The number four seems to play an inordinate place in the Pessah Seder. We have four questions, four sons, four verses and of course one of the major features that we will be enjoying shortly is the drinking of four cups of wine. The Mishna is very specific about the four cups, requiring the community to see to it that even the poor have four cups, even if it comes from public charity (Pessahim 10:1).
Since the Torah says nothing whatsoever about wine in describing the Pessah ritual, the question arises as to the origin and meaning of this practice. Why wine at all and why four cups? To begin with, wine does appear in the Torah in ritual contexts. It was used as libations on the altar (Exodus 29:40) and was considered a special drink that caused people to rejoice. As we read in Psalm 104:15, "And wine makes the heart of man joyful..." As such it was taken over from the Temple rite into the synagogue and the home, so that Kiddush is recited over it, as are havdala and Grace after Meals. Weddings are also solemnized with wine and it is used in the ceremony of the brit mila (circumcision).
It would only have been normal, then, for the festive Pessah meal, like any holiday meal, to begin with wine and conclude with it. It would also have been usual for another cup to be drunk with the meal. However at the Seder this might have had its origins in the fact that wine was served during any festive meal specifically to "make the family rejoice" (See Tosefta Pessahim 10:4). At the Seder this third cup was associated with the recitation of the Maggid - the telling of the story. The fourth cup is recited over Hallel and is a special addition, unique to the Seder.
Baruch Bokser suggested that the fourth cup came to replace the paschal lamb that was sacrificed in the Temple while the Hallel was being sung. It "filled the void created by the loss of the sacrificial meal." After the destruction of the Temple, the Seder replaced the Temple ritual, and wine substituted for the Pessah lamb while Hallel was chanted. Thus we arrived - almost by chance - at the number of four cups.
Of course, once the number four was fixed, many different explanations were offered in the writings of the sages, the geonim and the later rabbis as to the significance of the number. Among them (in no particular order) were: four expressions of redemption, four empires that oppressed Israel, four cups of punishment for those empires, four cups mentioned in connection with Pharaoh, four cups of fury, four cups of salvation, four decrees of Pharaoh against Israel, four exiles.
The most popular and most generally accepted one was that the four cups stand for the four promises of redemption that God uttered: I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements, and I will take you to be My people (Exodus 6:6-7). The Hebrew words are: v'hotzeiti, v'hitzalti, v'ga'alti, v'lakahti.
Once those four promises had been accepted as the reason for the four cups, the question arose about the fact that there was a fifth expression of redemption in verse Exodus 6:8 - "and I shall bring you into the land I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" - v'heveiti. And so Rabbi Tarfon taught, "On the fifth cup one finishes the Hallel and says the Great Hallel (Psalm 136)." This is found in the Talmud Yerushalmi Pessahim 10:1 and also in the manuscript reading of Pessahim 118a. This is probably also the origin of the Cup of Elijah. Since not all were agreed that we should drink a fifth cup, it was set aside until Elijah would come and decide this issue and all other halachic issues. It may be that the majority of the sages demurred because that promise was painfully unfulfilled after the exile of the year 70 CE. That may also explain why in the verses explained in the Haggada, the following verse "He brought us to this place and gave us this land" (Deuteronomy 26:9) is absent.
However both Amram Gaon and Maimonides mention using the fifth cup, although they see it as permitted but not required.
Rabbi Menahem Kasher, in his edition of the Haggada, strongly advocates the drinking of the fifth cup. The Cup of Elijah can be passed to all the participants as the fifth cup. Kasher believes that since we have been privileged to live in a time when the fifth expression of redemption has actually come to pass and the Jewish people has returned to its own land and established the State of Israel, it is right and proper that we drink a fifth cup to recognize that reality and express our thanksgiving to God for it.
Considering the fact that so great a sage as Rabbi Tarfon advocated it and that such weighty authorities as Maimonides and Amram Gaon permitted it, it certainly would seem that not to do so would be an act of ingratitude to God for the redemption - partial though it may be - that has come about in modern times. How many cups does it take to express our gratitude? I believe that the answer is five.
The writer is a past head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.