Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Discussing the Exodus over four cups of wine

In a well-known passage in the Haggadah (okay, I guess they're all well-known), the sages invoke some creative textual interpretation to determine how many plagues the Egyptians really suffered.

Aside from the ten plagues in Egypt, says Rabbi Yossi the Galilean, they suffered another fifty at the Red Sea. Rabbi Eliezer sees his bid and raises him: Each plague was itself fourfold, yielding forty plagues in Egypt and two hundred at the sea. Not to be outdone, Rabbi Akiva finds the plagues to be fivefold, making fifty in Egypt and two hundred fifty at the sea.

Note that Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva attended the famous all-night seder in Bnei Brak described earlier in the Haggadah. Perhaps that's where they were discussing Rabbi Yossi's interpretation of the plagues.

Growing up with this text, one takes it for granted. On reflection, though: What's up? Some of the leading Mishnaic sages are deliberating about the plagues in the Passover story, and all they can do is compete over who can fit more plagues on the head of a pin? It may be clever, but how does it contribute to deepening our understanding of the Exodus?

Following proper Dvar Torah form (as described by Rav Nathan Kamenetsky in this lecture), I'll let you think about that while I go off on a tangent, promising to return to the question later.

I'm not much of a drinker. Typically, I drink more alcohol at the Pesach seder than on any other occasion. Purim notwithstanding, only on Pesach do we have an obligation to drink four cups of wine. Since I drink so infrequently, I like to be machmir (stringent) on Passover, drinking four full cups of real wine, not grape juice. Consequently, by the end of the evening I tend to be a drop tipsy.

Not drunk, mind you. I've never been drunk and I have no desire to try it. By the fourth cup of wine I may be experiencing speak-before-you-think lightheadedness. Certainly not slurring-speech-and-staggering sloshed, let alone collapsed-in-pool-of-vomit drunk. I can still carry on an intelligent conversation, though it may be more of a challenge than usual. I may be more likely than usual to lapse into silliness or frivolity. Most of my family and friends don't notice anything out of the ordinary.

In case I'm not sufficiently clear: I find actual drunkenness repulsive, and inappropriate on any occasion, Purim included. But a bit of tipsiness seems par for the course after the seder's four cups.

It seems entirely appropriate, too. The rabbis obligated us to drink four cups of wine, not orange juice. Surely they knew what the effects would be. Some authorities doubt whether grape juice is even acceptable for the Four Cups, arguing that the alcoholic effect is part of the reason the mitzvah demands wine (of course, ask your rabbi if you have any practical questions). The Talmud suggests as much:
Rabbi Yehuda Ben Beteira said: When the Holy Temple stood, there was no rejoicing without meat, as it says (Deut. 27), "You shall slaughter offerings and eat them there and rejoice before the Lord your God." Now that the Holy Temple is not standing, there is no rejoicing without wine, as it says (Psalm 109), "Wine makes the heart of man rejoice." (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 109a).

When he talks about rejoicing through wine, I don't think he was referring to the sugar content.

R' Yehuda Ben Beteira's statement is breathtaking. He implies that, in the absence of the Temple, the closest we can come to experiencing the joy of participating in the Temple services is to drink wine. At the Temple, meat was slaughtered and consumed in celebration of the festival, symbolically representing the sharing of one's festival joy with God. Today, without a Temple, we can't experience the high of that closeness to God in the same way; instead, our substitute is to drink some wine, livening up our seder meal with the frivolity resulting from some tipsy lightheadness.

Again, this is not to say that we should get drunk. On the contrary, says the Talmud:
Mishna: Between the third and fourth cups, he should not drink.

Gemara: Why? So that he should not get drunk. But he is already drunk [from the first three cups]! What is the difference between wine during the meal and wine after the meal? Wine during the meal does not inebriate. (Jerusalem Talmud, Pesachim 10:6)

So we shouldn't quite get drunk, but can I be the only one to notice that most of the closing songs of the seder ("Nirtzah") have the structure of drinking songs? The repeated refrains with lengthening verses, the fixed rhythms, the simple lyrics? (For contrast, see most of our Shabbos songs.) Ki Lo Naeh, Adir Hu, Echad Mi Yodea and Chad Gadya are dead giveaways. Sober, they're monotonous and repetitive. Tipsy, they're enlivening and a bit challenging.

I'm all in favor of liveliness, but the focus of the seder is the discussion of the Exodus story. How exactly are we to engage in serious intellectual discussion while tipsy? Granted, the core of the discussion, "Maggid", takes place after only one cup of wine. But the aforementioned rabbis continued their discussions until daybreak. How much intelligent discussion can take place after four cups of wine and a sleepless night?

Judging by the plague-counting discussion, I'd say not much. The point of that story, I think, is that it doesn't matter. The story is brought to illustrate the principle set out earlier in the Haggadah: "Anyone who tells the story of the exodus from Egypt extensively is to be praised." We are required to discuss the Passover story, and the more the better. It's not about how well we expound upon the story, or how insightfully. It doesn't matter if the discussion is deep and intellectual or frivolous and lightheaded.

We must say as much as we can, continuing the mitzvah all night long if possible. Even if we're too tired or too tipsy to say anything of great significance. It doesn't matter if we're analyzing the nature of divine redemption or just counting how many plagues we can wring out of a verse. If that's the best we can do after four cups of wine, we're doing as well as Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva could that night. Regardless, we are fulfilling the mitzvah of the seder, of telling the story of the Exodus.

Postscript: Last year, the first cup went straight to my head, leaving me lightheaded through most of Maggid. On the plus side, suddenly I understood what the plague discussion signified!

In part, it's to offer offbeat Torah interpretations like this one that I started this blog in the first place.


shanna said...

Yasher koach! I may very well have to print this out to share at our Sedarim this year.

Zman Biur said...


Please do. Why does that sound like a threat?