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    Four cups of tea?

    Everyone knows that Seder requirements include four cups of wine. Most people accept grape juice as an alternative (though there is some rabbinic argument about it) if one doesn’t have or can’t handle wine.

    (In my own case, though I drink wine for Kiddush I move on to grape juice, because otherwise I would be asleep by the time we got to the meal. Actually, even with the grape juice I do tend to feel drowsy after the food and my children and grandchildren often have to assume the leadership of the rest of the Seder.)

    When I was a child we used to have raisin wine and in those days I don’t remember ever feeling somnolent, though of course I was rather younger and could remain awake and alert much longer. Then I discovered that halachically there is a possible further alternative which I would rather not try – four cups of tea or coffee!

    The Shulchan Aruch says (Orach Chayyim 372:10) that a person who is unable to drink wine at Seder should force himself to do so, though he may dilute it. On Shabbat and other festivals there is no problem since it is enough to hear Kiddush and indeed one can make Kiddush over bread, but on Seder night one must drink four cups. Wine is preferable. Grape juice is an option. The Mishnah B’rurah says (note 37) it is permitted to have raisin wine or chamar ham’dinah, the wine (or beverage) of the country. Whiskey and beer come under the latter heading, but they are not kosher for Pesach.

    Chamar ham’dinah covers drinks which are significant and characteristic in a particular country. In our circumstances we would count tea and coffee in this category. They have such importance that meals are named after them (“Come at tea time!”). Water and soft drinks have a lesser status even though they are imbibed when one is thirsty (Moshe Feinstein, Igg’rot Moshe, Orach Chayyim volume 2, no. 75)

    But both tea and coffee have a difficult history in terms of the observance of Pesach.

    Long before tea came to Europe from China in the 17th century something similar was known to the Talmud, which (Bava M’tzia 29b near foot of page) mentions a brew made by adding hot water to bark, grasses and spices. Jump the centuries and we encounter a problem. Because tea was expensive, there was a stage when tea leaves were recycled. After the first cup of tea, the leaves were dried and then used again… but if the first cup was made in chametz utensils there would be an issue on Pesach. Only when tea became less expensive and recycling was unnecessary could there be kosher for Pesach tea.

    Coffee too had its problems. Ashkenazim do not use kitniyot on Pesach. Kitniyot cover legumes such as peas and beans, but what about coffee beans? It was found that despite the word “beans”, coffee does not derive from real beans but is a fruit that grows on trees, so in came Pesach coffee, which probably has the same Seder status as tea.

    Whether you use tea or coffee for the four cups depends on whether you have wine or grape juice and are able to drink them. The Mishnah (P’sachim 10:1) says that the charity funds of the community must make sure that people are supplied with the essentials for the Seder, so it is unlikely that the four cups of tea question will arise.

    It’s a fascinating subject. I guess, however, that most people will dismiss it and say, “Four cups of tea? It just doesn’t sound right!”

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