This is the fifth in a series of blog posts on global pandemics written by the staff and affiliates of Duke Libraries’ International and Area Studies Department. Like the first, second, third, and fourth posts, it is edited by Ernest Zitser, Ph.D., Librarian for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies, library liaison to the International Comparative Studies Program, and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke University. The following post is written by Rachel Ariel, Librarian for Jewish Studies.
When I was asked to write a blog post on pandemics in Jewish history, after some hesitation, I eventually settled on the topic of the Ten Plagues of Egypt—Blood, Frogs, Lice, Beasts, Cattle disease, Boils, Hail, Locusts, Darkness, and, finally, Death of the First-Born—that are mentioned in Exodus (7:14–12:31), the second book of the Hebrew Bible. This text, constituting the sacred scriptures of the Jewish religion, had circulated in oral form for centuries before it was finally written down, sometime between about 1200BCE and 165CE. In other words, this is one of the earliest recorded instances of human thinking about plagues and infectious diseases, as well as the difficult choices that ordinary people have to make in order to survive in the face of such deadly, extraordinary, and seemingly inexplicable events.
The biblical story containing a description of the Ten Plagues may not have been intended as a realistic account of an actual historical event, but rather as a religious parable, with a didactic message. The depiction of the Ten Plagues occurs in the context of a larger story of divine redemption and national liberation. Anyone who has read the biblical narrative or watched the 1956 Hollywood epic, The Ten Commandments, knows that the plagues were visited upon the land of Egypt because of Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal to heed the words of God’s emissary, Moses. As the mouthpiece of God, Moses had repeatedly implored the all-powerful ruler of Egypt to emancipate His chosen people—the Israelite slaves whom Pharaoh had used, abused, and planned to exterminate by ordering the massacre of all first-born males (Exodus 1:16, 22)—or else face His righteous wrath. The freedom obtained by means of Divine intervention is precisely what is commemorated annually during the Jewish holiday of Passover (Heb.: פֶּסַח , “He passed over”).
Traditionally, the Ten Plagues are recited during the festive celebration, called a Seder (Heb.: סֵדֶר, ‘order, arrangement’), on the first night (or first two nights) of Passover. These plagues are listed in every Haggadah (Heb.: הַגָּדָה, “telling,” “narration”), which is the written service-book for the Seder. Visitors to Capturing the Moment: Centuries of the Passover Haggadah, an online exhibit of illustrated Passover Haggadot (plural of Haggadah) from the collection of the Rubenstein Library at Duke University, can get a sense of what such service-books look like over the ages. For the fact is, there is no standard version. Illustrated Haggadot represent the time and place of their creation. While the textual elements (blessings, prayers, stories, songs) remain largely the same, the art in the Haggadah reflects the customs, fashions, landscapes, architecture, and artistic styles of the surrounding culture.
Although images of The Ten Plagues often appear in Illustrated Haggadot, the 2017 exhibit on which the online version is based did not include any visual representation of these Plagues. The more I thought about this omission, the more I realized that this was not a coincidence. To be honest, the plagues that befell the Egyptians always made me somewhat uncomfortable. Were all the Egyptians to suffer because of their ruler’s actions? Were the innocent punished with the wicked? Was this the reason I was so hesitant about writing this blog post? Trying to understand my own feelings, I looked for answers in the traditional resources that I had encountered and found comforting throughout the years. One of these texts, The Family Participation Haggadah by Noam Zion and David Dishon, invokes a line from the Proverbs of Solomon (Heb.: שלמה מִשְלֵ), a book in the third section of the Hebrew Bible, which addresses the moral unease that I was feeling. During the Seder, while reciting the Ten Plagues, it is customary for the participants to take a drop of wine from their cup and let it fall on their plate as they say the name of each one of the ten plagues. By doing so, say Zion and Dishon (101) “we acknowledge that our own joy is lessened and incomplete. For our redemption had to come by means of the punishment of other human beings. Even though these are just punishments for evil acts, as it is said ‘At the fall of your enemy, do not be glad and when he trips, let not your heart rejoice!” (Proverbs 24:17)
Even more powerful for me is the biblical commentary (Midrash) authored by Rabbi Johanan bar Nappaha (c.180–279 CE), which appears in Tractate Megilah 10b of the Talmud (Heb.: תַּלְמוּד,”instruction, learning”), the central text of Rabbinic Judaism and the primary source of Jewish religious law and theology. Although this commentary is not about the Ten Plagues per se, it also concerns an episode from the story of Exodus that teaches us that God does not experience pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction from witnessing the suffering of human beings, even those who deserve punishment. As we all know from watching The Ten Commandments, after escaping from Egypt, the Israelites reached the Red Sea (or, more accurately, the Sea of Reeds), while the Egyptian Pharaoh with his army were chasing after them. When Moses raised his hand, God parted the waters and the Israelites safely crossed the sea. But when Pharaoh and his army attempted to follow after them, the sea waters returned, the Egyptians were drowned, and the Israelites were finally liberated from their bondage to Pharaoh. Rejoicing in this miracle, Rabbi Johanan wrote, the angels tried to sing songs of praise to God, but God immediately silenced them: “My handiwork is drowning in the sea and you sing songs of praise?”
In the twentieth century, during the Second World War, a Polish-born Hebrew poet living in Palestine wrote a poetry cycle called The Poems of the Ten Plagues of Egypt (Heb.: שירי מכות מצרים). Nathan Alterman (1910-1970) was a modernist poet, playwright, essayist, and translator, who became one of the most revered poets of Israel. He composed this cycle of poems between the years 1939 and 1944, while a war was spreading across the globe like a deadly virus, leaving millions of innocent victims—including six million European Jews—in its wake. At the center of the cycle, Alterman devotes a poem to each of the Ten Plagues. But in an interesting twist on the traditional story in Exodus, each poem is written from the perspective of the Egyptians and does not even mention the Israelite slaves or their struggle for freedom. Nor is there any mention of the Jews of Europe or of the war against Germany (although their absent presence was apparent to Alterman’s contemporaries and was one of the reasons why this collection of poems caused such controversy when it was first published).
The focus of the action in Alterman’s Poems of the Ten Plagues of Egypt is on the drama that takes place in No-Amon, the greatest of the ancient Egyptian cities, whose magnificent structures now form the principal ruins of Karnak and Luxor. During the course of the poetic cycle, this city becomes the symbol of human civilization as a whole, which is being battered over-and-over again by the plagues and by worsening catastrophes that are threatening to bring with them complete and utter destruction. These cataclysms are a universal phenomenon, spreading over entire continents and being passed down through the generations. But at the center of the suffering are an Egyptian father and his firstborn son, who are (in the words of the 1978 English translation) the “righteous and innocent” victims of the plagues:
“The judgment of swords has no fault
but when shedding of blood is spent,
it leaves like a taste of salt
the tears of the innocent.”
Nathan Alterman’s cycle of Poems on the Ten Plagues of Egypt raised moral questions of universal concern and called for compassion for all of God’s children at a time when it was nearly impossible not to see things in terms other than ‘good’ or ‘evil,’ ‘black’ or ‘white.’ Alterman’s courageous resolve to bring into the open the pain of the innocent and the injustice of the punishment inflicted upon those who did not sin brings his poems very close to my heart. And strange as it may sound, they also help me to make sense of the present moment.
Miniatures depicting the Ten Plagues of Egypt and the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea come from the digital version of the medieval illustrated manuscript known as The Golden Haggadah (Barcelona, Spain, ca. 1320), folios 12v-13, 14v. British Library Add. MS 27210.