Dating back to at least the early 11th century,1 we have a custom to sprinkle a bit of the wine from our cup 16 times during the recitation of the Haggadah:

  • three drops when we say “Blood, Fire and Columns of Smoke”;
  • ten drops when we enumerate the Ten Plagues by name; and
  • three final drops when we say “Detzach, Adash, B’achav,” Rabbi Yehuda’s mnemonic for the Ten Plagues.

While this custom is simple enough and pretty universal, its reason is far from elementary.

Sword of G‑d

The classic reason given in the early sources is that these 16 drops, which we spill as we enumerate 16 iterations of punishment, correspond to “the sword of G‑d,” which is called יוה"ך (the name יוה"ך can be divided into יו הך, which means “16 strike”). This is the name of the angel charged with executing vengeance.2 Furthermore, the Midrash tells us that G‑d’s sword has 16 edges.3

Another reason given for spilling out the wine is that “one may not recite a blessing over a cup of punishment.”4 We therefore “spill out” the drops of wine associated with punishment from the cup we will soon raise in celebration as we recite blessings and praise.5

(Based on the above, the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that we can understand a rather intriguing and perplexing insertion in the Haggadah that was published as part of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi’s Siddur. Although Rabbi Schneur Zalman almost never includes any kabbalistic intention in his Siddur, with regard to spilling the wine, he writes in the instructions:

One’s intent should be that the cup be identified with the Divine attribute of malchut (royalty). Through the influence of binah (understanding), the anger associated with the wine it contains is “poured off” into a broken vessel, representative of kelipah, which is called “cursed.” . . . The wine remaining in the cup (after all the spillings) is “wine of joy,” and should not be spilled out.

Thus, it is important that one have the intention that it is only the wine that is being poured out that corresponds to the “sword of G‑d” and represents G‑d’s anger and retribution; however, the wine in the cup is wine of joy and blessing.6)

Over the years, other explanations have been put forth as well:

Wrath Upon Our Enemies

The four cups correspond both to the redemptions of the Jews and the retribution that is meted out to our enemies. Thus, we spill out the wine to symbolize that these plagues and retributions should befall our enemies and not us.7

In a somewhat similar vein, some explain that the four cups represent the “four cups of retribution” G‑d will bring upon the enemies of the Jewish people at the time of redemption.8 Spilling out drops of wine symbolizes that the plagues were but a “drop” compared to those four cups.9

Drop by drop, the wine in the cup is lessened, just as the Egyptians were diminished by the plagues. Some explain that diminishing our wine symbolizes our wish that the the power of those who harm our people be similarly curtailed.10

Diminished Joy

Although we are celebrating our nation’s exodus from Egypt, Proverbs 24:17 tells us, "When your enemy falls, do not rejoice." The Midrash11 explains that this is one reason why we don’t say the full praises of Hallel during the last seven days of Passover.12 So too, during the Seder, we spill a bit of wine to demonstrate that our joy is not complete since it came at the expense of others, even if they were deserving of punishment.13

How to Spill?

There are different customs regarding how the wine is spilled from the cup. Some sprinkle a small amount of the wine from the cup with their index finger. In Hebrew, this finger is referred to as etzba (“finger”). Thus, it recalls the words of Pharaoh’s magicians, who acknowledged that the plagues were “the finger of G‑d.”14 15

Others sprinkle the wine with the finger called kamitzah (“the ring finger”) because it was with this finger, the sages say, that G‑d struck the Egyptians.16

According to Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (Arizal),17 one should pour the wine from the cup itself—no finger-dipping needed. This is the Chabad custom.

The wine that remains in the cup is considered “joyous wine,” so after spilling out the 16 drops, we refill the cup. Thus, we add to our joy, not just for the Passover Seder, but for the entire year, bringing us to the ultimate joy of the final redemption. May it be speedily in our days!