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Pesach and ‘genocide’

April 4, 2010 – 5:19 pm21 Comments

By Keren Tuch

I look forward to Pesach every year (I might swallow my words when the day eventually comes for me to host a seder). Aside from kneidlach, charoset and walnut pate (liver for vegetarians), it is the Jewish festival that emphasizes a message of freedom that is still pertinent today, despite occurring some 3000 years ago. We have been telling the story of the enslavement of our people to the Egyptians for thousands of years, and despite our success at being a free people today, there are many groups of people throughout the world for whom freedom is still a dream. The human trafficking industry is rampant today in most countries, and according to a UN official, it is the largest slave trade in history.

The night before Pesach I was chatting with my housemate, who mentioned a heated argument he once participated in on seder night – the premise of which was that in retelling the exodus from Egypt, we ought to commemorate the genocide of the Egyptians’ first born sons.

My initial gut reaction was an indignant and defensive one. Why should we commemorate the ‘genocide’ of the Egyptians?  After all, this night is about retelling our success story. And besides, we didn’t actually kill the Egyptians either. Should we also commemorate the Cambodian genocide while we’re at it? But after a couple of days of eating and thinking and then some more eating, I’ve decided to exchange my emotional hat for a rational one to see if this changes my outlook.

Firstly, I’m a little troubled by the word genocide. Genocide is an emotive word that conjures up images of skeletal frames littering the streets.  What exactly is genocide, and who determines when genocide is committed?  According to the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, genocide is defined as the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group”. Well, the killing of the first born was deliberate and systematic, and it was a destruction of part of a national group.  However, Article 2 goes on to define the acts which are considered to be genocidal, and uses the phrase “with the intent to destroy”. This is a little more problematic, as the purpose of killing the Egyptian first born was more a strategic blow than a wanton act of destruction. Perhaps one could say the first born were mere casualties of an unspoken war, with God being an ally to the Jews. In any case, whether the term used is ‘genocide’, ‘massacre’ or ‘casualties of war’, the questions still remains, should we acknowledge the killing of the Egyptian first born with more than just a fleeting mention in the haggadah?

In contemporary society, there is a trend to be empathetic about the welfare of others, more so than in previous generations.  Even if the first born were not directly our enemies, I can hardly envisage that they would have been chummy with the Israelites.  But they were innocent civilians with their own narrative and perhaps do deserve recognition of the deaths that occurred. I can only imagine what it would feel like to be a resident of Nagasaki, where the atomic bomb killed thousands of innocent civilians – an act for which the Allies have apologized, and annually commemorate.  Do the Israelites owe an apology to the Egyptians, even if they were not directly responsible for their deaths?

Whilst it may not be an official apology, for thousands of years during the seder, during the recital of the ten plagues, it has been customary to dip one’s finger in the wine and remove a droplet of wine for every plague to lessen the joy that wine brings.  This act is an acknowledgment of the tragedy that befell the Egyptians for each plague, not just the killing of the first born.  We are celebrating our own freedom, yet still actively remembering the price that was paid by our enemies.  Considering this custom has been around for a long time, I’m rather impressed at the level of institutional empathy which would have existed in a context that appears to me to be unprecedented.  Is the finger dipping exercise enough of a commemoration, particularly as most Jews who partake in this activity are unaware of the symbolism behind it?

At the end of the day there are at least two sides to every story, but the winners write history.  Seder night is a chance for us to remember our history of servitude and celebrate our right to freedom.  It is appropriate to acknowledge and commemorate the loss of innocent lives, which has been done with the action of finger dipping for thousands of years, but maybe we should also put a little more thought as we’re dipping and not just continue to do it ritualistically. Thanks for the thought Mr. House Mate, and please continue challenging me.

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  • Michael says:

    Great post. I think a lot of discussions about genocide get distracted about the formal definitions of genocide and whether something “really” counts as genocide or not. That way people can actually be debating about whether to call Darfur a genocide instead of doing more to stop it. Here too, I think whether it was genocide is a bit of a red herring — the question is whether it was ok or not.
    In my opinion, if the Exodus story is historical (which I don’t believe in but needs to be granted for the sake of discussion) then this would be one of the first documented examples of terrorism. The Torah is quite specific that the plague was supposed to strike terror into the Egyptians so they wouldn’t be able to bear it. Almost no Jews would support the killing of civilians to strike terror into the population when it’s done by Hamas so the only consistent thing would be to feel that the 10th plague was not justified. Unless you think that all this applies only to humans but God can do whatever he wants.
    Commiseration with the Egyptians has a strong basis in Orthodox Judaism, eg. the Midrash that says God rebuked the angels who were singing when he collapsed the sea over Pharaoh’s army: “My creatures are drowning and you wish to sing?”

