Is Elijah the Prophet a Jewish Version of Santa Claus?
A highlight of many Pesach Seders is Eliyahu HaNavi’s yearly visit. No one can see him, but some people could swear that his cup is not quite as full as it was when it was poured.
In my review of the The New American Haggadah | Book Review, I mentioned in passing that the idea that Elijah the Prophet visits Jewish homes on Passover is not as obvious as most people think. I have challenged people at my seder to find a real, serious source for this belief. None has been provided as of yet. At my Seder I don’t open the door for Elijah. I do open the door for Shfoch Chamascha, but not for the prophet.
There is not one mention of this yearly visit to every Jewish home in the entire corpus of Talmud or Midrash. I only know this because I have seen the research of others. I would not be able to make a statement like that on my own. Maybe one day.
According to an article in the Jewish Action the first mention of this nocturnal visit was in the 15th century. You read that right. Until the 15th century it seems that no one imagined that Elijah visited their seder. Is it possible that he only started visiting seders in the last 600 years? Seems unlikely.
I think the source of confusion is actually pretty reasonable. There is an obligation to drink four cups of wine at the seder. This is alluded to by the four expressions of redemption in Exodus. There is a fifth expression that sounds almost like an expression of redemption but there is no corresponding cup. The word is v’heiveisi, God says “I will bring” you to the Land of Israel. To symbolize this fifth expression a fifth cup is poured but not drunk. This further alludes to our hope that we will all be brought back to the Land of Israel in its full splendor and glory. We fill this cup just as we make those prayers in our seder during Hallel and Nirtzah.
The cup became known as the Cup of Elijah because it is Elijah the Prophet who will usher in the redemption.
Another twist is that some say that we will drink a fifth cup once we are redeemed. Others disagree. Elijah will resolve the disputes in the future and so this cup of dispute is known by his name.
Meanhwhile, Hallel begins with an symbolic opening of our doors to proclaim that we are confident in our relationship with God. Just after filling a cup of redemption the door is opened. It is easy to see how the imagination could wander a bit and to add some spice to a long seder the legend of Elijah visiting our homes was born.
Does this mean that this legend is wrong? Is it bad or harmful?
It could be. But I don’t think it has to be. The truth is that our traditions have changed and adjusted over time. This is another example of that phenomena. But it is harmful to pretend that the tradition is as ancient as the seder itself.
When you open the door at your seder, think about the development of Judaism in general and in particular the legend of Elijah the Prophet.