BO (Exodus, 10:1-13:16) — “How Many Plagues Does It Take to Punish a Pharaoh?”, or, “A Plague on TEN of Your Houses?”

[This week’s Torah Talk message is based upon a talk by Rabbi Moshe Bick, of Blessed Memory.  I cannot vouch for its accuracy, since it was quoted to me by someone who heard it from his father, who was quoting Rabbi Bick’s son quoting his father. (Have you ever played “Telephone”?)  Also, I abbreviated it a bit.  If you like it, Rav Bick and his quoters deserve the credit. If you don’t, I accept the blame!]

In this week’s and last week’s Torah Portions we read of the devastation that befell the Egyptians as a result of the Ten Plagues.

The Pharaoh was repeatedly asked to release the Hebrew slaves.  He repeatedly refused.  And he was repeatedly punished.

But why ten times?  That certainly wasn’t the original message:

G-d told Moses to tell Pharaoh, “G-d said, ‘My firstborn son  is Israel…You have refused to release him…I will kill your firstborn son.’”  (Exodus, 4:23-23)

As we all know, he refused to release G-d’s “firstborn”, and eventually he sustained the loss of the Egyptian firstborn in the Tenth Plague.  Based upon this original warning, it appears that the only punishment necessary for refusing to release the slaves was the tenth Plague.  Why the other nine?

Another question. The Ninth Plague, the Plague of Darkness.  It doesn’t seem to have been such a big deal.  The other Plagues had led to death and destruction, and seem to have gotten successively more harsh.  But the Plague of Darkness, consisting of three days when they couldn’t see and three days when they couldn’t move, seems to have been mostly an annoyance, but not a severe plague.

Also, Rashi implies that the Plague of Darkness was not because of the Pharaoh’s refusal to release the slaves.  He states that many wicked Israelites who refused to leave Egypt died during the darkness so that the Egyptians wouldn’t see their deaths and negate their own punishment by saying, “See, the Hebrews are dying too!”  Also, the darkness gave the Israelites the opportunity to see what possessions the Egyptians had so that they could request them on the way out of Egypt.  (Basically, reparations for the years of slavery.)

Rabbi Bick answered that different plagues served different purposes.

The Pharaoh didn’t respond well to Moses’ initial request:

Who is G-d that I should listen to His Voice to release Israel?  I don’t know G-d! Also, I will not release Israel!” (ibid, 5:2)

Pharaoh here committed two sins: 1) “Who is G-d that I should listen to His Voice…?”  2) Also, I will not release Israel!”

Pharaoh committed blasphemy against G-d.  ALSO, he was disrespectful toward Israel.  Both of these sins needed to be punished.

The Plagues began: 1) Blood.  2) Frogs.  3) Lice.  4) Wild animals.  5) Cattle disease.  6)  Boils.  7) Hail.

Pharaoh began to see the error of his ways:

Pharaoh sent and summoned Moses and Aaron and said to them, “This time I have sinned.  G-d is the Righteous One, and I and my people are the wicked ones.  (ibid, 9:27)

Pharaoh repented for sinning against G-d.  But G-d still had a score to settle for his sin against Israel.

The Plagues continued: 8) Locusts.

Pharaoh was getting better:

Pharaoh hastened to summon Moses and Aaron and he said, “I have sinned to G-d and to you…” (ibid, 10:16)

and to you…”  Pharaoh had now repented for sinning against Israel.  His punishment for his disrespect was fulfilled.  The first 8 Plagues had taken care of that.

Then came Plague #9.  The Plague of Darkness was really not a punishment per se.  That is why it wasn’t so severe.  As Rashi explains, the purpose of that Ninth Plague was more about benefiting Israel than punishing Egyptians.  Therefore, it was more a nuisance than a plague.

Pharaoh still refused to release the slaves.  He repented for “dissing” G-d and Israel after suffering the first eight Plagues.  He endured the Ninth Plague for Israel’s sake.

But he still refused to heed G-d’s warning that he must release G-d’s firstborn or he would lose Egypt’s firstborn.

That was the one Plague that needed to be done for his refusal.  The other Plagues were a punishment for opening his big mouth!!!

No bad deed goes unpunished.  Every additional nuance of Pharaoh’s sin led to additional punishment.  G-d is very specific, and He has a very good memory.  He misses nothing.

