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Of Questions and Wine at the Seder

In virtually all Jewish households, the first highlight of the Pesach Seder is the recitation of the Mah Nishtana, the four questions, by the youngest child.  And indeed, it is a central component of the Seder, hearkening back to at least the Tannaitic era.  And while the content of those questions has been edited over the centuries, to reflect our post Temple reality, they have otherwise remained essentially untouched.

The four questions focus on the ritualized eating done at the Seder: why do we eat only matzah, why do we eat only bitter vegetables, why do we dip our food twice, why do we recline when we eat.  But there is one additional food ritual that is omitted from the child’s questions.  Why does the script of the questions provided by the Mishne not include a “why do we drink four cups of wine?”  After all the Mishne places great emphasis on this requirement.  Even the poorest of the poor must not be denied at least four cups of wine for his Seder.  Wouldn’t a child find that to be curious, at least as curious as eating bitter herbs?  Does this omission tell us something about how important those four cups were seen to be when the Mishne was compiled?

While it is true that the four cups of wine consumed at the Seder serve as a scfolding for the service, the sections of the Hagaddah centered around them, why we need precisely four cups is not clear.  The discussion concerning why we drink four cups is found in the Jerusalem Talmud, Pesachim 10:1

מְנַיִין לְאַרְבָּעָה כוֹסוֹת. רִבִּי יוֹחָנָן בְּשֵׁם רִבִּי בְנָייָה. כְּנֶגֶד אַרְבַּע גְּאוּלוֹת. לָכֵ֞ן אֱמֹ֥ר לִבְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֘ אֲנִ֣י יְי וְהֽוֹצֵאתִ֣י אֶתְכֶ֗ם וגו׳. וְלָֽקַחְתִּ֨י אֶתְכֶ֥ם לִי֙ לְעָ֔ם וגו׳. וְהֽוֹצֵאתִ֣י. וְהִצַּלְתִּ֥י. וְגָֽאַלְתִּ֤י. וְלָֽקַחְתִּ֨י. רִבִּי יְהֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי אָמַר. כְּנֶגֶד אַרְבַּע כּוֹסוֹת שֶׁלְּפַּרְעֹה. וְכ֥וֹס פַּרְעֹ֖ה בְּיָדִ֑י. וָֽאֶשְׂחַ֤ט אֹתָם֙ אֶל־כּ֣וֹס פַּרְעֹ֔ה. וָֽאֶתֵּ֥ן אֶת־הַכּ֖וֹס עַל־כַּ֥ף פַּרְעֹֽה׃ וְנָֽתַתָּ֤ כוֹס־פַּרְעֹה֙ בְּיָד֔וֹ. רִבִּי לֵוִי אָמַר. כְּנֶגֶד אַרְבַּע מַלְכִיּוֹת. וְרַבָּנִן אָֽמְרֵי. כְּנֶגֶד אַרְבָּעָה כוֹסוֹת שֶׁלְפּוּרְעָנוּת שֶׁהקְּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עָתִיד לְהַשְׁקוֹת אֶת אוּמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם

From where the Four Cups? Rebbi Joḥanan in the name of Rebbi Benaiah: Corresponding to the four deliveries: Therefore, say to the Children of Israel, I am the Eternal, and I shall take you out, etc. And I shall take you as My people, etc. I shall take you, I shall save you, I shall free you, I shall take you. Rebbi Joshua ben Levi said, corresponding to the four cups of Pharaoh: The cup of Pharaoh was in my hand; I took the grapes and squeezed them into Pharaoh ’s cup, and gave the cup in Pharaoh ’s hand. You will give the cup in the hand of Pharaoh. Rebbi Levi said, corresponding to the four kingdoms. But our teachers say, corresponding to the four cups of doom that the Holy One, praise to Him, will make the Gentiles drink at the end of days.

The Talmud does not decide the matter.  And although we generally accept the first opinion, that the four cups of the Seder correspond to the four expressions of liberation found in the book of Exodus, the sages of the Talmud seem to see the validity in each of the reasons proposed.

If the post Mishnaic Amoraim of the Talmud were unsure of the reason for the four cups, one can understand a hesitancy to emphasize them in the questions to be asked by the child at the start of the Seder.

