Pesah: The Feast of Community
Pesah is the constitutive holiday of the Jewish nation. More than anything else, it is a celebration of the community’s founding and a kind of renewal of its covenant with God, as well as being a sign of each individual’s connection to all other Jews. In the same way as Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are focused on the individual and his/her process of teshuvah—of ethical and religious stock-taking and an attempt to amend wrongs; and just as, in the life cycle, brit milah, the Abrahamic covenant of circumcision, marks the individual (male’s) entering into the covenant shortly after birth—so does Pesah celebrate the collective and its birth.
These days, in wake both of Hasidic and other commentaries and of the general zeitgeist, there are many who emphasize Passover as a time for ridding oneself of the hametz in one’s own life, for coming out of one’s own personal Egypt, and so forth. While these ideas are important, inspiring and meaningful to many—indeed, they too have roots in the tradition going back as far as the Sages, who use the term “the leaven in the dough” (שאור שבעיסה) in reference to the Evil Impulse as the spoiling element within the dynamic of the individual personality—I think it is important, on the primary level of peshat (simple, literal meaning), to remember the basic communal message of Passover.
In the past, I have written about my growing concerns over the excessive emphasis on the individual in contemporary culture, which to my mind often comes at the expense of social cohesion and mutual responsibility.(See on this, especially, the esssay for my father’s 25th Yahrzeit, at Ki Tavo (Zohar), at the archives for August 2009). I see this in such varied phenomena as the notions of “political correctness” and the politics of identity, in the ethos of radical non-judgmentalism that is part of “post-modernity,” in the New Age revival of spirituality, in certain aspects of our ethos of marriage, sexuality and family, in the economic philosophy of advanced capitalism, and in many other areas. The call of the hour is for the renewal of vital, life-giving communities—while at the same time avoiding the pitfalls of the exaggerated collectivism of the totalitarian cultures of the mid-twentieth century. I hope in the future to write at greater length about the Jewish approach to community, which I see as built upon a uniquely harmonious balance between individual and community. For the present, I shall conclude by mentioning a few areas in which Pesah exemplifies various aspects of community:
Hesed. At the very beginning of the Seder, we declare “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” Pesah is paradigmatic for the idea of hakhnasat orhim, of hospitality and sharing our table with others. Indeed, it is a rare Seder at which there are no guests.
Torah Study. The Haggadah is, among other things, an outline for an evening of Torah study. But note: it exemplifies what Rambam sees as the first meaning of Torah study—of passing on the tradition Torah to one’s children and grandchildren. There is also an obligation for very person to study Torah for him/herself—“you shall reflect upon it day and night”—but that is not the study of Seder night.
Historical Memory. The central motif of the Seder is historical memory—that we belong to a group, a nation, with a long and complex shared past, rich with both redemptive and triumphant moments, and with pain and tragedy (מתחילים בגנות ומסיימים בשבח). The remembrance of this history, with all its twists and turns; the consciousness that the meaningful time transcends far more than the existential life-span of the individual; is part and parcel of the Torah we pass on to the next generations.
Table Fellowship. The key mitzvot of this night—eating matzah and marror (and the flesh of the Pesah—may we merit to it soon)—take place within the context of a common meal, in the simple act of fellowship of breaking bread together. Thus, these mitzvot go far beyond the realm of individual obligation. In ancient times the havurah, the group of people who joined together in buying and slaughtering a paschal lamb, was the basic unit for the night of Pesah. It is interesting sociologically that today, with rampant assimilation, Seder night is one occasion on which almost all those who at all think of themselves as Jewish participate in this ritual. It seems related to a primal idea of “standing up and being counted” as part of the Jewish people, a kind of renewal and affirmation of identity—analogous, in a certain way, to coming to synagogue on Yom Kippur. (And note: this is one more indication that in Jewish life the home is of equal importance to the house of worship, if not more so.}
Religious Worship. Finally, the Jewish people are a community of faith, of worship. After asking the questions, after telling the story, after eating the meal with all its special foods, we lift up our voices in psalms and hymns of praise and thanksgiving. “The song shall be to you as the night when a festival begins” (Isa 30:29). And such songs are best sung, not alone, but in a collectivity.
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I conclude with wishes to all for a joyous and meaningful Pesah. To all those friends whom I have been unable to speak with or write individually, please regard this as my personal greeting for חג שמח וכשר.
