Wednesday, April 4, 2012

E is for the Prophet Elijah

Passover begins tomorrow night. The holiday commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. At the beginning of the seder meal, the youngest child asks four questions, beginning with, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" The story of the Exodus is recounted with everyone in turn reading a passage, symbolic foods are eaten, and four cups of wine are drunk. At the end of the meal a fifth cup of wine is poured. According to tradition, this cup is for the prophet Elijah, who visits every home during the seder. The children open the door and usually gather round with excitement. Is Elijah really there? Is the liquid in the glass moving just the tiniest bit? For most kids, it's the favorite part of the evening.

But what is the meaning of Elijah's visit? There are various answers, any of which might be true. One is that the fifth cup, which is never drunk, symbolizes the final redemption of the Jewish people, when they are gathered into the Land of Israel. Another is that the door is opened and left unguarded to symbolize faith in God's protection.

In very recent times, a new tradition has been introduced by feminists: Miriam's cup. Miriam was the sister of Moses, and it is said that when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea safely, she led the women in dance. It's also said that Miriam brought water during the years in the desert, that water followed her wherever she went; thus, Miriam's cup is filled, not with wine, but with water.

One of my favorite books for middle grade children, The Devil's Artithmetic by Jane Yolen begins with a seder. The girl, who has been grumbling about being there, is asked to open the door for Elijah and when she does, she steps back in time to the world of the Holocaust.

And if you'd like a really ireverent seder sketch, check out the archives of Saturday Night Live and find Jerry Seinfeld as Elijah.


Arlee Bird said... [Reply to comment]

I am familiar with Elijah of course, but did not know all those details about the seder meal and the related traditions. Interesting post.

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Stephanie said... [Reply to comment]

Very interesting post. The Devil's Arithmetic is a wonderful book. I studied it in college in my YA literature class.


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