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The Four Cups of the Seder

  • Rav Doniel Schreiber


The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Special Holiday Shiur
Yeshivat Har Etzion



The Four Cups of the Seder

by Rav Doniel Schreiber

[This is one section of a much more comprehensive article which appeared in Alei Etzion vol. 5 (Nisan 5756).]

I. Recitation

What is the nature of the mitzva of the four cups of wine? On the one hand, certainly, we see that there is an obligation to drink the wine. However, the Griz (1), R. Yitzchak Zev Halevi Soloveitchik zt"l, points to the fact that Tosafot (2) seem to understand this mitzva very differently.

According to the Griz, Tosafot rule that not everybody has to drink the cups to fulfill the mitzva; only the person leading the seder has to drink. If the mitzva were to drink, however, it would then be a "mitzva she-begufo" (a mitzva fulfilled by a physical act) and one person could not fulfill it for others. Rather, every individual present would have to drink his own cup. Since Tosafot rule otherwise, it is obvious that they see the mitzva as one of recitation - recitation over a cup (3).

Tosafot's basic assumption is that the mitzva of four cups is comparable to kiddush. As is well known, kiddush is not a mitzva of drinking, but rather of recitation - i.e., to say kiddush over a cup. This is evident in that kiddush does not have to be recited over wine; one can substitute bread (4). It also follows from the fact that one person can recite it for everyone else present (5). The reason that at least one person has to drink from the kiddush is merely to establish and connect the recitation to the cup.

Similarly, the nature of the mitzva of the four cups is essentially recitation - setting the Haggada to the cups (6). In other words, the phrase "four cups" is a misnomer; it actually means reciting the Haggada in four different phases, established and delineated by four cups. Thus, each cup is analogous to kiddush, except that instead of just one cup of kiddush, the seder has four cups that are analogous: recital over a cup, haggada, hallel, and birkat ha-mazon (7).

II. Drinking

In contrast to Tosafot, asserts the Griz (8), Rambam clearly understands that the mitzva is characterized by drinking. This is clear from Rambam's language, as he writes (9): "Each person must drink four cups on this night." Rambam does not deny, however, that kiddush on Shabbat is a mitzva of recitation. He admits that for kiddush, one person can recite for everyone else (10). Apparently, then, Rambam believes that the equation between kiddush and the four cups of Pesach is simply incorrect. Kiddush is a recitation; the four cups is a mitzva of drinking.

Yet, it seems difficult to deny the component of recitation as well. Indeed, the idea of amirat ha-haggada al ha-kos, i.e. setting the four cups to the order of the Haggada, would explain numerous peculiarities in this mitzva. A dramatic example of this is that there is a very definite order - seder - involved in drinking the four cups. We drink them at very specific times, and not only do we drink them at such precise intervals, but even mezigat ha-kos - pouring wine into the cups - has a separate and special order. This idea is emphasized by Rambam himself, who specifically writes the exact "seder asiyat mitzvot elu," going into detail not only when one should drink each kos, but also when one should pour each cup (11).

Although pouring and drinking the four cups at specific segments of the Seder is found in the mishna and gemara (12), the fact that Rambam cites it in such detail, and as part of the entire development of the Seder, is striking. The Rav zt"l, Maran Rabbi Joseph B. Halevi Soloveitchik, suggested (13) that Rambam did not feel that this was merely good advice, but rather part of the halakhot of seder ha-haggada. On the surface, then, it would seem to point to Rambam regarding the four cups as much more than a mitzva of drinking (14). If it was merely a mitzva of drinking, why should we care when you pour the four cups?

According to the Griz (15), another indication that Rambam recognizes a recitative aspect to the four cups can be found in a curious halakha. The gemara (16) states:

If one drank undiluted wine, he has discharged his duty of wine (yayin), but not his duty of freedom (cherut). If he drank them all at once (17), he has discharged his duty of wine (yayin), but not his duty of four cups (arba kosot).

What does the gemara mean that in drinking undiluted wine, one has fulfilled his duty of "yayin" but not "cherut?" Rashbam (18) explains that it means he has fulfilled the mitzva of the four cups but not completely; it is not a mitzva min ha-muvchar (a mitzva fulfilled in the best possible way) because it does not taste good. It seems then that "cherut" is not a very basic halakha; the mitzva has been fulfilled, only not in the ideal manner. What does the gemara mean that in drinking the cups in one shot, one has fulfilled "yayin" but not "arba kosot?" Rashbam (19) explains that it means one has fulfilled the general mitzva of simchat yom tov, but not mitzvat arba kosot, since he did not drink the four kosot al ha-seder.

