Who knows four?

The number four appears in the seder so frequently that its presence is often commented upon:

  • The four cups of wine — and the four terms of redemption and the four mentions of the word “cup” when the butler discusses his dream with Yoseif, the sources of this law;
  • The four questions;
  • The four “barukh“s in “Barukh haMaqom“;
  • The four sons;
  • The four names of the holiday: Pesach, Chag haMatzos, Chag haAviv and Zeman Cheiruseinu;
  • The four matzos…

“The four matzos“? Don’t we in fact have three (or, as R’ Moshe Feinstein and R’ JB Soloveitchik did, following the Vilna Gaon, have two) matzos on our seder table? What I mean by that are the four meanings we associate with the mitzvah of matzah:

  1. We start with “Ha lachma anya — this is the poor man’s bread which our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt…” The bread of servitude. “Lechem oni — bread of poverty.”
  2. Then we ask questions, and teach Maggid embodying the other idea of “‘lechem oni’, she’onim alav devarim harbei — that we answer upon it many things.”
  3. We have the matzah upon which one must eat the qorban pesach. Historically, this concept of matzah was given third, before the actual redemption.
  4. The matzah also represents the haste of the exodus itself. Rabban Gamliel’s is the matzah that we eat “because the dough lacked [the time] to leaven before the King of Emperors. the Holy One blessed be He, revealed Himself to them and redeemed them.”

In the song “Echad mi yodei’ah?” each verse combines the answers of the previous verses. So that when you get to “Who knows four?” the answer is “Four are the mothers, three are the fathers, two are the luchos haberis, one is Hashem…”

I would like to suggest that the answer doesn’t end after the word “imahos” (mothers), but includes the whole sequence. The meaning of four is due to the meaning of three, which flows from the meaning of two, which in turn comes from the One.

G-d is One.

Man is created in His Image, which means we exist to similarly be free-willed creative beings, but also we exist as recipients of His good. Therefore man lives in two worlds: G-d’s and the one we share with our fellow man. And these are expressed in the two tablets: one containing mitzvos between us and Hashem, the other between people.

This balancing act requires that we have three loci in our soul: our existence in this world, our existence in heaven, and the world within our minds, where we choose between them. The chesed of Avraham, the avodah of Yitzchaq, and the torah study of Yaaqov. Three are the fathers.

As actors, we act in three planes. However, in receiving from G-d, we realize we receive on planes beyond three — reception is perceived in fours. Rosh haShanah, when we act to repent and earn our redemption, we have a three-part Mussaf (Malkhos, Zichronos, Shoferos). Pesach, the gifted redemption, is in four.

The meaning of four is therefore built on that of three, which in turn comes from two and The One.

The work of the seder is therefore to make the transition from being a oni (impoverished), a creature batted around by the winds of fate, living in “Mitzrayim” between two narrows, between “the pan and the fire”. And both through thought and through deed we accept our redemption, becoming a servant of G-d.

To take things in a slightly different direction for a moment…

The Rambam famously breaks down teshuvah into four steps:

  1. charatah (regret),
  2. vidui (confession),
  3. azivas hacheit (abandoning the sin), and
  4. qabbalah al ha’asid (resolving to do better in the future).

Now, as R’ Ephraim Becker puts it, Mussar is about three things: the real, the ideal, and the path to get there. If we applying this to the four steps in Hilkhos Teshuvah:

  1. Charatah — One begins with an awareness of the problem.
  2. Transformation from the flawed reality to the ideal occurs via two channels — cognitive and behavioral.

  3. Vidui — verbally reinforcing the concept of change
  4. Azivas hacheit – implementing the new behavior
  5. and finally, with Hashem’s help, one can succeed at

  6. Qabbalah al haasid — and actually better live up to the ideal in the future.

The same pattern is seen in the “four matzos”:

  1. Poverty and suffering of the “poor man’s bread”, transformed through
  2. Torah study (“the bread over which we answer many things”) and
  3. mitzvah observance — including the obligation to eat the qorban with matzah, becomes
  4. redemption — “Hashem’s salvation comes as in the blink of an eye”, the matzah baked on their backs as they fled Egypt.

The four Mothers, the four elements of reception.

The story of Mitrayim and Yetzi’as Mitzrayim is that exile and troubles exist for the sole purpose of turning them into opportunities for growth and redemption. The seder is a mussar ladder. We not only recall the Exodus from Egyptian bondage 3319 or so years ago, but also the Exodus from the spiritual degradation. The Exodus is not merely a one time event, but an interruption of history designed to show us what is constantly occurring in our own lives.

