What would happen if Elijah drank from the cup? Not in terms of the messiah but on a physiological level. Would the wine pass through him, ghost-style, and end up on the rug? How much wine would it take to make Elijah drunk? Is that even possible? Presumably, if the messiah is coming, Elijah has got to put in an appearance at every single Seder in the world, which – aside from being a logistical nightmare – means a lot of wine. Kind of like Santa Claus with the milk and cookies, though obviously there are fewer of us (Jews) than there are of them (cookies).
– Dave Barry, et al <1>
Why do we open the door at the seder? In the spirit of the many fours of the haggadah, I would like to present four rabbinic theories to answer this question. Two are historical, relating to the past when the custom started. The other two are hashkafic, relating to the future when the geulah (redemption) will take place.
One: Inviting the Poor
In the early middle ages, poor Jews didn’t make arrangements for the seder ahead of time. People at home would start the seder by issuing an open-door invitation. When they opened the door, they called out: “Kol dikhfin – All who are hungry, come and eat!” Later, when Jews stopped living in Jewish neighborhoods, they stopped the open invitation and just invited the poor personally before the seder.<2>
Two: Uninviting the Blood Libel
At this point, the opening of the door was shifted to the end of the seder. Unfortunately, there was a new need for it there – the blood libel. In Christian Europe, anti-semites would accuse the Jews of killing Christian children to use their blood in making matzah.<3> Jews needed to make sure that no corpse had been dumped in their yard during the seder to frame them. When they opened the door, they cried out bitterly to Hashem: “Shefokh chamatkha – Pour out Your wrath on those nations that do not know You!” It was the righteous indignation of the unjustly accused that prompted this plea for Divine justice.<4>
Three: Guarded for Geulah
According to one opinion, the geulah will take place on Pesach. In the words of the Gemara, “In Nissan we will be redeemed. As it says, ‘It is leil shimurim laShem‘ (Shemot 12:42) – a night that’s been guarded [i.e., preserved for geulah] from the six days of creation”<5>. This idea led to a custom of leaving the door open throughout the entire seder, as a sign of our emunah (faith) in the geulah. It was even asserted that we deserve the geulah as a reward for showing such faith in it.<6>
This morphed into our custom of opening the door at the beginning of the Hallel section of the seder. It makes sense because this section relates to the future geulah.<7> To remember that this night is “guarded” for geulah, we open the door, which implies that we feel “guarded” and unafraid of whatever’s outside.<8> When we open the door, we recite “Shefokh chamatkha,” because the mashiach (messiah) will “pour out wrath” against God’s enemies.<9>
Four: Going Out for Geulah
According to a little-known variation of the geulah approach, when we open the door we are signaling our readiness to be redeemed. In the future, when Eliyahu comes to announce the mashiach, we will go out to greet him right away.<10> Nothing should stand between us and geulah, not even the door.
Five: Where’s Eliyahu?
You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the idea that opening the door is for Eliyahu. I left it out because this idea is not from the rabbis but rather late Jewish folklore.<11> Presumably it is based on the presence of Kos Shel Eliyahu. After all, if there’s a cup for Eliyahu on the table, that must mean he shows up at every seder, right?
Wrong. The Vilna Gaon pieces together the story behind this cup. There’s a debate among the rishonim (medieval rabbis) as to whether or not we should drink a fifth cup (corresponding to “Veheveiti,” God’s promise to bring us to the Land).<12> A compromise developed in which we put the fifth cup on the table but do not drink it. Now, in other contexts, the Mishnah asserts that when Eliyahu arrives with the mashiach, he will resolve halakhic doubts.<13> Accordingly, people started calling the fifth cup “Kos Shel Eliyahu,” because in the future Eliyahu will resolve the doubt of whether we should drink it or not have it at all.<14> In other words, just because we call it “Kos Shel Eliyahu” does not mean we expect Eliyahu to show up at our seder.
And yet, Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl presents this expectation in a more positive light: “Another reason for the opening of the door is to hint that we are waiting for Eliyahu the Prophet to enter. This reason is given by children – and it’s a good reason!”<15> Whatever the reason,<16> the idea that Eliyahu visits every seder has captured the popular imagination.<17>
In conclusion, we have explained the opening of the door with four reasons (which may actually be five), perhaps corresponding to the seder’s four cups (which may actually be five).
1. Dave Barry, Alan Zweibel, & Adam Mansbach, For This We Left Egypt? A Passover Haggadah for Jews and Those Who Love Them (NY: Flatiron Books, 2017), p. 63. This is from the section called Discussion Questions for “Waiting for Elijah.”
