An Illustrated Guide To The 10 Plagues Of Egypt

Perhaps the most memorable moment in the Passover story is when the people of Egypt are overtaken by plague after terrible plague. During the Passover seder, 10 drops of wine are poured out for each of the plagues, in a gesture of recognition for what the Egyptians endured before the Israelites were set free.
Rabbi Yael Rapport of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah describes the pattern that emerges during this part of the story: "The plagues are a consequence to an action." After every plague, Moses and Aaron return to the pharaoh to ask, again, for freedom, and the pharaoh "hardens his heart" against their pleas each time. It's only after these fruitless meetings that the next plague comes.
Rabbi Rapport says the 10 plagues of Egypt are meant to teach us "to be open-eyed, open-minded, and open-hearted toward other people." They can also serve as a springboard for reflection on what "plagues" still exist in our modern-day world. Frogs and water turning to blood might not be problems for us anymore, but bigotry, poverty, and illness are still widespread. She tells us this can be a helpful framework to use when you're thinking about where to direct your service work or charity.
Ahead, we visit each of the 10 plagues of Egypt, with help from Rabbi Rapport and the writing of Rabbi Jill Jacobs, to better understand this part of the Passover story.
1 of 10

Rabbi Rapport explains that, first, all the water in Egypt turned to blood, leaving nothing to drink. She describes water as a "leitmotif" in the Passover seder, as it appears multiple times in the story (from the tears the Israelites shed to the sea that parted for them to make their escape).
2 of 10

Next came frogs, so many that they covered every inch of Egypt. Seriously, the passage in Exodus that describes this plague says they were even turning up in people's ovens.
3 of 10

"All the dust turns to lice," Rabbi Rapport says. Rabbi Jacobs writes that this is the first plague that the pharaoh and his magicians weren't able to reverse or stop, so it can be seen as somewhat of a turning point, though the pharaoh still hardens his heart.
4 of 10
Wild Animals

Rabbi Rapport tells us a swarm of beasts "overtake the Egyptian people and their livestock."

Sometimes, the fourth plague is depicted as flies, not wild animals. According to Jewish history professor Gary A. Rendsburg, this is actually due to a translation issue. In a 2003 article, he writes that the Hebrew word used for the fourth plague (arov) refers to a "mixture" of some kind, and different translators took this mean "mixtures" of two very different things — insects and beasts. Depending on when and where your family's haggadah was written, it may say wild animals or flies.
5 of 10

In this plague, what livestock is left after the swarm of beasts dies out due to sickness — but only the livestock belonging to Egyptians. The Israelites' livestock is spared.
6 of 10

God tells Moses to take "handfuls of ashes from a furnace" and toss them into the air — they'll rain down as boils onto the people and animals of Egypt.
7 of 10

Rabbi Jacobs writes that some interpretations hold that it wasn't just hail raining down on the people of Egypt, but "fire and ice," too.
8 of 10

The locusts are the final blow against the Egyptians' crops, Rabbi Rapport explains.
9 of 10

Rabbi Raport says that not even a candle can illuminate the darkness that spreads over Egypt for three whole days.
10 of 10
Killing of the Firstborn

As the tenth plague, this is the most severe and the one "that affects Pharaoh most personally, because his son dies," Rabbi Rapport explains. It was only after this plague that the pharaoh finally told Moses that he and his people could leave Egypt.

Rabbi Jacobs highlights more recent interpretations that suggest this final plague is a chance to reflect upon the cost of freedom. These readings emphasize the fact that the Israelites are set free only after the Egyptians suffered immensely. This brings us back to Rabbi Rapport's call for open-heartedness and her suggestion that this is the perfect time of year to help others: "Passover reminds us about the freedoms that we do have and makes us more conscious of freedoms that others don’t have."

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