(Orah Hayyim 473:7 in the Rema)
In memory of Donna Webman z”l who was buried in her beloved city of Jerusalem, 9 Nisan 5776. Yehi zikhra barukh!
Question from a woman in Los Angeles:
My rabbi gave me your email address as you may be interested in a Pesah custom as told to me by my late mother. My mother was born in Singapore of Iraqi ancestry. She told me that during the seder, after the Ten Plagues were chanted, my great-grandfather used to disappear from the table, sometimes for over an hour, while he walked the neighborhoods of Singapore spilling the wine from the plagues onto the front lawn of anyone who had cheated him in business or owed him money and had not repaid him during the year. It was an accepted custom in the household and the source of much amusement. What is the source of this custom?
In addition to providing the origin of this specific custom, I will give the sources for the custom of sprinkling or spilling drops of wine while reciting the Ten Plagues, the reasons that have been given for the custom, and the various permutations of the custom.
I) The sources and reasons for sprinkling or spilling wine during the recitation of the Ten Plagues.
1) As if to say: they should not harm us
a) The first to mention this custom was Rabbi Eleazar of Worms (d. 1236) in his Derashah for Pesah, which was only published from a manuscript in 2006 (Drasha L’fesah, ed. Simcha Emanuel, Jerusalem, 2006, pp. 101 and 127). He says that one puts the etzba (index finger) in the wine and sprinkles a drop outside the cup when one recites dam va’esh v’timrot ashan (Joel 3:3), the Ten Plagues, and the mnemonic D’tzah Adash B’ahav — for a total of 16 drops. He says that it is “the custom of our ancestors” instituted by Rabbi Eleazar Hagadol (ca. 990-1060), his grandson Rabbi Kalonymus the Elder, Rabbi Eleazar Hazzan, Rabbi Shmuel Hehassid (12th century), his son Rabbi Yehudah Hehassid (ca. 1150-1217) who was Rabbi Eleazar’s teacher; and that it was also the custom of his own father Rabbi Yehudah ben Kalonymus (d. ca. 1200). He gives four reasons why the number 16 is significant. “16 times one sprinkles outside the cup …as if to say: it will not harm us … and one should not make fun of a custom of our holy ancestors.” In other words, Rabbi Eleazar of Worms describes the custom, explains it, and maintains that it goes all the way back to the 11th century in Ashkenaz.
b) A woodcut in The Prague Haggadah, 1526, shows a man dipping his finger in a large cup of wine (see the picture reproduced in The Schechter Haggadah, Jerusalem, 2009, p. 47, figure 23). The caption under the woodcut makes the same point, after describing the custom of sprinkling the wine with the pinky finger: “And it seems to me that it is a hint [that] ‘All of the illness which I put on Egypt, I will not put on you’ (Exodus 15:26).” In other words, “as if to say, they should not harm us”.
c) Rabbi J. D. Eisenstein gave a similar explanation (Otzar Peirushim V’tziyurim Al Haggadah Shel Pesah, New York, 1917, p. 15): Just as they were accustomed to spit upon hearing the names of the plagues “and the sprinkling is like the spitting, as if to say, that the plagues should not reach us God forbid”.
2) That we should be saved from these plagues and they should befall our enemies.
a) This was the explanation given by Rabbi Shalom of Neustadt (d. after 1413; Hilkhot Uminhagei Rabbeinu Shalom Mineustadt, Jerusalem, 1977, paragraph 398:7, p. 134) and quoted by his pupil the Maharil (see note 1):
… that the reason is, as if to say: may God save us from all these, and the reason is that the four cups are for the redemption of Israel and for the hindrance of the nations of the world, and therefore he sprinkles outside [the cup] with the etzba (index finger), that we should be saved from these plagues and may they come upon the heads [of the nations of the world].