  • I am not familiar with the tradition that one dips his finger in the wine in order to lessen the joy that the drink might bring: mind if I ask where you got that from? As for the general feeling of empathy, I was going to quote the source that Michael quoted (although he beat me to the punch!). I must say, however, that it’s not so easily understood. It can be found in the Talmud (bMeg 10b, bSan 39b), where it is attributed to Rabbi Yohanan in defence of the notion that God does not rejoice over the deaths of sinners. A similar sentiment is also found in the midrash (Shemot Rabbah 23:7), which states that God rebuked the angels for rejoicing over the danger into which he had placed his legions (לגיונות), and only permitted it once the Israelites were on dry land, and with the precondition that the Israelites sing first.
    The reason that it isn’t so clear is that all major commentaries to the midrash assert that “legions” is a reference to the Israelites, and the danger that they were in was due to them having been frightened by the water all around them. I do not know whether or not they read the same idea back into the Talmudic passages (neither Rashi nor the Tosafists comment in situ, and I lack the resources to check the opinions of others). It would seem that they may be correct, given the fact that the midrash presents God as supporting the merriment once the Israelites are back on land.
    It needs to be noted that Midrash Rabbah is a late compilation (the Exodus component probably dates to the tenth century, or even later), but the presence of this tradition in the Talmud enables us to place the origin of this sentiment earlier than the fifth century, though it’s impossible to say just how early. Rabbi Yohanan was a third century Palestinian sage, but there’s no way of knowing whether or not he truly originated this notion. It may be that this sentiment was popular at a time, but less popular in later years.
    For a biblical parallel, consider God’s rebuke to Jonah, who mourns over the salvation of the Assyrians. While the book of Jonah is not a history, and while it’s composed at a time after the Assyrians no longer exist (c. 612 BCE for their destruction), the sentiment – however comically expressed – is similar to this one.
    Sorry if my comment is a post in its own right, but I wanted to say all that before I said that I completely disagree with your housemate, and perhaps with Michael as well. I also don’t read the text historically, but I don’t think that it allows us the possibility of empathy any more than Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings requires that we stop to consider collateral damage amongst those humans who supported Sauron. As a fiction, the story contains elements that are designed to serve a narrative purpose – in this instance, the recompense for Pharaoh’s having ordered the drowning of all Israelite boys in Exodus 1:22.

  • Keren says:

    I am not familiar with the tradition that one dips his finger in the wine in order to lessen the joy that the drink might bring: mind if I ask where you got that from?

    I read it in my Artscroll Haggadah.  But I also googled it and on the aish website it says:
    “Every time one of the plagues is mentioned, we dip our finger in the wine and spill a drop. This reminds us that our cup of joy is not complete because people had to die for our salvation. Thus it is considered insensitive ― after completing the drops ― to lick one’s finger!” http://www.aish.com/h/pes/l/48968741.html

    It is also referenced in many other websites, but I’m not sure what is the Jewish  gold standard of authority in references.

  • On the contrary, I have just spent the better part of an hour (I love procrastinating!) checking the relevant sections of Maimonides’ Hilkhot Chametz U’Matzah (ch8, if anybody wants to check), and the Arba’ah HaTurim (Orach Chayyim 473), and neither of them even mention the existence of this custom. Ah, but the Mishna Berura does! In a note, the Chofetz Chayyim adds that people “are accustomed to remove a little from the cup with their finger once they reach “Blood, Fire and Pillars of Smoke”, and again when they recall the plagues, [abbrev.] דצ”ך, עד”ש, באח”ב, both generally [ie: as acronyms] and particularly [ie: as individual plagues] – a total of 16 times.” He attributes this to the 14th century Talmudist, Rabbi Ya’akov ben Moshe Levi Moelin (Maharil), who compiled many examples of German Jewish customs.
    In any case, the only commentary on this, in the Mishna Berura, is that of Rabbi Yehuda Ashkenazi, who only notes that we dip our finger in the wine in order to remind us of the quote that “it is the finger of God” (Exodus 8:15, and as also mentioned subsequently in the Haggada), but makes no mention of the need to reduce the portion of wine.
    Whatever the specific origins of this custom (which, I guess, goes back to 14th century Ashkenaz), my guess is that the reason given by Artscroll and Aish (in fact, everything said by both Artscroll and Aish) should be taken with a pillar of salt.

