The Frog & The Crocodile: Ribbit!
This week, we begin with a shout out to Shirley Cohen? Who is Shirley and why is she being shouted out? For that, continue reading.
According to Muppet Wiki (mamish a real site), Kermit the Frog, Jim Henson’s most famous Muppet creation, was the star and host of The Muppet Show, played a significant role on Sesame Street, and served as the logo of The Jim Henson Company. He continues to star in the Muppet movies and makes numerous TV appearances. And that’s what I call a successful career. Ober long before Jim Henson dreamed up and played Kermit in 1955, the The RBSO, in the year 2448 introduced the most famous frog of all to the Mitzrim and perhaps also to their Jewish slaves. Shoin, since we invoked Kermit, let’s first chazir a few factoids about this lovable frog who took a fledgling show and made it successful. Puppeteer Jim Henson introduced Kermit in 1955 on Sam and Friends, a local Washington, D.C., television show, but the character became famous only in 1969 after he was seen on the fledgling Sesame Street. And this most interesting shtikel trivia: the first Kermit puppet, was made from Jim Henson’s mother’s old spring coat and a pair of Jim’s blue jeans. Henson used ping pong balls for the eyes. Gishmak, ober why do we lead with him?
Welcome to Parshas Vo’earo where it’s showtime. Magicians are known for using their magic wands and mistama they are all influenced from this week’s parsha where the RBSO packs His own bag of tricks; He is the Master Magician. The RBSO has had enough of this Paroy, his shenanigans and is about to flex His muscles. This week, among other magic in the form of miracles, He has a staff turning into a snake and then back, a snake eating rods, a staff striking the river causing its waters to turn to blood, and not long after, the same rod being used to introduce efsher the first ever frog. I say efsher only because there is at least one pshat suggesting that the frog featured in the plague was only created then and there for the sole purpose of plague number 2.
In Voeroa the RBSO will mete out seven of the ten plagues He has in mind to punish Paroy for his exceedingly poor treatment of the Israelites and also send him proof of His omnipotence. Thousands of years later, we continue to read of the ten plagues at the Pesach Seder. Kids coloring books are replete with images of the makos and of course they are recounted in movies about the great exodus from Mitzrayim. This year, we shall focus in on one of the seven makos, the plague of “tzifardayah,” frogs. Let’s set the scene before we go hopping about the heylige Gemora and other midroshim. Ober what have frogs to do with crocodiles? Why the title frogs and crocodiles? We shall get to that and Shirley later. And since we began with a question, let’s add a few more: how many frogs were involved in the plague? Did the RBSO send one single colossal frog that made life so very uncomfortable for the Mitzrim? Or, did the RBSO cause the river to spit them out by the hundreds or even thousands? Moreover, does that adorable amphibian frog look like a plague to you? Don’t we all love watching frogs jump about? Do we not enjoy the ribbit sound of the frog? Did they bite anyone? Not! And our final question is this: vus epes frogs? Why did the RBSO decide to send frogs? And the answer to that last question is azoy: one knows because the RBSO avada did not tell us, and when that happens -as it does in the heylige Toirah from time to time- it was left to our sages to either guess, or figure things out. As to frogs, here is what a few had to say.
Says the Tanna D’vei Eliyahu Rabbah, (Ch. 7), azoy: the Mitzrim forced the Israelites to retrieve different reptiles and insects in order to torment them. Therefore, the frogs tormented the Mitzrim. Shoin! Another view from the Haggadas Zevach Pesach, (p. 112) tells us azoy: When Israelite baby boys were born, the women had to keep them from crying or making noise, in order that they not be caught and the babies executed. Therefore, the Mitzrim were tormented with the noise of the frogs. In other words, the RBSO punished the Mitzrim mida k’neged mida (measure for measure). Is that why? Ver veyst?
And why are these questions even being asked? Does the heylige Toirah not make all this abundantly clear? And the answer is that it does not. Once again, when dealing with this plague, vagueness in the text gave our sages an opening and here we go. Not at all convinced of the RBSO’s might and power after makoh #1, Moishe was commanded by the RBSO to go with his brother, Aharoin, to Paroy, demanding: “Let my people go!” Paroy was not easily moved. Next: the RBSO commanded Moishe to warn Paroy that if he didn’t relent, he’d be facing Plague # 2 – masses of frogs swarming from the Nile, blanketing every inch of Mitzrayim. Was Paroy swayed? Not! Let’s read pisukim 1 and 2 in Shmois chapter 8 where we learn azoy. Finding no partner in peace, the RBSO commands Moishe to tell his brother, Aharoin: “stretch out your arm with your staff over the rivers, over the canals and over the ponds and bring up the frogs over the land of Egypt. And Aharoin stretched out his arm over the waters of Egypt and the frog arose and covered the land of Egypt.”
