Parshat Bo – פרשת בא

Parshat Bo – פרשת בא


Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom

Parshat Bo – פרשת בא

January 20, 2018 – ד שבט תשע”ח


This essay is sponsored by Honey & Sol Neier and Claire & Sam Krumper in memory of Roslyn Levine Z”L.


Drops of Wine


Exodus 7-12 is the record of the Ten Plagues; blood, frogs, vermin, beetles, pestilence, boils, hails, locusts, darkness, and death of the first-born.  God so afflicted the Egyptians because of Pharaoh’s persistent refusal to release the Israelites from bondage.  Scripture depicts the horrible suffering of the Egyptians, beginning with a desperate search for fresh water to quench their thirst and culminating in a great cry heard around the country as every Egyptian household experienced a fatality.


For the Jewish student of Scripture, what is the appropriate emotional reaction to reading about the suffering of a nation that enslaved and embittered the lives of our ancestors?  The question, in essence, is not specific to the Bible or to the historical experience of the Jewish people.  In every generation, the populations of the nations at war have to come to terms with their feelings about the suffering endured by the enemy’s civilian population.  Does a sense of common humanity result in empathy, or does tribal loyalty and the desire for strict justice lead to a sense of gratification in knowing that the “other” is in pain?  Answers to this question can be found in the various interpretations of a popular Seder custom.


At the Seder, it is customary to remove sixteen drops of wine from the second of the four cups.  The drops are removed during the Maggid section of the Haggadah, upon the recitation of “blood, fire, and pillars of smoke,” the Ten Plagues, and Rabbi Judah’s three-word acronym for the plagues “D’tzach Adash B’achav.”  The method of removal depends upon family tradition.  Dipping into the cup one’s pinky, index finger, or ring finger are all recognized practices.  Others find such behavior unsanitary and repulsive, preferring instead to spill wine directly from the glass into a receptacle.  The custom originated approximately one thousand years ago among the Pietists of Ashkenaz.  Initially, there were some who mocked the ritual.  In time, however, the practice became widely observed.  It was codified by the Rema for Ashkenazi Jews (Orach Chaim 473:7), and eventually spread to the Sephardi world also.


The earliest evidence for the practice is a Passover sermon delivered by Rabbi Elazar of Worms (1176-1238), better known as the author of Sefer Ha-Rokeach.  He explained the custom as a symbolic way of saying that “the plagues should not harm us.”  He noted that sixteen corresponds to the number of sides of God’s sword, the number of times that plague is mentioned in the Book of Jeremiah, the number of people called to the Torah weekly, the number of lambs sacrificed weekly in the Temple, the number of times “life” is mentioned in Psalm 119, and the numerical value of היא in reference to the Torah’s being a “tree of life to those who grasp her” (Proverbs 3:18).  The notion that Israel ought not to suffer the specific plagues with which God bludgeoned the Egyptians is found in a Scriptural admonition: “If you will diligently hearken to the voice of the Lord thy God, and will do that which is right in His eyes, and will give ear to His commandments, and will keep His statutes, I will put none of the diseases upon thee which I have put upon the Egyptians; for I am the Lord thy Healer (Exodus 15:26).”  The verse is cited by the author of the 1526 Prague Haggadah along with the comment, “I have seen pious people who are accustomed to dip their small finger into the cup and sprinkle wine at the mention of every plague.”


Maharil (Germany, 1365-1427) suggested that we spill wine drops as if to say “we should be spared from these plagues, and, instead, they should come upon our enemies.”  Rema noted that the custom hints at God’s sword, the angel of vengeance known as יוה”ך (Darkei Moshe, Orach Chaim 473).  The first two letter of יוה”ך have a numerical value of sixteen (Mishneh Berurah 473:75).  One explanation for the four cups of wine is that they correspond to the four cups of retribution that God will force the enemies of Israel to drink at the end of days (Yerushalmi Pesahim 37c).  Reuben Margaliot suggested that we spill a small amount of the wine upon mentioning the Ten Plagues as if to say that those plagues were but a small taste of the cup of poison our adversaries will eventually have to swallow (Be’er Miriam p. 40). These explanations, emphasizing vengeance and the severity of punishment inflicted on our foes, are thematically consistent with the Haggadah’s post-meal supplication: “Pour out Thy wrath against the nations that know You not.”


Some commentators suggest that the Seder custom is a re-enactment of a facet of the Exodus narrative.  Isaac Liefitz posited that we reduce the amount of wine in our goblets upon mentioning each of the plagues because the Egyptians themselves were reduced in number and stature by the destructive force of the plagues (Sefer Mat’amim p. 56).  Others note that we dip our finger in the wine to memorialize the words of the Egyptian magicians who recognized the truth and exclaimed “It is the finger of God” (Exodus 8:15).


Daniel Goldschmidt noted that scholars of comparative religion view the custom of spilling wine at the Seder as a means of warding off curses and evil spirits, though he rejected such an explanation as being far from traditional Jewish thought. (It is, however, pace Goldschmidt, an historical fact that notions of magic and the use of amulets have been, and remain, elements of Jewish practice and belief.)   Shemtob Gaguine observed that Jews enjoy ritual sprinkling acts and endeavor to create protective charms against the evil eye (Keter Shem Tov 3:131).


The typical American Jewish layman is likely not aware of the explanations mentioned above for the Seder wine spilling ritual.  American Jews generally have been taught that we reduce the amount of wine in our cup because our joy in commemorating Israelite liberation is slightly diminished by the knowledge that the Egyptian people suffered terribly.  Even though they were our tormentors, still, their suffering is human suffering and it cannot entirely be ignored by us, even at the Seder.  Proof that Jewish ritual behavior can be influenced by the moral need for empathy in moments of heathen suffering is adduced from the fact that an incomplete Hallel is recited on the seventh day of Passover, the anniversary of the splitting of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptian cavalry.


