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Puzzle for Today

Puzzle No. 462 – Friday 19 April

This evening is the first night of Passover, the Jewish festival commemorating the ancient Israelites’ freedom from slavery. Scholars of the book of Exodus, will know the following list: blood, frogs, lice, wild animals, pestilence, boils, hailstorms, locusts, darkness and death of the firstborn. These are, of course, the 10 plagues of Egypt.

Today's puzzle is to calculate, in the spirit of Rabbi Akiva of B’nei Brak, the number of plagues experienced not in Egypt, but at the Red Sea. If, firstly, in Egypt the Pharaoh saw the finger of God, yet at the sea the Pharaoh’s armies saw God’s hand, and secondly, at the sea each plague was composed of wrath, fury, rage, misery and a hoard of evil angels; then how many plagues were there at the Red Sea? For full authenticity, try to calculate the solution having imbibed the ceremonial four glasses of wine. And Chag Sameach!

Today’s #PuzzleForToday has been set by David BaynardPhD student, from the University of Cambridge's Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology.

Click here for the answer

According to Rabbi Akiva, there were 250 plagues at the sea.

‘And he delivered upon them His wrath, furious, rageful and misery-making — a covey of evil angels’

This line from Nathan Englander's translation of the prayer book for the Passover Seder meal, the Haggadah, is the subject of much numerological speculation. The speculation, according to the Haggadah, takes place at a Passover celebration in B'nei Brak, not long after the destruction of the second Jewish temple at Jerusalem.

Rabbi Yossi of Galillee calculates that while there were 10 plagues in Egypt, there were 50 at the sea. This is because in Egypt, ‘the magicians said to Pharaoh, “It is the finger of God!”’. Whereas at the sea, ‘Israel saw the massive hand that the Lord used against Egypt, and his nation revered the Lord, and had faith in the Lord, and in Moses, His servant.’ So if a finger is 10 plagues, the full hand must be 50.

Rabbi Eliezer considers this an underestimate. Each of these plagues was actually four plagues: fury, rage, misery and the evil angels. Therefore in Egypt there were 4 × 10 = 40 plagues, and 4 × 50 = 200 at the sea.

Rabbi Akiva, the Chief Rabbi of B’nei Brak, has the final word — and Rabbi Eliezer has miscounted, forgetting wrath. Sceptics may query whether there is a difference between fury and wrath, but as such a conversation between the rabbis took place in the early hours of the morning, this could be forgiven. Adding wrath to each plague, there were 5 × 10 = 50 plagues in Egypt, and 5 × 50 = 250 at the sea.

Perhaps the story should not be taken literally. Rather it is in truth a morality tale on the necessity that a student, here Rabbi Akiva, challenge one's teachers. A fitting moral, perhaps, for a Puzzle for Today?

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