It’s always fun to see when medieval Jewish commentaries are inevitably stuck with certain themes and motifs in their literary lenses. The famous French textualist par excellence, yet popularly avoided, Rashbam (1085-1158 CE), has a funny remark regarding the action taken by the frogs in the second plague brought upon ancient Egypt. Rashbam notes how originally, Moses warns Pharaoh that “the River will swarm with frogs, and they will come up and enter into your house, into your bedroom, onto your bed, into the houses of your servants and on your people, into your ovens, and into your kneading troughs. In you, in your people, and in all your servants, the frogs will come up” (Exodus 8:3-4). However, when the offer was made to Pharaoh to have the frogs removed, the Tora tells us “Then Moses said to Pharaoh: ‘I leave to you the honor of telling me when I should plead to have the frogs removed from you, your servants, your people, and your houses. Only in the River will they be left’” (ibid 8:9). Notice how the verse omits any mention of the frogs fleeing from the ovens mentioned in verse 3.
While I do not personally subscribe to analyses on a micro scale of this sort, Rashbam notes on verse 9: “those [frogs] that were in the ovens did not die [in the conventional sense], since they put their trust in God, and entered the blazing ovens at the command of God.” The classic theme of Franco-German martyrdom is obvious here, and is quite unusual of Rashbam to say (those of you who study Rashbam know what I mean). Nonetheless, as funny as this might sound, this comment brought me to divert into the topic of homiletics (also known as Aggadot), particularly regarding a pertinent passage in the Jewish corpus of homiletics, the Midrash Rabbah.
The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 10§4) reports a debate between the celebrated R. Aqiva and his colleague, R. Elazar b. Azaria. “It was stated (regarding the plague of frogs): R. Aqiva says: it was single frog, and it multiplied and filled the entire land of Egypt. R. Elazar b. Azaria said to him: Aqiva, what [business] do you have with homiletics?! Discontinue your talk, and go back to [studying] the laws of skin disease and impurity of homes. [in truth], it was one frog that signaled for them [other frogs] to come.”
A similar remark was made in in the Talmud (Haggiga 14a) regarding an esoteric understanding of the metaphysical interpretation of certain verses describing images of God’s throne that the prophets report. The question at hand is: Is there one metaphysical throne of God, or are there multiple thrones? The Talmud resolves: “This is not a contradiction. One is for Him and one is for David. As it is taught, “One for Him and one for David”, these are the words of R. Aqiva. R. Jose the Galilean said to him, Aqiva, until when will you make the [Divine] Presence profaned [by being at the same level as a human]? Rather, one [throne] for justice and one for righteousness” Did he accept it [this explanation] from him, or did he not accept it from him? Come and hear: “One for justice and one for righteousness”; these are the words of R. Aqiva (which shows that he accepted R. Jose the Galilean’s words). R. Elazar b. Azaria said to him, Aqiva, What business do you have with homiletics?!… Rather, [you must say], one for a throne and one for a footstool- the throne to sit upon, the footstool for a rest- as the verse states: “The heavens are My throne and the earth is My foot-rest (Isaiah 66:1).”
We learn a few valuable lessons from all this: 1. watch out for suicidal animals. 2. try not to push themes of martyrdom and saintliness upon amphibians. 3. do not try to be/engage in matters that are not you. Even the wisest among us have their fortes in some, but not all fields of wisdom. 4. Rabbis can be fresh with each other. 5. The realm of Law and homiletics are two mutually exclusive fields of wisdom. Contrary to popular belief, “we do not learn law from Aggada”, to quote the words of the Babylonian sages, heirs to Talmudic tradition, the Geonim. And 6. Frogs might be plotting our ultimate doom with a secret code language. You are now all warned.