I received an email from Ms. Ann Nunes, asking about the significance of “4,” as it relates to the haggadah and the seder. Here’s part of my response:
I looked through several haggadah commentaries to see if I could find something specific about this topic. In fact, all refer back to the same thing that I did in my posting (https://rabbielimallon.wordpress.com/2011/04/01/four-cups-on-passover/) about the “Four Cups”: the four times “deliverance” is mentioned in Sh’mot/Ex. 6:6,7.
A fifth, future level, declared in Sh’mot/Ex. 6:8, becomes the source of “Elijah’s Cup.” Its inclusion in the haggadah/seder suggests that our “liberation” isn’t yet historically complete, and won’t be until the Meshiach initiates a “golden age” for us and all other people.
Two good online articles about the Seder and “4” are:
We might even tie in “4” with “40” — the number of days that Noach et al floated in the ark. There’s a “redemption” or “culmination” theme there, too.
Then, there’s the “40” years of wandering in the wilderness — again, leading to “redemption” or “culmination.” So, “4” could be related to “redemption” or “culmination.”
But: Why look for a number at all?
Certainly “7,” “10” and “40” reappear in the Torah narrative. But there’s nothing given either in Torah or in the later books of TaNaCH to suggest that the numbers have any allegorical meaning at all. That kind of allegory is very characteristic of Pythagoras, whose thinking probably impressed the rabbis of the Talmudic era more than we credit. His idea (much like “scientific” thinking today) was that the way numbers work suggests an underlying Intelligence (or, “Intelligent Design.”) Putting things in logical categories (like Rabbi Ishmael’s 13 principles of how Torah can be interpreted) is also much more characteristic of the Greek style of thinking (especially Aristotle) than it was of the Jewish style — until the Alexandrian era. I think the clarity and systematic-ness of Greek thought was just too impressive to ignore. Certainly, the rest of the world at that time thought so. Later, Kabbalah builds further on this same style of thought, while successfully incorporating the Jewish belief in the immanence of G-d in the present, on a moment-to-moment basis (not just a distant “Designer”).
So, if we go back to the era when the seder was in development (the Talmudic era), the use of the number “4” was a reference back to a source in Torah itself. Torah was held up as the ultimate authority and the source of all wisdom. In it we could find every model for our daily lives. Similarly, when looking for a definition of “work” regarding Shabbat, the rabbis looked back at the types of work associated with the Mishkan — again, referring back to Torah itself for an answer.
The Kabbalistic influence on the seder seems to have been more pronounced in the design of the seder plate — (7) objects on (3) levels of plates: 7 + 3 = 10, which corresponds to the (10) s’firot — the primary, essential Kabbalistic symbol, that proclaims the perpetual Emanation of all from the Divine Essence Itself. In Kabbalah, this Emanation almost replaces the Exodus in primacy and importance of things which we should constantly remind ourselves — i.e contemplate.
The 4th s’firah is “Hesed” — G-d’s “Grace” or “Love,” of which our redemption from Egypt is a prime expression. If we take it one step further, Torah constantly urges us to remember that G-d took us from Egypt, in order to stir up our own feelings of love for G-d. What is our own love, but the presence of Divine Love in our very souls? Loving G-d, we bring ourselves into harmony with what G-d is, and what we ourselves are (see my post: https://rabbielimallon.wordpress.com/2011/01/22/1-22-11-loving-beings/). We unify ourselves with G-d. Doing so spiritually “frees” us from all of our bondage to finite limitations. Thus, “4” could be a subtle reference to the activity of the 4th s’firah — loving — in our lives.
You could also look at some of the Kabbalistic and Hasidic commentaries on the haggadah (there’s so much available in English, these days, especially online) — particularly on the “4 Sons,” to find comments on it that have some real historical “weight” to them; I very much encourage people to do so.
But I also caution people to remember that the seder is ultimately an emotional, as well as an intellectual experience. It should lead you beyond “information” or even “ideas” to a genuine sense of G-d’s benevolent nearness and activity in your own life. If contemplating the numbers leads you to a more exuberant love of and intensified desire to be in harmony with the Divine, then by all means, do it! But if you find that it leaves you with more questions than answers (as Rebbe Nachman cautioned regarding studying philosophy), then I suggest looking into those Hasidic and Kabbalistic (or any other) commentaries on the haggadah for their inspirational value.