And for those of you who have no placement for such a question, it’s the fourth plague in Egypt. The actual text itself gives absolutely no hint of what it could possibly be. So why do the commentators jump to either wild beasts or else to insects? Here’s what Mechon Mamre says, but I’m going to ellipse a phrase that they add, perhaps unnecessarily:
16 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Rise up early in the morning, and stand before Pharaoh; lo, he cometh forth to the water; and say unto him: Thus saith the LORD: Let My people go, that they may serve Me. 17 Else, if thou wilt not let My people go, behold, I will send swarms … upon thee, and upon thy servants, and upon thy people, and into thy houses; and the houses of the Egyptians shall be full of swarms …, and also the ground whereon they are. 18 And I will set apart in that day the land of Goshen, in which My people dwell, that no swarms… shall be there; to the end that thou mayest know that I am the LORD in the midst of the earth. 19 And I will put a division between My people and thy people–by to-morrow shall this sign be.’ 20 And the LORD did so; and there came grievous swarms… into the house of Pharaoh, and into his servants’ houses; and in all the land of Egypt the land was ruined by reason of the swarms… 21 And Pharaoh called for Moses and for Aaron, and said: ‘Go ye, sacrifice to your God in the land.’ 22 And Moses said: ‘It is not meet so to do; for we shall sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians to the LORD our God; lo, if we sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians before their eyes, will they not stone us? 23 We will go three days’ journey into the wilderness, and sacrifice to the LORD our God, as He shall command us.’ 24 And Pharaoh said: ‘I will let you go, that ye may sacrifice to the LORD your God in the wilderness; only ye shall not go very far away; entreat for me.’ 25 And Moses said: ‘Behold, I go out from thee, and I will entreat the LORD that the swarms … may depart from Pharaoh, from his servants, and from his people, tomorrow; only let not Pharaoh deal deceitfully any more in not letting the people go to sacrifice to the LORD.’ 26 And Moses went out from Pharaoh, and entreated the LORD. 27 And the LORD did according to the word of Moses; and He removed the swarms … from Pharaoh, from his servants, and from his people; there remained not one.
Actually, when you first read it and put it into modern terms, it could be something more like a toxic spew overcoming the land, until you get to the end of the section, when it says “not a single one remained.” So it had to be something that was made up of separate units. The reveal according to Mechon Mamre, is “of flies”. You might be more familiar with “wild beasts”, especially if you think about the Hagaddah and the 10 Plagues as we refer to for Pesach.
But why animals at all? Here’s an interesting extra bit from the OU.
|Moshe prays for the AROV to depart, rather than die (as happened with frogs), so the Egyptians would not benefit from the skins of AROV, whereas with frogs there was no such use (Shemot Rabat 11:4). He reminds Pharaoh not to repeat his disingenuous behavior after the plague of frogs.
And Moshe left Pharaoh, and he entreated Hashem. And Hashem did according to the word of Moshe, and the AROV departed from Pharaoh, his servants and his nation; not one remained. But Pharaoh made his heart stubborn even this time, and he did not release the people (vs. 26- 28).
AROV does not involve a transformation of nature, as occurred with the previous trio of plagues. Instead, it shows that the forces of nature, created by Hashem, are in constant need of His control: by releasing His restraining Hand, the AROV will attack (MASHLIACH). Furthermore, by keeping the AROV out of Goshen, Hashem demonstrates that His influence in the world is constant; He decides where the harmful forces of the universe will function, and where they will not. In the first group of plagues, Hashem showed that He is the world’s Creator; now, He shows that He is also its Guide and Sustainer.
The plague of AROV features man’s different uses and abuses of those of Hashem’s creations that are most like man: the animal kingdom. Animals, which represent the raw forces of nature, can be made abominable through idolatry, or sanctified to the Glory of Hashem.
I found a great translation from ORT (!) that says arov means
and then notes
In the Midrash there is a dispute. Rabbi Nechemia says that arov denotes flies, and Rabbi Yehudah states that it denotes a mixture of wild animals (Sh’moth Rabbah 11:4). Most Midrashim accept the interpretation that arov is wild animals, and this opinion is reflected in most later commentaries (Targum Yonathan; Rashi; Ibn Ezra; Radak, Sherashim; Ibn Janach; Josephus, Antiquities 2:14:3). This would take the verse, ‘He sent the arov and it ate them’ (Psalms 78:11) in its most literal sense. However, even here, some say that the animals only ate their food (Ralbag).
Still, there are many sources that interpret arov as flies (cf. Haggadah, Minhag Teiman 42; Midrash Or HaAfelah, quoted in Torah Sh’lemah 65). Some ancient sources identify the arov as dog-flies (Septuagint; Ethiopic edition of Yov’loth 48:5), or blood-suckers (Philo, De Vita Mosis 2:101). Another source states that it is a mixture of insects and snakes (Sefer HaYashar). It is also possible that the Hebrew arov is related to the ancient Egyptian a’ov, denoting beetles, specifically the scarab or dung beetle.
Other sources identify the arov as an invasion of a specific kind of animal, either wolves (Rashbam), panthers (Midrash Tehillim 78:45), eagles or other birds (Ibid.), or even giant squid (silonith in Hebrew; Ibid.; Sefer HaYashar p. 207; Sekhel Tov; Midrash Aggadah; Midrash VaYosha; see The Torah Anthology 4:254, note 18). See Wisdom of Solomon 11:15-18.
The commentator who Nechama Leibowitz loves to quote, Benno Jacob, says that it can’t be wild animals or wolves, since Egyptians could have beat them off too easily and that insects would be too much like the previous plague kinim, so there’s no hiddush or progression.
So could it be birds? Could this be Hitchcock’s inspiration? Why not?
Let’s go to the obvious person for this inquiry, Rabbi Natan Slifkin. And sure enough, I remember that he wrote something about this a few years ago. But it wasn’t important to me then, so I didn’t remember what he wrote. Of course, it’s worth reading the whole thing, but I will quote just a little part of it for you. He starts out talking about wolves and ravens, characteristics that unite them and also single them out from other animals.
Aside from the social and symbiotic relationship between wolves and ravens, there is another connection between them. The Hebrew name for raven, orev, is comprised of the same letters as the word erev, dusk. Dusk, the time which is so epitomized by wolves that they are repeatedly referred to as “the wolves of dusk” and according to some are even referred to solely by the name dusky in the Egyptian plague, is the same word used as the name of the raven. The Midrash also records a view that that the Egyptian plague of arov was comprised of ravens and other such birds, while another view maintains that it was both wolves and ravens.
And just a little more:
Ravens and wolves are thus both creatures that represent dusk, the mixture of light and dark, and also mixing in general – and furthermore they mix with each other, mammal with bird. The dusky ravens and wolves of dusk are both symbols of the mixing of two distinct realms.
NOTES  Rashbam, commentary to Exodus 8:17. Rabbi Yosef Schonhak in Toldos Ha-Aretz (p. 59) claims that these wolves that plagued Egypt, along with the “wolves of dusk” referred to in Scripture, are hyenas. See too Midrash Tehillim 78 and Midrash Shemos Rabbah 11:2 with the commentary of Maharzav ad loc.
So? Convincing? I’ll go with a combo of wolves and ravens this coming Pesach, I think.