The Lone Frog

The second of the 10 plagues was “frogs.” Frogs spread throughout the entire land of Egypt and into every nook and cranny. Yet, oddly, the Torah describes this plague in the singular: “And the tzfarde’ah [the frog] came up.”

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 67b) addresses this issue:

Rabbi Akiva said that a single frog came out. It caused a swarm which spread throughout the entire land of Egypt. Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah said to him, “Akiva, what do you have to do with Aggadah [the non-legal part of the Torah]? 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].  There was one frog, it croaked [or: whistled] to them [the other frogs] and they came.”

We thus have two versions of how one frog became many frogs: either they were spawned off the original frog (according to the Midrash it was caused by the Egyptians striking it), or the first frog simply summoned all the other frogs.

There are several intriguing questions that must be resolved in this matter.

First, why did the plague come in this fashion, where one frog caused a multitude of frogs to afflict the Egyptians, whether they came one way or the other?

Second, what is the real crux of the dispute between Rabbis Akiva and Elazar ben Azarya? Does it really make a difference whether they spawned from the first frog or were gathered together from other places?  Either way, they were a plague of frogs.

Third, what did Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya mean when he told Rabbi Akiva to devote himself to studying the tractates Nega’imand Oholos? Rashi explains that Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya meant that since Aggadah was not Rabbi Akiva’s Talmudic specialty, he should occupy himself with the intricacies and complexites of Jewish law in those two tractates. That may well have been the surface meaning of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya’s comments. It is our task, however, to understand what deeper message was contained in this exchange with Rabbi Akiva.

Weighty and Trivial

Another passage in the Talmud may shed some light on this exchange between Rabbis Elazar ben Azarya and Akiva. The Talmud (Pesachim 50a) cites a verse of the prophet Zecharya describing the future Messianic Age: “It will be on that day, there will be no light, yikaros and kipa’on.” The Talmud clarifies these two enigmatic words by stating that they refer to the tractates Nega’im and Oholos which are yikaros-weighty in this world, but will be kipa’on-trivial in the world to come.

From this passage in the Talmud we see that the tractates Nega’im and Oholos represent the difficulty and complexity of these laws in the present day and age.

Why makes these laws so difficult?


As we shall see, these two subjects are both metaphors for Galus, the ultimate manifestation of difficulty. Nega’im and Oholosare paradoxical subjects just as Galus is a paradox. On the one hand, Galus is punctuated with pain, suffering, discord, strife and concealment of G‑d’s presence. It is such a malign curse that, the Talmud states (Sukkah 52b), even G‑d says He regrets having created it. Obviously, G‑d doesn’t experience regret in the same fashion as humans. Rather, the Talmud wishes to underscore with this terminology the profound negativity that is Galus.

On the other hand, Galus has provided us with the greatest opportunity to accomplish what we could not when we lived in the Land of Israel beside our Beis Hamikdash. The suffering in Galus has exposed and refined our most powerful soul-powers. The self-sacrifice and dedication that so many thousands of Jews have exhibited in the darkness of Galus requires us to put Galus itself on a pedestal.

Moreover, according to the teachings of Kabbalah and Chassidus, Galus possesses a hidden dimension of G‑dly energy that we cannot access until the time of Geulah-Redemption. And precisely because these inaccessible energies are so powerful and elusive, they manifest themselves in negative ways. Redemption is, therefore, not a repudiation of exile but rather the actualization of its latent powers; we will then be able to internalize and wield these powerful energies in a totally positive fashion.

The subject of  Nega’im is thus a metaphor for Galus because it too is paradoxical. The impurity that one contracts when afflicted with the tzara’as skin lesion is a result of the blocked sublime spiritual energy that is forced to manifest itself on the surface as a negative phenomenon.

Likewise, the law of impurity due to contact with a corpse is an enigma and a paradox reflective of the very paradox of Galus. A dead body is considered the source of the most severe form of impurity (simply being under the same roof as a corpse causes impurity, which is the subject of the tractate Oholos). The paradox here is that, according to the Midrash, a dead body itself is not impure, especially of that of a righteous person whose body was the instrument of fulfilling G‑d’s will. Yet, ironically, it confers the most severe form of impurity on the person who comes into even casual contact with it. In the days of the Temple, one who had become impure would have to go through the ritual of the Red Heifer which involved its own paradox: while the mixture of water and ashes purifies the impure, the people involved in preparing the purifying mixture became contaminated themselves.

