“What is the Prophet Elijah Doing at Our Passover Seder?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

At the Seder, after the completion of the Passover meal, the Birkat Hamazon, the Grace after the meal, is recited over the third cup of wine. Before the fourth cup of wine is poured, a special cup of wine, known as the “Cup of Elijah,” is filled and set at the center of the table. The front door to the home is opened and the celebrants recite a brief citation from Psalms 79:6-7, known as “Sh’foch cha’maht’chah el ha’goyim,” in which we plead to G-d to pour out His wrath upon the nations who do not recognize Him and upon the kingdoms that do not call upon His name, for they have devoured Jacob and have laid waste His dwelling place.

Both the appearance of the prophet Elijah at the Seder table and the recitation of this angry declaration against the nations seem to be incongruous with the joyous spirit of Passover.

In the Hebrew Bible, Elijah is depicted almost exclusively as a zealous, fearsome and angry prophet. Elijah lived and prophesied during the times of Ahab, the wicked King of Israel, and his even more wicked wife, Jezebel. Elijah was single-minded in his determination to eradicate the cult of idolatry that was rampant throughout the land, and publicly confronted the idolatrous priests of Baal. After a great fire comes down from heaven and consumes his sacrifice proving that Elijah was indeed the true prophet of G-d, Elijah has the 450 priests of Baal put to death.

Later, Ahazia the son of Ahab, succeeds to his father’s throne, continuing in the idolatrous footsteps of his father. When Ahazia falls and is injured, he sends emissaries to Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron, to find out whether he will recover from his illness. Elijah, in anger, curses Ahazia, predicting that he will never get off his sick bed and that he will surely die (II Kings 1:6).

It could very well be that the presence of the angry prophet is invoked at this point of the Seder because it is in consonance with the fierce mood of the “Sh’foch cha’maht’chah” prayer. Elijah, the angry prophet, joins us at this point when we ask that the Al-mighty’s anger lash out at those who fail to recognize G-d. There is, after all, well-based historical justification at this season to express anger at the nations, who for centuries made the Passover holiday a dreaded time for Jews. Historically, drunken Christian celebrants of Easter would concoct blood libels against the Jewish community, accusing them of using Christian children’s blood in their holiday wine and matzot. For centuries, Passover was a time when Jewish communities were attacked and innocent Jews massacred. Some say that the door was opened at this point to make certain that there were no bodies of dead Christian children outside the home, planted there by their enemies in the hope of provoking a pogrom. In this horrific environment, the presence of the zealous Elijah was very reassuring.

There are, however, other, more positive, reasons for inviting Elijah to our Passover Seders. One popular theory is that we drink four cups of wine on Passover to remember the four languages of Divine redemption that are mentioned in Exodus 6:6-8: “Therefore, say to the Children of Israel: And I [G-d] shall take you out from under the burden of Egypt; I shall rescue you from their service; I shall redeem you… I shall take you to Me for a People… I shall bring you to the land.” While the first four aspects of redemption have been fulfilled, the fifth expression of redemption, “I shall bring you,” that predicts the peoples’ return to the Holy Land, has not. Therefore, a fifth cup of wine, known as the “Cup of Elijah,” is filled to express our hope that we will soon be brought to the Promised Land, and that G-d’s redemption will be complete. Since it is traditionally considered to be the prophet Elijah who resolves Talmudic disputes (Tosaphot Yom Tov at the end of Tractate Eduyot), the cup of Elijah is filled but not drunk, as a compromise between those who maintain that there should be four cups at the Seder and those who maintain that there must be five cups.

An additional reason for Elijah’s appearance in the Passover Hagaddah may very well have to do with the prophet’s strong personality. The Bible records that Elijah fiercely defended the ritual of circumcision that had been abolished by Ahab and Jezebel. It is for this reason that Elijah is invited to every Jewish child’s circumcision, and the reason that the child is placed on the “Chair of Elijah” prior to the circumcision. It is exactly this type of strong personality that Jews need to have with them at the time of the Seder. We need an Elijah who is not afraid of enemies, whether they be Egyptian taskmasters or contemporary terrorists, someone who has a fierce belief that redemption will come, which is, of course, a major theme of Passover.

