Thursday, April 21, 2011

Passover, Pouring Wrath, Non-Jews and Dissenters

It is a wonderful privilege to sit around the table with one’s children, discussing freedom, gratitude, text and tradition as I did this week for our Passover Seder. As Jews have done for over 3,000 years we celebrated our relationship with God and triumph of the oppressed against their oppressors. It is within this context that I explore perspectives about non-Jews and dissent in the Seder text, the Haggadah.

Pour out thy Wrath
One passage drew the following comment by Joshua Stanton, “as a result of oppression during portions of the Middle Ages, a rancid piece of liturgy was added to the service[1]”. After we pour some wine in “Elija’s cup” and go to open the door for the fiery prophet we say the following.

Pour out Your wrath on the nations who have not known You and on the Kingdom’s who have not called in your name[2]. For they have devoured Jacob and desolated his home (or Temple)[3]. Pour Your anger over them, and let Your fury overtake them. Pursue them in fury and destroy them beneath G-d’s sky[4].

Past tense –about people in earlier times, not applicable to Christian Europe
Note the original Hebrew version is in past tense. One authority states that King David (ע"ה the peace upon him) only prayed (in this verse) that God should pour out his wrath on the idol worshipers who do not believe in the creation anew of the world, the signs and wonders that God did with us in Egypt and the giving of the Torah, but these nations that we live in their shade …they are believers in all of these…we must stand on our watch to pray constantly for the peace of the kingdom and the ministers for their success.[5] This interpretation eliminates all predominantly monotheistic nations from the curse but seems to include non-believing nations.

Origins in persecution
In the Haggadah and the original psalm the curse is applied to those “who devoured Jacob”. The context of the original psalm is also about nations who “defiled the temple…they have spilled blood like water around Jerusalem and there is no one to bury[6]”. It is suggested that this passage was added in response to persecution of Jews by “the bloody Crusaders[7]”. The passage does not appear in two important early versions of the Haggadah text, that of  Maimonedes[8] (1135-1204) and the one by Rabbi Saadia[9] Gaon in the 10th century[10]. An alternative view is that this text was already recited in the time of the Jerusalem Talmud (around the year 400)[11]. It also appears in the order of the Seder by Rabbi Amram Gaon[12], in the 9th century. Regardless, of the exact time, there was plenty of persecution to go around.

Classical Meanings
Some sources reflect an idea of diverting divine rage from one people to another. “The jealousy and anger that is raging like a fire against us, pour it on the nations that have not known you (instead), because we, although we have sinned (at least) know you and have called your name[13]”. In the French Haggadah it states that “I have seen no reason for (including pour out they wrath) nor have I heard. It seems to me that perhaps because we have already eaten our fill and drank to satisfaction because of this we might have spoken something derogatory or had an improper thought that because of these it would be proper that God’s anger and jealousy should smoke against us[14]”…so we pray that it be diverted...I find this idea extremely puzzling, why would God’s rage need to be expresses anywhere, surely if God decides not to punish one group that would be the end of the matter. Another idea is that with the focus on the future redemption at the end of the Seder, we are seeking protection from some of the turmoil that will precede it[15].  

Recent Meanings
More recently, arguments have been made that this passage is about taking a stand against evil. One blogger wrote about the persecution of two thousand years… “Why are we ashamed of this? We are ashamed because of a lingering “ghetto mentality.” Because, in our touchy-feely-goody world of nicey-nicey where it is politically incorrect to tell the truth and call evil by its rightful name, this passage doesn’t ‘fit.’ It is blunt. It is biting. It is angry. And it is right.”[16]

Regardless of the events that prompted its inclusion and the very real persecution of Jews, the language of “pour out thy wrath” is based first on the basis of their lack of knowledge or worship of God, with the element of persecution coming second. There is also a generalized hostility toward at least non-monotheistic non-Jews. One source suggests that “they” are even worse than Pharaoh because “they destroyed the holy temple twice. They thus did even more damage than Egypt[17]. Never mind that one temple was destroyed by Babylonians and the second by the Romans.

Cross it out?
Stanton suggests it “should be excised from the Passover Seder entirely. Once we were slaves to the oppression in our past. Now we are free to learn from it.” As he correctly points out the liturgy has changed over time therefore that should work for some Jews. Yet, in the strictly orthodox tradition that I follow this would not be considered. We are taught that “anyone who changes from the coin (format) that our sages have set for the blessings has not fulfilled his obligation[18].

In relation to the Passover text, the response to some deviations was even harsher. “One who conducts himself in accordance with this custom (of some changes to the text), there is no need to say that he has not fulfilled his obligation, rather anyone who does this is a heretic, he is a ‘divisive heart’ and denies the words of the sages OBM[19], disparages the words of the Mishna and the Talmud, and all communities must excommunicate him and separate him from the congregation of Israel…until they return to the good and accept upon themselves to follow the custom of the two Yeshivot[20]”.  Regardless of the merits of such conservatism, this is the understanding of tradition within which I practice my faith.

