“And wine that gladdens the heart of man.”
I was afraid of the dark as a child and slept with a night light on for longer than I would like to admit. It was as if the glow of the low watt bulbs could protect me from whatever imagined demons inhabited my dreams. In today’s Daf Yomi reading we are told Passover is a night that is “guarded from demons and harmful spirits of all kinds.”
We are told that Passover is a night when someone who is afraid of the dark can finally turn off all the lights and fall into a deep sleep. It is the night when our ancestors were liberated from slavery and protected from the plagues that God brought upon Egypt: blood, frogs, lice, flies, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the most devastating of all – the killing of firstborn sons.
I have always thought of Passover as a somber holiday, even though the Exodus story is one of freedom and salvation from a shackled life. I found the recitation of the plagues at the seder table terrifying and it was hard to find much unbriddled joy in the ritualistic meal after that, even if we were to somehow figure out how to recline at a table packed with relatives. There were the plagues and all that darkness and death and dipping one’s finger in dark red wine that set the tone for the meal.
Rabbi Yehuda suggests that Passover should be a joyful festival with each member of the household rejoicing in a way that gives them pleasure. He suggests that the men of the household should rejoice with wine. It is suggested that women should purchase new clothes that were bright and colorful if they lived in Babylonia and made of fine linen if they lived in Israel. This brought back memories of wearing new spring clothes on Passover that were lighter and brighter than the heavy winter wools that were in the process of being pushed to the back of the closet.
Wine is an essential accouterment of Passover, which requires the consumption of four glasses. Four glasses of wine can be a lot to swallow for someone who is not accustomed to drinking more than one glass every once in a while. We are told that because the temple is gone and eating the sacrificial lamb is no longer part of the ceremony, wine is central to celebrating the festival, as it is stated “And wine that gladdens the heart of man.” Even the poorest of Jews are entitled to four glasses of wine from the distributors of charity.
We learn today that there is a mysterious danger of demons associated with pairs and that someone should not expose himself to eating or drinking anything in even numbers. This poses a problem when the commitment to drink four glasses of wine is considered. It is asked “why would the Sages require one to drink an even number of cups and thereby place himself in a position of danger?
We are provided with different answers from three Sages. Rav Nahman said that Passover is a night that is protected from the dangerous demons out there in the world and drinking four glasses of wine is protected on that night as the Jews were once protected from harm from swarming plagues. Rava has a very different answer. He split off the glass of wine that is said with the Grace after Meals from the other three, and said that it combines with the other cups for purposes of good rather than bad and as a result “it is as though one only drinks three cups.” Ravina offered yet another explanation: each cup should be considered separately because it represents freedom on Passover and a “distinct mitzva in its own right.”
The Exodus story is a universal one, but it is also an American tale. My family found its way from Lithuania, where my ancestors were traveling Rabbis who went from town to town conducting services, to New Jersey. We would gather each year in my grandparent’s small home for Passover around a crowded table with extended leaves and a small card table for the children at its end. The recitation of the Passover story was a reminder of where we came from and how hard we had worked to find our place at the table.
When the door was opened on any other night, there was a stark contrast between the bright and noisy house and the silent street where one could imagine demons lurking in the dark sky. But not on that night when we opened the door for Elijah. We were together and safe. And there were no gremlins or dybbuks or lost souls to be found on that night. And there was the hope that one Passover Eve, Elijah would appear.