WILL ELIJAH BE COMING THIS PESACH?
Such is the fascination of Pesach that four out of every five Jews will sit down to the Seder.
No matter how far some may seem to be at other times from the traditional practices and observances of the Jewish heritage, Seder night will attract them all.
And with all the richness, the colour, the aroma, the symbolism of the Seder, one of the most dramatic moments in the ritual will come when the door of the house is opened and, in hushed anticipation, the family waits to greet the arrival of Elijah the prophet.
This feature of the Seder is not really so ancient. The custom probably dates only from the fifteenth century; Ashkenazi manuscript Haggadot deriving from southern Germany and northern Italy at this period illustrate the entry of Elijah as precursor of the Messiah.
In a northern Italian Haggadah dated 1478, the head of the household is seen at the open door, holding a cup of wine and about to welcome the messianic guest. The Messiah is a bearded old man on a richly adorned ass. With him on the ass are a man and a boy; and on the tail are seated a woman and a girl, while another youngster is clinging to the tail. It all seems to suggest the Mashi’ach leading the whole family of Israel to the redemption.
Long before the fifteenth century, the rabbis had taught that, just as there was a Pesach of past deliverance (“pesach mitzrayim”), so salvation would occur (“pesach le’atid”). No wonder the medieval communities, suffering such oppression, persecution and misery, gave dramatic shape to their yearning for that future Pesach of redemption.
Some find significant linkage in the Christian custom prevalent in southern Germany of holding Palm Sunday processions with wooden models of Jesus and his messianic ass being carried to the gates of the holy city of Jerusalem. Possibly this annual scene exerted an influence on the illustrations that became part of the Haggadah; certainly, the Christian claim that the biblical prophecies of the Messiah had been fulfilled in Jesus made it necessary to demonstrate the Jewish conviction that the long-awaited Messiah was still to come.
But why was it Elijah rather than the Messiah himself who became the subject of the Seder-night welcome?
It has to do with the concept of the prophet as precursor: once he has arrived, the Messiah will not be far behind.
The popular Jewish imagination was unable to depict the Messiah as colourfully as legend, song and folklore enabled it to do with Elijah. The biblical and rabbinical stories of Elijah as the warm, compassionate and wise lover and defender of Israel, who had so often arrived in the nick of time to alleviate Jewish suffering, had made him a real person, a familiar figure.
Jews brought up on the tradition of their people lived daily with the Patriarchs, with Moses – and with Elijah. They were with a Jew every single moment of the day, unseen presences who were part of the family.
How do we link the welcome to Elijah and the customary cup of Elijah, the “kos shel eliyahu”?
The answer of the Vilna Gaon is this: The sages of Sura believed that five cups of wine had to be drunk at the Seder, while the school of Pumbedita argued for four. Since there is a doubt as to the correct view, a fifth cup is filled in deference to Sura, but no one drinks from it in deference to Pumbedita. In time to come, however, Elijah will solve the accumulated problems of the ages. Hence the disputed cup is set aside for Elijah to attend to.
Another well-known interpretation recalls that there are four Divine promises to redeem Israel – “I will take you out”; “I will deliver you”; “I will redeem you”; “I will take you.” The four cups drunk on Seder night are like toasts to the historic fulfilment of these four promises.
But, in fact, there is a fifth promise – “I will bring you in (to the land of Israel).” Logically, therefore, there should be five cups and not four. Yet the final promise has not yet been completely fulfilled, since more Jews live outside Israel than within the holy homeland.
Perhaps, therefore, the fifth cup is that of Elijah, because when the prophet comes to announce the Messiah, we will know the fifth promise is about to be fulfilled.
Indeed, some authorities, notably Menachem Kasher in his Haggadah, argue that now there is a State of Israel and the ingathering is well under way, it is already time to drink a fifth cup at the end of the Hallel.
Enjoy the ceremonial of the Seder, the four cups and all – and may this be the Seder when Elijah comes to visit, fulfilling the age-old dreams of all Israel and bearing the long-awaited message that the Mashi’ach is at hand and the redemption is dawning.