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What is the Purpose of the Mnemonic Dzakh Adash B’ahav in the Haggadah? Responsa in a Moment: Volume 3, Issue No. 7, April 2009

Question: In the Haggadah, Rabbi Judah gives the ten plagues a siman, a mnemonic: Dzakh Adash B’ahav. Why did he need to give a siman for ten words which could easily be learned by heart? Furthermore, anyone could do this, so what is Rabbi Judah’s hiddush (innovation)?

Responsum: This question has been asked frequently through the generations. I shall first give seven homiletic explanations which are quite interesting but are clearly not the original reason for this siman, followed by three which are much more convincing as the original reason for this mnemonic.

I. Homiletic Explanations

1. Rabbi Isaiah de Trani (Italy, 1200-1260) says that Dzakh Adash B’ahav adds up to 501 in gematria. In the very next passage in the Haggadah, three tannaim say that there were more than ten plagues. Rabbi Yossi Haglili says 50; Rabbi Eliezer says 200; and Rabbi Akiva says 250 – which add up to 500. In other words, thegematria of Rabbi Judah’s Dzakh Adash B’ahav (501) comes to remind us of the 500 plagues of the other three rabbis. And what about the discrepancy? We have a general principle that gematria can be off by 1, or the extra 1 is in place of “the finger of God” (Exodus 8:15). (Kasher, p. 52, paragraph 287).

2. Rabbi Judah David Eisenstein (1854-1956) quotes a similar explanation in his Haggadah (Otzar Peirushim V’tziyurim el Haggadah Shel Pesah, New York, 1920, p. 15). Some say that thegematria of Dzakh Adash B’ahav = 501 is equivalent to the word “asher” (אשר) = 501 in the verse “all of the illness which (asher) I gave to Egypt I shall not give to you” (Exodus 15:26). In other words, the “illness” which God gave to Egypt was the ten plagues.

3. Beginning in the twelfth century, many medieval rabbis said that Rabbi Judah wanted to divide the ten plagues into three groups, following a midrash found in Sanhedrin 81b:



With a warnin


Without a warning


Dzakh: Blood, Frogs




Adash: Wild Animals, Cattle Disease




B’ahav: Hail, Locust




And what of the last plague, smiting the firstborn, which was given with a warning? It was attached to the last abbreviation because it has no partner! (Kasher, p. 51, paragraph 280)

4. Rabbi Eliezer ben Nathan, the Ra’avan (Mainz, 1090-1170) and others, also concentrated on the threefold division of the plagues:
Dzakh: Blood, Frogs, Lice – were done by Aaron with the staff;
Adash: Wild Animals, Cattle Disease, Boils – were done by Moseswithout the staff;
B’ahav: Hail, Locust, Darkness, Firstborn – were done by Moses with the staff. (Kasher, p. 51, paragraph 282)

5. Rabbi David Abudraham (Spain, 14th century) also concentrated on the threefold division:
Dzakh: were done by Aaron;
Adash: were done by Moses;
B’ahav: were done by God. (Kasher, p. 52, paragraph 284)

6. Rabbi Yom Tov ben Avraham Ishbili, the Ritva (Spain 1250-1330) and others, gave a theological explanation for Rabbi Judah’s threefold division:
-The first three plagues (Dezakh) are preceded by the verse “with this you shall know that I am God” (Exodus 7:17), in order to teach the Egyptians that God exists.
-The second three plagues (Adash) are preceded by the verse “in order that you know that I am the Lord in the midst of the land” (Exodus 8:18), in order to teach the Egyptians that God watches over (hashgaha) the world.
-The last four plagues (B’ahav) are preceded by the verse “so that you should know that there is none like me in the entire world” (Exodus 9:14), in order to teach the Egyptians that God’s power is unlimited. (Kasher, p. 52, paragraph 285)

7. Rabbi Yitzhak ben Asher Halevi of Speyer, the Riba (ca. 1100) maintained that Rabbi Judah made this threefold division in order to emphasize that the third plagues in each group – lice, boils, darkness – worked in conjunction with each other. The “proof” is as follows: when you write these three words one on top of another, the three words can be read from right to left and from bottom to top! (Kasher, p. 52, paragraph 286)


ם נ כ
נ ח ש
כ ש ח


All of these explanations are quite clever, but also quite forced. Therefore, it seems to me that one of the following is the correct explanation. It is hard to choose among them because that would depend on the original context of Rabbi Judah’s mnemonic which appears in the Haggadah, in Sifrei Devarim(ed. Finkelstein, paragraph 301, p. 319) and in Shmot Rabbah and parallels (see below).

