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What Do the 4 Cups Mean at Passover?

Many things related to Passover come in fours: four sons, four questions, four names of Pesach, and four cups of wine, to name the big ones, each with a special significance. 

Every part of the Haggadah is purposeful, and the four cups of wine in turn correspond with the four expressions of redemption mentioned in the Book of Exodus, where the Passover story is detailed. There are four promises G-d makes to the Israelites in Exodus 6:6-7

  1. “I will take you out…”
  2. “I will rescue you…”
  3. “I will redeem you…”
  4. “I will take you as a nation…”


Each part of the statement represents a greater level of redemption that builds off of the previous, remembered through each cup of wine over the Seder and their different blessings. Knowing what they represent gives context to each section of the Haggadah they fall into.

1st Cup

The first cup of wine is special as it serves two functions. Aside from setting up the house and lighting candles, the very first step of the Seder is to make Kiddush on wine, a similar process to entering Shabbat, but here everyone drinks a cup of wine.  

All Biblical holidays begin with wine for Kiddush, from Rosh Hashanah to Shavuot, and Passover is no exception. Like the Kiddush on Shabbat, the blessings and Torah verses recited over the wine are supposed to be a reminder of the holiness and unique quality of the day in question.

Therefore, every Passover Seder’s first glass of wine is a special Kiddush to mark the time of Pesach as distinct from all the rest throughout the year, while also signaling the first expression of redemption.

The line which this cup embodies, "I will take you out from their burdens…" is not a physical redemption but a mental one, which is made clear from the other stages of redemption. Their servitude ended 6 months before they left, but their mindsets needed to change from being enslaved to believing that they would soon be a free people, with personal responsibility.

2nd Cup

The second cup is a reminder of the physical freedom from bondage that occurred at the Exodus from Egypt. “I will rescue you from their labor…” corresponds to literally being removed from the service in the land, as it would not be enough to be a free people stuck in Egypt. 

As such, in the blessing it recounts the way in which G-d bent the laws of nature, like splitting the Sea of Reeds and other phenomena that allowed the passage of the Israelites eventually to the Land of Israel. 

This is therefore a blessing not only for freedom in a foreign land, but gratitude for that ability to be independent which only came supernaturally. This is why it is said right after Maggid in the Haggadah, recounting the details of the Exodus.

3rd Cup

The third cup of wine is poured before saying Bircat Hamazon, and drunk right after completing that. You may wonder what one of the statements of "I will redeem you" has to do with Grace After the Meal, which is recited every day of the year as a requirement after eating bread or in this case, matzah.  

Freedom always comes with risks; both too much and too little structure will lead to demise. A nation brought up in slavery needs to develop a sense of personal choice and with that, responsibility. 

Just as the meaning of the second cup built off the first, this cup comes as a reminder that physical freedom for the Israelites would have meant nothing without having received the Torah on Mount Sinai. Otherwise nothing would have structured their lives and sense of belonging. This matzah that was eaten comes with a requirement of saying Bircat Hamazon, and so the third cup of wine is a reminder that all the benefits of freedom come with the responsibility of using that in a holy way. 

On Shabbat for instance people say Kiddush over wine and even say Bircat Hamazon over wine, but at the Seder everyone has a separate cup of wine, instead of just one for the leader. 


4th Cup

The language of the fourth cup is the only one written in a different tense, because while the previous ones were all reminders of lessons an earlier generation learnt, this is a vision of the days of Mashiach (the Messiah). It evokes images of a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem in a land teeming with abundant agriculture

It gives explicit thanks to the Land of Israel on a scale of spirituality and inhabitability not possible until the final redemption. It reminds that while the generation who were brought out of Egypt experienced redemption on a level never seen before or since, there is still more to come. This is why it follows the section called Hallel, literally ‘praise’. 

Elijah’s Cup

The Cup of Eliyahu is not exactly a fifth cup. It differs from the rest in a few ways, namely that there is only one instead of having a separate cup for each person at the Passover Seder, and it isn’t drunk. It is put out in the hope that Eliyahu the prophet will come back to announce the arrival of Mashiach and start to rebuild the Temple and the Sanhedrin. We therefore leave out a cup of wine and open the door for him in case he arrives for which people like to get a unique cup that won't be confused with others’ at the table.

There is also a deeper meaning here. While thematically this and the fourth cup are linked to one final redemption in the future, it also effectively nods to compromise on a dispute on whether a fifth cup of wine should have been added. Eliyahu will come to resolve disputes, and in case the minority argument that there should have been a fifth cup is right, it is a sort of fifth cup. 

Passover 2023

Nothing in Judaism is random or without depth and a long history. That’s how the Seder only gets richer the more one gets to know about each item in the Haggadah and each item on the table. 

Make sure that your table is ready with everything you need for the Seder, from Seder plates, cups, and kosher wines here.



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