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Tzefarde'a: A Weird Word for an Unimpressive Plague

Could it be that the rabbis have had it wrong all these centuries, and the plague was actually of crocodiles?

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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And the fearsome tzefarde'im clotted the Nile, covered the land and hopped into bed. So...? Thank goodness they weren't crocodiles. Or were they?
And the fearsome tzefarde'im clotted the Nile, covered the land and hopped into bed. So...? Thank goodness they weren't crocodiles. Or were they?Credit: Moshe Gilad
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

Of the ten plagues that the Book of Exodus says befell Egypt to compel the evil Pharaoh to let the Israelite slaves go, the weirdest must be the plague of frogs.

In the language of the bible, frogs were called tze-far-DE-a, which means frog to this very day.

If you think about it, having a bunch of frogs hopping around isn’t that bad - at least they eat the flies.

In addition to being a weird plague, it is a weird word, for one thing because this root has five radicals. That is extremely exceptional in Semitic languages, which as a rule have tri-radical roots.

The Hebraic word is also pretty unique among the Semitic languages, whose words for "frog" are similar – but only slightly so. Arabic has ifda, Aramaic has orda’a, Ge'ez has karn’na’at, while old Egyptians called the pop-eyed amphibian the krar.

Now, does that adorable amphibian look like a plague to you?Credit: Moshe Gilad

As this is the case, how can we be sure that the plague of frogs was really a plague of frogs, especially since the word only appears in the Bible in relation to the same plague and in no other context?

The answer is that we can’t be entirely sure. In fact, in the 12th century Rabbi Abraham Ben Meir Ibn Ezra suggested tzefarde'a actually means "crocodile." That would surely have been much worse than a plague of frogs.

Despite this, it is likely that the mysterious tzefarde'im (the plural form) were frogs after all. There is near perfect agreement on this among the rabbis and the translators of the Bible, including the earliest translation the Greek Septuagint.

Anyway, in modern Hebrew the word tzefarde'a is used for frog, while crocodiles (and alligators) are taninim. They also appear in Exodus - Aaron, Moses’ brother turns his staff into one.

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