II. Simple Explanations
1. Many medieval rabbis beginning with Rashi, as well as a few modern scholars (See Kasher, p. 51, paragraph 278; R. Moshe Hirshler, Sinai 71 (5732), pp. 59-60; R. Judah David Eisenstein, Otzar Dinim Uminhagim, New York, 1917, p. 86 quoting Rabbi Judah Hehassid; Sh. H. Kook, Iyunim Umehkarim, Vol. 2, Jerusalem, 1963, pp. 364-365; Safrai, p. 144, note 7) have suggested that Rabbi Judah wanted to emphasize in his siman that the correct order of the plagues is found in Exodus chapters 7-12 and not in two other lists of the plagues found in the book of Psalms:



Psalm 78:43-51


Psalm 105: 27-36



Wild Animals










Wild Animals






2. A second explanation for Rabbi Judah’s siman is found in four parallel midrashim and is given by many rishonim and a few modern scholars. (Shmot Rabbah 8:2, ed. Shinan, p. 204 and cf. an abbreviated version ibid. 5:6, p. 156; Tanhuma Buber, Va’era, p. 25, end of paragraph 8; Yalkut Shimoni to Shmot, paragraph 173; Kasher p. 51, paragraph 279; L. Landshuth, Maggid Mireshit, Berlin, 1855, p. xiv; Daniel Goldschmidt, Seder Haggada Shel Pesah, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1948, pp. 42-43). The midrash in Shmot Rabbah 8:2 (ed. Shinan p. 204) reads as follows:

[Moses said to God:] How shall I bring the ten plagues upon [Pharaoh]? God said to him: “Take this staff with you, with which you shall do the signs” (Exodus 4:17). Rabbi Judah said: the staff weighed forty se’ah and was made of sapphire and ten plagues were carved on it notarikon [=an abbreviation] Dzakh Adash B’ahav. God said to him: “in this order, bring the plagues upon him!”

In other words, according to this explanation, Rabbi Judah’s mnemonic in the Haggadah is an excerpt from the more complete midrash found in Shmot Rabbah and parallels. (In Tanhuma and Yalkut Shimoni the key phrase we are discussing was attributed to “Rabbi Judah bar Ami”, a PalestinianAmora. Safrai, p. 144 and page 142, note 20 suggests that this Rabbi Judah is different than the tanna mentioned in the Haggadah. That is highly unlikely. It is more likely that the Haggadah version is simply an abbreviated version of the longer midrash, as both Landshuth and Goldschmidt (above, note 2) have suggested).

3. The final explanation, which is the simplest, was given by six medieval and modern scholars: (Piskey Tosafot to Menahot, paragraph 234; Rabbi Yehudah b”r Yakar, Peirush Hatefilot V’habrakhot, ed. Yerushalmi, Jerusalem, 1979, part 2, p. 130; Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura to Mishnah Menahot 11:4; Landshuth (above, note 2); Rabbi Meir Heilprin,Hanotarikon, Hasimanim V’hakinuyim, Vilna, 1912, p. XXXVIII; Safrai, p. 145). Rabbi Judah simply likedsimanim and abbreviations!

The Mishnah in Menahot 11:4 (fol. 96a in the Bavli) gives the measurements in tefahim (handbreadths) of the two loaves and the showbread in the Temple to which Rabbi Judah reacts: “So that you should not err: zd”d; yh”z (7, 4, 4; 10, 5, 7).

Similarly, Tosefta Megillah 1:6 (ed. Lieberman p. 345) discusses how to write the months Adar I and Adar II in legal documents. The first Tanna says that Adar II is written Adar Tinyan (=second Adar in Aramaic). “Rabbi Judah says: second Adar is written ‘T’ “, which is simply an abbreviation of Tinyan!

In conclusion, the correct explanation may be a combination of the last two: Since Rabbi Judah liked abbreviations, he authored the midrash which states that God carved Dzakh Adash B’ahav on Moshe’s staff, so that Moses would remember the correct order of the plagues.

David Golinkin
11 Nissan 5769


1. Daniel Goldschmidt, Haggadah Shel Pesah V’toldoteha,Jerusalem, 1960, pp. 46, 80

2. Meir Ish Shalom, Meir Ayin, Vienna, 1895, pp. 103-104

3. Rabbi Menahem M. Kasher, Haggadah Shleimah, Jerusalem, 1955 and reprints, p. 51-52

4. Joshua Kulp and David Golinkin, The Schechter Haggadah: Art, History and Commentary, Jerusalem, 2009, p. 232.

5. Shmuel and Ze’ev Safrai, Haggadat Hazal, Jerusalem, 1998, pp. 144-145, 222.

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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