Monday, May 2, 2011

"Frogs" According to Chazal

A few months ago, Rabbi Slifkin posted the following complaint.

This past Shabbos was a case in point. The passuk says ותעל הצפרדע - "And the frog came up, and covered the land of Egypt." Why does it say "frog" in the singular? As Junior told me, there was originally only one monstrous frog, and when the Egyptians beat the awesome amphibian, it became many millions.

In fairness to his teacher, I'd bet that 95% of Orthodox Jews think that this is the peshat. Or at least, they will claim that it's Rashi's peshat. But it isn't.

The aforementioned explanation is a Midrash. Rashi does indeed mention it - explicitly describing it as the derush. And Rashi also notes that the peshat is that a swarm of frogs is called "frog" in the singular - just as in English we speak of a "frog plague," not a "frogs plague."

Rabbi Slifkin is making a category error. There are midrashim which are rachok (distant) from the peshuto shel mikra (plain meaning of the verses) and there are aggados which are karov (close) to the peshuto shel mikra. The latter form of derush is used constantly by Rashi in conjunction with, and as a reinforcement of the peshuto shel mikra. Rashi explains his modus operandi clearly in Bereishis 3:8 and other places. The fact is, the vast majority of Rashi’s peirush al haTorah is comprised of drashos Chazal which are karov to pshat and Rashi uses these drashos to be miyashev the pesukim in the Torah "davar dibur al ofanav".

Sometimes Rashi brings drashos which are distant from the pashut pshat (plain meaning) of the pesukim. But whenever he does, he mentions them second (e.g. Vayikra 26:17, Bamidbar 15:41, Bamidbar 19:22). If the midrash appears first, this is a sign that Rashi felt that the drasha was karov to the pashut pshat if not pshat itself. In the case of the frogs, Rashi brings Rabbi Slifkin’s medrash right at the beginning which indicates that this is the pashut psaht of the term tzfardea in the Torah.

The proper way to understand this Rashi is as follows. The term tzfardea does indeed mean one frog. After all, the term tzfardea is singular making “one frog” the simple translation of this term. However, Rashi then goes on to explain that even if Chazal would not have revealed this drasha to us, the pesukim could still have maintained grammatical consistency because often times the singular form is used to modify the plural in the Hebrew language. Thus, both interpretations are pashut pshat! The Torah wants to tell us that the plague of frogs came upon the Egyptians while simultaneously telling us the method. It thus uses the singular term and kills two birds with one stone (or rather, one frog with several smacks).

No comments:

Post a Comment