Four Cups of Wine
It is customary to begin Shabbat and holidays by reciting kiddush and drinking one cup of wine or grape juice. Why at the Passover seder do we drink four cups?
A look at a passage from the book of Exodus will provide a clue.
לָכֵ֞ן אֱמֹ֥ר לִבְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֮ אֲנִ֣י יְהֹוָה֒ וְהוֹצֵאתִ֣י אֶתְכֶ֗ם מִתַּ֙חַת֙ סִבְלֹ֣ת מִצְרַ֔יִם וְהִצַּלְתִּ֥י אֶתְכֶ֖ם מֵעֲבֹדָתָ֑ם וְגָאַלְתִּ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ בִּזְר֣וֹעַ נְטוּיָ֔ה וּבִשְׁפָטִ֖ים גְּדֹלִֽים׃
וְלָקַחְתִּ֨י אֶתְכֶ֥ם לִי֙ לְעָ֔ם וְהָיִ֥יתִי לָכֶ֖ם לֵֽאלֹהִ֑ים וִֽידַעְתֶּ֗ם כִּ֣י אֲנִ֤י יְהֹוָה֙ אֱלֹ֣הֵיכֶ֔ם הַמּוֹצִ֣יא אֶתְכֶ֔ם מִתַּ֖חַת סִבְל֥וֹת מִצְרָֽיִם׃
Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am יהוה. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.
And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, יהוה, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians.
A traditional interpretation of the four phrases in bold is that they refer to four types of redemption. The Torah uses four different ways of saying that God would free the Israelites from slavery. A large transition, such as going from slavery to freedom, can take many steps. Each cup represents one of the special words and one of the steps on the road to freedom.
  • What’s an example of something that you know many different words for?
The Mishnah consists of teachings transmitted over hundreds of years and compiled around 200 CE. One teaching made certain that every person, rich or poor, had the opportunity to celebrate the festival of freedom.
עַרְבֵי פְסָחִים סָמוּךְ לַמִּנְחָה, לֹא יֹאכַל אָדָם עַד שֶׁתֶּחְשָׁךְ. וַאֲפִלּוּ עָנִי שֶׁבְּיִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יֹאכַל עַד שֶׁיָּסֵב. וְלֹא יִפְחֲתוּ לוֹ מֵאַרְבַּע כּוֹסוֹת שֶׁל יַיִן, וַאֲפִלּוּ מִן הַתַּמְחוּי:
On the eve of Passover, adjacent to minḥa time, a person may not eat until dark, so that he will be able to eat matza that night with a hearty appetite. Even the poorest of Jews should not eat the meal on Passover night until he reclines on his left side, as free and wealthy people recline when they eat. And the distributors of charity should not give a poor person less than four cups of wine for the Festival meal of Passover night. And this halakha applies even if the poor person is one of the poorest members of society and receives his food from the charity plate.
One way of ensuring that was to provide everyone with enough wine to say the blessing over four cups and to stipulate that everyone reclines while eating.
  • Why do you think it was so important to the rabbis of the Mishnah for every person to be able to celebrate Passover?
Family Discussion:
  • At the seder, we celebrate freedom and incorporate behaviors that symbolize our freedom. What aspects of the seder remind you of freedom?
    Some of the ways that the seder evokes freedom are:
    • We leisurely sit with friends and family and eat and drink during a lavish meal.
    • We drink our wine and eat the symbolic foods while leaning, as was the custom of wealthy Greco-Romans during the time that the seder was written.
    • Some people have the custom to pour wine for each other so that everyone can feel as if they are being waited on.
    • We linger over our meal, discuss the story of the exodus from Egypt, and encourage people to ask questions.
    • Everyone participates in the seder, from the youngest to the oldest.
  • How can our communities ensure that every person who wishes to celebrate a Passover seder is able to? What, besides wine, might we need to provide or enhance?