The Function of Wine at the Passover Seder

By contrasting the Haggadah with Plato's "Symposium," one can understand why wine is such an essential element of the seder.

What is the function of wine in the Passover seder, the ceremonial meal through which Jews tell the story of God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt? For our point of departure in thinking about this question, we begin not with a rabbinic text about the holiday, but with a wonderful essay by Leon Kass about the traditional Jewish toast l’ḥayyim:

You don’t have to be Jewish to drink l’ḥayyim, to lift a glass “To Life.” Everyone in his right mind believes that life is good and that death is bad. But Jews have always had an unusually keen appreciation of life, and not only because it has been stolen from them so often and so cruelly. The celebration of life—of this life, not the next one—has from the beginning been central to Jewish ethical and religious sensibilities. In the Torah “Be fruitful and multiply” is God’s first blessing and first command. . . . Indeed, so strong is this reverence for life that the duty of pikuah nefesh requires that Jews violate the holy Shabbat in order to save a life. Not by accident do we Jews raise our glasses l’ḥayyim.

Yet, Kass reminds us, Jews have always emphasized that life is sacred because it has a purpose—and ultimately when we toast l’ḥayyim we must bear this purpose in mind. The rabbis who codified the liturgy of the seder had these larger purposes in mind, and they carefully deployed the drinking of wine to help us approach the sanctity of life itself. Wine-drinking at the seder is a response to, and indeed a negation of, two other models of drinking that are embodied in two of the most famous drinking episodes in the history Western literature: one from sacred scripture and one from Greek philosophy.

The first appearance of wine in the Torah is, to put it mildly, not positive. As the flood waters recede and Noah emerges from the ark, he begins his post-diluvian life by planting a vineyard. The harvest leads to drink, the drinking leads to stupor, and in this state the reader finds him sprawled on the ground, unclothed. Why does he drink? Why upon reemerging from the ark does Noah plant grapes rather than grain, a source of sustenance? The Bible does not explicitly say, but it is not hard to guess. Think of what Noah has just been through. He has experienced nothing less than the watery death of the entire world. Every person outside of his family that he had ever met, everyone he had ever known, had just drowned. How could he not turn to drink?

Thus wine enters human history as a means of escape from life’s woes. It is a relief from our troubles. And it is just such a form of drinking that ancient rabbis gave in the source-text for l’ḥayyim.According to the rabbinic compilation known as Midrash Tanḥuma, when members of the Sanhedrin, the rabbinic court, finished examining witnesses in a capital case, they were asked, “What is your opinion my masters?” They would answer, the midrash concludes, either “for life” (l’ḥayyim) or “for death” (l’mitah). The midrash then notes that if the accused is sentenced to death he is given wine, to dull his pain, so that he too can blunt the experience death. 

Therefore, the text goes on to say, the blessing over wine in the kiddush recited on Sabbaths and festivals is preceded with the words savri maranan, “What is your opinion my masters?” after which those listening respond, “l’ḥayyim!” (This is the custom in most Sephardi communities, and of late seems to be catching on among Ashkenazim.) By doing so, they make clear that this drinking is for life, and not for the consolation of one about to die. The meaning of this midrashperhaps, is that in saying l’ḥayyim as a toast, we emphasize that we are drinking not to dull the experience of death, but to heighten the joys of life, and to reaffirm that, despite its difficulties, our very existence should be savored and sanctified. This way of thinking about wine—consolation from pain or relief and celebration of the fact that we have averted death—is the unfolding way of Noah, who turned to drink to soften his sorrows. 

But drink need not merely soften our sorrows. “Beer,” Benjamin Franklin famously said, “is a sign that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” Judaism does not reject the sentiment, but it applies it to a different libation. “Wine brings joy to the heart of men,” proclaims Psalm 104; and according to the Talmud, this why a special blessing is pronounced over wine. Let us, therefore, turn next to joy, and distinguish it from hedonism. To make this distinction clear, we must turn to the most famous drinking party in Western philosophy: Plato’s Symposium. In the dialogue of that name, the Plato depicts Socrates and some of his Athenian contemporaries drinking wine and discussing love and longing. 

