Who’s Afraid of the Plague of Darkness?
By: Rav Uri Cohen
Plague 1: Water turns to blood. “The fish! They’re all dead! I’m ruined!”
Plague 5: Pestilence. “My livestock! I’m ruined!!”
Plague 7: Hail and Fire. “My crops! I’m ruined!”
Plague 9: Darkness. “Ow. I stubbed my toe.”
– Happle Tea comic strip <1>
One of the classic questions about the plague of darkness (makkat choshekh) is: How was it in the same league as the rest of the Ten Plagues? Ruin and death of one sort or another seem much worse than just three days with the lights out. (And why couldn’t the Egyptians defeat the plague with candles, anyway?) In just three pesukim, all the text of the Chumash tells us is this:
God said to Moses, “Reach out toward the sky with your hand, and there will be darkness in Egypt. The darkness will be palpable.” Moses lifted his hand toward the sky, and there was an opaque darkness in all Egypt, lasting for three days. People could not see each other, and no one left his place for three days. The Israelites, however, had light in the areas where they lived.<2>
Since the plague of darkness was in fact included with the other plagues, what is the text not telling us? There are three types of answers:
(1) It’s true that it didn’t involve as much suffering as the other plagues, but Hashem sent it for a special reason.
(2) The darkness involved physical suffering.
(3) The darkness involved psychological suffering.
We will now give examples of each of these three types of answers.
A SPECIAL REASON
The first type of answer concedes that compared to the other plagues, choshekh was mild. But that’s okay, because this plague was not primarily for the Egyptians to suffer, but for a different purpose. Like what?
Two possibilities are relatively well-known because Rashi presents them. One purpose of darkness was so that the Egyptians wouldn’t notice when God killed those Jews who would have refused to leave Egypt. Another was so that the Jews would have the opportunity to explore the Egyptians’ houses in order to find the location of their valuables. This would enable the Jews to demand compensation from the slaveowners before leaving the country.<3>
Another purpose proposed by some contemporary commentators is that it was an attack on the gods of Egypt. After all, just two chapters later, Hashem would declare, “I will perform acts of judgment against all the gods of Egypt. I [alone] am God.”<4> And as we all know, one of the main Egyptian gods was the sun god Ra.<5> In the words of Rav Chanan Porat, a pioneer of yishuvim who became a Member of Knesset:
Historical and archaeological study of Ancient Egypt has taught us that the head of the pantheon of Egyptian gods was Ra – the sun god. The Egyptians worshipped him and built him glorious sanctuaries. This is alluded to in the Chumash itself, when Pharaoh says in our parashah, “Watch out – Ra’ah is before you” (Shemot 10:10). That is, the god Ra is looking to avenge himself on you (compare Rashi).
So even though it doesn’t say so explicitly, the plague of darkness was to “demonstrate how great is the Lord’s power against the gods of Egypt: when the God of Israel wills it, the sun, which is regarded by the Egyptians as the chief deity, will be hidden and unable to shine upon its worshippers” (Cassuto).<6>
One more “special reason” for choshekh is presented by Rabbi Arnie Singer, an Orthodox rabbi who does relationship coaching. He argues that the darkness was necessary to give the Egyptians a chance to do teshuvah:
When individuals become part of a greater unit, they often get carried away by the team spirit. Loyalty to a team is what makes people fans of teams that perennially lose. Although “Team Egypt” was taking a beating with plague after plague, the Egyptian “fans” stayed loyal to their team and in fact just got more stubborn in their loyalty and team spirit. Therefore, God broke up the team with darkness, to give every individual Egyptian the chance to be alone. This way they could think of their situation without the enthusiasm and energy of being part of a team.<7>
What all these possibilities have in common is that the plague of darkness wasn’t very severe, but that’s because it wasn’t about suffering but rather something else.
According to the second type of answer, the starting assumption is incorrect. The plague of darkness involved at least as much suffering as the rest of the Ten Plagues. Midrashim and meforshim derive this from the Torah’s descriptions of the plague: it was a very dense darkness (choshekh afelah), it was palpable (ve-yamesh choshekh), no one left his place, and the Torah says twice that the plague lasted three days. What can these expressions mean?
