Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedCourtesy

Our Sages instituted the drinking of four cups of wine on the Seder night in order to increase the joy of redemption, and as an expression of freedom. Although on every Festival there is a commandment to rejoice by drinking wine, on Passover our Sages added to that, and instituted the drinking of four cups according to the order of the Haggadah, so that joy and celebration would accompany all the stages of the Seder night.

Even in the dark days of the suffering of exile, Jews continued to drink the four cups in order to express their faith in the redemption. Our Sages said that the four cups correspond to the four expressions of redemption, the four cups of punishment that God will make the wicked nations of the world drink, the four kingdoms that enslaved Israel from which God saved us, and the four cups of consolation that God will give to Israel.

This faith, expressed in the four cups, “he’she’amda lanu” (“it is what has stood by us”) to navigate the crises, disasters and trials, and to continue to maintain our vitality, until in recent generations, we merited that the words of Torah and prophecy about the ‘Ingathering of the Exiles’ and the settlement of the Land of Israel, began to be fulfilled by us.

Therefore, in these days when great challenges face us, we must strengthen our faith in the special calling that God has destined for Israel. May it be God’s will that, through this, we merit to stand firm in the great challenges, to defeat our enemies, to remove the threat from the borders of our Land, to liberate our captives, and thereby continue to build our nation and our Land, and continue to advance on the way towards the rectification and redemption of the world, with the rebuilding of the Temple, speedily in our days.

The Measure of the Wine

At this point, we will discuss the laws regarding the drinking of the four cups: The measure of each of the four cups, like other cups for a commandment, is at least a quarter-log, which is the volume of an egg and a half (Pesachim 108b), approximately 75 ml (Peninei Halakha: Berachot 11).

Ideally, one should drink the entire cup, but one can fulfill the obligation by drinking most of the wine in the cup, as long as what he or she drinks is at least a half a mouthful and enough to inflate one cheek (‘melo lugmav’).

This is the agreed upon measure according to the Rambam and other poskim (Jewish law authorities). Research indicates that this measure is generous compared to the average size of eggs in the time of our Sages. However, some later poskim of Ashkenaz (Noda BiYehuda, Chazon Ish), based on the belief that the wanderings in exile caused traditions to be forgotten, were stringent, and held that the size of eggs in recent times is about half the size of those in the time of our Sages. Therefore, in their opinion, one should pour at least 150 ml into the cup, and drink most of it or more.

In practice, the main opinion is the lenient one (see, Mishnah Berura 271: 68; 481:1). However, since in any case there is a hidur (a beautiful custom) not to be satisfied with the minimal obligation, meticulous mitzvah observers of all ethnic communities pour fine wine into a beautiful cup of approximately 150 ml.

Does the Wine Need to Contain Alcohol?

Our Sages said (Pesachim 108b) that in order to fulfill the commandment properly, one should dilute the wine of the four cups with water, for if not, the wine would be heavy and cause intoxication, whereas the commandment is to drink in the manner of freedom, such that the wine will gladden, and not intoxicate. Additionally, since in the past wine was homemade, it was difficult to drink, and by diluting it with water, it became easier to drink, and its taste, more pleasant. However, be-di’avad (ex post facto), even if the wine was not diluted, one has fulfilled the obligation.

It is important to know that when our Sages instituted the drinking of the four cups, they did not envision drinking grape juice, for in their days there was no way to preserve grape juice from the autumn harvest until Passover without it fermenting. Pasteurization, which prevents grape juice from fermenting and turning into wine, was invented only about 150 years ago. Without pasteurization, grape juice begins to ferment after three days, and after forty days it becomes wine with alcohol. Since the harvest was in the autumn, there was no grape juice available on Passover. Therefore, our Sages’ enactment was that all Israel, men and women, should drink four cups of actual wine.

Therefore, even for someone who gets headaches from drinking wine, there was no recourse to drink grape juice. It is told of Rabbi Yehuda bar Elai, that wine caused him such headaches that he wrapped a cloth around his head from Passover until Shavuot, but since he did not actually become ill, he was still obligated by the commandment. Now that we have grape juice available, someone who gets headaches from wine should drink grape juice, but one for whom wine does not cause headaches, should drink wine with alcohol, as was the intent of our Sages in their enactment.

The Amount of Alcohol Consumed

However, in order to fulfill the commandment in a beautiful manner, one should dilute the wine in order to drink it in the manner of a free man. Their custom in diluting was that a quarter of the volume would be wine, and three-quarters water. And since it seems they did not use the minimal size cups of a “quarter-log“, the cups were around 100-160 ml. This means that in each cup they drank around 30-40 ml of wine, and in the four cups together, they drank between 120-160 ml of wine. And anyone who enjoyed more wine, drank from larger cups, and consequently, drank more wine.

