Seder is a Hebrew word that means order or arrangement, and the Pesach (Passover) Seder is the ritual feast that includes the narrative of the Israelites slavery in Egypt and the miracles leading to and through the Exodus. The Seder is replete with customs and symbolism including four cups of wine representing the four expressions of God’s promise of redemption used in the Torah along with the bitter herbs representing the bitterness our ancestors suffered while in slavery.
In the beginning of the Seder shortly after the prayer blessing over the wine, we identify the Matzot, the unleavened bread, and say the simple, yet beautiful, Ha Lachma Anya. It reads in part, “This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. All who are hungry, let them come eat. All who are in need, let them celebrate the Pesach with us.” Many households actually open the front door at Ha Lachma Anya as a gesture of invitation to the needy.
The door is opened yet again just after the Grace After Meals prayer later in the Seder and the evening when we show we have no fear of our enemies and that we wish to welcome the prophet Eliyahu (Elijah) heralding the final redemption on the ultimate night of redemption. In fact, the emblematic arrival of the honored guest, Eliyahu, is one of the reasons we have the extra wine-filled, symbolic Cup of Eliyahu on our Seder tables.
But there is another reason we have that fifth cup of wine. Rabbi Yochanan in Pesachim 68b of the Jerusalem Talmud (volumes of legal discussions and commentary dating back over 1500 years) gives reason to the four cups. He tells us they correspond to God’s four salvation expressions within close proximity of each other mentioned in Sh’mot (Exodus) 6:6-7 – “V’hotzeiti,” “V’hetzalti,” “V’ga’alti” and “V’lakachti.” “I will bring (you) out,” “I will save,” “I will redeem” and “I will take.”
A fifth salvation term a verse later, “V’haivaiti,” “I will bring (you) in,” created discussion and deliberation as to whether a fifth cup should be consumed. When there is an unanswerable question in the Talmud, the related debate is ended with the word “T(a)YKU,” which means “let it stay unresolved.” The four-letter word is also an acronym – Tishbi Yetaretz Kushyot V’abaot, meaning the Tishbite (Eliyahu who was from the town or area of Tishbi) will answer all difficult questions and doubts.
For this unanswerable question it was decided that until Eliyahu returns to give the correct interpretation, there is to be a compromise. Pour a fifth cup, but do not drink it. And so we have the Cup of Eliyahu, named for the conclusive arbiter.
According to our tradition, the Pesach Seder is not the only place Eliyahu makes an appearance. The Midrash (a collection of ancient biblical commentaries) says, Eliyahu’s concern that the people of Israel were not performing the Brit Milah, the circumcision covenant (Melachim Aleph, I Kings 19:10), caused God to decree the prophet appear at every Brit in perpetuity to witness compliance of the sacred observance. And that is why there is a Kiseh Shel Eliyahu, a Chair of Eliyahu, present at the ceremony.
The prophet Eliyahu was known not just for the miracles he performed and for his zealousness of God’s commandments, but also for his assistance to the less fortunate.
In the Jewish Bible and even in later times according to the Talmud, Eliyahu would appear to help the poor and hungry, those who would have died without his intervention. Two such stories are in Melachim Aleph (I Kings) 17:8-16, when he helped a starving widow and her son whose final meager provisions miraculously never ran out, and in the Babylonian Talmud in Kiddushin 40a, when he saved a Rabbi whose severe poverty caused him to do work that compromised his morals, and who tried to take his own life.
Because of this and how he insures adherence to the commandments, I would like to add that perhaps Eliyahu visits not just at the fifth cup toward the end of the Seder, but also at the start, when the “Bread of Affliction” words, “All who are hungry, let them come eat. All who are in need, let them celebrate the Pesach with us,” are being said.
For the Jewish people, after all, the concepts of compassion and charity are critically central to our values. It says in Devarim (Deuteronomy) 15:7-8, “If there will be among you a needy person… you shall not harden your heart, and you shall not close your hand from your needy brother. Rather, you shall open your hand to him…”
As we celebrate redemption and freedom this Pesach, we are required to remember how we were the lowest of the low in Pharaoh’s Egypt, how we were oppressed and humiliated. So for all who are hungry, for all who are in need, open your heart, open your door, and open your hand. And not just for this holiday, but for always. Remember, Eliyahu is watching.
Chag Sameach! Have a very Happy Pesach!