The Ten Plagues

Introduction

Among Arabic-speaking Jews the home celebration of the Eve of Passover is ornamented by various compositions in Arabic, some of them being translations of Hebrew hymns, others being originally written in Arabic. This ceremony is generally known in the west as seder ("order"), although this term is not much in use among Sephardic Jews, who refer to it as haggadah "recital" i.e. of the Exodus story. The term haggadah has, then, for them a broader meaning than among Ashkenazic Jews, who restrict it to the book containing the order of service for the eve. The highlight of the ceremony is a festive meal, at which unleavened bread and other symbolic foods are eaten; the meal is preceded and followed by traditional readings, and four cups of wine are drunk at stated points of the service. Among the readings is a recitation of the ten plagues with which the Egyptian tyrants were smitten. It is considered meritorious on this occasion to dilate on the miracle of the redemption, even to the extent of discussing it the entire night.

This selection is an embellishment of the plagues in Arabic rhymed prose, designed to help fulfil this duty of discussion, as the little foreword explains. Rhymed prose is very common in Arabic, and its jingling sentences do not give the comic effect which is virtually unavoidable when this technique is copied into English. A writer of Judeo-Arabic prose will drop naturally into rhymed prose when he is emotionally moved, or wishes a special effect. Macaronic verse, in which words from a completely different language are brought in more or less regularly, is also used seriously in Arabic as well as Judeo-Spanish; this is another genre which automatically gives a comic or cute effect in English. All of this goes to show that translations are but pale reflections of the original, whatever the original language may be.

The Ten Plagues

Foreword

It is well known that on this happy night every Jew is obligated to dwell on the events which occurred during the Egyptian miracle. Therefore we offer you an explanation of the Ten Plagues as follows.

1. Blood

On the Egyptians came a plague of blood
It confounded them, and nipped their hopes in the bud.
They worshipped the River Nile,
But it turned into blood which was vile.
And all the wells too
Turned to red sticky goo.
The Egyptians were smitten with drouth,
And their tongue clave to the roof of their mouth.
They brought water from a long way
For their spittle had quite gone away.
But then a miracle came
From the Creator, blessed be his Name!
All that water so pure and clear
Became blood when Egyptians were near.
And this confused them some more,
And their fate they began to deplore.
They were so thirsty they could hardly speak.
And this situation lasted a week.

2. Frogs

The plague of frogs was hard indeed.
The Egyptians deemed them a very strange breed!
The frogs coming on them were legion,
Spreading over each place and each region.
In each closet and bed there's a heap.
They would not let them catch a wink of sleep!
In the troughs and the ovens they ran,
Attacked flesh and the clothing of man.
The Egyptians their limbs scarce could bend,
Shouting madly: "The world's come to its end!"
Pharoah was first to be put in this plight
Till he couldn't tell daytime from night.
His folk were upset and came screaming:
"We hope the Jews' freedom you're meaning!
Send them off, and let's have some rest
While our veins with some blood are still blessed"
He considered what they had to say,
Said to Moses: "Pray God this same day
These wily frogs please to remove,
Then with young and with old you shall move!"

3. Lice

A plague of lice now upon Egypt leaps.
Our pardoning Lord piled them up in heaps.
Our sages say these lice were quite various,
Big and small, not to say multifarious.
They caused great concern and adversity,
Brought on them great pain and calamity.
They harried their days and their nights,
Redoubled their fears and their frights.
"What is all this mess?" to Pharoah they said,
"These lice are as big as a gander well fed.
They fill us with terror and dread!
We've never seen anything like 'em.
And our books do not help us to spike 'em.
These malevolent Jews
Are really bad news.
Let them loose from the land of the Nile.
Give us rest from the lice for a while!"

4. Wild Beasts

By God's hand Egypt with a fourth plague was vexed;
It left them sad and perplexed.
Indeed God's victory was great
And to Egypt's trouble there was no rebate.
How wild were these creatures, beast upon beast --
The Egyptians' terror greatly increased.
Lions, tigers, wolves, over Egypt they swarmed
And their doors the savage beasts stormed.
They shattered the trees and the palms,
And damaged the homes and the farms.
They attacked the Egyptians greedily,
Did unspeakable things to them speedily.
Pharoah regretted what had occurred,
And to weep with his friends he was stirred:
"Enough! Let's send off the Jews.
I want to cheer up from this news."

