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The Cup of Elijah


THE CUP OF ELIJAH

By Rabbi Barney Kasdan

I have to admit that Passover is my favorite holiday. There is no other celebration that has so much symbolism (even a banquet) associated with it. And all these symbolic elements teach us an incredible amount about our relationship to God and His love for us. Of special interest is the rather esoteric “kos Eliyahu” (cup of Elijah). This cup actually goes back to a debate in the Talmud about how many cups should be a part of the seder meal. Some said four cups to symbolize the four promises of the Torah: “I will bring you, I will deliver you, I will redeem you, I will make you my people” (Exodus 6:6-7). Others said it is to be five cups. The issue was settled in a traditional rabbinic manner when they decided that this will only be solved when Elijah comes to announce the arrival of Messiah. So the fifth cup was designated for him, not to be sipped from until Eliyahu joins us at our seder.

Why is it that Elijah has such a special place in Jewish tradition? It seems his claim to fame was guaranteed when he escaped death by being caught up into the heavens by a whirlwind (II Kings 2). Ever since, the hope has been that Elijah will reappear to assist the helpless. The prophet Malachi speaks to this truth in a rather unusual way when he says the Elijah will come in the latter days just before “the great and terrible day of the Lord”. In fact, this is the last promise of the prophets at about 400 BCE (Mal.4:5 English). The first coming of Eliyahu was at a time of turmoil and spiritual confusion. This was when much of Israel had fallen into the worship of the false god Baal. Elijah’s barbeque on Mount Carmel took care of that problem! It seems appropriate that Elijah is designated to come back in the latter times which will also be a time of turmoil and spiritual confusion. Although Baal is not a direct problem for our people today, we battle the other false gods of this age like post-modernism, relativism and good old, plain agnosticism. It would be an opportune time for Eliyahu to intervene in human history once again.

Which brings us back to kos Eliyahu. This year, once again, we will set a place and cup for Elijah with hopes that he will come to announce the kingdom is finally here. At one dramatic point of the seder, we open the door and sing the famous song as a prayer “Come Elijah, with Messiah son of David.” For some 3000 years we have been disappointed but we will hope nonetheless. But I am thinking of a radical question: What if Eliyahu already returned at some point to announce Mashiach? When I first starting reading the New Testament for myself in the early 1970’s, I was totally amazed by one particular passage. There seems to have been a tough prophet who was preaching in the wilderness of Israel in the first century. This guy even looked the part of Elijah; wool robe, strange diet, along with a message of repentance and restoration. To top it all off, Yeshua himself affirmed that this man (Yochanan/John the Baptizer) was potentially fulfilling the ministry of Eliyahu when he said “If you care to accept it, he himself is Eliyahu, who was to come” (see Matthew 11:7-15). I say potentially because Yochanan’s message was not accepted by the establishment of his day. In fact, he was executed by Herod and the Romans. Since he was not “accepted” as the promised precursor of Messiah, Yochanan obviously could not fulfill the complete mission of the futuristic Elijah. And if the messenger was not accepted by all, it should not surprise us that the Messiah would not be accepted by all at his first coming as well. So, in a strange way, we Messianic Jews still wait for another Elijah to come to announce the return of Yeshua. This will evidently take place at the end of the last war predicted for the Middle East when the Scriptures say that there will be two witnesses to come to Israel. One even calls down fire from heaven, a clear reference to the life of Elijah (Revelation 11:1-6).

So what does all this mean for our Passover this year 5767? As usual, we will set the cup of Elijah and hope for his appearance. As believers in the New Testament, we might also ask the question, “what if he already came and we did not receive him?” Every seder, I believe God gives us a golden opportunity to reflect not only on the redemption from Egypt, but also about the future redemption of Messiah. As the song says, “bimhera v’yamenu yavo eleinu”; may he come in our days! May the cup of Elijah be a special reminder for us all this upcoming seder. Chag sameyach!