It is a well-known rule in Hilkhot Berakhot, the laws of blessings, that provided one has not had a change of mind or intent or a change of place, the blessing on a particular food or drink is not repeated if one consumes, at the same sitting, another food or drink having the same blessing. For example: the blessing of borei p’ri ha-ets said upon an apple is not repeated upon eating either another apple or a plum.
Which is why on Seder night a burning question presents itself: We imbibe four cups of wine as part of the Seder. We are planning to imbibe these four cups at the outset. There is no intention to leave the splendour of our festively-adorned dining-room table. Why then do we recite a new blessing of borei p’ri ha-gafen on each of the cups of wine?
At the outset let me say that this question only has relevance to Ashkenazi Jews. Sephardi Jews recite just two blessings – on the first and the third cup. The reason for a blessing on the third cup is easily explained. The Birkhat haMazon, grace after meals (or bensching) has intervened prior to cup three. This serves as a concluding series of blessings for everything consumed thus far – not only the meal but also the wine. Therefore according to all opinions, a b’rakha on this third cup of wine is mandated.
However the second cup of wine follows on from the magid section in which we relate the story of the Exodus. We eat nothing except a sprig of parsley or a morsel of some other vegetable between the first cup of wine and the second. No concluding blessing has been said. Why then a blessing on the second cup?
Similarly between the third and fourth cup of wine all we do is recite – or hopefully sing – a selection of praise-passages. There is no earthly reason to make yet another ha-gafen blessing on cup number four. Why isn’t it a berakha le-vatala, a blessing in vain? Or at least a berakha she-eino tserikha, an unnecessary blessing?
What follows is my humble attempt to infuse our Ashkenazi minhag with additional meaning, purpose and rationale. If you are Sephardi you can stop reading now – unless you have Ashkenazi relatives or are just plain curious!
We posed the question: why say a blessing on the second cup of wine.
This second cup directly follows our narration of the Exodus from Egypt in which the main leitmotif re-occurring in different guises is: We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt but G-D brought us out to freedom.
One of the situations necessitating a fresh berakha to be made is shinui makom, an unexpected change of location. If I consume a date and then an orange perched at my kitchen bar then I make only one blessing. But if, after eating the date, I suddenly remember I have an imminent appointment and dash out of the house, grabbing an orange on the way out, I shall need to make another berakha on the orange at my new location.
It will be recalled that a fundamental principle at our Seder service is: “in every generation a person should view him or herself (i.e. behave) as though s/he personally went out of Egypt” (Mishna Pesachim 10:5; cited in Hagada)
If we have departed from Egypt, we have effected shinui makom, Like our ancestors, we have k’heref ayin, in the unexpected blink of an eye, changed our location following cup one and its aftermath, the karpas (symbolising 600,000 men plus families in hard slave labour) when we were still in Egypt. Cup two is the cup of ge’ula, Redemption. We have now been freed! We have left Egypt! We are in a new location. Therefore we must make a new berakha on the wine.
Now to the question of cup number four. What has intervened since the third cup? The answer: Hallel and songs of ecstatic praise. With three cups of wine behind us, we are – or ought to be – transported to another world. We hadn’t even seen it coming! This is not simply a locational shift from a land of slavery to a place of freedom. With our voices soaring, we – hopefully – also find our spirits soaring upwards from earth to the very heavens!
True there was no earthly reason why we should say a berakha on this cup. But there is a heavenly one! Most certainly another shinui makom – and hence yet another new blessing on the fourth cup is called for.
May we all merit very soon to say a blessing on a fifth cup of wine heralding the most seismic shift imaginable – the geula shleima, the final redemption!