In Vino Veritas – Four cups of wine: recognising what makes us different

By Dovid Samuels

What do Purim, Shabbos, Pesach…and pretty much all Yom Tovs have in common? Besides for the food, there is almost always a bottle of wine present; usually to add to the simcha of the festival, but often mandatory. On Shabbos: for Kiddush on Friday night and Shabbos day, then havdola at the end. Purim, ad d’lo yada… (until you don’t know the difference). At Pesach: four cups throughout the night…and a fifth one poured, but not drunk. Now, there are many reasons given why we have specifically four cups on Pesach. But the question has to be asked: why wine?

Rav Tzadok HaKohen[1] makes an interesting observation regarding the wine used at havdola. Usually, and quite logically, wine is used at a simcha, to enjoy more and perhaps aid in the expression of happiness. Never is wine used in our religious service to quell our sadness. Quite the opposite; on days of mourning like Tisha B’Av, where we are naturally saddened by our tremendous loss, we are forbidden to consume anything, and during the nine days leading up to this day we are forbidden from drinking wine. Wine is used to heighten a feeling of joy, as the verse[2] says: “Wine gladdens the hearts of man,” not supress or camouflage a feeling of sorrow. At the end of Shabbos, we revert back to normalcy, the regular grind of the week, our extra neshoma departs, and we all feel a little bit saddened by the emptiness it leaves. Why, then, do we drink wine? What are we celebrating?

In order to understand the answer Rav Tzadok provides, there is another question that needs to be answered. In the gemora[3] we are told of this extra soul that enters us at the onset of Shabbos. Reish Lakish explains that the verse[4] tells us how Hashem created the world in six days and then He rested on the seventh and was refreshed. The word for “refreshed” can be understood to mean “woe because of the spirit which was lost” (a play on the word “vayinafash”). So, we see that at the end of Shabbos we lose the extra soul that was given to us 24 hours before. But, if the implanting of this soul is so special, why is the hint of this magnificent moment found at the end, when it leaves? Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to make reference to it at its arrival?

To this, the Baal Shem Tov famously answered that the experience of this neshoma is enhanced throughout Shabbos, as it is fuelled and nourished by the holiness of the day, attaining more and more sanctity with every passing moment. What started off as an almost undetectable change in a person’s spirituality becomes more and more powerful, if harnessed correctly, until the moment it leaves at the departure of Shabbos, leaving us with an almost tangible feeling of emptiness. This, says the Baal Shem Tov, is why the hint of the extra neshoma is mentioned at its departure, as that is when its presence (or lack thereof) is most apparent.

Likewise, says Rav Tzadok, at the end of Shabbos, we are celebrating our ability to be able to differentiate between the sanctity of Shabbos and the normalcy of the week; that we can now feel the difference between our regular soul, and the extra one we just lost. This comes only with da’as, true spiritual understanding. And this heightened experience of understanding, specifically our ability to distinguish and see the havdola between the simple and the sublime, is certainly a reason to celebrate with wine. And it is for this reason that we mention the havdola insertion in our Shemoneh Esrei in the blessing concerning da’as, or understanding, as the true appreciation of the sanctity of Shabbos and our extra soul is dependent on our ability to understand and discern between the holy and the mundane.

With this, we can start to see an amazing correlation between the four cups on Pesach and the cup of wine at havdola. In our havdola blessing, we mention Hashem differentiating between four things: between holy and mundane, between light and darkness, between the Jewish people and the Gentiles, and between the seventh day (Shabbos) and the six days of the week. Corresponding to those four havdolas, we have four cups of wine at the Seder, each one celebrating a new level of da’as – of understanding. But how?

The first cup of wine corresponds to the first havdola in the blessing: between holy and mundane. The first cup of the Seder is when we make Kiddush, the movement from the regular week to the sanctity of the Yom Tov, from the mundane to the holy. The second cup serves as the havdola between light and darkness, as we begin to tell the story of our exodus from Mitzrayim, from a place of spiritual darkness towards the great light of redemption, ultimately resulting in the receiving of the Torah, our guiding light.

