Pesach: Four Cups or Five? by Orrin Tilevitz
Volume 2 , Issue 4 (April, 1989 | Nisan, 5749)
The essence of the Seder and its raison d' etre is the retelling of the story of the Exodus,
the miraculous escape of
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
An Aramean tried to kill my father, who went down to
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
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,
The Ray's second explanation for the Haggadah's
not discussing the
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
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
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