Five Cups of Wine at the Seder?

Talmudic manuscripts reveal the existence of a forgotten, fifth cup of wine at the Passover Seder. 

Dr. Menachem Katz

The Mishnah discusses drinking four cups of wine on the night of the Seder.

משנה פסחים י:א-ז

ולא יפחתו לו מארבעה כוסות שליין…
מזגו לו כוס ראשון…
מזגו לו כוס שני…
מזגו לו כוס שלישי…
רביעי – גומר עליו את ההלל, ואומר עליו ברכת השיר.

m. Pesahim 10:1-7

And they are to provide him with no fewer than four cups of wine …
Once they have poured him a first cup …
Once they have poured him a second cup …
Once they have poured him a third cup …
The fourth—he completes the Hallel over it and says the Blessing of Song over it.

The fourth cup provides an occasion for completing the Hallel, whose recitation already began before the meal.

The Talmud cites a baraita that connects this final cup with the recitation of Psalm 136, according to Rabbi Tarfon, or Psalm 23, following another opinion (b. Pesahim 118a):

תנו רבנן: רביעי – גומר עליו את ההלל ואומר הלל הגדול, דברי ר’ טרפון. ויש אומרים: “ה’ רועי לא אחסר”.
Our rabbis related: The fourth—he completes the Hallel over it and says the Great Hallel, according to Rabbi Tarfon, but there are those who say, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not lack.”

The Text of the Baraita

However, when we examine two important manuscripts of b. Pesahim, we find a different version of this baraita:

1. MS Munich 6: An Ashkenazic manuscript from the twelfth or thirteenth century.

2. MS Columbia 294–295: A Yemenite manuscript, 

The following table presents the text of the baraita as given in the two manuscripts alongside the printed edition:

דפוס וילנה
כתב-יד מינכן 6
כתב-יד קולומביה 294–295

רביעי – גומר עליו את ההלל
ואומר הלל הגדול
דברי ר”ט
וי”א ה’ רועי לא אחסר

אומר עליו הלל הגדול
דברי ר’ טרפון
ויש אומ’ יי רועי לא אחסר

תנו רבנן
אומ’ עליו הלל הגדול
דברי ר’ טרפון
ויש אומ’ ייי רועי לא אחסר

Vilna Edition MS Munich 6 MS Colombia 294–295
Our rabbis taught:
The fourth—he completes the Hallel over it
says the Great Hallel,
according to Rabbi Tarfon,
but there are those who say, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not lack.”

The fifth—
he says the Great Hallel over it,
according to Rabbi Tarfon,
but there are those who say, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not lack.”
Our rabbis taught:
The fifth—
he says the Great Hallel over it,
according to Rabbi Tarfon,
but there are those who say, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not lack.”

There are two conspicuous differences (colored) between the printed version and these manuscripts. Whereas the printed text (like some other manuscripts) reads “fourth,” these manuscripts read “fifth.” The printed version also has the additional words “he completes the Hallel over it,” which it connects to the following words with a conjunctive vav.

In the version preserved in these two manuscripts, the baraita introduces a fifth cup in addition to the four mentioned in the Mishnah, and that Psalm 136 or Psalm 23 is recited over this fifth cup.

According to the printed edition, however, the baraita refers to the fourth cup already mentioned by the Mishnah, confirming that the Hallel is completed over it (as stated in the Mishnah). It adds that either Psalm 136 or Psalm 23 is recited over the same cup.

“We Read Thus”

The text of this baraita was scrutinized by leading interpreters of the Talmud, as we see from their commentaries.

רש”י: הכי גרסינן: רביעי גומר עליו את ההלל, ואומר עליו הלל הגדול.
Rashi: We read thus: “The fourth—he completes the Hallel over it and says the Great Hallel over it.”
רשב”ם: ה”ג: ת”ר רביעי גומר עליו את ההלל, ואומר עליו הלל הגדול.
Rashbam:1 We read thus: “Our rabbis related, ‘The fourth—he completes the Hallel over it and says the Great Hallel over it.’”
תוספות (קיז ע”ב, ד”ה רביעי): רביעי אומר עליו הלל הגדול. רביעי גרסינן, ולא גרסינן חמישי.
Tosafot (117b, s.v. revi‘i): The fourth—he says the Great Hallel over it.” We read “fourth”; we do not read “fifth.”

Although they do not quote it, Rashi and Rashbam apparently knew of a different version of the baraita and stressed what they believed the correct reading ought to be using the technical “we read thus” (hachi garsinan). The content of the rejected reading is clear from the Tosafot: “we do not read ‘fifth.’”

