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Monday, March 26, 2012

Rashi's 4 Cups (Part 2: Methodology and Questions)

In a sugya like this, with so many different points, it is often a challenge choosing where to start. One cannot possibly think about the entire sugya at the same time. A proper approach often helps in making inroads into the sugya. One possible approach involves identifying things to define (machlokes, hava amina/maskana). Although this is sometimes a good idea, we feel that it is often a more productive approach to find problems/questions with the sugya. Problems can reveal fundamentally mistaken assumptions in our approach to the sugya and can help uncover ideas which will prepare us for defining things more accurately. Without first answering questions, our definitions can later be seen to be on shaky grounds and mistaken assumptions.

In interpreting Rashi's approach to this sugya, two major problems arise which arguably caused the Rashbam and Tosafos to learn differently from Rashi.  Firstly, the hava amina that the mitzva of the 4 cups would be 4 cups of 1 ounce each seems like one of the more inexplicable parts to the sugya.  Throughout the entire system of Torah, a cup of wine is always minimally 4 ounces, or 1 רביעית.  How could the gemara possibly have thought that each individual cup was only 1 ounce each?  It seems preposterous! Secondly, as the Rashbam asks on Rashi's way of learning בבת אחת, how can one large cup possibly count as 4 cups? It is only one cup! 

We felt that the first thing we needed to do was to explain the hava amina (as presented in Shmuel) and answer our first question.  Besides being the first thing presented to us in the gemara itself, it is also the basis of the sugya from which the other 3 positions (Rava, Rav, and Shmuel in the maskana) emerge. Our second question seems to be a detail which is based upon the way of learning the hava amina and answering our first question.

With these points in mind, we think in might be helpful to see an earlier Rashi on the mishna on 99b, which explains that the number 4, in the requirement of drinking the 4 cups, corresponds to the 4 languages of redemption found in the Torah:
ארבע כוסות. כנגד ארבעה לשוני גאולה האמורים בגלות מצרים והוצאתי אתכם והצלתי אתכם וגאלתי אתכם ולקחתי אתכם בפרשת וארא
How can we understand the way the gemara conceived of the halachic structure of the mitzva of 4 cups according to the hava amina of Shmuel?

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