The Four Cups of Wine: Their Meaning and Significance

Even though there are many reasons brought down in the Gemara for the drinking of the four cups of wine, one of the many answers is that it represents the four different phrases or expressions used in our redemption. They are: 1) V’hotzeisi 2) V’hitzalti 3) V’goalti 4) V’lokachti

In order to properly understand what these four different phrases are all about, and why we drink a cup of wine for each one of them let me tell you a short story that will help clarify it.

Meir Senderowitz was arrested by the notorious KGB in Russia for the terrible crime of teaching Torah to children. His punishment was five years in Siberia- a word that sent terror into the hearts of every Jew. He was placed in a unit whose job it was to clear a forest and lay down railroad tracks. The first winter was an extremely harsh one. Temperatures dropped past 40 degrees below zero. Strong winds made it feel even colder. Working under these conditions was frightful. Each day was a struggle with death. The food the prisoners received was no more that a starvation diet, just barely enough to survive. Meir’s strength was slowly failing. He knew that he couldn’t last much longer under these inhuman conditions.

And then suddenly a miracle took place. It happened on a particularly harsh winter day. After having worked in the frigid icy weather, he suddenly collapsed from exhaustion. His whole body was completely frozen and he was unable to lift himself off the ground. As he lay there helpless on the ground, he gave out a deep and anguished cry to Hashem. “Please, Hashem, help me,” he cried out. The cry came from the very depth of his heart and reached the kisei hakovod itself. Moments passed, and then he suddenly felt two hands lifting him from behind and carrying him somewhere. He lost consciousness. When he awoke he realized he was laying in a bed covered with thick blankets. A doctor stood next to him feeling his pulse. “I found you just in the nick of time,” said the doctor. “A short while later and you would have been dead.”

He spent the next few days laying in bed and recuperating. The strange doctor whom he had never before seen or met, would be constantly at his side and giving him the best of care.

“Listen here,” said the doctor to him one night when they were all alone. “Let me tell you a secret which you must not reveal to anyone. I too am a Jew. I was brought up in a Christian house, and my friends think I am really one of them. I’ve just recently been assigned to this camp and I’ll try helping you as much as I can. Perhaps one day I’ll even get you out of here. In the meantime, I’ve given instructions that you’re far too weak and sick to work on the outside. You will be reassigned to kitchen duty instead. I do hope that will make things much easier for you. Just remember not to reveal my secret to anyone.”

Sure enough, Meir was now reassigned to kitchen work. The work was now comparably easy. It was nice and warm inside. Being in the kitchen also gave him easy access to the food. He no longer was starving. His work was far easier than before. At least now he found it bearable. At least it wasn’t as tortuous as before. He felt forever indebted to his new friend the doctor, for what he had done for him.

Of course he still missed his freedom. He was still locked up. He still had to work all day peeling potatoes. Cleaning the dishes. It was work, work, work, from early morning to late at night.

One evening, as he was walking back to his small bunker in which he slept, he once again met the doctor. He, of course, thanked the doctor greatly for all he had done for him. The doctor then told him that he had a plan to get him out of this prison camp. He had worked out a very clever plan, whereby he could escape. Yet there was a slight risk involved. There was always the possibility that he would get caught. Was he ready to take the risk, the doctor asked? Meir was at once filled with great excitement. Yes, he was more than willing to give it a try. The doctor immediately gave him all the details.

The following morning he would be driving into the nearby village in order to pick up some medicine. The wagon would be stacked full of wood. He was to climb under the wood very early the next morning. Certainly the guard wouldn’t bother unloading the wood. He would then let him off near the woods from where he could make his escape. In fact, he even gave him a map of the woods and told him where he could best hide so he wouldn’t be caught.

The plan worked exactly as they had hoped, and Meir now made his way into the forest, carefully following the map the doctor had made for him. When his disappearance from the camp was discovered, a great search was started to try and find him. Yet try as they may, he remained carefully hidden from their eyes. A few days later, when he was sure that they had given up the search for him, he came out of hiding and continued on his way.

How great he now felt. He was no longer required to work day in and day out. He was free at last. He could now do as he wanted. He looked around at the trees, the flowers, the beautiful houses and gardens. How wonderful he now felt. He was a new human being. He was like a reborn man. What great thanks he owed to his friend the doctor, for all he had done for him. Yet he still had to be very careful. He would wander about all day long and sleep in the forest during the night.

He knew that if he were caught, he’d be put right back into the prison camp. Whenever he saw police he would quickly run the other way. True, he didn’t have to work anymore; yet he still felt like a stranger wherever he went. He still felt imprisoned.

One day, as he was making his way through a small village, a car suddenly stopped right by his side. It was none other than his good friend, the doctor. They embraced each other with great love. “I just can’t thank you enough,” said Meir, “for all that you’ve done for me.”

“Never mind,” said the doctor. “Hop right in. I’m really happy I’ve found you,” he said to Meir as they now drove through the beautiful countryside. “I’ve been truly worried about you. I know they haven’t given up searching for you. I’ve been hoping I’d meet you in order to be of further help. Truthfully, the best thing to do for you would be to smuggle you out of the country. Of course, that’s not an easy matter at all. But I’ve got a very close friend who may be able to help. In fact, he lives close by to the nearby village. Maybe we ought to stop there and see what he can do.”

