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This is a two fold question

1)The plaque of darkness has considerable commentary, however I have yet to find a rabbi who speaks about what created the darkness. Therefore, What created the darkness keeping in mind that it did not effect the Jews?

2)A continuation of that question. When looking at science most of the plaques (except 10) can be explained. How is darkness explained in this science? (This does not take away from the miraculous nature of the plagues, this can be another question if someone desires).

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@downvote, care to explain why? I assume it is the science part of the question, but I would like to know for sure. Thanks. – morah hochman Jan 26 '12 at 19:21
I don't know why it was downvoted, but I think this question can be condensed into "What was the nature of the darkness." Once that is defined, it's "ability" to distinguish its victims should not surprise us more than fire collected within hail or any of the other unnatural manifestations. – YDK Jan 26 '12 at 19:47
@morahhochman You assume in your question that the darkness came about through some other material. IMHO you need not make this assumption. We could just say that HaShem created darkness. (After all we praise HaShem every day with יוצֵר אור וּבורֵא חשֶׁךְ ) – Avrohom Yitzchok Jan 28 '12 at 20:25
up vote 1 down vote accepted

I have seen the darkness described as either a sandstorm or a cloud of locusts.

Others, following the volcanic eruption theory of all 10 plagues, suggest a cloud of ash.

edit: found a summary in wikipedia which says basically the same thing.

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if you can remember where you saw this it would make your answer more valuable. – msh210 Jan 26 '12 at 19:40
The cloud of locust blocking the sun was the previous plague about which was said that not one remained in all the border of Mitzrayim. – YDK Jan 26 '12 at 19:50
Also, if it was a sandstorm, why wasn't it described as such similar to the descriptions of other plagues. – YDK Jan 26 '12 at 19:52
@YDK the suggestion is that the 8th plague is about eating of all the crops, the 9th plague is that they stayed even when the food was gone and caused days of darkness. – avi Jan 26 '12 at 20:11
In order to say that, you need to be able to fit the narrative of Darkness within that of Locust. The endings, however, contradict each other. By Locust, Moshe prayed at Paraoh's request. By Darkness, Paraoh threw Moshe out. – YDK Jan 26 '12 at 20:19

Ad 1: Torah T'mima says that were he not afraid to differ from all previous commentaries, he'd say the plague of darkness was something on the Egyptians' eyes (he probably means cataracts). He uses this to explain what it means when it says that the darkness was "thick" (specifically, "thick as a coin" as the midrash puts it).

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The Medrash Lekach Tov says that Moshe spread his hand onto the heavens and that brought upon the Egyptians darkness. It was such a darkness that even if they lit a candle it would not remain lit.

The Kli Yakar says that Hashem transferred the darkness of night from the Jewish areas into the Egyptian areas and thus the Egyptians had double darkness.

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I would venture to say it was a thick fog.

The ibn Ezra descibes his experience of a Torah-like Darkness during his many trips to the ocean.

Also the Ramban (Yisro 19:9) says that the "thickness of cloud" on Har Sinai is synonymous with the "arafel". In Va'eschanan (5:19), these 2 terms (anan and arafel) are used to re-describe the scene on Har Sinai. The next verse describes the sound of Hashem coming from the darkness. This seems to indicate that the darkness on Har Sinai was a thick cloud.

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Yam ukinus is (a transliteration into English of) the Hebrew word for "ocean", borrowed from the Ancient Greek ὠκεανός "ocean", from which, incidentally, derives the English word ocean. It's not the name of a specific ocean. – msh210 Jan 26 '12 at 21:12
@msh210, thanks for the info, but you've got to file a complaint with ibn Ezra, et al., who uses "Yam Ukinus". – YDK Jan 26 '12 at 21:22
Yes, I edited my comment (before you posted your reply to it, but, I guess, after you saw mine). – msh210 Jan 26 '12 at 21:23
So yam is not redundant. Yam would be a body of water while Ukinus describes the type of body.? – YDK Jan 26 '12 at 21:32
Not sure. But if ibn Ezra holds like whoever it is (Malbim?) that holds that yam means specifically the bed (bottom of the sea), then yam ukaynus would mean "ocean bed". – msh210 Jan 26 '12 at 21:38

Dr. Eduard Mahler, a chronologist and astronomer, claimed that it was a solar eclipse, total in most of Egypt but partial in Goshen. He also argued that it's not that the darkness lasted for three days - solar eclipses last a few minutes at most - but that they were so frightened by it that they couldn't move for that long.

(His facts seem to be off, though. NASA's map of that eclipse shows it as having been annular, and that throughout both Egypt proper and Goshen it was partial only.)

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I will summarize some of the existing answers, and show how they deal with different questions form the verses and commentaries.

See here Where a large number of Geonim, Rishonim, and Acharonim are cited who write that darkness is the mere absence of light. That being the case, how do we understand the plague of darkness.

Simple, first off, God could could have simply blocked light from entering the Egyptian houses.

Alternatively, the plague consisted of a fog that blocked light. Ibn Ezra recounts having experienced such fog himself.

Alternatively, one can suggest that the Egyptians were struck by cataracts as does the Torah Temimah, following R. Naftali Hertz Wessely.

However, what is one to do with the fact that no one rose for three days (Exodus 10:23)? Doesn't this mean that they were paralyzed by magic fog?

Nope. Rav Saadya Gaon explains מתחתיו to mean "from their places", rather than "from their undersides". Accordingly, the verse merely means that they were confined to their houses due to the darkness.

Thus, Rashbam and Ibn Ezra explain that 'מתחתיו' refers to their houses, and this is also the implication of Ramban.

But doesnt the Midrash interpret מתחתיו to mean the very place in which they were sitting?

Simple reject that Midrash, as it does not refer to the simple reading of the text, but rather to a fanciful aggadic interpretation.

Alternatively, the Midrash Sechel Tov, follows the Midrashic interpretation of מתחתיו yet nevertheless understands that they merely chose to remain seated so as to not injure themselves by attempting to move around in the dark.

But if it wasn't miracle fog then why did they not light torches? The Ibn Ezra and Rambam explain that the fog was too dense for that to be effective. Alternatively, we could explain that they did light torches, but this still pretty much kept them stuck inside as lighting would have been tםo scarce outside. It is difficult for the modern mind accustomed to ubiquitous artificial lighting to appreciate it, but until recent times, most outdoor activity ceased at nightfall.

But doesnt the Midrash interpret them as having been paralyzed?

Answer: as already noted this Midrash seems pretty much ignored by the pashtanim, those who explain the simplest explanation of the text. Presumably this is because it adds extraneous miraculous elements, and introduces problems, such as, why didn't many or most of the Egyptians die of dehydration?

But how do we understand Exodus (10:21) which states וימש חושך? Doesn't this mean this word connote feeling; i.e. that the darkness was palpable?

Nope. Rashi and Rashbam explain that the word comes from אמש, a word for night. In context it means darkening.

Alternatively, Onkelos followed by Rav Saadya Gaon explain the verb as being related to מש; remove. The verse describes the time of the onset of the plague; the time that night is usually removed, i.e. the end of the night.

But doesn't the Midrah interpret it as feeling?

Answer: Reject that Midrash, for as we have seen, that is not the understanding of the pashtanim. Alternatively, Shadal notes that the Targum Yerushalmi interprets the noun as meaning feeling, but nevertheless does not explain that the darkness was felt. Rather, that the Egyptians groped in the dark.

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So commentless downvoter, is it Rav Saadya Gaon who so irked you, or was it Rashbam who was simply unacceptable, or was it the Targum Yerushalmi who earned your scorn. – mevaqesh May 23 at 16:01

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