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When the Cup of Wrath Overflows: Teaching Shefokh Hamatkha After October 7th

Rabbi Shmuel Hain
April 19, 2024

I remember vividly the first time I truly engaged with the text of shefokh hamatkha el haGoyim. It was Seder night 2002. Senator Hillary Clinton was sitting directly across the table from me at our intimate family seder. She was there because she had requested to join us for Passover after developing a close relationship with my father, who was President of the Rabbinical Council of America at the time. Up until that moment, I had never really contemplated the implication of these verses calling on God to wreak vengeance on Gentiles. To be honest, from early childhood through my teenage years, all of my attention during the opening portion of the after-dinner program of the seder was squarely focused on detecting whether Elijah had taken a sip from the cup of wine we had poured for him. But as we began a somewhat surreal seder, shefokh hamatkha el haGoyim suddenly occupied all my thoughts and made me very uncomfortable.

Pour out your wrath on the nations that do not know You, upon the kingdoms that do not invoke Your name. For they have devoured Jacob and desolated his home (Psalms 79:6-7).Pour out Your wrath on them and the fierceness of Your anger shall reach them (Psalms 69:25).You shall pursue them in wrath and destroy them from under the heavens of the Lord (Lamentations 3:66).

When I have shared this shefokh hamatkha story with my high school students in previous years, they have typically reacted by suggesting a variety of ways to resolve the dilemma. Some students ask if one may omit the paragraph altogether, given the circumstances. Some years, a student or two is familiar with an alternative version of the text popularized in non-Orthodox circles, shefokh ahavatkha el haGoyim, and they propose replacing the verses describing Divine wrath with this progressive substitute emphasizing Divine love for the nations of the world.

Other students raise the possibility of contextualizing these verses. One must not forget in what period and under what conditions the shefokh hamatkha ritual originated. Indeed, one can appreciate the impulse to recite these verses in Medieval Ashkenaz, when Jews in Christian countries experienced numerous crusades and expulsions. These Jews were powerless to respond to the continuous persecution, and so they turned to biblical verses to beseech their Heavenly Father to repay their persecutors in kind. Nowadays, these students contend, this kind of harsh rhetoric directed towards Gentiles is misplaced. These students often point to the popular explanation for the practice of spilling out drops of wine from our cups when we enumerate the plagues visited upon the Egyptians as a demonstration that our celebration is incomplete in the knowledge that our salvation came about at the expense and suffering of others.

In years past, I have pushed my students to eschew quick fixes or facile historical contextualization when they encounter this ritual and these verses. I demonstrate to students that despite forged attempts to trace the roots of shefokh ahavatkha to the 16th century, scholars agree that an alternative text first appeared only in the 19th century with the advent of the Enlightenment. Moreover, though the practice originated in Ashkenaz, the custom to recite the verses of shefokh hamatkha eventually spread to all Jewish communities.

But this year, I have had to push my students from the opposite direction. Amidst the ongoing suffering and trauma unleashed by Hamas on October 7th, many students (and adults) will uncritically embrace shefokh hamatkha as a general call for vengeance against all Gentiles. This is a grave misunderstanding of shefokh hamatkha. In order to fully appreciate the theological message of shefokh hamatkha, we must deepen our understanding of the nuanced relationship between vengeance and redemption as it is portrayed in Tanakh and at the seder.

In a number of verses in Tanakh, we beseech (and await) God to take vengeance on His enemies. In the book of Devarim (32:43), we read in the song of Ha’azinu: “O nations, acclaim God’s people! For He’ll avenge the blood of His servants, Wreak vengeance on His foes, And cleanse His people’s land.” Note that the verse does not call on God to wreak vengeance on all Gentiles. We await God taking vengeance against His foes. When we ask God to pour out His wrath on the seder night, we don’t have in mind all non-Jews. We are targeting a very specific group of people who deny God and are bent on destroying those who identify with God.

The seder night makes this distinction even more emphatically. The fourth cup of wine signals a shift in focus away from the particularly Jewish redemption from Egypt, which has been the focus of the first three cups of wine. By juxtaposing shefokh hamatkha with opening the door and pouring the cup of Elijah, the seder further channels the message of several biblical verses, including Isaiah (63:4): “For I have planned a day of vengeance, And My time for redemption will arrive.” Shefokh hamatkha is immediately followed by the recitation of the universal portion of Hallel and the great hymn of Nishmat Kol Hai, describing the ultimate redemption of every living soul. It would be completely inconsistent to ask God to destroy all Gentiles in one breath and then immediately follow that with a prayer to redeem all of mankind. What, then, are we asking for at the seder? We want God to pour out His wrath on those who are evil because that is the necessary prelude to ultimate redemption. For all of the world, including the vast majority of Gentiles, to be redeemed, we need to first expunge the enemies of God. What – on its face – looks like a prayer that pits our people against the nations of the world, is nothing less than our prayer for the ultimate redemption of those very nations.

This nuanced stance of shefokh hamatkha is essential to convey to our students and to ourselves. It is possible to simultaneously pray that our enemies will get their Divine comeuppance and that the balance of our neighbors will be redeemed alongside us. In this current moment of war with Hamas and attacks from Iran, there is one additional element to note. Unlike the powerless Jews of Medieval Ashkenaz, we live in a time when soldiers of the IDF have the opportunity to assist God in carrying out the responsibility of eliminating those who are obstacles on the ultimate path toward universal redemption.

My family was relieved to be spared having to explain shefokh hamatkha to our prominent guest some 22 years ago. We happily obliged when Senator Clinton asked if she could leave after spending an hours-long maggid and festive meal with our family. So immediately after birkat hamazon, we opened the door to say goodbye to Senator Clinton and hello to Elijah. But now, in the shadow of October 7th, I feel fully equipped to explicate the message of shefokh hamatkha. This seder night and beyond, let us all pray for redemption by full-throatedly singing shefokh hamatka el hagoyim alongside Hallel and Nishmat Kol Hai.

Rabbi Shmuel Hain

Rabbi Shmuel Hain

Rabbi Hain is Rosh Beit Midrash at SAR HS and Rabbi of YIOZ of North Riverdale/Yonkers. He recently served as the Daniel Jeremy Silver Fellow and as a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University’s Center for Jewish Studies.

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