Dvar Torah For Day 1 of Pesach, 5772.
Shabbat shalom and chag kasher v’sameach.
I trust that your first seder was a joyous experience that not only involved a great feast with family and friends, but also an opportunity to literally taste slavery and freedom in one meal. One of the primary ritual and educational tools of the seder is the drinking of the four cups of wine. For this and the next three divrei Torah that span the four days of Yom Tov during Pesach, I want to explore this ritual of the four cups from different perspectives, ritual, halakhic, and symbolic. This is especially helpful today, the first day of Yom Tov, as we reflect upon our first seder and prepare for the second which will take place tonight.
The practice of drinking four cups of wine at the seder derives from the Mishnah, the oral Torah, specifically Tractate Pesahim, chapter 10. There, we read in the very first section that even the poorest members of the Jewish community must drink four cups of wine at the seder, and even if that requires taking assistance from the public charity fund that would be used only for those in the most dire financial straits. The rest of chapter 10 teaches us about the four times that each cup of wine is drunk: as part of Kiddush for Yom Tov evening, at the end of the recitation of the Passover story, right after Birkat HaMazon, or grace after meals, and at the conclusion of the Hallel prayer which is mandated by the rabbis of the Mishnah as a way of praising God for delivering us from Egypt. Each of these rituals to which wine drinking is connected is an obligatory practice that sanctifies our celebratory meal as a religious event.
The Mishnah never actually explains to us where it derives the drinking of the four cups from, only that each of the four major rituals of the seder is to be accompanied by the drinking of a cup of wine, over each of which the later rabbis of the Talmud required a blessing. Other rabbinic sources assert that this practice is based upon the four different verbs used to describe God’s redemption of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, which are mentioned in Exodus 6:6-7. There God explains to Moses God’s plan for freeing the people from Egypt:
I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary judgments. And I will take you to be My people…
God promises to free us, to deliver us, to redeem us, and to take us as God’s people. At first glance, this four-word emphasis upon liberation in the Bible is a sufficient explanation for the four cups of wine. Each celebratory cup that we drink serves as a reminder of God’s promises fulfilled in the past and of God’s promises to be fulfilled toward us in the future. However, as we will see later on during Pesach, other plausible four-fold explanations for the four cups exist, and the verses that I quoted before from Exodus can easily be interpreted to evoke five or even six words related to liberation, when the verse are quoted in full. Though these four words that evoke images of God liberating us are powerful, let me suggest a more basic reason for why we drink these four cups at the seder, as well as why we drink them when and how we do.
The seder is, as its name attests, literally an ordered ritual experience; it is intended to help us feel like we are slaves leaving Egypt, not simply have us retell the Exodus story as someone else’s story from an inaccessible and distant past. Everything about the seder is conducted with an eye toward helping us to act and feast like newly -freed people. In the Greco-Roman world of ancient Palestine where the seder liturgy was developed, it was common for the upper classes to hold symposia, in which they mixed heavy amounts of eating, drinking, and not always wholesome partying with light intellectual discussions about philosophy, science or the arts. A common misconception is that the seder was modeled directly after the symposium. Though the form of the Roman symposium was likely the skeletal model for the structure of the seder, the content of the seder was anything but an imitation of the symposium. My teacher Professor Barukh Bokser, of blessed memory, wrote many years ago that the Mishnah I mentioned above reflects our sages’ efforts to create a distinctively Jewish spiritual experience through the seder. Their true model was the first Passover meal that the Israelites engaged in as slaves on the verge of freedom that night before the Exodus millennia ago. Of course, their second true model was the great Passover offering celebrated in Jerusalem by thousands of pilgrims who would worship at the Bet Hamikdash, the holy Temple, as one free community, prior to the Temple’s destruction by the Romans. Rabbi Bokser and other scholars point out where our sages chose to pointedly make changes in the symposium model or to ignore it altogether. First, they insured that everyone, men, women and children, rich and poor alike would be part of the seder experience, particularly the drinking of the four cups of wine and reclining in the manner of free people. The seder became a rehearsal for radical egalitarianism, something to be tasted by all members of the community within the larger values framework of redemption, even if only for one night. Egalitarianism and inclusiveness were hardly the fare of the typical symposium. Second, while they certainly expected seder participants to feast and drink as free people do, they placed the discussion of the Exodus first in the order of the evening, before the revelry and the drinking, which were considered of secondary importance in some respects. In fact, the revelry and drinking were highly regulated by the Mishnah, so that the seder did not degenerate into the bacchanalian nonsense for which Roman symposia were apparently infamous. Third, and I think most relevant, the four cups of wine were placed by the sages in the seder as ritual markers of transitions, rather than simply opportunities for a good, stiff drink. Look at where each of the four cups of wine is found. The first cup ushers in the holiday through Kiddush, which proclaims Pesach and the people of Israel holy, something that is hard to do when a people is being beaten down by an oppressor. The second cup concludes the mitzvah of telling and re-living the story of the redemption from Egypt, which is what defines us on the night of liberation. More specifically, after the telling of the story we now define ourselves as free, rather than having our identities handed to us by Pharaoh, thus leading us to a celebratory drink. The third cup follows the grace after meals, in fulfillment of the traditional requirement according to Halakhah, something not often done anymore. Significantly, this third cup of wine seems to be one more reminder to us free people that our freedom is not license for anarchy in eating, drinking and partying, but a reminder that we have the capacity to discipline our behavior voluntarily and freely. Finally, the fourth cup completes the recitation of the second part of the Hallel prayer, which our sages required us to chant as a final hymn of thanks to God, who is the real center of the Exodus story. We who are physically free can once again exercise our spiritual freedom by recognizing God, not a human being, as the supreme ruler, yet another reason for a celebratory drink within appropriate limits. Each of these transitions or stations follows a larger pattern that the four cups of wine and the text of the Haggadah reflect: first, we needed to be physically liberated from Pharaoh. Only then could we liberate ourselves spiritually and morally by exercising freely our relationship with God and a life of self-imposed discipline, the ultimate form of freedom.
Thus, far from being opportunities for making the seder a happy hour, the four cups of wine concretize and ritualize order and structure, while at the same time allowing us a certain amount of space to unwind, have fun, and celebrate the literal and symbolic taste of freedom. Ultimately, they parallel beautifully the four verbs from Exodus that are their literary basis: At Kiddush, we thank God for literally freeing us from Egypt. During the telling of the story, we praise God for literally delivering us from Egypt. After Birkat Hamazon, we recognize that God gives us the tools for spiritual redemption. After Hallel, we revel in the One who takes us to be that One’s own, which is the deeper purpose of the Exodus—to freely accept a life of mission and partnership with God in repairing the world.