Or, as he is quoted in Minhagei Maharil: “from all these may He save us, and may they come upon our enemies…“.
b) This explanation was repeated in a very bizarre source that was just published from a manuscript last year (The Monk’s Haggadah, University Park, Pennsylvania, 2015). Friar Erhard von Pappenheim (d. 1497) was a Dominican Friar and Hebraist, but also an anti-Semite. In his Latin introduction to the Monk’s Haggadah, written after 1489, he states: “After the recitation of the plagues and the sprinkling have been completed, then the head of the household… prays that the all-powerful God bring all these plagues and curses upon his enemies, and especially upon the great populace of Christians” (p. 119). As Prof. David Stern points out (p. 83), this explanation is the same as that given by the Maharil, who died in Mainz in 1427.
c) A similar explanation was given by Rabbi Gaguine in 1948 (p. 131): “it’s as if he wants to express by this [i.e., by spilling the wine] that the intent is not on them, i.e., not on the seder participants, but on our enemies“.
3) As a symbol of revenge
Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Cracow, d. 1572) gives a similar but not identical explanation in his Darkei Moshe commentary to the Tur (Orah Hayyim 473, Arba’ah Turim Hashalem, Vol. 4, p. 504). After quoting the explanation that the 16 drops correspond to the 16 faces of God’s swordhe adds: “And it seems that they are hinting here that the sword of God is called ‘Yohakh’, and he is the angel in charge of revenge, as is known to the Kabbalists”. In other words, it is not that the drops of wine symbolize that the plagues should befall our enemies and not us, but rather that the 16 drops represent Yohakh, the sword of God, the Angel of Vengeance.
4) The following customs could be based on the approach of either Rabbi Shalom of Neustadt or the Rema.
a) The Jews of Yemen and Baghdad have a similar custom. While the leader of the seder is spilling out the wine during the recitation of the Ten Plagues, all the participants mention after every plague the name of those who hate the Jews, e.g.
The father: Dam (blood)
The pariticipants: Yahul al rosh Haman (may it fall on the head of Haman)!
The father: Tzfardea (frogs).
The participants: Yahul al rosh Amalek (may it fall on the head of Amalek)!
The Jews of Baghdad used to add the names of enemies of the Jews in their own time. (Ben-Ezra, pp. 241-242 re.Yemenand Baghdad; and Wassertil, p. 177 re. Baghdad.)
b) This leads us to the origin of the custom described in the question. It’s almost identical to the custom described by Erich Brauer (pp. 238-239). His book about the Jews of Kurdistan was written right after they made aliyah and records many of their unique customs before that were lost in the melting pot of the State of Israel:
In Oshno they dip the index finger in wine for each of the Ten Plagues… They sprinkle the drop in an empty eggshell and they also add a little arak, tobacco and maror. One of the men takes the egg and throws it quietly at the threshold of a Kurd who is known as a Jew-hater. He returns quietly and washes his face and hands before he continues to participate in the Seder (cf. ibid. for similar customs).
In modern times, various rabbis and scholars added four other explanations for this custom:
5) To placate or forfend the evil spirits
a) Joshua Trachtenberg wrote in his classic work Jewish Magic and Superstition (New York, 1939, p. 167): “possibly to placate the evil spirits, who may be impelled by the reference to so many disasters to visit some of them upon the celebrants”.
b) Similarly, Theodor Gaster wrote in his Passover: Its History and Traditions (New York, 1949, p. 62): “This is a relic of the ancient custom of pouring libations to forfend evil spirits. It is felt that the very mention of the plagues must be accompanied by this protective measure!”
Daniel Goldschmidt reacted to this type of explanation in his Seder Haggadah Shel Pesah (Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1948, p. 21, note 7): “The researchers of comparative religion see this custom as a form of libation to remove the curse. But this is a distant thought from the spirit of traditional Judaism”.
The rabbis of the Talmud and the Jews of Ashkenaz did believe in evil spirits – shedim and mazikin – and also discussed how to drive them away. (See, for example, Berakhot 60b and 62a and Sefer Hassidim, ed. Wistinetzki, Index, s.v. shed, shedim). Thus, if Rabbi Eleazar and the other Ashkenazic rabbis above sprinkled or spilled wine in order to get rid of evil spirits, they would have said so explicitly. Rather, they were simply trying to say as the Hebrew phrases go until today “lo aleinu“, “bar minan“, that such-and-such a bad occurrence should not happen to us (see Rabbi Gaguine, p. 131).