Did you read those instructions and the execution? Aharoin is to use his staff and bring up frogs- as in many of them. What did Aharoin do? Did he listen? No! He brought up only one frog, so says the heylige Toirah above. Was his shtekin not up to the job? Was his staff out of mojo? Let’s try that noch a mol (one more time). It says: “and the frog arose and covered the land of Egypt.” In the prologue to the plague, the amphibious creature is called tzfarde’im (frogs) in the plural, ober in posik 2, when Aharoin stretches out his hand, the text reads tzfarde’a (frog) in the singular. And just like that, because one letter (in English) was dropped off from the execution of the plan, Rashi, the heylige Gemora and others proffered ideas on what the missing letter was there to teach us. What could the heylige Toirah be telling us?
As always, because he knew everything mamish, we begin with Rashi who has not one, but two answers to reconcile the usage of both the singular and the plural. First, he tells us that both terms are accurate: frog and frogs are the same and stop hocking a chiynik (leave me or this alone). Pshat is azoy: only one frog emerged from the water (clearly an enormous frog, as it covered all of Mitzrayim). This one frog was then hit repeatedly did not die. Instead, of dying of its wounds or beating a retreat, it multiplied or reproduced spontaneously, “streaming forth swarms and swarms of frogs”. And taka, that’s how it was taught to us in yeshiva where the rebbe too, was proficient with his shtekin (staff or stick); one frog to begin the plague and many followed. Sadly, the Ois also recalls a certain rebbe whose snake also turned into a staff with which he also tired swallowing other smaller snakes. Shoin! Ober, Rashi admits that this idea is but based on a medrish and then offers a second interpretation based on the straightforward, more literal meaning of the text. He theorizes that it is linguistically acceptable to use the singular form when referring to the plural of certain species of animals, as in the case of “fish” or “sheep” in English. While this second explanation is rational and logical, it suffers from one major weakness: If the singular form of frog denotes the plural, why was the plural form used in the preceding verses? This problem seems to have been the reason Rashi offered the alternative Midrashic interpretation as well. And listen to this: the medrish Rashi cites is itself comprised of two opinions, but with a very important shift; let’s taka look.
Let’s learn a small shtikel in the heylige Gemora (Sanhedrin 67b) where we come across this most interesting discussion: Rebbe Akiva said that a single frog came out. It caused a swarm which spread throughout the entire land of Egypt. How? Via spontaneous reproduction, whatever that means, the frog spread throughout Mitzrayim. Hey, let’s not forget that RBSO was in charge and avada He did as He pleased. In any event, Rebbe Elozor ben Azarya said to him, “Akiva, what do you have to do with Aggadah [the non-legal part of the Heylige Toirah]? Cease your discourses [with Aggadah] and go to [the study of the intricacies of] Nega’im [the laws of the person afflicted with a skin disease known as tzara’as] and Oholos [the laws that concern impurity contracted by being under the same roof as a corpse]. And said Rebbe Elozor? There was one frog. How did once become many? It croaked [or: whistled] to them [the other frogs] and they came.” Ribbit!! Who was Rebbe Elozor ben Azarya? Shoin: we read about yearly in the hagodo at the seder; look him up.
Ober, here comes another question: we just read how Rebbe Elozor ben Azarya chastised Rebbe Akiva, saying “What business have you with Haggadah?” logic would dictate that he did not at all agree with his view of the one frog. He goes on to tell Rebbe Akiva to redirect his intellectual efforts to matters of clear-cut halachic inquiry. Ober, and much to the Ois’s surprise, along comes Rebbe Elozor and offers an opinion quite similar to that of Rebbe Akiva: there was one frog; what then was the difference between them? Said Rebbe Akiva that one frog became many when the Mitzrim clubbed it repeatedly and says Rebbe Elozor that one frog became many when it called or croaked to its friends to come help. The bottom line: both must have kidding around.
