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Demons and Sympathetic Magic in the Passover Seder
I spoke in the past about the ancient Jews believing in demons, the power of sympathetic magic (doing something on earth that causes heaven to do something similar – such as a rain dance and moving up and down causing it to rain), the use of an intercessor to obtain God’s attention, and the belief in the effectiveness of magic numbers. These four convictions and the behaviors that accompany them reappear in the yearly Passover Seder.
There is probably no more meaningful and enjoyable service than the Passover Seder. The word “Seder” means “order,” for the Seder service is arranged and celebrated in the Jewish home by the family in an order that enjoyably teaches its participants about the holiday and recalls the exodus from Egyptian slavery, emphasizing the essential message of future freedom for all people from all kinds of enslavements. Yet, a rather curious ceremony was inserted into the Seder.
After the Seder meal is eaten and the benchen, the Grace after Meals, is recited, a fourth cup of wine is filled, and the following actions are performed:
When Did This Practice Begin?
The rite of opening the door and reciting the set of three verses began in the dark Middle Ages, probably around the time of the crusades in the twelfth or thirteenth century. The practice is not mentioned as part of the Seder as recorded by Moses Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Chametz u’Matzah.
The Rite of Elijah in the Seder: The Notion of Demons
Daniel Sperber, in volume 7 of his series Minhagei Yisrael, mentions the practices of opening the door, placing the picture near the entrance and having a participant enter. He also quotes from a seventeenth-century rabbinical work on Jewish customs that explains that the reason for opening the door was not only for Elijah to enter, but “because demons rush away from a place when the name of Elijah is uttered. And for this reason some places have the practice of drawing a picture of the messiah and Elijah so that when the children see the drawing they mention Elijah’s name and the demons rush out.”
The association of demons with Passover was also noted by many codes of Jewish law, which wrote that this night was a leil shemurim, “a night when Jews are watched.” These Jews understood that they were protected on this night from mazikin, “harmful ones,” or demons. Thus while the Shema Yisrael, “Hear Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one,” is recited by many Jews prior to going to sleep as a protection against mazikin, many Jews do not say it on this leil shemurim, when the Jew is protected.
Therefore, when this rite was developed, the opening of the door at this point of the Seder became a way of ridding the home of demons, showing that the family was no longer afraid of the mazikin; it was also a way of welcoming Elijah to assure a future messianic era when demons would no longer bother the Jews.
Inviting Elijah to the Seder to Announce the Advent of the Messiah
The biblical and post-biblical Elijahs are different in several respects. The Elijah of the Bible was a fiery figure who was very zealous for God. He was youthful and strong, able to race alongside the chariot of the king of Israel in order to chastise him even while the chariot was being pulled by galloping horses. One interpretation of his demise is that God felt that his behavior was overzealous and counter-productive, and therefore God took the divine mission to Israel away from him. Many scholars understand the description of Elijah rising to heaven in a fiery chariot as a metaphor for his death.
The post-biblical Elijah, the Elijah of folklore, is an old bearded man who is still alive among the Jewish people. He showers Jews with love. Malachi 3:23, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord,” is understood to state that Elijah’s mission is to announce the appearance of the messiah.
One theme of the Seder is freedom from Egyptian slavery. This theme, in turn, evokes the idea of present and future freedom from all tribulations. Since the messiah is seen as the person who brings peace, Seder participants request that Elijah appear and announce the messiah’s presence. However, Elijah is also invoked because the Jews of the Middle Ages wanted reassurance that the demons who were rushing out of the door in panic when they heard the name of Elijah would not return. They wanted Elijah to come and inaugurate the messianic age, a time of peace when demons would no longer harass the Jewish people.
Techniques Used to Draw Elijah to the Community
We saw in my discussion of the “sanctification of the moon” that Jews mentioned the name of Jacob because of the legend that Jacob was given a seat near God. They reasoned that his proximity to the deity made him able to more easily speak to God and put him in a position of acting as intercessor for them. Thus, it is no surprise that when Jews looked for an intercessor to usher in Elijah at the Seder, they mentioned (and thereby supplicated) Jacob again.
We also saw that those who observe the “sanctification of the moon” use the magical numbers three and seven, which they feel bring about magical results. This explains the use of three separate statements in the Elijah ceremony, all of which have the same intent.
We also saw that those who observe the “sanctification” act out their understanding of the messiah’s arrival. This is sympathetic magic, much like the behavior of Native Americans who dance and make gestures similar to falling rain in order to magically force the heaven to release rain.
The Seder rituals described here include elements of sympathetic magic. It was felt that if the Seder participants actually opened the door for Elijah and even poured him a cup of wine, and if they stood to welcome him and say words of greeting, their behavior would not be for naught; on the contrary, it would magically cause Elijah to appear. The sympathetic magic would be further enhanced if one participant acted out Elijah’s entrance.
Why Request Punishment For Those Who Do Not Recognize God?
It would seem that the words spoken when Elijah appears should address the ultimate goal of peace and not revenge. Why are verses recited that request punishment for those who reject God? What is the relevance of these statements?
It is likely that, as in the “sanctification of the moon” ceremony, the desire is not to request that God punish non-Jews, but the demons, who, as we saw previously, are now rushing out the door. Three verses from Scripture with virtually identical intent were used, again in a somewhat magical manner, to effect a destruction of the demons, for, with their destruction, peace is assured.
The masses were convinced that scriptural verses were powerful. Just as they used scriptural passages for charms to protect themselves from demons, wearing them around their necks and placing them over their beds, so they used them here to destroy those demons.
No logical explanation exists for the ways in which the ceremony of welcoming Elijah is acted out other than understanding it as one of the attempts made by the superstitious masses to ensure the magical expulsion of demons by mentioning Elijah’s name and by opening doors to assist and even hasten their departure. In order to request Elijah’s appearance to assure that they not return, Jews employ further magic: (1) Jacob is requested to intercede for the Jews since many Jews are convinced that he sits near God and has God’s attention. Elijah’s appearance is induced by (2) opening the door for him, (3) standing to welcome him, (4) pouring him a cup of wine and (5) having a Seder participant act like Elijah and enter the dwelling. Some families (6) say a greeting to Elijah that further assures that he will arrive. The desire to bring final peace, like the freedom from Egyptian bondage, is achieved by (7) reciting three biblical verses, the magical number, requesting that God destroy the harassing demons that are trying to escape through the open door.
While demons and magic seem to serve as the origin of the “acting out” during this ceremony, and Maimonides did not include it in his code of Jewish laws, the ceremony still has significance today even for those who reject the notion of demons and the power of magic. This rite, like the blowing of the shofar, which was also originally associated with demons, and many other rational Seder ceremonies serve to remind those attending the Seder, young and old alike, to work to improve themselves and society, and thereby create a better world, a messianic age.
 Psalms 79:6–7.
 Psalms 69:25.
 Lamentations 3:66.
 Some scholars argue that the Elijah in this passage is Malachi. They say that Malachi is not his name; rather, the word means messenger.