Tonight we are commanded to drink four cups of wine. Four is an important number in the Seder: four cups, four children, four questions, and four matriarchs in the "Who Knows One?" song. Four is an important number in Jewish thought as well: the four corners (arbah kanfot) of the talit and the four kinds of fruit from goodly trees for Sukkot.
There are many explanations offered for the custom of drinking four cups of wine. Some say they represent:
The four cups of wine are also structurally connected to four verbal performances this evening:
Two 16th century Kabbalist rabbis offer a different explanation, identifying the Four Cups with the Four Matriarchs of Israel. The Maharal of Prague (famous for the legend of Golem) and Rav Isaiah Horowitz of Tsfat explain:
Above all, the four cups are traditionally believed to represent the four promises that G-d made to the Israelites (Exodus 6:6-7):
While on the surface each promise seems to mean the same thing, the subtle differences in language are reminiscent of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and the Israelites readiness to embrace the responsibilities that come with freedom. According to Maslow, basic physiological needs required for survival, air, food, water, clothing, shelter and sleep, must be met before one is able to meet the higher needs for safety and security; love, belonging and acceptance; respect, recognition, sense of accomplishment and self-worth; and finally self-actualization.
G-d also makes a fifth promise: Ve-he-vei-ti ; I shall bring you to the land, but this promise had not yet been fulfilled when our Ancestors left Mitzrayim. The debate over whether this fifth promise should be celebrated by a cup of its own led to the decision to leave the answer to Elijah, herald of the messianic coming. Hence, the custom of Elijah's cup and the messianic fifth cup.
We are about to partake of the first cup of wine, commemorating G-d's promise, "I will bring you out from under the burdens of Mitzrayim."
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