MEANING IN MITZVOT by Rabbi Asher Meir
Each week we discuss one familiar halakhic practice and try to show its beauty and meaning. The columns are based on the commentary “Meaning in Mitzvot” on Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, which is serialized on Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Virtual Beit Midrash, www.vbm-torah.org.
Four Cups at the Seder
At the beginning of our parsha, HaShem explains to Moshe that He will redeem the Jewish people in four successive stages: “Therefore go and tell the children of Israel, I am HaShem. I will take you out from under the burdens of Egypt (the physical work); and I will rescue you from their service (subjugation); and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and great judgments (so that the Egyptians will acknowledge your liberty). And I will take you to me as a nation, and I will be to you as G-d (when you accept the Torah – Ramban); and you will know that I am HaShem your G-d who takes you out from under the burdens of Egypt.” (Shemot 6:6-7.)
The Maharal explains that the first three stages correspond to the stages of subjugation mentioned in Avram’s vision at the brit bein habetarim. There HaShem told Avram: “Know that your offspring will be strangers in a land not theirs; and they will subjugate and oppress them four hundred years”. (Bereshit 15:13). First HaShem took us out of the physical work, which was an oppression; then he rescued us from subjugation; finally he redeemed us from the status of strangers and made us into an independent nation.
THE FOUR CUPS OF WINE
The Midrash Rabba explains that the four cups of wine correspond to these four stages of redemption. By contrast, the Gemara says that the number four expresses freedom, and connects each cup to a particular mitzva of the seder night: the first cup is that of kiddush; over the second cup we recite the haggada; the third cup is that of birkhat hamazon; and over the fourth cup we recite hallel. (Pesachim 117b.)
The Maharal makes the following fascinating connection between the Midrashic and halakhic identities of the four cups.
Fundamentally, four cups is a minimum. Only free people who have the means and the time for a relaxed feast can drink so many. But drinking more doesn’t contradict the image of freedom. Indeed,the Shulchan Arukh explicitly says that it is possible to add more cups (SA OC 473:3), though care is needed to avoid doubtful blessings.
The one exception is that it is forbidden to add cups of wine between the third and fourth cups. (SA OC 479.) The Mishna Berura gives two explanations: because of drunkenness (which is especially a problem after we are finished eating), and because it may seem that we are adding more cups. (MB 479:5.) The Mishna Berura writes that the problem of inebriation is that it may prevent us from completing the seder, but the Maharal suggests another reason: drunkenness is in itself incongruous with freedom and dignity.
The Maharal explains that this halakha is connected to the four stages of redemption. It is possible to “interrupt” between the first three stages. Although alleviation of our oppression is a stage towards freeing us from subjugation, relieving suffering also has its own independent importance. And although freeing slaves is a stage towards national independence, this elevation of dignity has its own significance.
But it is forbidden to interrupt between the third and fourth stages. The national independence of the Jewish people, “I will redeem you”, has meaning only in context of our identity as HaShem’s nation as the recipients of His Torah: “And I will take you to me as a nation, and I will be to you as G-d” -when we accept the Torah. (Based on Gevurot HaShem chapter 60.)
This also may seem like we are “adding more cups”. Once we have achieved political independence, the immediate next stage is spiritual redemption, living as HaShem’s nation according to His Torah. But if we are excessively absorbed in this stage, showing excessive devotion to administrative matters which are important but not part of our national mission, we are in danger of elevating these basically mundane concerns to independent “stages of redemption” thereby diminishing the unique status of our anticipated spiritual redemption.
Rabbi Meir is in the process of writing a monumental companion to Kitzur Shulchan Aruch which beautifully presents the meanings in our mitzvot and halacha. He is also directing the Jewish Business Response Forum at the Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility, Jerusalem College of Technology - Machon Lev. The forum aims to help business people run their firms according to Torah, by obtaining prompt, relevant responses to their questions.