The third cup provides a fundamental lesson in Jewish belief and practice, corresponding to the third havdola, differentiating between the Jewish people and the nations of the world. Our third cup of the Seder is poured for birchas hamazon – blessing Hashem after eating – in the middle of our recitation of Hallel. Normally we never interrupt our reading of Hallel, but the Gerrer Rebbe, the Imrei Emes, explains that at the Seder, eating and enjoying the meal is not considered an interruption, as our eating is also a praise of Hashem. But how can this be? A meal is the indulgence of the body, while Hallel is the song of the soul. Surely no two things can be more different! But the truth is this is where Yiddishkeit is special. We acknowledge that there is no part of our lives that is not intrinsically intertwined in the service of our Creator.

Our religion teaches, and demands, that even the most basic physical actions, like eating, are an opportunity for unbelievable spiritual growth. Regarding the sacrifices in the Beis Hamikdash, there is a type of offering called a Shelamim. This korban was shared by the Kohen and the owner of the animal, to be consumed by both of them. We are taught[5] that non-Jews cannot offer Shelamim. The Imrei Emes explains that this is because the nations of the world do not serve Hashem in the mundane, every-day activities like eating. They understand very well the purpose of offering an Olah to Hashem, as that is an offering which is completely consumed by the fire on the Alter: completely for Hashem. By the Shelamim, we find a human being, not even a priest, partaking of Hashem’s property, eating Hashem’s sacrifice? This is strange…even sacrilegious. And, in reality, this is Divine service at its best.

The Pesach offering was the first offering consumed by man. Every korban prior to the Pesach was given totally to Hashem, ever since the times of Kayin and Hevel. That a nation could eat from Hashem’s table, that their human bodies could serve as the fire on the altar, elevating an offering to the One Above…this was a uniquely Jewish statement. For this reason, we drink the third cup after birchas hamazon, symbolically wedged between the two halves of Hallel, proclaiming that our lowly physical endeavours like eating are themselves a Hallel – a praise – and no less of a service of Hashem than the songs of our soul.

It is fitting to mention a teaching of the Sfas Emes, as he points out a grammatical issue with the verse which commands us to bless Hashem after eating bread. The verse[6] says: “And you will eat, and you will be satiated, and you will bless Hashem your G-d…” The verse, grammatically, is telling us a series of events that will transpire: first you will eat, then you will be satiated, then you will bless Hashem. But the verse should have used a stronger wording regarding the final step of blessing Hashem. Instead of simply saying “you will bless”, which appears just to be a narrative of what will naturally happen, it should have said “you must bless”, implying a commandment to bless Hashem after eating, which it is.

But, as the Sfas Emes explains, the Torah is hinting to this vital concept, that the eating and satiation of a Jew, when done correctly, is in and of itself a blessing to Hashem. Hashem has, so to speak, been blessed by us merely by our eating with sanctity and in conformance with the halocha. And this is achieved at its height on the Seder night, where so many of the mitzvos are fulfilled with food: Matza, Maror, Shulchan Orech, four cups of wine. This, then, is the third havdola: that our physicality can be spiritual, and in this way Hashem has differentiated between us and the nations of the world.

The final cup is drunk at the completion of the last paragraphs of Hallel, which are full of expressions of promise and praise of the future redemption. Our fourth havdola, the differentiation between Shabbos and the rest of the week, is referring not just to Shabbos as a day, but Shabbos as a reality. The World to Come is referred to as a day that is totally Shabbos – yom she’kulo Shabbos. At the end of the Seder, with our final cup, we are inviting Eliyahu HaNavi, the heralder of Moshiach. We are preparing ourselves for the final act, the transition from everyday life to a world of peace and perfection.

Pesach is the creation of a new nation: the Jewish people. It is a time to tell that story, to increase our understanding and ability to discern what makes us special and unique. To recognise the gift that we have been given, the Holy Torah and its mitzvos, to serve Hashem knowing that we are doing so in the way He truly desires, not just the way we think He desires. And, with that, the opportunity to raise ourselves up from the mundane to the holy, from darkness to light, from physical to spiritual, and from this world to the next.

  1. Pri Tzaddik, Vayechi
  2. Psalms 104:15
  3. Beitza 16a
  4. Shemos 31:17
  5. Zevachim 116a
  6. Devarim 8:10

Related posts