Rejection of the “Evil son” and perhaps even the silent one
Dissent or rejection is also knocked on the head in the Haggadah itself. The “Wicked son” who asks “what is all this toil for you?!”, is told that he doesn’t belong at the Seder. “God did this for me when I left Egypt, for me not for him, if he had been there he would not have been redeemed”. Generally, the “son who does not know how to ask” is dealt with gently. An alternative view is that a similar approach be taken to this son. “who is not meticulous to know in the name of who (God) he should do the acts and conducts himself like an animal. This is the “one who does not know how to ask”, he is not fitting for nature to be changed to save him…because you don’t contemplate the ways of God, his Torah and commandments…[21]

Putting it back in the bottle
Regardless of the rule that the genie cannot be put back in the bottle, perhaps in this case this is possible[22]. While rejection of the basic premise of the Seder has not been given a lot of tolerance in the tradition, at many Seders today very challenging questions are welcomes with open arms. At least they bothered to show up! The concern for the suffering of our enemies at the Seder is well documented with the idea of pouring out a little bit of wine for each of the plagues in recognition of the suffering of the Egyptians[23].

There have been suggestions of an alternative positive version of the prayer[24] which asks for love for those who protect us, but this version does not seem to have a lot of credibility. Instead I find some hope in a teaching relating to a Chasidic custom I did with my children this year at the end of the Seder. We poured the wine back in the bottle from Elija’s cup singing a special melody. The two pourings (in and out of the cup) represent two phases of redemption, initially many nations oppose redemption and it is necessary for God to “pour out His anger” on them. …ultimately it was never our dream to destroy others but rather to win them over…[25]

While Stanton probably skipped this passage this year, I hope and pray that next year we will all be in a Messianic Jerusalem, at peace with all the nations of the world, the wrath having been symbolically poured back where it came from.

[2] Psalms 79:6-7
[3] Psalms 69:55
[4] Lamentations 3:66
[5] The commentary Be’er haGolah (R. Moshe Rivkes) on the code of Jewish Law, section Hoshen Mishpat 425:5, citing commentary on the Hagaddah by Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi (1513-1585), rabbi in Egypt, Italy and Poland, author of Maasei Hashem, I learned about this source from the piece by Alan Brill,
[6] Psalms 79:1-4
[7] Zion N, Dishon D, (1997) The Family Participation Haggadah – A Different Night, Shalom Hartman Institute Jerusalem, p.143
[8] Yad Hachazah
[9] was head of academy in Sura, Babylon 928-942, born 882
[10] Torah Shlaima Haggada by Rabbi Menachem Kasher 1967 Jerusalem p.177
[11] Rabbi Yehudah son of Yitzchak Shir Lion of Paris, as seen from his words to his student the Semag, cited in Torah Shlaima above
[12] Served as Gaon in Sura, Babylon 853-871, cited in Torah Shlaima Haggadah
[13] Radak, on Psalms 79:6, also in Metzudat David
[14] Haggadat Tzarfat, in Torah Shlaima Haggadah p.179, he also cited Rashbatz that sees the wrath as relating the 4 cups of wine which is an even number which is believed to involve danger
[15] Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Judah ben Bezalel Lowe (1525-1609), quoted in
[17] Zevach Pesach, cited in the Meam Loez Haggadah (Yaakov Culi 1689-1732), English Ed, (1989) Moznayim Brooklyn NY,  p.137-138 (the original source, is suggested to have been written by Don Isaac Abarbanel…completed in 1496, in Torah Shlaima Haggada p.210
[18] Talmud Brachot 40b
[19] Of Blessed memory
[20] Rav Neturai Gaon, lived either around the year 710 or 750, (there were more than one sage with the same name living in Babylon around the same time) cited in Torah Shlaima Haggada p.27-28 
[21] Archot Chayim, R. Aaron Hakohen of Lunil, Firintzi, 1750, cited in Torah Shlaima p.26 (in Haggadah text section note 136) 
[22] On a lighter note, the idea of Genie’s are based on the Arabic Jin, which means demon, the night of Passover is known as a protected night, “Leil Shimurim”, surely we don’t have to worry about the rules of the demonic genies.
[23] Avudraham
[24] There is a claim published in the Family Participation Haggadah, about a Manuscript from Worms 1521 that adds the following prayer side by side with “Pour out they Wrath”.  Pour out your love on the nations which know you and on the kingdoms that call in your name. For the sake of the righteous deeds which they do with the offspring of Jakob and protect your people Israel from those who would devour them alive. May they merit to see a tabernacle spread of the your chosen ones and may they rejoice in the joy of your nation. This possible alternative prayer comes with the rider, that “scholars debate the authenticity of this”, there is a much harsher view taken on this about someone with a track record as a forger, see
[25] Kol Menachem Haggadah, (2008) commentary anthologised from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and other sources by Rabbi Chaim Miller,  Kol; Menachem Brooklyn NY, p.222


  1. Beautiful and thought provoking, as always.
    Zalman, how do you explain The Four Sons to non-Jews at interfaith Seder?

  2. thanks Elizabeth. Generally, I would be looking for more positive messages about how the four sons sections is about educating each person according to their needs or situation.