R' Eliezer says: How do we know that each plague that the Holy One (Blessed be He) brought on the Egyptians in Egypt consisted of four plagues? It says “He sent among them the fierceness of His anger: wrath, and indignation, and trouble, a sending of messengers of evil.” – wrath (1), indignation (2), trouble (3), sending of evil messengers (4). Therefore say: In Egypt they suffered 40 plagues, on the see they suffered 200 plagues.
R' Akiva says: How do we know that each plague that the Holy One (Blessed be He) brought on the Egyptians in Egypt consisted of five plagues? It says “He sent among them the fierceness of His anger, wrath, and indignation, and trouble, a sending of messengers of evil.” – fierceness of his anger (1), wrath (2), indignation (3), trouble (4), sending of evil messengers (5). Therefore say: In Egypt they suffered 50 plagues, on the see they suffered 250 plagues.
This midrash, which we say each Pesach in the Haggadah, seems hard to accept. When did all these additional plagues take place, what did they consist of, and why are they not mentioned in the Torah? In this post I will try to analyze the meaning of this midrash.
From 10 to 50
The 10 plagues (or at least one of them) are referred to as "the finger of God" (8:15), while the splitting of the sea is called "the great 'hand' which Hashem did" (14:31). Each hand has five fingers, so the Haggadah concludes that the splitting of the sea was five times as great as the 10 plagues, i.e. 50 plagues.
The problem with this analysis is that the metaphor of God's hand is also used to describe the 10 plagues. The best-known example is in reference to the 5th plague: "Behold, the hand of Hashem is among your cattle in the field" (9:3). God's hand also refers to the 10 plagues in verses 3:20, 6:1, and 13:9. If the 10 plagues are a "hand" and the splitting of the sea also a "hand", shouldn't the latter be considered as 10 plagues rather than 50?
For this reason, I think the discussion of fingers and hands is simply a memory tool for an idea which actually derives from deeper, thematic reasons. Specifically, many of the 10 plagues were not especially miraculous. The splitting of the sea, on the other hand, was clearly miraculous. Therefore it is considered greater, and thus equal to many more plagues.
Proposed “natural” explanations for many of the plagues are well known. Here are some examples. Perhaps, the "bloody" Nile was caused by an abnormal growth of algae (a "crimson tide"). Frogs were forced to leave the algae-infested river, and many ended up in human habitations. When the frogs died (far from their natural habitat), the insects and animals feeding on their corpses made up the next two plagues. All the decaying flesh led to diseases which killed the cattle and then attacked humans. Hail and locusts are natural phenomena, and perhaps the darkness "which could be felt" refers to an intense sandstorm.
(Sometimes these explanations are brought in an attempt to show that God was not really involved in the Exodus. That conclusion is untenable. Certain aspects of the plagues – for example, the timing, and complete sparing of the Israelites – cannot be explained by any natural phenomenon. And even if they could, there is no way that Moshe could reliably predict them. Anyway, the fact that undeniable miracles occurred later on is sufficient evidence of Divine involvement. Unless you simply reject the truthfulness of the Biblical text, there is no way of avoiding God's role and intentions in the Exodus. Therefore, we should feel free to consider “natural” explanations of the plagues, without feeling that they may undermine our faith.)
Moreover, the Egyptians' reaction shows that the plagues were not so miraculous. The Egyptian magicians were able to duplicate the first few plagues (albeit on a smaller scale). Partly based on this, Pharaoh decided to ignore Moshe and Aharon's demands. Even later on, the complaint to Pharaoh is "Do you not yet know that Egypt is destroyed?" (10:7) rather than something like "Do you not yet know that Hashem is God and therefore worth listening to?" Perhaps the purpose of the non-miraculous plagues was to preserve Egyptian free will. If the plagues were obviously miraculous, nobody could avoid learning the desired lessons from them. With less miraculous plagues, stubborn and selfish Egyptians who did not want to lose their Israelite slaves would find some rationalization for ignoring the plagues.
After the Israelites left Egypt, this reason no longer applied. It was no longer necessary that the Egyptians have free will, so no limits were placed on the miraculousness of the ensuing events. This is most evident at the splitting of the sea. No natural phenomenon could conceivable cause the water to form “a wall for them, on their right and on their left”. That was a visible, ongoing, and dramatic violation of the law of gravity.
The magicians call one plague "the finger of God", yet the Haggadah refers to all 10 plagues as a single finger, rather than 10 fingers. Perhaps this implies that the "number of fingers" refers not to the count of miraculous events, but to the degree of miraculousness of whatever is taking place. That fits well with the splitting of the sea, which was one event rather than 50, but was certainly several times as miraculous as anything that preceded it.
From 50 to 200 or 250
How then do we understand the second part of the midrash, in which the number of plagues is multiplied once again by a factor of 4 or 5? To answer this we must provide the relevant verse in its full context (Tehilim 78:42-51):
They remembered not His hand, nor the day when He redeemed them from the adversary.
How He set His signs in Egypt, and His wonders in the field of Zoan;
And turned their rivers into blood, so that they could not drink their streams.
He sent among them 'arov', which devoured them; and frogs, which destroyed them.
He gave also their increase unto the caterpillar, and their labor unto the locust.
He destroyed their vines with hail, and their sycamore-trees with frost.
He gave over their cattle also to the hail, and their flocks to fiery bolts.
He sent among them the fierceness of His anger, wrath, and indignation, and trouble, a sending of messengers of evil.
He leveled a path for His anger; He spared not their soul from death, but gave their life over to the pestilence;
And smote all the first-born in Egypt, the first-fruits of their strength in the tents of Ham.
In total 7 out of 10 plagues are mentioned in this passage (plagues 3,6,9 are omitted, perhaps because they were the only plagues not announced to Pharaoh – see here). Alongside the relatively straightforward descriptions of the plagues, there is one verse which discusses no plague in particular. This verse, shown in bold above, is the same one used by the Haggadah.
If this verse is not a mention of one plague, perhaps it is a general description of what happened in each of the plagues. If so, then “fierceness of His anger; wrath; indignation; trouble; sending of messengers of evil” are five aspects of each plague. Thus the 10 plagues become 50, and the 50 plagues at the sea 250. That is the basis of R' Akiva's opinion.
According to R' Eliezer, though, “fierceness of his anger” is a general description of the other four aspects, rather than being an aspect of its own. (Presumably he says this because “fierceness of his anger” is not followed by the word “and”, implying that it is a prefix to the list of aspects, rather than part of the list. R' Akiva would reply that use of the word “and” in Tanach is not always consistent – see Ibn Ezra to Shemot 1:4. Note how my translations of the verse at the top of this post reflect each rabbi's interpretation.) Thus, according to R' Eliezer, each plague has only four aspects, and the numbers of plagues become 40 and 200 respectively.
You may object to this analysis, in that a plague remains one plague even if there is more than one aspect to it. Perhaps, but as we saw with the splitting of the sea, in this midrash numbers of plagues do not really refer to the number of events. Rather, they refer to how wonderful the plague was. And the whole point of these “multiplication tables” is to recognize the greatness of the existing plagues, not to introduce new plagues that were not mentioned in the text.