Rashi cites a midrash that the two mentions of three days indicate that the plague lasted six days. The first three involved ordinary darkness, but the last three added paralysis, the inability to move. Whether sitting or standing, each Egyptian was forced to stay in the same position for three whole days.<8> Rav Hirsch elaborates that “It was the most complete, the most comprehensive literal inui (suffering). It meant each man being held, chained and fasting, to the spot in which he happened to be.”<9>
One of the earliest Jewish commentators, Philo of Alexandria, thinks the Egyptian lost their senses:
They couldn’t use candles, because a stormy wind would blow them out. Besides, the darkness was so dense that no candle could stay lit. They had eyes but could not see; their vision was gone. And when their sense of sight was taken, their other senses were taken too! They couldn’t speak. Their ears went deaf. They lost their sense of taste. Everyone was catatonic. Hunger seized them and made them suffer.<10>
Another early commentator, Josephus, argues that inhaling the dense darkness was fatal:
[D]ense darkness, without a particle of light, enveloped the Egyptians – darkness so thick that their eyes were blinded by it and their breath choked, and they either met with a miserable end or lived in terror of being swallowed up by the fog.<11>
Along the same lines, Ralbag suggests that the darkness was a supernaturally thick fog that invaded the Egyptians’ homes. It was so toxic that breathing it in could cause death. They desperately covered their noses and mouths, petrified even to breathe.<12>
According to all these interpretations, makkat choshekh was much worse than we thought, causing pain and suffering like the other plagues.
The third type of answer agrees that the plague of darkness involved great suffering, but proposes that the suffering was psychological. Perhaps because of growing awareness of mental illness, this type of answer is followed by a number of contemporary commentators.
One approach is that makkat choshekh was a type of solitary confinement. In the words of Rav Mordy Friedman, a teacher at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi:
Psychologically, solitary confinement can make someone go stir crazy. Especially if the darkness was so thick that the Egyptians could not move. This darkness might have been especially torturous because the Egyptians did not know when or if this darkness would ever lift.<13>
Rabbanit Dr. Devorah Ushpizai, a retired professor of Bar Ilan’s Talmud Department, elaborates:
Man, as we know, is a social creature and cannot live without society. Not only for receiving physical assistance when sick, or weak, or poor, and not only in order to share our joys or sorrows, but even simply to converse, study, exchange views, and in short to exist. The principle “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18) holds not only with regard to couples, but also for every human being as a social creature. In the normal way of things, a person cannot live alone on an isolated island. Even if people occasionally seek to withdraw somewhat from the surrounding society and find solitude, this is usually only for a shorter or longer vacation – an interlude before returning to normal life in society.
One of the more severe punishments today is putting a person in solitary confinement, in isolation. Even Jewish law has a punishment of ostracism (cherem), by which a person is excluded from society, may not be counted in a minyan, may not come in contact with others, may not be visited, studied with, or the like. This was an incomparably severe punishment. The Sages expressed its gravity in the phrase, “o chavruta o mituta – either be in society or die,” and recounted that Choni the Circle-Drawer, upon awakening after having slept seventy years, when he could not find a fellow with whom to study Torah, died of sorrow (Ta’anit 23a).<14>
Another approach is that the plague involved depression. Secular Israeli journalist Dror Feuer has an elegant formulation for it: “The choshekh came from outside, and the afelah came from inside.”<15> Rav Singer explains how horrific this was:
[T]he plague of darkness was actually worse than all the other plagues preceding it, because it represented not only a physical condition but also a mental and spiritual condition. One of the symptoms of depression is the inability to move. A depressed person can’t even get up out of bed. On a deeper level, a depressed person feels that there is no reason to move, because their situation is utterly hopeless. Depression is, in a way, hopelessness. When a person loses hope and stops trying to move to a better reality, they fall into [a] mental and spiritual coma. . . . This is what the Egyptians were stricken with at the plague of darkness.<16>
I recently read a short but powerful memoir by William Styron (the author who’s best-known for his novel Sophie’s Choice). It describes how he suffered from depression that was crippling and almost suicidal. Interestingly, the title of this award-winning memoir evokes the depression approach to makkat choshekh – it’s called Darkness Visible.<17>
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, the rabbi of a large Masorti synagogue in London, reflects on how the mental anguish of makkat choshekh can remind us of mental illness:
For several years the Shabbat on which the account of the ninth of the Ten Plagues, the plague of darkness, is read has been chosen by Jami, the mental health service for the Jewish community in the UK, as The Mental Health Awareness Shabbat, because ‘the description of the plague of darkness has particular resonance with mental illness.’
