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By: Yehoshua Ben Yosef

One of the best-known portions of the Pesach seder is the list of the ten plagues, the catastrophes that Gd brought upon Egypt to punish the nation for its ruthless oppression of the Hebrews whom they held as slaves. The names of the plagues are usually recited rapidly, without delving into the details about these miracles. But in the spirit of the Haggadah’s teaching, “Vechol hamarbeh…hareh zeh meshubah”– that it is admirable to elaborate in our discussion of the miracles of the Exodus – let us take acloser look at the first of the ten plagues, and try to understand what exactly happened and how it affected the Egyptians.

The Torah states that Moshe approached Pharaoh and gave him the following warning:

“So said Gd: ‘Through this you will know that Iam Hashem!’ I will strike the water of the Nile with the staff in my hand, and it will change into blood. The fish in the waters will die, and the Nile will reek. The Egyptians will not be able to drink water from the Nile.” (Shemot 7:17 – 7:18)

This description of the plague of blood gives rise to several questions:

1.  Why did the fish die?

2.  What caused the Nile to emit such a strong stench?

3.  Was the blood real – or was it just a blood-colored liquid?

4.  Why was specifically blood the liquid chosen by Gd to pollute the Nile?

5.  Is this plague documented in Egyptian historical records?

Did You Know?

The plague of blood began on a Thursday. Fish were created on the 5th day of creation – Thursday – and they died on the 5th day when Gd turned the water in the Nile into blood.

How Did the Fish Die?

The Nile River turned into blood, with the same taste, smell, and composition of actual blood. Since the human body temperature is 98.6 degrees, the temperature of the Nile became much warmer than normal. The change in temperature killed all the fish in the Nile River.

Why Did the Nile Emit
Such a Strong Odor?

Once the fish began to die, the smell of their rotting flesh, combined with the blood, caused a dreadful stench throughout Egypt.

Believe it or not, some Egyptians tried drinking the
blood in the river, but they were unable to, because of the putrid odor.

Did the Plague
Consist of Real Blood?  

When the Egyptians saw that the fish died in the Nile, they realized that the blood was not just some kind of magic trick or illusion, and that the water hadturned into real blood. Blood-colored water would not have killed all the fish, and so the dead fish made it apparent that the river had turned into real blood.

(Rabbenu Bahya; Kesef Nivhar; Kesef Mezukak)

Did Only the Water
Turn to Blood?

Even the Egyptians’ fruit was affected by this plague – the juices that were squeezed from their fruits also turned into blood.

(Shemot Rabbah 9,10 / Midrash Hagadol 7).

The Ipuwer Papyrus

Is the Plague Documented
in Egyptian Historical Records?

In the early 19thcentury, an ancient papyrus was discovered in Egypt. It was taken to the Leiden Museum in Holland, and interpreted by A.H. Gardiner in 1909. The papyrus was written by an Egyptian named Ipuwer and appears to be an eyewitness account of the devastation wrought by the ten plagues throughout Egypt. Describing the plague of blood, the text in the papyrus states the following: (see text on the parchment on right)

Plague is throughout the land. Blood is everywhere.


The river is blood.


Men shrink from tasting…
and thirst for water.


That is our water!
What shall we do…? All is ruin.

Why was Blood Chosen as the Method of Contaminating
the Nile River? Why Didn’t Gd Change the Water to
a Different Type of Liquid or Toxic Material?

Our sages explain that each of the ten plagues was delivered upon Egypt “measure for measure” – that is to say, each plague corresponded with a specific facet of the Egyptian people’s cruel mistreatment of the Hebrews, for which they were punished. 

Explaining the plague of blood, the Midrash Hagadol comments, “Because they threw the children of Israel into the water…they were judged with the water of the river.” Alternatively, Lekah Tovsays, “Because they spilled the blood of Israel like water, their river was turned into blood and their water became undrinkable.”

In other words, the plague of the blood punished the Egyptians for having “bloodied” the Nile River by throwing the newborn Israelite babies into the river.

Still, we might ask, why did the entire Nile River need to be smitten in this way? Had the Egyptians spilled that much Jewish blood –
enough to fill the entire Nile River?

The answer is a resounding and emphatic “YES!”

Centuries earlier, at the dawn of human history, when Kayin killed hisbrother, Hevel, Gd approached Kayin and asked, “What did you do? The voice of the bloods of your brother cry out to Me from the earth!” Gd used the plural term “bloods” because, as Rashi explains, He referred not only to Hevel’s blood which was spilled, but also to the blood of his offspring, his innumerable potential descendants who never had a chance to live because of Kayin’s act of murder. When Kayin killed his brother, he also killed all his brother’s future offspring, and thus Gd speaks of the “bloods” that cry from the ground, referring to the billions upon billions of people whom Kayin effectively murdered.

When the Egyptians awoke one morning to find rivers of blood flowing through their country, they recognized the full impact of their crime against the Children of Israel – the astronomical number of human beings whom they killed by murdering the Jewish infants.

Bringing Back Bad Memories

Ancient Egyptian kings would avoid drinking wine because of its resemblance
to blood!