Passover has always been a very intentional holiday for my family. Every piece of china or table dressing was selected for a reason. The Haggadah (or collation of materials), the prepared teachings, and the songs were chosen to enhance our celebration and generate questions and conversations.
The many courses served not only had family history sprinkled within, but also stories repeatedly shared with each bite. Nevertheless, the one item on the table that lacked complete intention was the wine.
Some years we sought new wines or read up on the most delectable. Other years we hunted for the best wines produced in Israel and maybe we’d choose white wines one year, reds the next.
Between the annual Passover wine search and the many events I’ve hosted over the years, I have developed a palate for wine. I recently realized that if we consider the symbolism of the wines, there is room to be intentional about our selection for the seder.
The Jerusalem Talmud (Pesachim 10:1; 68b:20) shares a variety of reasons for drinking four cups of wine. The most well-known (and most commonly accepted of those teachings) is that this is a freedom banquet, invoking God’s four promises of freedom. God used four different expressions of deliverance when promising Moses that the Israelites would be ushered out of Egypt (Exodus 6:6-7):
- “I will bring you out from the suffering of Egypt”
- “I will save you from enslavement”
- “I will deliver you”
- “I will take you for me as a nation, and I will be for you, God”
Knowing that each of the four cups represents one of these promises, perhaps it would elevate the ritual to choose a wine based on each message.
The first cup
The first cup represents God’s promise to take us out of Egypt and the suffering therein.
The Israelites encamped at Gilgal immediately after crossing the Jordan River on their way into the Promised Land (Joshua 4:19). At Gilgal, Joshua ordered those who had been born during the Exodus from Egypt to be circumcised. Joshua thereafter called the place Gilgal, saying, “Today I have removed the shame of Egypt from upon you”
Symbolic of the first promise, I might choose Gilgal’s Cabernet Sauvignon. Using this wine for the first cup invokes not only the traversing of the Jordan River by the Israelites, but the literal and figurative shedding of Egypt and suffering by our people.
The second cup
The second cup should be a cup of empowerment. It is a cup that calls to mind not only salvation, but our uprising, carried out from enslavement by God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm.
The name of the wine says it all: Power to the People Syrah by Shirah winery, based in California.
The third cup
The third cup carries a message of deliverance. Deliverance is about salvation and absolute redemption.
Redemption is signified by the ability to worship freely, but it is also the transformation of nothing into something, of arid desert into fertile plain.
In this case, two wines come to mind.
When the Israelites arrived in the land, they set up in Shiloh the ancient wilderness tent shrine — the Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting. This was not only demonstrative of their deliverance, but it was also the vehicle for prayer seeking continued deliverance. Shiloh Legend or Shiloh Mor would fit the bill for the third cup perfectly.
Another option, when we think of the blossoming of the desert, the Negev, we think of David Ben-Gurion’s dream of planting a forest in the Yatir region of Israel. The forest that Ben-Gurion planted in a semi-arid region that borders the desert became one of Israel’s largest forests (named after the Levite biblical city of Yatir). The forest serves as an experimental model for innovative methods for combating desertification. And the Yatir Winery vineyards were planted in the heart of that forest. Enter the wine for the third cup: Yatir Forest.
The fourth cup
This is the moment when God implicitly reaffirms our covenant, taking the Jewish people as an “am” — a nation, a people. It is in this promise that Hashem becomes the Jews’ God; our relationship is not only bolstered by this fourth promise, but is cemented. My recommendations include Covenant’s Blue C Adom or Blue C Viognier. And if the last cup must be a dessert wine, then Covenant’s Zahav Late Harvest Botrytis Chardonnay.
Think of the four cups as four toasts to freedom. By making your choices intentional, another layer is added to your family’s traditions and to the annual telling of the Exodus from Egypt.
Another important intention: Drink responsibly.
Rabbi Avi Olitzky grew up in South Brunswick. He is a senior rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minn.