The Torah refers to this bleak plague as choshekh afelah, darkness both physical and spiritual. It describes a night so thick that, like the London smog of 1952 which finally led to the Clean Air Act, ‘nobody could see another person or get up from his place for three days’ (Exodus 10:23). It must have been terrifying.
Even more frightening is the emotional reality the description evokes. The Torah’s exact words are Lo kamu ish mi-tachtav: literally, ‘no one could raise himself up from his low place’. We have them inside us, such spaces. They are located in our personal Egypt, our inner mitzrayim, or ‘narrow spaces’ where we feel ourselves helplessly and irredeemably trapped. If we’ve been spared ever visiting those grim internal realms, we’re blessed. I know this from listening to other people and from those dreadful hours which few of us never experience.<18>
Feuer goes so far as to argue that makkat choshekh was the very worst of the Ten Plagues:
[Perhaps] a person can handle the choshekh [external darkness], and he can handle the afelah [internal darkness]. But he cannot handle them when they are together. With this darkness, God afflicted the Egyptians with the worst plague of all; I think it was even worse than makkat bekhorot (the Slaying of the Firstborn). . . . The depression into which the Egyptians sank because of the three days of darkness was so deep, the only way God could revive them and return them to ordinary life was to give them a serious shakeup. In order to snap them out of their apathy, they needed a reality kapow!<19>
In other words, the reason makkat bekhorot came last is not that it was the worst plague, but because Hashem wanted the Egyptians to recover after the exodus of their Jewish slaves. He wanted to punish Egypt, not to crush its civilization. Had the plague of darkness and depression come last, Egyptian history would have toppled into the trash heap of history. According to this unusual approach, while the Slaying of the Firstborn was a severe punishment for the Egyptians, its timing was a thoughtful kindness for them.
(Years ago, I taught this topic at Midreshet HaRova, and had a conversation about it with Rav Michael Susman. When I told him about Feuer’s approach, he disagreed. Rav Susman argued instead that the depression into which the Egyptians sank because of the three days of darkness was so deep, anything less than makkat bekhorot would not have registered as a plague at all.)
Whether the plague of darkness was more like solitary confinement, depression, or some other internal suffering,<20> these approaches agree that it was more of a psychological attack than a physical one.
To sum up, we saw three types of answers to explain why makkat choshekh was included with the other plagues. I hope this article has helped shed light on the plague of darkness.
1. Scott Maynard, Happle Tea comic strip, April 10, 2012. http://www.happletea.com/comic/coup-de-grace/
2. Sh’mot 10:21-23. Translation from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, The Living Torah (Maznaim, 1981). https://bible.ort.org/books/pentd2.asp?ACTION=displaypage&BOOK=2&CHAPTER=10
