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Seizing the Moment: Reflections on the Four Cups of Wine by Rabbi Kenneth Brander
Seizing the Moment: Reflections on the Four Cups of Wine

Volume 3, Issue 5

The Rabbis commanded us to drink four cups of wine during the Seder night. The Talmud Jerusalmi questions the reason for this legislation.

"For what reasons did the rabbis legislate the commandment of drinking four cups of wine on the Seder night?"1

The Talmud suggests many answers to this question. The prevalent answer among the commentators of the Babylonian Talmud2 is that of Rebbe Yochanan in the name of Rab Banya. Rebbe Yochanan states that the four cups of wine represent the four statements of redemption which God mentions to Moshe at the initial stages of his mission to redeem the Jewish people from Egypt.

Therefore say to the children of Israel, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of Egypt, and I will deliver you out of their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments: and I will take you to me for a people and I will be to you a God.3

There is much literature dealing with the different nuances of the performance of the rabbinic institution of the four cups of wine. For example: Are there really four cups of wine at the Passover seder? The first cup of the four cups is part of kiddush, which is required to be recited on every holiday, and the third of the four cups is part of the Grace after Meals. Therefore, it would appear that there are only two cups unique to the Seder!

There are three answers which are suggested in response to this question.

The first response suggests that there are, indeed, four cups of wine simply because on every other holiday kiddush can be recited over bread, but on the seder night, due to the additional obligation of drinking four cups of wine, that is not permitted. While a cup of wine is often used for the Grace after Meals, it is not a required component of the blessing. However, on this night, a cup of wine is mandated as part of the Grace after Meals.

A second answer - typically, the cups of wine used for kiddush or Grace after Meals are Kosot shel bracha, cups of blessing, requiring only that one hear kiddush and the blessing over the wine recited at the conclusion of the Grace after Meals. One is not required to drink from these cups of wine. However, at the Seder, the mitzvah of the Four Cups of wine requires one to drink the kiddush wine, as well as the wine at the conclusion of the Grace after Meals.

A third answer given is that on Passover night, one is obligated to consume an amount which is not necessary when reciting kiddush or drinking wine after the Grace after Meals. During the year it is sufficient to drink moleah luk-mah, a cheek full, for kiddush and following the Grace after Meals. However, on Passover night, in order to fulfill the obligation of drinking four cups of wine, one must drink rove kos, the majority of each cup.

Perhaps the most fascinating law associated with this rabbinic commandment is mentioned in the first Mishnah of the tenth chapter of Pesachim.4

The Mishnah states: "Even the poorest amongst Israel" must drink four cups of wine on Passover night even if he/she must receive a stipend from the communal charity fund. The Rashbam emphasizes this point by stating5 that if the overseer of the fund can not give the poor money to purchase four cups of wine, then the poor have the responsibility to find funds through other sources. This includes selling one's clothing as well as hiring one's self out in order to raise funds to purchase wine.

The Talmud in Pesachim6 discusses the uniqueness of this commandment which even the poor, at any cost, are compelled to fulfill. The Talmud suggests Me'Shum Par-sumei Nisa, that since these cups of wine advertise the miracle of redemption celebrated on Passover eve, everyone is required to observe this commandment regardless of the difficulty in doing so.

However, one is left with the arduous task of trying to understand the Talmudic statement. After all, there are several commandments on the night of Pesach that commemorate the redemptive process, yet none have this requirement! The commandments include: the Pascal sacrifice and the eating of matza which are Biblical in nature, yet do not require Jewish poor to sacrifice everything for their fulfillment. Furthermore, regarding all positive Biblical commandments, Jewish Law stresses that there is a maximum unit which one is permitted to spend in order to fulfill the commandment. This statement is codified in the Mishneh Torah7 as well as the Shulchan Aruch.

One who does not have the funds to perform a timely mitzvah should not spend much money to perform it. As it is stated : When spending to perform a mitzvah, one should not spend more than a fifth of one's earnings even if the result is the inability to perform a positive Biblical commandment. (Shulchan Aruch Orach Hayim, Chapter 656).

What is so unique about the four cups of wine, a rabbinic commandment, that in legislating the commandment the rabbis deviated from the maximum financial amount specified in Jewish Law?

In addition to the vague answer suggested in the Talmud, several additional answers have been offered.

The Baal Ha-Turim suggests that if one calculates the numerical value of the four statements of Redemption, it equals the numerical value of the following statement: Zeh Ani B'Yisrael Loh Yi'paschu Loh M'arbah Kosot - This is in regard to the poor of Israel they should not be given less then four cups of wine.8

Whether one accepts the answer of the Baal Ha-Turim or not, his comment highlights a concern regarding the extraordinary financial commitment called for in regard to the four cups of wine.

