How many cups of wine are we to drink at the Passover seder? Today, the answer seems simple, as clearly stated in the Shulhan Arukh: "Four cups must be drunk at the seder."[1] However, this simplicity is relatively new. In the Mishna it is written, "No fewer than four cups of wine," which leaves considerable room for variation. Indeed, during the Mishnaic period, the sages were divided about the number of cups to be drunk, four or five. [2]

Central to the debate is the following text from the Talmud: "The rabbis taught: after the fifth cup is poured, the Hallel (psalms of praise) are completed and the great Hallel (Psalm 118) is recited, according to Rabbi Tarfon." [3] This version appears in five manuscript editions and is referred to by six Geonim [4]. Based on this reading, Maimonides rules: "The fifth cup should be poured and the great Hallel recited. This cup is not obligatory as the first four cups are."[5] The reading from the printed Talmud[6] "The rabbis taught: after the fourth cup is poured," is the same as that quoted in several medieval sources (Rashi, Rashbam, the Tosofot and Shulkhan Aruch). Among the authorities that support the

custom of drinking five cups of wine at the seder, there are those who rule that the fifth cup is as obligatory as the other four while other consider it optional. The "four expressions of redemption" in Exodus 6:6-7 underly this debate: "Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people.…" (Exodus Rabbah 88) The Torah continues, "I will bring you into the land, which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob...."

The question is whether or not "I will bring you" is a fifth expression of redemption.

Many commentators would agree with Rabbi Abraham ben Nathan Hayarch (Constantinople, 1519) who wrote, "'I will bring' is not an expression of redemption but rather a prophecy" because the generation that left Egypt did not actually enter the Promised Land. Rabbi Hayim David HaLevi (Israel, 1926-) elaborates, "The four expressions complete the redemption because if the Jew does not merit inheriting the land of Israel, he lives in the Diaspora and completes his redemption through his Torah." Others believe that "I will bring" is an expression of redemption. The question remains unresolved.

By the 17th century, the custom of placing Elijah's cup on the seder table began to appear in the Ashkenazic rite. The seder night is a night of watchfulness, when the people of Israel re-enact their redemption from Egyptian slavery and await the future, final redemption: "In Nisan, the people of Israel were redeemed and in the month of Nissan, they will be redeemed again."7 This concept finds expression in several seder customs, in particular the opening of the door for the prophet Elijah, harbinger of the redemption. Elijah's cup was a natural continuation of this act; after the door is opened for an honored guest, he is honored with a glass of wine.

Rabbi Elijah, the Vilna Gaon (Lithuania, 1720-1797), was the first to propose that Elijah's cup is the fifth cup: "When Elijah comes, the doubt [whether there are four cups or five] will be resolved. Therefore, we pour a fifth cup, because of the doubt, but do not drink from it." This explanation is widely accepted but leaves one question unanswered: Why did the Cup of Elijah appear so late, after the halachic [legal religious] question was nearly forgotten?

Elijah's cup may thus be considered the fifth cup­­not because Elijah will resolve the doubt, but rather because his arrival as "harbinger of the redemption" will herald the final redemption; at that time, the prophecy, "I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession" may be fulfilled.


[1] Hil. Pes. 472:8. The Shulkha Aruch is major code of Jewish law compiled in the mid-16th century by Rabbi Yosef Karo. [back]

[2] M. Pes. 10:1. The Mishna was the first post-biblical code of Jewish Law, published in approximately 200 CE. [back]

[3] Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 108b. The Babylonian Talmud consists of the Mishna and Gemara, a written record of analytical discussions of the Mishna, along with philosophy, ethics, and practical advice, by the rabbinic authorities who lived between 200 and 500. [back]

[4] The word "gaon" (plural "geonim") literally means genius. It is used to refer to the leaders of the Bablylonian Jewish community in the 6th - 12th centuries. It is also an honorary title used for a few great Jewish scholars and leaders. [back]

[5] Hamatz u'matzah 8:10; Maimonides lived in Spain and Egypt, 1135-1204. [back]

[6] The first printed editions of the Babylonian Talmud were published in c. 1500 [back]

[7] Babylonian Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 11a [back]

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