Ober we still have questions: Ershtens (firstly), why did the plague come in this fashion, where one frog caused a multitude of frogs to afflict the Mitzrim, whether they came one way or the other? Second, what is the real crux of the machloikes (dispute) between Rebbe’s Akiva and Elozor ben Azarya? Does it really make a difference whether they spawned from the first frog or were gathered together -gangland style- after being joined from its friends? Either way, the plague consisted of frogs and is so called in the heylige Toirah and yearly at our sedorim. Third, what did Rebbe Elozor ben Azarya mean when he told Rebbe Akiva to devote himself to studying the tractates Nega’im and Oholos? Says Rashi, Rebbe Elazar ben Azarya meant that since Aggadah was not Rebbe Akiva’s Talmudic specialty, he should occupy himself with the intricacies and complexities of Jewish law in those two tractates. Or, efsher he meant that since the Aggadah (side stories consisting of magical, creative, colorful, fanciful and other such terminology) are not halachic in nature, and therefore Rebbe Akiva should stop wasting his time with these ‘buba mysehs.’ Of course, whether the aggadic-based stories are 100% emes, or but there to teach us various other lessons, is hotly debated among many sages including the heylige Ois who covers that topic kimat weekly. Did Rebbe Elozor mean to imply a deeper message to Rebbe Akiva? Ver veyst?!
As an aside, there is also a well-known version of this Midrash the Ois has heard but has yet to find and in that version the one master frog produced new frogs from its mouth. Shoin! The bottom line: whatever took place was zicher a miracle and avada the RBSO did not share with us just how it was executed. Ober shteltl zich di shaylo azoy (the question arises), azoy: Once the Mitzrim saw that the more they hit the giant frog, the more it spewed out little frogs, why didn’t they just stop hitting the frog? That would only make sense; a pragmatic strategy. They could have saved themselves a lot of grief. Were they but stupid goyim? The bottom line: it’s but human nature! The angrier we get, the more we lash out, even if this results in the object of our anger responding towards us with greater fury. Married men know this with certainty. Shoin. So the Mitzrim struck the great frog in their anger and it spewed out little frogs. And this made the Mitzrim angrier and they struck the frog more. And more little frogs spewed out. And the Mitzrim boiled in fury and struck the frog more and more! Ober is that the only pshat?
Says Rabbi Yochanan Zweig azoy: the frogs taka multiplied as a direct response to the Egyptians’ evil acts of hitting the frogs, demonstrating that there are consequences to their choices and actions. It was their cruel treatment of the Israelites and the excessive hardships imposed upon them that precisely precipitated this punishment.
Do all agree that the plague began with but one giant frog who then spewed out thousands? And if that’s taka pshat, that it all began with one giant frog, how big was this frog according to the Midrash? Was it as big as a fully grown person? And the bottom line: though Rashi and others (Shmois 8:2; Midrash Tanchuma Shemos, 14; and the heylige Gemora Sanhedrin 67b) all discuss this one frog theory, none of them give an exact size. Why not? We can kler that size was not important for the lesson this miracle was sent to demonstrate. Bottom line: size, if you chap, does not seemingly always matter!
Was the frog featured in the plague the largest ever to roam the earth? Ver veyst, ober, in case any of you find yourselves on Jeopardy, you might want to know this: according to one latter-day medrish, Wikipedia does provide information and tells us azoy: the Beelzebufo ampinga, the so-called “devil frog,” may be the largest frog that ever lived. These beach-ball-size amphibians, now extinct, grew to 16 inches (41 centimeters) in length and weighed about 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms). Of course, the good folks over at Wiki were seemingly not well versed in other medroshim. Veyter.
Ober what about the crocodile? How did it become entangled in this conversation? Let’s find out. Rabbi Natan Slifkin azoy: “The second plague to befall Egypt was that of tzefarde’a. It is widely believed that the term tzefarde’a refers to frogs, but Ibn Ezra notes that there are actually two views on this matter: The commentators differed in their understanding of the word tzefarde’im. Many said it referred to a sort of fish found in Egypt, called al-timsah in Arabic, which comes out of the river and seizes human beings. Others say they are the creatures found in most of the rivers and that they make a sound.” Shoin, once again, there are different opinion on just what the “tzefardim” were. According to the Ibn Ezra (Shmois 7:27), the so called “tzefardim may in fact have been a crocodile, or perhaps crocodiles. Says Rabbi Slifkin “It is regarded as a fish, even though it is a reptile, because the Heylige Toirah concept of fish also includes other aquatic creatures.” Settled?
Did the RBSO send missionized crocs as an invasion force? The creatures were to and did burst into the homes and leapt into every nook and cranny. Perhaps and let’s re-read the instructions as found in the parsha (Shmois 7:27-29) where we find this: “If you refuse to let them go, then I will plague your whole country with frogs. And the river shall bring forth frogs abundantly, which shall go up and come into your house, and into your bed chamber, and upon your bed, and into the house of your servants, and upon your people, and into your ovens, and into your kneading troughs.”
