Elijah and the Fifth Glass of Wine

24 09 2006

Q: I recently attended a Passover seder and was rather confused by the fifth cup of wine, poured for Elijah at the end of the meal. Aside from the fact that, as an adult, I find it difficult to believe that Elijah is really supposed to come and drink this cup of wine, wasn’t there supposed to be some significance to the number four? We tell the story of four sons, we ask four questions in Mah Nishtana and – I thought – poured (only) four cups of wine. Please explain this strange fifth cup to me.

A:
The answer to your question is bound up with matters concerning the Messiah. This is a Hebrew word (in Hebrew, משיח) which means ‘anointed’. Kings and high priests used to be anointed with oil and the reference to a Messiah is really a reference to a (future) king who will be anointed and will rule over the entire world. Tradition states that this king must be of the Davidic dynasty but, old though this tradition may be, all traditions have an origin.

If we look at the New Testament, we see that this tradition is very old indeed. Remember, all four Gospels were written by Jews. Luke was a convert to Judaism, but Matthew, Mark and John were all Jews by birth. Their texts (the Gospels) were committed to writing even before the Mishna and are an excellent source of information on Jewish beliefs 2,000 years ago. Of course, much may needed to be taken with a grain of salt (a consideration that even needs to be borne in mind when dealing with the Rabbinic literature!), but a quick glance shows us that this tradition was in effect even then. Matthew commences his Gospel by demonstrating Jesus’ lineage back to King David, and the Greek word used for Jesus’ position throughout all four texts is χριστος (Christos, ‘anointed’).

To get any dissent on this matter, we have to go back to the Hebrew Bible itself and, when there, we have to read between the lines. There are numerous statements concerning redemption, but they don’t all fit into the ‘traditional’ mould. Many of them speak of God as effecting the redemption: bringing back all of the remnants of his nation to the land of Israel, returning them to an era of peace and prosperity. Isaiah’s famous vision of the end of days when the wolf shall lie down with the lamb, says nothing about a king. On the contrary, it speaks about all the peoples of the world flocking to the mountain of God. This is understood to be a reference to the Temple mount, but it does not have to be. It may, instead, be a reference to Sinai – when God was the only king.

Of course, if references were limited to either God or a Davidic monarch, things would be pretty simple. Things, however, are never that simple. Malachi 3:23-24 uses a different expression again, this time promising the arrival of the prophet Elijah. As Malachi states, “Lo, I shall send Elijah the prophet to you before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord. And he shall reconcile the hearts of fathers with their sons and of sons with their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with destruction”. Jewish liturgical tradition has the synagogue leader repeat the first part of this proclamation (“Lo, I shall send…”) so as not to end the reading on a sour note.

But what is the proclamation foretelling? It would appear to be a messianic redemption at the hands of Elijah the prophet! Perhaps this is not so strange for, of all the prophets, Elijah is the only one who scripture records as having ascended alive to heaven (II Kings 2:11) – in a fiery chariot, no less, which is reminiscent of Ezekiel’s vision of the throne of God. That such a tradition may have existed is likely, though by no means certain. By the time the germ of the messianic idea attains fruition, this verse is utilised to show that God will send Elijah the prophet before sending the Davidic Messiah.

This is certainly a very old tradition as well, as can be testified to (again) by the New Testament. When John the Baptist is questioned regarding his identity (John 1:21-23), the first question that he is asked is as to whether or not he is Elijah. Although he answers in the negative, he is elsewhere identified as the same (cf: Matthew 17:10-13; Mark 9:11-13). Jewish tradition also perceives Elijah as the harbinger of the messianic era and captures this belief in a popular children’s song which, sung to a simple tune, recounts various names of the prophet. The lines of the song are as follows:

“Eliyahu HaNavi” – Elijah the prophet
“Eliyahu HaTishbi” – Elijah the Tishbite (ie: resident of Toshav)
“Eliyahu HaGileadi” – Elijah of the Gileadite clan
“Bimheirah yavo eleinu” – May he come speedily to us
“Im Mashiakh ben David” – With the Messiah, son of David.

Now, there is one more issue of relevance before I am able to answer your question concerning the fifth cup of wine. The Babylonian Talmud utilises a couple of interesting expressions in those rare instances where it is unable to arrive at a conclusion. These expression are the work of the Talmud’s 7th and 8th century editors, whose role it was to compile the various opinions and to indicate whose opinion was to emerge as the consensus in any given situation. Some of the arguments are rather protracted and a clear victor is difficult to determine; in others, there is no victor.

One of these expressions, utilised specifically in monetary debates, is יהא מונח עד שיבא אליהו (Let it rest until Elijah comes). In other words, when Elijah comes to herald the messianic era, such matters will become clear to us. Another expression is תיקו, and this one is understood in a couple of different ways. One is to read it as an abbreviation for תיקום (Let [the question] stand), but another is to read it as תיק”ו, where the inverted commas in the Hebrew indicates that it is an acronym. People who read it as such are inclined to understand the words as being תשבי יתרץ קושיות ובעיות (Let the Tishbite [ie: Elijah] solve all complications and questions).

Now: on to your complicated question! There are two parts to the tradition and, therefore, two answers. The first and easy part involves the opening of the door. This is the result of an unfortunate calendrical coincidence. As Passover happens to (roughly) coincide with Easter, European Jews found themselves persecuted during their own festivities. Blood libels under the ridiculous premise that Jews were utilising Christian blood in their celebration of Passover were propagated by intoxicated Christians, returning home from incendiary Passion plays. The opening of the door was mandated by the local authorities as a means of ensuring that nothing untoward would be occurring within Jewish homes.

As for the fifth cup of wine, the answer is slightly more complicated. The tradition of drinking wine at the Passover seder is related to the tradition of sanctifying the festival. As the Talmud states (in Tractate Pesakhim), every festival must be sanctified with both fire (candles) and wine. But how many glasses of wine are we expected to drink? The answer given by the Talmud is four: one for each expression of redemption in Exodus 6:6-7:

So say to the children of Israel that I am the Lord and that I shall take you out of Egyptian travails, and I shall rescue you from their servitude; and I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty judgements. And I shall take you to me as a nation and I will be your God; and you will know that I am the Lord your God who brings you out of Egyptian travails.

For each of these expressions of redemption, we should drink one glass of wine. But wait! What about verse 8? The text continues:

And I will bring you into the land which I have raised my hand [ie: swore] to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and I will give it you as an inheritance for I am the Lord.

Does this not constitute a fifth expression of redemption? Of course! But there is a problem. Since the Romans destroyed the Temple and exiled the Jewish people, this promise is no longer expressed in actuality. While we are supposed to believe that such will one day be the case again, not everybody in the Talmud agrees that we should memorialise it by drinking a glass of wine. Glasses, which are smashed under a wedding canopy to symbolise the fact that our joy can never be complete when we are in exile, are not fitting to house wine in celebration of this particular promise.

And the argument goes unresolved to this day. Some sages declared that a fifth cup should be drunk, while others argued that it should be left until such time as the Temple is rebuilt and a Davidic king rules over Jerusalem. The solution of the editors: תיק”ו. Let Elijah come and the matter will be resolved – it is not for us to ponder it. And to this very day, this is the tradition. Four cups of wine are drunk, but the fifth cup (Elijah’s cup) is merely poured and then left. Not so a phantom Elijah can walk in our door and drink the cup, but as a purely legalistic formality that requires the pouring of five cups but is unresolved concerning the drinking of the fifth.

[Note: This post originally appeared on my former blog. For earlier comments, please click here.]

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