Parashat Va’era / Do Like the Frogs Do

Yakov Z. Meyer
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'The Plague of Frogs,' engraving by Gerard Jollain (1670).
Yakov Z. Meyer

In the Talmudic period, Todos of Rome was one of the leaders of the Jewish community living in the capital of the Roman Empire. He is referred to in Tractate Pesachim of the Babylonian Talmud in connection with a controversial religious ruling he made for his community: obligating Rome’s Jews to eat roasted goat meat at the Passover seder in order to continue the tradition observed during the period of the Temple in Jerusalem, and related to the Passover sacrifice. The ruling ran counter to the rabbinical prohibition on consumption of sacred meat outside the Temple area.

In response, the sages at rabbinical academies in Palestine sent Todos a message: “It is only because you are Todos that we are not decreeing upon you a sentence of excommunication for having ordered Jews to eat sacred meat outside the Temple area” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesachim, page 53a).

In the Gemara section of the Talmud, it is asked why the sages did not excommunicate Todos: because he was a “great individual,” or because he was a powerful leader who inspired fear in the sages’ hearts? The Gemara replies that he was a great individual (a logical response, considering the unlikelihood that the power of a Jewish community leader in Rome could have had any impact on Palestinian Jewry). As proof of his learnedness, the Gemara cites one of his homilies, which addresses a verse in this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Va’era (Exodus 6:2-9:35).

“Todos offered the following commentary on Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, who were willing to die as martyrs in the flames of a furnace in order to sanctify God’s name. They felt they must be prepared to martyr themselves, seeing that this is what the frogs in the Plague of the Frogs in Egypt did. In their discussion, they asked what the Torah says about these frogs, who were not commanded by God to martyr themselves in sanctification of his name. Their answer is that it is written in the Torah, ‘And the river shall swarm with frogs, which shall go up and come into thy house and into thine ovens, and into thy kneading-troughs’ (Exodus 7:28). When are kneading-troughs placed beside the oven? When the oven is hot. If the frogs, who were not commanded by God to martyr themselves to sanctify his name did nonetheless martyr themselves, then, so the three would-be martyrs concluded, they must do the same” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesachim, p. 53b).

Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, the Book of Daniel tells us, were prepared to martyr themselves rather than bow down to a statue of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. In his homily, Todos reconstructs the religious debate in which the three engage and which leads them to the decision that they must be prepared to die as martyrs. (As Daniel informs us, they are miraculously saved from the flames.)

When God smites Egypt with the Plague of the Frogs, Moses informs Pharaoh that the frogs “ shall go up and come into thy house, and into thy bed-chamber, and upon thy bed” (Exodus 7:28). Moses also tells the Egyptian ruler that the frogs will come “into thine ovens, and into thy kneading-troughs” (Exodus 7:28). A kneading-trough is a vessel in which dough is placed before being put in the oven for baking. From the juxtaposition of the words “ovens” and “kneading-troughs,” Todos deduces that the frogs jumped into the oven when it was already hot and ready to receive the dough. If the frogs, who were not commanded by God to martyr themselves in order to sanctify his name, jumped into the burning ovens without hesitation, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah felt it stood to reason that they must do the same.

The citing by Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah of the example set by the frogs in Egypt as grounds for their courageous decision seems initially an instance of pure satire and could thus be expected to lead the reader to feel critical of Todos’ homily. If Todos wanted an example that could have guided the decision of Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, he should have instead chosen an instance that is not so farcical as the frogs’ decision in Egypt. For instance, he could have, for example, cited, “but I will be hallowed among the children of Israel” (Leviticus 22:32), concerning which the sages comment: “When God says that ‘but I will be hallowed,’ it stands to reason that individuals should be willing to offer themselves as martyrs in order to sanctify his name. Does this mean that individuals should martyr themselves when no one can see their act? No, it is written in the Torah ‘among the children of Israel,’ which means that the act should be carried out in public” [Sifra, Parashat Emor, chapter 9, section 4]. In other words, Jews must be prepared to martyr themselves in public in order to sanctify God’s name.

This midrash and others like it reflect the difficult political situation in which the sages found themselves during their lifetime. In certain cases, the sages obligate a Jew to agree to become a martyr; in other cases, they praise martyrs who have given their lives to sanctify God’s name and, in other cases, they grieve for the bitter fate the martyrs have taken upon themselves in their willingness to endure such a harrowing experience. However, the sages never ridicule the act of martyrdom.

In contrast, Todos presents an alternative to the sages’ approach. He lived far away from them, in Rome, and led a community whose members followed an alternative to the Temple praxis (or the post-Temple praxis of mourning over the Temple’s destruction – it is difficult to determine during which period of time Todos lived).

The Talmudic discussion does not dissipate the doubts as to the nature of Todos’ status. Did the sages not excommunicate him because he was a learned Talmudic scholar – that is, a great individual – or because he was a powerful leader whom the sages feared? Although the Talmud generally prefers to provide a binary response to such questions, a hint as to Todos’ interim status as an esteemed Talmudic scholar who operated outside the conventional system might be found in the assertion, “It is only because you are Todos that we are not decreeing upon you a sentence of excommunication.” That assertion is an echo of a similar statement regarding Honi Hame’agel (Honi the Circle-Drawer) that appears in Tractate Taanit in the Babylonian Talmud. After Honi seems to have forced God to bring rainfall, Simeon, son of Shetach, declares, “It is only because you are Honi that I am not decreeing upon you a sentence of excommunication. However, I am powerless, because you ingratiate yourself before God, who seems to do what you wish. You are like a son who ingratiates himself before his father so that the latter will do what the son wishes.

“Concerning your actions, it is written in the Torah, ‘Let thy father and thy mother be glad, and let her that bore thee rejoice’ [Proverbs 23:25]” (Mishnah, Tractate Taanit, 3:8).

Like Honi, who preceded him, Todos was a different breed of saint – one of the common people, someone who operated outside the system and did not play according to the sages’ rules. Like Honi, Todos redefines his relationship with the public and with God, who grants this saint’s actions divine approval. Only a person like Honi can escape the fate of being excommunicated by the sages; similarly only a person like Todos can evade the fate of being excommunicated. However, unlike Honi, Todos goes one step further than the establishment of an alternative to the sages: He actually criticizes them directly.

It is in this light that one should read Todos’ above-mentioned discussion of the religious issue of martyrdom as a satire directed against the sages. In Todos’ homily, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah represent the sages of the Holy Land who deduce the laws of martyrdom not from the verses that define what is meant by the sanctification of God’s name but rather from the frogs in the Plague of the Frogs in Egypt. This satire is included in the Talmud as a foundation stone in the debate as to whether Todos was a great individual or merely a powerful leader.

The fact that he knows how to imitate the game the sages play with regard to religious rulings enables the Talmud to grant him the benefit of the doubt and to describe him as a great individual. Todos' astute satire indeed proves that he was a particularly clever person who was a great individual and who, despite the Talmud’s refusal to call him a powerful leader who inspired fear in the sages’ hearts, was indeed a powerful person whose powerful homilies easily crossed the Mediterranean to penetrate the thick walls of Talmudic debate in Tractate Pesachim.