Sacks zt”l explains that on the eve of the original Pesach, at the very moment when a new chapter in the life of the Jewish people began, we found out what it means to be a Jew: “About to gain their freedom, the Israelites were told that they had to become a nation of educators” (Radical Then, Radical Now, p. 32). Being a Jew means being both a student and an educator, and Seder night is our opportunity to focus on both these roles.
The Ten Plagues is the fifth section found in our Seder Night Guide, aimed at giving you some ideas and thoughts on several of the core pages from the Haggadah and how Rabbi Sacks understands them. We have created a PDF of the full Seder Night Guide, as well as separate PDFs, so that you can pick and choose which sections to download, print, and discuss at your Seder Table.
You will notice many extracts from Rabbi Sacks’ writings, all sourced from The Jonathan Sacks Haggadah, published by Koren. This guide is designed to be used in conjunction with a Haggadah; it is not a replacement for one.
THE TEN PLAGUES
IN A NUTSHELL
One of the most exciting and colourful parts of the story of the Exodus is the Ten Plagues. There is a custom to spill a drop of wine as we say the name of each plague. There are many reasons given for this, but the most beautiful is that of Abudraham, (a 14th century Rabbi from Spain who is best known for his commentary on the siddur), who interprets it in accordance with the verse, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls” (Proverbs 24:17). We give thanks for the miraculous plagues which brought our ancestors out of Egypt and granted them freedom, but at the same time, we also shed a symbolic tear for those who suffered.
The plagues occupy the borderline, so common to the Torah, between the natural and the supernatural. Commentators have been divided between those who emphasise their miraculous character and others who have sought to provide a scientific account of the disasters in terms of a series of chain reactions to an initial ecological disaster, possibly the appearance of algae in the Nile, which turned the water red and caused the fish to die. Which view speaks more compellingly to us will depend on whether we understand the word “miracle” as a suspension of the laws of nature, or an event that occurs within nature but that, by happening when and to whom it does, reveals a providential pattern in history.
Commentary to The Ten Plagues,
The Jonathan Sacks Haggadah
Do you think the plagues were from natural causes or supernatural intervention? Do you think they are any less impressive if God performed them through nature?
The plague of lice is a sardonic comment on the monumental scale of Egyptian architecture. The Egyptians believed the gods were to be found in things that are big. God shows them His Presence in something so small as to be almost invisible. The irony recurs in the division of the Red Sea, where Pharaoh’s greatest military asset, the chariots, prove to be his undoing, as their wheels sink into the mud. The key to the plagues – as in God’s covenant with Noach – is the principle of reciprocity: ‘As you do, so shall you be done to.’ Those who harm others will themselves be harmed. Nations that begin by depriving others of their liberty in the end destroy themselves. Historically, this was so. Egypt never again recovered the greatness it had enjoyed in the earlier part of Ramses II’s rule.
Commentary on The Ten Plagues,
The Jonathan Sacks Haggadah
What is the message behind the plague of lice? How can we apply this lesson to our own lives?
Questions to Think About (and Ask) at your Seder
- Why do you think God chose these particular plagues?
- Which do you think was the worst of the Ten Plagues?
- Who were the plagues really for?
Experiencing the Seder
How many of the plagues can you simulate at your Seder night?
Here are a few ideas (some may require preparation in the days before Seder night):
- Blood: Spill a little ‘blood’ onto everyone’s plate, and /or (temporarily) confiscate all the bottles/ jugs of water from the table.
- Frogs: Get the children to jump around the table making “ribbit” frog noises.
- Lice: Ask the children to check everyone’s hair for lice. (If you plan this ahead of time, you could even plant some fake lice to find).
- Wild animals: Collect all the stuffed animals in the house and place them around the table.
- Pestilence: Throw all of the stuffed animals on the floor and then bury them under the table.
- Boils: Using forks, give all your guests boils (be gentle!).
- Hail: Have a snowball/hail fight with cotton balls, pillows, pre-prepared hail made from paper, or other soft materials.
- Locusts: Have the children lead everyone in making a humming, buzzing noise, and then grow louder, like a swarm of locusts about to descend.
- Darkness: Blindfold your guests (using scarves) and then try to play a game or continue with a section of the Haggadah.
- The striking down of the firstborn: Gather all the firstborn children together and take them away.
