Miracles and the Power of Multiplication
by Ben-Tzion Spitz
Besides the many lessons that the Hagaddah provides, an often overlooked one, is that of the power of multiplication.
The most obvious examples are the three opinions as to the ‘quantity’ of the “Plagues” that afflicted the Egyptians at the parting of the sea. The first opinion is that of Rabbi Yossi the Galilean. He makes the following algebraic comparison based on the biblical verses:
1 “Finger” of God = 10 Egypt plagues
Sea plague = “Hand” of God
Assuming that God’s anthropomorphic limbs are comparable to a humans, solving for Sea plague leads to the following calculation
Sea plague = “Hand” of God = 5 “Fingers” of God = 50 Egypt plagues
The subsequent opinions take the above calculation as a given but add an additional multiplier.
Rabbi Eliezer, the second opinion, states that based on the four qualifiers of “Wrath”, “Fury”, “Trouble”, and “Messengers of Evil”, that are stated regarding the Egyptian plagues, there were 40 plagues in Egypt. Multiplying that by Rabbi Yossi’s original formula provides us with a total of 200 plagues at the sea.
Rabbi Akiva, the third and last opinion in the unusual discussion, adds another qualifier, “Fierce Anger”, to Rabbi Eliezer’s original four. 10 times 5 times 5 equal 250.
Some of the later rabbinic commentators including the Maharal of Prague imply that the simplistic multiplication lesson is really teaching something deeper about the nature of reality and the nature of miracles.
Rabbi Yossi’s initial opinion equates the number ten to the power of a single “Finger” of God. Ten is also compared to holiness and separating the holy from the mundane (i.e. tithes). Similarly, according to the Maharal, anything that intercedes in our world from the more spiritual spheres, in an overt fashion (i.e. miracles) is also a function of the power of ten.
A single finger is a limited tool, and on its own is not particularly powerful. God’s intent with the plagues in Egypt was apparently more educational than outright destructive. Hence his anthropomorphized use of a single finger translated into the power of ten in our world.
However, at the splitting of the sea, God’s intent was to destroy the Egyptian nation in general and its entire armed forces in particular. There God uses his Hand. A hand is a complete tool, and the number five represents a full number. Therefore, according to Rabbi Yossi, the Egyptians suffered the equivalent of 50 plagues at the sea.
The next opinion, Rabbi Eliezer, looks deeper into the makeup of a single “plague” and determines that each plague is really composed of four plagues. There are different explanations besides the textual one quoted above as to why four. The Maharal is a bit esoteric, but he could be interpreted to say that four is the minimum number of points to represent something tangible in space. One point doesn’t do very much. Two points will give you a line. Three points will give you a two-dimensional surface with no thickness. You need at least four coordinates in space to have a three-dimensional object.
[See illustration above]
The Abudarham on the other hand states that each plague encompassed the four elements of earth, wind, fire and water in some fashion. Therefore, in Egypt the plagues were the equivalent of 40, while at sea it was the equivalent of 200.
Rabbi Akiva, presenting the third opinion, builds on Rabbi Eliezer’s theory and adds one more factor to the equation. According to the Maharal, he agrees with Rabbi Eliezer’s four coordinates as defining an object (assuming we understand the Maharal correctly). However, he adds an additional point in space that would bind the four points into one object. Paralleling this thought, the Abudarham states that Rabbi Akiva agrees with the composition of the plagues being formed by the four elements, however he adds, that each plague drew on the power of the four elements separately as well as a combination of all the elements, making each plague a factor of five.
The Maharal states that there is even greater depth and meaning to all of this, but he cannot reveal it to the uninitiated. One point of his discussion though, is to give us an even greater sense of awe. Awe not only for the miracles that occurred, but for the essential reality and functioning of nature, and the miraculous within nature.