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Why four cups of wine at the Passover Seder?

by Rabbi Yossi Marcus

  

Library » Holidays » Passover » Seder » The Wine | Subscribe | What is RSS?


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G-d uses four expressions of redemption in describing our Exodus from Egypt and our birth as a nation:1

1. “I will take you out…”

2. “I will save you…”

3. “I will redeem you…”

4. “I will take you as a nation…”

Our sages instituted that we should drink a cup of wine, a toast if you will, for each one of these expressions. We recite the Kiddush over the first cup, we read the Exodus story from the Haggadah over the second cup, we recite the Grace After Meals over the third cup, and we sing the "big Hallel" - Psalms and hymns of praises to G-d, over the fourth cup.

There is actually a fifth expression in the above mentioned verses "And I will bring you to the land which I promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you as an inheritance".2

While the Exodus from Egypt and the birth of the Jewish nation were permanent, we have yet to be brought to Israel on a permanent basis.
In honor of this verse we have a fifth cup at the Seder: the Cup of Elijah. This cup is set up for Elijah during the second half of the Seder, but we do not drink it.

There are a number of explanations as to the significance of the various stages of redemption conveyed through each of these expressions. Here is one:

1. Salvation from harsh labor—this began as soon as the plagues were introduced.

2. Salvation from servitude; or the day the Jews left Egypt geographically and arrived at Ramses.

3. The splitting of the sea, after which the Jews felt completely redeemed, without fear of the Egyptians recapturing them.

4. Becoming a nation at Sinai.

While the Exodus from Egypt and the birth of the Jewish nation were permanent, we have yet to be brought to Israel on a permanent basis. That is why the fifth expression/cup is different than the other four, and it is reserved for Elijah. Elijah will announce the arrival of Moshiach, who will bring all Jews to Israel, for good.

During the Seder we can experience these elements of redemption in a spiritual sense, by leaving our “Egypt” and our servitude to our egos.

Sources: Shmot Rabbah end of 86; Ramban and Seforno on abovementioned verses. See also More reasons for the four cups of wine at the Seder

Footnotes

  • 1. Exodus 6:6-7
  • 2. Exodus 6:8
TAGS: four cups

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Moshiach
The Messiah. Moshiach is the person who will usher in an era of peace and tranquility for all of humanity when there will be no jealousy or hate, wars or famine. This is a fundamental Jewish belief.
Hallel
Hebrew word meaning "praise." Normally is a reference to Psalms 113-118-- Psalms of jubilation which are recited during the morning prayers of all joyous holidays.
Grace After Meals
Biblically mandated prayer, consisting of four blessings, recited after eating more than an ounce of bread.
Kiddush
Prayer recited at the beginning of the Sabbath or Holiday meal--both the evening and afternoon meals. This prayer, acknowledging the sanctity of the day, is recited over a cup of wine or grape juice.
Haggadah
Text read at the Passover Eve feasts. The Haggadah recounts in great detail the story of our Exodus from Egypt.
Seder
Festive meal eaten on the first two nights of the holiday of Passover (In Israel, the Seder is observed only the first night of the holiday). Seder highlights include: reading the story of the Exodus, eating Matzah and bitter herbs, and drinking four cups of wine.
Abraham
First Jew, and first of our three Patriarchs. Born into a pagan society in Mesepotamia in 1812 BCE, he discovered monethieism on his own. He was told by G-d to journey to the Land of Canaan where he and his wife Sarah would give birth to the Jewish People.
Jacob
Third of the three Patriarchs and father of the Twelve Tribes. Lived most his life in Canaan and died in Egypt in 1505 BCE. Also known by the name of "Israel."
Isaac
Second of the three Jewish Patriarchs, son of Abraham and Sarah. Lived in Canaan (Israel); b. 1712 BCE, d. 1532 BCE.
Elijah
A legendary prophet who lived in the 8th century BCE, and saved the Jewish religion from being corrupted by the pagan worship of Baal. He never died, he was taken to heaven alive. According to Jewish tradition, he visits every circumcision and every Passover Seder table.
Psalms
The Book of Psalms. One of the 24 books of the Bible. Compiled by King David; mostly comprised of poetic praise for G-d. A large part of our prayers are culled from this book.
Exodus
1. The miraculous departure of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage in 1312 BCE. 2. The second of the Five Books of Moses. This book describes the aforementioned Exodus, the giving of the Torah, and the erection of the Tabernacle.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.