Contained in this post is both a great teaching about Passover and an activity for your seder!
I think I was around 10 or 11 years old when, having much older brothers, the joke of Elijah going around to Passover sederim to take a sip of wine from the Cup of Elijah would assuredly get him drunk by the end of my very Jewish block. It was almost Santa Claus-esque (though to be clear Pesach pre-dates Christmas) that Elijah the Prophet, the harbinger of the Messiah would go house to house, seder to seder. My family knew enough to host a meaningful and really joyous family seder, but not enough to know that the whole idea of Elijah going to house to house to drink wine was not the religious tradition.
Fast forward 10 years when I was studying at a yeshiva in Jerusalem that I spent more time really learning the laws and traditions of Passover from our oral Torah. It was then I discovered, fairly late in life, one of the real meanings of the Cup of Elijah according to the rabbis. Here goes—In Exodus 6:6-7 it reads:
6 Therefore, say to the children of Israel, 'I am the Lord, and I will take you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will save you from their labor, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments.'
7 And I will take you to Me as a people, and I will be a God to you, and you will know that I am the Lord your God, Who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.
Each of those distinct verbs, which describes the various ways God is to essentially rescue and care for us, represents one of the cups of wine at the seder. In verse 8, we also read:
8 I will bring you to the land, concerning which I raised My hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, and I will give it to you as a heritage; I am the Lord.
There is a rabbinic debate about whether or not you drink a fifth cup of wine for “I will bring you.” The debate ends in a stalemate of sorts with an acronym that translates to “Tishbi [Elijah] will solve problems and difficulties.” Essentially, the rabbis cannot come to agreement about having four or five cups of wine, so today, we keep the Cup of Elijah on our seder table to remind us to ask Elijah, when he comes, if we should have four or five cups of wine. Elijah is supposed to bring the Messiah or Messianic Age and along with it, answers to all the otherwise unanswerable questions. Rest assured, Elijah is not the alcoholic I imagined him to be 30 years ago.
At your Passover seder this year, consider inviting guests to present a question that they would ask Elijah that only he, knowing God’s will, could answer. What existential or practical matter would you want to understand better that Elijah could inform? Enjoy the activity and conversation.
Finally, as we reach the closing weeks of our annual campaign, we say at Passover, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” This year, like in every year, we are literally providing sustenance to those in need—from Jews in Eastern Europe, the FSU and Venezuela to Jews right here in Dallas who, in partnership with JFS and the JCC, are being fed and tended to for Passover. Your gift makes that possible—you can donate here.
Chag Kasher Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,
PS - Want to see what else I've been saying? Check out my past articles.