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April 9, 2011 / 5 Nisan, 5771
Unravelling the Mishnah of Tractate Pesahim
Week 2:
We continue the discussion of the last tractate in the volume of the Talmud called Pesachim which describes how one prepares for the Passover Seder.

Pesahim, Chapter 10, Mishnah 2

They pour for him the first cup. Bet Shammai say that he must first make the blessing over the day and then over the wine; Bet Hillel say that he must first make the blessing over the wine and then over the day.

After the lighting of candles, one makes Kiddush. The Mishnah instructs us to pour the first cup of wine. No one asks in the Mishnah why we pour the first of four cups of wine but proceeds as if everyone žknewÓ that this is the first cup of four. The Mishnah questions the order of the blessings recited over the first cup: Should we recite the blessing over the wine first - borei pri hagafen - or the longer berakhah - Kiddush - which recognizes that the Festival of Passover has begun. The law follows the School of Hillel which is our pattern today.

Truly our first question for the Seder should be: why are there four cups of wine and not two, three or more than four?

Many explanations about the four cups are suggested:

(1) They represent four monarchies that will precede the final redemption (Dan. 7);
(2) They represent the four figurative cups of punishment which the empire of godlessness is to drink before the final conflict and the four cups of comfort which are provided for Israel;
(3) They reflect the verbs in the Torah referring to the promises made to Israel by God. This explanation is somewhat problematic because Exodus 6:6 has only three promises: žI will bring you out;Ó žI will deliver you;Ó ž I will redeem you.Ó In order for the rabbis to provide the fourth promise, they needed to pull it out of Ex. 6:7 for žI will take you.Ó This also caused some difficulty because it omitted a fifth promise found in in verse 7, žI will bring you.Ó Our Sages clearly wished to sustain the number four but recognized a potential fifth cup would be a challenge. Their answer was simple leave it for Elijah to resolve when the messianic age finally arrives. That's why we fill the fifth cup but don't drink it - yet.
(4) Rabbi Simcha Roth suggests that four was used since it was more than the customary two glasses of wine for Shabbat (one for Kiddush and one for Birkat Hamazone). He suggests that this reflects an ancient tradition of drinking žmany cupsÓ of wine, which might also explain the fifth textual promise below and the fifth cup which we now call the cup for Elijah.

The Seder ritual as discussed in the Mishnah and the Gemarra constantly notes how the ritual symbols are covered/uncovered/lifted/brought in/ removed as well as the physical set-up for the Seder, the reclining, giving rewards and presents to the children and even žgrabbingÓ matzah from one another. These discussions were designed to be opportunities to question so that the žanswersÓ remind us of the Exodus and of the importance of freedom.

It seems that one of the definitions of freedom is the opportunity to ask questions and to expect responsible, informed answers. We pride ourselves on judging the quality of our education to include the depth of the knowledge underlying a question rather than the facile answer or response. Mah nishtanah. . . Any questions?

This week's Mishnah lesson was written by
Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner.
He created and is the editor/author/administrator of www.jewishfreeware.org. See especially for 5771 Pesah new and updated FREE Family-Friendly Haggadot: Hebrew/Translation/Transliteration ; World's Largest Seder Songbook; and Passover Activities. Millions are being distributed annually FREE with encouragement for sharing and unlimited copying for individuals, families, synagogues, religious schools, day schools, nursing homes, assisted living residents, community sedarim, military chaplains, prisons to more than 78 countries. Rabbi Lerner is also President, Foundation For Family Education, Inc. 501c3, an educational project for hands-on Jewish learning that builds Jewish memories.

The opinions expressed in this Unraveller are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the FJMC.

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