The four cups of wine, known in Hebrew as arba kosot, are drunk by each participant at the Passover seder service.
This ceremony is prescribed by the Mishnah as a duty to be observed by even the poorest man (Pes. 10: 1). The four cups are drunk in the following order: (1) the Kiddush at the start of the seder; (2) at the conclusion of the main part of the Haggadah which ends with the Ge’ullah (“Redemption“) benediction; (3) at the end of the Grace after Meals; and (4) at the conclusion of the Nishmat hymn (“Birkat ha-Shir“). Only the second and fourth cups were added for the seder meal since the drinking of the two other cups forms part of every meal on Sabbaths and holidays. The reason for four cups is based by the rabbis upon the midrashic interpretation of Exodus 6:6–7, where four different terms of deliverance are employed: “I will bring you out … deliver you … redeem you … and will take you to Me for a people,” etc. (Ex. R. 6:4). Other symbolic explanations for the four cups are that they correspond to the four cups of Pharaoh mentioned in Genesis, ch. 40, or to the four ancient kingdoms which oppressed Israel and for which God requites Israel with four cups of consolation (TJ, Pes. 10:1, 37b–c).
Other examples of the special symbolic significance of the number four in the Haggadah are the Four Questions (“Mah Nishtannah“). Four Sons, and the four types of food at the seder meal: unleavened bread (matzah), lamb, bitter herbs, and ḥaroset. Some rabbis in the Talmud required a fifth cup of wine for the fifth expression of redemption “I shall bring you” (Pes. 118a, according to the text found in R. Hananel and Alfasi); this became symbolized in the cup of Elijah on the seder table. The four cups of wine should be drunk in a reclined position, as in Roman times reclining was a sign of freedom. Each cup has to contain at least a ¼ log (0.137 liter; Sh. Ar, OḤ 472:9). Red wine is to be preferred but because of the blood accusations in Europe, white wine was often used (see Blood Libel ).
Sources:Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.