The Four Cups of Wine and the Mitzva of Publicizing the Miracle

  • Rav Binyamin Tabory

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Special Holiday Shiur

The Four Cups of Wine

and the Mitzva of Publicizing the Miracle

By Rav Binyamin Tabory


The Yerushalmi (Pesachim 10:1) inquires as to the source of the obligation of drinking four cups of wine (arba kosot) at the Pesach seder, and it cites a number of possible sources. The prevalent opinion, however, is that the four cups correspond to the four expressions of redemption stated towards the beginning of Parashat Vaera: "I shall take you out … I shall rescue you … I shall redeem you … I shall take you to me" (Shemot 6:6-7). Interestingly, the Keli Chemda maintains that drinking the arba kosot constitutes a biblical requirement, as it is extracted from biblical sources. We may draw further support for this thesis from a variant text of the Yerushalmi, as it appears in the She'iltot of Rav Achai Gaon: "What is the source of the arba kosot from the Torah?" Nevertheless, it is generally assumed that this mitzva was instituted by our Sages, who based it upon the language of the Torah. The gemara (Pesachim 117b) clearly states, "Our Sages instituted that the arba kosot be drunk in a manner expressing freedom."

Despite the presumed rabbinic origin of arba kosot, we nevertheless find a number of stringent laws associated with this mitzva. First, even if wine affects a person's physical condition, he must force himself to drink arba kosot (Shulchan Arukh, O.C. 372:1). Rav Ovadya Yosef (cited in Yalkut Yosef, vol. 5, p. 387) qualified this ruling and claimed that it refers only to a person who may develop a headache or experience some discomfort in his stomach; such a person should still drink arba kosot. If, however, drinking will cause one to be bedridden or trigger an internal illness, he is exempt from this obligation.

Another stringency is stated in the mishna (Pesachim 10:1). A poor person who depends on the public dole for his livelihood must be provided with wine for the arba kosot. The Shulchan Arukh (O.C. 372:13) rules that an indigent person should sell his clothes, borrow money, or hire himself out as a laborer in order to obtain funds to purchase the wine. The Rambam (Hilkhot Chanuka 4:12) extended this ruling, requiring a poor person to resort to such measures to obtain Chanuka candles as well. The Maggid Mishneh explains that both Chanuka and Pesach have an element of "pirsumei nisa" (the requirement to publicize the miracle), and thus share this stringency.

The gemara (Pesachim 112a), commenting on the aforementioned mishna, notes that the mishna does not mean to inform us that the supervisors of the charity funds should supply wine as part of the Pesach provisions. This point is obvious and does not require an explicit clause to this effect in the mishna. Rather, the mishna refers to a case where the person has enough money to buy all his needs except wine. In such a situation, the mishna establishes that one should resort to charity, and suffer the resulting shame and debasement, rather than avoid purchasing wine and thus forfeit the mitzva of arba kosot. Rabbi Akiva maintains that if a person receives charity, he should be given three meals for Shabbat. If, however, he can independently afford two meals, he should treat Shabbat as a weekday (and eat only two meals) rather than begin taking charity to pay for the third meal. Yet, the Gemara notes, even Rabbi Akiva agrees that when it comes to arba kosot, an otherwise self-sufficient person should accept charity to purchase wine, because this obligation involves "pirsumei nisa."

The Avnei Nezer (O.C. 501) explains that generally, a poor person who sincerely desires to fulfill a mitzva but whose financial difficulties do not allow him to do so, is nevertheless considered as having fulfilled the given mitzva. However, this rule applies only to ritual obligations, such as putting on tzitzit. "Pirsumei nisa," by contrast, cannot be achieved through good intentions alone. After all, when all is said and done, in such a case the desired publicity has not occurred. Therefore, he reasons, being poor does not excuse one from fulfilling this mitzva, and one must therefore beg for, borrow or somehow obtain the money needed for the performance of this mitzva.

The gemara (Megilla 18a) ascribes the quality of "pirsumei nisa" to the obligation of Megilla reading as well. It would seem that these three mitzvot represent three different forms of "pirsumei nisa." On Chanuka, the basic idea is to light the candles outdoors and proclaim the miracle to the entire world. Megilla reading, on the other hand, is required only within the framework of the Jewish community. Finally, the "pirsumei nisa" of arba kosot pertains only to one's family or the chavura (group) that attends your particular seder.

The Rambam rules (ibid., 13) that if a person does not have enough money to buy both wine for kiddush and Chanuka candles, he should buy the candles instead of the wine. The Kesef Mishneh bases this ruling on the fact that the element of "pirsumei nisa" exists with regard to the obligation of Chanuka candles, whereas it does not apply to kiddush.