Does this widely-known and -accepted explanation have merit?  What is its origin?


Scripture warns, “Do not rejoice at the fall of your enemy (Proverbs 24:17).”  Samuel the Little made that verse his life’s mantra (Avot 4:24).  The Talmudic explanation for the non-recitation (or, according to contemporary practice, partial recitation) of Hallel on the latter days of Passover is that the Musaf sacrifices are the same each day, in contrast to Sukkot, when each day’s Musaf is unique to that day (Arakhin 10a).  However, a late Midrashic text cited by the Rishonim mentions the deletion of Hallel as in somber recognition of the pain of the drowned Egyptians (Shibbolei Ha-Leket 174).  An Aggadic passage recalls God chastising the angels for attempting to sing songs of praise to the Almighty while the Egyptians were dying horrific deaths in the treacherous waters (Sanhedrin 39b).  Yet, it must be noted, that, although God chastised the angels for their over-exuberance, the Israelites in fact did sing the most famous song in the entire Bible, the Song at the Sea (Exodus 15:1).  Moreover, the attempt to explain Seder night rituals on the basis of the absence of Hallel from the liturgy of a different festival day is clearly undermined by the fact that Hallel is recited in full at the Seder.


Another Midrashic passage, while not directly addressing the later custom of spilling wine, does expressly state that Passover is a time of incomplete joy.  The Midrash notes that, in regard to Sukkot, Scripture thrice mentions the obligation to rejoice.  Scripture never does so in connection with Passover.  One explanation for the disparity is that on Passover the world is judged concerning grain, hence the nervousness of the moment tempers any feelings of joy.  [The weakness of this answer is that on Sukkot we are judged concerning rain.  The anxiety associated with that judgment is equally likely to temper festive spirits.]  The second answer given is that on Passover our joy is reduced in recognition of the suffering and deaths of the Egyptians (Yalkut Shimoni, Emor 654; see also Pesikta d’Rav Kahana).


Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk proposed the idea that Jewish holidays never celebrate the downfall of our enemies.  On Hanukah we recall the miracle of the oil and the rekindling of the Menorah.  Purim is a celebration not of the anniversary of military victory, but of the morrow, the day of rest for weary soldiers who were done fighting (Esther 9:22).  Scripture does not justify the Festival of Unleavened Bread as being “because God exacted vengeance in Egypt” but rather “because the Lord took the Israelites out of Egypt.”  Rabbi Meir Simcha noted that Scripture mandates a full holiday for the seventh day of Passover, inclusive of a ban on labor, before the incident at the Red Sea (Exodus 12:16).  In his view, the intent of Scripture was to disabuse the reader of the idea that the final Yom Tov day of Passover is a commemoration of the downfall of the Egyptian army (Meshech Chochmah Exodus 12:16).


Many 20th century editions of the Haggadah include a footnote about the wine spilling custom in which the “diminished joy” theory is attributed to either Abarbanel (15th century) or Abudarham (14th century).  I have long questioned the accuracy of those attributions, because the “diminished joy” theory sounds more like the thinking of a modern enlightened scholar than that of a medieval rabbi.  I had further reason to doubt upon realizing that none of the modern Haggadot offered precise citations for these views from the writings of Abarbanel or Abudarham.  Professor Zvi Ron, in a 2015 article in the journal Hakirah, convincingly proved that the “diminished joy” theory dates back no earlier than the late 19th century.  The earliest written evidence for it is in Eduard Baneth’s 1904 “Der Sederabend.”  Baneth was Professor of Talmud at the Lehranstlat fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums, the Liberal rabbinical seminary in Berlin.  Baneth likely heard the idea directly or indirectly from Hungarian Orthodox Rabbi Jeremiah Low (1812-1874).


It is the natural tendency of people to interpret religious rituals in ways consistent with their own personal experiences.  For the medieval Jew who witnessed crusades, blood libels, or other theologically motivated atrocities, the act of removing wine from a glass was easily understood to be symbolic of the Heavenly retribution that will eventually destroy the oppressor-heathen foe.  For rabbis and scholars living in the period of European Jewish emancipation (Hungarian Jewry was emancipated in 1867 and German Jewry secured full rights of citizenship upon unification in 1871), the desire for revenge against gentiles gave way to a recognition of universal human brotherhood.  Even staunchly Orthodox rabbis, who fought the Haskalah and Reform, were capable of such egalitarian feelings.  In America, the most hospitable and pleasant of all Jewish diasporas, the lesson of recognizing the pain of others easily trumped the earlier, darker theories undergirding Seder table behavior.


But there remains a need for balance.  A prototypical contemporary Jew may, at the Seder, have a gleeful smirk on his face as he recites the Ten Plagues.  He turns the page to Rabbi Akiba’s fantastical homiletic aggrandizement of the plagues and thinks to himself, “The Egyptians deserved every last one of the purported 250 plagues.”  He roots for Israeli battlefield victory.  But instead of contenting himself with the safe return home of IDF fighters, he seeks further gratification in an inflated enemy casualty count.  These sentiments represent a vicious and deplorable extreme.  Yet, equally problematic (or perhaps more so) is the Jew whose universalism and tendency toward empathy make him unable to participate in the celebration of his own people’s triumphs.  He refuses to observe Yom Ha-Atzma’ut because it coincides with what the Arabs consider their Nakba.


Ideally, we should strive to find a middle ground allowing us to rejoice in our survival and success while at the same time recognizing the pain suffered by even our barbaric adversaries.