6) As an imitation or remnant of the Greek and Roman practice of pouring a libation to the gods before drinking wine at a symposium.
A number of years ago, I published an article in which I summarized much of the evidence which shows that the Seder is modeled on the Hellenistic symposium. The Sages of the Mishnah took the form of the symposium and totally changed its content. (“The Origins of the Seder”, Insight Israel, second series, Jerusalem, 2006, pp. 68-76). In March 2012, Philip Fishman sent me a reaction to that article and suggested that the removing of the drops of wine from the second cup at the Seder is similar to the libation of wine “described in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as in the descriptions of the Graeco/Roman symposium”. He referred me to Homer, The Iliad, Book I (lines 468-472, ed. Loeb, Vol. I, p. 49; cf. the translation of W.H.D. Rouse from 1938, Mentor edition, p. 20) and to The Odyssey, Book 3 (ed. Loeb, Vol. I, p. 83, lines 43-50; cf. the translation by Robert Fitzgerald, Anchor Books, 1963, p. 36). In those early sources, they ate a feast or a sacrifice of roasted meat, murmured a brief prayer to the gods over wine, poured a libation of wine on the ground, and then drank a lot of wine.
He also quoted the second century CE Roman historian Pollux in his description of a Greek symposium. The order there was the first course, water for washing the hands, then “unmixed wine was produced in a large goblet… of which each drank a little, after spilling out a small quantity as a libation”.
Indeed, this is similar to the descriptions found in a recent book by Dennis Smith (From Symposium to Eucharist, Minneapolis, 2003, pp. 27-29) and in Rabbi Milton Steinberg’s classic novel (As a Driven Leaf, New York, 1939, p. 268; Springfield, NJ, 2015, p. 247).
This is a clever suggestion, but the two customs are really quite different. The Greeks poured out a libation of wine to the gods while uttering a prayer to the gods after the feast (Homer) or after the appetizers (Pollux and other sources) and then they drank a lot of wine. We sprinkle or pour the wine in the middle of the Maggid section, we recite the Ten Plagues, and we do not drink the wine until later. Furthermore, there is a gap of ca. 1400 years between Pollux (2nd century) and the Ari (16th century), who is the first rabbi who said that we should pour out the wine during the Ten Plagues rather than sprinkling it with a finger.
7) As a means of remembering or reenacting certain aspects of the Exodus.
a) Shevah Knebel (Haggadah Shel Pesah, second edition, New York, 1948, p. 24) says that we sprinkle the wine with the etzba (index finger) to show that this is easy for us, just as it was easy for God to send the plagues against the Egyptians with His etzba (Exodus 8:15). Others pour a little from the cup as they recite the plagues, just as God poured out his wrath on the Egyptians when He sent these plagues against them.
b) Yitzhak Lipitz of Shedlitz (Sefer Matamim, Warsaw, 1889, p. 56, paragraph 55; also quoted by Ben-Ezra, p. 243) said that we pour out a little from the cup “because, due to the plagues, the Egyptians were lessened each time and became fewer”. Rabbi Gaguine (p. 131) gives this as his second explanation for the custom.
8) To show that our cup of joy is diminished because our redemption came through the suffering of the Egyptians.
To the best of my knowledge, this explanation was first given by Rabbi Dr. Eduard Baneth, a well-known German rabbi and scholar, who died in 1930 (Der Sederabend, Berlin, 1904, p. 29).Baneth compared our custom to the custom of reciting only the half-Hallel on all but the first day of Pesah. Yalkut Shimoni (Emor, paragraph 654) says that we do so because the Egyptians died during Pesah and it is written “Do not rejoice at the downfall of your enemy” (Proverbs 24:17).
This explanation was repeated in various forms by Rabbi Samuel Price, (Outlines of Judaism, New York, 1946, p. 97); Rabbi Matt Berkowitz (The Lovell Haggadah, Jerusalem, 2008, p. 214); and Dr. Joshua Kulp (The Schechter Haggadah, Jerusalem, 2009, p. 233).
II) How should one sprinkle or pour the wine?