It is a common assertion among academic scholars that in establishing the rules and rituals of the seder, the rabbis drew inspiration from the ancient Greek symposium, whose name comes from the words for “drinking together.” Many of the practices of the symposium can indeed be found in talmudic descriptions of the seder. For instance, symposiasts ate reclining on pillowed couches; seder participants are likewise required to do so (even if today we lean while sitting on chairs), as the fourth of the Four Questions famously puts it: “on this night, we all recline.” At the seder, as at ancient symposia, speeches were made and elevated themes were discussed.

But it is more correct to say that the seder turns the symposium on its head. The formal similarities between the two in fact highlight the profound differences between the two societies. In Plato’s Symposium, the rituals began only after the meal was concluded. Here is how Plato describes it: 

When Socrates had reclined and dined with the rest, they made libations, sang a song to the god, and did all the rest of the customary rites, and then turned to drinking. Then Pausanias . . . began to speak somewhat as follows. “All right, men,” he said. “What will be the easiest way for us to drink? Now I tell you that I am really in a very bad way from yesterday’s drinking, and I need a rest. I suspect many of you do too, for you were also here yesterday. So consider what would be the easiest way for us to drink.”

What this means is that with the dining and religious rites having been disposed of, the participants in Plato’s Symposium turn to the main business of the evening, drinking and speeches. They establish for themselves a rule that, on this particular night, no one should be obligated to drink to excess—but only because most of the attendees present had already drunk too much at a symposium the night before. 

By contrast, at the Passover seder the meal, prayer, discussion, and wine are not disaggregated, but carefully interspersed. The four cups of wine are deliberately spaced out, two before the meal and two after, with most of the intellectual engagement taking place immediately after the first cup. At the symposium, the religious formalities are dispensed with before the drinking and speeches, thereby keeping these two devotions separate. By contrast, the seder arranges storytelling, prayer, food, and drink in a way that reflects and integrates our embodied, full selves.

And to see what the sages truly sought to reject, we need only read on in Plato’s Symposium. After speeches and dialogue, including Socrates’ own eloquent address, the Athenian general Alcibiades interrupts the philosophizing by showing up

in the courtyard, very drunk and shouting loudly, asking where Agathon was and commanding them to lead him to Agathon. . . . And he said, “Men, hail! Will you welcome a man who’s terribly drunk as a fellow drinker?”

What is Alcibiades doing? To understand, we can now look to the four sons of the Haggadah, each of whom asks differently about the nature of the seder, and each of whom in turn receives a different answer. The first, the wise son, asks to be taught the laws of Passover, and is informed of them in their entirety, including the final law, “one does not conclude the seder with an afikoman.” The word afikoman, often translated “dessert,” has come to refer to the final piece of matzah eaten at the seder’s conclusion, after which nothing else may be eaten. But originally, in rabbinic texts, it referred not to something that was eaten but rather an experience that was to be avoided; the term may itself an adaptation of the Greek komos, or revelry, whence the English word “comedy.” The late chef and rabbi Gil Marks, in his magisterial Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, explains: 

At the end of the symposium . . . followed a komos (later comissatio in Rome), named after an intoxicated reveling group of satyrs who followed around the Greek god of wine and fertility, Dionysus. . . . The host always provided various tidbits—most notably fruits, roasted grains, and nuts—similar to modern beer nuts—to nosh on with the wine to induce the consumption of alcohol. . . . The komos served as a ritualistic transition from the intellectual and gastronomic parts of the symposium to its sensual, decadent side, inevitably and intentionally leading to lewdness. As part of the komos, the inebriated participants would then proceed (komatsain) from house to house, laughing and singing, to persuade others to join them in their drinking, carousing, and orgies. The sages, not wanting the aftermath of the seder to degenerate into the bawdy and lascivious behavior of the komos, realized that it was necessary to avoid the excesses of the symposium. Consequently, afikoman originally meant in Greek epi komos/epikomion (upon the revelry).

We have in the very scene in which Alcibiades crashes the party Plato’s own description of a komos. At the end of dialogue, yet another crowd of komos celebrants arrive. Thus in several small words said to the wise son we find the Jewish rejection of Athenian hedonism. Wine is obligatory at the seder, but within limits and tied always to a higher purpose: it is there to deepen our gratitude to God and to further sanctify our reenactment of our national deliverance. 

