April 18, 2024
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The Plague of Arov: A New Understanding

When I started the research for this article, I intended to survey the various traditional understandings of the plague. Along the way, I discovered a completely new and intriguing understanding that may be the plain sense. But I am going to hold you in suspense and not reveal it until the end.

Most of us assume that this plague consisted of an attack by various wild animals (chayot). This is essentially the approach taken by Rashi. But a midrash records two different Amoraic understandings of this plague. According to R. Yehudah, the plague consisted of chayot me’uravevot (a mixture of wild animals). According to R. Nechemiah, the plague consisted of minei tzirin ve-yitushin (various species of hornets and mosquitoes/gnats). See Shemot Rabbah 11:3. Both of these Sages are interpreting the word arov as mixture. Just that in the view of R. Yehudah, it is a mixture of large animals, and in the view of R. Nechemiah, it is a mixture of much smaller ones. In the view of both, the precise animals are not identified in the name of the plague.

The reason for the disagreement about the identity of the specific animals involved is that the description of the plague at Exodus 8:17-27 does not give enough clues. The text does state that the arov will fill the houses of the Egyptians and be on their land, and va-tishachet ha-aretz mi-pnei he-arov. The text also records that after the plague was removed, “not one remained.” But these statements are vague as to the precise nature of the arov.

Descriptions of many of the plagues are also found in Chapters 78 and 105 of Tehillim. With regard to the plague of arov, there is a reference to it at 105:31, but it is not helpful. However, at 78:45 the reference to the plague does provide some information. We are told: yeshalach ba-hem arov va-yochlem. The last word (“and it will eat them”) at first glance seems to support the view of R. Yehudah that large animals were involved that ate the Egyptians.

Do we have earlier sources for the meaning of arov prior to the Amoraim? Our earliest source is the translation of the Torah into Greek, composed in Egypt around 200 B.C.E. Here the translation is kunomuia, literally: “dog-fly,” a particularly unyielding type of fly. Perhaps this translation was based on an older tradition as to the nature of arov. But I would suggest another possibility. The authors of the Greek translation knew that arov meant mixture, and believed or had a tradition that arov was a very small animal, and then picked kunomuia because it was viewed as a hybrid type of animal. In this way, they were able to interpret arov as a “mixture.”

Another early translation we have is that of Josephus (Antiquities II, 303), writing around 100 C.E. He translates the plague as “wild beasts of every species and kind.” This translation seems to be based on an understanding of arov as “mixture.“

So according to perhaps all of the views that I have described so far, the Torah is interpreted as having not described the actual animal involved, but having used a word that meant only “mixture.” At first glance, this seems unusual. But perhaps we are dealing with a common ancient idiom, and in Biblical times everyone understood what particular mixture was implied by the word arov.

I should also mention that the church father Jerome (c. 400 C.E.), who was aware of many of the teachings of the Palestinian Amoraim, translated the word with a Latin word that meant “insects.”

Many scholars believe that there are a few grounds to prefer the very small animal view, and I agree with them. (I am referring here to S.D. Luzzatto and U. Cassuto and many others.) First, the verses in Chapter 8 refer to the arov entering the houses of the Egyptians. If the animals involved were large ones, the houses could have been secured to prevent them from entering. Also, if the securing would have been to no avail, the text would have described the animals breaking down the premises upon entering. But no such large-scale destruction upon entering is described. Rather, it is simply stated that the arov would be sent out and fill the premises.

A second reason to prefer the very small animals approach is that the root ayin-resh-bet with the meaning of “mixture” is more naturally applied to small objects. Large objects, each taking up its own space, are inherently less of a mixture. A third reason to prefer the very small animals approach is based on a widespread view that the plagues came in pairs. (See, e.g., the commentary to Exodus of Cassuto, and the Daat Mikra commentary, p. 127 and p. 174, n. 77.) For example, the first and second plagues, blood and frogs, were both primarily addressed to the Nile. The seventh and eighth plagues, hail and locusts, were both primarily addressed to the crops. If our fourth plague, arov, was meant as a pair to the third plague, kinim (lice), obviously the very small animal interpretation fits better. The va-yochlem of Tehillim 78:45 can easily be interpreted metaphorically to include damage inflicted by very small animals.

