Seders all over the world this Passover will end with the words L’Shanah Ha Ba’ah b’Yerushalayim—“Next year in Jerusalem.” The meaning of this expression differs from seder table to seder table. “It is a coded phrase,” says Sarah Bunin Benor, professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College and an expert in sociolinguistics. It can be interpreted literally; spiritually, as in “May the Messiah come soon”; metaphorically, as an expression of hope for a better world; concretely, as an expression of political Zionism; or as something else entirely.
Whatever its meaning, most of us associate saying “Next year in Jerusalem” with Passover. Yet the phrase was in use years before it came to conclude the seder. An 11th-century French rabbi, Joseph Bonfils, composed a poem to be recited on the Shabbat before Passover whose penultimate verse proclaims, “May a wondrous hand be raised to give joy to an oppressed people in Jerusalem, next year.” The full expression “Next year in Jerusalem!” appears in a poem by 12th-century Spanish poet Yehudah Halevi that he wrote for the conclusion of the Yom Kippur service, asking God to end Israel’s suffering. (Today, “Next year in Jerusalem” remains the final declaration of the traditional Neilah service that ends Yom Kippur.) Halevi also used it as a salutation in a letter discovered in the Cairo Geniza detailing his arrival in Alexandria on his way to Jerusalem in 1141. “‘Next year in Jerusalem’ was a phrase used in the popular culture of the time,” says Sarit Kattan Gribetz, associate professor of theology at Fordham University.
The phrase only starts appearing in Haggadahs a few centuries later. It “certainly was a medieval addition,” says Gribetz, adding that its inclusion depended on local tradition. Notably, it doesn’t appear in the Haggadahs of prominent Jewish sages of the 11th and 12th centuries such as Rashi and Rabbenu Tam. But its popularity grew in the next century and might reflect the pain of the Crusader massacres and the longing for Jerusalem in that era. One of the oldest surviving Haggadahs containing “Next year in Jerusalem” is the famous Birds’ Head Haggadah from early 14th-century Rhineland, which, Gribetz says, was a region that had been devastated by the Crusades several decades earlier. The 1370 Barcelona Haggadah devotes a full, ornate page to “Next Year in Jerusalem,” and by the 15th century, it was already a common practice for Ashkenazi Jews to conclude their seders with the phrase, according to the medieval scholar Isaac Tyrnau.
Although the phrase dates back only to the Middle Ages, the physical desire to return to Jerusalem and a yearning for a messianic redemption goes back thousands of years.
It “rests on a vast and deep sea of memory, hope and longing that runs throughout Jewish tradition,” says Michael Swirsky, an educator and founder of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. The implied meaning of “Next year in Jerusalem” as a metaphor for the coming of the messianic age is an important theme in contemporary Jewish rituals. These include the Jewish wedding ceremony (“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem” from Psalm 137), the blessings after meals (“rebuild Jerusalem . . . speedily in our days”) and the Israeli national anthem “Hatikvah”
(“. . .the hope of two thousand years, to be a free nation in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem”).
There have been times when the phrase’s use in the Haggadah has been challenged. Some early Reform Jews, for example, omitted or changed the phrase because of debates about Zionism and the relationship between Judaism and Jerusalem. In the years before the State of Israel was established, early Zionists, already living in the land, often left out “Next year in Jerusalem”—likely because they had already returned, says Gribetz. This ultimately led to amending the phrase to “Next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem,” a revision that is found in many Israeli Haggadahs today.
And, of course, over the past 50 years, the expression has often been reshaped or reinterpreted to reflect universal, rather than particularistic, themes. The Freedom Seder by Arthur I. Waskow, from the tumultuous late 1960s, turns “Next year in Jerusalem” into “Liberation Now! Next year in a world of freedom.” The 2017 HIAS Haggadah explains that the phrase recognizes that “for the world’s more than 65 million displaced people and refugees, these words can be a literal message of hope that they will be able to rebuild their lives in a safe place.” Ever adaptable, in the era of Zoom seders it was “Next Year in Jerusalem, Next Year in Person!” The New American Haggadah, edited in 2012 by Jonathan Safran Foer, notes that “exile” is another word for “brokenness” and that “Jerusalem”—whose root is “shalem”— denotes wholeness and peace.
It suggests that when Jews declare “Next year in Jerusalem” at the seder’s conclusion, they are really asking to find wholeness in their brokenness. It’s an especially apt sentiment in a year when wholeness and peace seem more elusive than ever.
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