Therefore, when one conducts a meal on this night, he is required to eat and to drink while reclining in the manner of a free person.
Every person – man and woman – is obligated to drink on this night four cups of wine. One should not diminish from them.
Even a poor person who provides for himself through charity should not be given less than four cups …
(Maimonides, Laws of Chametz and Matzah 7:7)
- Reclining at the seder and drinking wine
One of the features of the Pesach night seder is that during the course of its execution we each drink four cups of wine. Maimonides discusses this requirement in the above quote from his code. It is important to note the context in which he introduces this obligation. He begins his discussion by explaining that on Pesach night we are required to conduct ourselves in a manner that is demonstrative of the attainment of freedom. Pesach and specifically the seder recall our redemption from Egypt and from bondage. We retell the narrative of our rescue from Egypt though reading and discussing the material in the Haggadah and also through demonstration.
Maimonides specifies the requirement to recline during the meal. This is one of the demonstrative elements of the seder. Our reclining is an expression of our freedom. The practice is based upon the ancient practice to recline on couches or pillows when eating a meal. This practice was reserved for those who were their own masters. Slaves did not recline. They lived austere lives. We recline to demonstrate that we have been redeemed from our bondage and we are free.
After introducing the requirement of reclining, Maimonides discusses the obligation to drink four cups of wine. There are two interesting aspects of Maimonides’ comments regarding the four cups of wine. First, he does not provide an explanation for the specific number of cups required. In other words, he does not explain why we drink four cups of wine and not five or three. Second, in this statement of the basic requirement to consume four cups of wine, he does not explain how they are integrated into the seder. Later in his discussion he does elaborate on this issue and he explains that each cup is consumed at a specific point in the seder. However, the above quote suggests that although the cups are consumed at specific points of the seder, the consumption of four cups of wine is significant in itself and is not merely an embellishment of the benedictions in the Haggadah that they accompany.
- The unique role of the Seder’s four cups of wine
In this sense these four cups of wine are unique. We are required to drink wine on other occasions. For example, we recite the Friday night kiddush over a cup of wine and then drink the cup. This cup of wine accompanies the recitation of the kiddush as an embellishment. In other words, the kiddush attains a higher status through its recital over a cup of wine. In contrast, the wine of the seder is significant in its own right. It is not merely an embellishment for the benediction recited over it. What is the wine’s special significance on the seder night?
Maimonides is succinctly responding to this issue in his treatment of the four cups. He introduces them in the context of the obligation to demonstrate our freedom. In other words, according to Maimonides, drinking four cups of wine is one of the means through which we demonstrate that we are free men and women. We indulge ourselves and we even pamper ourselves with wine. He adds that even one who is impoverished and lacks the resources to purchase four cups of wine should resort to appealing for charity in order to fulfill this requirement. On the following day this poor person may feel the full weight of his poverty but this night he must endeavor to celebrate his freedom and perceive himself as a prince and not as a pauper.
Therefore, speak unto Bnai Yisrael: I am Hashem. I will take you forth from under the burdens of Egypt. I will save you from their servitude. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great wonders. I will take you to Me as a nation and I will be to you a G-d. You will know that I am Hashem your G-d Who has taken you forth from under the burdens of Egypt. (Sefer Shemot 6:5-7)
- The Four Expressions of Redemption
As noted, Maimonides does not feel compelled to provide a reason for the requirement of four cups of wine instead of some other number of cups. However, our Sages were concerned with this issue and they concluded that the number is not arbitrary. The above passages are most often cited as the source for the number of cups.
In these passages, Hashem tells Moshe that he should speak to Bnai Yisrael and assure them of their approaching redemption. Moshe is instructed to employ in his message four terms that describe the redemption:
- I will take you forth.
- I will save you.
- I will redeem you.
- I will take you to Me.
These terms describe four distinct aspects of the forthcoming redemption. The people will be rescued from the oppression of slavery. They will no longer be the subjects of Pharaoh. They will be enlightened through witnessing the wonders that Hashem will perform. They will enter into a covenantal relationship with Hashem. These four aspects are recalled at the seder through the four cups of wine.