An altogether different approach to the plague is adopted by Rav S.R. Hirsch. He suggests that the word arov derives from the word aravah (wilderness), and that the plague alludes to “animals from the wilderness.” I would respond that, although there are verses that refer to animals in the context of an aravah, animals do not seem to be a primary characteristic of an aravah. It is therefore a leap to claim that the word arov alludes to animals from the aravah.

An even more speculative approach is adopted by Rashbam. He notes that the Tanach refers to ze’evei erev at Tzefaniah 3:3, and to ze’ev aravot at Jeremiah 5:6. These could mean “wolves of the wilderness.” But Rashbam suggests that both mean “wolves of the evening” and that the plague arov is referring to such wolves, who typically go out and attack at night.

There is, however, an alternative approach to identifying the Biblical arov. It relies on looking at other ancient languages. For example, in Akkadian there was a word urbatu that meant “worm.” Some theorize that this was the arov of the Bible. But there is a much better suggestion.

Let us meet the beetles. A scarab is a type of beetle. It was called karabos in Greek. It was called kh-p-r in Egyptian. There was probably a variant pronunciation in Egyptian, kh-r-p, which would explain the way the name was recorded in Greek. Karabos and Kh-r-p would both be very close to the Hebrew ayin-resh-bet, due to the guttural sound that the ayin made. (The “os” in the Greek is likely just a Greek addition to a foreign word.)

What do we know about the scarab in ancient Egypt? As Isaac Mozeson phrased it, the ancient Egyptians had “beetlemania.” They worshipped this particular beetle! In ancient Egypt, the scarab was sculptured on monuments, painted on tombs and worn around the neck as an amulet. Many (or perhaps all) of the plagues were attacks on the various deities of Egypt. This would be another such example! Here, at the end of the plague, Hashem took away all the arov (Ex. 8:27: “not one remained”). In contrast, a plague of “a mixture of animals” is not a clear judgment on an Egyptian deity.

The “scarab” suggestion (originally made by a 19th-century British scholar) was referred to by Rabbi J.H. Hertz in his note on Ex. 8:17, and seems to have been his preferred interpretation. But R. Hertz did not sufficiently explain it. The suggestion was also referred to without sufficient explanation by R. Aryeh Kaplan in “The Living Torah.” But the suggestion was explained well by Isaac Mozeson in his book “The Word” and in his edenics.net site, entry “scarab.” The source I have found that best describes the explanation is a blog entry of Mar. 13, 2012, by Seth Ben-Mordecai, at the site exodushaggadah.com. (He is the author of a book, “The Exodus Haggadah.”)

To summarize, a widespread view is that the word arov represents some kind of mixture. Perhaps in Biblical times, everyone understood the idiom and knew what that mixture was. But if you believe that the Torah was likely referring to a specific animal, then the ancient scarab is a very good suggestion. (Perhaps I should have titled this article “John Lennon and the Plague of Arov”!)

Additional notes: 1) Some sources that said the beetle was called a’ov in Egyptian. But I did not find this in the more reliable sources. 2) I mentioned only one midrash above, a dispute in Shemot Rabbah between R. Yehudah and R. Nechemiah. But there are many other midrashim that include an interpretation of arov. The views expressed in most of these midrashim are similar to that of R. Yehudah (large animals). Some further midrashic sources are Shemot Rabbah 11:2 and Midrash Tehillim 78:11.

By Mitchell First

 Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at [email protected]. His most recent book is “Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy” (Kodesh Press, 2015). He enjoys mixtures but is not fond of animals, small or large. He was fond of, but did not worship, The Beatles.


For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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