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Pesach: Four Cups or Five? by Orrin Tilevitz
Pesach: Four Cups or Five? by Orrin Tilevitz

Volume 2 , Issue 4

The essence of the Seder and its raison d' etre is the retelling of the story of the Exodus, the miraculous escape of Israel from Egypt. All of the strange goings-on at the Seder: washing one's hands without a blessing and dipping vegetables in salt water before the meal; hiding the afikoman; and covering and uncovering the matzah at seemingly arbitrary times, are designed to prompt a child to question: ?What is going on here?? and so to stimulate the response: ?We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord took us out with a mighty hand.?

But not just any version of the story will do. The Mishnah in Pesachim specifies that the text on which we are to expound is that recited by a pilgrim bringing first fruits (bikurim) to the holy Temple, the beit hamikdash in Jerusalem. It (or most of it) should be familiar to anyone who has attended a Seder:

An Aramean tried to kill my father, who went down to Egypt, sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty and prosperous. But the Egyptians dealt ill with us, tortured us, and enslaved us harshly. And when we cried to the Lord the God of our fathers, the Lord heard our voice, and saw our affliction, our labor, and our oppression. So the Lord took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand, an outstretched arm, with great terribleness, with signs and with wonders. Then He brought us to this place, and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

(Deuteronomy XXV1:5-9)

The Mishnah tells us to expound upon the whole passage. Yet the Haggadah does not mention, let alone discuss, the last verse. Why not?

A related question: One reason given why we drink precisely four cups of wine at the Seder is that the Torah speaks of four types of redemption in Exodus V:6-7: ?I shall take you out (v?hotzeiti);? ?I shall save you (v.'hitzalti);??I shall redeem you (v?gaalti);? and ?I shall adopt you (v'lakachti).? But the next verse mentions a fifth type of redemption: ?I shall bring you to Israel (v'heiveiti).? Then why do we not drink five cups of wine?

Strangely enough, according to one variant of a statement in the Mishnah, perhaps we ought to drink five cups of wine, and commentators identify the fifth cup with that fifthtype of redemption ?V?heiveiti.? And in fact we do put out a fifth cup, the cup of Elijah, but we do not drink it. So the twin questions remain: Why no exposition of the last verse of the pilgrim's recitation, and why no fifth cup?

Why No Fifth Cup?

In a public lecture some years ago, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik gave two answers to these questions. First, he said, Israel's accession to the physical territory of the land of Israel has no direct relevance to Pesach or the Seder. The purpose of the Exodus was to enable us to receive the Torah, on the festival of Shavuot. The land of Israel, in the Ray's words, was merely a ?destination, not a destiny?. On Pesach we celebrate our becoming a religious nation of Jews, not a political entity. We recite the Hallel on Pesach, albeit in an abridged form. By contrast, on Purim, when we celebrate a political and military victory, we do not recite the Hallel because, in the words of the Talmud (and as has beendemonstrated by a succession of American presidents), ?we are still slaves of Achashverosh?.

The Ray's second explanation for the Haggadah's not discussing the land of Israel is that the timing is wrong: one should not mix joy with sorrow. The Seder is a time to rejoice: we are to do everything at the Seder derech cherut, in the manner of a free man. We must eat the matzah and drink the wine while reclining, as a free man would. (Think of how you resented being told as a child: ?Sit up straight at the table!?) We are not supposed to pour our own wine; instead, someone should pour it for us. Even the poorest person must drink four cups of wine, and may demand public funds if he cannot afford to do so. In this time of happiness, the Rabbis thought it improper for the Jews in exile to mention the land of Israel, particularly when it lay in ruins. This remains true even today, when we have political sovereignty over Israel but a mosque sits atop the Holy of Holies and Arabs murder Jews with Molotov cocktails.

I have a third explanation. Note the pervasiveness of the number four at the Seder: four cups, four questions, four sons. The number four also figures in the festival of Succoth: the four species are citron, palm, myrtle and willow. The Talmud tells us that these species represent the four types of Jews: one who is knowledgeable and charitable, one who is merely knowledgeable, one who is merely charitable, and one who is neither. The four species thus seem to parallel the four sons: the wise one, the evil one, the simpleton and the one who cannot speak. Significantly, Succoth and Pesach are precisely six months apart: Pesach is on the fifteenth of Nissan, Succoth on the fifteenth of Tishrei. The Talmud in Rosh Hashanah reports opposing traditions as to whether the world was created in Tishrei or Nissan, and similarly, as to whether the Messiah will come in Tishrei or Nissan. To complete the circle, the number four figures prominently in the apocalyptic prophecies of Ezekiel and Daniel: the four faces of the holy chariot and the four nations after whose demise the redemption will finally arrive.