Oddly enough, in Midrashic literature, Elijah is radically transformed into a soft and caring herald who is to serve as the precursor of the Messiah. So it is entirely appropriate for Elijah to appear at our Passover Seder, at which we celebrate the original redemption, in the hope that Elijah will initiate our ultimate redemption.

Another reason for Elijah’s appearance at the Passover seder, is possibly because of the striking similarities between Elijah and Moses, the redeemer of Israel, whose name is virtually absent from the Passover Hagaddah. Recalling Elijah at the Seder, may very well be an indirect way of remembering Moses by inviting a man who is so similar to him to our Passover celebration.

The Midrash Yalkut Habakkuk 209, notes many similarities between these two great historical personages. Both Moses and Elijah were prophets and are both called “Eesh ha’Elo’him,” men of G-d. Moses ascends to heaven, as does Elijah. Moses kills an Egyptian, Elijah is reputed to have killed Hiel of Bethel, the man who rebuilt Jericho (Pesiktah Rabati, parasha 4, alluded to in Hosea 13:1). Moses is fed by a woman (Jethro’s daughter) and Elijah is fed by the widow of Zarephath. Moses flees from Pharaoh, Elijah flees from Jezebel. Moses gathers the people before Mount Sinai, Elijah gathers the people before Mount Carmel. Moses hides in a crag, Elijah hides in a cave. Both Moses and Elijah do not eat for 40 days and 40 nights, and both have visions of G-d at Mount Sinai (Horeb). Moses and Elijah are the only prophets to perform public miracles and appoint their successors during their own lifetimes, Joshua and Elisha, respectively. The final resting places of both Moses and Elijah are not known.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his landmark book Jewish Literacy, provides an additional reason, suggested by his late father, Solomon Telushkin, explaining why Elijah the prophet appears at both Jewish circumcisions and the Passover Seder.

In the immediate aftermath of Elijah’s defeat of the priests of the Baal, he [Elijah] flees from the enraged Jezebel into the desert where he spends 40 days in solitude period. During this time, Elijah cries out angrily to G-d that, “The Israelites have forsaken your covenant and…I alone am left,” (I Kings 19:14)–presumably meaning that he is the only Jew and the only monotheist left on earth. G-d does not permit Elijah to wallow in self-righteousness: He gives him new tasks and sends him on his way. But perhaps here, in Elijah’s exaggerated condemnation of every other Jew, is the kernel of the reason for his many reappearances. He who sees himself as the last Jew is fated to bear constant witness to the eternity of Israel, to be present when every male Jewish child enters the covenant, and when every Jewish family celebrates the Seder. (To this day, circumcision and Seder remain the most commonly observed Jewish rituals). Elijah stands in a long line of despairing Jews who have erroneously prophesied the end of the Jewish people. (p. 88)

It is Elijah, the man of extraordinary principle, of extraordinary zeal, and extraordinary commitment who is transformed into a man of extraordinary hope, extraordinary devotion, and even extraordinary kindness. It is Elijah about whom the prophet Malachi 3:24 prophesies, “Behold I send you Elijah the prophet, and he shall reconcile the hearts of fathers to sons and the hearts of sons to fathers, prior to the great and awesome day of G-d.”

For this, and much more, we welcome Elijah to our Seder.

May you be blessed.

This Wednesday morning, April 8th, the 14th of Nissan, a unique occasion will take place that occurs only once every 28 years–Birkat Hachama (the blessing of the sun). According to Jewish tradition, it marks the exact day and time that the sun was placed in the heavens during the original creation of the universe. For more information click here.

The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year on Wednesday night, April 8th and continue through Thursday and Friday, April 9th and 10th. The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Tuesday night, April 14th, and continue through Wednesday and Thursday, April 15th and 16th.

Chag Kasher V’samayach. Wishing all our friends a wonderful, joyous and meaningful Passover.