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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
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    @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
  • I’ve always wondered how farao called moshe and aharon? And if they would have burned some candles if it was possible to see at least something. – Levi Feb 20 at 14:24

10 Answers 10

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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.

  • if you can remember where you saw this it would make your answer more valuable. – msh210 Jan 26 '12 at 19:40
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    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
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I have no backing for this novel idea, but here goes:

Modern science of the past century has taught us that light consists of photons. These are packets of energy that act like particles in many respects and have no mass (since they travel at the speed of light).

Now, how can it be that the darkness was "thick"? When photons have no mass, how can there be any extra forces on a person that keep them from being able to move in the dark? I reckon that the miraculous darkness that Hashem created could have been not due to a lack of photons in that area, but the failure of the photons to pass on their energy.

This would have been caused by a very slight slowing down of light from its usual 300,000km per second. When this happens the photon "particles" have some of their energy converted into mass, according to Einstein's famous equation, E=m•c^2.

Scientists have recently proven that photons can be slowed down. At the University of Glasgow, an experiment was carried out to prove exactly that. You can read more about it here.

Co-lead author Jacquiline Romero said: “This finding shows unambiguously that the propagation of light can be slowed below the commonly accepted figure of 299,792,458 metres per second, even when travelling in air or vacuum.”

Professor Padgett added: “the effect has a solid theoretical foundation and we’re confident that our observations are correct."

When photos are slowed down sufficiently, they will not emit the right wavelength for our eyes to perceive it, hence it would be dark. Also their additional mass converted from energy could have been the thing that added more weight to the air that prevented people in those areas from moving, or being able to stand up!

This is only a theory, but it seems to fit remarkably well with the facts given in פרשת בא. As Derech Hashem says, whenever Hashem performs a miracle, He does so in accordance with as much of the laws of nature as possible. After all, "nature" (or the laws of Physics) is how the Creator has decided to run the world the majority of the time, according to R' S R Hirsch.

You can leave comments about what you think.

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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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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.)

  • Not even original. We all know the story of Columbus. It doesn't take a genius to apply it all over the place. Tintin did it too. – HaLeiVi Feb 8 '17 at 23:01
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The Medrash Rabba 4:1 writes that during the plague of choshech the darkness was as thick as a golden dinar (type of coin). Rashi 10:22 explains that the darkness was so thick that the first three days they didn’t see each other, and the other 3 days the darkness doubled and the Mitzrim couldn’t even move(if they were standing or sitting they were stuck in that position). Rashi’s (taken from Medrash Tanchuma) understanding is the standard pshat.

The Torah Temimah 10:22:2 offers a very novel approach. He asks why the Midrash gives such a strange comparison between the darkness of the plague and the thickness of a golden dinar. He also asks that according to Rashi’s interpretation that the plague was 24 hour periods of night time then the order of creation must have changed, but how can that be if HaShem guaranteed Noach and his children that day and night wont cease. He then writes “that if I were not afraid (ולולא מסתפינא) to bring forth a very new idea, I would say that the darkness was not in the air but rather in the eyes of the men. Meaning that they had a cataract that covered their eyeball (a golden coin’s thickness) and couldn’t see.”

The Ralbag on Choshech quotes the Medrash about the darkness being a golden coin thick and explains that the darkness was tangible and so strong that the Mitzrim were forced to plug their nostrils and mouths up and it caused a tremendous suffering. If the air would enter their bodies they could die. (The Bal Kesav V’hakebbalah takes issue with this pshat and asks how it is possible to survive with their nostrils and mouths plugged up for three days)

The Yalkut Me’em Loez brings a fascinating p’shat from the Tzaidah La’derech who writes that the darkness wasn’t darkness but rather a very strong light which was so strong and brilliant that it blinded the eyes of the Miztrim. The Jews who perished during this plague died because they couldn’t handle the bright light. (The Malbim – HaTorah V’Hamitzvah says a similar idea).

The Ibn Ezra testifies about himself that during his travels at sea he experienced such a heavy fog that caused a darkness which could be felt, and one was also not able to distinguish between night and day for five days.

The Chiddushei Ha’Rim also asks why the Medrash compares the darkness to being the thickness of a golden dinar. He explains that there is even a worse type of darkness which is when one doesn’t want to see the troubles of their brothers and lend a helping hand. The Medrash is teaching us that money can increase selfishness to the point that they cannot see their own brethren, like the passuk says” one man did not see his brother”. (From the sefer אוצר פלאות התורה)

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    Rashi’s (taken from Medrash Tanchuma) understanding is the standard pshat. What makes it the standard peshat? It seems against almost all the Pashtanim, such as Rav Saadya Gaon, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Ramban, and even some Midrashists, such as the Sekhel Tov. It seems more like a ere fanciful agadah. – mevaqesh Feb 6 '17 at 7:22
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Notwithstanding some semi-recent archaeological findings which support the naturalistic interpretations of other meforshim, I am attracted by the explanations of R. Eleazar of Brody and the Rebbe Yitzchak Meir of Ger, among others, who understand choshech as spiritual darkness, or else something like depression.