Rambam (20), however, has an entirely different text of the gemara (21). According to his version, the gemara reads as follows:

If one drank undiluted wine, he has discharged his duty of arba kosot, but not his duty of cherut. If he drank them one after the other, he has discharged his duty of cherut, but not his duty of arba kosot.

Clearly, according to this version, it is difficult to explain "cherut" as merely an additional level to the fulfillment of drinking four cups. If that were the case, how can one fulfill "cherut" but not "arba kosot?" Rather, "cherut" and "four cups" seem to be two independent aspects of the mitzva of the four cups. The Griz explains that according to Rambam, there are two halakhot in arba kosot. One is a halakha of drinking, and thus Rambam rules every person must drink. Rambam, however, does not deny the existence of a second halakha, namely, amira al ha-kos - reciting a text over a cup. Both aspects are part of the mitzva.

Accordingly, the term "cherut" refers to the drinking, and the gemara means that arba kosot were established derekh cherut, i.e. to drink them in a way which symbolizes one's freedom. Thus, explains the Griz, if one drinks undiluted wine in the proper order, although he fulfills "arba kosot," i.e. sippur yetziat mitzrayim, he does not fulfill "cherut," since he did not drink them in the manner of freedom. It is for this reason that posekim (22) consider one who becomes ill from drinking arba kosot exempt from the mitzva. Moreover, Rambam's identification of "cherut" with drinking is consistent with his opinion that the drinking fulfills the obligation "to act as if one is actually leaving Mitzrayim now." (23)

On the other hand, the term "arba kosot" refers to the mitzva of sippur yetziat mitzrayim, namely the halakha of amira al ha-kos. Thus, according to Rambam, if one would drink the kosot, one after the other, although he has fulfilled drinking, he has not fulfilled "arba kosot," namely amirat sippur yetziat mitzrayim al ha-kos. This is because he did not drink arba kosot in the proper order, and thus did not integrate arba kosot into the whole story.

Rambam understands, then, that arba kosot has a dual goal. On the one hand, drinking wine demonstrates our new found cherut - our physical freedom from harsh servitude in Egypt, and our spiritual elevation realized by kabbalat ha- Torah. On the other hand, the story of our exodus from Egypt must be recounted in a majestic, ritualized ceremony, crowned by four recurrent kosot shel berakha.

III. Arba Kosot and Sippur Yetziat Mitzrayim

Both Tosafot and Rambam agree that the primary mitzva of arba kosot, or least one of the most important motifs, is amira al ha-kos - recitation - and not just drinking. Is this aspect entirely one of sippur yetziatmitzrayim, or is sippur only part of the amira al arba ha-kosot? Arba kosot has four stages of recitation - kiddush, haggada, hallel, and birkat ha-mazon. If it can be established that each stage of amira al ha-kos entails sippur yetziat mitzrayim, then by definition amira al ha-arba kosot is sippur yetziat mitzrayim, and is a mitzva of pirsumei nisa - publicizing the miracle.

The Rav zt"l explained how the four stages of amira al ha-kos entail sippur yetziat mitzrayim (24) in the following manner (25). The least problematic of the four stages is obviously the second one - maggid. Maggid, which we recite over the second cup, is clearly sippur yetziat mitzrayim. Even the fourth stage, singing Hallel over the fourth cup, can easily be defined as sippur yetziat mitzrayim. For example, Rambam, in his Sefer Ha-mitzvot (26), includes praising Hashem for redeeming us from Egypt, and for all the good that He has bestowed upon us, within his definition of sippur yetziat mitzrayim (27).

