April 16, 2024
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A Hidden Meaning in the Last Two Cups at the Seder

While the entire Pesach Seder is centered around retelling the story of our redemption from Egypt, the primary demonstration of publicizing this miracle (pirsumei nisa) is through drinking four cups of wine. Most discussions of this mitzvah treat the four cups as a single unit (for example, the community must supply funds—or, in the absence of charitable funds, one must sell the clothes off one’s back—in order to have four cups of wine at the Seder) or as four separate mitzvot (Kiddush, telling the story of the redemption, the blessing after the meal, and Hallel). However, in Pesachim 108a, Rav Nachman separates the mitzvah into two parts: the first two cups and the last two cups. One is only required to lean for only two cups of wine, either the first two cups or the last two cups, with both opinions given in the Talmud.

Expanding on the first opinion, the Talmud explains that Rav Nachman says that the last two cups do not require leaning since we have completed the official retelling of the redemption and “ma d’hava hava”—literally, whatever happened already happened, so why bother publicizing the miracle further? This language encapsulates a view that rabbinic Judaism is fundamentally not interested in history, popularized by Prof. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi in “Zachor.” For example, on Yoma 5b, the Gemara uses this phrase to cut off a question about the order in which Moshe dressed Aharon during the inauguration of the Mishkan.

In the context of the Seder night, which revolves around the passing down of the historical memory of the redemption from Egypt from generation to generation, Rav Nachman’s usage of this phrase is unmistakably jarring. Just because we have finished the formal readings in the Haggadah, we are done celebrating our freedom? Aren’t we supposed to retell the story of the redemption throughout the meal and even afterward into the night until our eyes close on us, as codified in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 481:2)? Doesn’t the Talmud a few pages later (Pesachim 117a) go into depth describing the various praises that were sung when we were saved throughout our past, without a concern that this is mere history?

To understand Rav Nachman’s view, we must better understand how this phrase is used in the Talmud. “Ma d’hava hava” is mostly employed not to dismiss history but to describe a fact pattern that cannot be undone. To give a few examples:

1) Yoma 29a: Describing a bird sacrifice that was killed incorrectly; it can not be killed again correctly;

2) Ketubot 33a: Warning witnesses after they testified; we cannot now warn them before they testify;

3) Moed Katan 25a: Too much time has elapsed since a Torah scholar’s death; at this point it is inappropriate mourning for his students to rip their clothes.

“Ma d’hava hava” doesn’t mean that history is irrelevant; it means that historical facts are immutable. Even the usage of this phrase in the context of Moshe dressing Aharon and his sons can be interpreted as “we know that they were properly inaugurated; why are you doubting this fact?” Historical truth takes on the status of halachic reality.

From this perspective, the opinion that Rav Nachman’s view is to not recline for the last two cups of wine demonstrates an even stronger connection to the redemption from Egypt. At the Seder we are commanded to view ourselves as if we are the ones being redeemed. Placing ourselves in those shoes, we must see that God’s taking us out of Egypt was from the very first moment irreversible, that He would fulfill His promise that we would never see the Egyptians again from the day we crossed the Yam Suf. From then on, we must only see ourselves as free Jews, as if the redemption was “old news.” From Rav Nachman’s view, what better way to demonstrate our position as fully redeemed Jews than to not recline but instead drink the last two cups normally?

While our practice is to accommodate both views of Rav Nachman’s opinion and lean for all four cups, when we pick up the last two cups of wine we should pause and reflect on the absolute historical certainty of our redemption. From this moment, may we continue to deepen our connection to our God of our history throughout the year.


Hesh Luber lives in Teaneck with his wife and children.

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