The Seder meal is over. We eat the afikoman, recite birkat hamazon (grace after meals) and drink the third cup of wine. We then pour the fourth cup and prepare to recite the rest of Hallel (the first two chapters having been recited before the meal), expressing thanks to God for redeeming us from Egyptian bondage.
But before proceeding with Hallel, we pour an additional cup of wine. We open the door and stand up to welcome Elijah the prophet, whose advent, we believe, will herald the messianic redemption. (Some families add a well-known song of welcome to the prophet, a modern innovation. .) Before resuming our seats and proceeding with Hallel, we recite shefokh khamatkha a series of four Biblical verses, three from Psalms and one from Eichah ((Lamentations), whose theme is our desire that God exact revenge on our oppressors:
Pour out Your wrath upon the nations that do not acknowledge You, and on the kingdoms that do not call on Your name. For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitations. Pour out Your indignation upon them, and let Your fierce anger overtake them. Pursue them in wrath and destroy them from under the heavens of the Lord.(Psalms 79:6-7, 69:25; Lamentations 3:66, translation from Haggadah edited by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks).
This passage strikes a discordant note, one seemingly out of place at the Seder. The overarching theme of the Haggadah, after all, is our gratitude to God for redeeming us from Egyptian slavery, not a thirst for revenge against the Egyptians. Earlier in the Seder, in the course of fulfilling our obligation to tell the story of the exodus, we made a point of reminding ourselves that God had foretold our enslavement to our father Abraham:
Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. (Gen. 15:14, JPS translation).
If our experience as slaves in Egypt was part of God’s plan, then why should we seek vengeance against the Egyptians?
Even if we concede the appropriateness of expressing these vengeful sentiments at the Seder, their placement at this point is puzzling. They have no immediately apparent connection to what comes before or after them. Moreover, the Haggadah juxtaposes our plea for revenge with a welcome to the Prophet Elijah, which turns this brief interlude into a theological mixed metaphor.
What’s going on here? Our current practice at this point of the Seder combines two separate and distinct elements. Elijah’s symbolic presence at the Seder is a product of one of the roles we believe he will play during the Messianic era, the determination of all unresolved halakhic disputes. The Talmud (Pesachim 118a ) alludes to an apparent dispute between the sages and Rabbi Tarfon regarding how many cups of wine we are required to drink at the Seder. The sages held that we drink four cups, and Rabbi Tarfon (at least according to one version of the text) holds that we drink five. The third cup is drunk over the grace after meals, and the fourth over Hallel. Those who hold that we can drink a fifth cup would place it after Hallel Gadol (the great Hallel), which is the name we give to Psalm 136, and which we recite at the Seder after the conclusion of the more familiar Hallel, which we often refer to as Hallel Mitzri (Egyptian Hallel) because of the reference to the reference to the exodus from Egypt in 114:1.
Rashi rejects the version of the Talmudic text that suggests a halakhic dispute between Rabbi Tarfon and the sages as to whether we should drink the fifth cup, but the Rambam (Maimonides), among other authorities holds that we are obligated to drink four cups, but we have the option of drinking the fifth cup. The practice thus developed, at the time we pour the fourth cup of wine, of also pouring a fifth cup. We don’t drink that fifth cup, however, but instead set it aside for Elijah, who will tell us in due time whether or not to drink it.
The obligatory four cups of wine correspond to the four promises of redemption contained at the beginning of Parshat Va-eira (Ex. 6:6-7): vehotzeiti (I will bring you out); vehitzolti (I will save you); vega’alti (I will redeem you); velakachiti (I will take you out). But there is a fifth promise in that passage: veheiveiti (I will bring you to the land of Israel) (6:8). This is presumably the basis of Rabbi Tarfon’s opinion that we should drink a fifth cup.
Whether we consider the promise of entry into the Land of Israel to be part of the Redemption we celebrate on Passover is a point of dispute among the commentators. Some would argue that the purpose of redemption was to enable us to fulfill the Torah in its entirety, which can only be accomplished when the Jewish people is living in our own land. Others would contend that whereas the other four promises of redemption were unconditional, our continued presence in the Land was conditioned on our fulfilling the Torah, and our failure to do so twice led to our exile. Earlier in the Seder, in the section known as Dayeinu (it would have been enough for us), we list the fifteen components of redemption for which we are grateful, the last one being the building of he Beit haMikdash (Holy Temple).
This difference of opinion can lead us to divergent views as to the four cups of wine. Maybe we should drink five cups, or maybe the fifth promise doesn’t count, or maybe we will only drink the fifth cup once the ultimate redemption has come, and the Temple has been rebuilt. We cannot make a final determination of these questions so we leave them for Elijah to resolve.
