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The Mysterious Fifth Cup of Elijah

At the beginning of our family Seder when I was growing up my grandfather used to fill a cup of grape juice and place it in the center of the table. At the end of the Seder he would point out that this cup, the Kos Shel Eliyahu, the cup of Elijah, was no longer full. This, my grandfather would tell the children, was a proof that Elijah the prophet who is said to visit every seder had come and drank from the cup. Only years later did I realize liquids evaporate especially in a warm dining room filled with people.

What is the significance of the Kos Shel Eliyahu which has captivated the hearts of children and adults, and where does it come from? The earliest source to mention this custom dates to 1497 which is late in the history of Jewish scholarship. Rabbi Zeligman Benga in his commentary to the Talmud on Pesachim reports seeing people pour a cup of Eliyahu at the seder. He surmises that the reason for this custom is since Eliyahu comes to the seder he will need wine for his mitzvah of drinking four cups at the seder, so we pour a large cup for him to use. This comment is even more puzzling for there are no earlier sources that report Eliyahu coming to the Seder.

These two perplexing questions will require us to do some more investigation. In fact, there are earlier sources for having an extra fifth cup at the Seder. As we uncover them we will understand more about the meaning of this cup, and how it is actually a symbol of Zionism and of the centrality of the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. The discussion about the Seder in the Talmud begins by asserting that every Jew must have four cups of wine for their seder, even a poor person who must be provided with charity funds to buy his four cups. The Talmud (Pesachim 117b-118a) then describes at what point in the seder they are poured and drunk. According to some texts of the Talmud, Rabbi Tarfon teaches that there is a fifth cup over which we finish the last part of the Haggadah, the Great Hallel. Although there is a big debate over the correct version of the text amongst the commentaries, many affirm the existence of the fifth cup. Why is this so significant? The Jerusalem Talmud tells us that the four cups correspond to four stages of redemption described in Exodus 6:7-8, that G-d will 1) take us out of the slavery of Egypt, 2) deliver us from bondage, 3) redeem us with an outstretched arm and 4) take us to Him as a people. However, in the next sentence there is a fifth stage: 5) I will bring you to the land which… I will give to you. So now we have the answer to the source of the mysterious fifth cup, why there was debate over it, and perhaps an better understanding of why it only re-emerged later in Jewish history.

The fifth cup is the cup of Zionism, the celebration of the return to the land of Israel. When the Rabbis formulated the text of the Haggadah they were living in the land, so they did not ‘need’ to yearn to return there. But later in Jewish history it was recognized that we are back in exile and that we need to start talking about the fifth stage of redemption, the return to Israel! Now we also understand why the fifth cup is the cup of EliyahuEliyahu is the figure who will announce the coming of the messiah, the leader who will unite the Jewish people and lead us back to the land of Israel (Malachi 3:23). The fifth cup of returning to the land of Israel, and the cup of Eliyahu are one and the same. My wife’s family has a custom of pouring the cup of Eliyahu right before we open the door and invite Eliyahu in, right before we finish the Haggadah. Many Haggadot included a picture on the page when we open the door which showed Eliyahu leading the Messiah riding on a donkey into Jerusalem (Zechariah 9:9), like the one in the picture above where Eliahu is also blowing the shofar, another sign of redemption.

The Passover story ultimately culminated in the entry of the Jewish people into the land of Israel, although it was a long journey of forty years, and most of the original group of Jews never entered the land. So maybe this is why we pour the cup according to Maimonides, but we do not drink it -yet. The road to the return to the land is long and difficult, and not everyone will make it. But everyone should yearn for it, and recite praises to G-d over the fifth cup. We live in an miraculous period of Jewish history when half of our people have returned to the land and built a flourishing Jewish State. During the early days of the State of Israel, Rabbi Menachem Kasher argued that the custom in Israel should now be to not just pour but to drink the fifth cup, because our joy is full and we have merited to be part of generation who have returned to the land and completed the final stage of the Exodus. May we all merit to drink the fifth cup when the rest of our Jewish brothers and sisters come to join us in the land of Israel for Passover.

Pesach Sameyach, may we all celebrate Passover with joy!

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