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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.

Link: OU.org


16 Comments
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  • http://adamsimon.org/ Adam Simon

    See Rav Avigdor Nebentzahl’ Hebrew Haggada “Yerushalayim B’Moadayha”, footnote #6 on Kadesh (page nun) and Kuntres Achron of Taamei Haminhagim ot taf kuf nun aleph

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      Why don’t you tell us what they say?

      • http://twitter.com/theadamsimon Adam Simon

        Sorry…don\’t know why I never saw this response. See the attached image.

  • Anonymous

    600 years ago was 1412 during which John II of
    Castile declared the Valladolid laws effective that restricted the social rights of
    Jews. Among many other
    restrictions the laws forced Jews to wear distinctive clothes and denied them
    administrative positions.

    I therefor posit, that Elijah did begin to visit homes each year begining in the 15th century to make them feel better due to the persecution that had just begun and would of course end in the inquisition and expulsion.

  • Susan Barnes

    That’s funny. I didn’t think Elijah visited all of our homes for the seder. I thought we opened the door for Elijah, just in case he was there, to let him know he was welcome and we’d like him to tell us the messiah is coming now. But every year when we open the door we see he isn’t there, so we give a little sigh of disappointment, close the door, and wish ourselves to do this, next year, in Jerusalem.

    • Anonymous

      I think this is a better interpretation of the events surrounding the opening of the door of Eliyahu Hanavi.

  • ahg

    Great Post!   

    I’ve been saying this to my friends for a few years now  (never knew where and when the idea came from) but I have been calling it the “Santa Clausation” of Eliyahu. 

    I think the next question to ask is:  Are there negative consequences to teaching children mythical beliefs that are known to be false?   When the Christian child learns there is no Santa, does it call into question the authenticity of other religious teachings?

    • tesyaa

      Are there negative consequences to teaching children mythical beliefs that are known to be false?

       IMO yes, but I don’t think Santa Claus necessarily falls under that categorization, since there’s no religious dogma that mandates belief in Santa Claus.   In Judaism, I think there are negative consequences from presenting as fact midrashim that strain credulity. 

      • Benignuman

        I agree. With the caveat that what strains credulity is often subjective. Until children are old enough to understand that there can be non-literal midrashim (like Pharoah being a cubit tall), we should avoid teaching those midrashim.

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      It all depends… Hopefully not.

    • Benignuman

      I think so. I don’t think we should ever lie to children (outside of some very rare and extreme exceptions). If I child is too young to understand something, then say “I will explain it when you are older” but don’t lie.

  • MarkSoFla

    “Is it possible that he only started visiting seders in the last 600 years?”

    Is it possible that people only started mixing up kitniyot with chametz in the last 600 years :-)

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      That’s a chumra. This is a fairy tale.

      • MarkSoFla

        Right. The focus was on the “600 years” part. I mean, would it have made you happier if it were 700 years? Or 1600 years? Or 3700 years?

    • Benignuman

      One of (the main?) reasons for the chumra of kitniyot is that due to crop rotations practices in Europe (starting at the end of the Middle Ages) inevitably some wheat stalks would grow among the legume crops and anyone who bought legumes in a store in those days was bound to find some wheat among them (and if you cooked a bunch of beans it was likely to have some chametz).

      In other words it is possible that people only became likely to mix-up kitniyot with chametz starting 700-600 years ago.

      • MarkSoFla

        “Crop rotation”

        Good point!