Shabbat Hagadol: The Four Cups
It is well known that one of the central features of the Passover Seder is the drinking of four cups of wine. But where does this practice come from? What purpose does it serve? What ideas does it express? In preparing to write this study, I asked two of my scholarly friends what they consider to be the real origin of the four cups. One, a Professor of Talmud who had studied for many years in advanced yeshivot before entering academia, answered that it was “peshita” that it follows the halakhic structure of the Seder. The second, a Professor of History with an orientation towards ritual as a covert symbolic language, unhesitatingly answered that it was “obvious” that its root meaning was related to the “four malkhuyot”—the four foreign kingdoms that had subjugated Israel and which serve as a grand archetypal schema of Jewish history found in many midrashim. More on both these views, and other options, below.
So to begin at the beginning: The first mishnah in Chapter 10 of Pesahim, that describes the laws of the Seder, begins by saying that every person is required to drink four cups of wine. This is a unique requirement of the Seder: that not only the leader, but every Jew—including women, and “even a pauper who is fed from the tamhui” (i.e., the communal charity box)—must be provided with four full cups of wine. The subsequent discussion explains that these are “in the name of freedom”—similar to the reclining posture in which the Seder is conducted, modeled on a Roman banquet.
Re my friend’s answer that the number four is intrinsic to the halakhic structure of the Seder: indeed, the Seder is organized around four mitzvot, each one of which concludes with a blessing and is recited over a cup of wine: Kiddush (as on every other Shabbat and festival day); Maggid—i.e., the lengthy recital of the main bulk of the Haggadah, the discourse around the Exodus, concluding with two chapters of Hallel and the blessing of Redemption, ברכת הגאולה ; Birkat Hamazon, the Blessing after the Meal (again, the “cup of blessing,” if not a common feature of everyday meals, is certainly part of festive and solemn meals—wedding feasts, circumcisions, and even Shabbat and Yom Tov meals where there is a zimmun or a minyan); and Hallel, the songs of praise sung at the end of the Seder. One of the rules that encourages the use of wine is that אין שירה אלא על היין—“Song is not sung except over wine.” Thus, the four cups follow as a natural function of the arrangements of the Seder.
Perhaps the most familiar explanation for the four cups is that they correspond to the “four languages of redemption” (ד' לשונות של גאולה)—four phrases used in Exodus 6:2ff., where Moses announces to the incredulous and rather sceptical Israelite slaves that the time for their redemption is nigh; Rashi explains it thus in his comment on the gemara at Pesahim 99b. We shall elaborate upon this later. But there is another explanation of the four cups, found in the Jerusalem Talmud and in the Midrash Rabbah, in which no less than five different answers are offered to the question, “From whence do we know that there are four cups”? I shall cite here the text of the Yerushalmi, at j. Pesahim 10.1 (68b-69a). The parallel in Genesis Rabbah 88.4 (Parashat Vayeshev) is substantially the same, with only minor differences in the names of the Sages cited and the order:
From whence are there four cups? 1) Rabbi Yohanan in the name of R. Benayah: Corresponding to four “redemptions.” “Therefore say to the children of Israel, I am the Lord. I shall take you out… I shall take you to me as a people,” etc. (Exod 6:6-7)—“I shall take out, I shall save, I shall redeem, I shall take you.”
I shall quote the full Biblical passage, Exodus 6:6-8:
Therefore say to the children of Israel, I am the Lord. And I shall take you out from underneath the burdensome yoke of Egypt, and I shall deliver you from their labor. And I will redeem you with an outstretched hand and with great judgments. And I shall take you to Me to be My people, and I shall be your God; and you shall know that I, the Lord your God, have taken you out from beneath the yoke of Egypt. And I shall bring you to the land, which I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as an inheritance, I am the Lord.
Of all five interpretations brought here, this is the one that pertains most directly to the Exodus, the central theme and subject of the Seder. God here announces that He is about to fulfill the promise which He made to the patriarchs, and that this will involve four distinct levels of redemption: deliverance from the harsh, oppressive nature of the Egyptian slavery; freedom from slavery altogether; physically leaving of Egypt (crossing the Sea); and entering into a covenantal relation with God (Sinai). But there are two additional verbs that also appear in this passage: “you shall know that I am God” (which, it could be argued, relates to the Israelites, not to God) and “I shall bring you into the land.” We will return to this latter phrase at the end of this study, in our discussion of the fifth cup.
2) Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: Corresponding to the four cups of Pharaoh: “And Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand… and I squeezed [the grapes] into Pharaoh’s cup, and I placed the cup on Pharaoh’s palm… and you shall place Pharaoh’s cup in his hand” (Gen 40:11, 13).
This section refers to Pharaoh’s cup-bearer, whose dream Joseph interpreted in prison. At first glance, it seems to have no connection to Pesah and the redemptive story of the Exodus—a couple of prisoners talk about their dreams, and possible implications for their respective destinies. But we must remember that the Joseph narrative is seen, both by the Bible itself and by the midrashic tradition, as a story of Providence: by means of the near-murderous fraternal conflicts in a rather dysfunctional family, the children of Israel are caused to come down to Egypt, from whence they are ultimately redeemed. This incident in prison, in which Joseph’s dream-solving ability is first revealed, precipitating his ascent to greatness, plays a crucial role in this process.
