Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesah 5759/1999

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesah 5759/1999

Why Four (or is it Five?) Cups?

Menahem Ben-Yashar

Dept. of Bible

The usual explanation given for drinking four cups of wine at the Seder is one cup for each expression of redemption that Moses promised the Israelites in G-d's name: "I will free you, ... and deliver you... I will redeem you... And I will take you" (Ex. 6:6-7). This explanation stems from the aggadic homily in the Jerusalem Talmud, Pesahim 10, 1 (37c-d) and Genesis Rabbah 88, 5 (pp. 1081-1082, Albeck edition). These sources mention four reasons for drinking four cups, cited in the name of three amoraim from the land of Israel.

The first reason given is the one which we commonly cite: for the four expressions of redemption from Egypt. The second explanation--four occurrences of the word "cup" in the narrative of the chief cupbearer's dream and its solution by Joseph--accounts for the homily appearing in Genesis Rabbah, at the end of Parshat Va-Yeshev.[1] The third interpretation presents two contradictory reasons: for the four cups of bitterness that G-d gave Israel's adversaries, based on the uses of "cup" in this context in Jeremiah and Psalms; and in contrast, for four occurrences in Psalms of "cup" in the context of Israel's redemption.

Actually, in Psalms (indeed, in the entire Bible) a "cup" of blessing given Israel occurs only three times, but the homily counts the plural form "kos yeshuot" (lit. "cup of deliverances") in Psalms 116:13 as two cups, playing on numbers quite freely. Indeed, the same freedom with numbers is taken with respect to the cups of bitterness given the gentiles. In addition to the four references cited in the homily (Jer. 25:15; 51:7; Ps. 11:6; 75:9), we found five other references in the Bible: two in the section on the cup of wrath in Jeremiah (25:17, 28), one in Habbakuk (2:16), two regarding Edom in Jeremiah (49:12) and in Lamentations (4:21). Indeed, the homily does not claim to list all the cups of wrath in the Bible; it only says there four references to "cup" can be seen as alluding to the four cups at the Seder.

Returning now to the first reason for the four cups, the four expressions of redemption, there too we find yet another four verbs of divine promise which also express redemption: "I will be ... and you shall know ... I will bring you ... and I will give it to you" (Ex. 6:7-8). The first of these expressions, "I will be your G-d," parallels the last expression in the homily and complements it: "And I will take you [velaqahti] to be My people"; together, they express the two sides of the covenantal relationship between G-d and His people, as formulated in the Torah and the Prophets.[2] One the one hand, the Lord is Israel's G-d (expressed here by "taking" because now, upon the exodus from Egypt, the relationship begins to be reciprocal);[3] and on the other hand, Israel is G-d's people. The promise that follows, "And you shall know [vida'atem] that I, the Lord, am your G-d who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians," is the necessary complement of the covenant motif, for without Israel's knowledge the relationship has no value or substance.[4]

Clearly the last two expressions of promise in these tidings--G-d bringing Israel to the land of Canaan and giving them the land as an eternal possession--follow naturally as the concluding components of redemption and the covenant.

Thus we see that there are eight expressions here, referring to eight components of redemption; the homily, however, only listed the first four because it needed them to set against the four cups of wine obligatory at the Seder, which for historical and halakhic reasons embellish the feast of the festival; to be more precise, the sacred feast of the sacrifice.

This leads us to an important general rule: whenever something from aggadah is cited as the reason for a certain halakhah, this is never the basic reason for the halakhah; the basic reason is either historic or halakhic, with aggadic and didactic explanations being added over the years. Clearly the educational value of these additional reasons should not be taken lightly.[5] Regarding the cups of wine at the Seder, later scholars established that the minimal number of four is based on the common practice at Hellenistic feasts in the time of the Sages: one cup before the meal, one (or more cups) during the meal, and several cups after the meal.[6]

The Sages of the Second Temple period established various commandments and blessings that are to be embellished by a cup of wine, and, in turn, the drinking of wine is to be embellished by these blessings: the cup before the meal is to sanctify the day, the cup during the meal for the blessing of redemption, concluding the main part of the story of the exodus from Egypt recounted in response to the questions of the sons and marking the conclusion of the first two sections of Hallel, which allude to the exodus (Ps. 113: "O servants of the Lord" and not servants of Pharaoh) and tell of if it explicitly (Ps. 114), for which reason this section of Hallel (Ps. 113-118) is known as the "Egyptian Hallel."

The third cup, drunk at the conclusion of grace after the meal, is the first of the cups after the meal. Regarding the fourth cup, which is drunk upon concluding Hallel, it says in Tractate Pesahim 118a: "The Rabbis taught: over the fourth cup Hallel is concluded; then Hallel ha-Gadol is said, according to R. Tarfon." At least that is what printed editions of the Talmud say, but according to manuscripts cited in Dikdukei Soferim and according to the versions of the geonim,[7] Rif, and Rosh, as well as other early rabbinic authorities,[8] what R. Tarfon said was: "Over the fourth Hallel is concluded, and over the fifth Hallel ha-Gadol is recited."