  • Michael says:

    Oh, I don’t think the text was composed with any notion of empathy for the Egyptians, just that this has been a potential extra layer that can easily be superimposed onto it by anyone who lives in an age where it’s not considered ok to kill civillians.

  • ariel says:


    The Israelites didn’t kill anybody in the narrative, G-d did. Claiming it was genocide or a massacre by the Israelites is like claiming the tsunami in 2004 or the quake in Haiti in 2010 were acts of genocide by some group of people. (They were both probably caused by underground nuclear tests by Iran and Pakistan, but that’s an argument for a different day…)

    Keren and Simon,

    I understand a reference to not celebrating the drowning of the Egyptian army comes from the verse “Do not rejoice at the fall of your enemy” (“Binpol oivecha, al tismakh”).
    We manifest this throughout Pesach by only reciting the half-Hallel on the last 6 days of the chag to show we are containing our full joy. (On Sukkot we recite full Hallel everyday)

  • Very nice! Proverbs 24:17. That’s even better than my Jonah reference. Mind you, if you’re going to claim this as the origin, you need to deal with the fact that the Israelites do rejoice over the deaths of the Egyptians (all of Exodus 15, in fact), and that it is only the post-biblical Talmudic tradition that has the angels berated for doing so as well.
    By the way, when my father runs his seder, he likes to make reference to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the most intense part of which commenced on Erev Pesach (April 19th), 1943. I don’t personally like this tradition, and told him so: parallels between Pesach and the Holocaust (and, likewise, between Purim and the Holocaust) only really exist on the most ironic level. The traditional Pesach narrative is of a nation redeemed; not one brought to the brink of absolute annihilation. Nonetheless, if we can use this festival to remember our own genocide (and some, like my father, would say that we should), then I think Keren and Michael are right: there is nothing to stop us also using it to remember the genocide of others.

  • ariel says:

    Simon, I agree with you on Artscroll…

    Also I realised we were talking about the Death of the Firstborns, not the drowning of the army. I believe they fall in the same category of not rejoicing at the fall of your enemy.
    An analogy I like when trying to comprehend all these massacres in the Bible is to Winston Churchill ordering the carpet bombing of civilians in Dresden and Harry Truman ordering the A-bombings on Japan. Of course, these were terrible occurences, but they were (more than) arguably necessary at the time in order to break the backs of the Axis powers and force them to eventually surrender. Thousands of the enemies’ civilans were killed and wounded; we’re not happy that it had to be done and these weren’t decisions taken lightly. To this day we still laud the two leaders as heros for their courage to do what was necessary.

  • Michael says:

    Ariel, I don’t think you read the comment I wrote, when did I say this was genocide or a massacre by the Israelites?
    Also on the flip side of the Proverbs verse, there are laws that oblige religious Jews to rejoice when a heretic dies or something bad happens to them.

  • ariel says:

    I see we’re veering off subject here, but what do you think about the proposal that the nation of Amalek appears in history whenever the Jews make an attempt to return to Eretz Israel?

  • ariel says:

    Michael, you wrote in your first post:
    “In my opinion, if the Exodus story is historical (which I don’t believe in but needs to be granted for the sake of discussion) then this would be one of the first documented examples of terrorism. The Torah is quite specific that the plague was supposed to strike terror into the Egyptians so they wouldn’t be able to bear it. Almost no Jews would support the killing of civilians to strike terror into the population when it’s done by Hamas so the only consistent thing would be to feel that the 10th plague was not justified. Unless you think that all this applies only to humans but God can do whatever he wants.”

    Terrorism is comitted by people, not G-d. If G-d determines that killing the Egyptian firstborns is justified then we accept it as necessary, but don’t rejoice.

  • Michael says:

    Exactly, I was saying it would be terrorism by God not the Israelites. I don’t understand why you say terrorism is comitted by people, but as far as I can tell there’s no reason to accept this. If you do, on the flip side you could say kindness is comitted by people and not God?

  • Yes, that is off topic, Ariel! Sounds like you’ve been reading some VaYo’el Moshe? :) An excellent book from an outstanding scholar, but there’s no way that I believe any of that.

  • ariel says:

    Actually, I heard it from an Australian academic on the radio in Israel a couple of years ago…perhaps he read the book.
    I actually think the thesis has some merit  :)

  • ariel says:

    even though it’s from Satmar…

  • The Satmar Rebbe was both a scholar and a gentleman. Even so, you should be aware that those who propose this particular idea tend (as he did) to be blaming the Holocaust on Zionism.