The Midrash Rabbah on Exodus 14:1-3 interprets "יָמֵ֖שׁ חֽשֶׁךְ" as "darkness that can be felt." Rashi explains it as a darkness darker than night during the day, and an even darker darkness at night.It was not the shimmering darkness of the unknowable, nor the baleful darkness of dusk, but a choshech afeila, opaque and suffocating, through which the sun could not penetrate because the very air was dark. A well-known midrash purports that nothing could illuminate this darkness, and that this darkness would itself put out a candle. The only place where light still could and did push away the darkness was in the houses of the B'nei Yisroel.

"לֹֽא־רָא֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־אָחִ֗יו וְלֹא־קָ֛מוּ אִ֥ישׁ מִתַּחְתָּ֖יו שְׁל֣שֶׁת יָמִ֑ים" - "They did not see each other, and no one arose from his place." Rashi interprets that this plague lasted six days: three of darkness in which one could not see his fellow, and three of a second darkness, twice as deep, which was essentially paralyzing. For the first three days, the Mitzriim lost all possibility for human fellowship and intimacy--and with these, the corresponding feeling of not being alone in the world, and all its implications for the heart, soul, and life. For the second three days, the Egyptians were numb and immobile. They did not notice or did not care as the Yisroelim came into their houses and looked through their stuff; they did not even rise from their places. The Jews who did not believe in the Exodus and did not want to leave Egypt--who similarly wouldn't rise from their places, despite the light in their dwellings--can be understood as having been in their own darkness. (This is indeed my explanation of how the darkness managed to conceal the death and burial of these people although there was supposedly light in the homes of the Jews.)

Those who have experienced depression know that it can be socially isolating and physically immobilizing. It is an outstandingly precise example of "יָמֵ֖שׁ חֽשֶׁךְ", palpable darkness. Neither daylight nor candlelight can illuminate it. Indeed, it seeks to deny and destroy these. In this way can, G-d forbid, lead to death, as when those who have been given blessings and promises for the future--and everyone has, then as now--no longer see or believe in them. (We learn that the Erev Rav, who did not have light in their homes but still believed, was allowed out of Egypt, whereas Jews who had light but did not believe in G-d's promise were destroyed. Thus do they who still manage to see G-d's light in their dwellings, even in its apparent absence, earn G-d's favor.)

וּלְכָל־בְּנֵ֧י יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל הָ֥יָה א֖וֹר בְּמֽוֹשְׁבֹתָֽם: - "For the children of Israel there was light in their dwellings." Moreover, in the beginning of the parshah, we learn that the Yisroelim were gifted with not only with light and with eyes, but also with ears. With ears, you can know of your blessings even when it is impossible to see them, and thereby live. With ears, you can know about what your G-d did for your ancestors--the signs and the wonders and the gifts G-d gave and showed--even as you were not physically there to see them, and even as you live in golus, which is very dark.

לְמַ֗עַן שִׁתִ֛י אֹֽתֹתַ֥י אֵ֖לֶּה בְּקִרְבּֽוֹ: וּלְמַ֡עַן תְּסַפֵּר֩ בְּאָזְנֵ֨י בִנְךָ֜ וּבֶן־בִּנְךָ֗ אֵ֣ת אֲשֶׁ֤ר הִתְעַלַּ֨לְתִּי֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם וְאֶת־אֹֽתֹתַ֖י אֲשֶׁר־שַׂ֣מְתִּי בָ֑ם וִֽידַעְתֶּ֖ם כִּֽי־אֲנִ֥י יְהֹוָֽה:

...in order that I may place these signs of Mine in his midst, and in order that you tell into the ears of your son and your son's son how I made a mockery of the Egyptians, and [that you tell of] My signs that I placed in them, and you will know that I am the Lord.

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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.

  • 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
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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 doesn't 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 Sekhel 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 Ramban 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 too 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 doesn't 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 Midrash 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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The Midrash Rabbah on Shemos 14:2 records two opinions, רבי יהודה ורבי נחמי'ה, רבי יהודה אומר מחשך של מעלה, שנאמר ישת חשך סתרו סביבותיו סוכתו (תהילים יח', יב) רבי נחמי'ה אומר מחשך של גהינם, שנאמר את ארץ עיפתה כמו אופל צלמות (איוב י, כב).

Rebbi Yehuda and Rebbi Nechemia: Rebbi Yehuda says [concerning the Darkness], "[It was] from [the] Darkness of Above as it says, 'He made darkness His hiding-place about Him as His booth' (Psalms 18:12). Rebbi Nechemia says, "[It was] from [the] Darkness of Purgatory/Hell [Gehinom] as it says 'a land of darkness like darkness itself' (Job 10:22)."

Translation of Scripture/Ketuvim from Chabad.org.

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