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Bamidbar 17:11

ויאמר משה אל אהרן קח את המחתה ותן עליה אש מעל המזבח ושים קטרת והולך מהרה אל העדה וכפר עליהם כי יצא הקצף מלפני יהוה החל הנגף

And Moses said unto Aaron: 'Take thy fire-pan, and put fire therein from off the altar, and lay incense thereon, and carry it quickly unto the congregation, and make atonement for them; for there is wrath gone out from the LORD: the plague is begun. (Translation from Mechon Mamre, emphasis added)

The word הנגף has a ה הידיעה, definitive article identifying it as a known entity. Is there some specific plague being referred to here?

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2 Answers 2

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Targum Pseudo-Yonasan on "כי יצא הקצף מלפני ה׳" renders:

ארום נפק מחבלא דאתכלו בחורב דשמיה קצף מן קדם ה׳ בהורמנא

That is (apparently):

for a destroyer which was withheld at Horeb, whose name is קצף, has come out from before God with a command(? permission?)

The anonymous "Perush Yonasan" in my Chumash explains:

When Moses was on Horeb to receive the tablet, Israel sinned. Five destruction angels were joined to it. When it was suspended in the merit of the three patriarchs, three left and two remained. Thus it is in a midrash. Now, though, they came out with permission from God, as it says "כי יצא הקצף מלפני ה׳". See Recanati, which cites the view of our master [pseudo-Yonasan] that they're unable to do their work except with His (blessed is he) authority, which is why he translates as "בהורמנא".

(Rabbi Recanati (according to this version (1.4 megabytes)) says on this verse:

פירוש בסוד קץ כל בשר בא לפני כי צריך ליטול רשות קודם שיעשה פעולתו וכן רמז יונתן בן עוזיאל ע״ה ארום נפק מחבלא ואתכלי בחורב דשמיה קצף מן קדם ה׳ בהרמנא שרי לקפלא. וטעם ויעמוד בין המתים ובין החיים כטעם אשר הערה למות נפשו (ישעיה ג׳ יב׳) והבן זה

… which I won't attempt to translate.)

So it seems the plague is one previously known to Moshe (and perhaps which he previously told Aharon about).

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Kuddos for explaining הקצף also, although I wasn't bothered by it –  YeZ Jun 22 at 20:41

"The plague" doesn't necessarily refer to a previously known plague, it could merely be referring to the plague that is currently occurring (and hence it's known what we're talking about). (The truth is that the ה הידיעה in the word הקצף may be unnecessary, which is dealt with in the answer by @msh210)

Regarding the title question, what was the actual plague: Avos D'Rebi Nasan (2nd Version, ch 1) understands that it was a plague of pestilence or disease, which I think is the simple reading (and the normal usage of the English word plague). The Sifrei to Bahaaloscha (Parshasa 85) also differentiates between the plague in that parsha, which involved a fire, and this one (which didn't involve a fire).

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The grammar would be fine without the ה - it would be החל נגף which would be perfectly translated into "a plague has begun." הקצף was specifically not what I asked about, because that could be explained to be the קצף referred to regarding the ketores, ולא יהיה קצף - a previously referred to entity. –  YeZ Jun 22 at 17:27
    
You sure? It doesn't sound right to me... can we get a Hebrew grammar expert to weigh in here? –  Matt Jun 22 at 17:31
    
This is pretty elementary grammar here. Try saying "I went to a store" and "I went to the store" in Hebrew. There is no indefinite article in Hebrew, it is just a lack of definite article. הלכתי לחנות does not need a ה. –  YeZ Jun 22 at 17:33
    
I guess. But can't the definite, known plague merely be the one known to be occurring? –  Matt Jun 22 at 17:35
    
It could, but then it would be unnecessary. The point of a definite article is to be definite. Were there multiple plagues going on at the time that he needed to specify he was only referring to the one in front of him? –  YeZ Jun 22 at 17:37

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