Four Cups of Wine: A Path to Freedom


Many people have the impression that the Jewish tradition discourages drinking. There is little evidence of this in the sources. Jews are commanded to celebrate each and every festive occasion – Sabbath and festival, circumcision and wedding – with a glass of wine. While many of us use grape juice on these occasions, grape juice is a fairly recent invention. Fresh grapes are available only during the fall grape harvest, and if their juice is squeezed out it will ferment naturally unless the fermentation process is stopped by chemicals, a technique first developed in the early twentieth century. Until the twentieth century grape juice was available only in the autumn and only if one had a fresh bunch of grapes on hand to squeeze; otherwise, the only wine available to Jews for ritual purposes throughout the ages was fermented.

Plutarch, a first century pagan observer, found Jewish ritual so replete with drinking that he associated the God of Israel with Bacchus, the Greek god of wine:

… The time and manner of the greatest and most holy solemnity of the Jews is exactly agreeable to the holy rites of Bacchus; for that which they call the Fast they celebrate in the midst of the vintage, furnishing their tables with all sorts of fruits while they sit under tabernacles made of vines and ivy… And I suppose that their Sabbaths have some relation to Bacchus… The Jews themselves witness no less; for when they keep the Sabbath, they invite one another to drink till they are drunk; or if they chance to be hindered by some more weighty business, it is the fashion at least to taste the wine. Some perhaps may surmise that these are mere conjectures. But there are other arguments which will clearly evince the truth of what I assert. (Plutarch, Moralia 671b-f, “Who is the God of the Jews?”)

Plutarch may have erred in his interpretation of the facts and in some of the details, but his comment does accurately reflect the centrality of wine in Jewish ritual. Alcohol serves three distinct functions in Jewish ritual: (1) Nearly all ritual texts recited outside the synagogue are uttered while holding a cup of wine, which is normally drunk afterwards. (2) The four cups of wine at the Passover seder accompany the recitation of ritual texts, too, but in addition they are meant to induce a happiness or mild intoxication evocative of freedom. (3) On Purim we are bidden to get so thoroughly drunk on wine or other intoxicants that we are unable to distinguish between the blessed Mordechai and the cursed Haman. While halakhists dispute the question of whether this is meant literally and whether it is halakhically binding or even advisable (see David Golinkin, “To Drink or not to Drink”,https://schechter.edu/insightIsrael.aspx?ID=28), the notion of drinking oneself into oblivion on Purim is certainly part of the Jewish tradition, and is widely observed. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains this unusual religious rite as follows:

Nothing created by G-d has a negative purpose… On Purim we are required to elevate our understanding to the point that we perceive no essential distinction between Mordechai and Haman. For the ultimate goal in the creation of Haman is that he become a force for good, like Mordechai… Self-transcendence is the goal of our drinking on Purim. The state which transcends the limits of reason is related to the concept of transforming evil to good. From an intellectual perspective, good and evil have clearly defined boundaries… However, the infinity of

G-d’s essence (and likewise, the infinite potential of our souls) is not bounded by these limitations. At this level, “darkness is like light” (Summary of Likutei Sichos 7, Vayikra 3 inhttp://livingjewish.net/chassidus-page/a-mitzvah-to-drink/) .

It is the first two ritual functions, however, that characterize the four cups of wine drunk at the Passover seder: each cup accompanies the recitation of a ritual formula or text, and the collective experience of drinking four cups of wine is meant to induce a sense of freedom.

Each of the four cups is held in hand during the recitation of one of the texts in the Haggadah: the first cup accompanies the kiddush, as at every festival meal; the second cup is meant to be held aloft during the recitation of the story of the Exodus, although most of us lift the cup only at certain points during the recitation and at the very end; the third cup accompanies the Grace after Meals, which in tannaitic times was always recited over a cup of wine, whether on weekday, Sabbath or festival; and the fourth cup is held while thehallel is sung. Two of the four seder cups are thus simply the year round kiddush and Grace after Meals cups. The other two, accompanying the telling of the exodus story and the table hallel, are unique to Passover, but these are merely two additional examples of ritual texts given formal status by recitation over a cup of wine. Nearly all ritual recitations performed outside the synagogue are ideally recited over a cup of wine: Kiddush, havdalah, circumcision, kiddushin and sheva berakhot are well known examples.

When wine accompanies the recitation of a ritual text, the drinking is secondary to the holding of the cup. The important thing is that the text be recited while holding a cup of wine, and although the norm is that the person reciting the ritual text drinks of the wine afterwards, halakhic decisors dispute the question of whether and under what circumstances the wine must actually be drunk, how much wine must be drunk, and who among the participants in the ritual must drink it. By contrast, most authorities rule that each and every seder participant must drink his or her own four cups of wine. This is because in addition to accompanying the four ritual texts that make up the haggadah, the four cups of wine drunk at theseder serve an additional function, a function in which the drinking itself is of paramount importance.

