Jewish Traditions: Elijah and Passover


11 March 2010

The Jewish Passover annually celebrates the night in ancient Egypt when the angel of death “passed over” the children of Israel, sparing them from the destruction that overtook the firstborn of all Egyptian families. Elijah’s association with Passover festivities most likely stems from his association with the messianic age. Elijah, according to Jewish belief, will be the forerunner of the Messiah. In preparation from the Messiah’s coming, he will resolve doubts and restore peace to the earth. He is significant in the Passover because the Passover not only is a celebration of past deliverance but also looks to future freedom from bondage. As the Jewish people look to Elijah for the resolution of doubts and as a bearer of peace, his ministry has become intimately intertwined with the Passover feast.
Following the recitation of the part of the Passover service known as the “Grace After Meals,” the Passover participants fill Elijah’s cup with wine and place it at the center of the table. They reserve a special chair for the expected guest, and upon the opening of the door, all present stand and greet the prophet with the words:
O pour out Thy wrath upon the nations that know Thee not, and upon the kingdoms that call not upon Thy name. For they have devoured Jacob, and laid waste his land. Pour out Thy indignation upon them, and let the fierceness of Thy anger overtake them. Pursue them in anger, and destroy them from under the heavens of the Lord.
In the context of the Passover, the door that is opened for Elijah takes on special significance. The house’s east-facing door is the preferred door through which the family invites Elijah to enter the house. Tradition predicts that in the last day, the Messiah will come from the east. It is therefore natural to assume that the forerunner of the Messiah, Elijah, will also come from the east. Symbolically, then the eastern doors of the homes of observant Jews throughout the world are opened at the Passover to invite the coming of Elijah preparatory to the awaited opening of the East Gate of Jerusalem to welcome the Messiah.
A child is sent to open the door for Elijah because children represent the hope and promise of the future. In this respect, the child’s opening the door metaphorically represents the hope and promise associated with the coming of Elijah. When the door is closed, all are seated and the children hurriedly move toward the table to meticulously check the level of the wine to see whether Elijah has sipped from his cup.
While the tradition of opening the door for Elijah extends back to Talmudic times, the tradition of Elijah’s cup is a relatively new addition to the Passover celebration. During earlier centuries, Elijah apparently played a limited role in the traditions and festivities surrounding Passover. Then, however, in the eighteenth century A.D. there arose a dispute about how many glasses of wine should be drunk at the Passover feast. Based on Exodus 6:6-7, many of the scholars said that four glasses of wine should be drunk:
“Wherefore say unto the children of Israel, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will rid you out of their bondage, and I will redeem you with  a stretched out arm, and with great judgements: and I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God: and ye shall know that I am the Lord your God, which bringeth you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.” (Italics added.) Each of the four glasses of wine represents one of the promises included in these verses… The opposing school of thought reasoned that while these four phrases must definitely be represented with cups of wine, there is also a fifth one that should be recognized with wine: And I will bring you unto the land, concerning the which I did swear to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it to you for an heritage: I am the Lord” (Exodus 6:8; italics added). The phrase, “I will bring you in unto the land” was the phrase upon which they based this argument. After much examination of this doctrinal dilemma, the rabbis agreed that because Elijah will resolve all doubts and religious questions, the fifth and final cup of wine should be reserved for him. This undrunk cup came to be known as the “cup of Elijah.”
Through these ritual traditions – the opening of the door for Elijah, the reservation of a seat for him, and the presence of his cup – linked with the Passover feast, we see the profound degree to which the Jewish soul remembers and respects Elijah. With every year and every Passover feast, the Jews are reminded that the man who in millennia past saved them from spiritual harm continues to succor them through the trials of the present.  
From Elijah, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, (Appendix F) by Byron R. Merrill, 1997 by Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, Utah

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