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Reflections on the Passover Service

April 2011

Just last night, Jews from all over the world sat down to the Pesach Seder, the festive meal that opens the Passover holiday. It is a culmination of weeks of preparation and anticipation. Everyone—young and old, religiously observant and secular—sits down at their holiday table, whether at a communal Seder at a hotel or local synagogue, or at a grandparent’s or friend’s home. In front of everyone’s seat is a goblet for the traditional Four Cups of Wine and a book. This book is called the Haggadah, which means “the narration”, “the telling”, and “the reciting”. The Passover Haggadah is the instruction manual of the evening. People joke that the holy book Jews have the most copies of in their homes, is the Haggadah. Even a Bible doesn’t come close, because a few copies of the Bible can service a whole family. But when people sit down to the Seder, everyone gets a copy of the Haggadah.

It is the prayer book for the night, and it describes the order of events and rituals, using a highly structured, rabbinically formulated order of instructions, organized into 15 steps. But it’s not your classic book. Instead, it’s a collection of literary works from assorted time periods. It contains Biblical passages, psalms and hymns, benedictions, prayers, and explanations, and is even interspersed with stories, parables and pieces of dialogue from Talmudic literature. The Haggadah is a rich compilation of fascinating passages, with something for everyone — even built-in breaks for hands-on-activities and the partaking of the traditional, symbolic foods. You can find a wealth of varieties and editions of the Haggadah. Some are illustrated with glorious ancient works of art, others with charming, comical cartoons. The Haggadah has been transliterated for those who don’t read Hebrew but want to read it in the original language, and has been translated into every language in the world!

The whole idea—the central purpose of this night—is to demonstrate our freedom—to experience our Exodus from enslavement in Egypt to serving G-d as the only true Master. The Rabbis tell us, “In every generation one should show himself as if he had been liberated from Egypt.” Memory in Judaism should not be a technical attempt to reconstruct an ancient event. The account of the miracle of our Exodus from Egypt should be internalized, dramatic and dynamic.

passover plate Throughout the Seder, Jews are commanded to drink Four Cups of Wine. This is by no means a social ritual to loosen our tongues; it is by no means a way to cause lightheadedness and frivolity. On the contrary. When Jews partake of wine during the Sabbath and holidays, it is a way of sanctifying the day… a way to infuse that special time with spirituality. Wine is considered a royal drink, one that symbolizes freedom. It is the appropriate beverage for the night when we celebrate our freedom from Egyptian bondage.

Each cup of wine has its specific time and purpose during the evening’s rituals and each one has its own benediction, its own specific prayer.

The first cup of wine accompanies the Kiddush, the Sanctification benediction. The function of Kiddush is to give expression to the Sanctification of Time … that is, the ability of Time to be invested with holiness. This sanctification manifests itself in relation to Shabbat and the Holidays. The Shabbat was sanctified by G-d, in order for us to remember both the creation and the Exodus. We were commanded to sanctify the Festivals by means of establishing the New Moon. Sanctifying time with holiness.

In the Kiddush, we thank G-d for being “the One Who made Israel holy, and thereby gave Israel the mastery over time to be able to bestow holiness upon the Festivals.”

“Blessed are You, our G-d… Who has chosen us from all nations… and sanctified us with His commandments. And You have lovingly given us appointed times for gladness, feasts and seasons for joy, this Feast of Matzas, the season of our freedom, a holy convocation in memoriam of the Exodus from Egypt… In gladness and joy You granted us a heritage…”

Interesting that the reference to G-d as the One who brought us out of Egypt, is also mentioned in the Kiddush recited every Shabbat and every other Jewish holiday. Because without that Exodus, we would have never been able to serve G-d. We would still be enslaved to a pagan king… a mere mortal in Egypt. But during Passover, the Kiddush is especially meaningful. We are commemorating the actual time when our nation was redeemed and given the chance to serve the true King! To symbolize that freedom, that sense of royalty, everyone pours the wine for someone else at the table, filling the goblets with a sweet red wine. During the year, only the head of the household recites Kiddush while everyone else listens and answers Amen. Tonight, everyone rises—everyone lifts their cups and recites the Kiddush aloud, together. And then we sit down and sip the wine, reclining on our sides against plump pillows placed on our chairs, adding to the feeling of majesty. Tonight, at the Seder, we are all kings!

