(A special Haggadah Supplement from the Talmud Blog)
Why is this night different from all the other nights? Well, it really isn’t. What makes it different are the words. On all nights, we just eat, and don’t talk, and on this night, we ask questions about eating. On all nights, we mumble blessings before and after our food – quickly – and on this night we embellish our food with explanations and narratives. It’s not that the food is symbolic but rather that we take care and time to point out that the food has a story. Any food would have sufficed – “for on all nights we eat mac and cheese, but this night we eat caviar and steak,” – a would-be son could have asked, and might have been right.
But if it is the words, then there are some pieces of the Seder which simply feel out of place. They are like drap splotches in a vivid tapestry. Think about it: One of the central pieces of the seder is the “two dippings, before and during the meal (those conversant in the Ashkenazi tradition call it “Karpas” and “Maror”). The child is supposed to ask about this, which is supposed to lead the parent to answer something about slavery in Egypt. But while for the lettuce served with the matza the blessing is “to eat maror,” the first lettuce has nothing, just a boring old “maker of the fruit of the earth.“
Similarly, what do you say when drinking each of the four cups of wine? Just a boring old “maker of the fruit of the vine?” There had to be something better – more poetic – with some more pizzazz. And so, a poetic minded Jew in late antiquity wrote a dolled-up blessing: Naphtali Wider (Sinai 20 :43-48), published this genizah fragment, which contains a long blessing over wine. Really, it wasn’t for passover; any special occasion could do. And the liturgical impulse is simple: special occasions need their special words to set them apart. Saadiah Gaon mentions this blessing with much opprobrium in the Passover section of his Siddur. Why he does so is unclear, but it does fall in line with the standard curmudgeonly response the Geonim had for poetic expansions of prayer: “No.” The standard explanation for this is that the Geonim were intent on following the Talmud, which does not discuss these expansions, but one has to wonder if there was nothing else at play. Perhaps it was important to them that Jewish prayers be succinct, uniform and easy to memorize. Maybe they wanted synagogues to be hospitable to guests who were not up to speed on the latest poetic fashions of the day. Surely there was a clear element of control and an effort to impose Geonic customs on the periphery through the agency of rabbis in far-flung communities, who were in correspondence with the academies.
That Saadiah disapproves of this blessing is surprising. A prolific paytan himself, he was more literary minded than his predecessors. He also approves of three other Haggadah extensions, one of which is part of the standard Babylonian Hagaddah to this day, and the other, an extended kiddush, is still usedby Yemenite Jews. This blessing, however, was somehow just too much for him to bear. “If one says it, he has lost the whole seder” says Saadiah.
Hai Gaon, on the other hand, is aware of the berakha and might have even approved of it; the two teshuvot on the matter attributed to him in Otzar Hageonim (III:107) seem to disagree with one another. The first says that extending the blessing (in his case, for Kiddush on Saturday morning) is the custom of the people of Basra, Elam and Persia, and that they extend it with “beautiful words,” which might indicate some approval. The second however calls them “external ones,” an expression reserved in rabbinic discourse for those of a heterodox persuasion. B. M. Levin, in his notes ad loc. attempts to resolve the apparent contradictions in the teshuvot, explaining that “external ones” simply means non-rabbis. I am unsure: Rav Hai marks it as a peripheral tradition, and it is unlikely that he thought employing it was a good idea. There is nothing heretical about the blessing, but like others of its genre it does break with the uniformity (monotony?) that the Geonim tried to impose on liturgy.
(It just struck me that the only liturgical text found at Dura Europos, p.Dura.25, is also a piyyut: A poetic version of the grace after meals. It too is found on the periphery of what would some centuries later become the Geonic heartland, just like our blessing, said by the people of Elam and Basra.)
It is interesting to note how the blessing oscillates between attributing wine to God – the creator of the vines – while acknowledging that really, all He created was “insight.” The blessing also warns that wine should be imbibed with “taste and sense” and that it is only intended to induce its drinkers to praise God, which of course you can do simply by reciting this blessing before drinking.
Wider noticed correctly that there are two blessings here conflated into one; I separated them with an asterisk. (For more on this blessing see the republication of the Sinai article, with some corrections in N. Wider, Hitgabshut Nusah ha-tefillah ba-mizrah uva-maarav: kovets ma’amarim [Jerusalem: Mekhon Ben-Zvi, 1998], I:234-241; E. Fleischer, “Keta’im mi-kovtsei tefilah erets-israeli’im min ha-genizah,” Qovets ‘al yad 13 :91-189, 189).
The transcription of the fragment is based on the version found in Maagarim. I corrected scribal errors and did not comment on partial letters.
ברוך אתה י’י אלהינו מלך העולם,
אשר ברא יין עסיס/ותירוש טוב מעצי גפנים.
והוא עריב לנפש וטוב לאדם/ומשמיח לב ומצהיל פנים.
והוא תנחומין לאבילים/ומרי נפש ישכחו רישן.
והוא רפואה לכל שותיו/למי שישתנו בטעם ובדעת
הוא שמחת ליבב ששון/ ורוב גילה לשותין אותו.
הוא אלהינו ייצרו מאז/להתענג במעשים כוננו מראש.
שכל שותיו יברכו לאל/וישבחו ליוצר בינה
המכין מעדני תבל/ויצר כל מתוקי ארץ.
אשר <<ברא>> תירוש מן הגפן/והתקין עסיס מן הענבים
להשביע נפש רעיבה/ולמלא נפש שוקיקה.
כל שותיו ישמח לבו/על פרי מעשיו יברכו לבוראהו.
ברוך אתה י’י/ המלך המרומם לבדו/ האל הקדוש/בורא פרי הגפן.
Blessed are you Lord our God king of the Universe
Who has created sweet wine`/and good Beaujolais from viney wood
Tasty in the throat and good for man/merries the heart and gladdens the face
It is consolation for mourners/and the bitter hearted forget their poverty
It cures all those who drink it/If they drink in taste and sense
It merries the glad heart/and gives happiness to its drinkers
He, our God, created it from yore/Prepared from before to delight in creation
That those who drink shall praise God/and laud the creator of insight
Who made the world’s delicacies/and created the sweets of the earth
He, our God
Who created Beaujolais from the vine/and prepared sweet wine from grapes
To satiate the hungry throat/and fill the ravenous soul (Ps 107:9)
They who drink, their heart will be glad/they will bless its maker for the fruit of creation
Blessed are you Lord,
the king alone exalted,
creator of the fruit of the vine