Some early Ashkenazi poskim (Rashbam, Tosafot) wrote that their wines were less strong, and their taste was good even without dilution, and therefore, there is no commandment to dilute them. Based on this, some later poskim wrote that one who wishes to dilute must ensure that the wine is the majority compared to the water, and if it is not the majority, it is not considered wine.

According to the research of Professor Zohar Amar, it was indeed found that in France and other northern lands, the alcohol content extracted from the wine is about half of that in the wine produced in the Land of Israel. This is because in the Land of Israel, thanks to the intensity of the sun’s radiation, the grapes contain much more sugar that turns into alcohol in the fermentation process. So the natural wine in the Land of Israel contains about 15% alcohol, while in northern France, it is about half of that. Thus, today, when wine generally contains about 13% alcohol, if one is meticulous that the wine be the majority, he drinks more alcohol (although people nowadays are taller and heavier than in the past, and consequently, in order to get the effect of the minimal measure, they need to drink more alcohol).

The Practical Halakha

One must drink four cups of wine in a way that the wine arouses a sense of joy, freedom and liberation, but not fatigue or intoxication. This law, like all the commandments of the Seder night, applies to both men and women equally (SA 472:14).

For this purpose, one must dilute the wine with water or grape juice in the appropriate measure. One for whom the wine is a bit difficult, should put about 20 ml of actual wine in each cup, and the rest grape juice and water, and thus he will fulfill the commandment in the proper manner, as our Sages instituted. And one who enjoys more wine, will put more in the cup, according to what is appropriate to arouse in him a sense of joy, freedom and liberation, but not fatigue or intoxication. One who has even a little difficulty drinking wine, can fulfill the obligation, be-di’avad, with grape juice.

The Significance of the Sanctification over the Wine

An important principle is expressed in our Sages’ institution of Kiddush (sanctifying) over the wine, and in the institution of drinking the four cups on the Seder night. People tend to think that holiness is revealed only in the spiritual realm, in prayer and Torah study, and that the more one afflicts one’s body, the more holiness one will merit. But our Sages, in their institution of sanctifying over the wine, taught us that holiness can spread and be revealed also through physical food, and not only through the basic foods necessary for human existence – holiness can spread even to wine, which is meant to bring joy.

Why Kohanim and Rabbis are Forbidden to Drink Wine

Seemingly, after we have learned about the value of the joy in drinking wine in the Kiddush and on the Seder night, we should ask: Why were the Kohanim (priests) forbidden to drink wine when coming to serve in the Temple, and why were rabbis forbidden to give rulings after drinking a revi’it (about 150 ml) of wine? Our Sages even said that Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, were punished because they entered the Sanctuary while intoxicated, consequently, this was considered a grave sin. And even though they were righteous and distinguished, since they sinned in this, they were punished, and died.

Wine should accompany a good and joyful life, but life must not be based upon it, because if in order to rejoice in holy service one needs wine, then the cleaving to God is not genuine, lacking self-sacrifice, and consequently, will not endure. In such a state, one would constantly need to add more and more wine in order to maintain the joy, until ultimately, he becomes an alcoholic. But when the joy of life is based on the truth and goodness it encompasses, afterwards, one can express it in all the various levels and hues of life, including in se’udot mitzvah (festive meals) and drinking wine according to our Sages’ enactment.

Torah Study for Its Own Sake

Similarly, the study of Torah must be based on the divine truth within it, and therefore it must be done with awe and fear, with trembling and dread, and through this, one can appreciate the greatness of life it encompasses, and rejoice in it. Only afterwards, when the Torah influences life and adds guidance and blessing to it, can one then add wine and the like, to the joy.

Our Sages said that this was the sin of Nadav and Avihu (Vayikra Rabbah 20:9), that in addition to entering the Sanctuary intoxicated, they also ate and drank at the time of the revelation of the Divine Presence at the giving of the Torah, but God did not want to punish them in order not to mar the joy of Israel in the Torah. As it is said: “And to the nobles of the Children of Israel, He did not stretch forth His hand; and they beheld God, and did eat and drink” (Exodus 24:11).

Apparently, Nadav and Avihu, who had great and good aspirations, thought that this was their innovation in the service of God, that one must serve God with joy, and for this purpose, one needs to incorporate drinking wine, unlike Moses and Aaron who always conducted themselves with strict solemnity. However, devotion to the Torah and the Sanctuary must be out of absolute loyalty to the holy, without any external assistance, such as drinking wine. In this way only, can joy and blessing spread to all the areas of life.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.