According to Maharsha (R. Samuel Eliezer Edels) on this source, it follows from the baraita that R. Tarfon meant a fifth cup had to accompany recitation of Hallel ha-Gadol, i.e., Psalm 136, with its twenty-six-fold repetition of the refrain, "His steadfast love is eternal," and its mention of the miracle of the exodus from Egypt. Many of the geonim and rishonim, however, held that drinking this cup and reciting this psalm were optional. This solution might represent a compromise between the Mishnah (Pesahim 10.7), which recognizes only four cups, and the view of R. Tarfon in the baraita. Be that as it may, R. Tarfon does not stand alone in his view, for immediately after his words the baraita continues: "Others say, [we recite] 'The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing' (Ps. 23:1)." In other words, some rabbis were of the opinion that Psalm 23 should be recited over the fifth cup.

Whether this cup is optional or obligatory, R. Tarfon's view might have been founded on the Hellenistic custom of concluding a festive meal with riotous singing and drinking, i.e., the afikoman, which the Mishnah explicitly forbids after the Passover Seder (Pes. 10.8). Just as the Sages gave a Jewish character to the banquet customs of the gentile environment by blessing the Lord and singing His praises, so too R. Tarfon "converted" the cups of wine drunk after the meal, by reciting psalms with them. In any event, R. Tarfon added no more than one cup in order to avoid excessive wild behavior and drunkenness. According to this explanation the fifth cup is optional, as some of the rishonim stated; but while permissible, it may be had only if Psalm 136 is recited over it.

Another surmise can be given regarding the fifth cup: In Pesahim 109b the rabbis ask how it was that four cups were commanded, considering that drinking an even number of cups was thought to incur danger of harmful and evil spirits? Several reasons are given to show that there is no danger in drinking these cups commanded us. Be that as it may, perhaps R. Tarfon was not satisfied with these explanations and advocated a fifth cup to eliminate the danger in drinking an even number of cups. This explanation, it must be said, is rather tenuous, since the danger in even numbers is discussed only by Babylonian amoraim; this motif does not come up at all in discussions by the rabbis of the land of Israel (evethough the question of even numbers is ostensibly presented there in a baraita [tannaitic material whose origin is in Israel] that begins with the words, "It is taught"--a matter for further investigation.)

It is not clear how or why the practice of drinking a fifth cup was forgotten, even though it is common practice to recite Psalm 136 on Passover eve. Did faulty copying of the gemara cause this cup to be dropped, or was it the other way around? Did the practice of not drinking a fifth cup cause faulty copying of the gemara? This surely was the case with the commentary by Rabbenu Hananel on this passage of Talmud, where he wrote "fifth cup" and the printer corrected it to "fourth cup."

The Maharal of Prague, and after him several later rabbinic authorities, reinstituted the custom of drinking a fifth cup among themselves. Not long ago the late Rabbi of Tel-Aviv Jafo, R. Hayyim David Halevy,[9] wondered why we do not drink a fifth cup of wine after reciting Psalm 136.

[1] This is more than a superficial analogy. According to this analogy all of Joseph's vicissitudes of fortune, including his solving the chief cupbearer's dream, which resulted in Joseph being appointed second in command to Pharaoh, served to bring Jacob's family down to Egypt, where they would be enslaved and from whence they would later be delivered.

[2] For example, Lev. 26:12; Deut. 26:17-18, 29:12; Jer. 7:23 and others; and Ezek. 37:23.

[3] The verb l-q-h, "to take," appears in a similar context in Deut. 20:4, and in 29:12 in the context of establishing a covenant.

[4] "Knowing" is used in the same context also in Jer. 24:7; 31:32-33; and in Ezek. 37:28, after the formulation of the covenant in verse 23 of that chapter.

[5] More examples where this applies: not saying the entire Hallel on the latter days of Passover; the shofar service which comes before the blowing of the shofar in the amidah on Rosh ha-Shanah; reading the Torah on Mondays and Thursdays; reading the Megillah on Purim eve.

[6] Cf. M. Ish-Shalom (Friedman), Meir Ayin al Seder ve-Haggadah shel Leilei Pesah, Vienna 1895, pp. 41ff. More recently, in Y. Tabori's articles and their summary in his book: Moadei Yisrael be-Tekufat ha-Mishnah ve-ha-Talmud, Jerusalem 1995, pp. 119-125. It is not clear there whether the second cup was drunk before the meal (as is the practice today, p. 119, ibid.) or during it (p. 125). Logically and according to the plain sense of the Mishnah, Pesahim 10, it seems reasonable to assume the cup was drunk during the meal: they did not tell about the exodus on an empty stomach, rather they ate their roast while still hot, before it cooled; and seeing the unusual foods on the table, the son asked the questions and received answers. Only after the destruction of the Temple was the order of the Seder inverted (although when Seder fell on Saturday night so that one had to wait until the end of the Sabbath to begin roasting the Pascal lamb, perhaps discussion of the exodus preceded the meal).

[6] B. M. Levin, Otzar ha-Geonim 3, Jerusalem 1931, pp. 126-128.

[7] Cf. M. M. Kasher, Haggadah Shelemah, Jerusalem 1955, pp. 161-178; most of the details we cited regarding the fifth cup in the writings of geonim, rishonim and aharonim, are taken from this chapter. See this work for further information.

[8] R. H. D. Halevi, "Arba Kosot ve-Kos Hamishit," HaTzofe, 14 Nisan 1995, p. 9. Let my brief review of this subject be taken as homage to the blessed memory of the late Rabbi Halevi, known for his originality and depth in the study of halakhah and aggadah.