For me, the best part of a Seder is singing and Eliyahu is my favorite song. This makes sense since opening the door for the Prophet Elijah was my favorite part of the Seder when I was a kid. Truth be told, it still is!
But why is Elijah even here? He wasn’t part of the Great Exodus; he lived 600 years after Moses led the Jews out of Egypt.
The standard explanation is that we drink four cups of wine at the Seder and set aside a fifth cup for Elijah. This is apparently a compromise between rabbis who couldn’t agree if four or five cups should be drunk.
But why a cup of wine for Elijah? I think there may be divine irony at work.
Like Moses, Elijah Spoke Truth to Power
You have to admit, Moses and Elijah were tough guys. Both faced down their kings, although Moses did have to rely on Aaron to do the talking and had the benefit of growing up in the royal household.
Elijah, of course, is known for challenging Ahab, his wife Jezebel, Baal priests, and forecasting Ahab’s disastrous downfall.
You may remember that Jezebel was a Phoenician princess and daughter of the King of Tyre. She married Ahab, whose kingdom included the northern section of the Jewish homelands (Judah, in the south, was a separate kingdom). Ahab tolerated idol worship but once he married Jezebel, he allowed her enthusiasm for Baal idols to spread throughout Israel.
Hundreds of prophets of the deity Baal moved into the royal household, alongside hundreds more devoted to the goddess Astarte. Astarte represented fertility, sexuality, and war, and was often depicted as a naked woman with horns. This, combined with her ability to mesmerize Ahab, probably launched Jezebel’s bad reputation.
One incident that really set off Elijah involved a false accusation against a vineyard owner, Naboth. Ahab wanted to buy his vineyard but Naboth wouldn’t sell, explaining that Gd commanded him to never part with the land. Jezebel then set up false charges against Naboth (she claimed he cursed both Gd and Ahab) and he was stoned to death. Jezebel and Ahab then took over the vineyard.
Elijah didn’t take this well. He publicly asked the king if he had ever killed to steal, and followed up with this prophecy:
“In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick up your own blood.” Jezebel would be eaten by dogs, too, he added.
All this blood over a vineyard. Giving Elijah a cup of wine is an interesting practice, don’t you think?
Elijah Kept Passover Alive
Elijah and his followers enthusiastically celebrated Passover at a time when Jezebel was trying to stamp out all things Hebrew. I think that’s what really annoyed Ahab, more so than prophesies about dogs and drought. People followed Elijah’s example and kept on celebrating Passover.
The mysticism surrounding the Elijah cup is one way to pique the kids’ interest in Passover. Elijah is thought to come to the seder to more or less check up on us, that we are following the covenants and the faith. He also appears at every bris and Havdalah that marks the end of Shabbat.
Don’t Like Wine? Try Something Different During Passover
Not a fan of wine? You can always have a nonalcoholic substitution like juice for the Seder and leave the wine for Elijah.
Outside of the Seder, there are other alcoholic drinks certified kosher for Passover. Special vodkas, made with potatoes, and plum brandy are examples.
You can flavor Passover vodka using fruits that aren’t chametz (grains). Cut them into chunks. The Shiksa in the Kitchen recommends using wide mouth jars, like those used for canning. Add the fruit—berries are good, too—pour in the vodka, and seal. Shake the jar a few times a day for four or five days. After that, you’ll have your own flavored vodka!
If you’re unsure about whether you have the know-how or the time to do Passover right, check out Mitzuyan Kosher Catering’s Passover catering service for the Toronto area. We offer a robust menu with traditional and newer cuisine–all strictly Kosher for Passover as certified by COR.