By GWEN OREL
The Passover Seder is a dinner full of symbols, which are explained during the dinner that commemorates the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt. Some of them are on the Seder plate. Haroset, made with apples and nuts, symbolizes the mortar Jews used to build Egyptian buildings. Karpas, a green vegetable (usually parsley), symbolizes spring. And almost everyone knows about matzo, the unleavened bread that symbolizes the haste with which the Jews had to leave.
It’s not on the plate, but one of the most important symbols, which is consumed throughout the Seder (Hebrew for “order”), is wine. Jews are commanded to consume four cups of wine, and to take drops out of their cups to mourn for the 10 plagues.
There’s also a fifth cup: Elijah’s cup.
Of all the Passover symbols, the cup for Elijah the prophet is perhaps the most magical. It’s usually a special cup, and it is set on the table for a Biblical character.
After the meal, the door is opened to invite Elijah, and anyone who is hungry, in.
Wine sets the holiday apart, and makes it truly Holy, contend local rabbis.
Yaacov Leaf is the rabbi at Chabad (chabadofmontclair.org), which has been present in Montclair for three and a half years. Chabad, also known as Lubavitch, is a Hasidic movement, founded in the 18th Century, which specializes in Jewish outreach. At Leaf’s Seder, four cups really means four cups, not sips. “You can technically fulfill your obligation if you drink the majority of the cup. But Chabad custom is to drink the full cup, especially at the Seder.” There is even a joke that the blessing is at the bottom of the cup, he said.
Drinking four cups is a little easier these days, now that there are many varieties of Kosher wine besides the traditional, syrupy Manischewitz. “[Manischweitz] could survive the apocalypse,” Leaf said. “It could last in your garage. You could put it in your lawnmower.”
That there are four cups is symbolic, Leaf explaine, the first is the Kiddush, or blessing over the wine, which is done at every Jewish holiday. “Sanctifying the day, you’re entering a Holy space. The four cups really represent the four expressions of redemption that God used in the Torah.” Those are – I’ll take you out, I’ll redeem you, I will save you, and I will remove you, Leaf said.
Rabbi Ariann Weitzman, director of congregational learning and associate rabbi at Bnai Keshet (bnaikeshet.org) also drinks four cups, switching to grape juice halfway through. “Just the very idea of drinking four glasses of wine, and not becoming completely impaired, signifies that we’re supposed to make this drag out,” she said.
And having four cups marks the holiday as different from other holidays, said Rabbi David Greenstein, of the conservative synagogue Shomrei Emunah (shomreiemunah.org).
“The four languages of redemption embrace the physical, political, spiritual and relational aspects of redemption,” Greenstein said. “Every year we’re supposed to see ourselves being freed.
But while drinking wine seems an ancient tradition, the first Passover Seder may not have had wine in it. “We know they slaughtered a lamb,” said Rabbi Steven Kushner, of Temple Ner Tamid (nertamid.org), a reform synagogue in Bloomfield which includes many Montclair congregants. The modern Seder was created around 2,000 years ago, around the time of Jesus, Kushner said. “Our modern celebration of Passover has evolved, and continues to evolve from generation to generation.”
A more recent addition to the Seder table is a Miriam’s cup, to honor the sister of Moses.
“There’s a Midrash that in the desert, wherever Miriam was, a well appeared. So as long as Miriam was alive the people didn’t have to search for water,” said Weitzman. Where Elijah’s cup of wine represents future redemption, Miriam’s cup is full of water, and represents redemption that people can make right now in fixing the world. Miriam’s cup is included in the Reconstructionist Hagadah, she explained. Unlike Elijah’s cup, which is left untouched, Miriam’s cup of water is passed around. “Right now we are free, right now we can make redemption come,” she said.
Greenstein pointed out that Miriam’s cup celebrates the liberation of half of humanity that have been taken for granted, ignored or even harassed. “We’ve been sitting around talking about liberation, while the womenfolk are slaving for us men, waiting on us hand and foot,” Greenstein said.
Elijah, a Biblical prophet, does not die, but is taken up to Heaven in a chariot of fire. Jewish tradition invites Elijah to some happy ceremonies, including the bris, or circumcision, and to the Passover Seder.
“Opening the door is like, the doors to Heaven are open,” said Leaf.
Historically, Jews have not always been safe on Passover. The blood libel is a longstanding lie that Jews use Christian blood to bake matzo, and pogroms often took place during the Passover week.
“It’s remarkable when you think about the fact that we ask a child to go open the door on a dark night,” said Rabbi Elliott Tepperman, of Bnai Keshet. And opening the door is also a way to welcome the stranger.
“Most years we open the door and symbolically invite someone in,” Tepperman said. “This year we are prepared to really accept somebody.”
Bnai Keshet has readied an apartment in its Red Gables property for someone in need of sanctuary, as part of the Montclair Sanctuary Alliance.
BUT IS IT REAL?
Leaf recalled being disappointed when he was a child that Elijah hadn’t drunk the wine left overnight. When he was in school, kids would say that small children could see him there, that their little siblings saw him at the door. “If I actually opened the door and saw him, the first thing I would do is think maybe I had a little too much wine,” Leaf said with a laugh. “But it’s about feeling his energy and his presence.”
Elijah’s cup is a metaphor that is also true, Tepperman said. “Kids look into the cup while we’re singing Eliyahu Hanavi [Elijah the Prophet] to see if a sip gets out. It’s the responsibility of an uncle to jiggle the table a little bit.”
Weitzman’s 6-year-old daughter, Malka, used to really believe Elijah was there at the door. She goes outside and looks around. She tells her “you must have missed him,” she said with a laugh.
Kushner was sure he had met the prophet. “When I was a little kid, I actually thought my
Uncle Art was Elijah, because Uncle Art and Aunt Dorothy came to the Seder really late, and he was standing at the door,” he said.
At Greenstein’s house, Elijah’s cup is empty until they open the door. “Everybody fills in wine from their cup of wine. We are all called to help bring Elijah. We have to contribute to bringing him,” he said.
And whether it’s an actual prophet or the concept of redemption is the same for Greenstein. The teenagers who are speaking out now “are a little bit of Elijah.” The idea that the world could be redeemed requires a leap of faith. “The whole thing is faith and hope and persistence in the face of so much history that has told us to give up,” he said. “There is no individual salvation unless everybody is saved.”