3. Rashi on Sh’mot 10:22, s.v. vayehi, based on Shemot Rabbah 14:3.
4. Sh’mot 12:12. Translation from The Living Torah. https://bible.ort.org/books/pentd2.asp?ACTION=displaypage&BOOK=2&CHAPTER=12
5. For appearances of Ra in pop culture, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Egyptian_deities_in_popular_culture#Ra
6. Rabbi Chanan Porat (1943-2011), M’at Min HaOr (2004). Also at https://www.inn.co.il/Articles/Article.aspx/10172 (The English translation is mine.) He cites Cassuto in Hebrew, but I copied the quote from the English edition: Rabbi Professor Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus (Magnes Press, 1967), p. 129.) See also Rabbi Dr. J. H. Hertz, The Pentateuch & Haftorahs (1937), p. 400 (Additional Note “D” to Exodus: “The Ten Plagues”), and Dr. Nahum M. Sarna, Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel (Schocken Books, 1986), p. 79. For further elaboration, see Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “Bo (5770) – The Difference Between Signs and Wonders,” 23rd January 2010. http://rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation-5770-bo-the-difference-between-signs-and-wonders/
7. Rabbi Arnie Singer, “Parshat Bo – The Plague of Darkness.” https://web.archive.org/web/20040718102624/http://soulencounter.com/music/torah/parsha/bo1.asp
8. Rashi, op. cit. (based on Shemot Rabbah, op. cit.). Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, one of the great Torah teachers of Yerushalayim, comments: “This is a depiction of a dehumanized rigidity, a ‘hardness,’ that mimics the rigidity of Pharaoh’s heart throughout the narrative. There is a horror – even a moral repulsiveness – in such a condition.” See her book The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus (New York: Doubleday, 2001), pp. 166-167.
9. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Pentateuch (transl. Isaac Levy), Exodus 10:21 (p. 113). In the newer translation by Daniel Haberman (The Hirsch Chumash), the comment is on p. 144.
10. Philo (circa 20 BCE-circa 50 CE), On the Life of Moses (Chayei Moshe, translated from Greek to Hebrew by Joseph Flesch in 1838), Chapter 10. https://www.sefaria.org/On_the_Life_of_Moses.1.10?lang=bi (The English translation is mine.)
By the way, in the English translation by Charles Duke Yonge in 1855, the citation is Book 1, Chapter 21 and the content of this quote differs slightly.
11. Josephus (37-100 CE), Jewish Antiquities (translated from Greek to English by Henry St. John Thackeray in 1926), Book 2, Section 308.
12. Ralbag (Rabbi Levi ben Gershom, 1288-1344) on Shemot 10:21. In the Mosad HaRav Kook edition of 1994 (Peirushei Ralbag al HaTorah), it’s in vol. 2, p. 43.
13. Rabbi Mordy Friedman, “What’s So Bad About the Plague of Darkness?” V’samachta B’chagecha (A Beth Aaron [of Teaneck]/TABC Publication), Pesach 5761. https://web.archive.org/web/20040724080559/http://www.tzemachdovid.org/Vsamachta/Pesach01/darkness.shtml
14. Rabbanit Dr. Devorah Ushpizai, “The Plague of Darkness – Social Aspects,” Bar-Ilan University’s Parashat Hashavua Study Center, Parashat Bo 5774 (January 4, 2014). http://www.biu.ac.il/JH/Parasha/eng/bo/1001Ushpizai.doc
15. Dror Feuer, “Parashat HaShavua – Bo,” HaChaim Bahir Blog, January 14, 2005. http://www.notes.co.il/dror/9401.asp (The English translation is mine.)
16. Rabbi Singer, op. cit.
17. William Styron, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (Vintage Books, 1990). While Styron doesn’t explain the title, it seems that it’s a phrase from John Milton’s Paradise Lost (Book I, Line 63). In context there, “darkness visible” is referring to hell. For several other uses of Milton’s phrase in culture, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darkness_Visible
18. Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, Sermon, Resource Pack for the Mental Health Awareness Shabbat (31st January – 1st February 2020), pp. 54-56. https://jamiuk.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/MHAS-2020-RP-FINAL.pdf
19. Feuer, op. cit.
20. Dr. Zornberg (p. 168) presents another variation: “An intriguing suggestion is made in Torah Temimah: this darkness was a subjective blindness, experienced by the Egyptians, perhaps a cataract, ‘thick as a dinar.’ Such a notion in fact plays out the implication of the midrashic tradition. This darkness is not a prodigy of nature, so much as an inner experience of each individual: a catatonic terror of absolute helplessness. . . . This darkness is full of the terrors of the night: transfixed, prey to hallucinations, the Egyptians suffer an inward anguish that is quite inexpressible in language.”
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