“You’ve already done so much for me,” said Meir. “How can I ask you to do anymore?

“Never mind,”answered the doctor. “It’s my greatest privilege to be able to help you. Please don’t even mention it”

After driving on for more than two hours, they came to a little farm village. They stopped in front of an old dilapidated farmhouse. The doctor jumped out of the car and knocked on the door. A heavyset woodsman opened the door. By the warm greeting they gave each other, one could see at once that they were very good friends. He invited them in, and they began a friendly chat. Soon the doctor explained why he had come. He needed someone who could smuggle Meir out of the country, and he was told that he had some experience at that.

“You came to the right place,” said the woodsman, “but I must warn you that it has its risks. If they catch you, then you can be shot dead at once.”

Meir had taken risks before. He was more than willing to take the chance again. “I’m ready to go anytime,” he said.

The woodsman explained that he would need some money that would be used to bribe certain people. He would also need a few days’ time to arrange the false papers for Meir’s new identity. In the meantime he was welcome to stay with him until the proper arrangements would be made. The doctor took out the money they agreed upon and handed it to the woodsman. They shook hands and the deal was made.

More than a week passed, and finally everything was ready. Meir now had a complete set of false papers giving him permission to leave the country. All the details were worked out, and soon Meir was on his way. Luckily everything went just as planned. A few weeks later, after traveling through strange countries, Meir had finally made it to Switzerland. He was a free man at last. What a great debt of thanks he owed to the doctor for all he had done for him. Finally he could do as he wished and walk where he wanted, without having to look behind him to see if he was being followed. He felt like a new person, like a person reborn. Only a person in prison can properly appreciate freedom. Still, he lacked a home of his own and a family he could say was his. He rented a small room in a small cottage and worked at odd jobs. He just managed to make enough money to earn a decent living.

One day, as he was standing in the marketplace buying some fruits and vegetables, suddenly he spotted a familiar face from the distance. Miracles of miracles! It was none other than his savior, the doctor himself.

He ran towards him as quickly as his feet could take him. He embraced him with all his strength. Nothing in the world could repay the doctor for all that he has done for him! It was a reunion beyond any description. The doctor was of course, extremely happy to have found him, and they both sat down to talk about all that has happened since they last saw each other.

“Well,” said the doctor as Meir finished his tale, “this must be a real heaven-sent miracle that I should bump into you by chance here in Switzerland. In fact, I just arrived here yesterday. I’m here on a visit to my family whom I haven’t seen in many years. How about coming along and joining me at their house for dinner tonight? I’m sure they wouldn’t mind at all. In fact, they are very religious people, and they would be pleased to meet you.”

Meir gladly accepted the invitation, and soon a new friendship developed. The people had a daughter just two years younger than Meir. There was an immediate liking for each other. No more than seven weeks passed, and the two of them got married. As they both stood under the chupah, the doctor watched silently. Tears of joy ran down his face. His heart burst with happiness. It was a wedding like none other before. They danced and sang and clapped and ate. As the wedding was just beginning and the first course was being served, Meir lifted up a cup of wine and held it out to the doctor. It was a toast of joy from the bottom of his heart. “This cup of wine, doctor, I drink in thanks and gratitude for the time you found me half dead and rescued me from the cruel slavery I had once experienced in the Russian concentration Camp.” He gulped the wine down and the singing continued.

Soon after he filled up a second cup of wine and called out once again. “This cup of wine, doctor, I drink in thanks to you for removing my work load when you helped me escape from my prison camp.” The people all clapped loudly and the dancing and singing continued.

A little white later, Meir once again filled up a third cup of wine and called out merrily, “This is to you, doctor, for having brought me out from Russia and making me a free man. L’chaim!” The music continued playing and they danced round and round.

Finally, as the guests sat down at the table once more, Meir filled up a forth cup of wine and held it up high before him. “And this cup I drink to you, doctor, for having given me everything I have today. For bringing me into your home and giving me the greatest joy in my life, and that, of course, is my wife. For that I’ll be forever indebted to you.”

I’m sure that by now you recognize the similarity and understand what the whole story is meant to teach.

Each of the expressions of redemption (leshonos of geulah) represents another stage in our freedom. For each one of these four stages we must give praise to Hashem over another cup of wine.

Over the first cup of wine we thank Hashem for having removed us from the burden of slavery. No more hard and tortuous work. This was Hashem’s first promise to us: V’hotzeisi eschem mi’tachas sivlos Mitzrayim– refers to the hard and tortuous work from which we were freed.

Over the second cup of wine we thank Hashem for releasing us from the state of servitude: “V’hitzalti eschem mei’avodosom

The third cup we drink in thanks of our freedom, and that’s “V’goalti eschem “

Over the fourth cup we thank Hashem for taking us as His very own nation. That’s for: “v’lochachti li l’om” Matan Torah is compared to marriage, as it says: “byom simchas libi, zu mattan Torah.”

Hopefully, we will soon drink the fifth cup together with Moshiach Tzidkeinu, when we all will join together in Eretz Yisroel and it will be: “V’hevesi eschem el ho’oretz asher nishbati l’Avrohom”

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