What is more difficult to explain, though, is how the first and third cups - kiddush and birkat ha-mazon - are a kiyum in sippur yetziat mitzrayim. The Rav zt"l suggested (28) that first, one can consider the reference to the exodus in kiddush as sippur yetziat mitzrayim (29). Moreover, Rambam (30) writes that discussing Bnei Yisrael's status, as the chosen people and the mekablei Torah, qualifies as sippur yetziat mitzrayim (31). Thus, the recitation of "asher bachar banu me-kol am, ve-romemanu me-kol lashon, ve-kideshanu be- mitzvotav" in kiddush is itself sippur yetziat mitzrayim. Similarly, in birkat ha-mazon, we say "ve-al she-hotzeitanu me-eretz mitzrayim, u-peditanu me-beit toratkha she-limadetanu." It is for this reason that kiddush and birkat ha-mazon qualify as sippur yetziat mitzrayim, and were established as part of arba kosot. IV. Arba Kosot: Centerpiece of the Seder (32) It is thus clear that arba kosot is a mitzva of pirsumei nisa, accomplished through retelling the story of our exodus from Egypt (33). Moreover, as noted above, according to Rambam, cherut is also a critical component of arba kosot, and fulfills the obligation "to act as if one is actually leaving Egypt now (34)." What emerges, is that both the recitation and drinking elements of arba kosot are mitzvot of pirsumei nisa. Arba kosot, then, is a mitzva entirely devoted to pirsumei nisa.

Furthermore, arba kosot is not merely a mitzva of pirsumei nisa amongst other mitzvot of the Seder night. Arba kosot is so animated by the motif of sippur yetziat mitzrayim, and so dramatically parades the theme of cherut - freedom - that Chazal established arba kosot as the centerpiece and hub of the entire Seder. The most conspicuous example of how the Seder revolves around the arba kosot is, as noted above, the halakha of pouring and drinking the wine of arba kosot during specific periods of the Seder.

If arba kosot is merely a halakha of drinking wine, prescribing the exact times to fill the cups and drink them would not make any sense at all. However, since amira al ha- kos and demonstrating cherut are fundamental components of sippur yetziat mitzrayim, it is necessary to implement specific times of performance. Pouring and drinking the arba kosot, at significant phases of amira, interweave the arba kosot into the whole fabric of the Haggada. Integrating the arba kosot with the Haggada is important, because that is precisely the definition of arba kosot: they are the embodiment of haggadat sippur yetziat mitzrayim.

The Rav, zt"l, once proposed implementing two suggestions which further accent arba kosot's identification with, and centrality to, haggada (35). He suggested that in order to fuse arba kosot with amirat ha-haggada, perhaps one should hold the cup in one's hand during the entire recitation of the Haggada, just like we do for kiddush (36). Moreover, since haggada is amira al ha-kos, the Rav zt"l asserted that one should refrain from being mafsik - interrupting - throughout the entire amirat ha-haggada al ha-kos. Saying anything other than matters directly relating to the Haggada (37) would be tantamount to talking in the middle of kiddush, and would invalidate the unity of the recitation. These suggestions sharply underscore arba kosot's status of haggada and pirsumei nisa par excellence. V - Conclusion Arba kosot, then, does not simply entail drinking four cups of wine. It is both a demonstration and articulation of sippur yetziat mitzrayim. As the centerpiece of the Seder night, it assumes the stature of quintessential haggada - wholly devoted to illustrating and broadcasting the miracle of our exodus. It is clear, therefore, that arba kosot is not merely an example of pirsumei nisa; it is rather the pre- eminent mitzva - the paragon - of pirsumei nisa.


