The Passover, which celebrates God’s redemption of the Jews from Egyptian slavery, is generally free of anti-Egyptian or anti-Gentile sentiment.
In fact, we carefully remove a few drops of wine from our cups while reciting the Ten Plagues, to symbolize the diminution in our joy on account of the suffering of our enemies. Accordingly, it is a bit surprising that the following text appears in the as the first thing we say at the seder after the Grace After Meals, and before the resumption of the Hallel – the psalms of praise:
“Pour forth Your wrath over the nations that do not recognize You, and upon the kingdoms that do not invoke Your name. For they have devoured Jacob and destroyed his habitation. Pour forth Your indignation upon them and let Your burning wrath overtake them. Pursue them with anger and destroy them from beneath the heavens of God.”
This somewhat disturbing text is composed of three verses from the Psalms, followed by one from Lamentations. Like many recitations at the seder, this one is accompanied by a series of physical actions. Before we recite these verses (known as the Sh’foch Hamatcha, after their first two Hebrew words – which translated from the Hebrew means “pour forth your wrath), we pour the fourth cup of wine; according to most traditions, we also pour an additional fifth cup for the prophet Elijah. Also before we say these words, we open the door to the street.
The Sh’foch Hamatcha is not mentioned in the mishna’s elaborate treatment of the seder ritual, nor is it noted in the Babylonian or the Jerusalem Talmud. Its first appearance is in the Siddur of Rabbi Amram Gaon of the Ninth Century, the earliest complete order of Jewish prayer that has been preserved. Although curiously enough, it does not appear in Maimonides’, it is part of every other important version from the Middle Ages to the present.
Why, at this stage of the seder, do we ask God to pour forth divine wrath upon the nations? And which nations are being referred to? Many answers have been given, but the most appealing from a textual and structural point of view is that these angry words from Scripture should be taken not to invoke God’s revenge upon the non-Jews living today, but to describe events of the far distant future, literally of the apocalypse.
It has not been noticed enough that structurally, these verses function as an introduction to the second half of the Hallel, the six chapters of praise from the Psalms. Hallel, whether it appears in the synagogue service or, more unusually, in the home service of the Passover seder, is always both preceded and followed by a blessing. But at the seder as nowhere else in the liturgical year, Hallel is interrupted, since the festive meal divides it in two unequal halves. Both portions, accordingly, need blessings before and after them.
The first portion of the Hallel, according to the Jerusalem Talmud, has the primary purpose of praising God for the deliverance from Egypt, and is appropriately placed in the first half of the seder – right after the eating of the matzah, which commemorates the Exodus. It already has its associated blessings, before and after. Also according to the Talmud, the second portion of the Hallel, which begins after the seder meal, looks forward to the final apocalyptic Day of Judgment in which the enemies of the Jewish people are avenged by God. This, then, is where the Sh’foch Hamatcha comes in as a prelude. As the contemporary scholar Heinrich Guggenheimer writes, “These verses assume the role of an introduction in the absence of a formal benediction.”
Now it becomes clearer why we pour Elijah’s cup at this point in the seder. As the contemporary Israeli scholar Eliyahu Kitov wrote, “The fifth cup is a hint of the final and complete redemption that will occur after it is announced by Elijah and by the final redeemer [the Messiah]. The first part of the Seder night deals with the redemption from Egypt and the second half with the future redemption. That is why we mention Elijah at this point.”
And according to the noted 16th century Polish scholar, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, the opening of the door is related to hope for the Messianic era as well. We open the door, Isserles writes, “to remind oneself that this is the Night of Preservation’ [in which God keeps the Jews safe from their enemies] and that as reward for this belief the Messiah will come and pour out his wrath over the heathen.”
When we say these words this Passover, let us hope we can infuse into them not a facile disdain for the non-Jews among whom we live, but an aspiration to see the days of the Messiah, heralded by Elijah the Prophet, when God’s enemies will be defeated.
(Jonathan Groner’s monthly column “The Word” is published by JBooks.com, a publication of Jewz.com Media Network.)