40 or 50 Makkos

There is a dispute in the Haggadah about how to count the plagues. Rabbi Yosi simply says there were 10 plagues in Egypt, and the equivalent of 50 at the sea. Just focusing on the makkos themselves, Rabbi Yoshi looks at each plague as a unit; he doesn’t subdivide them. I wish to look at the dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Aqiva, both of whom subdivide each makkah, but do so in different ways. They both obtain their positions from Tehillim 78:9.

According to Rabbi Eliezer, the verse is read:

יְשַׁלַּח בָּם חֲרוֹן אַפּוֹ

  1. עֶבְרָה
  2. וָזַעַם
  3. וְצָרָה,
  4. מִשְׁלַחַת מַלְאֲכֵי רָעִים.
He shall send upon them the fierceness of His anger,

  1. wrath,
  2. indignation,
  3. and trouble,
  4. a sending of messengers of evil.

Each makkah thus has 4 aspects, yielding a total of 10 x 4 = 40 makkos. (And the five times as many at the Red Sea, 200.)

According to Rabbi Aqiva:

יְשַׁלַּח בָּם

  1. חֲרוֹן אַפּוֹ
  2. עֶבְרָה
  3. וָזַעַם
  4. וְצָרָה,
  5. מִשְׁלַחַת מַלְאֲכֵי רָעִים.
He shall send upon them

  1. the fierceness of His anger,
  2. wrath,
  3. indignation,
  4. and trouble,
  5. a sending of messengers of evil.

Or, 10 x 5 = 50 makkos. (And 250 at the sea.)

Perhaps this dispute between 40 and 50 makkos might really be about
whether there is a difference between teva and neis.

Rabbi Eliezer’s position of 10 x 4 makkos echos creation. “The world was created through 10 utterances” (Avos 5:1) each which Qabbalah expands to aspects in each of four worlds based on Yeshaiah 43:7:

כֹּל הַנִּקְרָא בִשְׁמִי

  1. וְלִכְבוֹדִי
  2. בְּרָאתִיו
  3. יְצַרְתִּיו
  4. אַף עֲשִׂיתִיו.
All that is called by My Name,

  1. for My glory,
  2. I have created it,
  3. I have formed it,
  4. and I have made it.

Thus there are 40 aspects to creation. And 40 days after conception the fetus has a human form. The Jewish People were created in 40 years in the desert. The world was reborn in a flood that rained for 40 days, and a person emerges reborn from a miqvah that holds at least 40 se’ah of water. When dealing with human creation, one element, creation ex nihilo is missing. So, when rest from work on Shabbos, we rest from “40 minus one” categories of constructive work; someone who was punished was lashed “40 minus one” times, and our tzitzis similarly have 39 windings.

So Rabbi Eliezer’s 10 x 4 makkos invokes a parallel to the creation of the natural world. (Even the derivation from their respective verses are similar — both count 4 nouns elaborating the first idea.) He appears to be saying that the supernatural occurances of the plagues are not different in kind than nature. When Rav Chanina ben Dosa’s daughter accidentally filled the Shabbos lights with vinegar, he proclaimed, “He Who commanded oil to burn could command vinegar to burn.” And they did.

If so, Rabbi Aqiva, in contrast, holds that nissim are different in kind than nature. Thus, each makkah had an element beyond the normal fourfold-act inherent in creation. It’s R’
Aqiva who says (Sanhedrin 67b, Tanchuma Va’eira 14) that one frog, when hit, became all the frogs of the makkah. (R’ Elazar b’ Azariah responds with a possibility that while rare, doesn’t defy nature — the frog called the others.)

This might be the beginning of building a broader dispute between these two tannaim. For example, they also debate what it is we build our sukkos today to commemorate. Rabbi Eliezer says we are commemorating the ananei hakavod, clouds of glory Hashem provided for shade, a floor protecting from anything sharp on the ground, and walls keeping out the elements. Rabbi Aqiva says they were actual huts built by the Benei Yisrael. (Sukkah 11b)

Perhaps it is because R’ Eliezer doesn’t see anything about miracles that would we couldn’t represent and recollect through very mundane, albeit holy, huts. Rabbi Aqiva, on the other hand, cannot represent miraculous protection through human imitation, because our imitation could never evoke that 5th element of perception of G-d that miracles reveal.

And your thoughts...?