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The 10 Makkot: Order, Structure, and Meaning

By Rabbi Meyer Laniado

Ever wonder why there are ten ‘makkot,’ why these specific ‘makkot,’ or the reason for their sequence? These are questions we should be asking ourselves. When we recognize that our Humash is multilayered, filled with meaning and insight, we find ourselves searching to uncover these layers. The idea that our Torah is rich in significance below the surface stems from Moshe’s description of the Torah. Moshe calls our Torah a shira [1], a poem, and just as each word in a poem is multi-faceted, and there is meaning in the structure and order, so too in our Torah [2].

The lessons expressed through the order, structure, and meaning of the makkot are the messages we strive to teach our children. They are the fundamentals we discuss and reenact during our Pesah seders. We must make sure that we understand these messages and transmit them generation to generation. The miracles were a one-time event with messages to perpetuate through relating these experiences to our children [3]. That is why there is such an emphasis on elaborating on the makkotduring Pesah [4]. I do suggest reading this article along with a Humash. Use this writing as a guide to study and analyze the pesuqim.

A close reading of the makkot, known as the otot umoftim [5], the signs and wonders, performed in Egypt enlightens our eyes to the order, plan, and purpose of these makkot. There are three sets of three, with one that stands out above all of the rest, in a category of itself, makkat bekhorot, the death of the firstborns [6].

The famous mnemonic of Ribbi Yehuda in our Hagada דצ”כ עד”ש באח”ב makes this point [7]:

Set 1: a) Blood, b) Frogs (Crocodiles) [8], c) Lice
Set 2: a) Swarms, b) Epidemic, c) Boils
Set 3: a) Hail, b) Locust, c) Darkness

Each set then has an internal pattern with the first, second, and third of each being differentiated. The first and second of each set has a warning, but for the third of each set, there is no warning. The first of each set is a warning to Pharaoh in the morning at the Nile, and the second of each set is a warning that takes place later in the day, in front of Pharaoh and all his advisors, at his palace [9].

To see this clearly, take a look at the pesuqim, and note the following. The first of each set 1a) Blood [Shemot 7:15], 2a) Swarms [Shemot 8:16], and 3a) Hail [Shemot 9:13] all start with a similar phrase “lekh el Pharaoh,” go to Pharaoh, or “lifnei Pharaoh,” before Pharaoh. This indicates that Moshe met with Pharaoh privately by the Nile. For the second plague of each set, 1b) Frogs [Shemot 7:26], 2b) Epidemic [Shemot 9:1], and 3b) Locust [Shemot 10:1], Moshe went to the Palace to speak with Pharaoh before all of his advisors. The third set of each did not have a warning.

There is one more point to notice. Each set has a distinct purpose expressed by the first of each set. Note the following pesuqim which make the reason for each set clear. For the first set see Shemot 7:17, for the second, see Shemot 8:18, and for the third see Shemot 9:14. The first set is introduced with bezot teda ki ani Hashem, with this you shall know that I am God. The second set is introduced with lema’an teda ki ani Hashem beqereb haAares, so that you will know that I am God in the midst of the Earth. The third set is introduced with ba’abur teda ki ein kamoni bekhol haAres, so that you will know that there is none like Me in all of the Earth.

These nine makkot progress from lesson to lesson in sets of three, with each of these lessons responding to a statement of Pharaoh [10]. The first lesson, that of Dam [Blood], Sefardea [Frogs], and Kinim [Biting Insects], was to teach about the existence of a single creator of the world. This concept is introduced with bezot teda ki ani Hashem, with this you shall know that I am God [11]. This was in direct response to Pharaoh’s statement: lo yadati et Hashem, I do not know God. God, The Creator, is the cause of all that we experience as nature. The only reason that this world functions as it does is because God is causing it. There is no ‘nature’ besides for His will. It is God that allows for existence, it is Him that is the cause of all that we experience as ‘nature.’ If He did not cause the world to function as it does, it would not function separately from Him. It is God that constantly ensures that our world runs properly [12].

