How Many Cups Of Wine Do You Drink At The Seder? 3,4, or 5?
By Meir Loewenberg
Ask anyone, even a first-grader, how many cups of wine we drink at the seder and the answer will always be: FOUR. This is what we do, what our parents did and what their parents did. And this is the halacha (Shulchan Aruch, OC 472.8).
The usual explanation for drinking these four cups of wine at the Seder cites the four expressions of redemption found in God's promise to Moses (Exodus 6.6-7). God says  ve-hotzeiti - I will remove you from the burdens of Egypt;  ve-hitzalti - I will save you from their bondage;  ve-ga'alti - I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and great judgments; and  ve-lakachti - I will take you to be my people and I will be your God. A perusal of the source literature reveals that there are many additional explanations for drinking Four Cups on this night, including the following:
2) four cups of wine that were mentioned by Joseph and the chief butler (Genesis 40: 11-13);
3) they recall the four cups of punishment from which the wicked nations of the world will be given to drink (Jeremiah 25:15, 51:7; Ps. 75:9, 11:6);
4) they symbolize the four letters of God's name;
5) they remind us of our four fore-mothers; this explanation was mentioned already by the Maharal (R. Yehudah Loewe ben Betzalel, 1526-1609) and the Sh'la (R. Yeshayah Hurwitz, 1560-1630);
6) they symbolize four major events in Jewish history: selection of the Jewish people in Abraham's days, the exodus from Egypt, our present galut, and the future redemption;
7) they symbolize four events in the history of the Exodus: release from slavery (which occurred six months before the Exodus), exodus from Egypt, executing judgment on the Egyptian idol, and giving of the Torah at Sinai;
8) they recall the four nations that exiled the Jewish people: Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome; R. Yohanan (in the Jerusalem Talmud, Pes.7.10) changed this reason to read that they recall four different redemptions: from Egypt, Babylon, the Greeks in the days of the Macabees, and the final redemption from "Rome" in the future.
9) they symbolize the four cups of consolation that God will serve the Israelites [Jer.Pes.10.31; Ber.R. 85.5];
10) they remind us of the four reasons for Israel's redemption from Egypt: they did not change their names, they did not change their language, they did not speak evil, and they did not engage in immorality [Songs R. 4.1.12; Maharal, Gevurot Hashem, ch.43];
11) they accompany the four parts of the Seder: Kiddush, Haggadah, Grace after the meal, and Hallel [Meiri on Pes.99b];
12) In antiquity "even" numbers were considered dangerous, but since this is the Night of Watchin, we dare to use the most dangerous of all even numbers: 2 x 2.
Frequently, when the origin of a custom is justified by many different explanations, the real reason has been forgotten or is unknown. Before we will suggest another reason, perhaps the "real" reason, we want to review briefly the significance of certain numbers in the Haggadah. The number "4" plays a very important part on this night. Here are a number of examples of "4" in the Haggadah, in addition to the four cups of wine that we have already mentioned:
4 questions that the child asks in Ma nishtana
4 foods that are eaten: Paschal lamb, matzah, maror, haroset
4 verses from the midrash that form the basis for maggid
4 times that we eat a k'zayit of matzah
4 sages who visited R. Akiba in B'nei B'rak
4 characteristics of the wise person :
4 phrases starting with baruch
4 days before Pessach the Pascal lamb was set aside (in Egypt)
4 commands in the Torah to higgad'ta=you shall tell the Exodus story (Exodus 12.24, 13.8, 13.14 and Deut. 10.20)
A careful reading of the Haggadah will reveal another number that plays a crucial role - the number "3", which occurs in the following:
3 matzot on the Seder-plate
3 questions that the child asks, as recorded in the mishnah in the Jerusalem Talmud (TJ Pesahim 10.4)
3 sons ask questions; the fourth does not ask
3 sons receive an answer that deals with the Exodus; the wise son receives a halahic answer that at first glance has little connection with the story of the Exodus
3 concepts, Pesach-Matzah-Maror, that R. Gamliel requires everyone not only to eat, but also to elaborate their symbolic significance in order to fulfill the requirements for this night
3 groups participated in the offering of the Paschal lamb (TB Pesahim 64a).
And there is one more "3" that is particularly important in connection with our review of the number of cups. When the Mishnah talks about the first three cups, it uses the formula mazgu lo kos rishon/sheni/shlishi (we pour the first/second/third cup), but when it comes to the fourth cup it merely says rivi'i gomer alav et hallel (we complete the recitation of Hallel over the fourth cup)! [Mishnah Pessahim 10.2-4-7]
The late Professor Gilad deduced from this change in wording that originally only three cups of wine were drunk at the Seder! Only later, when Hallel was added, was a fourth cup added because it was felt that Hallel should be said over a cup of wine.
Some have suggested that the change from "three" to "four" may have been part of a much more general change, a change from highlighting "three" (such as three forefathers, three matzot, etc.) to putting the emphasis on "four" (such as four sons, four species in the lulav, etc.). This change may epitomize the Sages's reaction to the rise of Christianity, a religion which sanctified the trinity. In the beginning, when the Judeo-Christians still observed the Seder, the Sages must have thought it particularly important to differentiate the Jewish Seder from their Seder. Consequently, the Jews made every effort to deemphasize the number "three". Later on, because of problems with the Church's censors it was not politic to discuss the reason for the change - hence the many different explanations!
The fifth cup
Some have urged the drinking of a fifth cup of wine on the Seder night. The reasons advanced for a fifth cup include:
1) the use of a fifth expression (heveti) in Exodus 6.8;
2) a fifth cup of Pharaoh, mentioned in Genesis 40.21;
3) in honor of the Final Redemption.
The Sages of the Talmud (TB Pesachim 118a) already discussed whether or not to drink a fifth cup because of the fifth expression heveiti (I brought you to the Land of Israel. Exod.6.8). This "fifth expression" is problematic since God did not bring those who left Egypt into the Land of Israel. Only their children entered the Land. Perhaps this is the reason for our custom of drinking only four cups -- we commemorate only the four expressions that actually materialized for those who left Egypt. Thus, Torah Temimah, an early 20th century commentator on the Torah wrote that the reason for not drinking a fifth cup is that nowadays we are still in exile and Eretz Yisrael is still ruled by foreign powers. If this was the reason in his days, then those of us who are now living in Israel should certainly drink the fifth cup. And my rabbi, R. Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, does drink a fifth cup.
However, as noted in the previous paragraph, the question of drinking the fifth cup was already discussed by the Talmudic Sages. Many in the subsequent rabbinic literature also discussed the question of the fifth cup. For example, R. Zerachya Halevi (1125-1186, Spain), the Ba'al Ha-ma'or, noted that R. Tarfon in the beraita of Pesachim 118a considered five cups mandatory, in contrast to the accepted opinion which obligates only four cups. R. Avraham b. Davi (1120-1197), the Ravad, one of the leading Torah scholars of the 12th century, also suggested that there is a mitzva to add a fifth cup for reciting Hallel Hagadol. R. Asher ben Jehiel (1250-1327), the Rosh, included in his abstract of Talmudic law R. Tarfon's opinion that the fifth cup is mandatory (Pesachim 118a, # 33, D.H. Kos chamishi).
So the discussion of four or five cups continues through the ages until our own days. Since the rabbis were unable to resolve this question, they left the decision in abeyance "until the Messiah comes" - the Messiah, whose coming will be announced by Eliyahu, the Prophet. Thus, the fifth cup has become "The cup of Eliyahu."
from the April 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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