Pesachim 99

The four cups.

Today’s daf brings us to the start of Chapter 10, the final chapter in Tractate Pesachim, all about the Passover seder. (It’s probably what you thought you were signing up for when beginning this tractate!) It’s also one of the pages of Talmud in which the primary text in the middle of the page is only a few lines long because the rest of the page is taken up by the masses of commentary surrounding it.

The mishnah that begins this chapter on 99b relates:

On the eve of Passover, adjacent to mincha time, a person may not eat until dark. Even the poorest of Jews should not eat until he reclines. And the distributors of charity should not give a poor person less than four cups of wine, even if the poor person is one of the poorest members of society and receives his food from the charity plate.

The Torah says the paschal lamb must be eaten with unleavened bread and bitter herbs but says nothing about drinking wine with your paschal meal. According to the Talmud, however, this mitzvah is so important that even a person who relies on charity to eat is required to drink four cups of wine at the seder. (Note: Tosafot on 99b do discuss the possibility of the householder sharing the cup with all of the family, as on to Kiddush on other holidays or Shabbat, but the mitzvah of four cups is so ubiquitous that very few rely on this.)

The Jerusalem Talmud lists several reasons for the rabbinic requirement of four cups, the first of which is the most commonly understood: that the cups correspond to the four expressions of redemption stated by God in reference to the Exodus from Egypt in Exodus 6:6-7: “I will bring you out from under the burden of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched hand, and with great judgments; and I will take you to Me for a  people.” (This explanation is also found in Genesis Rabbah 88:5.) The three other explanations are that “cup” is mentioned four times in connection with Pharaoh and the butler in the story of Joseph (Gen. 40:11-13), that Israel was enslaved to four different kingdoms (Chaldees, Media, Greece, Edom/Rome) and that God will give the enemies of Israel four cups of punishment.

All of these reasons are perfectly good midrashic rationales for why four cups of wine are consumed at the Passover seder, which, after all, has as its main theme the redemption of the Jewish people from slavery. But why would it be so important that even the poorest among us, those who rely on eating from the communal charity plate (literally, hand to mouth), must also be provided with enough wine to fulfill this mitzvah? (A poignant note in the Schottenstein translation of the Babylonian Talmud states “It goes without saying that poor people must be provided with such necessities as food and matzah.”) The medieval commentator Rashbam rules that in the event the charity collectors do not provide sufficient wine or money, these poor individuals should sell their clothing or hire themselves out as day laborers to afford it for themselves.

I think there are two reasons for this insistence on four cups of wine for everyone, even the poor, that similarly point to the main themes of the Passover holiday.

First, as stated in this same mishnah, we are all – no matter our economic status – obligated to act as free, wealthy people on seder night. We all recline, we all eat, we all drink. To use a modern word, at the seder, we are all privileged. This is the plain meaning of the mitzvah – but I don’t think it’s the primary reason we are required to provide the poorest among us with everything they need for the seder.

That reason is found elsewhere in the seder text. When beginning the maggid, the retelling of the exodus, we declare: “Let all who are hungry, come and eat.” Mandating that even the poorest of the poor are part of the “all” is a message not to the impoverished, and not to the administrators of the local food pantry, but to us. We have a responsibility to make sure that no one in our community is living hand to mouth. And, if those efforts remain unsuccessful, we have a responsibility to invite those people into our homes and to provide each one with a chair to recline on, four cups of wine, and — it goes without saying — sufficient food and matzah. Only then can we all be free.

Read all of Pesachim 99 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 28th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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