Parashat Tzav

Parashat Tzav – Shabbat Hagadol & Passover

Symbols Leading to Action – Shabbat Hagadol

I will send you Elijah the prophet (Malachi 3:23)                   אנכי שולח לכם את אליה הנביא (מלאכי ג:כג)

Around the world, the Seder is more than a religious or educational experience; it’s a family affair. For centuries, in addition to the four cups of wine that we drink at the Seder, Jews have poured a fifth cup – a Cup of Elijah—that is left untouched.  What is the reason for this unusual custom? According to the Gaon of Vilna, there is a rabbinic dispute about whether we must drink four or five cups of wine at the Seder—a dispute that was never resolved. Thus, the custom developed to pour the fifth cup but not drink it. It was given the name “Cup of Elijah” because it is foretold that Elijah will one day resolve all of our disputes and disagreements.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed offers a different interpretation. He notes that the four cups of wine represent the four languages of redemption found in the book of Exodus (6:6-7): “I will bring you out…I will deliver you…I will redeem you… I will take you…” But there is also a fifth expression of Redemption: “I will bring you into the Land…” (6:8). Rabbi Melamed suggests that over the long centuries of exile, our ancestors began to wonder whether we would return to the land of Israel and whether it was appropriate to drink from the fifth cup. But we do not drink it, rather we pour it as a symbol of our faith in the future and the knowledge that one day we would indeed merit our return to the Promised Land. We call this cup the “Cup of Elijah” to connote our faith in the return of the famed prophet, as we note in the haftarah of Shabbat Hagadol: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord.” (Malachi 3:23)

The Cup of Elijah demonstrates both for ourselves and our children that words are not enough; they must be backed by an action—even if it’s only symbolic—that concretes our faith and our emotion. While we pray and yearn for redemption, only when we combine faith with action does it become rooted in our identity. In modern times, Jews have expanded on this notion of symbolism at the Seder as a means of spurring ourselves to greater action.

Shabbat Shalom and Good Yom Tov!