The second set, Arob [swarms], Deber [epidemic], and Shehin [boils] teach us about God’s hashgaha, divine providence, His precise control over ‘nature.’ This is introduced with the phrase: lema’an teda ki ani Hashem beqereb ha’ares, so that you will know that I am God in the midst of the Earth. The lesson is that God has precise control over each and every aspect of this world. He can create phenomena that only affect a part of the population, and thereby show He has very precise control over the world. Note that in the following makkot only the Egyptians were affected:  Arob 8:18-19Deber 9:4, Shehin 9:10. How incredible for a plague to differentiate between groups of people with no way to differentiate based on biology. How would a swarm, epidemic, or boils know which person was part of Benei Yisrael and who was Egyptian? The message is clear; God is involved in the land, beqereb ha’ares [13].

The third set, Barad [hail], Arbe [locust], and Hoshekh [darkness], educate us about God’s unique power and is introduced by the phrase: ba’abur teda, ki ein kamoni bekhol ha’ares, so that you will know that there is none like Me in all of the Earth. This is in response to Pharaoh’s statement: mi Hashem asher eshma beqolo, who is this God that I should listen to his request? Pharaoh was making the point that even if there was a God of Benei Yisrael, He was not a power that needed to be heeded. The response by God directly addresses Pharaoh’s statement with plagues that have never before been seen in Egypt [14]. Note that by both barad and Arbe the Torah states: asher lo haya khamohu that there was never anything like this, emphasizing that nothing like this has ever been seen in Egypt [15]. This expresses the unique power of God. Not only is God the Creator, and involved in the details of this world, He is also the greatest power, and there is nothing even comparable to Him. He is the master of the universe, and there is nothing that could restrict His will [16].

These three lessons that God is the Creator of the world, that He is involved in the world, and that He is the ultimate power, with nothing comparable to Him, are the fundamental ideas of Judaism. These are the ideas taught to us at the start of our nation that we must educate ourselves about and pass on to the next generation. It is a misva from the Torah to relate these messages to our children during our Pesah seder, as Rambam states: misvat ase shel Torah lesaper benissim veniflaot shena’asu la’aboteinu bemisrayim, it is a misva to recount the miracles and wonders that God did for us and for our forefathers in Egypt [17]. The misva is not just to relate the miracle itself, but to relate the messages, the fundamentals of Judaism.

Moadim leSimha,

Rabbi Meyer Laniado

 

[1] Debarim 31:19. Some view this as referring to only Ha’azinu (Rashi, Ramban). Others view this as referring to the entire Torah. For example נצי”ב and עמק דבר

: העמק דבר הקדמתו ל’ בראשית סעיף ג

בנדרים דף ל”ח העלו בפירוש המקרא “כתבו לכם את השירה” שהוא כל התורה… והרי לא נכתבה בלשון של שירה? אלא על כרחך יש בה טבע וסגולת השירה. כידוע לכל מבין דמשונה מליצת השירה מסיפור פרוזי… דבשיר אין הענין מבואר יפה כמו בספור פרוזי וצריך לעשות הערות מן הצד, דזה החרוז כוון לזה הספור וזה החרוז כוון לזה הספור וזה החרוז כוון לזה, ולא מקרי דרוש אלא כך הוא טבע השיר, אפילו של הדיוט.