HA LACHMA ANYA
- As Rabbi Sacks explains in his Haggadah, the root of the word “haggadah” means not only ‘to tell’ but also ‘to bind’ and the Seder evening binds us together as a people. Jews from all walks of life and religious backgrounds will find themselves at a Seder table and should be made to feel welcome. In fact, the biblical command to sacrifice the Pesach lamb had to be done in a chaburah, which is more than one family coming together. The freedom we celebrate on this night is not just about leaving Egypt where we were slaves, but also about journeying to the Promised Land and building a society based on the values of the Torah, where kindness to strangers is a core value. This starts tonight.
- The beauty of matzah is that it can represent both. In fact, without slavery we would not appreciate our freedom, so both concepts can co-exist in this experience.
- Although some families choose to have Seder night on their own (especially if they have young children, to allow the parents to focus on them) many people will find themselves at a Seder night with others from outside of their immediate family. It has always been a tradition that people come together for this ritual. But more than this, it is a powerful thought that the entire Jewish People find themselves at a Seder table at the same time, and if we take a moment to extend that thought, we can also visualise and feel connected to the many generations who came before us who also celebrated this festival in exactly the same way.
1. Pharaoh; 2. Hashem; 3. Moshe; 4. Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Tarfon; 5. Rabbi Yehudah; 6. Rabbi Yossi HaGelili, Rabbi Eliezer, and Rabbi Akiva; 7. Rabban Gamliel; 8. Hillel; 9. Eliyahu HaNavi; 10. My father.
- Learning through questions makes the educational process engaging and empowering for the learner.
- Any question asked from a desire for knowledge without secondary agenda is a good question. There are no bad questions in this case.
- Not all questions have answers, or at least answers that we as finite humans can find or understand. Some questions only the infinite God can answer. But we don’t stop asking the questions. The questions are more important than the answers.
- As a nation, we have a national memory and identity. So when the Haggadah speaks of our experience in Egypt as slaves, while this refers to a specific generation and historical time period, as a nation we have that experience implanted in our memory and identity. The Haggadah encourages us to re-experience this every year on Seder night, and Avadim Hayinu reminds us that the experience does impact us directly, for if God had not redeemed us, we would be slaves ourselves to this day.
- A good story told well can have a big impact. A powerful story is experiential, in that the listener can imagine they are living the story, or at least empathise and identify with the characters. The longer and more detailed the story is, the more chance this will happen. So the Haggadah encourages us to tell the story at length, and engage with it, so we can experience the story as fully as possible.
- Because Seder night is not about “learning” or “reading” or “understanding” but rather about experiencing and living the story, the Haggadah tells us that even wise and experienced people who have done this many times before still have to tell the story. Because each year it is a new experience.
THE FOUR CHILDREN
- Obviously all answers are legitimate, but in the ensuing discussion it is worth encouraging everyone to realise that each of us is all of the four children at different times in our lives (or even at different times of the day!)
- All children are different and have different educational needs. Insightful parents and teachers realise this and try their hardest to cater to those individual needs.
- Children are the main focus of the evening because this night more than any other is when we pass on our national heritage to the next generation. Even though the process of learning about and re-experiencing the Exodus is a task which takes a lifetime, it begins when we are children, laying the foundation of our Jewish identity and allowing the national narrative to become part of our very core. We take our cue from the Torah itself, which focuses on the questions children will ask about the Exodus.
THE TEN PLAGUES
- Each plague attacked a different aspect of the Egyptian society’s physical and spiritual needs. The Egyptians could probably have managed without one or two or even more of the elements that were attacked, but this was a systematic destruction of their way of life.
- Every plague was terrible and designed to attack a different aspect of Egyptian society and cause problems. If you have to choose one… it doesn’t get more terrible than the final plague.
- God could have taken the Israelites out of Egypt without any miracles or fuss. But He chose to take the Egyptians on an educational journey, because the process was important. And even more important than the direct impact on the Egyptians was the impact on the worldwide audience who was watching (or at least heard the reports) and the effect on the Israelites themselves. The plagues were as much for these other groups as they were for Pharaoh and the Egyptians, if not more so.
- Full redemption from Egypt was the establishing of a sovereign nation in the Promised Land, with the Temple at the centre of its religious life. If God had stopped short of this at any of the previous stages, then it would not have been complete redemption.
- The message behind Dayeinu is that each individual stage was miraculous and magnificent, and worthy of praise and gratitude.
- While the physical redemption ended with the liberation from slavery and leaving the geographical boundaries of Egypt, and the spiritual redemption took place at the Giving of the Torah on Sinai, the full religio-social redemption was only achieved once the Jews entered the Land of Israel and built a society there based on the Torah.