In Yerushalmi Pesahim 10:1, 37c, Rabbi Yohanan says in the name of Rabbi Benayah that the four cups of wine of the sedercorrespond to the four phrases of redemption found in Exodus 6:6-7: “Therefore say unto the Israelites, I am the Lord. And I shall take you out… and I shall save you… and I shall redeem you…and I shall take you unto me as my people…”. According to these sages, the four cups of wine symbolize freedom and redemption. The Babylonian sage Rava, however, went a step further: he believed that the four cups of wine are not merely a symbol of freedom – they are actually the path to freedom. “The four cups”, he states in Bavli Pesahim 117b, “were instituted by the Rabbis derekh herut; since that is the case, we should do a mitzvah with each”. The phrase derekh herut literally means “by means of freedom” or “through freedom”, but it is clear that in this case it is not the four cups that were instituted by means of freedom, but rather freedom that is achieved by means of the four cups of wine.

The four cups of wine were instituted by the Rabbis as a derekh herut, as a “path to freedom”; they are the means by which we achieve the sense of freedom that we are commanded to experience on the first night of Passover. Rava states explicitly that their ritual use is secondary to the effect that they are meant to have at the seder: mild intoxication is identified with freedom. Note that this does not mean drunkenness. In Rabbinic times wine was normally diluted with water, and was not considered enjoyable if drunk straight. Because Rava considered drinking at the seder a means to achieving a sense of freedom, and not merely a ritual, he stated that if one drinks the wine without diluting it, “he has fulfilled the duty of wine, but not the duty of freedom” (Bavli Pesahim108b). Rava’s sense of freedom is clearly defined as a state of pleasant, mild intoxication, somewhere between sobriety and drunkenness.

In light of Rava’s conception of the four cups as “a path to freedom”, halakhic authorities are divided as to whether it is appropriate to use grape juice at the seder. During Prohibition, Professor Louis Ginzberg of the Jewish Theological Seminary wrote a long responsum arguing that Jews had no need for a religious dispensation from the ban on alcohol, since the unfermented grape juice that had recently been made available by twentieth century technology could be used for all ritual needs (for the historical background, see S. Yahalom, “Jewish Existence in the Shadow of American Legislation: A Study of ‘Prohibition'” [Hebrew], Tarbiz 53 [1984]). Ginzberg summarizes as follows:

We thus arrive at the following decisions: … From the point of view of Jewish law and custom, there is no preference to be given to fermented wine over unfermented. Both are of equal standing… As for the objection that has been raised against the use of unfermented wine for religious ceremonies on the grounds that it is against Jewish custom… There can be no doubt that in the past most of the wine used for religious purposes was fermented, since the process of preventing fermentation was unknown. But to base on such a fact the prohibition of the use of unfermented wine would be as unreasonable as to suppose that because only wax and tallow candles were used for lighting synagogues, the use of gas and electricity for that purpose is forbidden. (The Responsa of Professor Louis Ginzberg, ed. D. Golinkin, New York and Jerusalem 1996, pp. 130-131).

Ginzberg did not distinguish between the four cups of the sederand other uses of wine in Jewish ritual, nor does he mention the notion of “freedom” in this regard. Other authorities, however, do make such a distinction. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, for example, ruled that on Passover one must mix in a small amount of fermented wine with the grape juice in order to fulfill the obligation of derekh herut(D. Feinstein, Kol Dodi, New York 1970, pp. 5-6).

The uses of alcohol in Jewish ritual all have secular correlates. Drinking oneself into oblivion, as some Jews do on Purim, is of course far better attested in non-religious contexts than in religious ones. The two ritual functions of the four cups at the seder also have analogues in Western culture. The sense of freedom evoked by the four cups of wine at the Passover seder corresponds to the serving of alcohol at any festive dinner in order to impart a sense of well-being to the diners and facilitate cordiality and comfortable social interaction. The halakhic requirement that we recite certain ritual texts, including those in the Haggadah, while holding aloft a cup of wine corresponds anthropologically to the western custom of raising a glass of alcohol in a toast; in both cases the drinking is secondary to the sense of importance that the act of holding the cup imparts to the text itself. Raising a glass calls attention to the fact that this act of speech is different from normal conversation or discourse, and the sip of alcohol which follows serves a symbol of seriousness, as though the drinking in unison signifies assent to the text recited.

These two values, freedom and the diligent observance of ritual, are not contradictory. True freedom, according to the Rabbis, can only be achieved by commitment to Torah. May the four cups we drink at our forthcoming sedarim serve as both a symbol of the seriousness with which we take our ritual obligations and a path to true freedom for all.


Moshe Benovitz is a Professor of Jewish Law and Talmud at the Schechter Institute.