The Avnei Nezer (op. cit.) questioned the assumption that we do not consider the Friday night kiddush "pirsumei nisa." After all, Shabbat commemorates both the creation of the world and the redemption from Egypt. These events, both of which we refer to in the text of kiddush, certainly qualify as "miracles," and reciting kiddush indeed publicizes these miraculous events. Why, then, is kiddush not an expression of "pirsumei nisa"? He answered that "pirsumei nisa" means that the miracle should be publicized to others, whether it be the entire world, the Jewish community or the immediate family. However, kiddush is inherently a purely personal obligation; no one else need be present for a person to fulfill the mitzva of kiddush. Therefore, kiddush cannot be considered a mitzva of "pirsumei nisa."

Although, as we have seen, the gemara explicitly connects the arba kosot with the concept of "pirsumei nisa," this should strike us as somewhat surprising. The miracles of Chanuka and Purim - which are obviously not recorded in the Torah - understandably require publicity to ensure their place within the collective memory of Am Yisrael. Furthermore, needless to say, we have no biblical requirements to fulfill on Chanuka and Purim which would facilitate the continuous memory of these miracles. However, Pesach, its history and its laws, comprise such an integral part of the Torah that it hardly needs any additional means of publicity. The Ten Commandments begin with a reference to the exodus from Egypt. We also have the biblical requirements of the Pesach sacrifice, eating matza and, above all, the biblical obligation of relating the story to our children and grandchildren. Do we really require more "pirsumei nisa"?

Rav Moshe Shternbuch (Moadim U-zemanim, vol. 7, p. 97) raises another point relevant to this issue. The gemara (Pesachim 108b) says that the arba kosot contain an element of "cherut" (freedom) and "simcha" (joy). If the gemara there establishes the primary reason(s) for the arba kosot, then why did the gemara cited earlier feel that "pirsumei nisa" is also a factor? Despite the lack of a response to this question, Rav Shternbuch suggests that all the obligations of the seder constitute "pirsumei nisa." This radical approach implies that a person should beg for or borrow money even to buy marror (bitter herbs) for the seder, despite the fact that today, in the absence of the Pesach sacrifice, eating marror constitutes merely a rabbinic obligation.

Several Rishonim have raised the question of why we do not recite a blessing before we drink the arba kosot. Among the answers given is that this mitzva is not performed all at once. Indeed, a hefsek (interruption) between the cups necessarily occurs, given that each of the cups has a specific text to be recited before it is drunk (kiddush, the main section of the Haggada, birkat ha-mazon, ahallel). The Or Zarua (1:140) compares this to the three meals of Shabbat: since they, too, are to be eaten at intervals, one does not recite a blessing over the mitzva of eating Shabbat meals. Rabbeinu David (Pesachim 109b) assumes that the arba kosot are four components of one mitzva, and goes so far as to say that if one should drink only one or two cups, he fulfills nothing at all until he drinks all four. (The editor of Rabbeinu David's novellae, Rabbi A. Shoshana, cites other opinions in footnote 9.) Since this one mitzva is divided into four parts and must be fulfilled at intervals, it follows that there is no blessing recited.

In light of our discussion, another question arises. Two of the mitzvot involving "pirsumei nisa" - Chanuka candles and Megilla reading - feature the special blessing "She-asa nisim" ("who has performed miracles"). Given that the entire Pesach seder also involves "pirsumei nisa," and the mitzva of the arba kosot certainly constitutes "pirsumei nisa," why is no such blessing recited at the seder? Some Rishonim (Sefer Ha-Ora, 90; also see Orchot Chayim, Avudraham and other commentators on the Haggada) explain that, in truth, such a blessing indeed exists. Just before we drink the second cup, we recite the blessing, "Asher ge'alanu ve-ga'al et avoteinu" ("Who has redeemed us and our fathers"), which is akin to the blessing of "she-asa nisim." The question, however, could still be raised: even if this is true, why is it recited before the second cup and not the first?

The night of Pesach has a special requirement: one should experience the redemption as if he himself left Egypt. As we begin the seder, we attempt to experience the meaning and feeling of slavery to Pharaoh. While reciting the Haggada, we relive the redemption process. As we realize the full meaning of the redemption and say hallel, we fully appreciate the miracle; therefore, it is now appropriate to say the blessing "she-asa nisim," which is now transformed into the blessing "asher ge'alanu."

Chag kasher ve-sameach


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