A few years back, I wrote an article about the significance of the number four at our annual Seder gatherings. I called that modest effort: Let the Fours Be With You. Well, I’m back again to revisit this fascinating issue. In Judaism when we’re constructing a presentation for a concept, we usually build around the numbers three or seven. After all, we live in a world founded upon three principles, and our lives are scheduled around a seven-day week. But I like the number four. It’s my birthday (of July, no less), it’s Bobby Orr’s number, and it’s the perfect number for a tournament final or a bridge game. It, also, really is a perfect number. And at our Seders we have: four cups of wine, four questions, four children and four verses from the farmer’s declaration for first fruits. It’s really ubiquitous. So, let’s explore, again, the reasons behind the prominence of the number four during Pesach.
The symbolism of the number four begins early in our Tanach. “A river flowed out of Eden…and became four rivers. The name of the first is Pishon…The name of the second river is Gihon…The name of the third river is Tigris…The fourth river is the Euphrates (Genesis 2:10-14).” So, it seems that the number four says something significant about our world, and perhaps the bounty that flows into it. We see in Kabbalah that the number four is used to designate the four levels, or worlds, in Creation (Atzilut, world of emanations, Briah, world of creation, Yetzira, world of formations, and Asiya, the world of action all around us). Also, we describe the constituent members of the cosmos as being four: inanimate, vegetative, mobile and verbal (that’s us!). We could go on and on giving examples of the number four as representative of the physical world, like four compass points or four seasons, but I think that you get the idea.
The number four also suggests aspects of God. God’s personal name is the four-letter, ineffable Tetragrammaton, and many authorities understand those four letters as four facets of divinity. Every morning we prepare for the recitation of Shema by proclaiming this four-fold celebration of Divine glory: The Name of God, the King is great, mighty, awesome and holy. It’s not clear to me what all those adjectives refer to, but, again, there are four of them. Four is helping us define divinity. We notice a similar view about humanity. In the fifth chapter of Pirkei Avot, we have a series of seven statements describing the character variations within mankind as always being four in number. There are four types of students, four kinds of temperament and four modes of charitable donations.
We’re obviously noticing a pattern developing. When we describe the variety of possibilities in our world, we use the number four to describe the diversity. And we do the same thing on Pesach. We portray the aspects of the redemption as being four in number: “I will (1) take you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will (2) save you from their labor, and I will (3) redeem you… And I will (4) take you to Me as a people (Exodus 6:6-7).” These represent four stages in the process: cessation of labor, leaving Egypt, crossing the Sea and receiving the Torah at Sinai. These four correspond to the four statements from the declaration of the bikurim (first fruits): our ancestors went into exile in Egypt, the Egyptians brutally oppressed us, we cried out to God and God miraculously brought us out. So, we see that four steps, stages or standpoints are built into that historical experience. But how does the number four represent our modern experience in reliving, reenacting and remembering the event?
The other day an unusual thing happened. While I was davening, I started thinking about what I was saying. I couldn’t help noticing how often the phrases “dor l’dor” and “dor v’dor” were appearing in the prayers. This concept of “from generation to generation” is very important to our religion and heritage. We are a people of legacy. Every generation bequeaths its birthright of Jewish values and practices to the next, as we maintain a chain of tradition across the millennia. Obviously, this is, as well, central to our Seder. It’s all about parent teaching child. One generation passing the baton to the next. This process is emphasized at the end of Magid, the recitation of the story, when we read “You shall tell your child on that day, it is because of this that the Lord did for me when I left Egypt” (Exodus 13:8). Through this process we must feel that we personally are experiencing the redemption, “It was us that He brought out from there” (Deuteronomy 6:23).
But how is that possible? The process works because the parent is relating, as accurately as possible, what was received from the previous generation. That’s two generations—the parent relates what was heard from the grandparent. The child accepts or receives this message. But the main purpose of today’s child agreeing to the handover of this material is the responsibility to pass it to the next progeny. That’s two more generations. The dor l’dor process, therefore, is really a four-generation procedure; the one doing the passing is the representative of the no-longer-present previous generation, and the one receiving is representing the not-yet-present next generation. There’s four in all.
We often marvel at the continued existence of the Jewish people. We’re still standing; the Egyptians, Philistines, Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians et al have been lost to the sands of time. Many of us thank God for this miracle of longevity. But once a year we must consider seriously our role in this miracle. If we are passive, we may not merit to be part of this wondrous phenomenon. We participate in the world’s longest-running show by continuously changing our role in the four-part drama. We once were the dream, and we transition to the memory. It’s an incredible ride! Chag kasher v’sameach!
By Rabbi David Walk
Rabbi David Walk is a teacher at the Bi-Cultural Day school as well as Congregation Agudath Sholom’s Education Director. He is a tireless teacher and educator. For over 30 years he has taught students from third grade and up and conducted many classes for teens and adults. Prior to joining CAS, he served as director and teacher at Yeshivot Hamivtar in Efrat, Israel.