The Original Reason for Spilling Wine: Protection from the Plagues
A core element of the Passover seder is a midrashic reading of a passage in Deuteronomy, which offers a brief summary of Israel’s history. The final verse has a list of this passage contains five descriptive phrases modifying how YHWH took us out of Egypt:
דברים כו:ח וַיּוֹצִאֵנוּ יְ־הוָה מִמִּצְרַיִם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל וּבְאֹתוֹת וּבְמֹפְתִים.
Deut 26:8 YHWH freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents.
The haggadah has two midrashic treatments of this five-part description. The first interprets the meaning of each phrase by finding another occurrence of an identical or similar phrase somewhere else in the Bible. The second picks up on the fact that the first three phrases have two words and the last two are in plural, and reads the verse as an oblique reference to the ten plagues (5x2=10), thus connecting Deuteronomy, which contains no list of specific plagues, with Exodus. The haggadah continues by listing the ten plagues, and then references a mnemonic that Rabbi Judah used to remember them (דְּצַ"ךְ עַדַ"שׁ בְּאַחַ"ב), consisting of the first letter of each of the ten.
Introduction of the Ashkenazi Custom to Spill Out Wine
In a work of R. Eleazar of Worms (1176–1238), detailing the laws and customs of Passover, we find the first mention of what becomes the widespread custom of removing wine while reciting the plagues:
דם ואש ותמרות עשן, דם צפרדע כנים ערוב דבר שחין ברד ארבה חשך מכת בכורות, דצ"ך עד"ש באח"ב י"ו תיבות. על כל תיבה [נותנים] אצבע ידם בכוס היין ומטיפין לחוץ.
Blood, fire, and pillars of smoke; blood, frogs, lice, swarms, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, death of the firstborn; detzakh, ʿadash, beʾḥabh—16 terms. For each of these terms, people put their finger in the wineglass and sprinkle a drop out.
According to R. Eleazar, the sprinkling takes place not only while reciting the plagues and the plague mnemonic, but also with the mention of blood, fire, and pillars. These three items come from the prooftext in Joel from the first midrash, which interprets Joel’s “portents” (מֹפְתִים) as a reference to the plague of blood. The passage in Joel reads:
יואל ג:ג וְנָתַתִּי מוֹפְתִים בַּשָּׁמַיִם וּבָאָרֶץ דָּם וָאֵשׁ וְתִימֲרוֹת עָשָׁן. ג:ד הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ יֵהָפֵךְ לְחֹשֶׁךְ וְהַיָּרֵחַ לְדָם לִפְנֵי בּוֹא יוֹם יְ־הוָה הַגָּדוֹל וְהַנּוֹרָא.
Joel 3:3 [2:30] I will set portents in the sky and on earth: Blood and fire and pillars of smoke. 3:4 [2:31] The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of YHWH comes.
In its context, the passage in Joel refers to portents that will appear in the future, on the Day of YHWH, before the great punishment strikes, not to the past plagues afflicting Egypt. Even so, the custom of spilling wine is applied to the three portents of judgment day mentioned in the verse as well.
Pedigree of the Custom
Before explaining the custom, R. Eleazar continues by laying out its pedigree:
מנהג אבותינו כן, וכן הנהיג רבינו אלעזר הגדול כל בני ביתו, וכן רבי' קלונימוס [ו]כל משפחתו, ורבנא אלעזר חזן ורבינו שמואל ובנו רבינו אברהם [ובנו רבינו יהודה חסיד אב החכמה] היו עושין כמו כן. וכן אבא מרי הר' יב"ק [עושה] כן,
This is the custom of our fathers. And thus did R. Eleazar HaGadol (the great) habituate his whole household. So too was the practice of [his grandson] our Rabbi Kalonymos and his whole family. So too was the practice of our Rabbi Elazar [the] Ḥazzan, and our Rabbi Samuel [HeChasid], and his son, our Rabbi Abraham, and his son our Rabbi Yehudah HeChasid (Judah the Pious, d. 1217), the father of wisdom. And so did my father and teacher, R. Judah ben Kalonymus.
R. Eleazar of Worms gives this custom quite a pedigree. First, he traces it as far back as R. Eleazar the Great (ca. 990–ca. 1060), who was the head of the yeshiva in Mainz after the death of his teacher, the famed R. Gershom, and a figure who was greatly respected in the early Ashkenazi rabbinic community. In addition, he refers to both R. Samuel and R. Yehudah HeChasid, the spiritual leaders of the mystical Chasidei Ashkenaz movement, of which R. Eleazar too was a part.
The Symbolism of 16
Having established that this is a venerable custom, R. Eleazar of Worms offers more than one explanation for its meaning, as is common his works:
1) God’s Sword
י"ו פעמים מטיפין לחוץ, כנגד חרבו של הקב"ה י"ו פנים,
[A drop of wine] is sprinkled out 16 times, corresponding to the sword of the Holy One, blessed by he, which has 16 edges.
