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The fourth plague is Arov commonly translated as wild beasts.

The word I think most literally translates to "a collection" or in this case, maybe along the lines of "a swarm" (consider the word "eiruv" from "to mix up" the reshuyot [domains] in a community).

First, how do we know the word here refers to wild beasts? Second, and more importantly, does anyone provide an alternative explanation for the contents of the plague?

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Most of the commentators understand ערוב as being derived from the word for "mixture", the animals being a "mixture" of a certain type. What type is subject to speculation. Shemos Rabbah (11:3) brings a difference of opinion between R' Nechemia and R' Yehuda as to what type of animals were involved: either insects or what we would think of as wild animals (like lions, leopards, bears etc.) respectively. [Incidentally, the midrash above (11:2) seems to say that birds were involved as well.]

What necessitates that the mixture be of animals specifically? The hint is Tehillim 78:45:

יְשַׁלַּח בָּהֶם עָרֹב, וַיֹּאכְלֵם; וּצְפַרְדֵּעַ, וַתַּשְׁחִיתֵם.

It has to be something that can "devour them". Wild animals make sense. Other commentators prefer more reptilian or rodent-like animals or other venomous creatures. (See Rashi and Abarbanel.) Insects that bite can also be considered to "devour" their victims, if there's enough of them. (See Shadal.)

[Also, see Bechor Shor, who compares "הִנְנִי מַשְׁלִיחַ בְּךָ וּבַעֲבָדֶיךָ וּבְעַמְּךָ וּבְבָתֶּיךָ אֶת הֶעָרֹב" (Shemos 8:17) with "וְשֶׁן בְּהֵמוֹת אֲשַׁלַּח בָּם" (Devarim 32:24).]

The only interpretation I know of that does not derive ערוב from "עירוב - mixture" is that of Rashbam, who derives it instead from "ערב - evening". He explains that the plague entailed a pack of wolves descending upon Egypt. (Maybe they were werewolves. :)) These wolves are called ערוב because they attack primarily at night.

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I fixed your source from bereishis rabba to shemos rabba. Also, I hope you don't mind that I used your link for my answer. :) –  HodofHod Jan 20 '12 at 1:49
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@HodofHod, Thanks. I've gotten so used to writing Bereshis Rabbah. By the time I get used to Shemos, we'll be in Sefer Vayikra. –  jake Jan 20 '12 at 1:59
    
Great find in Tehillim. That explains why everyone always assumes they were animals. –  Double AA Jan 20 '12 at 2:01
    
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To summarize the Chabad.org link that Hacham Gabriel provided:

Shemos Rabba (11:3) brings a disagreement between R' Yehudah and R' Nechemia. R' Yehudah maintains that it was a swarm of different wild animals. R' Nechemia says it was a swarm of insects.

The Midrash and most commentators (Rashi, ibn Ezra, Targum Yonatan, et al) hold like R' Yehudah.

However the Rashbam translates the word to mean not "a mixture", but a certain wolflike creature that attacks at night ("arov" being related to the word "erev" (evenings).

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