Why Four Cups?The obligation to drink four cups of wine at the Seder is well known and considered an integral part of the night's rituals. It is not at all clear, though, why there is such an obligation. The Torah never mentions the concept of drinking four cups, and although it is mentioned in the Mishna, no source or reasoning is presented.1 From where, then, did the notion derive? Why did the Rabbis enact that four cups of wine be drunk at the Seder?
Relationship to Recitations
The Mishna links each of the Four Cups to one of the four liturgical sections of the Haggadah: Kaddesh, Maggid, Birkat HaMazon, and Hallel. However, Rava in Bavli Pesachim appears to imply that this connection came about only at a secondary stage:
ארבע כסי תיקנו רבנן דרך חירות, כל חד וחד נעביד ביה מצוה.
What is the nature of the relationship between the Cups and their accompanying liturgies? Were the sections of the Haggadah built around the Cups, or did the Cups come merely to amplify the celebratory atmosphere of the liturgy? Or, perhaps, is the relationship a symbiotic one?
Bavli Pesachim discusses various legal aspects of the four cups at length, including: who must drink, the amount of wine required, the status of undiluted wine, and whether one can drink all four cups at once. In speaking of the latter two issues, the Bavli records the following Amoraic opinions:
שתאן חי יצא – אמר רבא: ידי יין יצא, ידי חירות לא יצא.
שתאן בבת אחת – רב אמר: ידי יין יצא, ידי ארבעה כוסות לא יצא.
These statements suggest that there are multiple aspects of the obligation: drinking wine ("ידי יין"), demonstrating freedom ("ידי חירות"), and drinking specifically four cups ("ידי ארבעה כוסות"). Are these really distinct, and, if so, how do they relate to each other?
Four Additional Questions
- One mitzvah or four? Do the Four Cups constitute four separate obligations or one composite package?2
- Reclining – The Cups are drunk while reclining; what does this say about their purpose?
- Obligation of women – R. Yehoshua b. Levi in Bavli Pesachim states that women must drink the Four Cups as "they too were part of the miracle" ("שאף הן היו באותו נס"). But of all the Seder rituals, why is it specifically the Four Cups which are ordained because of the miracle?3
- Even poor people ("ואפילו מן התמחוי") – Mishna Pesachim asserts that the communal charity fund must provide the poor with wine for the Four Cups. Why is this mitzvah singled out for this distinction?