Shabbat Hagadol
The Martyrdom of the Jews of York

29 March 2015

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Clifford's Tower

Today, is Shabbat Hagadol, the anniversary of the massacre of the Jews of York. In 1190, riots broke out against the Jews of York. The immediate cause was a dispute over debts owed to Jews. The lord of the town, permitted the Jews to seek refuge in Clifford's Tower. But when the lord left the tower, the rioters attacked. When they broke through, they discovered that the Jews of the town, estimated at 500 souls, had committed suicide.

It is in the context of such events, that arose one of the most difficult passages of the Hagaddah:
Shfoch Chachmatcha (Pour Out Your Wrath).

Pour Out Your Wrath, consists of three biblical verses. It is read just before we welcome Elijah and drink the Fourth Cup of wine.


Pour out your wrath upon those who do not know You and upon the governments which do not call upon Your name. For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste to his dwelling place. (Psalms 79:6-7).

Pour out Your fury upon them,
Let the fierceness of Your anger
Overtake them (Psalms 69:25).

Pursue them in indignation and destroy them from under Your heavens. (Lamentations 3:66).

From Feast of Freedom, Rabbinical Assembly, 1982

Pour Out Your Wrath first appears in the Machzor of Vitri. The Machzor was compiled by Simcha ben Samuel, who lived in the town of Vitri in northeastern France. He died in 1105. It is believed that Pour Out Your Wrath was a response to the First Crusade of 1096 to 1099.

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Dr. Solomon Grayzel served a part-time rabbi in the earliest days of Germantown Jewish Centre. In his book, History of the Jews, he describes the decline of Jewish life around the time of the Crusades.

Christian Europe was governed by feudalism. The peasants were bound to the land. They were subjects of the head of the manor. Each higher level of society owed its allegiance, rents and service to a higher degree of nobility. The Church considered usury a sin, particularly between Christians.

By contrast, Jews were outside of the feudal system. They were free travel the roads, engage in commerce, and lend money. Jews were under the protection of the crown
. Though there were times of persecution, the Jewish communities rallied and returned to their previous status. Jews lived with a degree of prosperity and safety.

Around the 10th century, social and economic changes began. Italian merchants, particularly, from Venice, began to crowd out Jewish merchants. The rulers of Venice appealed to Christians to boycott Jewish merchants. Jews needed to find other ways to make a living.

The feudal system excluded Jews from agriculture. Jews could not become artisans because the guilds were closed to them. Jews shifted to money lending. Usury caused resentment from the borrowers. Increased violence prevented Jewish merchants from traveling freely. New trading markets, operated by Christians, were opened to the east. Violence and the need to pay protection to the rulers, dissipated Jewish capital. In exchange for protection, the Jews lost their freedom to travel. They became what Grayzel called "Serfs of the Treasury."

Finally, a new group of Italian bankers---the Lombards---transformed money lending into banking. Jewish money lenders were crowded out of the financial business. By 1290, the value of Jewish moneylenders was nil to the authorities.

Jews were no longer needed.

During the era of the Crusades, priests and monks incited mobs to riot against the Jews. Jewish communities in the Rhineland were pillaged. Jews were martyred.

Beginning in the 12th century, the blood libel arose. Particularly around Passover, Jews were accused of kidnapping, torturing and killing children and using their blood to bake matzo. The blood libels paralleled the crucifixion story. The dead children were considered martyrs. Some were raised to sainthood. In the 13th century, the blood libels became an almost annual event in Germany. The blood libels triggered more attacks on the Jewish communities.


Though Jews had been expelled from England a century earlier, Geoffrey Chaucer republished the blood libel in his Prioress' tale.

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The Prioress' tale takes place in a great city in Asia. A seven year old boy cuts through the ghetto on his way home from school. He is singing Christian hymns, when he is attacked by a Jew, who cuts his throat and throws the body in a pit. Unlike the classic blood libel, his blood is not used for ritual purposes.

The Prioress refers to the foul usury and shameful profits of the Jews. She says that Satan has his wasps' nests in the heart of Jews. She makes reference of the blood libel of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln which arose in 1255.

As Dr. Grayzel states, Jews were holding on to a bare semblance of comfort, never knowing what tragedy the next day would bring.

Such were the times in which Pour Out Your Wrath entered the Haggadah.

Pour Out Your Wrath is troublesome, particularly when non-Jewish family members and guests attend the Seder. Some families exclude it entirely from their Seders.

I would like to offer two alternative views.

Rabbi Norman Lamm, past chancellor of Yeshiva University, sees Pour Out Your Wrath as a way of controlling anger against our persecutors.

Rather than go on the attack, we defer to God to deliver vengeance. It is unhealthy to let anger and resentment build up within ourselves. He says that those people who verbalize their anger are the least likely to act upon it.

Rabbi Lamm adds that at the very time we say
Pour Out Your Wrath, we open our doors to show our neighbors how we lead our Seder. We invite all who are hungry to join us. We eat bitter herbs to remind us of slavery, yet we bless the bitter herbs. We begin the Seder with "we were slaves" and conclude with the blessing of "God will redeem us."

Dr. Laura Levitt, professor of religion at Temple University, acknowledges the power of the words in Pour Out Your Wrath.

In an article posted on Ritualwell.org, she says that part of the experience of oppression is the anger that it produces. Revenge is not pretty. It is even embarrassing. But anger and the desire for revenge are part of our legacy. Before the Messiah can come, Dr. Levitt writes we must be able to express our rage at what has been done to us.

Dr. Levitt says that
Pour Out Your Wrath is about revenge fantasies—creative, imaginative interventions. They are to be recited, not acted out. For those of us who have been brutalized, threatened, and oppressed, these fantasies can liberate us only if we find the courage to fully express our indignation, our pain, and our fury.

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When we say the Mourner's Kaddish today, let us remember the Jews of York and our martyrs.