Four Cups

Exegetical Approaches


In explaining the purpose of the Four Cups at the Seder and their relationship to the four liturgical sections with which they are associated, commentators differ over which is paramount.  The Ba'alei HaTosafot consider the Cups to be merely a secondary accompaniment to the four sections of the Haggadah in which Hashem's praises are sung.  For them, reciting the liturgy over a cup filled with wine is a way of adding importance to the liturgy.  R. David Bonafed and the Maharal, in contrast, view the act of drinking itself as an expression of freedom and a way of reenacting our ancestors' redemption.  According to them, the drinking is the central fulfillment, while it is the accompanying liturgy which is only secondary.  A third approach, adopted by Rambam, contends that there exists a dual obligation which consists of both components.

Cups of Blessing to Accompany the Liturgy

The four cups of wine serve as an accompaniment to the four sections of the Haggadah (Kaddesh, Maggid, Birkat HaMazon, and Hallel) which sing Hashem's praises.  They do not, however, constitute their own independent obligation.

Relationship to recitations of Kiddush, Maggid, Bareikh, and HallelBavli BerakhotBerakhot 35aAbout the Bavli brings down in the name of R. Yonatan that one should sing Hashem's praises over wine ("אין אומרים שירה אלא על היין").  Thus, Kiddush and Birkat HaMazon are regularly recited over wine, while the unique Seder sections of Maggid and Hallel which glorify Hashem's redemption of the Children of Israel are similarly sung over a cup of wine.2
Why four? According to this approach, there is no special significance to the number four.  It so happens that there are four parts of the Seder liturgy in which we "toast" Hashem's miracles, and thus there are four cups of wine.3
"שתאן בבת אחת" – Can one drink all four at once? Since the liturgy is what is important, drinking all four cups at once defeats the purpose and does not fulfill the obligation of the Four Cups.  This corresponds to the literal reading of Bavli PesachimPesachim 108a-109aAbout the Bavli which says: "ידי ארבעה כוסות לא יצא".  Regarding the Bavli's additional statement that one who does so nonetheless fulfills the obligation of "wine" ("ידי יין יצא")‎,4 Rashbam and Tosafot both contend that this refers only to the separate mitzvah of rejoicing on Yom Tov.5
Who needs to drink? Ba'alei HaTosafot6 suggest that the head of the household can discharge the obligation of the Four Cups for all those present,7 exactly as happens with Kiddush on Shabbat ("דמאי שנא ארבע כוסות מקידוש דכל השנה שאחד מוציא את כולם").‎8  This is possible only because, according to them, the primary obligation of the Four Cups is the recital of words of praise upon them, while the actual drinking is merely secondary.9  It is this position of theirs which enables them to draw a parallel to Kiddush on Shabbat.10
One obligation or four? This approach views each cup as its own individual obligation, disconnected from the other three.11
Necessary shiur (רוב כוס)? R. Nachman b. Yitzchak states in Bavli PesachimPesachim 108a-109aAbout the Bavli that one must drink "the majority of a cup" ("והוא דאשתי רובא דכסא") to fulfill one's obligation on Pesach.  At first glance, this appears to be different than by Kiddush for which one must drink only a "cheekful" or "כמלא לוגמיו".  Ba'alei HaTosafot,12 though, in line with their understanding that the Four Cups are no different than Kiddush, explain that "רובא דכסא" really means only "כמלא לוגמיו".‎13
Status of undiluted wine ("שתאן חי") – Rava in Bavli PesachimPesachim 108a-109aAbout the Bavli states regarding undiluted wine:  "ידי יין יצא, ידי חירות לא יצא".  Rashbam and Tosafot interpret this to mean that although diluting the wine to improve its taste is not absolutely critical for the fulfillment of the basic obligation of reciting praise over wine,14 it is the preferable method of discharging the obligation.15
Women's obligation – According to Tosafot, the Bavli PesachimPesachim 108a-109aAbout the Bavli which obligates women in the Four Cups ("because they too were part of the miracle" – "שאף הן היו באותו הנס") is referring to their obligation to participate in the four sections of the Seder which are recited over the wine, rather than to the actual act of drinking wine.16  Tosafot notes that even though women are generally exempt from saying Hallel, the Hallel on the night of Pesach is unique, as it is recited because of the miracle of the Exodus.17
Are children obligated? Bavli PesachimPesachim 108a-109aAbout the Bavli records a dispute between Tanna Kamma and R. Yehuda as to whether young children ("תינוקות") are obligated in the Four Cups.  From the Gemara, it is difficult to determine the age of the child under discussion, but Rashbam appears to understand that the disagreement is in the case of a toddler who is not old enough to understand what the mitzvah is about ("לא הגיע לגיל חינוך"),‎18 and Tanna Kamma extends the obligation even to him.19  According to Rashbam, even R. Yehuda would agree that a minor old enough to understand the performance of the liturgical sections of the Seder ("קטן שהגיע לחינוך") would be obligated to recite these sections over four cups of wine.20
Reclining while drinking – Even though, the four cups are not intrinsically related to freedom, Tosafot would likely maintain that the requirement of reclining while drinking them stems from the fact that the passages which are recited upon them do relate to redemption.21
Fifth cup – Some manuscripts of Bavli Pesachim22 cite R. Tarfon as stating that the fifth cup is for the recital of Hallel HaGadol.

Demonstration of Freedom

Drinking four cups of wine proclaims our status as free people and is a fulfillment of "חַיָּב אָדָם לְהַרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם" and, perhaps, publicizing the miracle.

