The Ten Plagues

We will learn about a symbolic action performed on Seder night as we recite the list of the Ten Plagues – the spotting of our plates with drops of wine and suggest the meaning that can be attributed to this custom.

Resource Ages: 12-14


“These are the Ten Plagues which the blessed Holy One brought upon the Egyptians, namely as follows:

Blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, Slaying of the First-born. 

Rabbi Yehudah referred to them by acronyms:

DeTzaCh (blood, frogs, lice);

ADaSh (beasts, pestilence, boils);

BeAChaV (hail, locust, darkness, first-born).”

From the Passover Haggadah

“At that time the ministering angels desired to recite a song before the blessed Holy One. The blessed Holy One said to them: ‘My handiwork [the Egyptians] are drowning in the sea, and you are reciting a song before Me?”

(Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 39b)

אֵלּוּ עֶשֶׂר מַכּוֹת שֶׁהֵבִיא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עַל הַמִּצְרִיִּים בְּמִצְרַיִם. 

וְאֵלּוּ הֵן;

דָּם, צְפַרְדֵּעַ, כִּנִּים, עָרֹב, דֶּבֶר, שְׁחִין, בָּרָד, אַרְבֶּה, חֹשֶׁךְ, מַכַּת בְּכוֹרוֹת.

רַבִּי יְהוּדָה הָיָה נוֹתֵן בָּהֶם סִימָנִים; 

דְּצַ”ךְ עֲדַ”שׁ בְּאַחַ”ב.

Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • How do Jewish practices reflect Jewish values?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • What moral questions are raised by the Pesach Haggadah? 
  • What values and ideas are expressed through the custom of spilling drops of wine while reciting the list of plagues?
  • How can actions symbolize ideas and values?
  • How can the meaning of customs change according to changing values and perceptions?
  • What can we do when there is a clash between an ancient custom and our values?

Background for Teacher

The Haggadah mentions the Ten Plagues that struck the Egyptians, and suggests a way to remember them through the Hebrew acronyms DeTzaCh, ADaSh, BeAChaV (דצ”ך, עד”ש באח”ב). According to custom, the reading of the list of plagues is accompanied by a symbolic act –...

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The Haggadah mentions the Ten Plagues that struck the Egyptians, and suggests a way to remember them through the Hebrew acronyms DeTzaCh, ADaSh, BeAChaV (דצ”ך, עד”ש באח”ב). According to custom, the reading of the list of plagues is accompanied by a symbolic act – we spill a drop of wine from our cup, or use our finger to dot the plate. The original meaning of this custom is unclear. According to one explanation, the participants in the Seder sought to ward off the Evil Eye through this action and to ensure that we would not be struck by the same plagues. In this context, some communities treat the spilled wine carefully and suspiciously, emptying it into a vessel and pouring it outside the home. Another suggestion is that this custom is intended to symbolize the reduction in the number of Egyptians as the plagues progressed. We will focus here on a different interpretation that embodies a meaningful and thought-provoking idea. According to this explanation, wine is a symbol of joy. Removing a little of the wine from our cups expresses the idea that our joy at our freedom cannot be complete, since our own good fortune came at the cost of others’ suffering. The same idea is expressed in the midrash quoted above, concerning the angels who wanted to sing as the Red Sea parted. God scolds them and explains that it is inappropriate to sing while God’s “handiwork” – human beings – are drowning. A similar idea is expressed in a verse in Proverbs – “Do not rejoice in the fall of your enemy,” (24,17) which again emphasizes the value of each and every human life, even the lives of our enemies. The development of the meaning of this custom is a good example of the power of symbols: symbolic acts survive even when their meaning is unclear, and sometimes the original meaning changes to adapt to changing world views. In some cases, a symbolic act adds a new layer of meaning to the text.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
Further Study
  • Ask the students to remember the Ten Plagues that struck Egypt and to write them down for themselves. Can they remember all ten? Invite students to come up to the board – each student writes down one plague, and the class sees if they can remember them all. You could show the students a picture representing the Ten Plagues to refresh their memory.
  • Bring a wine goblet to the class and demonstrate the custom of spilling drops of wine from the goblet on Seder night while reciting the list of plagues. Ask the students: Why do people perform this strange custom? Each student has to suggest at least two explanations. In small groups, ask the students to present their ideas, and see if the class can agree on what it feels is the most convincing explanation.

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

  1. Think about the exodus story. What was the purpose of the Ten Plagues? According to the Torah, why wasn’t it possible to achieve the same goal with less plagues?
  2. On Seder night, while we read the Ten Plagues, the custom is to spill a drop of wine when we mention each of the plagues. One explanation for this custom is to show that our cup of joy (symbolized by wine) is incomplete, because the Egyptians suffered greatly during the Exodus. The midrash brought here expresses a similar idea. What do you think about the different responses: that of the angels and that of God? 
  3. “Do not rejoice in the fall of your enemy” (Proverbs 24:17) – What does this verse tell us about human nature? What do you think about this instruction? In what way do you think this is connected to the Ten Plagues and the custom of spilling wine?
  4. What does this custom add to the idea expressed in the verse from Proverbs? What is the difference between an action and a statement? Do you think it is sufficient to just perform the action without explaining its meaning? Explain your answer.
  5. We do not know the origin of this custom. Is it meaningful to observe a custom even if we don’t know its original meaning? Is any interpretation of a custom legitimate?
  • Write down your thoughts about the idea expressed in the custom of spilling drops of wine. What surprises you about this idea? What do you find interesting about it? What disturbs you? What questions does this idea raise for you? Share your thoughts with some other students and try to respond to each other’s thoughts.Now prepare an explanation of the custom of spilling drops of wine from the glass, to be read on Seder night before the passage about the Ten Plagues. Include the expression “Do not rejoice in the fall of your enemy” in your explanation.
  • “Do not rejoice in the fall of your enemy” is not an easy rule to follow. Think of an example when someone who was your rival or who you didn’t like, suffered a setback. How did you feel? How did you react? Could you have reacted differently? Write a paragraph describing this incident and how you could have adopted the idea of “Do not rejoice in the fall of your enemy.” Alternatively, you could write a short story from your imagination illustrating the same idea.
  • You could study with the students a very different custom connected to wine on Seder night that also symbolizes a beautiful idea. According to a Hassidic custom, during the Seder every person pours a little of their wine into Elijah’s Cup. Elijah is a symbol of redemption. This custom symbolizes the idea that we all have a part to play in bringing redemption – each one of us needs to contribute our own part to building a better society.
  • On the board, write the title: Moral Questions about the Ten Plagues. Ask the students to write down in their notebook a moral question connected to the Ten Plagues. When the class comes back together, gather the questions, connect similar questions and sharpen them. Write down the remaining questions on sheets of poster board, hang them around the room, and ask the students to walk around and respond to the questions: do they agree that this is a moral dilemma? Why/Why not? Connect the activity to the custom of spilling drops of wine: Does this custom offer some kind of answer to one of the questions raised? Think about other ways to address these questions on Seder night (through a discussion, custom or in some other way).