MISCONCEPTION: According to ancient tradition, Eliyahu HaNavi makes a furtive appearance at every Pesach Seder.
FACT: There is no classical (Talmudic or midrashic) source stating that Eliyahu pays a visit to the Seder every year. Most sources refer only to an eschatological appearance at the End of Days, that is, Eliyahu’s arrival to announce the coming of Mashiach.
BACKGROUND: A common custom1 is to take a large decorative cup, fill it with wine, and leave it on the Seder table for a part of, or according to some, for the entire, Seder (see Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 119:1). The cup is known as the Kos shel Eliyahu, Eliyahu’s Cup. This custom is not found in the Talmud, the Rishonim, the Tur, or the Shulchan Aruch.
The earliest source for the custom is in the writings of Rabbi Zelikman Binga (fifteenth century), the son-in-law and student of the Maharil. In his commentary to Pesachim (sec. 11; 5745 ed., p. 195), he reports witnessing individuals pour a cup of wine at the Seder and refer to it as Eliyahu’s Cup. He surmises that the practice is probably related to our hope that Eliyahu will come on Pesach night—the night of redemption—to herald the arrival of Mashiach.2
Similarly, the Mishnah Berurah (480:10) says that the cup is called Kos shel Eliyahu to allude to the fact “that we believe that just as God redeemed us from Egypt, He will again redeem us and send Eliyahu to announce it.” Others say that the purpose of the cup is to enable Eliyahu, upon announcing the arrival of Mashiach, to fulfill his obligation to drink the Four Cups (see Heinrich Guggenheimer, The Scholar’s Haggadah, 365-6).
Rabbi Yair Chaim Bacharach (Chavot Yair [1639-1702]), provides an interesting reason for referring to the cup as Kos shel Eliyahu. We start the Seder with the recitation of Kol Dichfin, a prayer expressing our desire to invite guests. We then prepare a cup for our guests and refer to it as the Kos shel Eliyahu, since Eliyahu HaNavi is the guest we most anticipate.
There are various customs regarding when to fill the cup and how to dispose of the wine.3
Four or . . . Five Cups?
The rabbinic commandment to drink four cups of wine at the Seder is so important that a poor person is obligated to borrow money in order to fulfill it (Pesachim 10:1). The Gemara (Nedarim 49b) recounts that upon drinking the Four Cups, Rabbi Yehudah would suffer a headache that would last until Shavuot; nevertheless, he was required to drink them.
Why did Chazal institute this requirement? The Four Cups symbolize many concepts, including the four empires that oppressed Israel, the four cups of punishment suffered by these empires, the four cups mentioned in the Yosef-Pharaoh story, the four decrees Pharaoh enacted to oppress the Jewish people, the four cups of salvation, and the four exiles. But the most well-known idea is that the Four Cups represent the four terms of redemption mentioned in Shemot (6:6-7): v’hotzeiti, v’hitzalti, v’ga’alti, v’lakachti.
Based on a Tannaitic statement in Pesachim (118a), there is a dispute among the Rishonim as to whether drinking a fifth cup at the Seder is required (cf. Yerushalmi, Pesachim 10:1).4 The gemara states, “It is taught: on the fourth cup one completes Hallel [Hamitzri] and says Hallel Hagadol [Psalm 136]; these are the words of Rabbi Tarfon.” Some versions of the gemara insert the words “on the fifth cup” right after the words “Hallel [Hamitzri] and.” Rashi, Rashbam and Tosafot (Pesachim 117b, s.v. revi’i) were familiar with the textual variant and insisted that the former version, without mention of a fifth cup, is the correct one.
Rabbeinu Chananel and Rif in Pesachim 118a quote, in the name of Rabbi Tarfon, that one is required to drink a fifth cup. Rav Amram Gaon, Maharam Chalava, and the Meiri agree. Rambam (Hilchot Chametz U’matzah 8:10), Ramban and the Rosh maintain that a fifth cup is optional.
A Haggadah attributed to the Maharal also discusses the obligation to drink a fifth cup. However, this Haggadah has been shown to be a forgery. The Maharal, in other writings, states that one should not drink a fifth cup. Nevertheless, the Radzyner Haggadah states that some drink a fifth cup, based on the position of the Maharal. In fact, the Radzyner minhag is to drink the fourth cup after Hallel and a fifth cup after “B’chatzi Halaylah.”
Following the Rambam, many Yemenites drink five cups at the Seder. The custom among several Chassidic groups, including Kotzk, Shochachov and Izbitz, is to drink five cups as well.
