The Fifth Cup of Wine


Every year I look for opportunities to add something to the conversation of the Second Night Seder that might have been lacking on the first night. The theme that I want to focus on today is moving from slavery to entering to the land of Israel. Passover has some very Zionist elements but only two of them are directly incorporated into our Haggadah. First at the beginning of the Maggid section,[1] we proclaim השתא הכא: לשנה הבאה בארעא דישראל, “Now we are here; next year may we be in the Land of Israel.” Then at the end of the Haggadah we state לשנה הבאה בירושלים, NEXT YEAR IN JERUSALEM! However, there is no direct statement in the Haggadah that the purpose of our being redeemed from slavery in Egypt was to serve G-d in the land of Israel.[2]

It is strange that the authors of the Haggadah chose not to focus on this theme because it is at the core of the biblical exodus narrative. In Exodus Chapter 6 Verse 6, G-d proclaims I will bring you out (והוצאתי) from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you (והצלתי) from their bondage, and I will redeem you (וגאלתי) with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments. In Verse 7 He continues and I will take you (ולקחתי) to Me for a people, and I will be to you a G-d; and you shall know that I am the LORD your G-d, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. The four verbs indicate the movement from slavery in Egypt, the place which is narrow, to becoming G-d’s people. They correspond to the four cups of wine drunk at the Passover Seder. However, there is a fifth verb in verse 8, And I will bring you (והבאתי) into the land, concerning which I lifted up My hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it you for a heritage: I am the LORD.’

To what does the fifth cup correspond? Some argue that it is Elijah’s cup, that which we fill but from which we do not drink. The Babylonian Talmud follows the tradition that we only drink from four cups,[3] stating that the first cup is drunk to sanctify the day,[4] the second cup is poured before the recitation of the 4 questions,[5] the third cup is over the festival meal and the fourth cup is over Hallel and the “Grace of Song,” which according to Rabbi Tarfon refers to Psalm 136.[6] Interestingly, Rashi, the medieval commentator on the Talmud par excellence, writes in his comment on the fourth cup in our version, (הכי גרסינן) indicating that there are other versions of the text. We know that there were multiple manuscripts of the Babylonian Talmud (בבלי) as well as the Jerusalem Talmud (ירושלמי).

It is the latter that I wish to turn to now. The Rif, Rabbi Yitzhak Alfasi, an 11th century Moroccan commentator who published a “cliff notes” version on the Babylonian Talmud, begins this section by referencing the Jerusalem Talmud. He cites sections of the text but he references Rabbi Tarfon as stating that Psalm 136 is said over the fifth cup.[7] The Jerusalem Talmud was an earlier version, compiled in the 4th century CE, and thus some argue that we should follow that tradition, even though the Babylonian Talmud has become authoritative. Maimonides references that some have the tradition of pouring a fifth cup but it is not obligatory like the other four.[8]

What does this have to do with us and why would the tradition have changed? One take is that the earliest tradition was the drinking of a fifth cup connected to the fifth verb about being brought into the Land of Israel. When it became clear that our ancestors would stay in exile, the fifth cup, and thereby the fifth verb about being brought into Israel, were omitted. Another take is that the fifth cup represents the fifth enemy kingdom, of Gog, which will lead to the coming of the Messianic Age.[9] I prefer the former take but whether it is historically accurate or not, I feel that we need to do something to acknowledge Israel as part of our Passover Seder. We tell the story of the Exodus, with the 10 plagues and the splitting of the sea, but our story is incomplete without its next chapter, the entering of the Promised Land, just like our Torah is incomplete without the knowledge that Joshua would lead our ancestors to conquer the Land of Canaan.

Tonight when you celebrate your Passover Seder, Let us reflect on what we can do to incorporate Israel. For some it might be the singing of Israeli songs before the Birkat HaMazon (ברכת המזון); for others it might be to talk about the significance of living in an age where there is a land of Israel, a land which so many yearned for and dreamed about over the years. While we are not yet at the Messianic Age, an age of true peace and brotherhood, we are at an age where we can return to and embrace our historical homeland and make it part and parcel of every Jewish ritual, thus demonstrating that it is always on our minds and in our hearts. כן יהי רצון , may it be our will to do so.

[1] הא לחמא עניא

[2] The next closest one gets is Dayenu at which point the exodus from Egypt is only the beginning, with the ending being given the Temple to atone for our sins.

[3] Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 108b

[4] Ibid, 114a

[5] Ibid, 116a

[6] Ibid, 117a

[7] Rif on Babylonian Talmud Tractate Pesachim 36b

[8] Maimonides Laws of Hametz and Matzah 8:10

[9] Joshua Kulp, The Schechter Haggadah: Art, History and Commentary (Jerusalem: The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, 2009), 175.

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