Perhaps the most fascinating halakha associated with the rabbinic commandment of daled kosot is mentioned in the first Mishna in Arvei Pesachim. The Mishnah (99b) states “…Even the poorest amongst Israel …must not drink less than the four cups of wine [on Pesach night] even if he/she [must receive a stipend] from the communal charity fund.”
The Rashbam emphasizes this point by stating that if the overseer of the fund cannot give the ani funds to purchase four cups of wine, then the poor have the responsibility to find funds through other sources, including borrowing, selling one’s clothing, and hiring oneself out in order to raise funds to purchase wine. The Talmud suggests “Meshum Pir-sumei Nisa.” Since these cups of wine proclaim the miracle of redemption celebrated on Pesach night, everyone is required to observe this commandment despite any financial difficulty.
How do we understand this? There are several commandments on the night of Pesach that commemorate the redemptive process, yet none of the others have this requirement. Furthermore, halakaha stresses that there is a maximum amount one is permitted to spend in order to fulfill a positive mitzvah. The Mishneh Torah states that a person who spends all of his/her funds to fulfill a mitzvah is called a chasid shoteh. This idea is codified by the Rema in the Shulchan Arukh) as well. It states: “When spending [to perform a mitzvah] do not spend more than a fifth [of one’s earnings] even if the result is the inability to perform a timely positive commandment.”
Why in the case of the four cups did the rabbis deviate from the maximum financial bound specified in Jewish Law when they legislated this law?
Perhaps there is another way of resolving this issue. Tosafot and the Rashbam paraphrase the Talmud Yerushalmi and state that the daled kosot represent the four stages in the redemptive process. However, if one looks at the original text of the Yerushalmi (Pesachim: chap. 10:1) one will find that Tosafot and the Rashbam modified the text. The Talmud Yerushalmi does not refer to them as “four stages of redemption,” but rather, “four redemptions.” Yiziat Mitzrayim was not one redemptive process; it was four separate processes. The exodus lasted one full year, slowly redeeming Knesset Yisrael and ridding them of the slave mentality that they acquired in Egypt.
Redemption Number One - v’hozeite
The Netziv comments that the first stage of the redemption process occurred during the plague of Arov. Seven months into the plagues, when chaos pervaded Egypt, the Egyptians began to ease the Jews’ workload. This gave the slave nation the opportunity to reflect upon freedom and its value, and reflect on life itself. The first bold step toward freedom is to realize the need and the value of being free. This is the process of being transformed from a piece of property into a person who can determine his/her own destiny.
Redemption Number Two – v’hezalte
Hashem asked the Jewish people to make sacrifices for their freedom. They were to be bold and to realize that they, as individuals, have rights. Hashem asks the Jewish people to be assertive and ask their Egyptian taskmasters for their stolen merchandise. Hashem asked Moshe to speak gently to the Jewish people, realizing that this is a difficult yet important transition. This is the first time that Knesset Yisrael, as a collective entity, was asked to be assertive against its masters.
Redemption Number Three – v’go-alte
The third component is the last that takes place in the land of Egypt. Hashem requested two positive commandments: the offering of the Korban Pesach and its prerequisite, brit milah, since it is only due to the merit of the blood of brit milah and Korban Pesach that the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt. These two commandments represent the Jewish people’s willingness to assert their own self-destiny.
In a very personal way, circumcision concretized an internal commitment that the Jewish people had to their own culture and unique destiny. After making this commitment, they had to express their mindset in a public forum. Through the procedures of the Korban Pesach, the Jewish people asserted their culture and values, even when they came in total contradiction with those of their Egyptians taskmasters. They reflect initiative by the Jewish people toward their own destiny; sacrificing uniformity and their physical safety with regard to their taskmasters.
Redemption Number Four – v’lakachte
The final component of the Redemption occurs outside of Egypt with Matan Torah.
Why was it necessary to give the Jewish people the Torah immediately after taking them out of Egypt? Does not the Torah represent an effort on the part of Hashem to make the Jews slaves to yet another task master? Indeed, we the Jewish people are called slaves of God, “For to me the children of Yisrael are servants; they are my servants whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt.”
Rav Soloveitchik explained that Matan Torah is a paradoxical experience, for one can only feel free when surrendering one’s freedom to Hashem. Often, we are prisoners to physiological and psychological constraints and social pressures. We are often coerced into certain roles by our employer or our community. In reality, we are never free because if we feel the pressures and coercions of our society, then our options are restricted, even when there are no physical shackles upon us. By surrendering ourselves to Hashem and the norms and mores of the Torah, we attain a degree of freedom. This empowers us to recognize that our lives need not be ones of fate but ones of destiny. Taking the Jewish people out of Egypt without this stage of redemption would have constituted a continuation of bondage.
It would seem that the commandment of the four cups of wine is unique in the following manner. While there are many positive commandments, both biblical and rabbinic in nature, none fully celebrate sacrifice on the part of the Jewish people. The Meshum Pir-sumei Nisah of the daled kosot is a declaration of the sacrifice on the part of the Jewish people in the redemptive process. At each stage, the Jewish people were compelled to give of themselves to reach that redemptive level. They had to: (1) reflect upon their lives and come to the conclusion that freedom bore new and difficult responsibilities (2) confront their task masters (3) assert their culture with rituals that were deemed repulsive in Egyptian society and (4) achieve complete freedom through agreeing to be servants again, this time to Hashem. Since this commandment symbolizes the sacrifice of the Jewish people, it is incumbent upon every Jew to sacrifice in order to fulfill this mitzvah. Even a poor person must ask for communal funds to fulfill his/her obligation regarding the drinking of the fours cups of wine at the Seder.
As we prepare for Pesach, let us all pray that next year we will drink the fifth cup of redemption, v’heiveite. We live in times in which we see the geulah, with all of its challenges, unfolding before us. However, like the first four cups of redemption, it is up to us to seize the moment.
By Rabbi Kenneth Brander