The missing fifth

The Haggada is filled with references to the number four - the four questions, the four sons (or children), and the four cups of wine.

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April 10, 2008 11:55
4 minute read.

The Haggada is filled with references to the number four - the four questions, the four sons (or children), the four cups of wine, the four promises of redemption, the four verses that, together with their midrashic interpretations, tell the essence of the story (Deuteronomy 26:5-8). The significance of the number four is difficult to understand. It is not a sacred number in Judaism. It is mentioned in the Mishna (Pessahim 10:1) as the minimum number of cups of wine that even the poorest in Israel should be given to drink. That was probably the number consumed at a Roman feast. Later on, in the Talmud, the number of cups was connected to many different symbolic interpretations. What is more curious, however, is the fact that in at least three of these instances a good case could be made for using the number five instead of four. There really should be five promises of redemption, five cups of wine and five verses telling the story. What happened to the missing fifth? Let us begin with the four verses. In the Torah this section was intended for liturgical use. It was to be recited by an individual when bringing the first fruits to the Temple as an acknowledgment that one has "entered the land that the Lord our God swore to our fathers to assign us" (Deuteronomy 26:3). When searching for a brief and appropriate passage for recitation at the Seder, something that would tell the essentials of the story, the sages seized on this recitation, which begins by telling how Jacob went down to Egypt, leading to the enslavement of the Israelites and their eventual freedom through the actions of God. However, in its original context the recitation continues with "He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey" (26:9). Obviously this fifth verse would be most appropriate at the Seder. After all, was that not indeed the very purpose and intent of the Exodus? Why omit it? Similarly with the four expressions of redemption. They come from Exodus 6:6-7: "I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians, I will deliver you from their bondage, I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and extraordinary chastisements. I will take you to be My people and I will be your God..." Each one of the four cups that we drink has been interpreted as a symbol of one of these promises. But there is a fifth promise that has been ignored. Verse 6:8 continues, "I will bring you unto the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession..." Why omit it? There are a few possible explanations for the missing fifth - cup, promise and verse. One is that unlike the bringing of the first fruits, the emphasis on Pessah is on the Exodus itself and not on reaching the Land of Israel, therefore only the verses that deal with the leaving - the Exodus - are used in the Haggada and only the promises relating to the leaving are cited and symbolized by a cup of wine. Emphasis on the Land of Israel might distract from the major theme of the holiday: redemption. Another possibility is that the Haggada was formulated after the catastrophe of the year 70 CE - the destruction of the Temple and the loss of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. Although Jews continued to live there - unlike the popular notion, there was no general exile at that moment - the promise that the Land of Israel would be given to the people of Israel was not then fulfilled and therefore it would have been a bitter reminder to speak of something that was not a reality. How could we celebrate the land when we did not possess it? However today we do live in the land. We have been brought to the land. Even those who do not live here could live here if they so chose. Therefore there is good reason to think that the time has come to redeem the missing fifth. In his monumental work Haggada Shleima, Rabbi Menachem Kasher cited versions of the Talmud and other writings that read "Rabbi Tarfon taught that we say the great Hallel over the fifth cup" as a sign of the fifth promise, "I shall bring you." Since there was a dispute and uncertainty about this fifth cup, it became the "Cup of Elijah" which is poured but not consumed, awaiting Elijah who will tell us the law. Rabbi Kasher, however, suggested that since we have been privileged to experience the founding of the State of Israel, which is at least a partial fulfillment of "I shall bring," we should add the fifth cup as a sign of our rejoicing for the return to the land. Rabbi Kasher's suggestion that we drink as the fifth cup in recognition of "I shall bring" is an excellent one and I believe that it would be most appropriate to do so drinking from the cup of Elijah. Indeed, not to redeem the missing fifth would be to ignore the reality of our time and to slight the gracious acts of the Almighty that have brought us to this land. The writer is an author and lecturer who serves as the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement.


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