- Alternative explanations for the four cups of the seder
Although these passages are the most often cited as the source for the number of cups at the seder, this is not the only explanation our Sages provided. In fact, this explanation is one of four possibilities suggested by the Sages of the Talmud.
And the wine-butler told to Yosef his dream. He said to him: In my dream there were three grape vines before me. (Sefer Beresheit 40:9)
Another explanation for the number of cups at the seder is based upon the conversation introduced in the above passage. Some background information is needed to appreciate this conversation. Yosef was sold by his brothers into slavery. Initially, Yosef became the servant of a powerful Egyptian minister. However, eventually, he was thrown into prison suspected of a crime he had not committed. While in prison, he was assigned the responsibility of caring for a fellow inmate – Pharaoh’s former wine-butler. One night this prisoner had a disturbing dream. Yosef persuaded him to share with him the dream so that he might attempt to interpret it. Yosef interpreted the dream as a harbinger of the wine-butler’s rehabilitation and restoration to his position in court. Yosef’s interpretation proved prescient. The wine-butler was restored to his position in court. Later, when Pharaoh was disturbed by a troubling dream, the wine-butler told Pharaoh about the young Hebrew with the remarkable capacity to interpret dreams. Pharaoh summoned Yosef and told him his dream. Yosef interpreted the dream and expounded upon its meaning and significance. Pharaoh was so impressed by Yosef that he appointed him as his vizier.
The Talmud notes that in the conversation between Yosef and the wine-butler they four times use the word cup. The Talmud suggests that possibly the four cups of wine at the seder correspond with these mentions of a cup in this conversation.
And Edom rebelled from the authority of Yehudah to this day. At that time Livnah rebelled.
(Sefer Melachim II 8:22)
From the time that Bnai Yisrael emerged into nationhood, it has been subject to persecutions. Our Sages enumerated four nations – including Edom – who have been our persecutors. The Sages suggest that the four cups of wine at the seder may correspond with these four nations who have been our adversaries.
For so says Hashem the G-d of Israel to me: Take this cup of wine – of anger – from My hand. Give to drink from it to all of the nations to which I send you. (Sefer Yirmiyahu 25:15)
In the above passage Hashem tells the prophet Yermiyahu that He will punish the nations that have persecuted and oppressed His nation. Hashem describes their punishment employing a figure. They will be forced to drink four cups of retribution. The Sages suggest that the seder’s four cups may correspond with these four cups of retribution.
In summary, the Sages suggest four possible explanations for the four cups of the seder:
- The cups correspond with the four expressions of redemption that Moshe was to employ in describing to the people their impending rescue.
- The cups correspond to the four times the term cup occurred in the conversation between Yosef and Pharaoh’s wine-butler.
- The four cups correspond to the four nations that are Bnai Yisrael’s historic oppressors.
- The four cups correspond with the four cups of retribution that these nations will experience in the future.
We can easily appreciate the first possibility. It is a reasonable explanation for the four cups. The seder celebrates our redemption and these terms describe the aspects or dimensions of that redemption. The other suggestions are much more difficult to understand. Why would the seder include a reference to the nations that have persecuted us? What is the connection between the seder and Yosef’s conversation with Pharaoh’s wine-butler? The seder recalls our redemption from Egypt. Why insert a reference to the foretold retribution that will be visited upon our enemies?
- Contemporary Lessons from Ancient History
A careful study of the Haggadah reveals that it is not merely an historical narrative of our redemption from an ancient oppression. Instead, it is an analysis of the experience. Its goal is not to merely recall the past. Its goal is to study that past and learn from it. We review this ancient episode of oppression and redemption in order to enlighten ourselves and to inform our understanding of our contemporary experience.
Each of these interpretations of the four cups relates these cups to a prominent theme of the Haggadah. Of course, the first interpretation understands the cups to be an expression of the overall drama of the Haggadah. The cups urge us to consider all the dimensions of this ancient redemption. They direct our attention to its various aspects. They point out to us that our redemption did not only free us from servitude; it enlightened us and it initiated us into a unique relationship with Hashem.
