Four sons, four questions, four cups, four words for redemption… I wonder what G-d’s favorite number is? At least, it’s his favorite number when the month of Nissan rolls around. Passover seders are filled with this number.
Let’s start off with the most obvious instance. At least for Mah Nishtanah, the section of the Haggadah also known as the Four Questions, there aren’t really four questions; it’s simply one question, followed by four examples of the situation that the original question is describing? Or there are five questions if you count the original question. Yet it is still referred to as The Four Questions because it is the quintessential number on Passover.
Speaking of the holiday itself, it isn’t just called Pesach or Passover. It has four different names that it is referred to in Hebrew: Chag Hapesach (the festival of Passover), Chag Hamatzot (the festival of matzah), Chag Ha’aviv (the festival of spring), and Z’man Cheiruteinu (the time of our freedom). Chagim do not truly need more than one name, so it seems that these names were given solely because of this proclivity for the number four. But before we even get to the actual holiday, Passover is preceded by four Shabboses that are given special names: Shabbat Shekalim, Shabbat Zachor, Shabbat Parah, and Shabbat Hachodesh. We welcome this chag into our lives with this number.
Four Meals at Matzot
Another example at the seder itself is how many matzot there are at the table. While the meal starts off with just three, one of them is broken in half, which grows the amount to four pieces of matzah.
The Number 4 and Passover
So, now we have all of these instances of this Passover number here altogether. But we still do not have the answer to the very simple question of why. Why is there any number being repeated throughout the very long night of a Passover seder? And why is it this specific number?
Well, some believe that the examples at the seder are there to commemorate the four words that G-d used within the book of Exodus, or Shemot, when promising to take the Jews out of Mitzrayim. When G-d spoke to Moshe, he said, “I will take you out of the forced labor in Egypt, and free you from their slavery; I will liberate you and I will take you to be My own nation.” (Exodus 6:6-8). Here are the most significant words from this excerpt in Hebrew:
- Hotzeiti (הוֹצֵאתִי): I will bring out;
- Hitzalti (הִצַּלְתִּי): I will rescue;
- Ga’alti (גָאַלְתִּי): I will redeem; and
- Lakachti (לָקַחְתִּי): I will take.
Each of these, you guessed it, four phrases from the passage above describes a distinct stage of redemption. And emphasizing this number honors the story of Passover in its entirety.
When someone is saved from a dangerous circumstance, they are supposed to thank Hashem. There are four groups of people who should do this: travelers at sea, travelers in the desert, prisoners who have been released, and those who have recovered from an illness. The Vilna Gaon points out that the story of Passover shows that the Jews end up in each of those circumstances, and are consequently saved.
Others say that in Judaism and many other religions, the number four represents perfection and wholeness, perhaps originating from referring to the perfection of the four corners of the earth (Flatearthers would be thrilled by this notion). This digit also represents the concept of growth, spreading out into the world in the four cardinal directions, north, south, east, and west.
Passover signifies the rebirth of the Jewish nation, who are going to fulfill the Bracha that G-d gave to Yaakov to “spread out to the west, east, north and south.” (Genesis 28:14) Some point out that the number could refer to the four seasons as well (not the hotel, though I can see your mind is already on vacation). This gluten-free holiday also takes place in the spring, a time when His blessings become more abundant and visible.
So whether or not this number repetition passed over your head as Hashem passed over the Jewish houses during the final plague, we hope you have a great Passover this year!