No matter how poor you are, you must still have your four cups of wine on Seder night, even if they come through the charity and good will of others. Without wine, it would not be Seder. Every occasion of joy is marked by wine, which, as the Psalmist remind us, “gladdens the heart of man”.
Yet for all its appreciation of wine, Judaism is well aware of the dangers of drink. “When wine comes in, out goes discretion,” says one scholar. Says another, “Wine makes the faces of the wicked red in this world, but pale in the World to Come.” There is a legend that it was the wine Adam drank in the Garden of Eden that led him to sin; a cutting from the original vine was preserved by Noah who became drunk and did not know what he was doing. Nonetheless Jewish teaching found a path of moderation that kept people from irresponsible drinking and over-indulgence, so that for all the official use of wine on so many occasions, Jews have hardly ever had a problem of drunkenness.
On Pesach the four cups are a guarantee of an ample meal. They remind some historians of a Roman custom of drinking as many cups as there were letters in the name of the chief guest. Who is the chief guest at Seder? Not Moses, for he barely rates a mention. Not Elijah, for Jews in Roman times were unaware that he would later play a colourful role at the Seder. The chief guest is God Himself, who redeemed us from Egypt – and His Hebrew name has four letters!
A further explanation of the four cups is that the Seder has four sections, each marked by its own cup of wine. The best-known theory is that the four cups stand for four Divine promises – “I will take you out, I will deliver you, I will redeem you, I will take you as My people” (Ex. 6).
But there is a fifth promise, “I will bring you in”! So surely there should be five cups, not four?
Our compromise is to fill a fifth cup (the Cup of Elijah) but not to drink it until Elijah comes to solve the unanswered problems of the ages and to announce the messianic ingathering, in literal fulfilment of the words, “I will bring you in (to the land of Israel)”.
Some, especially Menahem M Kasher (author of the Israel Passover Haggadah), argue that now there is a State of Israel and we have seen the first steps on the path of redemption, it is already in order to drink a fifth cup at the end of Hallel.
This Pesach, may our observance of the time-honoured traditions bring us merit in the eyes of the Almighty. May we be privileged to witness the coming of Elijah and the full flowering of the redemption – bimherah b’yamenu, speedily, in our days!