Elijah, his cup and the open door

(Page 29 of "An American Haggadah")


    Elijah appears on the biblical scene in the first Book of Kings, as an inspiring personality and miracle-worker active in the Northern Kingdom (Israel, not Judah). In his days it was ruled by King Ahab--a strong ruler who (together with his foreign wife Jezebel) supported the cult of the idol Ba'al. The scriptures tell how Elijah challenged to priests of the Ba'al (fire descended from the sky to ensure he won), how he chastised Ahab for murdering Naboth the Jezreelite in order to take over his land, how he miraculously broke a drought and how God appeared to him in the wilderness. And they tell Elijah never died, but was taken to heaven on a chariot of fire, in front of his disciple and successor Elisha.

    Elijah enters the Passover holiday some days before the Seder--on the Shabbat preceding Passover, known as "Shabbat of the great" (Shabbat Hagadol). The Haftarah on that day is the last chapter of Mal'achi, last in the books of the prophets. It ends by predicting the return of Elijah to Earth before the Day of Judgement (verse numbers included):

"(23)     Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD.
(24)     And he shall turn the heart of fathers to their children, and the heart of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with utter destruction"

    Actually, if you listen that day in the synagogue, you will hear verse 23 repeated at the end, so as not to end the reading on a note of utter destruction. And although the prophet clearly states that Elijah's second coming is meant to heal the breach between generations, Jewish tradition has spun legends around this verse--e.g. that Elijah will be the one who will bring the messiah.

    Our sages, may their memory be blessed, also suggested an additional purpose. Usually in Talmudical debates, the view of one side or the other prevailed and became "halachah," accepted law--e.g., should Channukah be celebrated by 8 candles on the first day, 7 on the next, and so forth--or with numbers that increase? As we know, the second view prevailed, but some arguments ended in a draw, undecided. Although a practical choice was usually made, formally the issue was left open "until Elijah comes and resolves it." One such question concerned the (least) number of cups of wine drunk at the seder--four or five? As we know, four cups are now the norm, but just to indicate the question remains open, we place a fifth "cup of Elijah" on the table. It stands there to demonstrate the issue is not yet closed, in case he suddenly appears and decrees five cups, not four.


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
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Last updated 11 February 2003