In any event, it seems likely that the four verses that we recite at this point of the Seder initially had nothing to do with the cup set aside for Elijah. The verses are Biblical, but their recitation is a relatively late addition to the Haggadah, a product of the Middle Ages, most likely the Crusades, when Christian crusaders on their way to kill the Muslim infidels occupying the Holy Land decided to practice by killing Jews along the way. During this dark period in our history, it was difficult for Jews to celebrate whole heartedly the freedom that the holiday is supposed to mark. Their anger at the dissonance between the freedom they were celebrating and the life they were experiencing found anguished expression in these verses. They do not refer to the Egyptians, who acted according to their role in God’s plan, but rather to later persecutors, who had no such excuse.
Why were these verses placed in the same part of the Haggadah as the fifth cup set aside for Elijah? One suggestion I have heard (though I don’t know its source) is that the practice of opening the door was originally connected with the invitation that we include at the beginning of the Seder, in Ha Lakhma anya. When we said “all who are hungry let them come in and eat”, we opened the door and left it open throughout the Seder as a as a gesture of hospitality. When the Crusades (or whichever persecution — take your pick, we’ve experienced enough of them) made the earlier practice hazardous, we abandoned it, symbolically opening the door momentarily near the end, while expressing our anger at the changed circumstances.
Abarbanel has a different view. He posits that these verses were intended as an introduction to the second part of Hallel. The Hallel that we recite at the Seder is recited in two parts, with the meal between them. The first part (consisting of Psalms 113 and 114) is introduced by a paragraph beginning with lefikhakh (therefore) and ending with “Let us therefore sing before him.” The verses beginning with shfokh khamatekha, according to Abarbanel, serve the same purpose for the second part of hallel, which begins with Psalm 115, whose opening verses are:
Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Your name bring glory, for Your love and Your faithfulness. Let the nations not say, “where now is their God”, when our God is in heaven and all that he wills He accomplishes. (Psalms 115:1-3, JPS translation).
In other words, Abarbanel reads the four verses of Shfokh khamatekkha together with the opening verse of Psalm 115 as urging God to destroy our enemies not for the sake of enabling us to seek revenge for their oppression of us, but solely to preserve His reputation and demonstrate His power.
The juxtaposition of these verses with our welcome to the Prophet Elijah may not be as anomalous as appears at first glance. Though his reputation for peacefulness improved posthumously, Elijah as depicted in Tanakh was not exactly an exemplar of peace. The highlight of his career, his triumph over the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18:20-46), resulted in the killing of those priests. When God subsequently asked him to define his mission, Elijah responded:
I am moved by zeal for the Lord, the God of hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant. (19:10)
Elijah’s association with the anticipated coming of the Messiah is derived from the next to last verse of Malachi (3:23), literally the very end of prophecy (and also of the haftarah read on Shabbat Hagadol (the Shabbat before Pesach). From that time forward, the Jewish people were, on their own. The era of the nes niglah (overt miracle) is over. God’s hand is still evident in history, but we have to work harder to see it. We still have the assurance (represented by the majestic language of Hallel Gadol) that when Elijah returns, he will clear up all our doubt and enable us once again to see clearly the hand of God in history.
How should we in our day relate to this somewhat enigmatic part of the Hagggadah? I would suggest that we live in an era when we should be able to relate both to the promise of ultimate redemption symbolized by Hallel Gadol and to the tragic every day reality represented by shefokh khamatkha. There are still alive among us, after all, those who remember both the Holocaust, surely the greatest tragedy to befall our people since at least the Bar Kochba rebellion and the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel after a lapse of two millennia. Rabbi Menachem Kasher, one of the most eminent and learned rabbinic authorities during the State of Israel’s early days (he died in 1983) acknowledged the paradox that
[w]e members of the most unfortunate generation in all the years of Israel’s exile, with our own eyes have beheld the annihilation of one third of our people at the hand of the savage Nazis and their accomplices in other nations. When we recite “Pour out Your wrath” we are reminded of “the nations that know You not.” And when we recite “Who alone performs great marvels,” [Psalms 136:4] we recall the miraculous events accorded is in our own days and in our own Holy Land, for this is the beginning of the redemption of people and soil, and the gathering of the exiles.
For this reason, Rabbi Kasher suggested that in our day we should anticipate the ultimate redemption by drinking the fifth cup of wine following the recitation of Hallel gadol. His suggestion has not been widely accepted, perhaps because we are mindful of the consequences that have sometimes flowed from over-eager anticipation of the Messiah. While many of us firmly believe that the State of Israel represents reishit tzemikhat geuloteinu (the beginning of the flowering of our redemption), we are aware that the State of Israel as it exits today is still a human institution and like all human institution unavoidably flawed. May we soon see the day when we will lose our ability to relate to the verses of shefokh khamatekha and all Israel will be able to recite Hallel gadol with a full heart and a fifth cup of wine.
Chag kasher ve sameach– a happy and kosher Pesach to all.