Rich with symbolism, Passover overflows with meaning and significance. But
while the whole seder hums with talk and activity, the "Cup of Elijah" stands
alone by itself, without any apparent function. We pay individual tribute with a
blessing over each of the other our cups, but not a word about this one. The
wine poured into this cup remains untouched to the end -- we pour it right back
into the bottle after the seder is over. Is this fifth cup like the proverbial
fifth wheel, an unneeded appendage tagging along?
Of course, there's a bit of drama around this cup. When opening the door for
Elijah, the children gather round to watch the quivering liquid ripple, hoping
to detect some sign of its sampling by the visiting prophet. But surely there's
more meaning to this cup than a child's imagination?
Let's not play pretend with someone as serious and holy as the prophet
Elijah. It is quite thoughtful of some people to offer Elijah a drink while
visiting, but thank you, he doesn't need sips to keep him going. This cup has
real purpose and meaning. Let us learn more about Elijah's historic role in
Judaism, and we'll realize that this special cup is here even more for our own
sake than for his, to inspire us and to give our seder focus and direction.
The Halachic Background
Originally, the issue appears in the Talmud as a question as to whether an optional
pleasure drink is permitted after the mandatory four cups. Only Rabbi Tarfon's
minority opinion suggests a specific fifth cup for each participant as part of
the seder routine. Centuries later, the Code of Jewish Law mentions the custom
of placing a fifth cup on the table, calling it "Elijah's Cup."
So while the original obligatory four cups remain nameless (it's just "the
first cup," "the second cup," etc.) Jewish tradition has given this cup a most
prestigious name after one of the greatest prophets. How ironic that the
namesake of this silent and passive cup is none other than the fiery, bold and
According to an explanation by the Gaon of Vilna, "Elijah" refers to the
Prophet Elijah as the final arbiter who will eventually, in the future, resolve
all "taiku"--stalemates--in the Talmud. In this regard, the Fifth Cup remains in
limbo, awaiting Elijah's decision on the debate between Rabbi Tarfon versus the
other rabbis whether we must drink four or five cups on Passover eve.
But why must we wait for Elijah to make this decision? Isn't the issue
resolved simply by following the established principle that the majority rules,
while Rabbi Tarfon is only a singular opinion? And why do we involve Elijah only
here, and not also in the other halachic dispute that concerns our seder ritual
-- that of Hillel vs. the Rabbis, whether the Paschal offering is eaten with the
Matza as a Korech sandwich, or separately?
Expressions of Redemption
The commentaries relate the four cups to the "Four Expressions of Redemption"
in G‑d's promise to Moses (Exodus 6:2-8): "I will take you out," "I will deliver
you," "I will redeem you," and "I will acquire you." These are not merely four
synonyms, for each represents a distinct stage and level of Redemption. "I will
take you out" refers to physical exit from the land of Egypt. "I will deliver
you from their bondage" means delivery from servitude and "I will redeem you" is
the Divine guarantee that we remain a free people. "I will acquire you as My
nation" to be your G‑d's chosen at Mount Sinai -- the goal of the Exodus.
In addition to these four expressions, the Torah also uses a fifth expression
of Redemption: "I will bring you into the land." Until two thousand years ago,
the seder may have indeed featured a fifth cup, when this fifth expression was
fulfilled and the Jewish people actually lived in the Promised Land.
But after being exiled from our homeland, languishing in alien countries all
around the world, our situation no longer corresponds to the fifth expression;
hence no fifth cup.
Even over the last fifty years, when, thank G‑d, we have Israel, we know that
the complete redemtion has still not come. Israel has proven to be a safe haven
for Jews from all over the world, and we surely have much to be proud of
Israel's miraculous victories and amazing achievements; yet we're still
constantly threatened from within and without, challenged by dubious processes,
treaties and schemes by our enemies and detractors. Israel is indeed a place of
Divine blessings and protection, but it has yet to achieve the true peace and
lofty ideals of the Messianic age.
So no fifth cup is drunk on Passover eve nowadays.Yet this special cup
remained symbolically on the seder table, expressing our prayers and hopes to be
gathered again to the Land of Israel. What may once have been an optional
custom has developed over time into standard observance, reinforced by
generations of Jewish yearning for the Redemption.
Elijah's Cup demonstrates that "Redemption" is not an abstract concept, an
old wives' tale, a wishful fantasy, or a vague notion. Our belief in Moshiach and
the Redemption is real and relevant, being a pillar of the Thirteen Principles
of Jewish Faith. Elijah's Cup takes the mystical concept of Redemption and
Moshiach out of the closet, and places the issue right on the table for all to
see and realize.
Presently, this cup is unfortunately beyond our reach; we cannot actually
drink it. But we are all ready and waiting. We are on standby, eagerly
anticipating Elijah's long awaited heralding of the Redemption. Unlike the other
cups that come and go, this special cup represents our staying power and
This follows Maimonides' teaching that belief in Moshiach shouldn't just be
passive. It is not enough to merely sit back and wait. Moshiach should be on our
daily agenda. We must actively demand and look forward to Moshiach's coming.
Indeed, the Redemption process is accelerated by our prayers, actions and
Elijah's cup is not there just to grace our table. It is not served merely as
an honorary toast to a great prophet. It is rather here to give our whole seder
a new focus and direction.
There is a common misconception that the seder is all over after eating the
Afikoman. Once they've closed the door on Elijah, some people tend to doze off
or clear away the table, assuming that the rest is just winding down with
On the contrary! At this point the seder rises to a crescendo, as it
approaches the grand finale of the future Redemption. It is here that the
context changes course from the past, and turns the corner to the future.
Judaism sees the Exodus from Egypt as the beginning of a process to be completed
by our redemption through Moshiach.
The seder doesn't just look back to the past, to the Pharaohs and the
pyramids; we also look forward to our redemption in the future. As much as we
relive the Exodus from Egypt through Moses, let us not lose sight of our
ultimate goal, our own redemption now from exile through Moshiach, speedily in