Ruben Vis reflects on a key passage in the Haggadah.
If the word Seder means order, then every piece in the Haggada must be in its correct place. Why, then, immediately after the meal, do we read a passage that seems out of place and why is it even there in the first place?
It consists of several pesukim (phrases) from Psalms 79 and 69 and Lamentations 3 and begins with the words “Shefoch Chamatecha” (“Pour out Your rage upon the nations that do not know You”). We recognize the point immediately because this is the moment in the Seder when the front door is opened to the outside. What role does this passage perform in the Seder, why is it there, in this place, and why are we opening the door at this point?
I found the beginning of an answer when I found a box filled with notes and drafts for articles written by Chief Rabbi Justus Tal. Rabbi Tal was chief rabbi of the town of Utrecht and the province of Drenthe before the Second World War and after the liberation Chief Rabbi of Amsterdam until he died in 1954.
To my surprise, I understood from the material in the box that Rabbi Tal has been deeply involved with the study of the New Testament and how it contradicts the Tanakh. His father Tobias, Chief Rabbi of the province of Gelderland and then of The Hague, and his colleague Lion Wagenaar, Chief Rabbi of Gelderland and then rector of the Dutch-Israelite Seminary, had also been intensively involved in refuting the New Testament and the Christian interpretation of texts in the Old Testament.
If you read Rabbi Tal’s notes and articles, you will be amazed at his knowledge of the New Testament; it’s nothing short of stunning. Tal was educated at the Dutch-Israelite Seminary. He was at home in German and French at a written and oral scientific level, read and wrote classical Greek and could certainly compete with the best university-trained New Testament scholars. At the same time, he was proficient in rabbinic literature. This is evident from his Halachic lecture for Passover that he gave in 1953 the year before his death, and from his notebooks of his derashot (speeches), both of which display his knowledge of Aggada (a collection of rabbinic texts that incorporates storytelling, historical anecdotes, moral exhortations, and practical advice). The erudition that rises from the papers I found in the two boxes says something about the training that was given to rabbis in The Netherlands at the time. It was thorough, profound and broad.
What does all this have to do with the Seder? In one of Tal’s notes, I came across his remark about the third cup of the Seder. This is the cup that Jesus speaks of in 1 Corinthians 11. Corinthians is the first of two letters Paul writes to new Christians in Corinth, a town in the Peloponnese in Greece.
“On the night the Lord Jesus was delivered, He took a loaf of bread, said the prayer of thanksgiving, broke the bread, and said, ‘This is my body for you. Do this, again and again, to remember Me.’ So He took the cup after the meal, and He said, ‘This cup is the new covenant made by my blood. Do this, every time you drink from this, to remember Me.’ So whenever you eat this bread and drink from the cup, you proclaim the lord’s death until He comes. For whoever eats and drinks but does not realize that it is the body of the Lord, calls his condemnation upon himself.”
Rabbi Tal points out that when it says, ‘So He took the cup after the meal’, it refers to the third cup that is drunk during the Seder. As we drink two cups before the meal and one cup immediately after the meal, this is the third cup, the cup of which Paul says, “So he took the cup after the meal.”
And this explains why the piece Shefoch Chamatecha is said right now, immediately after the third cup. It is a refutation of what is in the New Testament, of what is in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.
This third cup is not the blood of Jesus. The cup we drink is not the body of the Lord by which Jesus is referred to. This cup is not the new covenant.
Incidentally, Tal also refutes with a huge list of arguments and sources why there can be no question of a ‘new covenant’. Rather, with this cup, we fulfil the command to drink the arba’a kossot, the four cups, at the Seder, as happened in the time of Jesus and long before.
According to Daniel Goldschmidt (Haggada Shel Pesach Vetoledoteha, p. 62), Shefoch Chamatecha is only found in the Haggada after the age of the Geonim (589-1038 CE), which not surprisingly coincides with the Crusades – a disastrous time where Jews and their communities were persecuted based on Christian religious beliefs. Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes in his The Jonathan Sacks Haggada) that saying Shefoch Chamatecha was started during the Crusades, the first of which affected Jews in Western Europe in 1096.
That’s why this interruption of the Haggada fits so well at this time. While we actually pour the fourth immediately after the third cup and continue with Hallel, an interruption takes place here that starts with the words Shefoch Chamatecha. For this is not the blood of Jesus; it remains the third expression of salvation with which we associate the third cup.
And despite the pressure from outside to start behaving according to their faith, we show our tenacity and eat the matzah and drink the third cup of wine according to how it has been passed on to us. So much so, that at this point in the Haggada, we even open our doors to the outside world, to express our views audibly to our neighbours.
Now that we know the context of our third cup versus their third cup, we can imagine the tremendous courage that this opening of the door shows.
But it is often said that we open the door here because we express the expectation that Eliyahu will come to announce salvation to us. That also fits perfectly into this narrative. This act then contradicts what we just read that is written in Corinthians, namely, “So whenever you eat this bread and drink from the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord, until He comes.” For although we are waiting for salvation, it is clear that our desire is not for Jesus as the one who comes as a saviour.
After saying the third cup, saying the words Shefoch Chamatecha and opening the door has a meaning that works outwards. Together they form a reputation that began to become necessary during the Crusades and therefore was added to the order of the evening and had to be given its place here, immediately after the third cup.
Now that we know the background of this piece of Shefoch Chamatecha, it is easy to understand how it ended up where it did in the Haggada.