In other words: the frog invasion ruined the comfort of the Egyptian home and may have been one of the most horrible of all the plagues. Is that it? Ver veyst? Ober, how did our sages confuse cute frogs with larger large amphibious reptiles, ver veyst? Them crocs are scary! Some say that ad hayoim hazeh (until today), the Nile crocodile is considered the most dangerous of all alligators and crocodiles in the world. Yikes! Ober doesn’t the heylige Toirah only mention Tzefardim as in frogs? Maybe not: some suggest that the term tzefardea refers to amphibious reptiles in general, and could thereby include both frogs and crocodiles.
The bottom line: what to do when sages have different views and one cannot disprove the other’s theory? Proffer a third opinion and mamish so gishmak, says the Netziv, azoy: the makoh of tzefardim featured both crocs and frogs. Ober how is that possible? It is! How? It’s taka emes that most of Mitzrim were plagued by frogs only, ober Paroy, whom the RBSO abhorred and was going to teach a lesson to, and his entourage, were attacked by crocodiles. Gishmak! Another bottom line: one cannot trap our sages of yore; they were able to wiggle out of any conflict and that’s why the heylige Ois keeps reminding you to learn the medrish, old and new.
The bottom line: whether or not the second makoh featured frogs alone, crocs alone and or frogs and crocs, ver veyst? What do we know with certainty? That 10% of Nobel Prizes in Physiology and Medicine have resulted from investigations that used frogs. And the health of the frog population is said to be an indicator of the health of our biosphere as a whole, since the frog has survived relatively unchanged for about 250 million years. Shoin, the 250 million may be a shtikel exaggeration, so shoot me. On the other hand, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, OBM, in one of the myriad books he authored during his short life, does tell us that 250 million years is shayich and does not conflict with Toirah values and beliefs. And lest us also remember that eighteenth-century biologist Luigi Galvani discovered the link between electricity and the nervous system through studying frogs, and that Mark Twain -who admired the Yiddin- wrote a story about The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. And avada we should not forget Kermit the Frog playing a lead role in the Muppets Passover Special.
And the final bottom line: as mentioned above, the pounding the frog with reckless abandon only made things worse as thousands of frogs came forth and wreaked havoc over Mitzrayim. The Egyptians may not have learned the lesson of compassion, certainly not form the second plague. Efsher we’d be better served by approaching life with understanding and compassion, even if those around us may not. Moreover, the excessive pounding our fists during a disagreement, or the pounding of anything else for that matter, if you chap, is also not healthy.
Shoin, let’s get back to Shirley Cohen. Who taka was she and why the open and close with her? So happens that one can find over six million Shirley Cohen’s on Google, ober this week, only one gets a shout out and she -our Shirley- wrote a song that we all sing, or sang, with our kids in the weeks before Pesach and at the seder. Back in 2014, Shirley Cohen-Steinberg was 87 years old; the Ois has not been successful in finding out if she’s still alive today -hopefully yes and doing well- but does take this opportunity to thank her for writing the most famous and efsher only Pesach frog song.
Shirley Cohen Steinberg (born in Brooklyn, New York) helped make the Jewish holidays fun and interactive for children with her Holiday Music Box albums, featuring “One Morning” (popularly known as the Passover “Frog Song”). Steinberg began performing on the New York radio show the Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour at age five and in her twenties sang Israeli music on WEVD’s Shirei Moledet radio program. She studied languages and psychology at Brooklyn College and Hebrew studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary before earning a master’s in early childhood education from NYU. She went on to teach in Jewish and secular preschools. In 1951 she recorded the popular Holiday Music Box albums, which became an instant classic—at the time, there were few ways for children to engage playfully with the tradition. After moving to Canada in 1970 she continued teaching music to children and adults, but also served as music director for an Israeli music group, Israella, for thirty years. As of 2015, she serves as director of the Folkshpieler Yiddish Players at the Ottawa JCC and published her first children’s book, Frogs in the Bed, in 2014.
Let’s review the lyrics:
One morning King Paroy woke in his bed
There were frogs in his bed and frogs on his head
Frogs on his nose and frogs on his toes
Frogs here, frogs there, frogs just jumping everywhere!
A version can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrhhVSVYV5E
A gittin Choidesh Shevat and a gittin Shabbis Koidesh!
The Heylige Oisvorfer Ruv