5. Pestilence

Rèbel, rèbel!
Your obstinate opinions are sounding Egypt's knell.
Pity the Egyptians for what they were sent;
These calamities increased their torment.
After the blood and the frogs and the lice
And the beasts which bit them all in a trice,
A very bad pestilence came.
It ate up their profit on the sheep, cows, donkeys and all kinds of game.
The ram which they adore --
Look, dead on the floor.
What hope is left?
Of horses, camels too, they are bereft.
But Pharoah stubbornly persisted --
"It's only witchcraft," he insisted.
"I refuse to put Israel to flight.
Their pains I'll increase day and night."

6. Skin Disease

The sixth plague came at the command
Of Him who Lord of pardon is, in every land.
A skin disease took firm root in their flesh;
Their sicknesses were many, their wounds fresh.
Their rest was destroyed, their nerves took on a twitch --
And their flesh like a fire 'gan to itch.
(It afflicted the poor and the rich.)
They longed for death, but death would not come.
They called for him, but he stayed mum.
Pharoah their god they rejected,
Rose up against him like men with madness infected.
Then they upbraided him screaming:
"Where are the good old days of which we are dreaming?
Where is our glory which has passed away?
Pity the Egyptian. He is in a bad way."
After quarrel without intermission,
Pharoah bent to the way of submission.
But soon changed his mind saying: "Despite this brouhaha
I won't let them go, and que será será!"

7. Hail

Hail came next upon Pharaoh's fief.
Egypt was desolate. Great indeed their grief.
From it they saw neither pleasure nor relief.
Such a state in the fields that hail did achieve
That the harm it caused you, you could scarcely believe.
Hail and fire together, how can such things be?
It's a miracle from God the Subduer, don't you see?
It killed off the sheep,
Made their distress deep.
Trees were smashed.
Houses crashed.
It destroyed all the habitations that existed,
Yet on contumacy firmly they insisted.
The king of Egypt stubbornly resisted.
Of tyranny and rebellion his path consisted.
He ignored Moses and Aaron. "No," said he,
"An exodus from Egypt ne'er shall be."

8. Locusts

Pharoah, Pharoah!
Fie, crazy man, how can you be so slow?
Unaware how deeply you rebel,
You gain no advantage as well.
After punishment you revolt again,
So now locusts are seen where'er you reign!
A sun that seems to set at noon one sees --
The locusts eat what's left of crops and trees.
The Egyptians' mighty profit they destroy,
Yet touch nothing of what the Jews enjoy.
The Egyptians wept and screamed and never ceased --
Their days were turned to woe instead of feast.
They cursed their king -- rebellious, oppressive beast!
They looked, and all too clearly did they see
There's no revolt against the mighty Lord's decree.
In a meeting the Egyptians all protested,
From the king the Jews' expulsion they requested,
Saying: "In our future we've no more hope invested!"

9. Darkness

When the plague of darkness came,
Blindness was the name of the game.
What's this? Darkness you can't break.
You can't tell if you're asleep or awake.
It was darkness beyond compare,
In days of yore nothing was so rare.
Darkness that would amaze.
Darkness that would faze.
Darkness you could touch days and days.
While Egypt abode in that unhappy state,
The Jews throughout had light the self-same date.
Pharoah, not knowing why he was smitten,
Said: "What's this strange bug with which we are bitten?
For Moses and Aaron he sent, and made moan:
"Get out of Egypt. Leave me alone.
I wish you and your Jews would have flown!"
His former state restored, he began to refuse,
And changed course about releasing the Jews,
Saying: "None other than Pharoah, I do as I please.
Of Egypt's kingdom I alone hold the keys!"

10. Slaying of the Firstborn

The tenth great plague over Egypt now passed.
And it was the last.
Egypt's destruction was complete.
Smashed were their hopes, and total their defeat.
By command of the Lord most High,
At midnight every firstborn must die.
Naught could be heard save wails and moans,
Weeping, shouts and groans.
Each house was bewailing its dead.
From every house quietude fled.
Upon them death had come down:
They shrieked the shrieks of one about to drown.
And there's none on whom to call
At all.
Their weeping and moans did not cease;
From far and from near there's no peace --
Till Pharoah arose from his bed,
His sleep and his slumbering fled.
'Neath the summons and judgment he'll cower,
He'll know divine might and power --
He says: "I've decided this hour!"
Hatless, unshod, in his fright,
He runs to Moses and Aaron at midnight.
He tells them: "What's this? You've ruined my country.
My glory is fallen completely!
Get out, get out, get out from the land of the Nile.
Let no Israelite stay, even a little while.
Let these eyes see them not, I implore,
I won't mix with this folk any more.
Exodus now's the only way.
In this state of loss I can't stay.
All of you, leave right away.
Go from my land, and -- Good Day!"
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Alan D. Corré
corre@uwm.edu