3) Rabbi Levi said: Corresponding to four kingdoms.
The next three answers take us beyond the story of the Exodus per se, relating instead to the entire broad sweep of Jewish history. The “four kingdoms” is a central topos in Jewish historiography, serving as short hand for the Jewish people’s long and bitter history of exile and subjugation to foreign rule. The four kingdoms are Babylonia, Persia, Greece (i.e., the Seleucid-Hellenistic rule) and Edom/Rome (which, by extension, serves as shorthand for the Christian Church, whose center was in Rome, and in turn for European civilization generally), each of which in turn ruled over the Jewish people. This motif serves as the basic pattern in any number of midrashim, as well as of , e.g., the Maoz Tzur hymn sung on Hanukkah. The implication that the four kingdoms may allude davka to the four cups is that this is indicative of the faith that, just as God redeemed us from Egypt, so too will He redeem us from these four kingdoms—more on which below.
4) And our Rabbis said: Corresponding to four cups of catastrophe that the Holy One blessed be He shall give the nations of the world to drink in the future: “For thus said the Lord God of Israel to me: Take this cup of wine of fury [and give it to drink to all the nations] (Jer 25:15); “A golden cup of Babylon in the hand of the Lord [from which all the land is drunk]” (Jer 51:7); “for there is a cup in the hand of the Lord [harsh wine … from whose dregs all the wicked of the earth shall drink]” (Ps 75:9); “He shall rain down upon the wicked coals, fire and brimstone, parching winds shall be the lot of their cup” (Ps 11:6). Rabbi Abin said: Like a vial of poterion [a kind of spiked wine] taken after a bath.
This continues the previous answer, but in a vindictive manner, citing a group of biblical verses in which the cup of wine, ordinarily a symbol of joy, ease and contentment, symbolizes Divine anger and fury against the nations: poisoned, bitter wine, “grapes of wrath,” that will serve as their just retribution.
5) And against these the Holy One blessed be He shall give Israel to drink four cups of comfort: “The Lord is my portion and my cup” (Ps 16:5); “You have anointed my head with oil, my cup runs over” (Ps 23:5); and “cup of salvations I shall lift up” (Ps 116:13) alludes to two [i.e., “salvations” is in the plural].
This last answer continues the same theme, but in a positive vein, viz. cups of consolation that Israel will enjoy in the future. The last three answers—which, following the hint of my historian friend, all relate derive to the motif of “four kingdoms”—all point in one way or another towards the future messianic redemption. Indeed, some say that the progress of the Seder is from the Haggadah proper, or Maggid, at the beginning, which relates specifically to the Exodus, to the Afikomen, the latter part of the Hallel after the meal (which many see as pointing towards the future redemption), Nishmat Kol Hay, with its vision of the universal worship of God, and the rebuilding of the Temple (in the hymn Adir Hu, and elsewhere).
Even something as seemingly “silly” and light-hearted as Had Gadya, an innocuous children’s song, which has parallels and possibly originated in European folk culture, may really be seen as a hymn of the ultimate vindication of God’s reign in the world after a series of acts of violence. Most of the song depicts a state of nature (including inanimate forces) ruled by anarchy and chaos, as in mundane history: the cat kills a kid, the dog bites the cat, he is beaten by the stick, which is consumed by fire, that is extinguished by water, which is lapped up the cow, who is slaughtered by the shohet, who himself dies. But in the end, “There comes the Holy One blessed be He, who will kill the Angel of Death….”
There is a basic problem, an existential tension, if you will, built into the Passover Seder. Notwithstanding the wondrous Redemption from Egypt long ago, for most of Jewish history we have not really been a free people, but a people in exile, dependent on the good offices of others, guests in other peoples’ countries. This is particularly strongly felt on Passover, for two reason: one, that we talk about freedom and coming into our own land; second, in the ideal halakhic situation, the Seder is meant to center around the Korban Pesah, the Paschal sacrifice, as the focal point of the meal. This is absent, and its absence is keenly felt. (It is interesting that the other most-widely observed festival of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, betrays a similar tension: It, too, is deeply connected to the ritual conducted in the Temple—the two goats, the confession and purification of the high priest, etc,—and indeed Seder Avodah stands at the center of Musaf for that day. But it has a totally different modality—not celebration and feasting, but fasting, confession, and atonement.) Thus, longings for the future redemption occupy a central place in the Seder, in numerous ways.
