Four glasses of wine (Daf Yomi Pesachim 99)

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“Even a fool, when he holds his peace, is considered wise; and he that shuts his lips is esteemed as a man of understanding.”

Today’s Daf Yomi portion is surprisingly short. In fact, the notes in the Koren Talmud are longer than the text itself. Now that we have read about all the preparations for the meal, we are finally able to sit down at the table and get the seder underway. The lead-up to this last chapter of the Tractate feels as long as the reading of the Haggadah by my grandfather all those years ago. It would seemingly go on forever while I patiently waited for the meal to begin. And I vaguely remember sneaking an edge of matza from the covered plate to hold me over until the food arrived.

Today’s reading brings back a lot of memories from the Passovers of my childhood. There was the white lace tablecloth spread across my grandmother’s table. There were the two tables – not unlike the ones we read about earlier when two families shared a single dwelling as they consumed their Paschal lambs. The children sat at a card table at the end of the long adult one. I was insulted to sit at the children’s table because I never thought of myself as a child (which probably explains a lot). I would slip into an adult’s seat if they got up even for a moment, until I was chased away and banished back to the wobbly secondary table.

We slumped in our seats because on Passover we reclined like the privileged, which resulted in pushing back in my chair until one Passover I fell over. I was riveted by the dipping in the wine to remember the ten plagues, although I am sure at the children’s table, we only had grape juice. The recitation of the litany of plagues was darkly poetic – blood, frogs, lice, beasts, cattle disease, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and death of the firstborn. The rhythm of the four questions resonates with me today and I carried their lyricism into adulthood – mah nishtanah halailah hazeh mikol haleilot.

And then there was the four glasses of wine which represent the redemption of our people from slavery. A mysterious glass was set aside for Elijah. I believed utterly and completely in Elijah and when we opened the door for him at the end of the evening, I expected a magical prophet to appear in white ropes who could save the world. 

We learn in today’s Daf Yomi that regardless of circumstances, we are all expected to recline at whatever table we find ourselves on Passover and “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.”

I do not remember my family becoming drunk on Passover, but with obligatory consumption of four glasses of wine and the long hours of sitting through the Haggadah reading, I can’t imagine they were anything by light-headed. We are told that we should add four glasses of wine to the charity plate for the poorest members of society, so that they can participate fully in the holiday. It is a reminder to remember the most vulnerable and broken-hearted.

I hear echoes of my grandmother in the voice of Rabbi Yosei who advices to “to refrain from eating in the afternoon, so that he will eat matza with a good appetite.” We have all heard the warning from our parents and grandparents not to spoil our appetite. My grandparents gave me so much good advice that I did not appreciate when I was young. Studying the Talmud each day has flooded me with memories of them, and also of the young girl that I once was who so desperately wanted a seat at the adult table. 

About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at
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