There is, in fact, a fifth term of redemption (Shemot 6:8), v’heiveiti—“and I will bring them [to the Land of Israel].” Some authorities maintain that there is a connection between the fifth term of redemption and the obligation to drink a fifth cup. This linkage was first mentioned by Rabbi Moshe Chagiz (Shtei HaLechem, early eighteenth century). However, unlike the other terms of redemption, all of which have been realized, the fifth term has not yet come to fruition; we are not in a period of complete redemption in the Land of Israel. Nechama Leibowitz (Haggadat Nechama [Jerusalem, 2003], 11) writes that when the State of Israel was established, Rabbi Menachem Kasher tried, unsuccessfully, to have the Chief Rabbinate institute a fifth cup at the seder.
It is possible that as a compromise for this unresolved dispute regarding the obligation to drink a fifth cup, an additional cup is poured but not drunk—the above-mentioned Kos shel Eliyahu. Indeed, the Chatam Sofer notes that what we call Kos shel Eliyahu is actually in lieu of a fifth cup representing v’heiveiti.
According to the Gra,5 the cup is thus named because Eliyahu HaNavi is charged with coming in the future and resolving halachic disputes—including the one regarding the obligation to drink a fifth cup.
Numerous symbolic reasons are offered for drinking as well as for not drinking a fifth cup (see HaSeder HaAruch, pp. 259-262).
Opening the Door
After the third cup is drunk, several verses beginning with the words “Shefoch Chamatcha” are recited. The verses, from Tehillim 79:6 and 69:25 and Eichah 3:66, serve as an introduction to the second half of Hallel, which celebrates the Final Redemption.6 Many people open the door during this recitation, a symbolic act illustrating that despite the current state of exile, we believe that leil Seder is a leil shimurim (based on Shemot 12:42; cf. Rema 481:2) and that in the merit of our faith, God will bring Mashiach and pour out His wrath on the nations who oppress us. (The Rema  cites this idea in the name of Rabbi Israel Bruna of the mid-fifteenth century, who was the first to mention the practice of opening the door.)
This custom could also be based on a different reason. The door is opened right after the afikomen is eaten, which usually takes place around midnight. In Egypt, the redemption occurred at midnight. Thus, we open the door in anticipation that our Final Redemption will also take place at midnight.7 Some even have the custom of standing when the door is open and saying “Baruch Haba,” as if to welcome Eliyahu and Mashiach (Aruch HaShulchan 480:1).
This custom may also be reminiscent of practices observed during the days of the Temple. Josephus (Antiquities 18:2:2) mentions the custom of opening the gates of the Beit Hamikdash on Seder night after midnight. It is possible that we are reenacting this custom at the Seder. Furthermore, in the days of the Temple, the Pesach sacrifice was eaten with a pre-designated group; thus, each group would keep the doors locked while eating the sacrificial meat so that others would not wander in and partake of it. After the sacrifice was eaten, the door would be opened so that the participants could ascend to the rooftops of their homes to recite Hallel.
Is Eliyahu at the Seder?
As stated earlier, there is no Talmudic or midrashic source stating that Eliyahu makes an appearance at the Seder. The absence of a source is significant, as Eliyahu’s presence at another ceremony does have a source.8 Pirkei d’Rebbi Eliezer (chap. 29), based on I Kings 19, records an incident where God tells Eliyahu that he will witness all britot and testify to the Jewish people’s fulfillment of this commandment. Based on this, the rabbis instituted the Kisei shel Eliyahu, the Chair of Eliyahu, which is today a near-universal feature at britot. This special chair is mentioned in the Tur (YD 265), the Shulchan Aruch (YD 265:11), and the Aruch HaShulchan (YD 265:34).
Where did the idea that Eliyahu comes to visit at the Seder come from? A confluence of factors makes it almost inevitable that such an idea would develop. Firstly, there is a direct link between brit and Pesach.9 Secondly, the Kos shel Eliyahu, according to many customs, is poured just before the door is opened. While the door is open, a series of verses with Messianic overtones is recited. Most likely the combination of these practices led some to conclude that the cup is poured for Eliyahu who secretly enters. The lack of a source did not prevent many, in particular Chassidim, from popularizing the idea that Eliyahu makes a furtive appearance, even drinks from the cup, and disappears again.
Rabbi Chagiz (Shtei HaLechem 46) says that Eliyahu comes to each Jewish home to “relate the praise of the Jews and to mention before God that they have fulfilled what they accepted in the mitzvah of Pesach that is dependent on milah.” “There is no doubt,” he writes, “that Eliyahu the Prophet will come into every Jewish house to see the fulfillment of one commandment which is really two: Pesach and milah,” and he then goes to Heaven to advocate on behalf of the Jewish nation for the coming of the Final Redemption.
