What's in a Word?

For the week ending 4 February 2017 / 8 Shevat 5777

Turning off the Lights

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
The Color of Heaven Artscroll

The Ninth Plague in Egypt was the plague of darkness. When describing this plague the Torah relates that G-d told Moshe, “Raise your hand to the Heavens and there will be darkness (choshech) over the entire land of Egypt, and darkness (choshech) will materialize”. The Torah then reports that Moshe raised his hand towards the Heavens, and a choshech-afeilah arose in the entire land of Egypt for the Egyptians, while the Jews had light wherever they lived (Exodus 10:21-23). What does it mean that darkness will materialize? Is darkness a tangible object about which one can say that it “materializes”? Furthermore, in this passage the Torah uses two different words to mean darkness: choshech and afeilah. What, if anything, is the difference between these two words and their implications?

Rashi (1040-1105) explains that the materialization of dark refers to the fact that the Plague of Darkness was not just an extended night, but was even darker than night. Moreover, Radak (1160-1234) in Sefer HaShorashim writes that afeilah is something darker than choshech. How can there be two different types of dark? “Dark” is “dark” — or is it?

Malbim (1809-1879) answers these issues by explaining that afeilah is darker than choshech, because choshech denotes the regular darkness of night when the sun does not shine, yet the moon and stars still illuminate the sky. Afeilah, on the other hand, refers to a situation when not only does the sun not shine, but the moon and stars also do not exude light. In other words, choshech refers to the ordinary darkness of night, while afeilah refers to a situation of utter darkness.

The greatest Jewish philosophers have long debated the proper way of looking at the concept of darkness. Rav Saadia Gaon (882-942), Maimonides (1105-1204) and others view darkness as simply the lack of light. They argue that darkness itself does not exist; it is only the word for referring to a lack of light. On the other hand, Chizkuni, Radak, Yaavetz, the Vilna Gaon and others explain that darkness is a created entity in and of itself. They point to a verse in Isaiah which tells that G-d “fashioned light and created dark” (Isaiah 45:7) — a passage that clearly implies that darkness is something that needs to be created; it is not just a lack of light.

Those who understand that darkness is merely the absence of light argue that G-d is said to have “created” darkness by causing the sun to set, just as one who extinguishes a candle is said to have “made the room the dark”. Alternatively, darkness can still be “created” inasmuch as the creation of clouds to block light can be called the creation of darkness.

Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) finds support for Maimonides’ understanding by noting that the word choshech is spelled the same as the word chosech (“lacks”), with the placement of the dot above the Hebrew letter of sin/shin as the only difference between the two words. This certainly alludes to the notion that darkness is just the lack of light.

Nachmanides (1194-1270) follows the Maimonidean approach that choshech generally denotes the lack of light, but concedes that in the context of the Plague of Darkness the darkness in question was not simply the absence of light. The darkness in Egypt was a real, palpable mist, which not only blocked light but added darkness. That tangible darkness is described in the Midrash as being “the thickness of a dinar coin”. Nachmanides likely saw reason to differentiate between the choshech of the Ninth Plague and choshech in other contexts because in the former case the Torah also uses the word afeilah, which implies a stronger form of darkness.

Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Parchon (an early Spanish grammarian from the 12th century) writes that the word afeilah means “covered”. Possibly based on this understanding, Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein (1860-1940) writes that the Plague of Darkness was borne out by cataracts spontaneously growing over the eyes of the Egyptians, barring them from seeing the light of day.

Similarly, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Edel (1760-1828) writes that choshech simply refers to a lack of light (like the state of the sun at nighttime), while afeilah refers to a tangible entity which blocks the rays of light from reaching one’s eye. Accordingly, he explains that the Plague of Darkness was not simply a lack of light, but also had a light-blocking component (which he understands were special, dark clouds) that filtered the light of the day, and only allowed it to reach the Jews but not the Egyptians.

Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) finds an allusion to this way of defining afeilah in the wording of a prayer recited at the Passover Seder. In that prayer we request of G-d to be taken from the darkness of exile into the light of redemption. The actual words of the prayer read “from afeilah to ohr gadol (great light)”. In this analogy the opposite of afeilah is not simply light — that would be the opposite of choshech — but a great light that shall usher in the coming of the Mashiach, speedily and in our days, amen!

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