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Seder on the Rooftops

Some modern thinkers–mainly Jewish universalists–express discomfort in the Seder recitation of “Shefoch chamascha, Pour out Your wrath.” In this passage of the Haggadah, we call on Hashem to punish the heathens who do not recognize Him and who destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. While this is a direct biblical quote (Ps. 79:6-7), and addresses the Gentile nations that destroyed the Temple, it seems at a superficial reading to be directed at all Gentiles, which makes liberals uneasy. Some have revised this text, substituting a more positive version for the biblical passage. The Schechter Haggadah (Jerusalem, 2009, p. 268) quotes this nineteenth century German alternative text: “Pour out Your spirit on all flesh / May all nations come to serve You / Together in one language / Because the Lord is the Sovereign of Nations.” This entire attempt not only misreads the biblical text as anti-Gentile rather than anti-destroyer, it fails to ask why this passage is placed right after the meal, as we open the door before we continue Hallel.

Many possible explanations have been offered. Or Zaru’a explains that we have largely completed the extensive discussion of Egypt and now we curse their evil. Meiri connects the four cups of wine to the four exiles we have endured. As we pour the fourth cup, we ask Hashem to avenge the persecution we have endured in those exiles. The Rema (Orach Chaim 480:1) says that we open the door as a show of faith in Hashem’s protection. We recite “Pour out Your wrath” to express our faith that Hashem will bring the final redemption. (All these and more are brought in Rav Menachem Kasher’s Haggadah Shelemah, pp. 179-180.)

In his recently published Haggadah Yesamach Av, Rav Eliyahu B. Shulman offers a simple but fascinating historically-based explanation. The Gemara (Pesachim 85b-86a) says that in the time of the Temple, Hallel split the roofs of Jerusalem. Even though people were not allowed to eat the Pesach sacrifice on their roofs, they would eat the meal inside their homes and then go onto their roofs to sing Hallel. Imagine the entire city full of families singing on their roofs.

Rav Shulman quotes Rav Shmuel Baruch Eliezrov, who in his Devar Shmuel (Pesachim 86a) says that his grandfather, Rav Yosef Salant, used this historical practice to explain our current practice of opening our door for “Pour out Your wrath.” The Pesach sacrifice has to be eaten in the home, with the group. Therefore, people would close their doors to ensure that everyone ate the food in the correct place. After they finished eating, they opened their doors to go up to their roofs and sing Hallel. We open our doors in commemoration of the ancient practice of singing Hallel on the rooftops.

Rav Shulman adds that nowadays we open our doors and see that we are in exile, not Jerusalem, and in our grief ask Hashem to avenge our plight. He further explains why Hallel is interrupted with the meal.

The Mishnah (Pesachim 116b) records a debate over how much of Hallel to recite before the meal. According to Beis Shammai, just the first paragraph (Ps. 113); according to Beis Hillel, also the second paragraph (Ps. 114, “Be-tzeis Yisrael mi-Mitzrayim, When Israel went forth from Egypt”). On the one hand, we need to recite Hallel over the Pesach sacrifice, which was the meal. On the other hand, people wanted to say Hallel on the roofs. Therefore, we start Hallel before the meal, say a little, eat the meal, and then finish Hallel (in Temple times on the rooftops). According to Beis Shammai, one paragraph suffices for starting Hallel. According to Beis Hillel, we include the second paragraph which discusses the Exodus so we finish the Maggid (story) section of the evening on the second cup of wine, before the meal.

When we think about how the Seder progressed in ancient times, our current practice seems like a faint shadow of its former glory. Each family conducted its own Seder and then joined with the community for glorious Hallel. Today, we open the door to start the communal phase, only to realize in frustration that due to our exile we must return to our tables and forego the experience. Liberal revisions of the Shefoch Chamascha passage fail completely to express this frustration of exile and the hope for rebuilding the Temple and reinstituting the sacrificial system.