Since my childhood a special mystique has always been generated by the presence at the Passover seder of a visitor who was never seen, but whose reality was no less tangible for that fact. The unseen guest is of course Elijah the prophet. A special cup filled with wine was set for him, and we all waited impatiently until the moment when one of us would (often with discernible signs of fear at the prospect) open the door to admit the righteous visitor. Our family dog observed his own tradition of barking just before that moment as if he were greeting a more conventional caller. Afterwards we would carefully measure Elijah's cup to verify that the level of the wine had receded since being poured.
The belief that Elijah continues to wander about our world is a mainstay of Jewish folklore. Rabbis in the Talmud were accustomed to running into him and addressing questions to him about the goings-on in the Heavenly realms, or about other matters that are normally concealed from human view. Many tales were spun about how a ragged vagrant was discovered, after his departure, to have been the prophet in disguise, come to earth to test people's faith and virtue, or to grant them a long-sought desire.
It is not hard to see how this role came to be assigned to Elijah. The Bible relates how he was accustomed to travel about assisting people in distress. He was also privileged to be numbered among the select few who never actually died; instead he was carried up to heaven in his lifetime in a flaming chariot. Elijah was thus eminently qualified to serve as an intermediary between the upper and lower worlds.
The original reason for opening the door probably had nothing to do with Elijah. The door opening occurs just after the conclusion of the meal and before the resumption of the Hallel, as we intone the words "Pour out thy wrath upon the nations that have not known thee, and upon the kingdoms that have not called upon thy name," a time when our European ancestors had good reason to check outside to make sure that there were no malevolent figures lurking outside ready to pounce upon the celebrants with accusations of the infamous blood libel that often ignited massacres of innocent Jews.
Another widespread belief had it that Elijah's presence at the seder was necessary in order to resolve the talmudic dispute about how many cups of wine should be drunk that night, in keeping with the talmudic belief that certain facts remain undisclosed "until Elijah will come." The uncertainty grew out of the midrashic premise that the cups symbolized the four expressions of redemption contained in God's pledge to the enslaved Israelites:
...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 judgments. And I will take you to me for a people. (Exodus 6:6-7).
Given this rationale, a doubt arose with regard to the words "And I will bring you in unto the land" in the next verse. Is it really appropriate to commemorate this promise which was not to be fulfilled until after the generation of the Exodus had perished?
Talmudic tradition reports that Rabbi Tarfon advocated the drinking of a fifth cup. The two Babylonian academies of Sura and Pumbedita were divided on this issue, as were several medieval Jewish communities. Some, like the Yemenites, have always included a fifth cup in their Haggadah. Rashi, on the other hand, was so opposed to the idea that he had Rabbi Tarfon's opinion excised from the Talmudic manuscripts (which is why you will not find it in the printed editions of the Talmud).
Thus, the extra cup that is placed on the festive table, but is not drunk (at least not by the mortal participants) serves as a memorial to a practice that has been rejected by Ashkenazic Jews. It is understandable that this cup came to be identified with the name of the renowned resolver of halakhic doubts.
The two most prominent instances of the prophet's participation in the seder, the opening of the door and "Elijah's cup," have thus been seen to be relatively recent add-ons to the basic Passover service. There are however more substantial grounds for the widespread feeling that Elijah's spirit pervades the holiday and connects to its most essential themes and teachings.
Jewish tradition has always acknowledged a continuity between the past liberation of the enslaved Israelites and our future deliverance from the oppressions of exile. This attitude underlies the choice of the prophetic reading on the Sabbath preceding Passover, in which God offers his assurance that "I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord." Because it is Elijah who will herald the advent of Messiah, Jews over the generation have clung tenaciously to the hope that the prophet would take advantage of his annual visits to Jewish households in order to proclaim the imminence of the cherished redemption.
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