As this custom spread, it developed many permutations. I shall enumerate many of these variations with the sources in parentheses. If a source was already quoted above, I will not repeat the exact reference:
1. Sprinkle the wine with the etzba (index finger) (Rabbi Eleazar ofWorms; Rabbi Shalom of Neustadt; Rabbi Moshe Isserles).
2. Sprinkle the wine with the zeret (pinky finger) (The Hagahot to the Sefer Minhagim of Rabbi Isaac Tirnau, born 1380, ed. Spitzer, Jerusalem, 1979, p. 50, note 98; The Prague Haggadah, 1526).
3. Sprinkle the wine with the kemitzah (ring finger) (Magen Avraham to Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 473, subparagraph 28).
4. Spill the drops from the cup into a broken vessel
5. The leader of the seder sprinkles wine and the shamash (servant) sprinkles water into the same bowl after every plague. At the end, the shamash pours the bowl on the ground outside. (This is the custom in Israel, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Ashkenaz, according to R. Gaguine, p. 130)
6. To sprinkle or pour the wine into a bowl or pitcher of water (the Jews of Italy according to Ben Ezra, p. 242; the Jews of Kurdistan according to Brauer, p. 238)
7. To add more wine to the remaining wine before continuing the seder (Lewysohn).
8. To throw out the wine remaining in the cup, to wash the cup, and to refill the cup (Rabbi Sofer, paragraph 165 and Kasher, p. 127).
9. To give the wine that was spilled out to a non-Jew to drink so as not to waste food and transgress the prohibition of bal tashhit (Ben-Ezra, p. 242).
10. To use a different cup of wine for this custom, not the second cup of the seder (Rabbi Sofer, paragraph 165).
11. Whoever drinks the wine remaining in that special cup during the meal will have plenty of food that year (Kasher, p. 127, quoting from a manuscript).
12. To pour out water instead of wine (the Jews of Buchara according to Ben-Ezra, p. 242).
13. To pour out a total of 26 drops — 13 for the ten plagues plus the mnemonic D’tzah and 13 more for each of the words repeated in Kurdish (Brauer, p. 238).
III) Should we observe this custom today?
As I have written in connection with a rather strange custom (Responsa in a Moment, Vol. II, Jerusalem, 2011, pp. 37-38), in light of the above, one could easily say that this is a superstitious custom or a custom based on revenge, so why should we observe it today? I believe that this is a genetic fallacy. Frequently, a Jewish custom which arose as a result of a superstitious belief became popular until today for entirely different reasons.
Thus, for example, expensive glasses were originally broken at weddings in the Talmudic period in order to scare away evil spirits which come to harm people on joyous occasions such as weddings. In the fourteenth century, Ashkanazic rabbis reinterpreted the custom as a way of remembering the Destruction of theTemple. In time, the original explanation was entirely forgotten and only the secondary explanation is known and loved.
The same is true regarding the sprinkling or spilling of wine when the Ten Plagues are recited. The original reason was “as if to say: they should not harm us” or that the plagues should befall the enemies of Israel. But a modern Jew can view this custom as a means of reenacting various aspects of the Exodus or maintain that our cup of joy is not full because many Egyptians died during the Exodus. Regardless of the explanation adopted, by sprinkling or spilling the wine at the Seder, we connect to the Seder customs observed by our ancestors since the 11th century and to Jews throughout the world, who are observing the same customs until today.
9 Nisan 5776
Akiva Ben-Ezra, Minhagei Hagim,Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1963, pp. 241-243
Erich Brauer, Yehudei Kurdistan, Jerusalem, 1948, pp. 238-239
Rabbi Shemtob Gaguine, Keter Shem Tov, Vol. 3, London, 1948, pp. 130-131
Rabbi Menahem M. Kasher, Haggadah Shleimah, third edition, Jerusalem, 1967, pp. 126-127
Rabbi Yaakov Hayyim Sofer, Kaf Hahayyim to Orah Hayyim 473, paragraphs 163-165
Asher Wassertil, editor, Yalkut Minhagim, third edition, Jerusalem, 1996, p. 177[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]