Relationship to recitations of Kiddush, Maggid, Bareikh, and Hallel – According to R. David and the Maharal, the basic primary obligation to drink four cups of wine is not dependent on reciting any particular liturgical passages.23  Only a secondary or more complete fulfillment of the mitzvah24 links the cups to particular sections of the Seder.25
Women's obligation – This approach could explain that the very drinking of the four cups of wine publicizes the miracle of the redemption (פרסומי ניסא).‎26  As such, women are obligated since they too were part of the miracle ("שאף הן היו באותו הנס").‎27
Are children obligated? According to R. David, the dispute between Tanna Kamma and R. Yehuda in Bavli PesachimPesachim 108a-109aAbout the Bavli is even regarding children who have reached the standard age of education ("הגיעו לגיל חינוך") for regular mitzvot.  While Tanna Kamma maintains that the mitzvah of Four Cups is the same as all other mitzvot,28 R. Yehuda rules that the regular obligation of חינוך does not apply to it.29  R. David explains that the Four Cups are unique because their objective is to display freedom, and since even an older child is not capable of imbibing wine like an adult,30 there is also no obligation of training him to perform this mitzvah.31
Why four? According to this approach, wine must be drunken in abundance as an expression of freedom or happiness.  The Yerushalmi PesachimPesachim 10:1About the Yerushalmi records various opinions as to why the number four was chosen:32
  • Four expressions of redemption – R. Yochanan connects the four cups to the four verbs (ארבע לשונות גאולה) in Shemot 6 which speak of Hashem's salvation.
  • Four cups of Paroh – R. Yehoshua b. Levi relates them to the four references to Paroh's cup in the butler's dream in Bereshit 40.33
  • Four kingdoms – According to R. Levi, they symbolize the four kingdoms that have oppressed the Children of Israel.34
  • Four cups of wrath and consolation – The Rabbis in the Yerushalmi suggest that the four cups correspond to the four cups of calamity that are to be given to the enemies of Israel in the future and the four cups of consolation that Hashem will give Israel to drink.35
"שתאן בבת אחת" – Can one drink all four at once? According to this position, even if one drank all four cups consecutively, rather than in their proper places in the Haggadah, one still fulfills one's obligation, and R. David cites the YerushalmiPesachim 10:1About the Yerushalmi as proof for this.  This approach must therefore reinterpret the BavliPesachim 108a-109aAbout the Bavli's statement:  "שתאן בבת אחת – ידי יין יצא, ידי ארבעה כוסות לא יצא", since at face value this appears to imply that in such a case one does not fulfill the obligation of the Four Cups.  This can be accomplished in two different ways:
  • Rashi limits the application of the Bavli's ruling to a case in which one drank four cups worth of wine from a single cup.36  According to this interpretation, even the Bavli would agree that the obligation is fulfilled if one drinks the wine from four separate cups, and the problem is only that drinking from a single cup cannot be considered to be four separate cups no matter how much one drank.
  • Alternatively, R. David suggests that even the Bavli concurs that the basic obligation was realized, and it only means that the action was not performed in the preferred way.
One obligation or four? R. DavidPesachim 109b asserts that it is only the cumulative effect of all four cups together which fulfills the obligation.  According to him drinking a single cup or two does not accomplish anything, as this is not an extraordinary action and therefore does not demonstrate freedom.  To maintain this position, he needs to reinterpret Ravina's statement in Bavli Pesachim 109bPesachim 109b-110aAbout the Bavli.37
Who needs to drink? Each individual at the Seder must drink their own four cups of wine, as eating or drinking is not an action which can be performed by one person on behalf of another.38
Necessary shiur (רוב כוס)? R. DavidPesachim 107a maintains that each of the Four Cups require drinking the majority of the cup ("רוב כוס", like the simple reading of Bavli PesachimPesachim 108a-109aAbout the Bavli), rather than just a "cheekful".  His reasoning is that the mitzvah is to drink four cups, and less than most of the cup would not be considered drinking a cup.39
Status of undiluted wine ("שתאן חי") – R. David explains the statement of Rava in Bavli PesachimPesachim 108a-109aAbout the Bavli:  "ידי יין יצא, ידי חירות לא יצא" to mean that one fulfills one's basic obligation but not in an optimal way.  Since the Four Cups are intended to express freedom, it is preferable that the wine be diluted and drunken properly.
Reclining while drinking – It is logical that the cups are drunk while reclining since both actions are meant to symbolize freedom.
Fifth cup – A version of the Yerushalmi is citedRaavad cited by Orchot Chayyim Hilkhot Leil HaPesach 13About R. Avraham b. David as saying that R. Tarfon states that the fifth cup corresponds to the fifth term of redemption "וְהֵבֵאתִי".  R. David suggests that even R. Tarfon agrees that there are only four obligatory cups, and the fifth is just optional.


The obligation to drink four cups of wine is a dual one, relating to both their being an accompaniment to liturgical praise and their being an expression of freedom.

"שתאן בבת אחת" – Can one drink all four at once? Rambam rules that this would discharge only the obligation of drinking an abundance of wine to demonstrate freedom,40 but not the requirement of reciting various sections of the Haggadah over wine.41
Reclining while drinking – Rambam integrates the laws of reclining and the Four Cups, as both manifest our status as free people.
Why four? As there are four points in the Seder where one sings Hashem's praises, they are each accompanied by a cup of wine.
Who needs to drink? As the obligation is not only to praise but also to drink as an expression of freedom, everyone must drink.
Are children obligated? Rambam does not mention that there is an obligation to provide Four Cups for minors, even those of educable age.  His silence on this point may be an indication that he maintains that there is, in fact, no obligation.42
Necessary shiur (רוב כוס)? Rambam requires a "רוב כוס", rather than just a "cheekful", since part of the mitzvah is to drink in abundance.
Status of undiluted wine ("שתאן חי") – According to the Rambam, with improperly prepared wine, one can discharge the obligation of reciting over wine, but one cannot fulfill the obligation of expressing freedom.43