July 17, 2024
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From Fish in the Pitchers to Babies in the Field

Every year in my family, when I was growing up, we would stop at the seemingly strange citation from Ezekial 16:7 that appears in the Haggadah text: “I have given you to be numerous (revavah) as the vegetation of the field, and you increased and grew and became highly ornamented, your breasts were set and your hair grew, but you were naked and barren.” Why is there a naked woman in the Haggadah? Usually we puzzled for a while, then moved on, still confused. Only later did I discover what medieval commentators knew all along (if only I had checked!): The verse is here because of its involvement in a fascinating Talmudic tale of fertility and tenacity in the face of adversity.

The verse from Ezekiel appears as a midrashic commentary on Devarim 26:5: “An Arammian nomad was my father, and he went down to Mitzrayim and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty and populous (va-rav).”

On the word va-rav, “and populous,” the Haggadah expands, using the verse above:

“And populous”—as it is stated, “I have given you to be numerous as the vegetation of the field, and you increased and grew and became highly ornamented, your breasts were set and your hair grew, but you were naked and barren (Ezekiel 16:7).” “When I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you: ‘Live in spite of your blood.’ Yea, I said to you: ‘Live in spite of your blood.’ (Ezekiel 16:6)”

Recent commentaries often focus on the second verse (verse 6, which appears first in Ezekiel but second in the Haggadah), and a midrash that connects the blood mentioned by Ezekiel to the blood of the korban Pesach. But why make that connection specifically to the word “and populous”? Further, some historical texts of the Haggadah did not even include verse 6 at all, so that verse and its blood references are probably not the only reason that the Haggadah makes the Ezekial connection.

Rather, Ezekiel 16:7 is a direct midrash on the original verse, va-rav, “and populous.” Linguistically, we can see how the beginning of verse 16:7, “revavah ke-tzemach ha-sadeh”—“”I have given you to be numerous as the vegetation of the field,” connects to the Haggadah’s original pasuk. But the connection runs deeper, through a Talmudic passage from Sotah 11b.

The Talmud there presents an extended account of the persistence of the Israelites in the face of their oppression. “Rav Avira taught: In the merit of the righteous women who were in that generation, the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt.” According to this passage, when the women would draw water, God would send fish into their pitchers as well. From these small “extras,” the women created snacks that they would then bring to their husbands in the fields and eventually seduce their husbands. The women would become pregnant and, because of Pharaoh’s decrees, return to the fields to give birth. God provided supernatural caretakers for the babies there, until the Egyptians caught on and tried to kill the children. Miraculously, the children were absorbed into the ground and saved from the Egyptians. The Egyptians, the Talmud says, even tried to plow the ground, but to no avail.

“After the Egyptians would leave, the babies would emerge and exit the ground like grass of the field, as it is stated: ‘I caused you to increase even as the growth of the field’ (Ezekiel 16:7). And once the babies would grow, they would come like many flocks of sheep to their homes, as it is stated in the continuation of the verse: ‘And you did increase and grow up and you came with excellent beauty [ba’adi adayim]’ (Ezekiel 16:7). Do not read the verse as: ‘Ba’adi adayim,’ ‘with excellent beauty.’ Rather, read it as: be’edrei adarim, meaning: As many flocks.”

The passage in Talmud Sotah, then, reads our verse in Ezekiel as a fantastical telling of how the Israelite population exploded in Egypt despite the oppression. This is why this verse appears in our Haggadah attached to the word “and populous”—because the verse alludes to an elaborate story of just how that population grew.

Understanding the connection between Ezekiel and the Exodus, by way of the Talmud Sotah connection, solves a textual problem, but what does it mean for us?

The beleaguered Israelite women, provided with a divine “bonus” of small fish, somehow turned those fish into babies. It was these women’s strength of will and refusal to give up that, according to the Talmud, led to the redemption. We might consider at our Sedarim what the “bonuses” are in our own lives, and how we can develop the internal strength to make the most of them.

Rav Moshe Amiel further picks up on the story of the babies absorbed into the earth, then sent forth: “So it is in all the exiles. From the perspective of the non-Jews we are as if absorbed into the earth, but between us and ourselves we are always emerging.” The Egyptians might have left the plowed fields thinking they had shredded the Israelites, body and soul. But in fact the external appearance concealed an inner spark that would not be destroyed. For Rav Amiel, the story of the children is like the story of their mothers: a story of inner strength despite crushing external circumstances. No matter what an outsider may see, there is something inside that can keep us going.

As we contemplate redemption this Pesach, let us seek not only divine gifts, but the inner strength to put them to good use.


Miriam Gedwiser is the director and rosh kollel of the Drisha Kollel, an immersive summer learning experience for college students and adults (https://drisha.org/summerkollel/), and teaches Talmud and Tanach at the Ramaz Upper School. Miriam lives in Teaneck with her family.

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