Raise an extra cup

On the fifth cup we recite the Blessing of the Song

By
April 15, 2011 15:08
4 minute read.
Picture from the Parasha

Parasha picture Goats 521. (photo credit: Israel Weiss)

 
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During the majestic and magical evening of the Pessah Seder, how many matzot does the leader of the proceedings take, two or three? And how many cups of wine, do the participants drink, four or five? I daresay the overwhelming majority of readers will respond: three matzot and four cups of wine. But in my Seder, we all take two matzot and drink five cups of wine. The reason stems from Halacha and Zionism.

The simple interpretation of a talmudic passage (Brachot 39B) would suggest two matzot: “Rav Papa maintains that everyone agrees that on Pessah evening we place the broken matza within [or under] the whole matza and make a blessing thereon” – two matzot, or rather one and one half, and so rules the Vilna Gaon.

The origin of the custom of taking three matzot – two whole and one broken – stems from Rashi (Commentary on Pessahim 116a), who insists that we have two whole matzot to retain our custom of lehem mishne (parallel to the two Shabbat halla loaves). Maimonides, on the other hand, insists on one-and-one-half, ruling that “lehem oni,” the matza/bread of affliction, trumps lehem mishne – the double portion of manna which we commemorate on Shabbat.

I vote with Maimonides, since Pessah is only the beginning of our redemption: When we left Egypt, we were still a long way (and a whole generation) from the Land of Israel, and seven weeks away from receiving the Torah. The “whole” matza expresses our gratitude for the Exodus, but the half matza is a necessary reminder that our affliction had far from ended.

Let us turn to the wine. Conventional wisdom explains the four cups as emanating from the four expressions of redemption articulated in Exodus (6:6-7): “I will free you…. I will save you… I will redeem you….

I will take you….” But in the very next verse comes the fifth expression: “I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob…” What happened to the fifth cup? A cursory glimpse into the order of the cups should explain what occurred. We begin with kiddush, the first cup, which mentions both the Creation and the Exodus, and enables us to eat a little hors d’oeuvre of karpas; then we pour the second cup for maggid, the story of our enslavement and Exodus; we then eat the meal of our freedom, replete with reminders of the sacrificial foods, and pour the third cup for Grace after the Meal.

It is this blessing for the food which, in its prayer for the restoration of Jerusalem, makes reference to its destruction, and in its praise for the God who is good and who does good reminds us of the Hadrianic persecutions following the abortive Bar Kochba rebellion.

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Albeit within the context of praise, the specter of destruction and exile has entered the Pessah Seder. At this point comes the special cup for Elijah (it’s not in the count of four because only Elijah drinks from it), but this is also within the context of exile, since it is introduced with the words, “Pour out Your wrath against the gentiles who do not know You… for they have consumed Jacob and laid waste his habitation…” Now comes the fourth cup of hallel, with its prayer and gratitude for God’s restoration of Israel to our homeland and Jerusalem (Mishna Pessahim 10:5). The fourth cup is poured, and upon it we conclude the Hallel and recite the blessing of the song Nishmat, “May the breath of all living souls praise God….”) A Tosefta substitutes Hallel Hagadol (Psalm 136: Praised be the Lord… whose lovingkindness extends to the world) for the Nishmat prayer. The Haggada includes Hallel Hagadol as well as Nishmat, until the conclusion of Yishtabah, with the praise to “God, King of all living worlds.”

Each ritual drinking of wine should refer to a specific theme. Hallel evokes our return to national sovereignty in Israel; Hallel Hagadol and Nishmat refer to the redemption of the world. And indeed the Tosafists (as well as the Gaonim and Maimonides) all cite a variant reading, “On the fifth cup we recite the Blessing of the Song [or Hallel Hagadol].” Many of the Gaonim actually demand a fifth cup, and the Rambam (along with most decisors) permits it, though he would only endorse reciting Hallel Hagadol with this fifth cup.

Modern scholarship would suggest that in haggadot in the Land of Israel they always included a fifth cup; only in haggadot in the galut (Exile) was it excluded.

Perhaps the yearning for world redemption during exile seemed a bit too much to ask for. But now that we have returned to our homeland, I would urge the addition of a fifth cup immediately before reciting Hallel Hagadol; in our global village, a world not recognizing our God of peace and morality, no single nation will ever feel secure.

The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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