The Chofetz Chaim offers a more radical answer. In the Biur Halakha,9 he suggests that the four cups of wine are merely a model for any positive commandment that one wishes to fulfill. There is no maximum boundary on what one can spend to fulfill a positive commandment. The notion of borrowing funds to perform a precept applies to any positive commandment. However, this answer sheds no light on the statement dealing with this issue in the Talmud. In addition, it completely contradicts the previous statement of Rav Moses Isserles quoted in the Shulchan Aruch, as well as statements in the Talmud found in Arakin (28a) and Ketubot(50a).

Perhaps there is another way of resolving the issue and clarifying the Talmud's statement. In order to do so, we need to understand the significance of the four cups of wine.

Tosafot and the Rashbam paraphrase the Talmud Jerusalmi and state that the four cups of wine represent the four stages in God's redemptive process. However, if one looks at the original text (in the Talmud Jerusalmi), one will find that Tosafot and the Rashbam modified the text. In the Talmud Jerusalmi, they are not called "four stages of redemption," but rather "four redemptions." The Exodus from Egypt was not one redemptive process, but rather four separate processes. The Exodus from Egypt lasted one full year, slowly redeeming the people and ridding them of the slave mentality that they acquired in Egypt.

Redemption Number One -- V'Hozei'tee

The Netziv comments that the first stage of redemption happened during the plague of Arov.10 Seven months into the plagues, when chaos totally pervaded Egypt, the Egyptians began to ease the workload of the Jews. This gave the slave nation the opportunity to think, to begin to reflect upon freedom and its value <197> to reflect on life itself. The first bold step toward freedom is to realize the need and the value of being free. This is the process of being transformed from a piece of property into a person who is able to determine his/her own destiny.

Redemption Number Two -- V'Hetzaltee

Following the months of self-reflection, God asks the Jewish people to sacrifice for their freedom.They are to be bold and to realize that they, as individuals, have rights. Before the plague of darkness, God tells Moshe the following: "Speak to the people softly and let each man request from his friend [taskmaster] gold and silver articles. Let every woman make the? same request from her friends.? (Exodus, 11:2) What is God asking of the Jewish people? God calls upon them to be assertive and ask of their Egyptian taskmasters where their stolen merchandise is located. If one notices the language of the text, one notices the Hebrew word nah. God asks Moshe to speak gently to the Jewish people. God realizes that this is an important transition for the Jewish people. It is the first time that they, as a collective entity, are asked to be assertive against their masters.

Redemption Number Three --V'Go-altee

The third component in the redemption of the Jewish people is the last to occur in the land of Egypt. God requests of the Jewish people to perform two positive commandments, the offering of the Pascal sacrifice and its prerequisite, the circumcision of all Jewish males. The Midrash11 comments that it is only due to the merit of the blood of circumcision and the blood of the Pascal sacrifice that the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt. These two commandments represent the Jewish people's willingness to assert their own self-destiny. In a very personal way, circumcision concretized an internal commitment that the Jewish people had to their own culture and unique destiny. After having made this commitment, their mindset had to be expressed in a public forum. Through the procedures of the Pascal sacrifices, the Jewish people asserted that their culture and values came in total contradiction to those of their Egyptian taskmasters. They could capture the god of the Egyptians, hold it in captivity for three days, and then slaughter it. Both actions are statements of rebellion. They reflect a certain initiative by the Jewish people toward their own self-destiny, sacrificing uniformity, and the safety that brings, with their taskmasters.

Redemption Number Four -- V'La-kach-tee

The final component of the Redemption occurs outside of Egypt, in the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

Why was it necessary to give the Jewish people the Torah immediately after taking them out of Egypt? Does not the Torah represent an effort on the part of God to make the Jews slaves to yet another task master? Indeed, we, the Jewish people, are called "slaves of God." (Leviticus, 25:55) "To me the children of Israel are servants."

Rav Soloveitchik explained that receiving the Torah is a paradoxical experience. For one can only feel free when surrendering one's freedom to God. Often we are prisoners to physiological and psychological constraints, to social pressures, to norms and mores established by the community. Often we are coerced into certain roles by our family or our community. In reality, we are never free, for if we feel the pressures and coercions of our society, then our options are restricted even when there are no physical taskmasters upon us. By surrendering ourselves to God, we attain a quality of freedom. Belief in God, enables one to come to the realization that one's destiny is not shaped by the people around us. This relieves certain psychological tensions. Surrendering one'self to God allows one to use the values of Torah to develop orderliness in one's life. Belief in God during times of crisis can often relieve physiological pain and psychological torment. Taking the Jewish people out of Egypt without the final stage of redemption, V'La-kach-tee, would have constituted bondage once again. Bondage consisting of physiological, psychological, and social constraints. Our rabbis teach us:

He (Rabbi Joshua son of Levi) said further, in comment on the words of Exodus 32:16 ?The Tablets are the works of God, and the writing is the writing of God charut engraved upon the Tablets. Read not charut (engraved) but cherut (freedom), for there is no true free person but one who occupies him/herself with the study of Torah. (Avot,6:2)

Moreover the word of the Lord came to me, saying, 'Go and cry in the ears of Yerushalayim, saying,' `So says the Lord; I remember the acts of loving-kindness, the devotion of thy youth, thy love as a bride, when thou followed me into the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.'(Jeremiah, 2:1-2)

The commentators on these verses suggest that the act of loving-kindness and devotion on the part of the Jewish people is their willingness to accept the Torah, to sacrifice themselves to God (Na'aseh V'Nishmah), once again, as the verse states, become slaves. Though the acceptance of the Torah represents a catharsis for the recipient it is, nevertheless, a commitment and a sacrifice.

