As I was growing up, there were two highlights of Passover Seders for me—the reading of the Four Questions and opening the door for Elijah. My family followed the tradition at the time of assigning the reading of the Four Questions to the youngest son—never the daughter. So even though I was younger than my male cousins, I would always listen patiently as they read the Four Questions. And yes, of course, I very much enjoyed their renditions and I was proud of my cousins. I did wish, though, that just once, I could have taken center stage for that central moment in our family Seders. Then again, I got my moment too. Yes, the girls got to open the door for Elijah! And with the door open, my uncle would encourage us all to sing Eliyahu HaNavi at the top of our lungs.
One could safely argue that opening the door for Elijah is the most climactic moment in the Seder ritual. But it has only been through my intense study of the Haggadah over the years that I have come to appreciate the true centrality of this moment, even though it did not find its way into the Seder text until the Middle Ages, over a millennium after the core of the Haggadah text was put together.
A little bit about Elijah himself… Elijah was a prophet in the kingdom of Israel—the Northern Kingdom—during the 9th century BCE. No, he was not one of the actual Prophets whose writings and pronouncements are included in the second section of the Tanakh called “Prophets,” or “Nevi’im.” He was more of a magic man, as I have often described him. He was a healer, a miracle worker, a tireless opponent of the Canaanite god Baal. According to the Book of II Kings (2.11), he never really died, but ascended into Heaven in a fiery chariot. “As such,” the late Rabbi Neil Gillman observed, “he is the ultimate liminal personality who has mastered the threshold between life and death.”
As the “liminal” character described by Rabbi Gillman, z”l, Elijah goes on to occupy a critical place in later Rabbinic tradition. At a B’rit Milah—a circumcision—a chair is set aside for Elijah. In addition, when legal arguments arise among Jewish scholars, Elijah is said to appear and settle the halakhic dispute. According to tradition, Elijah is said to be the herald of the Messiah. We evoke this messianic quality every Saturday night at the end of the Havdalah ceremony. Shabbat, of course, is thought to be a foretaste of what it will be like for us in the Messianic Era—a time of peace, and joy, and security. At Havdalah, as Shabbat departs, we sing Eliyahu HaNavi, to try to hasten the coming of that idyllic time.
In Medieval Europe, Passover was often a difficult time for Jews. Because of its proximity in time to Easter, blood libels were rampant, and Jews were often subjected to harassment and attacks. Against the backdrop of the Crusades, the ritual of Elijah’s Cup is thus paired at this time with three selected verses from the Tanakh, expressing our own frustration and anger toward those who pursue us. It is unclear as to how the opening of the door ritual developed. There are some who place it in Medieval England, when Jews began opening their doors during their Seders so that their Christian neighbors could see into their homes, and realize that there was no black magic going on inside; but rather, a celebration of freedom from slavery, and an expression of hope for the future. Others speculate that it was so the Jews themselves could look out from their homes into the future, as it were, hoping that they could catch of glimpse of our messianic hopes coming to fruition. Eventually, probably as late as the 15th Century, the fifth cup of wine that had appeared not long before at the Seder became identified as Elijah’s Cup, and was linked to the opening of the door. We open the door for Elijah, not only as a figure who has saved our people from many previous disasters, but also hoping that he will come to herald the Messiah—in liberal terms, the Messianic Age. And thus, we might say that Elijah’s Cup, and the rituals surrounding it, are in fact the central, and most important piece within the entire Seder. Yes of course, we have gathered to remember and retell our redemption from slavery to freedom, from degradation to glory. But ultimately, these are in the past. With Elijah’s Cup, we voice our hope for the future—for the coming of a better day on this Earth—for the fulfillment of our vision of Tikkun Olam, the reparation of our broken world.
In this light, I would like to reference a wonderful perspective expressed by Abigail Pogrebin in her new book, My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew (2017: Fig Tree Books). Ms. Pogrebin spent many years as a producer at PBS. She now serves as President of Central Synagogue of New York. Her “take” on the ritual of opening the door for Elijah is that it requires a positive and deliberate act on our part. In order for Elijah to come, we have to get up and open the door. In short, the prophet Elijah needs us. He needs us to open the door. The realization of our messianic vision as a people, then, rests squarely upon our shoulders, and in our hands.
This Shabbat before the Festival of Passover is Shabbat HaGadol, The Great Sabbath. The name comes from the Haftarah of the day, taken from the Prophet Malachi—the last of the Prophetic books in the Tanakh. The end of the Haftarah, and indeed, the end of the book (Chapter 3), reads:
22 Be mindful of the Teaching of My servant Moses, whom I charged at Horeb with laws and rules for all Israel. 23 Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of God. 24 He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction. 23 Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you “lifnei bo yom Adonai HaGadol v’HaNorah”. —before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of God.
As we prepare for our Passover Seders, I wish you all peace and reconciliation, justice and compassion, as we contemplate our responsibility to bring them about. Can we do the work required? Only we can answer that—before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of God.