Plague of צפרדע in Art


The two images shown here, from two 14th century Catalonian Haggadot, the Golden Haggadah 1 and the Rylands Haggadah2, both depict the plague of frogs (Shemot 7:26-8:11). Though at first glance the images are somewhat straightforward and simple, the artists' differing portrayals raise questions about the nature of the plague, how and by whom it was brought, and for what purpose.3

Contrasting Images

The Golden Haggadah

In this rendering in the top right pane, the artist decided not to depict Aharon or the Egyptian magicians, but rather to highlight just the two rival leaders, Paroh and Moshe.4 Surprisingly, Moshe raises his staff to hit not the Nile, but a large frog, from which the other frogs materialize. These creatures head to the palace, filling bowls and pans. One onlooker peeps out the window to be greeted by a frog looking out the adjacent opening.

The Rylands Haggadah

The upper image is divided into two halves, with the palace, Paroh, and his magicians on the right side, and the Nile, Moshe, and Aharon to the left. The palace pillar serves to divide these figures into two distinct camps. As Moshe holds his staff over the water, large frogs emerge to jump on the Egyptians, while Moshe and his brother remain unscathed. Aharon stands in the middle pointing in two directions, at both the Egyptians and Moshe, perhaps to emphasize to the Egyptians that the plague is not a natural phenomenon but the direct result of Moshe's actions.

Relationship to the Biblical Text

The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:

Aharon or Moshe?

Interestingly, in contrast to the Biblical text, both Haggadot have Moshe rather than Aharon bringing on the Plague.5 While this designation is simply a mistake, it nonetheless highlights the question of why some plagues were initiated by Aharon and others by Moshe.6


While just Moshe and Paroh appear in the Golden Haggadah, the Rylands Haggadah portrays also Aharon and the magicians. It is unclear from the Biblical text who was actually present during the bringing of the Plague itself; we know only that afterwards the magicians were able to replicate the feat. The differing portrayals raise the issue of the role of both Aharon and the magicians and how this relates to the purpose of the Plagues. Were the initial plagues set up, in part, as a contest between the "messengers of God" and the "magicians of Paroh" to teach that Hashem's agents had behind them a power much stronger than magic?7

"וַתַּעַל הַצְּפַרְדֵּעַ"

While the Rylands Haggadah has Moshe hitting or stretching his staff over the water, in the Golden Haggadah Moshe appears to be hitting the frog itself. This rendering is probably influenced by the Midrashic interpretation of the phrase "וַתַּעַל הַצְּפַרְדֵּעַ" in Shemot 8:2. The singular form of the word "צְפַרְדֵּעַ" led to the explanation that originally just one big frog emerged from the water; only after it was hit, did many more came forth.8

Who is Affected?

By dividing his image between the Egyptians and Israelites, the artist of the Rylands Haggadah emphasizes that only the Egyptians were afflicted by the Plague, as the frogs are depicted only on their side. This is actually not at all clear from Sefer Shemot, as only with regard to some of the plagues does the text state explicitly that there was a distinction made between the two nations. How to understand the Torah's silence on this matter by the other plagues (such as frogs), is debated by the commentators.9 For elaboration, see Whom and Where Did the Plagues Strike.

Frogs or Crocodiles?

Both Haggadot depict the second plague as a plague of frogs, like the standard rendering of the word "צְפַרְדְּעִים". Perhaps surprisingly, though, there is some uncertainty as to what a "צְפַרְדֵּעַ" really is, as the word is a virtual hapax legomenon, appearing only in the context of this plague. See Ibn EzraLong Commentary Shemot 7:27About R. Avraham ibn Ezra who cites an opinion that "צְפַרְדְּעִים" are not frogs, but much more deadly crocodiles.10