(1) Hilkhot Chametz U-matza, 7:9. (2) Pesachim 99b, s.v. Lo Yifchetu. See also Tosafot, Sukka 38a, s.v. Mi. (3) On closer inspection, however, it is not at all obvious that Tosafot consider one to be yotzei if he himself did not drink from the arba kosot. In fact, Tosafot suggest being machmir, requiring that each person to drink arba kosot. (4) Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim, 272:9. Based on Tosafot, if one did not have wine, it is possible, as shall be noted, that one could substitute matza for the arba kosot, like we do for kiddush on Shabbat. This will be discussed in greater detail in part III of "The Seder Night," be-ezrat Hashem. (5) Orach Chaim, siman 371. (6) Indeed, Tosafot in Sukka 38a (s.v. Mi) explicitly state this point. (7) The Griz apparently takes Tosafot's parallel literally. R. Zvi Pesach Frank (Mikraei Kodesh, Pesach, pp. 101) understands Tosafot differently. According to R. Frank, mitzvat arba kosot is incumbent upon the household, like ner chanuka, and thus one person can be motzei the others. He suggests further that perhaps since arba kosot and ner chanuka are essentially mitzvot of pirsumei nisa, one act of pirsumei nisa in front of the household fulfills everyone's mitzva. (8) Griz, ibid. (9) Hilkhot Chametz U-matza, 7:7. (10) Hilkhot Shabbat, 29:7. (11) Hilkhot Chametz U-matza, 8:1-2. (12) Pesachim 114a and 116a. (13) Siach ha-Grid, by R. Yitchak Lichtenstein, shlita, 1995, pp. 13-15. (14) See also Rambam, Hilkhot Chametz U-matza, 7:10, where he seems to emphasize that arba kosot are kosot shel brakha. See also Ramban, Pesachim 117b. (15) Griz, ibid. (16) Pesachim 108b. (17) The definition of "drinking all in one shot" is a machloket Rishonim. Either it means drinking one big kos, or, as the majority of Rishonim explain, it means drinking all four kosot one after another instead of their proper place in the Haggada. (18) Pesachim, ibid. (19) Pesachim, ibid. (20) Hilkhot Chametz U-matza, 7:9. (21) See similarly Rif, ibid. (22) See Arukh Ha-shulchan, Orach Chaim, 472:14, and Mishna Berura, siman 472, note 35. Sha'ar Ha-tzion, note 52, states explicitly that the exemption is based on the fact that this is not derekh cherut. (23) Hilkhot Chametz U-matza, 7:6-7. Although the particular act of shetiyat arba kosot is only a mitzva de-rabanan, it fulfills the mitzva min ha-Torah to act out our leaving mitzrayim. This is accomplished in shetiyat arba kosot specifically by drinking derekh cherut. Indeed, this is the import of the gemara in Pesachim 117b which states: "Arba kosot were established mi-derabanan derekh cherut." (24) See also gemara Pesachim 108a which, in discussing heseiba for arba kosot, highlights the sippur yetziat mitzrayim motif in arba kosot. (25) See Siach ha-Grid, pp. 9-11, and 37-38. (26) Mitzvat aseh 157. (27) See also Sefer Ha-chinukh (mitzva 21). See also Ran (Megilla, 7a in the pages of the Rif, s.v. Ve-khen Be-hallel) who writes that according to R. Elazar ben Yakov who rules that the korban pesach may only be eaten until chatzot, one must recite Hallel before chatzot. Apparently, Ran understands that sippur yetziat mitzrayim is conditioned upon akhilat korban pesach, and that Hallel is part of sippur yetziat mitzrayim. Moreover, the gemara in Pesachim 36a establishes matza as "lechem she-onin alav devarim harbei," and Rashi (s.v. She-onin) explains that "devarim harbei" means Hallel and haggada. Also see Tosafot in Sukka 38a, s.v. Mi, who explicitly connect Hallel with haggada. (28) Siach ha-Grid, pp. 9-11. (29) See also Rabbeinu Peretz, cited in Rabbeinu Yerucham, netiv chamishi, chelek daled. (30) Hilkhot Chametz U-matza 7:4. (31) This is so since the whole purpose of yetziat mitzrayim was to select Bnei Yisrael and give them the Torah. See Bemidbar 15:41, and Sefer Ha-chinukh, mitzva 306. See also Ibn Ezra, Shemot 13:8. (32) The following important nuance, in the nature of mitzvat arba kosot, was described in a shiur delivered by mo"v Rabbi Michael Rosensweig shlita on the 11th of Nisan, 5746, and again on the 29th of Adar, 5750. (33) Had arba kosot been just a halakha of shetiya, and not a mitzva of pirsumei nisa, then the principle of "af hen" could not apply. This might be one reason to argue that "af hen" should not apply to akhilat matza, assuming matza is purely a mitzvat akhila. However, R. Zvi Pesach Frank (Mikraei Kodesh, Pesach, pp. 101) explains that even without a din of amira al ha-kos, a mitzvat shetiya could create enough pirsumei nisa to fulfill the mitzva. (34) See Rambam, Hilkhot Chametz U-matza 7:6, and compare it with the mishna in Pesachim 116b. (35) Also related by Rabbi Rosensweig in the above shiur. (36) See also the gemara in Berakhot 51a, and Rambam, Hilkhot Shabbat, 29:7, that one must grasp a kos shel berakha in one's right hand, and lift it a tefach from the ground. See similarly Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim, 183:4. (37) This presumably means one can say divrei Torah, since that is part of sippur yetziat Mitzrayim.



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