The description of God having a 16-edged sword originated in Midrash Shochar Tov, a midrash on the book of Psalms called (§31.6, Buber ed.):
אמר ר' יצחק בן (תרדיון) [מריון] חרבו של הקדוש ברוך הוא יש לה שש עשרה פיות, שנאמר התאחדי הימיני [השימי] השמילי איה פניך מועדות (יחזקאל כא כא), כמנין אי"ה בגימטריא.
Isaac ben (Teradyon) [Maryon] said: “The sword of the Holy One, blessed by he, has 16 edges, as it says (Ezek 21:21): ‘Be united, go to the right, turn left; whither are you bound?’ [The number 16] is the gematria of the word “whither” (איה, 1+10+5).
Notably, the midrash is based upon a numeric interpretation of a word that doesn’t actually appear in the verse. At least in the Masoretic text (MT), the word here is the synonymous אנה, which has a gematria of 56.
The point of the midrash is that God’s wrath is so destructive, it requires a 16-edged sword. The fact that R. Eleazar of Worms invokes this image to explain the custom means that the sprinkling of wine, in his mind, is symbolic of the harsh punishment that came to the deserving Egyptians during the exodus, as well as the punishment that will visit the gentiles in the future, on the Day of YHWH.
2) Pestilence in Jeremiah
וי"ו פעמים דבר בירמיה, לומר לנו לא יזיק, מיכן סמכו אבותינו.
And the 16 times [the word] pestilence (דֶּבֶר) appears in Jeremiah, implying “let it not hurt us.” Based on these [two considerations], our ancestors established [the custom].
R. Eleazar’s second reason is based on the number of times the word “pestilence” appears in Jeremiah. Putting aside the fact that this is an error—as the editor of this text, Simcha Emanuel, already noted, the word appears 17 times in Jeremiah—this explanation too feels artificial. It seems that R. Eleazar of Worms chooses the book of Jeremiah out of all biblical books because he thinks the word appears there 16 times.
This second reason is fundamentally different than the first. The sprinkling is not symbolic, but emphasizes that plagues should only befall our enemies, quite the opposite sentiment to the popular explanation nowadays that we do this out of sympathy for the pain inflicted on the Egyptians.
The General Significance of the Number 16
R. Eleazar continues his defense of the custom by noting other places in Jewish tradition where 16 is significant:
וי"ו חיים החיינו אחיה בתמניא אפי, י"ו אנשים קורין בשבוע לתורה כנגד י"ו כבשים המקריבים בשבוע, זהו עץ חיים הי"א למחזיקים בה.
The word “life” appears 16 times in various forms in the 8-times [psalm]; 16 people read from the Torah every week, matching the 16 sheep that were offered every week [the twice daily tamid offering]; this is [the meaning of the phrase] “it (היא, 5+10+1=16) is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it” (Prov 3:18).
Here R. Eleazar is dipping into a fountain of symbolic connections between the number 16 and aspects of Torah and Jewish practice; more examples of what 16 could represent appear in R. Yehudah HeChasid’s Sefer Gematriot §21.
Do Not Mock
R. Eleazar ends his treatment with a telling statement:
ואין להתלוצץ על מנהג אבותינו הקדושים.
The custom of our holy fathers should not be ridiculed.
As Simcha Emanuel notes, the very fact that R. Eleazar includes this comment shows that people in his time were mocking it. Avraham Grossman, who makes the same observation, points out that many customs of the Chasidei Ashkenaz were mocked, which explains why establishing the pedigree of the custom all the way back to the universally respected R. Eleazar the Great was so important here.
R. Shalom of Neustadt’s Custom
A somewhat different treatment of the custom appears in the collection of customs of R. Shalom of Neustadt (1350–1413), in which the author—a student of R. Shalom’s—writes (§398.7):
כשאמר דם צפרדע כנים היה משים אצבעו בכוס שלפניו בכל פעם, ואמר לי שכן כתב אבי העזרי.
When he would say “blood, frogs, lice,” he would put is pointer finger into the cup before him each time, and he told me that this is what Avi ha-Ezri wrote.
The Avi ha-Ezri is a work written by R. Eleazar ben Yoel Halevi, known as Ra’aviah (ca. 1140–1225). Nothing like this appears in any of his extant works. It is possible that that R. Shalom is confusing this R. Eleazar with his contemporary, R. Eleazar of Worms, though it is more likely that it appeared in a lost work of Ra’aviah’s (see appendix).
The text continues by explaining the custom:
וכשיטיף עם אצבעו בכל פעם מעט לחוץ, ואמר שנ"ל שהטעם כלומר מכל אלה יצילנו השם, והטעם כי הד' כוסות להצלה לישראל ולתקלה לאומות העולם, ולכך זורק לחוץ באצבע כלומר שנהיה ניצולין מן אילו המכות ויבואו על ראשם.
When he would sprinkle with his finger, each time [it would be only] a little bit out [of the cup]. And he said that the reason appeared to him, that it was implying that God should save us from all these, for the four cups [represent] the saving of the Jews and the downfall of the gentiles, and therefore, he sprinkles some out with his finger, implying that we will be saved from these plagues, which will fall upon their (=the gentiles’) heads.