Then we recite the blessing over wine, “Blessed are You, Oh G-d, King of the Universe, Who created the fruit of the vine”, recline, and drink the first cup of wine.

The Second Cup is drunk after the main part of the Haggadah– the fulfillment of the commandment of “Telling the Story of the Exodus of the Jewish People from Egypt.”

The first part of Song of Praise has been recited, in which G-d is praised for being our constant source of salvation in every generation of our Jewish history. And then we lift the second cup of wine and recite the following text:

“Blessed are You, King of the Universe, Who redeemed us and redeemed our fathers from Egypt and brought us to this night… enabled us to celebrate the future holidays in peace, joyful in the rebuilding of Your city and exultant in Your service… We shall sing a new song of thanks to You for our redemption and for the emancipation of our souls. Blessed are You Who redeemed Israel.”

Sitting around the table, here in Israel, the place of the future Redemption, surrounded by my husband, my mother, my in-laws, my children, my grandchild, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews… I feel the Salvation is imminent. I feel the time is right for the Messiah and for finally celebrating the festivals in Jerusalem at the Temple, may it be speedily rebuilt.

Then we recite the blessing over wine, “Blessed are You, Oh G-d, King of the Universe, Who created the fruit of the vine”, recline, and drink the second cup of wine.

The third cup is drunk at the conclusion of the “Bircat HaMazon,” the Grace After Meals. It represents our gratitude to G-d for being the “Zan et HaKol,” the One Who sustains all of Creation, Who showers blessings upon the Land of Israel, during Festivals, the One Who defined the unique holiness of each one, and the One Who is rebuilding and will continue to rebuild Jerusalem. The last paragraph of the Grace after Meals is especially lovely:

“You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing. Blessed is the man who trusts in G-d, then G-d will be his security. I was a youth and also have aged, and I have not seen a righteous man forsaken… G-d will give might to His people; G-d will bless His people with peace.”

Immediately following this hymn, we recite the blessing over wine, “Blessed are You, Oh G-d, King of the Universe, Who created the fruit of the vine”, recline, and drink the third cup of wine.

The Fourth Cup is drunk after the concluding portion of the Song of Praise is recited. This portion is focused on the future, and asks G-d to redeem Israel and humanity – at-large, and usher in the period spoken of by the Prophets:

“The soul of every living thing will bless Your Name, Oh G-d; the spirit of all flesh shall always glorify and exalt Your remembrance, our King. From this world to the World to Come, You are God, and other than You we have no king, redeemer, or savior. He who liberates, rescues and sustains, answers and is merciful in every time of distress and anguish, we have no king, helper or supporter but You!

“God of the first and the last, God of all creatures, Master of all Generations, Who is extolled through a multitude of praises, Who guides His world with kindness and His creatures with mercy. Hashem is truth; He neither slumbers nor sleeps. He Who rouses the sleepers and awakens the slumberers. Who raises the dead and heals the sick, causes the blind to see and straightens the bent. Who makes the mute speak and reveals what is hidden. To You alone we give thanks!

“Were our mouth as full of song as the sea, and our tongue as full of joyous song as its multitude of waves, and our lips as full of praise as the breadth of the heavens, and our eyes as brilliant as the sun and the moon, and our hands as outspread as the eagles of the sky and our feet as swift as hinds — we still could not thank You sufficiently, HaShem our God and God of our forefathers, and to bless Your Name for even one of the thousands and myriads of favors, miracles and wonders that you performed for our ancestors and for us.”

At that time in the future, all of humanity will come to the realization that “To you it is good to give thanks, and to Your Name it is fitting to sing,” because truly, G-d is the “Almighty King, Life of the Universe.”

