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|Image||Click for עָרֹב in Art|
The word "עָרֹב" appears in only three places in Tanakh: Shemot 8:16-28, Tehillim 78:45, and Tehillim 105:31. As all three chapters speak of the same plague that was visited upon the Egyptians, the word is a virtual hapax legomenon making it difficult to determine its meaning.
Commentators provide a wide range of identifications for the עָרֹב, and these include representatives of all four major categories of land based animal life:1
1. Wild Beasts
- Meaning and derivation – Most of these sources define "עָרֹב" as a mixture of wild animals and relate it to ערבוב (a mixture).7 R. Yonah ibn Janach similarly defines "עָרֹב" while suggesting an etymology from "ערבה".8 Rashbam, however, identifies "עָרֹב" as a single type of animal, a wolf which stalks its prey in the evening, and he offers a derivation from the word עֶרֶב (evening).9
- Sending of the Plague – Rashi, R"Y Bekhor Shor, and R. Avraham Maimonides note that the פיעל and הפעיל forms of the verb שלח which appear in the dispatching of the "עָרֹב", are found also in Vayikra 26:22 and Devarim 32:24 with regard to wild beasts.
- Effects of the Plague – While the Torah does not explicitly record that the "עָרֹב" caused the fatalities that would be expected from predatory animals, the Seikhel Tov and R"Y Bekhor Shor explain that this is the meaning of "תִּשָּׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ".10 Shadal adds that the description in Tehillim 78:45 of the "עָרֹב" devouring the Egyptians ("וַיֹּאכְלֵם") fits their identification as carnivorous animals.11 Ralbag, though, proposes that the "עָרֹב" were wolves and jackals which preyed only on livestock.
- Removal of the Plague – In contrast to the "צְפַרְדֵּעַ" which died in Egypt, the "עָרֹב" simply left the country. The Tanchuma and Shemot Rabbah adduce this as support for their identification of "עָרֹב" as wild animals, and they explain that Hashem removed the "עָרֹב" so that the Egyptians would not benefit from their hides.12
- Measure for measure – The different Midrashim give an assortment of explanations as to how wild animals were a fitting punishment for the Egyptians. This is in line with their general understanding of the character of the Plagues – see Purpose of the Plagues for more.
- Nature of the miracle – R. Avraham b. HaRambam notes that due to the nature of the terrain of the land of Egypt, the appearance of wild animals there is very rare.13 Thus, he says the Plague of Wild Animals was an amazing miracle. See The Plagues – Natural or Supernatural for further discussion of the nature of the Plagues.14
2. Snakes and Scorpions
- Meaning and derivation – The Ma'asei Hashem proposes that "עָרֹב" is a mixture of various types of snakes and scorpions.
- Sending of the Plague – The פיעל form of the verb שלח, used to describe the dispatching of the "עָרֹב" in Tehillim 78:45, is found also in Bemidbar 21:6, Devarim 32:24, and Yirmeyahu 8:17 with regard to vipers.
- Effects of the Plague – Seforno notes that the "עָרֹב" filled also the "אֲדָמָה" (earth), which would be an apt description for swarms of snakes. The Ma'asei Hashem also points out that were this to mean that the land was filled with lions and bears, the Egyptian population would have been decimated.16
- Nature of the miracle – Snakes are indigenous to Egypt, and the "עָרֹב" could thus fit easily within the category of a natural disaster. See The Plagues – Natural or Supernatural for further discussion of the nature of the Plagues.
3. Biting Flies
- Derivation – Shadal suggests that "עָרֹב" refers to a mixture of flies and is connected to the word ערבוב (a mixture).
- Sending of the Plague – Forms of the verb שלח are found also in relation to the sending of the צרעה (understood by many to be a fly, hornet or bird) in Shemot 23:28 and Devarim 7:20.
- Where it struck – Shadal suggests that the description of the "עָרֹב" entering the Egyptians' homes supports an identification as flies, as larger animals would not have been able to enter.18
- Effects of the Plague – Shadal explains that the language of devouring ("וַיֹּאכְלֵם") found in Tehillim is simply a figure of speech,19 and the verse is just implying that the "עָרֹב" stung the Egyptians. Philo, though, speaks of dog-flies who leech "blood and flesh."
- Pairs of Plagues – In Tehillim 105:31, "עָרֹב" is paired with lice, suggesting that both are plagues of insects. Cassuto similarly links them, as he divides the entire set of plagues into five doublets. For more, see Structure of the Plagues.
- Purpose of the Plagues – Philo asserts that Hashem desired "to admonish the Egyptians than to destroy them," and thus He initially sent smaller nuisances rather than larger and more destructive plagues. See Purpose of the Plagues.
- Nature of the miracle
- Yeshayahu 7:18 describes an attacking "זְבוּב" which comes from the Nile River. Based on this verse, it is possible that biting flies were endemic to Egypt.
- Philo emphasizes how Hashem has "need of no assistant," and thus purposely did not deploy mighty bears, lions, or snakes to do His bidding, but rather chose small, insignificant, creatures as His instruments.20
4. Birds of Prey
- Derivation – This approach might relate "עָרֹב" to עורב, a crow or raven.
- Sending of the Plague – See above that the verb שלח is found by the צרעה which may also be a bird of prey.
- Where it struck – Birds would more easily be able to enter the Egyptian homes than wild animals.21
- Effects of the Plague – If "עָרֹב" refers to birds of prey, Tehillim's depiction of them devouring ("וַיֹּאכְלֵם") is befitting.