R. Shalom of Neustadt makes the same point as R. Eleazar of Worms, but starker and without symbolism: The custom is meant to say that Jews should not be subject to such plagues, but that our ostensible enemies should.
This evidence suggests that the numerical symbolism offered by R. Eleazar of Worms is not the original reason for the custom, but a post facto attempt, making use of a somewhat later system of mystical thinking, to defend a practice he inherited from his father and his teachers. R. Eleazar’s defensiveness shows that the custom was a subject of ridicule, and that some of his contemporaries thought it was silly.
Nevertheless, behind R. Eleazar of Worms’ sophisticated numerology is the same message found more than a century later in R. Shalom’s more blunt treatment: The ritual is apotropaic, meaning that it is an attempt to protect the person performing the ritual.
The very mention of plagues is dangerous, and doing so over a cup of wine that one is about to drink can give a person the impression that they are drinking the plagues, since spells are often recited over a potion. It can be thought of as a kind of reverse kiddush ritual: Instead of imbuing the cup with holiness, the cup is filled with the plagues just recited. Thus, each time a plague is mentioned, a drop of wine is removed which effectively ensures that the power of the plague does not inhere in the wine one is to drink.
Weaponizing the Drops
At the same time, removing the wine from the cup can be seen as a ritual with double power: It assures that the curse will not befall the one performing the ritual while at the same time allowing the person to curse his or her foes. David Arnow offers a similar interpretation, echoing the view of Akiva Ben Ezra (1887–1987) in his 1947 work, Minhage Hagim:
As Ben Ezra notes, numerous customs support the notion that the wine removed from our cups represents a dangerous substance. In various places the spilt wine was secretly poured on the doorstep of a soneh Yisrael, “one who hates Israel,” as it was believed that contact with the wine would result in the death of a member of one’s household.
A Magical Folk Ritual
This magical thinking in this ritual is both the reason it was mocked as well as the likely reason it became so powerful and widespread. As all of us know—especially today—plague and disease is a terrifying part of the human experience, and as the ritual of spilling the wine shows, listing plagues evokes an instinctive fear which needs to be quelled.
The Ten-Drop Custom: Sprinkling Only During the Ten Plagues
In describing R. Shalom’s custom, the author makes no mention of sprinkling wine during the portents from Joel, nor does he say anything about sprinkling during the recitation of the mnemonic. It is difficult to know whether this is just an oversight, or it means that R. Shalom’s custom was to sprinkle wine only 10 times, one for each plague.
In favor of the first possibility is the fact that one of his students, R. Jacob Moelin (Maharil, 1365–1427) quotes R. Eleazar of Worms, followed by R. Shalom of Neustadt, and does not point to this difference between them. Nevertheless, a number of other Ashkenazi works from this period support the second possibility, as they too speak about sprinkling wine during the 10 plagues only.
For example, a gloss on the side of the Sefer HaMinhagim of R. Isaac Tirna, states:
כשמונה י' מכות אז יכניס אצבעו לכוס ויזרוק חוץ על כל מכה ומכה (ראבי"ה).
When one counts the ten plagues, one should put his finger into the cup and sprinkle [some wine] out for each of the plagues (Ra’aviah).
We do not know whether this gloss is merely summarizing the custom of R. Shalom, or whether he knew of an attribution of this custom to Ra’aviah independently. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the author is envisioning 10 sprinkles and not 16.
Another example comes from a gloss on R. Abraham Klausner’s Sefer HaMinhagim (14th cent.):
רבי' יצחק קורביל היה טובל אצבע ביין בכוסו כשהיה מגיע לעשר מכות והשליך לחוץ עד עשר פעמים, וכך היה מונה המכות: דם, צפרדע, וכו'. 
R. Isaac of Corbeil used to dip his finger into the wine of his cup, and when he would get to the ten plagues, he would sprinkle it out ten times. And thus he would count: “Blood, frogs, etc.”
The attribution to R. Isaac of Corbeil (d. 1280), a French Tosafist who is not generally a repository of German customs, is surprising. But, like the custom R. Shalom attributes to Ra’aviah, it seems to encompass only the ten plagues.
Canonization of the 16 Drops
While the two customs existed side by side in Germany in the 12th–15th centuries, the version adopted by the Chasidei Ashkenaz and quoted by Maharil was canonized in the Ashkenazi glosses on the Shulchan Arukh by R. Moses Isserles (1530–1572), who writes (OḤ 473.7):
ונוהגין לזרוק מעט מן הכוס באצבע כשמגיע לדם ואש ותמרות עשן, וכן כשמזכיר המכות דצ"ך עד"ש באח"ב בכלל ובפרט, הכל ט"ז פעמים
The custom is to sprinkle some [wine] out of the cup with the pointer finger when he gets to “blood, fire, and pillars of smoke,” and also when he mentions the plagues, the detzakh ʿadash beʾaḥabh mnemonic included, the total being 16 times.
In contemporary times, the standard custom is to follow R. Eleazar of Worm’s 16-drop practice. Nevertheless, many of us still relate to the custom of removing wine as being about the ten plagues specifically, following Raʾaviah’s thinking if not his practice.
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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
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