The question that then arises is: what does Passover mean in a sovereign, autonomous Jewish state? Should, by rights, the entire motif of longing for the future redemption be neutralized, and the holiday celebrated in a simple, whole-hearted manner as a “normal,” free people living in its own land, celebrating its ancient roots? The Israeli “civil religion” in fact draws a direct line from Pesah through Holocaust Day, Soldier’s Memorial Day, and Israel Independence Day, all within less than three weeks. (On a possible Rabbinic-halakhic response, see below.) Returning to our original question: there is a third way of interpreting the four cups, apart from the functional-halakhic approach (i.e., that the mitzvot performed dictate the shape of the Seder) and the symbolic readings mentioned above: namely, four as a typological number. The number four appears several times in the Seder: there are four questions, four sons. By contrast, as I have shown in the past, three is the key number of Rosh Hashana, both in the laws of shofar and in the blessings of Musaf with its biblical verses; three, as I understand it, symbolizes dynamic growth. The number four, by contrast, connotes solidity, stability (the four sides of a table), wholeness, completeness, the union of opposites: it is two, the number of multiplicity, raised to the next power….
The Fifth Cup
When I was a child, I was taught that the Cup of Elijah, placed in the center of the table during the latter part of the Seder, is a kind of remnant of a fifth cup; that there were opinions in the Talmud that there ought to be such. The discussion ends in teku, indecision, and with the conventional formula, that the fifth cup is left “until Elijah comes”—that is, Elijah, the herald or precursor of Messiah, will resolve all unresolved halakhic disputes. Hence, the fifth cup also bears some messianic significance.
In fact, there are two aspects to this matter: the purely halakhic, and the exegetical–eschatological significance of the fifth cup. The matter begins with a dispute in Tractate Pesahim as to precisely what ought to be recited over the fourth cup. The Mishnah states that one “completes the Hallel”—i.e., reads Psalms 115-118, having begun the Hallel with Pss 113-114 before the meal; whereas R. Tarfon interjects that one must say both Hallel and Hallel Hagadol—the “Great Hallel,” i.e., Psalm 136, with its repeated refrain, “for his lovingkindness is forever.”
But Hallel Hamitzri and Hallel Hagadol are really two distinct entities, two different mitzvot, and by rights they ought to conclude with two different blessings—the one with Yehallelukha, and the other with Birkat shir or Nishmat—and two cups of wine. Hence, some Geonim and rishonim suggest that the option exists to drink a fifth cup of wine. Indeed, Rambam, in Hilkhot Hametz u-Matzah 8.10, mentions, in utter simplicity, that if one wants to have a fifth up, one may do so, and one recites Hallel Hagadol over it.
The Tur, at Orah Hayyim 481, mentions the approach of the Rif and the Rambam, as well as various other authorities who suggest this, as well as those who oppose it for various reasons. It goes on to mention various ways of combining the two Hallels and the two blessings, including the solution most widely accepted today, found in most Haggadot: namely, to recite both of them over the fourth cup, with the two blessings——Yehallukha, from the Hallel recited in synagogue, and Nishmat, concluding with Yishtabakh—are conflated into one blessing; alternatively, Yehallehukha is recited without the hatimah, the concluding mention of God’s name. (Interestingly, some postpone the blessing over the fourth cup until after the piyyutim at the end, drinking it only after Adir Hu).
But there is another dimension to this. In the original biblical passage quoted above, referred to as “four languages of blessing,” there is really a fifth “language od redemption”: “I shall bring them into the Land…” During the long period of Galut, one reason given for not drinking a fifth cup was that “we have not come into the Land.” But in an age of Return to Zion, resettlement of the Land of Israel, and Jewish sovereignty, some rabbis—most notably the late Rabbis Menahem Kasher and Shlomo Goren and, in our own day Rav Shlomo Riskin (yibadel lehayyim arukim), advocate the renewal of this practice. Indeed, Rav Kasher wrote in this vein extensively, both in his Haggadah Sheleimah, as well as in his shorter Haggadat Pesah Eretzyisraelit.
To this, I might add, as I once heard from Rabbi Riskin, that all five of the reasons for the four cups given in the above Yerushalmi passage, in fact contain allusions to the possibility of a fifth cup, all of which allude to fulfillment and completion. We have already mentioned the “fifth language” of redemption, viz. coming into Eretz Yisrael; in the story of Pharaoh’s cup bearer, there is a fifth reference to the word “cup”—after Joseph interpreted his dream, it was indeed realize and, in Gen 40:21, we are told that he in fact “placed the cup on Pharaoh’s hand”; the four kingdoms are followed by the messianic kingdom; and similar verses may surely be adduced for the last two as well.