All of this points to the enigma of exile. While we have become “contaminated” by the concealment of G‑d’s presence, G‑d nevertheless declares that He dwells with us even in our present state of impurity.  We are simultaneously estranged from Him and His G‑dly purity even as we can never truly be detached from Him.

During Galus we’ve exhibited the worst possible traits and experienced our greatest failures, even as we have achieved the greatest of feats and demonstrated unparalleled super-human capabilities.

Two Models of Preparation for Redemption

Let us now return to the exchange between Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya and Rabbi Akiva concerning the way the lone frog multiplied.

Frog, in Hebrew, is tzfarde’ah. Chasam Sofer explains that the word itself alludes to Moses and the future Redemption. The first part of the word, tfzar, means morning or tomorrow while “de’ah” means knowledge. The tzfarde’ah is a portent both of the future Redemption and the one who is responsible for its happening.

Alternatively, the word tzfarde’ah, as the Midrash states, is a compounding of the words tzipor-a bird and de’ah - knowledge. According to the Talmud, a bird is a symbol of peace, and when it is joined with de’ah – knowledge, the resulting word alludes to that elevated peace, based on the knowledge of G‑d, which will pervade all of humanity in the Messianic Age.  As Maimonides writes, in this Age there will be no more hatred and jealousy because the knowledge of G‑d will spread throughout the world. The word tzippor also has the same gematria value as the phrase zeh Moshiach-This is Moshiach!

This, then, may be the deeper meaning of the dialogue between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya.

When G‑d brought the plagues on the Egyptians, He did so not just to punish them. The objective was also to teach them about G‑d and set into motion the dynamic of Redemption. The tzfarde’ah symbolizes the announcement to the world that it is about to undergo a major paradigm shift. Initially this announcement starts off as a lone voice. According to Rabbi Akiva, thetzfarde’ah proliferates and spreads out the message by sending out many small tzfardi’im as its emissaries bearing the message of Redemption to the world. In Rabbi Akiva’s formulation, the process of Redemption comes from outside the Galus dynamic and imposes itself on the Galus.

Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya responds to Rabbi Akiva’s approach by asserting that the preparation for Redemption can come from within the Galus itself. He thus tells Rabbi Akiva to focus on the mystical dynamic of Nega’im and Oholos. Here we see that Galus itself has the innate potential to change. The little “frogs”—or sparks of Redemption—can come from all over because every part of creation, particularly every Jew, is a miniature tzfarde’ah, with a spark of Moshiach in him or her. All that is necessary is for the “lone frog” to whistle, and the world, of its own volition, will be receptive to Redemption. Indeed, the term “whistling,” used here to describe the summons by the lone tzfarde’ah, is related to a similar word used in relation to the Redemption: “I will whistle for them and gather them” (Zecharya 10:8.)

Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya’s concept is based on the notion that Galus is the ultimate paradox and contains within itself the seeds and dynamic of Redemption. The entire world will be galvanized to join in the chorus for Redemption.

Both Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya are correct. Redemption involves both processes. The Moshiach of the generation inspires his emissaries to spread the knowledge of G‑d to prepare us for and actually bring on the Redemption. This approach, however, puts the onus on Moshiach and his extensions. The other approach extends the responsibility to everyone because the exile itself gets closer to realizing its inner dynamic. Everybody is therefore empowered to unleash the Redemptive forces embedded within Galus. All Moshiach has to do is “whistle” and everyone is gathered.

In Our Hands!

The Rebbe in his historic talk (28th of Nissan 5752) stated that he has done all he can to bring Moshiach. Now, the Rebbe says, he is giving it over to all of us. We are empowered with the ability to transform the world and prepare it for the Redemption. The Rebbe’s exhortation follows Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya’s formula of the tzfarde’ah’s role: to inspire everyone to be part of the process of bringing on the Redemption.