- The Inexorable Progression of Providence
The second interpretation relates the seder’s cups to Yosef’s conversation with Pharaoh’s wine-butler. Like Bnei Yisrael, Yosef was condemned to bondage. As a youth, he had dreamt of achieving greatness and even sovereignty. However, rather than being a leader or ruler, he was a lowly servant in a prison. He could not see or imagine how he might be redeemed from his miserable state. He could not imagine how his youthful dreams might be fulfilled. But even in his destitution, providence moved forward according to its irresistible design. The wine-butler’s dream proved to the be catalyst that would lead to Yosef’s liberation and his ascent to power. The reference, through the seder’s four cups, to this catalyst draws our attention to the Haggadah’s discussion of our nation’s providential journey.
Blessed is the One Who keeps His promise to Israel. Blessed is He. The Holy One, Blessed is He, considered the destined end, so as to do as He had told to Avraham our forefather at the Covenant of the Halves. (Pesach Haggadah)
This theme is expressed in the above quotation from the Haggadah. In it, the Haggadah expounds upon the inexorable progression of providence. It presents the redemption from Egypt as the fulfillment of an ancient promise and covenant that Hashem made with Avraham. Like Yosef, the Jews enslaved in Egypt could not foretell how they would be redeemed. Certainly, the covenant made to their forefather must have seemed to them a failed promise. Although invisible to them, providence was proceeding along its path and toward its appointed end. The destiny of our people was set and the sojourn in Egypt was a stage along the journey to fulfillment of the sacred covenant.
And this has stood by our ancestors and by us. Not only one has stood opposed to us and sought to destroy us. Rather in every generation they have stood against us to destroy us. And the Holy one Blessed is He has saved us from their hand. (Pesach Haggadah)
- The Constancy of Hashem’s Relationship with the Jewish People
The destiny of our people and the irresistible design of providence combined to bring about our redemption from Egypt. But the Haggadah is not interested in the Egyptian episode alone. In the above quote, the Haggadah explores this moment in our history to mine from it meaning and lessons for every generation. We were persecuted throughout our history. Much of humanity continues to regard our people as a pariah. Our journey is not along a straight path. It has many painful detours and horrible interruptions. Four nations will oppress us over the course of our long journey. But Hashem and His covenant will stand by our side. They will protect us and save us from every enemy.
The reference through the seder’s cups to our four historic persecutors corresponds with this theme. It reminds us that although in every generation we will be confronted with enemies who seek our destruction, Hashem will preserve us as He has throughout our long journey.
So Hashem our G-d will bring us to other appointed times and festivals that approach us in peace. We will rejoice in the building of Your city and we will delight in Your service. There we will eat from the sacrifices and the Pesach offerings whose blood will reach the wall of your altar as an appeasement. We will give You thanks with a new song for our redemption and for the redemption of our souls. (Pesach Haggadah)
- Our Faith in the Final Redemption
The Haggadah also focuses on the eschatological age. Perhaps, reinforcement of our faith in the inevitability of the Messianic vision is the ultimate “take-away” from the seder. This theme is referenced by four seder cups corresponding with the four cups of retribution that our enemies will be forced to ultimately endure. The above blessing closes the Haggadah’s narrative section. It reflects our faith in our inevitable redemption. Its message is that our redemption from Egypt provides us with the model and guarantee of our future redemption.
Our destiny is unfolding. We can envision it. We are confident that we will be restored to a rebuilt Jerusalem. It will be a sacred city as it was in ancient times. The Temple will be rebuilt in even greater splendor than the past. We will ascend to the Temple. We will serve Hashem with joy and He will accept our service. But we cannot envision how this destiny will be realized. We cannot anticipate how our people will finally find peace among the nations. We cannot comprehend how so many of our brethren who have turned away and are estranged from Hashem will find their way and accompany us on our journey to Jerusalem and its Temple. Yet, we know that this is our future. Our enemies will be destroyed. They will experience the retribution they deserve and the despised and oppressed will be restored to their sacred home.
 Talmud Yerushalmi, Masechet Pesachim 10:1.