Passover: Why Is the Seder in That Order?

The holiday known as Passover in English has several different names in Torah sources.

Today it is most commonly called Pesach, in memory of the paschal sacrifice which was offered by each family in the Holy Temple when that was standing (and will be again, may it be soon in our time). Other names incude: chag hamatzoth, from the central observance, the requirement to eat unleavened bread (matza) on the holiday; chag ha’aviv, from the season in which it is celebrated (aviv, “spring”); and zman ge’ullathenu, “the time of our redemption” from the Egyptian yoke.

This last name, mentioned throughout the special prayers recited in celebration of the holiday, is derived from the so-called arba lechonoth hage’ulla, the “four terms of redemption,” as recounted in Exodus VI, 6-8:

Ani H-Shem, vehotzethi ethchem mitachath sivloth Mitzrayim, vehitzalti ethchem me’avodatham, vega’alti ethchem bizoa netuya uvishfatim gedolim. Velaqachti ethchem li le’am vehayithi lachem lElo-him vidatem ki Ani Ha-Shem Elo-heichem hamevi ethchem mitachath sivloth Mitzrayim. Vehevethi ethchem ethchem el ha’aretz … 

I am HaShem, and I brought you forth from under the travails of Egypt, and I rescued you from their service, and I redeemed you with an outstretched arm and with mighty judgments. And I took you to be My people and became your G-d, and you will know that it is I, Ha-Shem your G-d, who is bringing you out from under the travails of Egypt. And I will bring you to the land …

These four terms have become, together with the eating of matza and maror (a “bitter herb,” for which our family custom is to use ground horseradish), a central part of the Passover ritual, the Seder (literally, “order”). The Seder is ordered in the form of four cups of wine spaced throughout the ritual meal.

Each of these marks a stage in the emancipation of Israel and creation of the Torah-nation: Vehotzethi marks the end of Israel’s physical enslavement, under the Egyptian lash; vehitzalti marks the end of their spiritual enslavement to Egypt’s hedonistic, idolatrous culture; vega’alti marks their actual departure from Egyptian sovereignty; and  velaqachti marks the advent of the Torah-nation at the foot of Sinai.

It is interesting to note how each of these is placed in the Seder.

The first cup is drunk immediately after declaring the sanctification of the season, known as qiddush; only a nation thus freed of obligation to some other master can claim the right to dedicate time.

The second cup follows on the completion of the haggada per se, the formal recounting of the history of Israel, such as only a nation spiritually free is able to do.

The third cup marks Israel’s exaltation in leaving the Egyptian lowlands and reaching for the spiritual heights, rising an additional level in sanctity each day of the fifty days’ journey to the foot of Sinai.

Finally, the fourth cup comes at the conclusion of the Hallel, the songs of praise and rejoicing which represent the acceptance of the Torah, the great shira, the unending eternal symphony with Exodus XV, 1.

This leaves us with a question: Why, of all possible food items, is wine the one selected to represent the four leshonoth? Why not anything else?         

The answer, I believe, is to be found in the principle of halachic precedence known as qadima.

The blessings made over food have an order precedence, beginning with very specific blessings — on bread, leavened or otherwise; on other things  made of grains; on the fruit of the trees; on the fruit of the ground — and ending with the very general one for everything else. Wine is the only processed item with a level of qadima higher than the fruit from which it stems. Fruit juices generally fall into the category of “everything,” considerably lower in precedence than the stage of Israel’s liberation was a rise in the nation’s exaltation, its qadima above and beyond the others.

Which leads us to another question: the sharp-eyed reader will have noted that there is in fact a fifth lashon, vehevethi, yet unaccounted for. And there is a fifth cup, as yet undrained, hiding in plain sight on the Seder table: the kos shel Eliyahu, Elijah’s cup, the expression of the as-yet-unfilled promise.

Leshana haba’a bIrushalayim hebenuya! Next year in rebuilt Jerusalem!