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At seders around the world, millions of cups of wine are poured in honor of one man: Elijah. Why is Elijah the Prophet part of the seder when he lived centuries after the Exodus? Why do children open the front door and call for Eliahu Hanavi? Who was he?
Elijah’s story is told in the Book of Kings. He lived in a time of kings who were at war with one another. Israel was split into north and south and, throughout the land, there was conflict between monarchies and monotheists. “These were not good times for the Jews,” says Rabbi Joshua Z. Gruenberg of Congregation Beth El in Yardley. “Most Israelites had broken their covenant with God and were following other gods.”
That was especially true in Northern Israel, where the king was Ahab, the queen was Jezebel and the god being worshipped was Baal. Jezebel had introduced Baal from her native Phoenicia. She convinced Ahab and his Israelites to worship Baal. To ensure that would happen, Jezebel had God’s prophets slaughtered. Into this came Elijah the Tishbite.
“Elijah was a zealot,” explains Saul Wachs, chair of the education department at Gratz College, director of the doctoral program and the Rosaline B. Feinstein professor of education and liturgy. “He resolutely believed that Hashem was the one and only God, the God of the Israelites. And he set out to prove it. That resulted in the famous confrontation on Mount Carmel.”
Mount Carmel was the site of a deity smackdown. Elijah stood alone against 450 of Baal’s priests. Two animals were slaughtered. Elijah challenged the priests to have Baal start a fire that would consume their sacrifice. As is recounted in Kings 18, the priests of Baal spent an entire day calling on their god to start a fire. Nothing happened. Then, it was Elijah’s turn.
With the Israelites gathered as witnesses, Elijah placed 12 stones, one for each of the tribes of Israel, around the pit that held his sacrificed animal. To make the challenge of starting a fire even more difficult, he had water poured over the animal, into the pit. Then, Elijah called — once — to God to send a ball of fire. He did. The animal and all of the water in the pit were consumed by the fire.
“The people saw this and immediately made a new covenant with God,” Wachs says. “It’s that covenant that Elijah now protects.”
The renewed covenant between God and the Israelites wasn’t the only thing that resulted from that miracle on Mount Carmel. The Carmelite nuns — officially known as the Order of the Brothers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel — were founded to honor Elijah.
But Elijah wasn’t done with those priests of Baal. He slaughtered all 450 of them. “And then he ran for his life, because Jezebel was after him,” Wachs says. “He ran to Mount Sinai, hid, and asked God to protect him. He waited to feel God’s presence. There was rain. There was an earthquake. There was fire. Elijah waited and waited. Then, Elijah heard a small, still sound. That was when Elijah felt God’s presence. The point is that you have to wait, and have faith, and be aware not just of the big miracles, but of the small, still wonders of God.”
Another miracle happened when Elijah died. “Well, he didn’t really die,” says Rabbi Micah Peltz of Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill. “He was taken up to God in a fiery chariot. Elijah is the only person in the Bible whose life on Earth ends that way. So, we believe that Elijah is waiting with God in Heaven and will come down to Earth and be the harbinger of the Messiah and the time of redemption.”
What does all of this have to do with Passover? “At the seder, we’re talking about a time of redemption when God delivered the Israelites out of slavery,” Peltz says. “Elijah is honored because he will signal the next period of redemption.
“But Passover is not the only time that Elijah is present,” he adds. “He is part of our worship when that covenant with God is made, renewed and celebrated at different moments in our Jewish lives.”
“For example, at the end of every Havdalah, we sing ‘Eliahu Hanavi,’ to honor our covenant with God,” Gruenberg says. “The Saturday immediately preceding Passover is Shabbat Hagadol, the ‘Great Shabbat,’ and refers to a passage in Malachi that, on the day of redemption, God will send Elijah to herald the Messiah. And, at a traditional bris, there is the Elijah’s Chair. The person holding the baby sits in that chair and as the circumcision is performed and the new covenant is made with God, Elijah witnesses it.”
“Elijah is the one who tells God that the Israelites are not observing the commandments,” Wachs says. “He accuses the Jewish people of breaking the covenant, so now he comes to the bris, to the seder and Shabbat to ensure that Jews are observing the commandments to perform those rituals and honor our covenant with God.”
That, the experts say, is one reason for the tradition of opening the front door and calling for Elijah. “In a sense, it is calling for Elijah to witness our seder,” Gruenberg says. “In another sense, it is giving the kids something to do.”
Wachs offers a third interpretation. For centuries, European Jews suffered terribly during the time between Passover and Shavuot, which coincides with Easter, Wachs says. “It was commonly believed that the Jews killed Jesus,” he says. “There was a horrible calumny about Jews killing Christian babies for their blood to mix with the matzah. It was preached from pulpits, as was the statement that the Jews were drinking blood at seders.
“It got so bad that some rabbis had people drink white wine” at their seders, he adds. “So, opening the door was their way to say, ‘Come into our house and see what we are doing. Let anyone who is hungry come and eat with us.’ ”
On that table is Elijah’s Cup. Why do we have a cup of wine for him, as opposed to another chair? It’s a cup of wine for a reason, the experts say.
“The four cups of wine that we drink honor the four promises that God made to the Israelites in Egypt,” Peltz says. “ ‘I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, I will deliver you from their bondage, I will redeem you with an out-stretched arm, and I will take you for my people.’ Those four things have been done. But there is a fifth promise: ‘I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.’ Now, that didn’t happen until after Exodus, after the story that we are telling in the seder. So should we drink a fifth cup of wine during the seder or not? Elijah’s cup is that fifth cup — but we don’t drink it.”
“There are a few questions like that one that rabbis can’t answer,” Wachs says. “For those questions, there is a saying, ‘We’ll wait until Elijah comes and ask him.’”
Melissa Jacobs is the senior editor of Special Sections.