- Sh’fokh Ḥamatkha in the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael and the Passover Haggadah:A Search for Origins and Meaning
Although the theme of the Passover seder revolves around the redemption from Egypt, the Haggadah is not squeamish when it comes to recalling—or anticipating—the destruction of Israel’s enemies. For example, after Dayyenu, the traditional Haggadah draws upon a passage from the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael, a late second-century midrash, for a discussion about the number of plagues that the Egyptians suffered at the Reed Sea. One rabbi argues for fifty plagues, another for two hundred, and a third for two hundred and fifty! The wish for vengeance is palpable. Perhaps the most provocative such passage in the Ashkenazic Haggadah is known as Sh’fokh Ḥamatkha, after its opening phrase, “Pour out Your wrath.” We recite the passage between the Grace after Meals and the conclusion of the Hallel (Psalms 115–118). We drink the third cup of wine, fill the Cup of Elijah, and open the door for the herald of the Messiah. Customs vary as to whether we pour the fourth cup before or after reciting the biblical verses below:2 [End Page 32]
Pour out Your wrath (sh’fokh ḥamatkha) upon the nations that do not know You, upon the governments that do not call upon Your name. For they have devoured Jacob and desolated his home (Psalm 79:6-7). Pour out Your wrath on them; may Your blazing anger overtake them (Psalm 69:25). Pursue them in wrath and destroy them from under the heavens of Adonai(Lamentations 3:66).3
Is this a call for divine vengeance, pure and simple? Why do we recite these particular verses and why do we do so at this particular juncture in the seder? Although classical commentaries and modern scholars have given diverse answers to these questions, as far as I can tell none has identified the source of the passage, which I believe is none other than the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael, the tannaitic halakhic midrash on part of the book of Exodus.4 As I will suggest, the midrashic context of this passage sheds a great deal of light on these and other questions surrounding it. In exploring these matters, it is not my intention to “sanitize” this troublesome imprecation.5 Rather, I believe that more than solely a cry for revenge, the passage seeks to provide an answer to a [End Page 33] theological question that has perplexed Jews over the millennia: did the exodus somehow deplete God’s power or desire to intervene in history, or will God’s “strong hand and outstretched arm” return again to the stage of history?
Note that this analysis focuses exclusively on the passage above and not on its possible relationship either to opening the door or filling the cup of Elijah. The former practice predates the custom of reciting Sh’fokh Ḥamatkha and reaches back to geonic times, while the latter is not mentioned until the fourteenth century, more than a century after these biblical verses had begun to appear in Haggadot.6
We will begin with a review of how both classical commentators and modern scholars have understood Sh’fokh Ḥamatkha. We will then consider its origins and the significance of its underlying midrashic context, as well as how the passage relates to themes expressed in Jewish responses to the Crusades. We will conclude with some thoughts about what we can learn about the passage from its placement in the Haggadah, namely, between Grace after the Meal and the concluding psalms of Hallel.
Commentary on One Foot
The classical Haggadah commentaries on Sh’fokh Ḥamatkha are fascinating, but are neither as convincing nor as illuminating as one might hope.7 One of the more common interpretations8 explains that enjoining God to [End Page 34] pour out divine wrath on the nations that do not know God relates to one of the Jerusalem Talmud’s numerous accounts of why we drink four cups of wine at the seder (Pesaḥim 10:1, 37b–c).9 According to the Jerusalem Talmud, the four cups correspond to the cups of retribution—four...