Given Rashi’s towering influence as the Talmudic commentator par excellence, most Ashkenazi manuscripts, a sizable percentage of Sephardi ones, and the printed editions from the first printed edition of Soncino onward were influenced by his version of the Talmudic text and especially his textual notes (i.e. “we read thus”).2 Here too, the version printed in the editions apparently originated with the emendations of Rashi, and also Rashbam, and the Tosafists.3

What Was the Original Reading?

The reading “fifth cup” is documented in many manuscripts and medieval works composed in a variety of places:

  • Babylonia (The writings of the Geonim);4
  • Kairouan (Rabbenu Hanan’el);
  • Sephard (Rif and Rambam);
  • Germany and France (as assumed in the commentaries of Rashi, Rashbam, and the Tosafists).

The word “fourth,” meanwhile, is documented only in the writings of French Rishonim and in European manuscripts heavily influenced by Rashi’s emendations. All these considerations lead to the conclusion that the older, original version was the one given in the manuscripts excerpted above: “The fifth—he says the Great Hallel over it.”

What brought Rashi, Rashbam and the Tosafists to emend the Talmudic text of the baraita? Although they did not explain their motivation for replace “fourth” cup with “fifth” cup, we can suggest some possibilities:

1. Adding a fifth cup would contradict the well-established rule, that eating and drinking is prohibited past the point of the fourth cup. 5

2. There was no record of people drinking a  fifth cup.

3. If the baraita really mentions a fifth cup, why does it not explicate  whether that cup is optional, mandatory, or customary. 6

Avoiding Even Numbers

How might we explain the original version of the baraita, which innovates a fifth cup?7

Some three-quarters of a century ago, the folklorist Joshua Trachtenberg suggested that the fifth cup emerged out of a fear of odd numbers.8

In fact, the Talmud  is troubled by the question of how the rabbis could have instituted a purportedly dangerous halakhic requirement such as drinking an even number of cups of wine (b. Pesahim 109b):

היכי מתקני רבנן מידי דאתי בה לידי סכנה? והתניא: לא יאכל אדם תרי, ולא ישתה תרי, ולא יקנח תרי, ולא יעשה צרכיו תרי.

אמר רב נחמן: אמר קרא “ליל שמורים” (שמות יב, מב) ליל המשומר ובא מן המזיקין. רבא אמר: כוס של ברכה מצטרף לטובה ואינו מצטרף לרעה.

How could the rabbis establish something through which someone will endanger himself? Was it not taught: “A person should not eat in pairs; and he should not drink in pairs; and he should not wipe himself in pairs; and he should not attend to his [sexual] needs in pairs.

Rav Nahman said: The verse states: “it was a night of vigil (shimurim)” (Exodus 12:42) – a night that was continually guarded (meshumar) from demons. Rava said: A cup of blessing only joins (to make a pair) for the good, and it does not join (to make a pair) for the bad…

Apart from the Talmud’s various justifications for drinking even numbers, it is possible that the rabbis also tried to offer a practical solution to the problem – having Seder participants drink an additional, fifth cup at the Seder. 9 Psalm  136 or Psalm 23 are appropriate choices for calming a person who fears harmful preternatural powers by instilling in him faith in God. 10

The Fifth Cup Returns

In the middle of the twentieth century, the prominent Polish born Israeli scholar and rabbi, Menachem M. Kasher (1895-1983), tried to resurrect the practice of drinking five cups of wine. His proposal was based on the explanation,  which dates back to amoraic literature,11 that the four cups were established to parallel the four terms of redemption used in the Exodus narrative: והוצאתי “I will take you out,” והצלתי “I will save you,” וגאלתי “I will redeem you,” and ולקחתי“I will take you” (Exodus 6:6-7).

In Rabbi Kasher’s view, Jews celebrating the Seder today, after the establishment of the State of Israel, should drink a fifth cup to recall the divine promise of והבאתי אתכם אל הארץ “I shall bring you to the land …” (Exodus 6:8), in recognition of the modern return to Zion.12

Politics aside, if in late antiquity the rabbis were willing to change the standard four cups of wine at the Seder to five in order to reassure people who feared demons, perhaps the return of Jews to Israel after a two millennia long exile might similarly justify such a change of practice today.