It would seem that the commandment of the four cups of wine is unique in the following way: While there are many positive commandments both Biblical and rabbinic in nature, none in their totality celebrates sacrifice on the part of the Jewish people. The "Me'Shum Par-sumei Nisa" of the wine is simply a public declaration of sacrifice on the part of the Jewish people in the redemptive process. At each stage the Jewish people were compelled to give of themselves to reach that level of redemption. They had to: (1) reflect upon their lives and come to the conclusion that freedom bore new and difficult responsibilities;12 (2)confront their task masters; (3) assert their culture with rituals that were deemed repulsive in Egyptian society; and (4) achieve complete freedom through agreeing to be servants again, albeit to God. There is no other commandment on Passover which represents the sacrifice of the Jewish people at every stage of the redemptive process. Since this commandment symbolizes the sacrifice of the Jewish people, it is incumbent upon every Jew to sacrifice to observe this commandment. Even a poor person who need not beg to fulfill his/her obligation in regard to the Pascal sacrifice, consumption of matza, purchasing of a lulav, mezuzah, or tefillin, must ask for communal funds to fulfill his/her obligation regarding the drinking of the fours cups of wine at the seder.

There is one13 other situation in which Halakha dictates that there is no financial limit in one's responsibility to fulfill a positive commandment. That is the commandment of kindling the Chanukah lights.14 The Chanukah lights represent, in their totality,15 redemption which occurred through the sacrifice of the Hashmoneans and their followers.

The passage of Hanarot Halalu which is recited16 when lighting the Chanukah lights, and the passage of Al Ha'Nissim inserted into the silent Amidah during the holiday of Chanukah accentuates this point.

Hanerot Halalu

We kindle these lights to advertise the marvelous victories and wonderful liberation which thou did achieve for our ancestors during this season through the [dedication] of the holy priests

Al Ha'Nissim

In that hour of distress, thou in thy great mercy did rise to take up their cause and defend their rights. Thou enabled the strong to be delivered into the hands of the weak (Hasmoneans), many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and tyrants into the hands of devotees to Torah... Then your children continued their efforts, came to the Temple and rededicated it to your service.

Once again the miracle being advertised is that of sacrifice and dedication by Kenesset Yisroel (the Jewish People).

As we prepare for Passover, let us all pray that next year we will drink the fifth cup of redemption Va-hay-vay-tee (bringing the Jewish people to the land of Israel). However, like the first four cups of redemption, it is we who must seize the moment. For we live in historic times and opportunity is placed before us. We must give of ourselves on behalf of our Jewish brothers/sisters in Israel and strive to secure safe passage for oppressed Jewry to freedom.


1.                   TJ Pesachim X:1

2.                   Rashbam "V'Loh Yif-chatu Lo," Tractate Pesachim 99b; Tosafot "Loh Yif-chatu Lo," Tractate Pesachim 99b

3.                   Exodus 4:6-7

4.                   TB Pesachim 99b

5.                   ibid

6.                   TB- 112a

7.                   Laws of Arkin 8:13

8.                   Exodus 6:6

9.                   Shulchan Aruch Orach Hayim Chapter 65

10.                Exodus 8:28

11.                Esther Rabbah

12.                One of the problems of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln was that many of the slaves freed never realized the changes that occur in one's life when freed. Many returned to their masters even after being free, for they could not handle the responsibility that freedom bore.

13.                There are actually two more commandments - Chanukah lights and the Half Shekel. The law of the Half Shekel is found in Exodus 30:11 - 16. Each person needed to donate a half-shekel (not more - not less) in order that there could be an accurate count of all of Israel. In other words, for logistical reasons, every member of Israel, including the poor had to donate a half-shekel.

                Mishneh Torah Laws of Chanukah 4:12, Shulchan Aruch Orach Hayim 671:1

15.                This is the Parsumei Nisa of Chanukah that the Talmud mentions in Tractate Shabbat 23b.

16.                According to many schools of thought, its recitation is not an optional component of the kindling ceremony

Rabbi Kenneth Brander is the Assistant Rabbi at Lincoln Square Synagogue and Director of the Joseph Shapiro Institute for Adult Education. He is a graduate of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.



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