2. Rav Matityahu Gaon (800s) in Otzar HaGeonim, Vol. 3 (Pesachim), p. 112. http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=38272&pgnum=238
3. For example, see Alan Dundes, The Blood Libel Legend: A Casebook in Anti-Semitic Folklore (University of Wisconsin Press, 1991). On a lighter note, cartoonist Jordan Gorfinkel debunked the myth that Jews bake matzas with non-Jewish blood: “Um… Wouldn’t that make them pink?” See his comic strip The Promised Land (later renamed Everything’s Relative), August 27, 2002. http://www.jewishworldreview.com/tpl/tpl082702.asp
4. Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Segal of Ravna, Likutei Zvi (Zhitomir, 1866), p. 42a. http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=32884&pgnum=92
5. Rosh Hashanah 11b.
6. Rav Nissim Gaon (d. 1057), Megillat S’tarim #127 in the name of his father Rabbi Yaakov ben Nissim. As cited by Rabbi Elazar of Worms (1160-1237), Ma’aseh Rokeach, #70 (Sanok edition, p. 19a). Also cited in Otzar HaGeonim, op. cit.
7. For example, the part that starts “Lo lanu” (Tehillim 115:1) is interpreted by Pesachim 118a as referring to chevlei mashiach (the birthpangs of the messiah).
8. Rema, Orach Chaim 480:1; Mishnah Berurah 480:10.
9. Rema, op. cit., citing Mahariv (Rabbi Yisrael of Bruna, 1400s).
10. Rav Nissim Gaon, op. cit. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin cites his wife Vicky as saying a similar idea: “We don’t open the door to let Elijah in; we open the door to let ourselves out, to return with the herald of Redemption. Only by doing this do we prove that we have truly internalized the historical message and meaning of our freedom.” See Rabbi Riskin’s article, “The Mitzvah of Memory” (Shabbat Chol Hamoed Pesach), The Jewish Week, March 29, 2002, p. 43.
11. The earliest-known mention of a cup for Eliyahu is in Germany in the 1400s: Rabbi Zelikman Binga (d. 1470), Chiddushei Maharaz Binga, Pesachim #11 (Jerusalem, 1985), p. 195 suggests that the custom is based on the hope that the future redemption (when Eliyahu will accompany the mashiach) will take place on the first night of Pesach. Three hundred years later, Eliyahu’s cup is described as a custom limited to some places in Germany and Italy: Rabbi Moshe Chagiz (1672-1751), She’elot uTeshuvot Shtei HaLechem #46 compares the custom to the midrashic idea that Eliyahu shows up to every brit milah.
12. For a comprehensive overview of the fifth cup, see Rabbi Menachem Kasher, Haggadah Shlemah (Jerusalem, 1955), appendices, pp. 161-178.
13. The phrase “Let it rest until Eliyahu comes” appears five times in the Mishnah: Sh’kalim 2:5; Bava Metzia 1:8, 2:8, 3:4, and 3:5.
14. Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna (the Vilna Gaon, 1720-1797), cited in Rabbi Yitzchak Lipietz of Shedlitz, Sefer Mat’amim (Warsaw, 1890), pesach #45. http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=22486&st=&pgnum=56 (For others who present this approach, see notes 22-23 of Rabbi Eliezer Brodt, “The Cup for the Visitor: What lies behind the Kos Shel Eliyahu?” The Seforim Blog, March 18, 2013. http://seforim.blogspot.com/2013/03/the-cup-for-visitor-what-lies-behind.html)
15. Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl, cited in Rabbi Moshe Harari, Mikra’ei Kodesh: Hilkhot Leil HaSeder (Jerusalem, 2006), second edition, p. 548, note 5, line 2.
16. Here is one theory: “Where did the idea that Eliyahu comes to visit at the Seder come from? A confluence of factors makes it almost inevitable that such an idea would develop. Firstly, there is a direct link between brit and Pesach. Secondly, the Kos shel Eliyahu, according to many customs, is poured just before the door is opened. While the door is open, a series of verses with Messianic overtones is recited. Most likely the combination of these practices led some to conclude that the cup is poured for Eliyahu who secretly enters.” See Rabbi Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky, “What’s the Truth about . . . Eliyahu HaNavi at the Seder?” Jewish Action, Spring 2012. https://www.ou.org/jewish_action/03/2013/whats-the-truth-about-eliyahu-hanavi-at-the-seder/
17. Another theory relates to the pictures and woodcuts in haggadot, starting in the fifteenth century, that illustrate “Shefokh chamatkha” with a man on a donkey. Commenting on Rabbi Brodt’s article, Rabbi Eliyahu Fink suggests: “[I]t is reasonable that these woodcuts represent the period of the Moshiach and they appear at Shfoch Chamascha because the words refer to Messianic times. Thus the woodcuts are depicting the ushering in of the Moshiach as an illustration of Shfoch Chamascha. Later on, people put the woodcuts and the opening of the door together (erroneously) to establish that Eliyahu came to the door. That’s just what I think.”