The Nodeh B’Yehudah used to “escort” Eliyahu down the steps of his house after the Seder, and the custom among Belz Chassidim is to accompany Eliyahu until the nearest shul (see Moshe Yaakov Weingarten, HaSeder HaAruch , 577).
The late Lubavitcher Rebbe stated that when the Admor Hazaken wrote that there is a custom “to pour one cup more than the number of people present . . . ,” he was alluding to Eliyahu’s visit to the Seder. “Eliyahu,” he says, “becomes one of those seated at the Seder table, because the faith of the Jewish people on this night, the night in which the King of Kings, God in all His glory, fully revealed Himself, this in and of itself, brings . . . Eliyahu to every Seder” (Haggadah shel Pesach im Likutei Ta’amim, Minhagim, u’Biurim 2 [Brooklyn, NY, 5755], 440).
Perhaps the most extreme proponent of this idea was Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber Schneersohn (the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe) who, before pouring wine from Eliyahu’s Cup back into the wine bottle, would add additional wine because he was concerned that the wine in the cup was pagum (i.e., the cup had been drunk from, rendering the wine unusable for other mitzvot unless additional wine is added) (Rabbi Yehoshua Mundshine, Otzar Minhagei Chabad 175:3, 202).
As stated above, the traditional understanding is that the door is opened in anticipation of Eliyahu’s final coming, as can be seen in the famous fifteenth-century Nuremberg Haggadah (Schocken Library, ms. 24087, fol. 29v). On the page where “Shefoch Chamatcha” appears, there is a drawing of a boy opening the door to greet Mashiach and Eliyahu. It is clearly eschatological in nature and is obviously not referring to a furtive visit. May we merit Eliyahu’s grand appearance speedily in our days.
1. It exists among almost all Ashkenazim and some Sephardim. Yemenites do not have this custom.
2. This is based on a passage in the Zohar that mentions that on Seder night we anticipate Eliyahu coming to announce the Redemption. Also, Shemot Rabbah (18:12; cited in Torah Sheleimah on Bo 12: 614) says that just as the redemption from Egypt and the salvation of Chananel, Mishael, and Azaryah and that of Daniel occurred on Seder night, so too the Mashiach and Eliyahu will reveal themselves on that night. This midrash is a bit difficult to understand because neither Eliyahu nor Mashiach can come on Shabbat or yom tov (see Eruvin 43b; Pesachim 13a).
3. See HaSeder HaAruch, p. 581-582.
4. For discussions about the fifth cup, see the Tur and Beit Yosef on Orach Chaim 481; Encyclopedia Talmudit, sec. arba kosot; Rabbi Menachem M. Kasher, essay in Haggadah Sheleimah (1967 ed., p. 161-178); Torah Sheleimah, miluim 1 to Va’yara (vol. 10), p. 107-116; Rabbi Melvin Granatstein, “The Elusive Fifth Cup,” Chavrusa (spring 1989): 2.
5. Cited in the Gra’s name in Sefer Matamim, Rabbi Yitzchak Lipiatz, 1890, republished 1993, p. 88 and Ta’amei HaMinhagim (sec. 551; first published 1891).
6. There used to be a longer introduction of five more verses as found in the Machzor Vitry, p. 196.
7. Similarly, some have the custom of leaving the house door unlocked on Seder night; while this is usually linked to the fact that the Torah refers to Pesach night as “guarded” (Shemot 12:42), others suggest that it is connected to the belief that the Future Redemption will occur in Nissan. The door is left open, or at least unlocked, so that one can rush out to greet Eliyahu. (See sources in Haggadah Shleimah, p. 194; Chok Ya’akov 480:6 cites the custom but says that he does not observe it.)
8. Another instance of a global visitor is “Miriam’s well,” which is located in the Kinneret all week long, but is said to visit all wells on Motzaei Shabbat. It is also believed that the water from Miriam’s well has curative powers. (Rema, Orach Chaim 299:10 in the name of Kol Bo; Shulchan Aruch HaRav 299:20; see also Rabbi Chaim Palagi in Kaf HaChaim 31 for a story regarding the water’s curative powers.)
9. The only two positive mitzvot that carry a punishment of karet for non-performance are korban Pesach and milah. Furthermore, the failure to circumcise oneself or one’s son prevents one from partaking of the korban Pesach.
Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky is on the faculty of the Brain Science Program at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.