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TCS Question - Why is the number four so important at Pesach?

As we prepare to celebrate the Pesach Seder this month, you could be forgiven for thinking that (in true Sesame Street style) this festival is brought to you by the number four. This number is a popular motif throughout the service and meal. We drink four cups of wine, we have the four questions of the Mah Nishtana and we have four children asking questions of their parents. It is not really a number which features prominently elsewhere in Judaism, and so it is striking that for this festival the number four comes to the fore.

We can delve more deeply and find further references to the number four, which might explain the significance of this number to the festival. In the Torah, there are four places where we are told that we should share the story of the Exodus with our children (Exodus 12:26, 13:8, 13:14 and Deuteronomy 6:20). It is also said that God used four expressions to describe the redemption of the Israelites from Egypt. In the midst of Exodus 6:6-7 God tells Moses to tell the people: “I will take you out … I will save you from slavery … I will redeem you … I shall take you to me as a People”.

Together these two Biblical number fours, may explain why the Rabbis sought to include this number so centrally in the Pesach Seder.

But when we look more deeply, we might notice that while the number four is the most prominent number in the Seder, numbers in general feature in our Pesach celebrations. Around the recitation of the ten plagues, our attention is obviously drawn to the number ten. And following on from the recitation of the plagues Rabbi Yose the Galilean, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva play a game of numbers, reimagining how many plagues there actually were. Most famously at the end of our Seder we sing “Echad mi yodeah – Who knows one?” offering a Jewish significance for the numbers one through thirteen.

Perhaps all of this number play is a way of preparing us for the period of the Omer, which begins on the second night of Pesach. We are told that we should count every day for seven weeks from the night of the second Seder through until the festival of Shavuot. We do not just arrive at Shavuot as another date in the calendar; instead we come to the festival, where we celebrate the giving of the Torah, by counting up to it.
Numbers have significance in Judaism, but at this time of the year, between Pesach and Shavuot they assume a greater importance. And when you join us for our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot – an evening of learning to celebrate the festival (more details to follow), I’ll look at why for Judaism seven is the magic number.

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Rabbi Danny
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