Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Do Tzfardeia Defecate?

One of my favorite midrashim is the one that Pharaoh went to the Nile to defecate, because he wanted people to think he was a god who did not have bodily functions. I like it because of the multiple derivations, some explicit and some implicit.

It is based on the pasuk in Shemot 7 which begins:

טו  לֵךְ אֶל-פַּרְעֹה בַּבֹּקֶר, הִנֵּה יֹצֵא הַמַּיְמָה

The midrash in question as it appears in Shemot Rabba:

לך אל פרעה בבקר הנה יוצא המימה 
לא היה יוצא אלא המימה [בבוקר], לפי, שאותו רשע היה משתבח ואומר שהוא אלוה ואינו יוצא לנקביו, לפיכך היה יוצא בבקר בשעה שהוא נצרך, תפוש אותו. 

It is not just that he went specifically baboker, in the morning. But "Yotzei Hamayma" perhaps has the implication of urinating, or even of defecating (yotzei) into the water (hamayma).

But at the end of the episode, there is also this gem, which clinches it:

כג  וַיִּפֶן פַּרְעֹה, וַיָּבֹא אֶל-בֵּיתוֹ

Apparently, there is a dvar Torah going around which argues for a sort of middah keneged middah regarding the second plague, of frogs. I will let Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin tell it:
Someone sent me an insight that they heard from a contemporary rabbi: "Because Pharaoh portrayed himself like a god by not relieving himself, G-d specifically brought frogs as the second plague, since frogs are creatures that eat and do not void their waste." Pharaoh falsely claimed to be a God who does not excrete, so he was punished with lowly creatures that really do posses this ability.

There is a problem with that, however:
I don't know how this frog drash came about. I've never heard of an ancient belief that frogs do not excrete. (Though I do often hear people asking me if snakes excrete; for some reason, people seem to think that without legs, there's no tushie.) But the fact is that frogs, like every other creature in the world, excrete their waste. How could it be otherwise? What else would they do with the parts of their food that they haven't digested?
I think I derash. First, I will point out that Rabbenu Bachya held that tzfardeia were crocodiles rather than frogs. That makes the makka pretty frightening.

Second, while I also have not heard of an ancient belief that frogs do not defecate, I have heard of an old belief that crocodiles do not defecate.

To wit, we have the following from the 1481 travel account of Meshulam de Volterra, that crocodiles lack an anal orifice and rely on birds to remove the excrement. To cite "The Rabbi and the Crocodile: Interrogating Native in the Late Quattrocento", by David Malkiel, published in Speculum,  A Journal of Medieval Studies, Volume 91, Number 1, from January 2016:

What Meshulam actually is describing is the symbiotic relationship between the Egyptian plover and the crocodile. The plover picks out the food, and at the same times cleans the crocodile's teeth. But even crocodiles defecate.


Jeffrey Smith said...

Sforno also adopts the crocodile theory

Anonymous said...

"Do Tzfardeia Defecate?"

Surely that should be "Do Tzfarda'im Defecate?" or "Does (the) Tzfardeia Defecate?", no?

joshwaxman said...


Well, tzfardai'a is a collective noun as well. that is why the pasuk says:

ותעל הצפרדע

It means the frogs, collectively, rather than a single large frog. This of course leads to the midrash about the frogs multiplying by splitting, or alternatively, spitting, or else whistling. But on a peshat level it is a collective noun.

kol tuv,

Mr. Cohen said...

Quick quote from Famous Jewish
Mega-Donor about Jewish Continuity

Eliyahu said...

Nice :)


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