That too is how the four cups divide the seder:

1- First cup :

Qadeish: necessary before drinking wine
Urchatz: necessary before…
Karpas: Vegetables, as in “the cucumbers we had in Egypt” that the exodus generation complained of missing in the desert, dipped in salt water resembling tears
Yachatz: breaking the middle matzah, because poor people need to save for later, and saying “Ha lachmah anya“. By using the cups to separate the steps of the seder, “Ha lachmah anya — this bread of poverty”, becomes part of Yachatz an explantion for why we are breaking the middle matzah, and Maggid begins with the filling of the next cup.

The first cup is dominated by symbols of life in Mitzrayim. Reenacting servitude. But also, the reason given for karpas and yachatz i s also to motivate our children to ask the questions upon which we base Maggid. We create an awareness or our need for redemption.

Then we fill the second cup…

2- Second cup:

Maggid: telling over the story. The matzah of teaching. A cognitive analysis of redemption. (I intend to revisit the structure of Maggid in a future post.)

3- Third cup:

Motzi, Matzah, Maror, Koreich, Shulchan Areich, Tzafun, Bareich: these steps will (G-d willing, soon) be the actual eating of the qorban pesach “on matzos and maror“. The matzah of the mitzvah, and of reenacting the night Hashem took us out of Egypt, eating the offering as they did on the night of redemption. An experiential repeat of redemption.

4- Fourth cup:

Hallel, Nirtzah: Praising G-d. The post-redemption Jew.

There were 15 semicircular steps up to the last courtyard before the Temple. The levi’im would stand on them and sing. When ascending them for certain ceremonies, they would pause at each step and sing the 15 chapters of Tehillim that begin with the words Shir haMaalos (a song of ascents) or Shir laMa’alos. Ffifteen then is a number by which we ascend to sing G-d’s praises, and speak of his loftiness. For this reason there are 15 things that Hashem did for us in the Exodus which we count out in Dayeinu — any one alone would justify the seder night. And there are therefore 15 steps in the seder.

Something to think about tonight, during bedikas chameitz: Chameitz then is the ignoring of this gift of redemption. Standing back when the opportunity is there. The passivity of letting the dough rise. Falling short on one’s Torah study and mitzvah observance; perhaps one even takes these tools in hand, but doesn’t use them redemptively. This is the chameitz of which the Ari haQadosh writes, “Anyone who removes all chameitz from their house is guaranteed to have a year without sin.”

Chag kasher vesamei’ach! (belashon “lo zu af zu“)

5 thoughts on “Who knows four?

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  3. I believe your interpretation of Eched Mi Yodayah is ALMOST correct. You state correctly that the answer to the later numbers does in fact INCLUDE the earlier numbers (i.e., they are not merely sing-song repetitions). However, you say that is only because the later numbers build on the earlier numbers. It is is more than that. The answer to each is two fold, singular and unified. The singular answer is that the epitome of four is the Imahos. The unified answer is that there are four things that together represent the fourth level: 1) the Imahos, 2) the Avos, 3) the luchos, and 4) Hashem. That Hashem is last is because “shebichlal devorov divreichem” – the epitome of 4 is Hashem, because all four are merely further derivations of what we should see in Hashem.

    • I am not awake enough to think about the question of cardinal vs. ordinal numbers to see if I would agree.

      But it seems from what you’re saying that “arba imahos” wouldn’t require their actually being 4 imahos. Most see the set being counted is { Sarah, Rivqah, Racheil, Lei’ah }. You’re seeing it as { Hashem, Luchos, Avos, Imahos }. That set is of size four regardless of how many mothers the Jewish people had. The whole song no longer derives meaning from the number of each item.

      I was trying to play both sides of the fence. That Hashem made us via 4 imahos because the imahos represent 1 step beyond what the avos represent. Thus, the size of both sets, { Sarah, Rivqah, Racheil, Lei’ah } and { Hashem, Luchos, Avos, Imahos } are the same not through coincidence. And similarly for the number of chumashim matching the size of the set { Hashem, Luchos, Avos, Imahos, Chumashim }. It’s not coincidence, but because chumashim derive their meaning by being one step in a progression beyond imahos (redemption), which is one step beyond avos (free willed action), which is one step beyond luchos (realms of action), which is one more than HQBH (since until He created, there were no multiplicity of realms).

      -micha

      -micha

  4. I think you misunderstood me. Broadly we agree, that there are two levels to each answer. For 11, we have the stars unto themselves, as an 11-count (cardinal) reference, or what I call the singular aspect of the answer. And there’s the ordinal aspect that the answer 11 includes 11 references – to stars, commandments, …, and Hashem. But you frame it as the ten predecessors being a precondition to the eleventh, while I frame it as a second set. Or, using set notation, you have cardinal {star1, star2, …, star11} and ordinal {11-stars-that-rest-upon{10-commandments-that-rest-upon{9-….}}}}}}}}}}}, whereas I have cardinal set {star1, star2, …, star11} and ordinal set {11-stars, 10-commandments, …, 1-Hashem}.

And your thoughts...?