April 9, 2024
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Removing Drops of Wine While Reciting the Plague Names

Our custom to remove drops of wine while reciting the plague names goes back to the time of the Rishonim, but the ubiquitous modern-day explanation that we do this out of sadness for what happened to the Egyptians does not. When did this explanation arise and how did it become so dominant? Rabbi Zvi Ron addresses this topic in an article in Hakirah, Volume 15, and later in an article at thetorah.com. I am going to summarize his conclusions here.

The custom of removing drops of wine at this point in the Seder is first mentioned in the writings of R. Eleazer of Worms (d. 1238). He describes it as having been a custom for several centuries before him. He offers explanations based on the number 16, which is the number of times wine is taken out (three for the future plagues mentioned in Joel; 10 for the plagues in Egypt; and three for the mnemonic for the plagues). His first explanation is: “Sixteen times they spill out a drop, matching the sword of the Holy One… which has 16 sides.” [MF: The implication is that God’s wrath is very destructive.] His second explanation is that there are 16 mentions of the plague דבר in the book of Jeremiah, and that by removing 16 drops we are asking that the plagues not affect us. He also mentions a few other symbolisms of the number 16.

Let us contrast this with the modern-day explanation. The modern-day explanation is attributed in many sources to Abudarham (14th cent.) or Abrabanel (15th cent.), but these attributions are erroneous. (For example, ArtScroll’s Haggadah, 1977, p. 127, cites it in the name of Abarbanel.)

A key figure in the modern-day explanation is Rabbi Dr. Eduard Ezekiel Baneth (1855-1930). Baneth studied at the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin and was ordained by its founder, Rabbi Israel Hildesheimer. He served as the rabbi of Krotoszyn, Poland, and later was a professor of Talmud in Berlin.

Baneth mentions the modern-day “incomplete joy” explanation in his “Der Sederabend: Ein Vortrag,” a lecture on the Pesach Seder published in Berlin in 1904. He writes: “Here the ten plagues will be enumerated, and it is a widespread—though not particularly old—custom to remove a drop of wine from the cup for each plague. This strange practice was explained to me, when I was still a boy, that wine is a symbol of joy, and because each plague caused our tormentors to suffer on our account, the joy over our own liberation is diminished.”

Baneth is aware that this was not the traditional explanation for the custom, and thus continues: “Whether this explanation may make claim to historical truth may remain unanswered, but one must recognize the poetic truth in it, because it breathes the spirit of Judaism.”

Earlier than Baneth, there was a book Divrei Yirmiyahu, which was a collection of the drashot of R. Yirmiyahu Löw (d. 1874), compiled by his grandson. There, the grandson brings the “incomplete joy” explanation in the name of his grandfather: “The Jewish people are filled with mercy, and through our being saved from Egypt, God’s creatures were lost 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… If God had saved us without causing loss and death to others, it would have been a greater happiness for us. Therefore, through this our joy was a little diminished, and to show that Israel are merciful and the children of merciful, we pour out a little [wine] at every plague.”

Ron writes that “the rabbinical figures in the Löw and Baneth families were connected for generations, and it is reasonable that a member of the Baneth family related an explanation heard from Löw…at the family Seder…”

Baneth’s published lecture on the Seder was significant in its time. Thus it is likely that his adoption of the idea led to its introduction into Haggadot and into the public consciousness. It eventually made it into the very popular Haggadah of R. Eliyahu Kitov (Yalkut Tov Haggadah, 1961) (with attribution to Abarbanel).

In America, early English-translation Haggadot generally either did not explain the reason for the custom or gave explanations close to the original one.

The shift began in 1929, in an English Haggadah published by the Austrian/Hungarian Schlesinger publishing house: “We cannot celebrate the feast of our deliverance full of joy when so many thousands of human beings have perished.”

In the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s this explanation became ubiquitous in America. The Haggadah edited by the De Sola Pools, first published in 1943 by the National Jewish Welfare Board for members of the armed forces of the United States, explains that “a drop of wine of rejoicing is diminished from the cup in sign of pity for the suffering Egyptians.”

The Haggadah edited by Philip Birnbaum for the Hebrew Publishing Company in 1953, considered the standard traditional work for English speakers until the late 1970s, states that the custom “is intended to stress the idea that we must not rejoice over the misfortunes that befell our foes.” Rabbi Shlomo Kahn’s 1960 Haggadah, “From Twilight Till Dawn,” explains how this custom reminds us that the Egyptians “although our enemies and tormentors, were fellow human beings nevertheless.”

Ron summarizes: “Since World War II, every American Haggadah aimed at a primarily English-speaking audience that offered an explanation for this custom provided the ‘incomplete joy’ explanation, and in most cases it was the only explanation offered.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls it “the most beautiful” explanation for the custom, and does not offer alternative explanations. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin states that “it symbolizes our sadness at the loss of human life—even that of our enemies.” The explanation appears in many mainstream scholarly Hebrew Haggadot as well.

Ron concludes: “The almost total conquest this explanation has made in Jewish circles, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, traditional and secular, speaks to the unique way it succeeds in bridging the Jewish and modern notions of compassion for the other, and thus offering ethical relevance to an old custom…”

(Of course, as Ron points out, the idea of compassion for the Egyptians is not just a modern Jewish notion. It is already found in the Talmud at Sanhedrin 39b: “My handiwork is drowning in the sea and you are singing before me?!”)

***

—Regarding the original 13th-century explanation, the idea that the sword of God had 16 sides came from Midrash Tehillim, secs. 31.6 and 78.19. Also, the word דבר appears 17 times in the book of Jeremiah, not 16. Probably, R. Eleazar had some reason for not counting one of them.

—As to why the earlier explanation lost popularity, Ron suggests that the image of the 16-sided sword of God was esoteric, and the general symbolism behind the number 16 was obscure and difficult to connect with.

—How did the widespread erroneous attributions of the “incomplete joy” explanation to Abudarham and Abarabanel arise? Both their names begin with the letters אב, the same letters as the Hebrew initials of Eduard Baneth. Although Baneth’s Hebrew name was Yisrael, he was often referred to as אדוארד. Ron theorizes that “it is possible that a writer saw this explanation written in Hebrew in the name of ר’ אב and misunderstood these letters as referring to the first two letters of either Abrabanel or Abudarham.”


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He wonders if his own initials “MF” may in the future be misunderstood. (“Rav Moshe Feinstein” perhaps?)

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