But there is an even more profound difference between a symposium and a seder. Consider: the women present in Plato’s Symposium are servants and entertainers, whereas at the seder they are participants. And then there is the most important difference of all, which I noted in a previous contribution to Mosaic, the role of children.

Children are entirely absent from the Symposium, probably because their presence would interfere with the conversation. The seder, by contrast, begins with activities designed specifically to provoke the children to ask questions. And only after the children have sought an explanation can the retelling of the Exodus commence. Likewise, the four sons and various biblical verses cited by the Haggadah all stress that the essence of the seder ritual is parents explaining the meaning of Passover to their children. Generations are joined in discussion and dialogue, and the young are linked not only to their elder, but to all the ancestors who have come before. Only after this occurs is the second cup of wine imbibed, not in escapism or hedonism, but in celebration of the miracles of yesteryear, and the unforgettable family memories that have been formed that evening. 

Family, it should be noted, is one thing that is not very important to Socrates. Neither in the Symposium nor in any other dialogues are Socrates’ family present. And as he lives, so does he die: when his wife and child come to him in prison he has them taken away so that his last moments can unfold in the presence of his students. Emily Wilson, author of The Death of Socrates, bitingly notes that as much as she admires her subject’s intellectual courage and lively mind, she also finds that it is “hard to respect a man who neglected his wife and sons in order to spend his time drinking and chatting with his friends about the definitions of common words.”

Wilson’s observation returns us to something essential about the meaning of l’ḥayyim: the translation “to life,” known to Jew and Gentile alike because of the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof, is not quite accurate. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has pointed out that ḥayyim in Hebrew exists only in the plural; and the meaning, perhaps, of the Jewish toast l’ḥayyim is that life is rendered meaningful when it is shared, and this, for Jews, is most ideally achieved in the joining of generations, of past and posterity.

What this means is that in constructing the seder, in emphasizing the obligations of transmission, in raising our glasses to the joining of our lives with one another, the sages were not only responding to Greece and Rome, but also to an even older empire that looms large over Passover. Again to quote Kass: “Unlike the death-defying Egyptians, those ancient precursors of the quest for bodily immortality, the Children of Israel do not mummify or embalm their dead; we bury our ancestors but keep them alive in memory, and, accepting our mortality, we look forward to the next generation.” That difference, ultimately, is what we savor when we pronounce l’ḥayyim.

Another one of Socrates’ students, Xenophon, records his master saying that “wine moistens and tempers the spirit and lulls the cares of the mind to rest. It revives our joys and is oil to the dying flame of life.” This is well put, but the Jewish joys that the seder wine revives emphasize the very form of transmission that allowed us to outlast the cities of Greece and the Roman empire that followed. In a wonderful sermon, Rabbi Norman Lamm noted the extraordinary irony of the fact that today, so many centuries after the fall of Rome, the reclining and drinking style of a Greco-Roman feast is recalled, relived, and truly remembered only by Jews on Passover evening. And because we are not recreating the symposium, but reversing it, the way we celebrate it highlights why it is only the Jews who remain.

This past pandemic year has been one in which the word l’ḥayyimhas taken on a new resonance. We understand life’s fragility; and we understand how we might have taken togetherness for granted, and what a gift it is to join generations. There are many this year who will be so missed, and whose presence will still be felt. And many of us, thanks to the advent of vaccines, know now what a gift it is merely for grandchildren to spend time with their grandparents, to hug them, to discuss Passover with them, and how this is rightly a source of profound joy. 

It is this perspective on life that we will have in mind when we raise our glasses at the seder, not in emulation of Noah’s escapism, nor of Greek hedonism, but to engage in a very different celebration of life—and of life that is about more than ourselves. Once again, Kass has put it best:

Let us cleave to our ancient wisdom and lift our voices and properly toast l’ḥayyim, to life beyond our own, to the life of our grandchildren and their grandchildren. May they, God willing, know health and long life, but especially so that they may also know the pursuit of truth and righteousness and holiness. And may they hand down and perpetuate this pursuit of what is humanly finest to succeeding generations for all time to come.

This essay was originally published in Mosaic.

Understanding wine and the seder with Plato and the Haggadah.

Understanding wine and the seder with Plato and the Haggadah.