But in fact, there is a very clear reason why we drink lots of wine at the Seder.  Just before the passage quoted above, the Jerusalem Talmud records an older Halacha:

תַּנֵּי. צָרִיךְ אָדָם לְשַׂמֵּחַ אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֶת בָּנָיו בָּרֶגֶל. בַּמֶּה מְשַׂמְּחָן. בְּיַיִן. רִבִּי יוּדָה אוֹמֵר נָשִׁים בָּרָאוּי לָהֶן וּקְטַנִּים בָּרָאוּי לָהֶן. נָשִׁים בָּרָאוּי לָהֶן. כְּגוֹן מְסָנִּין וְצוּצְלִין. וּקְטַנִּים בָּרָאוּי לָהֶן. כְּגוֹן אֱגוֹזִין וְלוּזִין. אָֽמְרִין. הֲוָה רִבִּי טַרְפוֹן עֲבִיד כֵּן.

It was stated: “A man has to make his family happy on a feast of pilgrimage. How does he make them happy? With wine. Rebbi Jehudah used to say, women with what is appropriate for them, and minors with what is appropriate for them. Women with what is appropriate for them, for example shoes and belts, and minors with what is appropriate for them, for example nuts and pistachios.” They said, Rebbi Tarphon acted in this way.

This Halacha, that one should drink wine on the festivals, is found in the second century Tannaitic Toseffta Pesachim  10:3

מצוה על אדם לשמח בניו ובני ביתו ברגל. במה משמחן, ביין, דכת’ ויין ישמח לבב אנוש. ר’ יהודה או’ נשים בראוי להם, וקטנים בראוי להם.

A man must gladden his sons and household on the festivals, with what shall he gladden them?  With wine, as it is written “for wine shall gladden a man’s heart” R. Yehuda said, women should be made glad with that which befits them and children with that which befits them.

We drink additional wine at the Seder to have a good time on the holiday.

If the original reason for wine at the Seder was simply to enjoy the event, how did that morph into specifically four cups pregnant with religious overtones?

It’s commonly accepted that the Seder as scripted in the Mishne is patterened after the Roman Symposium.  The word “symposium” literally means to drink together.  But the drinking of wine at those gatherings was carefully regimented.  In at least one description of how the libations flowed, three cups of wine were considered the maximum amount that sensible men would drink.  The fourth cup and beyond was consumed by those who planned to engage in licentious behavior at the conclusion of the formal proceedings.

So, the Toseffta instructs us to drink wine on the festivals so we might enjoy ourselves.  But it does not tell us how much.  Had we followed the Roman sensibility of three cups, our Seder might too closely resemble the Symposium.  Moreover, three cups would not reflect the added joy of Yom Tov, as drinking that quantity of wine was fairly common.  So, the custom became to drink an additional cup of wine, with a stern innjunction to not participate in the raucous “epikomion” that often followed the highbrow Symposium.

But a century or so later, in the third century the first generation Amoraim cited in the Jerusalem Talmud either forgot the rational for the four cups or felt a need to imbue them with greater religious meaning than provided by the Toseffta.  Hence, the hermeneutics brought down in the Talmud.

The reason the Mishne does not script a question concerning the four cups of wine is because when it was written there was no particular religious significance attached to it.  Wine was drunk on all festivals to reflect the joy of the holiday.  Four cups were consumed on Pesach to differentiate Jewish ritual from the Roman.   The symbolic religious significance of those four cups was developed only a century or so later.  By the time the four associations between the four cups of wine and parts of the Bible recorded in the Talmud were made, the script of the four questions was set and essentially immutable.

The Haggadah is a complex work.  It contains layer upon layer of religious thought and pietistic feeling as it developed from the earliest days of Rabbinic Judaism until it was compiled in its present form sometime in the Geonic era. In the end, the retelling of the Exodus as it’s scripted hints to far more than the emergence of the Israelite nation. It also retells the difficult transformation of the Israelites into the Jewish people.  It is a testament to the Jewish nation’s deep-seated desire to imbue our lives with ever more significance and meaning.  And so maybe, the Seder isn’t only about Yetziat Mitzraim.  Rather it’s about our spiritual journey.  Every year, with the publication of new and varied commentaries on the Haggadah, the document continues to record our attempts to fill our lives with deeper and ever more profound meaning.  I hope that never stops.

Chag kasher v’sameach to one and all.

About the Author
Daniel Schwarz, an attorney with offices in Jerusalem, Efrat and Rehovot, made Aliyah from Rockland County, New York in 2016. He's also an avocational chazzan.
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