Can we discuss constructively our greatest ideological differences around the seder table this year?
Every year at our Passover seder someone inevitably spills some red wine on the brand new white table cloth. No explanation is given. It’s annoying, but everyone laughs and understands it’s an accident. And we move on. However there is one part of the seder where there is a custom to intentionally spill some wine, and this raises a much more difficult and painful conflict that risks even breaking up the whole seder.
Rabbi Moshe Isserles cites the custom in the Shulchan Aruch (Or Chaim 473): “And some have the custom to pour a little bit from the cup with one’s finger when one reads “blood, fire, and pillars of smoke,” and similarly when one mentions the plagues; in all 16 times.” However, he offered no explanation as to meaning of this custom, and this is where the potential conflict begins.
If one were to open almost any haggadah with an English translation published in the US since WWII, it will almost certainly explain the custom as a symbolic act to show that we should not be fully happy at a time when our enemies suffered and died¹. The earliest source for this interpretation of the custom may be attributed to Rabbi Yirmiyahu Löw (1812–1874), mentioned by his grandson, Rabbi Binyamin Zev Lev (Löw) who writes (Divrey Yirmiyahu, Drashot 42b, Satmir 1934): “My holy grandfather, of blessed memory, gave a wonderful explanation as to why we pour a drop of wine on Passover night from our cup of salvation as we recite each plague. Since the Jewish people are merciful and through the rescue from Egypt many of God’s creations were destroyed and drowned, although it is a great joy for us that God took us out of Egypt and redeemed us, it is still painful for us that through this others were destroyed, for “to punish the innocent is surely not right” (Prov. 17:26). And if God would have rescued us without the destruction and death of others it would be a greater joy for us. Therefore our joy is a little diminished, and to show that Israel is ‘merciful and the children of merciful’ (See T.B. Yevamoth, 79a), we pour a little at every plague.”
However, there is an alternative interpretation that sees the spill very differently. For example, Rabbi Reuven Margaliot, in his haggadah, Be’er Miriam (1937, Tel Aviv), writes (after referring to the medieval Hasidey Ashkanaz secretive explanation of the tradition), “in addition, it may be said that it is to serve as a hint that these plagues are (only) drops from the cup of poison that the Holy One Blessed be He will in the future serve to those that persecute Israel.” As a basis for this interpretation, he refers to the Jerusalem Talmud Pesachim 10:1 which brings the opinion that the four cups symbolize the four cups of destruction G-d will give the nations of the world to drink from in the future.
So which one is it? Do we spill the wine as a symbol of lessening our cup of salvation and rejoicing as an act of solidarity with our fallen enemies? Or are we praying to one day rejoice over the future complete and utter destruction of our enemies and not just a few drops of plagues?
I believe that different answers will be offered in different homes depending on their differing ideologies and worldviews. But what if we are all sitting at the same seder table (which is the case with my family!)? How can we spill some wine and tell over two mutually exclusive explanations representing opposing values, and meaning systems and still sit calmly at the same seder? It’s indeed not easy and can be very risky. However, what is, in my opinion, an even greater risk is if these two interpretations never spill wine together since they never sit around the same seder table. The question is can the ‘four sons’ with very different understandings of the meaning of the Passover story sit together and learn from one another? Can we suspend our bias of seeing ourselves as the only real chacham (the wise son) and those with the ‘wrong’ ideology as the rashah (the wicked son) or the tam (the simple/naive son) in order that we can ask one another ‘why do you spill the wine’? I see this as the challenge of this year’s seder, a time when the world is increasingly sitting at separate seder tables or sitting together but being polite and quiet, acting like the she’eno yodeh lishol (the son who ‘doesn’t know how to ask’), therefore never truly challenging the other and learning from one another. If we can sit together, spill wine together and ask one another what that means to them and why, being open to hearing an explanation different from the one we may prefer, then I believe we may all once again merit to be redeemed and freed this coming Passover.
¹ See Zvi Ron, “Our Own Joy is Lessened and Incomplete: The History of an Interpretation of Sixteen Drops of Wine at the Seder”, in Hakirah, the Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought 237-255. Ron’s article is also the source for finding the competing interpretations mentioned in the article. http://www.hakirah.org/Vol19Ron.pdf