On Seder night, many aficionados of Bartenura suddenly opt for Bordeaux. They seem to be under the impression that for the Four Cups, one must drink red, non-mevushal, unsweetened wine. But is that actually true?
Chazal never explicitly require these three elements for the Four Cups. In fact, the Talmud Yerushalmi states the opposite (Pesachim 10:1). While the Yerushalmi does encourage using red wine, it only states that doing so is a “mitzvah,” which – according to most Rishonim – means preferred, not required. (The Tur writes that white wine is actually preferable if it is better quality than the available red wine [Orach Chayim 472].)
The Yerushalmi is even more definitive regarding the other two elements. After questioning the validity of cooked (mevushal) wine and sweetened spiced wine (konditon) for the Seder, the Yerushalmi concludes flatly that they can be used. Is there any basis, then, to being more stringent than the Yerushalmi?
The main source for insisting on using red wine is the Ramban (Bava Batra 97b). He writes that when the Yerushalmi categorizes using red wine as a “mitzvah,” it means red wine is required. In addition, several commentators on the Shulchan Aruch strongly encourage using red wine for the Four Cups since the color red symbolizes the Jewish blood Pharaoh spilled in Egypt. (The Taz [Orach Chayim 472:9] writes that using red wine is inadvisable in lands where Jews are subject to blood libels; thankfully, this concern is no longer relevant today.)
To follow the view of these commentators, one can still use mostly white wine as long as one mixes in a little red wine so that the cup of wine looks red (see note 44 to Orach Chayim 472 in the Dirshu edition of the Mishnah Berurah, which discusses whether one violates the prohibition against “coloring” on Shabbat or Yom Tov by mixing red wine with white).
If one wishes to adhere to the opinion of the Ramban, one’s cup must contain actual red wine – not merely red-colored wine. For this purpose, though, rosé wine would be sufficient. (cf. Tosafot, Bava Batra 97b s.v. “chamar”). Indeed, most red wines in the ancient world were lighter in color than contemporary red wines.
In any event, clearly the practice to use red wine for the Four Cups is rooted in Chazal and poskim. What can we say, however, about the insistence to use non-mevushal wine? It seems to contradict the Yerushalmi outright!
The source of this insistence seems to be the Rambam (Hilchot Shabbat 29:14), who holds that one may not recite Kiddush on mevushal wine. Apparently, the Rambam’s version of Yerushalmi lacked the line stating that mevushal wine is allowed for the Four Cups (one of which is Kiddush). Alternatively, the Rambam may have believed that the Talmud Bavli disagrees with the Yerushalmi on this matter (cf. Rosh, Bava Batra 6:1).
The Shulchan Aruch rules that mevushal wine is acceptable for Kiddush (Orach Chayim 272:8), but notes that some consider it invalid. By mentioning a dissenting opinion, the Shulchan Aruch arguably implies that it is proper to accommodate it when possible (see Mishnah Berurah 272:23). For this reason, many people prefer making Kiddush on non-mevushal wine year-round. (It should be noted that this stringency must not come at the expense of leniency in the area of handling non-mevushal wine.)
It is only for Kiddush, however, that one possibly needs non-mevushal wine – not for the Four Cups per se. Thus, according to the Rambam, only the first of the Four Cups – i.e., Kiddush – needs to consist of non-mevushal wine. Furthermore, only the person making Kiddush needs to use non-mevushal wine. Everyone else around the table seemingly can use mevushal wine (Hilchot Chag BeChag, Pesach, ch. 19 n. 24; see, however, Rav Schachter on the Haggadah, p. 57). But in households where everyone recites Kiddush aloud on Seder night (see HaSeder HeAruch 50:5-7), everyone has to use non-mevushal wine for the first cup according to the Rambam.
Rashi, the Rif, and some Ge’onim go even further than the Rambam in their attitude towards mevushal wine; they maintain that it is not even full-fledged wine, and one should make a shehakol – not a hagafen – before drinking it (see all the sources cited in Hilchot Yom BeYom, Brachot, vol. 3, 4:1). According to these authorities, then, all Four Cups must consist of non-mevushal wine.
In practice, however, there is no reason to follow such an extreme stringency, since later poskim and common custom completely reject the opinion that mevushal wine is shehakol (see Mishnah Berurah, op. cit.). Furthermore, this ruling applied only to mevushal wine in ancient times, which was cooked over an open fire and was of a perceptibly different taste and quality than regular wine. All authorities would presumably agree that the blessing on contemporary mevushal wine – which is merely pasteurized – is borei pri hagafen (Hilchot Yom BeYom, op. cit.). (Indeed, some poskim argue that pasteurized wine is not considered mevushal at all, even for purposes of Kiddush and handling by a non-Jew.)
Sweetened or spiced wine is even less problematic than mevushal wine. It may be used for the latter three cups according to all opinions; even for Kiddush, it is likely less problematic than mevushal wine (see Rambam, op. cit.; see also Responsa Teshuvot VeHanhagot 1:253). It should be noted that there are naturally sweet wines available for those who wish to be stringent, yet do not enjoy dry wine.
The upshot: Red wine is preferable for all Four Cups. Some rule that the first cup should be unsweetened and non-mevushal, but this ruling probably applies only to one who recites Kiddush, not to one who listens to another’s recitation. The last three cups may certainly be sweetened and mevushal.
Drinking the Four Cups is indicative of our status as a free people following our redemption from Egypt. As such, it is supposed to be a pleasant experience (see Rambam, Hilchot Chametz U’Matzah 7:9)! While using wine for the Seder that complies with all possible stringencies is admirable, it is more important to drink a wine one enjoys. (According to most opinions, grape juice is also acceptable, although a thorough analysis of this question is beyond the scope of this article.)