There is probably no more meaningful and enjoyable service than the Passover Seder. The word “Seder” means “order.” The Seder service is arranged and celebrated in the Jewish home by the family to teach its participants about the message of the holiday: to recall the exodus from Egyptian slavery, and recognize the need for freedom for all people from all kinds of enslavements today. 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:
- According to the custom of many people, an additional fifth cup is poured for Elijah,
- A door is opened,
- Some people place a picture at the door entrance showing Elijah blowing a shofar announcing the arrival of the messiah,
- Some families have one of the participants rush out of the door and then reappear as Elijah,
- Some families also exclaim baruch haba, baruch haba, “welcome welcome,” when the door is opened,
- A paragraph that originated in the Middle Ages containing three parts, each of which say the same thing, is then recited,
- This paragraph mentions Jacob, and it is said while the participants stand to welcome Elijah:
Pour Your wrath upon the nations that do not recognize You and upon the kingdoms that do not invoke Your name. For they have devoured Jacob and destroyed his habitation [from Psalm 79:6, 7]. Pour Your anger upon them and let Your fiery wrath overtake them [from Psalm 79:25]. Pursue them with wrath and annihilate them from beneath the heaven of the Lord [from Lamentations 3:66].
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
Rabbi Daniel Sperber, in volume 7 of his series Minhagei Yisrael, 169-170, 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 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 in the legends as the person who brings messianic 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.
Techniques Used to Draw Elijah to the Community
There are many examples of Jews using 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.
There are also many examples of sympathetic magic, doing something on earth that causes a similar act from heaven, much like the behavior of Native Americans who danced and made gestures similar to falling rain in order to magically force the heaven to release rain.
The Seder rituals 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 the desire is not to request that God punish non-Jews, but the demons, who 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, like the numbers three and seven, 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 prompting the appearance of the messianic age by magically forcing Elijah to come. (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, and 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 the rationalist 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. It reminds those attending the Seder, young and old alike, to work to improve themselves and society, and thereby create a better world, a messianic age.
A very nice essay about the Passover Seder and Elijah. I like the comparison you made between the biblical and post-biblical Elijah. I once read an essay from Chabad about the old bearded Elijah of folklore who announced the coming of the messiah. Elijah also mentioned many mystical terms, such as the “upper and lower worlds” and other strange terms from the Zohar. I wondered if one opened the door for Elijah and if he really did magically appeared, would he know all these mystical terms that Kabbalist now attribute him?
In any event, let’s hope the coronavirus passes before we celebrate Pesach.
I do not think Elijah will come. He is dead. I have a book that will be published soon “Who really is the prophet Elijah. Among many other things, it explains where the idea of Elijah returning from the dead originated.
I cannot remember right now, but I am certain that the idea fits in with his way of thinking.
Was it Maimonides who said the fiery chariot was a metaphor for his death?