3 The Wine – Four Cups and what they symbolise

The Wine Video

During a Passover meal or seder, each person drinks four glasses of wine (or juice, if you’re a child or prefer not to drink wine!). They aren’t necessarily full, large wine goblets, in fact, there’s a rules about the exact minimum which must be drunk, if you’re going to be strict about it. (You can have a look here at some of the rules around what’s eaten and drunk at Passover.)

Whenever wine is present in a Jewish feast, it’s because it’s a festival, a time to celebrate, and wine represents joy. However, at Passover the specific number of cups of wine have a specific meaning, or meanings (as with everything, it depends on what branch of Judaism you come from as to what things are said to symbolise).

What the cups represent

The four cups are said to represent many things. Here’s a list of five reasons for the four cups from Chabad.org (you can read more here and here):

  1. #1 the four promises God gave to Moses in Exodus 6:6-8 (more on this in a moment)
  2. #2 the four evil decrees of Pharaoh (slavery, midwives murdering babies, drowning the baby boys and making bricks without straw)
  3. #3 the four exiles (Egypt, Babylon, Greece and the current one, from which the Messiah will free us)
  4. #4 the phrase ‘cup of wine’ is mentioned 4x in Pharaoh’s butler’s dream (in Joseph’s story in Genesis 40:11-13) which some say alludes to Israel’s freedom
  5. #4 the four forces of impurity listed by the Kabbalah

We’ve always followed #1 and include this passage at the beginning of our seder:

“I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians,

I will rescue you from their bondage,

and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments.

I will take you as My people, and I will be your God.”

Exodus 6:6-8 (NKJV) (I wouldn’t usually use this translation of the Bible, but in this particular instance it’s helpful in the way it explains these four promises.)

With each cup we say together a thanks prayer to God, celebrating:

  1. freedom (brought out from bondage)
  2. deliverance (rescue)
  3. redemption
  4. making us his people

I love how each of these can help us see the cross in a new light, how it brings us freedom from slavery to sin – we are free to choose to worship God, no longer bound to serve other gods. The cross delivers or rescues us from death; Jesus’ death means that we have eternal life, life in all its fullness, which starts now and continues for ever. Through the cross, Jesus redeemed us, bringing us back into right relationship with God. Through the cross, God made a way for us to be children of God, part of His family, His people, and for us to have Him as our God. I’m sure there’s lots more which could be said on this, but that’s something I love about Passover – there’s always more! Each year I try to explore a bit more and find more of what God has done for us. One year I’d like to do a New Testament Bible exploration looking at each of these elements in the new covenant.

Blessing over the wine

With each cup, there is a traditional Hebrew blessing (from the Jewish Mishnah and Tosefta) which is said (it’s the same as the Kiddush blessing said each Sabbath):

Baruch atah Adonai 

Eloheinu, Melech Haolam,

borei p’ri hagafen.

Here’s a link with more info about it and an audio chant of the Kiddush which I used to learn how to say the blessing. I liked learning it as it’s said four times during the meal, and so is something everyone can have a go at. We’ll look at more Hebrew in part 5.

Four Cups as Structure

One of the things we’ve done each year for Passover is tweak our Seder, putting in the things are most meaningful for us. This is especially useful if you don’t want to do the whole thing, as most people agree it takes hours to do a complete Seder. One way of organising what you’ll do and when is to think of the four cups of wine/juice as your structure around which you weave the food and the other elements.

Traditionally, the first cup of wine is at the start of the traditional meal, and it kind of kicks everything off.

The second is drunk during the maggid, as the Exodus story is told. When we get to the plagues, we use our fingers to drop a drop of wine onto our plates as each plague is named. This is because wine represents joy but our joy is not complete as the Egyptians suffered as part of the release of God’s people.

The third cup is drunk with grace after the meal (this when grace is usually said in a Jewish meal).

The fourth cup is drunk after the hallel, the psalms of praise which are sung after the meal.

While we use the cups as a structure for our meal, if you use this seder you’ll discover it’s not very orthodox in its  (there’s usually a series of 15 steps in a particular order), but we’ve found it helpful to include the things we do each week in our Shabbat meal (which I think of as a bit like a mini Passover). Something I’ve discovered, is that just as the elements used in a Passover meal represent different things to different people, the words they use are also different. If you look for a seder online, you’ll find there are ones written by and for all sorts of different types of people, depending on which branch of Judaism you are part of, where in the world you live, and who is included in your meal. I feel that because there is a wide variety of ways people interpret the seder, there is probably also room for our interpretation – and this sits well with all the things I do with GodVenture, where I’m always keen for families to find a way of doing faith at home which works for them in their current season. This means that most years I adapt our seder to fit with the age of our children and with the guests we’ve got coming. A great way to include guests is, if they are willing, to invite them to bring something to the seder, not just food (although that’s always good !) but to invite them to prepare one part of the seder. It might be that they can do a five minute re-telling of the Exodus story, or share a story in their own life when God rescued them. They might prefer to make name cards or place mats for everyone, or to research and bring gifts for the children when they find the afikomen. I really believe that I get out of Passover what I put in, so giving people a chance to put in a bit more is a way of helping them to get even more out of taking part in the meal.

One thing I always spend time doing is working out the food – and especially making sure the children (and adults!) have enough to eat early enough to avoid getting ‘hangry’. I do this by serving veg, crisps and dips from about 4pm. Then once we’ve start the seder, after the first cup, we’ll have a starter, which usually means we can hold out for the main course until after the 2nd cup (which includes the Exodus story). We then have dessert later. This is different for different families, but definitely worth planning carefully to help everyone enjoy the seder.

For a starter, we often have chicken livers, which is very Jewish. Most people don’t think it will be very nice, but is actually delicious – I’ve had quite a few converts over the years! Here’s a link to some recipes I’ve used, including chicken livers and a ‘vegetarian chicken liver’ which we tried last year and was really yummy.

Activity ideas:

1 Wine / Juice Tasting: If you have non-alcohol drinkers, including children(!) at your meal, you probably want to have a red juice alternative. While you could go with your normal red squash, we like to have something special, after all, it is a celebration. There are lots of different red juices that you may not be familiar with, so why not have a Juice Tasting session in advance, trying out a few and seeing which one you prefer. My children love Schler, which they call Children’s Champagne, so that will usually wine, but adults wanting an alternative to wine may like an organic grape juice.

2 Plan your seder: If you’re planning to do something for Passover, be it a full seder or one or two elements, it’s good to have a pray and explore and think about which parts would work best for your family.

3 Plan your food: You might also like to plan some food. I love researching new recipes so have put a link here to my pinterest board which includes recipes for (non-kosher) matzah, charoseth, horseradish, Damp Apple Cake and a slow cook lamb shank!

Next: Bread – Manna, Matzah and the Bread of the Presence

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