We finish this magnificent hymn of praise, and then, we recite the blessing over wine, “Blessed are You, Oh G-d, King of the Universe, Who created the fruit of the vine”, recline, and drink the fourth and last cup of wine.

Why four cups of wine? When G-d had spoken to Moses of the impending Exodus, He used four terms of redemption: “Therefore tell the Children of Israel that I am G-d, and I will take you away from the oppression of Egypt, I will free you from their slavery, and I will liberate you with an outstretched arm and great judgments. I will claim you for me as a people, and I will be your G-d. You will know that I am your G-d who is bringing you out of the oppression of Egypt”. (Exodus 4:6-8)

The first act of Redemption that G-d did for us in Egypt was to stop the oppression. Therefore, the First Cup commemorates “I will take you away from the oppression.”

The second act of Redemption that G-d did for us in Egypt was to end the slavery. Therefore, the Second Cup commemorates “I will free you from their slavery.”

The third act of Redemption that G-d did for us in Egypt was to rescue us from Egypt with many miracles. Therefore, the Third Cup commemorates “I will liberate you with an outstretched arm.”

The fourth act of Redemption that G-d did for us was to bring us to Mount Sinai, give us the Holy Torah, and declare us as his Chosen People. Therefore, the Fourth Cup commemorates “I will claim you for me as a people, and I will be your G-d.”

Some say the Four Cups symbolize four stages of salvation. The first cup symbolizes salvation from harsh labor, and this began as soon as the plagues were introduced. The second cup can symbolize salvation from servitude, or the day the Jews actually left Egypt. The third cup represents The Splitting of the Sea, after which the Jews felt relief that the Egyptians could no longer recapture them. The final and fourth stage of salvation could be signified by becoming a nation at Sinai with the giving of the Ten Commandments.

During the Seder we can experience these elements of redemption in a spiritual sense, by each leaving our personal “Egypt” and our servitude to our evil inclinations and our egos.

Some commentators say that the four cups symbolize freedom from our four exiles: The Egyptian, Babylonian and Greek exiles and our current exile, which we are in the process of being released from, beginning with the creation of the State of Israel and culminating, hopefully soon, with the coming of the Messiah.

There is a fifth act of Redemption mentioned in those verses from Exodus: “I will bring you to the land I have sworn to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and I will give it to you as an inheritance, I am G-d.” The fifth act of Redemption was to bring us to the Land of Israel. Unfortunately, that was not permanent, and indeed, even now, when many Jews live in Israel, not all Jews have returned, and it is not the kingdom that G-d has promised us.

Yet there is a wonderful, hopeful custom, to fill a fifth cup—one additional cup—and place it prominently on the center of the table. We are told that G-d will send us the Prophet Elijah before the Final Redemption, to prepare us for the coming of the Messiah. For this reason, we call this cup of hopefulness, the Cup of Elijah. We do not drink from this cup, but we pray that soon the Jewish people will be brought to reside permanently in the Land of Israel, the Third Temple will be built in Jerusalem, and peace, justice and tranquility will reign supreme for the Jewish people and all humanity.

According to Jewish tradition, Elijah the Prophet visits every Jewish home on Seder night. This fifth cup of wine on the Seder table is for Elijah. Just before the point in the Seder when Elijah the prophet is mentioned, we open the door of the household and stand up from our seats at the Seder table, to welcome Elijah into our homes. It’s always fun to watch the young children, their faces alight with untainted faith, turn towards the door, feeling the spirit of holiness, not bothered by the fact that they are not actually seeing the form of a man. It’s also fun to jiggle the table a bit, so when they turn back to the Seder table they can “see” that Elijah has graced our gathering by sipping a bit from the cup of wine we put out for him. G-d wishes joy and redemption, not only for the Jewish people, but for all humanity; we invoke the spirit of Elijah the Prophet to renew our hope that peace, joy, and redemption will come to all people on earth. Amen.

Shira Schwartz
Christian Friends of Israeli Communities