Elijah’s Cup: A Symbol of Agreeing to Disagree

“Let’s agree to disagree.”

That’s an expression we often say when we reach a stalemate in a conversation. In essence, we say to each other, “I understand you have a different point of view than I do, I’m not going to change my position. You’re not going to change your position. So, we’ll part ways and deal with it another day.” The Rabbis of the Talmud (a collection of rabbinic commentary, laws, and discussion from about 1500 years ago) dealt with things in much the same way, but they used a different word: an acronym, “teiku.”

Did you know that there’s a remnant of a “teiku” argument on your seder table?

It all starts in the Torah, Exodus 6:6-7. The Israelites are slaves to Egypt, and God promises a bunch of pretty great things to the Israelites through Moses: “I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary acts of judgement. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God.” The Rabbis thought these were pretty great things too, so the four words highlighted here became the justification for the four cups of wine that we drink at the Passover seder. With me so far? Great. But get ready, because things are about to get messy.

The next verse continues: “I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Eternal.” The rabbis weren’t really sure what to do with this extra verb, “bring.” Does that mean that we should actually have five glasses of wine? Is that extra glass required? Optional? Not allowed? Should the seder be focused on the exodus from Egypt alone and not the Israelite’s eventual destination after attaining their freedom?

The rabbis couldn’t reach an agreement. They understood that there were differing views, and that neither side was going to be persuaded to change their mind. They said, “Teiku: Tishbi Yitaretz Kushiot Ubay’aot – The Tishbite (aka: Elijah) will resolve questions and problems.” In other words, we drink four cups, and we hope that one day Elijah will return and tell us whether to drink a fifth cup.

Elijah the Prophet is a symbol of a future time, when peace and harmony will reign. We invoke Elijah at the end of Havdalah, in a verse of Birkat Hamazon (blessing after meals), and at baby namings, all in hopes that Elijah might come and bring about a time without human suffering. When we invoke Elijah at the Passover Seder, it is not, as Rabbi Laura Baum termed in a Huffington Post article in 2012, a “Jewish Santa Claus” who comes in, and when your back is turned, drinks the unattended glass of wine in the middle of your table. We welcome Elijah because we hope the Messianic age will come speedily in our day, and we will know whether or not we can drink that fifth glass.

Here is the core value: Elijah’s cup is a symbol of agreeing to disagree. By design, the seder is filled with lots of questions and invitations for even more. On the surface, it may appear that the Haggadah does not sufficiently address how to have those discussions, and, especially, how we should leave them if they are left unresolved. With Elijah’s cup, we have an “out.” “Teiku,” we can say. “Someday, we’ll find a good answer. It may not be today, but hopefully one day soon.” How perfect is it that the symbol of unresolved discussion is filled with a symbol associated with joy!

And wouldn’t it be great if, when we agreed to disagree, it was with sweetness, joy, and compassion on our lips, rather than with bitterness, sadness, and resentment? Perhaps then, we would be the ones to bring about the Messianic age, we would, each of us, be Elijah, and we would all be able to raise a glass and offer an even better expression: “L’chayim! To life!”

About the Author
Rabbi Jeremy Gimbel is the assistant rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego, CA. He produced the film, "Hatikvah: A Documentary About One Aspect of Israel," and has released 3 albums of original Jewish music.