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    Will Elijah be coming this Passover?

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 26 March, 2021.

    Painting depicting Elijah the Prophet, by Zalman Kleinman

    This year, the Jewish Passover festival begins this weekend. Such is its fascination that four out of every five Jews will sit down to the home ceremonial, the Seder.

    Some think that Jesus’s Last Supper was a Seder, but this has never been conclusively proven. However, Jesus as a Jew would have celebrated the Passover as well as the Sabbath and other festivals; he would have eaten kosher food and prayed in Hebrew.

    Despite the passing of the centuries, Passover — the festival of freedom — remains a highlight of the Jewish year. These days, no matter how far some Jews seem to be from the traditions and tenets of the Jewish heritage, Seder night will attract them all.

    And with all the colour, the aroma, the symbolism of the Seder, one of the most dramatic moments in the ritual will come when the door of the house is opened and, in hushed anticipation, the assembled family waits to welcome Elijah the prophet. There is even a special wine cup of Elijah on the table.

    Elijah’s involvement is not really as ancient as people think. The custom probably dates only from the fifteenth century. Manuscript copies of the Passover ritual book, the Haggadah, deriving from southern Germany and northern Italy at this period, illustrate the entry of Elijah as precursor of the Messiah.

    In a northern Italian Haggadah dated 1478, the head of the household is seen at the open door, holding a cup of wine, ready to welcome the messianic guest. The Messiah is a bearded old man on a richly adorned ass. With him on the ass are a man and a boy; on the tail are a woman and a girl, while another youngster is clinging to the tail. It all seems to suggest the Messiah leading the intergenerational family to the redemption.

    Long before this time, rabbinic literature had taught that, just as there was a historical Passover when the Hebrew serfs left bondage in Egypt, so the final redemption would occur on Passover. No wonder the Jews of the medieval communities, suffering such oppression, persecution and misery, gave dramatic shape to their yearning for that redemption.

    Some find significant linkage in the Christian custom prevalent in southern Germany of holding Palm Sunday processions with wooden models of Jesus and his messianic ass being carried to the gates of the holy city of Jerusalem.

    Possibly this annual scene exerted an influence on the illustrations that became part of the Haggadah — certainly, the Christian claim that the biblical prophecies of the Messiah had been fulfilled in Jesus made it necessary to demonstrate the Jewish conviction that the long-awaited Messiah was still to come.

    But why was it Elijah, rather than the Messiah himself, who became the subject of the Seder-night welcome?

    It has to do with the concept of the prophet as precursor: once he has arrived, the Messiah will not be far behind. There is an echo in early Christianity in the concept of John the Baptist as the precursor of Jesus. (There are details in my book, “New Testament People”.)

    Though many Jewish thinkers analysed the messianic doctrine, popular imagination was unable to depict the Messiah as colourfully as legend, song, and folklore enabled it to do with Elijah.

    The stories of Elijah as the warm, compassionate, and wise defender who had so often arrived in the nick of time, made him a real person, a familiar figure, one of the family. People brought up on Jewish tradition lived daily with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with Moses — and with Elijah. These heroes were there every moment of the day, unseen presences who were part of the family.

    How do we link the welcome to Elijah and the wine-cup of Elijah?

    In late antiquity, the sages of Sura said that five cups of wine had to be drunk at the Seder, while the sages of Pumbedita argued for four. Since there is a doubt as to the correct view, a fifth cup is filled in deference to Sura, but in deference to Pumbedita it is left untasted.

    In time to come, according to Jewish opinion, Elijah will solve the accumulated problems of the ages. Hence the disputed cup is set aside for Elijah.

    Another interpretation recalls that the four Divine promises (see the sixth chapter of Exodus) to redeem Israel: “I will take you out”; “I will deliver you”; “I will redeem you”; and “I will take you”. The four cups drunk on Seder night are like toasts to the historic fulfilment of these four promises.

    But, in fact, there is a fifth promise: “I will bring you in” — that is, to the land of Israel. Logically, therefore, there should be five cups, not four. Yet the final promise is still in progress.

    The fifth cup is that of Elijah, because when the prophet comes to announce the Messiah, we will know the fifth promise is fulfilled. Indeed, some people — notably Menachem Kasher, in his “Israel Passover Haggadah” — argue that now there is a State of Israel and the ingathering is under way, it is already time to drink a fifth cup.

    Hopefully, this will be the Passover when Elijah comes to visit, solving humanity’s problems, fulfilling the age-old dreams of Utopia and bearing the long-awaited message that the universal redemption is dawning.

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