6 Nissan 5777 / April 2, 2017
I was 8 years old. Dad was conducting the Seder in our dining room. The time arrived to recite the Ten Plagues, and we dutifully did so in Hebrew, taking care to drop one drip of wine onto our plates with each plague. Upon the tenth plague, the Slaying of the Firstborn, I took my cup of wine and emptied it entirely upon my plate. My family looked at me, incredulous. I explained that the rabbi at my Jewish Day School had instructed us that this is the proper custom. Mom was more concerned about the mess I had just made on the white tablecloth. I never did it again.
So many of us assume that all the customs associated with the Passover seder have emerged utterly unchanged from the time Moses and the Israelites ate the Paschal lamb “with loins girded and sandals on your feet,” as the Torah prescribes. However, even a cursory glance at the history of the Seder reveals transformation after transformation, along with wide customary disparities among the various ethnicities of our people even unto this day.
Take the spilling of wine during the Plagues. Why do we do it? The prevailing explanation in the modern Western world is that we diminish the cup of joy over the Egyptians’ suffering, reinforcing the Biblical book of Proverbs’ admonition that it is a sin to “rejoice over the downfall of your enemy.” It’s surprising to note that this explanation is far less than ancient. It seems to have emerged from the mind of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the founder of Modern Orthodoxy in the 19th Century. As part of his and others’ quest to preserve Judaism while navigating Western Europe as a newly emancipated people, Hirsch seemed to want to recast this custom as part of his belief that Jews could be good Jews and good Germans.
Earlier explanations widely diverge from this one. This ancient custom was generally seen as a device to ward off evil spirits and perhaps to divert them to one’s enemies. Among the Jews of Iraq, the Seder leader would actually leave the table to spill wine upon the doorsteps of neighbors he knew to be anti-Semitic!
Spilling wine on the ground was a common practice among the ancient Greeks and Romans, and one can find this practice in both The Odyssey and The Iliad. In the Roman Symposium, after which the Seder is patterned as an act of rebellion against the Romans, it was common for diners to recline on pillows, eat roasted meat, and at the end of the meal, to pour wine on the ground as a libation and drink large additional quantities of wine. Our practice of spilling wine has migrated to before the main meal, but we have preserved the drinking of two more cups of wine after the meal, not to mention inviting Elijah to sample an additional cup.
One should not be alarmed that the meaning of customs has evolved over the millennia of our people’s existence. Indeed, it is comforting to know that these customs have been largely preserved by recasting them in response to evolving historical circumstances. So, whatever your custom is, and whatever your reason for doing it, just make sure to do it. And be careful not to be caught by your neighbors spilling wine on their doorsteps! Shavua Tov.