One of the three rabbinic obligations relating to the night of Pesach is to drink four cups of wine. In the tradition that we have inherited, those four cups structure the whole evening’s rituals, to the extent that each cup is attached to a different section of the Seder: (i) Kiddush, (ii) Maggid, the telling of the story, (iii) Birkat HaMazon, grace after the meal, (iv) Hallel.
The Israeli scholar Shamma Friedman claims convincingly that the earliest source which speaks about the four cups predates this tradition and simply instructs the celebrants to drink at least four cups worth of wine on the night of Pesach. Four cups was deemed an appropriate quantity of wine for a properly tipsy celebration. This earlier tradition seems to be linked to the obligation, repeated several times in the Torah, to be joyful on the chagim: “You are to rejoice in your festivals…” (Devarim 16:14). The elaborate structures of the Seder may hide an older, simpler tradition: to simply be merry at Pesach. This is a time for enjoying family and friends, for counting and celebrating our blessings, for singing funny songs, for drinking more than usual, for acknowledging our freedoms, for enjoying being part of an ancient tradition.
Maimonides codifies this requirement to rejoice in his Mishneh Torah – Laws of Yom Tov (6:17):
“It is forbidden to fast or recite eulogies on the seven days of Pesach, the eight days of Sukkot, and the other holidays. On these days, a person is obligated to be happy and in good spirits; he, his children, his wife, the members of his household, and all those who depend on him, as [Deuteronomy 16:14] states: ‘And you shall rejoice in your festivals.’”
He goes on to articulate two conditions that must be met for this joy to be appropriate. First, in 6:18:
“When a person eats and drinks [in celebration of a holiday], he is obligated to feed strangers, orphans, widows, and others who are destitute and poor. In contrast, a person who locks the gates of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his children and his wife, without feeding the poor and the embittered, is [not indulging in] rejoicing associated with a mitzvah, but rather the rejoicing of his gut.”
And in 6:20:
“And we were not commanded to indulge in frivolity or foolishness, but rather in rejoicing that involves the service of the Creator of all existence. Thus, [Deuteronomy 28:47] states, “Because you did not serve God, Your Lord, with happiness and a glad heart with an abundance of prosperity.” This teaches us that service [of God] involves joy…”
Celebrating in fulfilment of a mitzvah is not the same as self-indulgence. Mitsvah celebration must evoke a powerful sense of social solidarity with the disadvantaged in society otherwise it simply does not count. Jewish holidays are times for joyfully sharing our gifts, not hoarding them. Similarly, the joy of the festival is meant to be felt in the presence of God. We must not become joyful by blotting out our deepest take on reality, but by standing in Her presence. Maimonides asks us to nurture a festival joy that leads us beyond our narcissism and towards a deeper sense of our connectedness with all people and All Things.
Rabbi Joel Levy serves as Rosh Yeshiva of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, where he has taught for over ten years. He is the rabbi of Kol Nefesh, the UK’s first fully egalitarian Masorti synagogue. He lives in Jerusalem.