A highlight of the seder is when we open the door and invite in the presence of Elijah. For some, Elijah is invisible; for others, he is imaginary. Regardless, the section of the seder set aside for Elijah is a meaningful and often magical moment.
Why is Elijah, of all biblical figures, the person we invite to celebrate Pesach with us? A customary answer is that according to the final words of the last prophet of the Bible, Malachi, God says: “Behold, I swill send the prophet Elijah to you in advance of the awesome day of the Lord. He shall reconcile parents and children….” (Malachi 3:23)
In later Judaism, the tradition that Elijah will return to announce the “day of the Lord” came to be associated with the advent of the Messiah. And indeed one tradition is that the Messiah will arrive on Pesach.
The “Elijah moment” is associated with a filled cup, customarily called “the cup of Elijah” meaning “the [extra] cup for Elijah,” a connotation of hospitality.
There is also a historical aspect to the designation. The ancient rabbis who created the seder disagreed over whether there should be four or five cups of wine consumed. The dispute centered on a series of promises (four? five?) made by God through Moses to the Jewish people on the eve of the Exodus. The compromise reached some 2,000 years ago was to pour the fifth cup (in case that was the right number) but not to drink from it (in case that was the wrong number).
In rabbinic Judaism, there is a phrase, “teiku,” which is understood to mean “When Elijah comes, he will resolve all unanswered questions of Jewish law.” So perhaps the “Cup of Elijah” means “This is the cup about which Elijah gets to decide.” Over the centuries, the debate receded, but the cup remained, now symbolizing “anticipating the Messiah.”
What often gets excluded when we open the door for Elijah is the recitation of verses from Psalms and Lamentations that invoke God’s retribution on the Jewish people’s enemies. “Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not acknowledge You…. Pour out your fury upon them….destroy them from under Your heavens.” While these verses are found in traditional Haggadas, many liberal Haggadas have deleted them.
The contrast between these verses and the cheery “Eliyahu Hanavi” song is divisive and disruptive, reflecting the two Elijahs of Jewish tradition. The folk Elijah of the rabbinic imagination is a stand-in for everyone’s wise and warm zayde; that Elijah kindly turns up to help people in need and at a brit to welcome new Jewish boys.
But the Elijah of the Bible was a cranky, solitary figure, prone to self-righteousness (“I alone am left to be faithful to God” — I Kings 19:10) and sending a bear to attack youths taunting him about his baldness (II Kings 2:23). If the Elijah of the Bible turned up at a seder, most people would call 9-1-1 rather than invite him in to share some wine.
The choice of which Elijah to invite to the seder — the jovial Elijah who anticipates the Messiah or the judgmental Elijah of the Bible — can shape the way the discussion around the table goes as we narrate the story of the Exodus.