NO MATTER who else you have invited to your Seder tonight, there is one person who always manages to get himself onto the guest list — a man (or is it a spirit?) whom we summon in from the cold to enjoy a nice cup of wine and perhaps a little matzah.
But how much do you know about the prophet Elijah besides the fact that he enjoys a drink, prefers to enter through the door rather than down the chimney and can be a little elusive?
Elijah is also mentioned in the New Testament, is described as “a great and righteous prophet” in the Koran and unintentionally inspired a multi-oscar winning blockbuster film.
Elijah (in Hebrew Eliyahu) is usually translated as “Yahweh is my God”. He lived in the Kingdom of Samaria in the 9th century BCE and, according to the books of Kings I and Kings II, confronted King Ahab and his wife Jezebel over Ahab’s worship of the pagan God Baal.
Unlike other prophets, Elijah’s story does not finish with him dying but rather being lifted into the heavens in a chariot of fire — hence the poem, Jerusalem, by William Blake and Hugh Hudson’s epic 1981 movie.
It is his spectacular departure from this world which has allowed Elijah to become a legendary figure in Jewish tradition — indeed, many believe his return will foreshadow the coming of the Messiah.
He is also is said to be the guardian of all newborn boys, which earns him a seat at every brit milah (but no glass of wine). He also gets a mention at the end of Shabbat in the havdalah service, and has earned his symbolic place at the Seder table.
The Seder appearance is a key event towards the end of the service. A glass of wine is poured for Elijah, the door is opened and the night sky is scanned for the non-giftbearing Jewish version of Santa. This is thought to be a foreshadowing of his future arrival at the end of the days, when he will come to announce the coming of the Messiah.
Elijah also makes an appearance in a large number of Jewish folk stories. In these stories Elijah is dressed up as a beggar, or an old wandering Jew, arriving to teach those who welcome him in an important lesson about hospitality
A recent tradition in Liberal and Reform households is to pour two cups, one of wine for Elijah and a cup of water for Miriam, stemming from the legend that says a well of water followed Miriam through the desert.
There is also a practical reason for Elijah’s cup. The ancient rabbis were unable to decide whether there should be four or five cups of wine drunk at the seder, so they came up with a compromise. Their solution was to drink four cups and then pour another one for Elijah. When Elijah returns, it will be for him to decide whether this fifth cup should be consumed at the seder or abandoned.
Until then, there will always be some joker pouring half the cup away while no one else is looking – or claiming that Elijah has made off with the afikoman.
I SPEND Shabbat with the Harlow community, the 32nd in my attempt to visit all 42 Reform synagogues during my first year. Rabbi Irit Shillor leads a lovely service. The congregation is largely young families and older people, although I meet a thirtysomething first-time visitor from Hertford — a reminder of our challenge to provide communities where all feel at home.
The next day I start preparing for the family seder with the Reform Movement’s new Haggadah. We’ve printed 1,200 copies this year and are asking for feedback on this prepublication draft. I am confident the very liberal Rich family will have lots to say.
I have coffee with an MA graduate from the Leo Baeck College. My guest has written her dissertation on Chederim and why middle class parents choose them for their children but don’t necessarily engage with what they are taught. I wonder how much chederim are about education and how much they are about community building. Is the more informal education approach which some of our communities are already adopting closer to meeting parents’ needs?
On Tuesday I hire someone to develop our student database. Research suggests that Reform students can feel uncomfortable at Hillel Houses. It is in the whole community’s interest that Reform Judaism gets better at reaching students, or they will simply vanish. As ever, it comes down to resources. Cheque for £1 million anyone? The cards are at least on my side that evening at the Cancer Research Bridge Tournament.
Our Board meets to finalise the Movement’s strategic plan for the next three and half years. The challenge now is to decide what we can possibly leave until later. We decide community development must be the priority. I take Thursday off for my birthday. The morning is spent with Andrew Strauss and co — very frustrating. Then I join what seems like the rest of Harrow for the Queen’s Jubilee visit to the Hindu KrishnaAvanti primary school in Edgware. As a governor I’m invited into the inner sanctum to see our first years perform a traditional Indian song. Prince Phillip wants to know if the children are taught English. We explain they study the national curriculum. Later I bump into Rabbi Michael Hilton of Kol Chai and discover the 200 person choir is being conducted by one of our members.
Friday is my daughter’s birthday. Seven years ago I told my wife I wasn’t sharing my birthday with anyone. In an exceptional moment of compliance, she waited. Ben Rich is chief executive of the Movement for Reform Judaism