This is not a specially composed prayer but a group of Scriptural verses – Psalm 79:6-7, Psalm 69:25 and Echah 3:66 (the number of verses varies in some rites).
The inclusion of vindictive sentiments embarrasses some, offends others and even scandalises a few. Doesn’t the Torah command, “Do not take vengeance” (Lev. 19:18)? Doesn’t the Almighty proclaim, “Vengeance is mine, and recompense” (Deut. 32:35)? How can we justify putting thoughts of vengeance into the Haggadah?
Sh’foch Chamat’cha was bitingly attacked in a London Jewish paper in the 1870’s. The author asked, “Are we still, on the festival which celebrates God’s compassionate love for his people, to pray to the Supreme, ‘Pour out Thy wrath upon the heathen’?
“Are we bound to repeat these and such like imprecations, aimless, purposeless, meaningless in our mouths, which gushed from the lips of our ill-used predecessors with such deadly earnestness?
“Must our prayer book continue to be defaced by passages which should never have found entrance therein? Are our children to learn from us that prayer to God for mercy may be accompanied by hysterical entreaties for revenge – bloodshed, fire and destruction – on foes long passed away?
“Must Jewish worship remain stained and disfigured by the blackest fruits of the dark Middle Ages?”
The writer lived his life happily ignorant of the horrific Holocaust that was to befall his people in the 20th century. But even from those who have lived in the present age with its cruelties and catastrophes we still sometimes hear strong objections to Sh’foch Chamat’cha and a reluctance to recite it.
The circumstances that brought this passage into the Haggadah are clear. The medieval persecutions, frequently at their most bloodthirsty at Pesach time, evoked the bitter anguish which was articulated in these verses and entered the Seder at about the beginning of the 13th century.
Ahad Ha’am pointed out that Judaism does not believe in turning the other cheek. That is a rarefied, almost other-worldly ethic. Judaism cannot watch evil without resenting and resisting it.
There were times when the only means of resistance was to refuse to despair, when really the only weapon the Jew could use was prayer that God, in His justice, would arise and remove the evil from the earth – and, being only human, the Jew could not help but ask the Almighty to pour out His wrath upon the doers of evil.
Some find it significant that it is at the moment when the door is opened that we say Sh’foch Chamat’cha. Pesach is a “night of watchfulness” (Ex. 12:42), when God watches over His people.
Nonetheless, there are times when the mobs, with passion inflamed, would force their way into Jewish homes and wreak havoc. They said they were acting from religious motives but their deeds were godless, and their Jewish victim could only call down the Divine wrath upon them.
When you consider the sorry record of our own time who can expect Jews, in the name of morality, to give up the belief that God punishes the wicked? Morality surely requires the opposite, that like Abraham we insist “Shall the Judge of all the earth not deal justly?” (Gen. 18:25).
Nonetheless the Vilna Gaon stressed that a higher hope than for the destruction of the wicked is that the righteous may prevail.
He also pointed out that the righteous will not prevail until the wicked are consumed – or, one might say, until wickedness is eradicated and the erstwhile wicked have done t‘shuvah.
We, of course, are more fortunate than our ancestors. As well as the weapon of prayer we have more practical and more tangible means of defending ourselves and our ideals, and working together with other people of goodwill we have the capacity to eradicate prejudice and injustice.
When we have finally succeed we can think about eliminating Sh’foch Chamat’cha.
In the meantime, there is reason enough to have a Pesach prayer of remembrance for the millions of martyrs who died because of heathens in every age “who knew not God and called not upon His name”; and there is reason enough to have a prayer of thanksgiving for the existence of the State of Israel which represents our determination that no longer will they “devour Jacob or lay waste his habitation”.