The Midrash Explains ...

All of this is no coincidence. The Midrash Rabbah gives several reasons for drinking four cups of wine at the Seder in addition to the four types of redemption mentioned in Exodus VI. Two reasons relate directly to the Exodus. First, in Genesis XL:9-I I, when Pharaoh's cup-bearer relates his dream to Joseph, he uses the word ?cup? four times; since the dream also describes a grape vine to which Israel is compared elsewhere, the Rabbis see in this story a hint to the Exodus. (Incidentally, when he replies to the cupbearer, Joseph uses the word ?cup? once more, making a total of five.) Second, the Midrash states that Pharaoh promulgated four decrees against the Israelites: that the police should enforce work quotas and prevent the Israelites from sleeping at home, all to prevent them from having children, that midwives were to kill all male children; that all male children were to be dumped into the Nile; and that the Israelites had to find their own straw to make bricks. But the other reasons given in the Midrash and the Jerusalem Talmud for the four cups of wine relate solely to the ultimate redemption: the four cups of figurative poison which the Almighty wilt ultimately feed to idol-worshippers; the four nations (Babylonia, Persia, Greece and Rome) which will oppress Israel, after which the redemption will come; and the four cups of consolation which the Almighty will ultimately present to Israel.

But even though the ultimate redemption is a central element in the Seder, it is only alluded to: a verse from the book of Joel which refers to the wonders which will take place when the Messiah comes; and the song ?Chad Gadya? whose basic theme is that when all of the other world powers who have oppressed us have gobbled each other up, the Almighty will take care of the last one and we can live in peace. Why is there nothing more explicit?

No Mention of the Messiah

One reason may be the general inclination of the Rabbis to dissuade us from attempting to calculate when the Messiah will come. Jewish history is replete with false messiahs and the havoc they have wreaked on Jewish institutions and morale. While the Talmud in Sanhedrin discusses signs of the Messiah's coming, it ultimately concludes that all of these calculations are for nought. At a time of the year so pregnant with the theme of redemption, one would expect Jews to be even more preoccupied with the ultimate redemption: just a few years ago, shortly before Pesach, one Chasidic sect in Israel announced that the Messiah was about to arrive, then and there. In this atmosphere, the Rabbis would naturally seek to avert Messianic speculations by deliberately playing down the theme of the ultimate redemption.

There is a second reason for the lack of explicit references to the Messiah, which also answers our original question. A fifth cup of wine would symbolize the ultimate redemption, and an exposition of the verse in the pilgrim's recitation relating to the promised land would automatically require discussion of the ultimate redemption which will begin with the ingathering of the exiles in Israel. But the ultimate redemption is not here yet, and the Seder is supposed to be a time of joy. We place a roast egg on the Seder plate. Some commentators note that the egg is a symbol of mourning, and ask what its place is at the Seder. One answer is that, in one tradition, the Messiah will come on Tishah B'av, which coincidentally always falls on the same day of the week as the first day of Passover. But the Messiah did not come the previous Tishah B'av, or else we would not be sitting at a Seder, at least not in America. So it would be improper at a time of joy to emphasize overtly the ultimate redemption when it has not yet come and may be, so far as we know, a long way off.

The mystery of the four cups and the aborted exposition of the pilgrim's recitation should serve to emphasize one basic point: The Seder is a uniquely Jewish ritual whose basic purpose is to celebrate the peculiar bond between Israel and the Almighty. Attempts to attribute universal significance such as ?the elemental search for human rights? to the Seder detract from this purpose; an ?ecumenical? Seder is a contradiction in terms. We were redeemed from the land of Egypt so that we - not the world - could receive the Torah (not merely the Ten Commandments) seven weeks later. And it is we Jews who will fully appreciate the ultimate redemption from our own exile, may it come speedily.

Orrin Tilevitz is an attorney in Brooklyn.



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