The four cups of wine that we drink at the Seder are symbolic of the four expressions of freedom that God used in telling Moshe about our salvation: v’hotzesi (I will take you out of Egypt): v’hitzalti (I will deliver you from slavery); v’goalti I will redeem you); and v’lokachti (I will take you for a people). The question arises as to why we pour a fifth cup? And why do we not drink from it?
This cup is called the kos shel eliyahu, (the prophet) Elijah’s cup. After Birchas HaMazon (the blessing on the meal) – we pour a large cup of wine and immediately open the door and read a passage from the Hagadah.
Legend has it that Eliyahu comes to each door on Pesach and drinks a tiny bit from that cup. I recall as a child looking to see if I could tell if there was any less wine in the cup after we closed the door than there was before we opened it. The thinking was, of course, that Elijah’s cup was indeed meant for Elijah himself… that somehow even though we can’t see him that he came in a drank a little wine… and the reason that he drank so little is because he had to drink from all of the cups in every house of every Jew who had a Seder and opened his door for him.
That is a cute story for little children… but of course not true. We do not open the door for Eliyahu. We open it to say a specific portion of the Hagadah unrelated to that cup.
There are many reasons given for this custom. The one which I like and makes the most sense to me is the one given by another Elijah, the Gra.
The fifth cup is based on a machlokes in the Gemarah. There is actually a fifth word used by God in that section of the Torah, v’ heveisi (I will bring you into the land which I promised your forefathers).
Those who say this is a fifth expression of freedom – say that a fifth cup of wine is required. Those who say it is not is because it does not speak to being freed but rather to the promise made that will occur in the future well after the Bnei Yisroel have been freed – say that we do not drink a fifth cup.
Our custom is based on the second view… so we only drink four cups. But we recognize that this question remains unresolved. So we compromise. We pour a fifth cup, but we don’t drink it.
Why is it called the Kos Shel Eliyahu? Because we have a tradition that says that all unresolved issues in the Gemarah – including this one – will be answered by Eliyahu when he comes to herald the coming of the messiah.
I would like to extend my best wishes for a happy and Kosher Pesach for the entirety of the Jewish people.
Note: The source for this piece is Torah L’Daas by Rabbi Matis Blum.Visit Emes Ve-Emunah.
About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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