  • ariel says:

    no no no, that wasn’t the thesis i was referring to
    i meant that every time in history, just prior to the Jews entering Israel, Amalek shows up (sometimes it’ realised in hindsight).
    the 3 main examples:
    1) on the way to Israel in the wilderness, Amalek attacks
    2) Amalek (in the form of Haman and his people) threatens to destroy the Jews in Persia; subsequently, the Jews are returned to Israel
    3) As the Jews are making headway in re-establishing sovreignty in Israel, Amalek attacks in the form of Germany.
    I don’t blame the Jews for the attack: the thesis is that Amalek is pure evil – anti-Semitism incarnate – that is a spirit which possesses an entire nation and seems to show up every time we’re on our way into the Holy Land. I don’t know the reason for it, but it’s not the fault of the victims…

  • To take your three examples in order:
    1) Amalekites, along with Canaanites, attack the Israelites who are attempting to enter the land without God’s permission in Numbers 14:45, but when the story is repeated in Deuteronomy 1:44, it is Emorites who are responsible. The issue seems to be less Israel’s imminent arrival in the land and more the fact that they have directly controvened God’s will. [The Satmar Rebbe acknowledged this, incidentally, and gave a powerful interpretation of Rashi on Deut 1:44.]
    2) Placing the scroll of Esther in history is impossible. Aside from the fact that we’ve no extrabiblical records of any king named Ahashverosh, nor of any queens named Vashti or Esther, nor of any Persian viceroys named Haman or Mordekhai, the story itself gives no clue as to when it occurred. What makes you so sure that, if it is to be read historically (it’s not, in my opinion), it was at such a time as the Jews were still exiled from their land?
    Secondly, what makes you so certain that Haman was a descendant of Amalek? The notion that he is descended from the same Agag whose execution takes place in 1 Samuel 15:33 is a midrash (bMeg 13a; also the Targum to Esther 3:1, but I’ve no idea how old that is).
    3) This is the most tendentious of the examples that you bring. There is no official commentary on the Shoah, and the fact that some people refer to Hitler as a descendant of Amalek merely proves how flimsy the label has become. If “descendant of Amalek” is really just another way of saying “somebody who hates Jews and wants them to disappear, either as Jews or completely”, then it’s no wonder that people claim to be able to find examples of them throughout history. Yet you’ve limited yourself to three. Probably because there aren’t too many instances in which the Jews have returned to their land or attempted to do so!
    The Satmar Rebbe’s opinions, which are based moreso on an exegetical midrash in bKet 111a than on considerations regarding Amalek in particular, are elegant. I still contend, however, that they’re tendentious and potentially harmful.

  • ariel says:

    I thought I didn’t make it clear enough before.

    I was indirectly quoting the idea that Amalek is a spiritual entity that possesses an entire nation. Amalek is not an individual, biological decendant of the “actual” Amalek.

    In other words, Amalek isn’t going to be an individual leader, but will manifest as an entire nation gripped with the goal of destroying the Jews for no reason other than pure hatred of Jews, eg Germany.

    So no, I won’t be standing outside shule next week asking passers by “excuse me, are you an Amalekite?” and then if they answer in the affirmative, draw my sword and slay them.

  • Lan says:

    You very interestingly took what you were struggling with and turned it into a very constructive discussion.
    When we had first talked about it, it precipitated some thoughts in my head which actually lead to a conversation we had at  my 2nd night seder on the question of how we are to regard our enemies.
    I felt that the hagadah proposes two models. On the one hand it promotes compassion, as highlighted in the dipping of the finger and God’s refusal of the angels to sing in the midrash. On the other hand, Shfoch chamatcha seems to provide a perspective at the other end of the spectrum, supporting vengenace for our enemies as a worthwhile response.
    I spoke about the perspective taken by the book “ordinary men”, and the importance of trying to understand our enemies and what social forces lead to their actions, as I felt it was a more constructive approach to our enemies and to preventing future attrocities. Interestingly, my cousin who is a lawyer talked about the importance of justice being met, regardless of our feelings towards our enemies which was another interesting perspective.

  • ariel says:

    The concept of trying to understand where our enemies are coming from has always fascinated me.
    I’m not entirely ceratain what your perspective is, but I note how interesting it is that Western media deems it a priority to interview people like the heads of Hamas, Hezbollah, Jemaah Islamiya, etc.
    I guarantee that during WWII, the New York Times and SMH were not trying to gain an audience with Hitler. He was rightly vilified and there were no attemps to “understand” his motivation.
    At the end of the day, people do evil things because they choose to do so. Everyone has free will; some have more control over their emotions than others, but that’s no excuse.
    Should we question Ahmadinejad’s motives? What about the Sudanese government’s?

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