Whatever applies to the negative applies all the more so to the positive.  Every good deed we do gets noticed.   Every positive facet of every Mitzvah is rewarded.

Do a Mitzvah.  Do it now.  G-d is watching!

Have a great Shabbos.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links.


From the Archives 

“Time Off for Bad Behavior” (2010) 

The numbers don’t add up.

The habitation of the Israelites during which they dwelled in  Egypt was four hundred thirty years.  It was at the end of four hundred thirty years, on that very day, the legions of G-d left the  land of Egypt.  (Exodus, 12:40-41)

There’s a problem with the math.

…  Obviously, our stay in  Egypt must have been considerably shorter.  In fact, says Rashi, we were only there for 210 years.

… what happened to the other 190? 

Read more.


“Just Desserts” (2009)

…The lamb was sacred to the ancient Egyptians.  …Now the Egyptians would suffer the anguish of seeing their god made into a schwarma sandwich…

This is difficult to understand.  Our People were enslaved.  We were beaten.  Jewish children were murdered so the Pharaoh could bathe in their blood.  In the major scheme of things, not getting the beef seems to be an almost insignificant addition of insult to injury.  G-d brought ten plagues against the Egyptians.  He devastated their country.  He shattered their economy.  The god-roasting of the Passover Lamb seems to be an inconsequential supplementary slap at an already chastised sinner…

Read more.


“Double Dating” (2007)

A few weeks ago we opened up our new calendars and re-taught ourselves how to write checks … 

There are authorities who rule… that one is not permitted to abbreviate the secular months of January, February, etc., as 1, 2, etc.  …  Other authorities … argue against the use of the secular months entirely!…

Read more.


“Pharaoh’s Brother” (2006)

One of the unsung heroes of the Exodus from  Egypt is the Pharaoh’s older brother.  He was the one who finally brought the Pharaoh to his senses.

What’s that?  You’ve never heard of the Pharaoh’s older brother?  Well, I did tell you he was an UNSUNG hero!…

Pharaoh lost it.

Get outta here!” he screamed.  And don’t ever come back!  If you dare come to see me again, you’re a dead man!”  (Loose translation of Exodus,10:27)…

Read more.


“Lox, Cream Cheese, and … UNLEAVENED BAGELS??!!!” (2005)

You don’t have to be religious to feel Jewish…

Pharaoh no longer refused to let the Israelites leave.  Not only did he permit them to leave, he INSISTED that they leave.  Immediately!

… we have been in exile for close to two thousand years  … How is it that our ancestors would not have been able to withstand a moment more than 190 years of exile, while we continue to exist into our third millennium?

… there is a very big difference between our generation and that generation…

Read more.


“The Dog Days of Egypt” (2004)

… He’s doing it again… That obnoxious know-it-all at the office who always manages to grate on your nerves.  He “knows” who’s going to win the primaries and who’s going to win the Super Bowl.  He’s got an opinion about everything, and he’s consistently full of baloney.

You really want to put him in his place.  You’d love to tell him, just this once, exactly what you think of him and his crazy notions.  Still better, you’d just love to punch him in the nose! …

Read more.


“If I Could Only Be Like ___” (2003)

… G-d said to Moses, …”Go to Pharaoh, because I have made his heart stubborn …

Was this fair?  It looks like a set-up!  It looks like G-d is forcing Pharaoh to stubbornly refuse to release the Israelites, and then He plans to punish Pharaoh for being stubborn!

Why should Pharaoh be punished?  He should plead “Not Guilty, by reason of Divine Coercion!”  …

Read more.


“Nissan Maximum” (2002)

… How can we celebrate the first of Tishrei in the fall as the New Year, when the Torah tells us very clearly that year really begins on the first of Nissan in the spring? …

Read more.


“Don’t Confuse Me with the Facts…I’ve Already Made Up My Mind!”  (2001)

…Egypt is in shambles. The king’s own advisors have begged him to wake up and smell the coffee and realize that he is destroying his own country by continuing to disregard G-d’s demands.

Now it’s time to take off the kid gloves and get tough! …

Read more.


This is the weekly message at   Copyright © 2000-2012 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.


Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (  and chaplain in  Monsey,  New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.


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Published on January 26, 2012 at 8:53 am  Leave a Comment  

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