The Four Cups
Would you please fill me in on the significance of the four cups at the Passover Seder?
It is a mitzvah to drink four cups of wine during the Seder at specific points in the Hagadah: One for kiddush, one for the mitzvah of Hagadah – the retelling of the Exodus, one at the end of the blessing after the meal, and one to mark the end of the Hallel praise. The mitzvah of drinking these four cups applies equally to men, women and children since everyone was redeemed from Egypt (Pesachim 108). Red wine is preferable, but white wine or even grape juice is acceptable. Ashkenazim recite the blessing over wine on each of the four cups; Sefardim do so only for the first and third cups.
The Jerusalem Talmud discussions several opinions of our Sages as to the significance of the four cups:
According to one opinion, the four cups correspond to four different terms or expressions in the Torah regarding four stages of G-d’s redeeming the Jewish People from Egyptian bondage: “I am G-d, I ‘brought you out’ [hotzeiti] from the burdens of Egypt” (even if we had remained slaves, but the burden would have been removed, we would have raised a cup of gratitude to G-d). “I will deliver you [ga’alti] from their slavery” (we drink another cup because He completely nullified our servitude). “I will redeem you [paditi] with an outstretched arm and with great judgments” (because He crushed our wicked pursuers so they could no longer afflict us, we drink the third cup). “I will take you [lakachti] unto Me for a people and I will be your G-d” (we raise the fourth cup in honor of the greatest aspect of the redemption – His drawing us near to become His people).
Another opinion explains that the four cups correspond to the four times that the Torah refers to the cup of Pharaoh (Genesis 40): “The cup was in my hand”; “And I squeezed them into the cup of Pharaoh”; “And I put the cup into the hand of Pharaoh”; “And you shall put the cup into the hand of Pharaoh”. Since Joseph and the butler described in the narrative here were slaves to Pharaoh, it is as if a hint were being given to Joseph: The slavery is now beginning as the ‘cup’ is being put into the hand of Pharaoh, but your children are destined to take it out of his hand and they will thank G-d with the cup of salvation four times over.
A third opinion posits that the four cups refer to the four great empires which subjugated Israel after Egypt and whose punishment was portended by a fourfold mention of their drinking from the cup of G-d’s fury. This is in counter-distinction to the fourfold mention of Israel drinking from the cup of G-d’s redemption. Regarding the nations the verses state: “Take the wine cup of fury from my hand and make all the nations who persecute you drink it” (Yirmiyahu 25); “The nations have drunk [from the wine in the cup of the hand of Babylon], therefore they have become mad” (ibid. 51); “For there is a cup in the hand of G-d…but its dregs, all the wicked of the earth shall drink” (Psalms 75). “Upon the wicked He will rain snares; fire and brimstone and tempestuous winds shall be the portion of their cup” (ibid. 11). However, regarding Israel the verses refer to four cups of redemption: (1) “G-d, You are the portion of my inheritance and of my cup” (ibid. 16); (2) “You anoint my head with oil; my cup is overflowing” (ibid. 23); and (3,4)“I lift up the cup of salvations” (ibid. 116).
In addition, various commentaries over the ages have suggested other reasons for the four cups:
Abarbanel relates the four cups to four periods of redemption over history. The first took place when G-d chose Abraham as the founder of the Jewish people. The second was from bondage in Egypt. The third is seen in the way G-d preserves us during the long years of exile from those who seek to persecute and destroy us. The fourth redemption awaits us in the future.
The Gaon of Vilna relates the four cups to four different worlds. This world; the world of Messiah; the world of the resurrection of the dead and the World-to-Come. One who fulfills the mitzvah of the four cups and the other mitzvot of the Seder is assured of all these worlds.
Maharal connects the four cups with Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah, since it was in their merit the Jewish people was born and redeemed; and also in the merit of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in whose merit the mitzvot of the Passover offering, matzah and marror were given to the Jewish people.
Bnei Yissachar writes that Israel was given the privilege of the mitzvah of the four cups as a reward for the four virtues they displayed in Egypt. They did not adopt non-Jewish names but rather preserved their distinctly Jewish names; they retained their own Jewish language; they maintained their distinctly Jewish mode of dress; and they did not stoop to the immorality prevalent in ancient Egyptian, but rather maintained their particularly high standard of Jewish morality. Despite being enmeshed in the impurities of Egypt, the fact that they preserved these barriers against total assimilation earned for them the title of “distinguished” in which merit they were redeemed.
You mention that we drink four cups – yet there is a “fifth” cup as well.
After drinking the last cup concluding Hallel, we fill another cup designated as the “Cup of Elijah”. Regarding the first idea mentioned above that the four cups correspond to the four words or terms used in the Torah referring to the Redemption, the opinion of one Sage is that there are actually five such phrases where the fifth is: “And I will bring you [heveiti] to the Land”. Although this opinion was not accepted, nevertheless we pour out a fifth cup, but don’t drink it, since there is a doubt whether it should be included in the mitzvah or not. When Elijah the prophet comes and clarifies all our doubts, he will clarify this one as well. This cup therefore bears his name – The Cup of Eliyahu.
It is also called the Cup of Eliyahu since it symbolizes the final redemption from the threat of Gog and his coalition (which our sources describe as “Paras” – Persia/Iran and its evil allies) where that Great Day will be heralded by Elijah the Prophet who will be the harbinger for Mashiach. May he arrive speedily in our days!