ומושכל הוא עוד דמי שיודע בטוב ענין שהביא לידי מליצה זו שנתחבר עליו, מתוק לו להתבונן אור לשון השיר ודקדוקה הרבה יותר מלאיש שאין לו ידיעה מתכונת הענין ורק בא להתבונן מן המליצה תורף הענין, ומזה עלול הוא להשערות בדויות, שלא להן כוון המשורר, – כך הוא טבע התורה, שאין הסיפור שבה מבואר יפה, אלא יש לעשות הערות ופרושים לדקדוקי הלשון, ולא נקרא דרוש, אלא כך הוא פשט המקרא
[2] Sanhedrein 34 “kepatish yefoses sela” Tbavli Berakhot 58, and the famous 70 facets of Torah, shibimpanim leTorah

[3] Ramban: בעבור כי הקדוש ברוך הוא לא יעשה אות ומופת בכל דור לעיני כל רשע או כופר, יצוה אותנו שנעשה תמיד זכרון ואות לאשר ראו עינינו, ונעתיק הדבר אל בנינו, ובניהם לבניהם, ובניהם לדור אחרון.

[4] Mishne Torah Hilkhot Hames uMassa 7:1-2

[5] One should note that the Torah never calls these wonders makkot, plagues. They are termed an ot, a sign, or a mofet, a wonder (Shemot 7:3 and 11:9-10). A sign, ot, is a symbol representing something; therefore, a lesson is meant to be learned, and the makkot are not solely meant to destroy. They are meant to teach. Note that the advisors of Pharaoh express wonder at the power of God and say esba elokim hi, this is the finger of God in Shemot 8:15. This was after kinim, lice, the third plague in the first set. (The term nega and magefa are used Shemot 9:14 and 11:1)
[6] Makkat Bekhorot may have been the only one to cause Pharaoh to send out the Benei Yisrael [Malbim Shemot 7:14] or may have been to punish, as opposed to deliver a message [Seforno 7:4]. Additionally, makkat bekhorot was done directly by God, without the utilization of his creations [lo al yedei malakh, velo al yedei shaliah]. Also see Seforno Shemot 4:23.
[7] Sifrei Debarim 301, Midrash Tanaim Debarim 26
[8] Rabbenu Hananel as seen in Rabbenu Bahye Shemot 10:19 and Abarbanel Shemot 7
[9] Ramban Shemot 8:15, Ibn Ezra Shemot 9:1

[10] Rabbenu Bahye Shemot 9:14 הזכיר משה כן לפרעה לפי שהיה פרעה כופר בשלשתן במציאותו, והשגחתו, ויכלתו

[11] Shemot 7:17

[12] Abarbanel Shemot 7:17: ופרעה כחש לו מפני שהיה חושב שאלוה העולם הוא הטבע ושהגרם השמימיים הוא היה מנהיג הטבע השפל ולכן כשאמר משה כה אמר ה’ השיב פרעה לא ידעתי את ה’ כלו’ איני מודה במציאותו

Ramban Shemot 13:16: ויעשה עמהם מופת בשנוי מנהגו של עולם וטבעו…. Rabbenu Bahye Shemot 9:14

[13] Ramban Shemot 13:16: כי לא עזב אותה למקרים כדעתם. Rabbenu Bahye Shemot 9:14: כמלך בתוך המדינה להיותו קרוב אל הקצוות. Abarbanel Shemot 7:17: משגיח על כל דרכי בני האדם לתת לאיש כדרכיו ופרעה כחש זה באמרו מי ה”.Malbim Shemot 7:14: שה’ משגיח גם בארץ For boils note שער ל”ו עקדת יצחק: כמו שנאמר ולא יכלו החרטומים לעמוד לפני משה כי היה השחין בחרטומים ובכל מצרים, ירצה, שלא עמד עוד בם טעמם, ולא יכלו לכלכל דבריהם מפני המכה הזאת, שהיתה בחרטומים ובכל ארץ מצרים לבדם, שאם היו גם אהרן ומשה וכל ישראל מוכי שחין איך נבהלו מפניהם ולא יוכלו עמוד

[14] Shemot 10:7

[15] Shemot 9:17, 9:24, 10:7, 10:14, Note it also appears by makkat bekhorot Shemot 11:6

[16] Ramban Shemot 13:16: שהוא שליט בכל, אין מעכב בידו and Rabbenu Bahye Shemot 9:14

[17] Mishne Torah Hilkhot Hames uMassa 7:1