Dr. Menachem Katz is Academic Director of the Friedberg Manuscripts Project in Jerusalem. He also lectures at the Open University of Israel and at the Graduate School of Givat Washington College. Dr. Katz spends much of his time poring over handwritten fragments from around the world and has published widely on the Jerusalem Talmud, Aggadic literature, as well as in the field of Digital Humanities. His latest book, A Critical Edition and a Short Explanation of Talmud Yerusalmi’s Tractate Qiddushin, was published by last year (Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi & Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem 2016). 
  1.   Since the Venice edition of the Talmud, all subsequent printed editions added the commentary of Rashbam for the tenth chapter of b. Pesahim. As can be seen here, Rashbam’s commentary is quite close to the Rashi commentary. Indeed, it seems as if Rashbam’s commentary was ultimately based on Rashi’s. See E. E. Urbach, The Tosaphists (Jerusalem, 19804), p. 49.
  2. This is one of the reasons that it is essential to check early “Eastern manuscripts,” and especially the generally older manuscript fragments in the Cairo Geniza.
  3. The emendation of Rashi and Rashbam also had ramifications for the commentary of Rabbenu Hanan’el, as printed in the margin of the page in the Vilna edition:

    ת”ר (חמישי) {רביעי} אומר עליו הלל הגדול דברי ר’ טרפון. ויש אומרים: ה’ רועי לא אחסר.
    Our rabbis related, “The (fifth) {fourth}—he says the Great Hallel over it, according to Rabbi Tarfon,” but there are those who say, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not lack.”

    In manuscript, the commentary of Rabbenu Hanan’el read “fifth.” However, the editors of the Vilna edition emended it too, and they documented the change by placing the original version in parentheses while adding their “correction” in brackets. See David Metzger, Perushei Rabbenu Hanan’el bar Hushi’el la-Talmud: Massechet Pesahim (Talmudic Commentaries of Rabbenu Hanan’el bar Hushiel: Tractate Pesahim) (Jerusalem, 5751 {1990/1991}, p. 253 n. 451.

  4. See B. M. Lewin, Otzar Ha-Geonim, Pesachim (Jerusalem, 1930), pp. 126-128. The compilation includes comments by Saadya Gaon, Rav Hai, Halakhot Gedolot, and more.
  5. See, for example Arba‘a Turim, Orah Haim, Hilkhot Pesah §481.
  6.   Indeed, our earliest records show the fifth cup is viewed as discretionary. Otzar Ha-Geonim, see above, n. 4 and David Henshke (below, n. 7) p. 131 n. 342. Witness also the ruling of Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Leaven and Unleavened Bread 8:10:
    ויש לו למזוג כוס חמישי ולומר עליו הלל הגדול, והוא מ”הודו לה’ כי טוב” עד “על נהרות בבל”, וכוס זה אינו חובה כמו ארבעה כוסות.
    And he may pour a fifth cup and say over it the Great Hallel, namely, from “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good” until “At the rivers of Babylon,” and this cup is not mandatory as are the four cups.

  7. One notable, fascinating explanation has recently been proposed by David Henshke. See his “Mah Nishtanah”: The Passover Night in the Sages’ Discourse (Hebrew; Jerusalem, 2016), pp. 129–132.
  8. J. Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion (New York, 1939). Trachtenberg’s view is briefly cited in Josef Tabory, The Passover Ritual throughout the Generations (Hebrew; Tel Aviv, 1996), p. 329 n. 83.
  9. The baraita notably makes no mention of any blessing to be said in conjunction with the fifth cup. A blessing is associated with each of the four mandatory cups of the night; there is no blessing that must be said with the fifth, because its only purpose is to produce an odd number of cups.
  10. It is also notable that the recitation of Psalm 136 appears in m. Ta‘anit 3:9 as part of a story about Rabbi Tarfon in which rain falls on the very day of a fast held to pray for it.
  11. See for example p. Pesahim 10:1; Genesis Rabbah 88. In actuality, the original reason that four cups are consumed at the Seder was probably based on technical halakhic reasoning. Specifically, the four cups are connected to four blessing recited at the Seder: Kiddush, the blessing of redemption said at the conclusion of the Maggid section of the Haggadah, grace after meals, and the blessing said over the recitation of Hallel. The rabbis required that these blessings be said over wine in order to highlight their importance. See Menachem Katz, “An Aggadic Interpretation of the ‘Four Cups’ at the Seder,” (Hebrew) Pathways through Aggadah 1 (1999): 9–23 and Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Hametz u-Matzah 7:10), who likewise simply connects the four cups to the four blessings.  This amoraic explanation is probably not the original reason for four cups.
  12.   Menachem M. Kasher, Haggadah Shelemah, 161. On a related note, in the mid 1970s, some connected the fifth cup to recalling Soviet Jewry, and hoping that they would be freed to emigrate to Israel. See e.g. Jack Kugelmass (ed.), Key Texts in American Jewish Culture (New Brunswick, N.J. : Rutgers University Press, 2003), p. 287.
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