Passover has its staples. Eating matzah, telling over the story, kids selling back the afikomen, wondering When Do We Eat? But one tradition may just be more essential (and more inebriating) than all the rest. That, of course, is the 4 cups of wine.
The rabbis of the Talmud say that if a person can’t afford wine, they should sell their belongings to make sure they have it for the seder. Not for the matzah, not for comfy chairs to recline in, not even for the creepy shank bone on the seder plate. For some reason 4 cups of Merlot is just that important. Why? I’m glad you asked. The holiday of Passover (or Pesach) is fundamentally connected to the theme of freedom. There are several answers to how the cups embody that theme, but I’m going to focus on two ideas. 1) What is the function (when we drink and why) of the cup of wine? 2) How does that function deepen our understanding of freedom?
Quick idea: In the Torah, when Moses goes to free the Jewish people from their slavery, God gives Moses a bit of a pep talk saying;
Therefore, say to the children of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will save you from their labor, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. And I will take you to Me as a people, and I will be a God to you… (Shemos 6:6-7)
It’s from these four sentences that Rabbis derive the four languages of redemption. In Hebrew (corresponding to the quote) they are hotzaiti, hitzalti, go’alti, and la’kachti. And these four aspects of freedom correspond with the four cups of wine.
1st Cup: Kiddush
We’re always making kiddish, Shabbos eve, Shabbos day, and for all holidays. So it makes perfect sense we’d make kiddish before we start the meal. But normally one person makes kiddish and everyone else is yotzei (fulfills their obligation) by just hearing it or having a shot glass of the newly kiddished wine. But on Passover night why does each person have their own cup?
When we make kiddish, the essence of the blessing is to declare that God made creation in six days. But part of that declaration is the line tzecher, li’tzias metsrayim. A remembrance of the exodus from Egypt. What the kiddish is saying is that creation wasn’t only the big bang and the garden of eden, but that the Jewish people would go through this process of leaving Egypt. So because this leaving is essential to creation itself, on the night we celebrate that exodus, we all have to involve ourselves in the process. So unlike other holidays, it’s not enough for us to be yotzei with someone else’s bracha (blessing), we have to drink a cup ourselves.
This is the first step of the 4 languages of redemption, hotzaiti, I will bring you out. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says hotzaiti corresponds to a physical redemption. In Egypt, the Jews were so overwhelmed and overworked, they couldn’t even think. Kiddish functions to separate us from the work of our week so we can understand and appreciate our accomplishments.
2nd Cup: Story Time
We pour the second cup and begin the longest part of the seder, maggid or the story. It is said that the most important part of Passover is this section because remembering the exodus allows us to spiritually access the freedom given to our forefathers. So needless to say, maggid is worthy of its own cup.
Rabbi Hirsch compares hitzalti, I will save you, to an emotional salvation. Just because a person’s physical restrictions have been removed doesn’t mean they are truly free. PTSD, victim mentalities, and deeply ingrained formative attitudes can enslave a person just as permanently as chains and cages. The Jewish people had to understand two things to escape this emotional bondage. First, that the oppressor no longer has any power. We learn this through the 10 plagues as God demonstrates that nature itself rebelled against our captors. Second, that there was a purpose. A person can endure a great magnitude of exertion or punishment if they understand it is for a critical purpose. The understanding of these two things gave the Jewish people dignity. When we retell the story over the maggid section, we do the same.
3rd Cup: Satisfaction
The third cup of wine is for grace after meals or bentching. As I’ve said before, in Judaism, it’s more important to say thank you to God after you’ve eaten because anyone can express gratitude when they’re starving. But to keep that gratitude after you’ve been satisfied is a whole other level. Now as with kiddish, we often pour a cup of wine during bentching on any other day. Why on Passover does everyone drink again?
The answer is similar to kiddish in that during the prayers we also remember li’tzias metsrayim (being taken out of Egypt). And since we’re celebrating freedom, we each have the responsibility to make this gratitude our own. But there’s a little more to this quality of freedom.
Go’alti, I will redeem you, is a bit of a game changer. The first two types of freedom were about getting rid of the restrictions. But just because all your obstacles are removed doesn’t mean you’re in a good place. Plenty of convicts get released from jail after decades only to go right back because they have limited opportunity to do something with their freedom. They are barred from many jobs and they lack training or specialized skills. Without a destination, freedom from captivity can be just as bad.
Go’alti is freedom with a mission. It’s at this point the Jews transition from doing the work of Pharaoh to serving the mission of God. When we realize that our pleasures in life (food, drink, etc.) are in service of that mission opposed to an end in and of themselves, that we’re connected to meaning and purpose, that’s freedom. Benching is about taking a moment to recognize that.
4th Cup: Hallelujah
After the meal, eating the afikomen, and three cups of wine, you’re fighting to keep you’re head level as you pour the forth cup (but that’s okay because you’re supposed to be leaning as you drink anyway). So what’s the deal with this cup? It’s time for Hallel!
On most holidays and Rosh Chodesh, we recite the uplifting and praising Psalms that make up Hallel. But normally we do Hallel in the morning during services (not at the dinner table) and we never recite them over a cup of wine. So why are we doing this at 1:30 am when we’re tipsy if not sloshed? To answer that we need to understand what Hallel is all about.
The prophets ordained the recitation of Hallel anytime the Jewish people experienced a salvation. But the core aspects of Hallel are rooted in the Shiras Ha Yam, aka the song the Jews sang at the splitting of the sea. Meaning the core aspect of Hallel is Passover. When the Jews saw the splitting of the sea, they reached a level of prophesy only rivaled by the moment when God spoke to the people at Mount Sinai. That fervent joy is what we’re trying to recapture after four cups of wine, an engrossing retelling of our story, and an intimate meal with our family and friends. If when we sing the final part of Hallel we can understand not just on a physical level, not just on an intellectual level, but an emotional and hopefully spiritual level of the final dimension of freedom; la’kachti, I will take you to Me.
On the seder night we remember that we weren’t just freed physically, not just freed emotionally, not just freed to pursue a purpose, but ultimately we were freed to be a part of a nation to complete the creation of the world (hence why li’tzias metsrayim is part of kiddush). But we can only reach that level of freedom with clarity, understanding where we came from, a partnership with God, and with the better half of a bottle of wine. So we traded one slavery for another. Would you really rather serve yourself?