[Aaron held out his arm over the waters of Egypt] and the frog came up and covered the land of Egypt (Exodus 8:2). R. Elazar said, “It was one frog that bred prolifically and filled the entire land of Egypt.” This is the subject of a tannaitic dispute: R. Akiba said, “It was one frog and it filled the entire land of Egypt.” R. Elazar b. Azariah said to him, “Akiba, what have you to do with aggadah? Stop your [homiletical] explanations and go to Nega’im (skin diseases) and Oholot (purities of tents)! There was one frog—it croaked to all the others and they came.”
We are accustomed to the notion that Rabbinic Judaism is an interpretative tradition. The Rabbis’ raison d'être was to promulgate direction, meaning, and wisdom grounded in the texts they inherited. But reading and interpreting Jewish texts was not a rabbinic innovation. Even before the Rabbis, biblical writers read and responded to the texts in their possession. As Judy Klitsner deftly explains in Subversive Sequels in the Bible, Jonah responds to the basic assumptions about prophets, God, and a doomed population implicit in the Flood story. The tale of the midwives in Exodus is a polemic against the failure of city-states as described in the tale of the Tower of Babel. The stories of Sarah and Rebekah address the cut-out version of women in the first three chapters of Genesis.
Problematic or peculiar biblical texts afford the Rabbis an opening to exert their opinions and authority, and to address larger social and political issues. This agenda is reflected in a brief and enigmatic conversation concerning an oddity in the story of the plagues on Egypt. Seven days after Moses turns the Nile to blood, God instructs Moses to warn Pharaoh about the coming plague of frogs: The Nile shall swarm with frogs, and they shall come up and enter your palace, your bedchamber and your bed, the houses of your courtiers and your people, and your ovens and your kneading bowls (Exodus 7:28). Yet when Aaron holds his arm out over the Nile, Torah strangely says, and the frog [singular] came up [singular] and covered [singular] the land of Egypt. It seems apparent that the term “frog” intends the species or category or collective, not a single frog, but the singular noun and verbs open the door to creative interpretation.
How should Torah’s reference to one frog (Exodus 8:2) emerging from the Nile River and covering the entire land of Egypt, be interpreted and what is at stake? At the time of this conversation, two distinct approaches to midrash had emerged: The School of R. Ishmael held that “Torah speaks in the language of people,” which includes the sorts of quirks and inconsistencies of everyday speech. The School of R. Akiba, in contrast, held that nothing is superfluous; every letter and grammatical or syntactic anomaly is intended by God to convey meaning. In addition, the passage points out the distinction between Midrash Halakhah (midrashic techniques serve to formulate legal rulings) and Midrash Aggadah (midrash serves to shape homiletical messages).
How, in this context, should one understand “frog” in the singular? The Babylonian sage R. Elazar b. Pedat attempts to resolve the peculiar use of the singular by asserting that God caused one frog to breed prolifically in fulfillment of the prophesy in Exodus 7:28. This comment recalls a fascinating disagreement between second century tanna’im, R. Akiba and his younger contemporary R. Elazar b. Azariah. R. Akiba claims that Torah employs the singular “frog” to assert that the plague consisted of one giant Godzilla frog of epic proportion that covered the entire land of Egypt. R. Elazar b. Azariah responds that R. Akiba ought not delve into aggadah (homiletical interpretations of text) but rather stick to his primary wheelhouse, halakhah. He offers two examples more appropriate for R. Akiba’s forays into Midrash Halakhah: two tractates that deal with arcane matters of ritual impurity: Nega’im (discusses skin afflictions that affect people’s bodies, clothing, and homes) and Oholot (discusses the circumstances in which a corpse conveys ritual impurity to objects under the same roof). R. Elazar b. Azariah then offers his own explanation of one frog: the original frog summoned all the frogs of Egypt to emerge from the water and overrun the land.
One might be tempted to presume that what is at stake is whether or not to interpret “frog” in the singular literally, but a deeper issue is whether the approach of the School of Ishmael or the School of Akiba is more appropriate. Unfortunately, we don’t have R. Akiba’s application of his aggadah, only his colleague’s rejection of his approach. We might well consider what else R. Akiba might have said.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- Might the story reflect a policy disagreement within the Study House between those who favored vesting leadership in a small coterie of distinguished scholars and those who sought to open the doors to all, as BT Berakhot 27-28 recounts? Could opposing sides be expressing their opposition as a “plague” on the Bet Midrash?
- What else might R. Akiba have had in mind in asserting that the plague consisted of one gigantic frog? Consider the passage on the right from a sermon delivered by Rabbi Israel H. Levinthal of the Brooklyn Jewish Center on the second day of Pesach in 1942.
“Here is the one plague that explains the other plagues that afflict humanity today. It is the one frog that is responsible for the other big and little frogs that have suddenly appeared to curse and afflict all peoples and all lands. it is the one danger that must be destroyed, if peace is ever to be the hope of the world. Japan may be conquered, Italy may be defeated, but if the one frog—Hitlerized Germany—remains, then all is lost for humanity. Vanquish and annihilate the one poisonous frog—the Nazi regime—and all the other frogs will speedily disappear, and the ideals now sought to be trampled on and crushed will once more appear triumphant in the lives of all mankind.” — Rabbi Israel H. Levinthal
- Could the disagreement between R. Akiba and R. Elazar b. Azariah concern the nature of toxic leadership? When a society heads in a dangerous direction, is the cause one toxic leader (or small cabal) who casts a long shadow over the entire society, or a charismatic initiator who summons many others to follow along?