USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘jewish holiday’
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Elijah’s Cup

“I don’t even know how this started but ok so like over Passover which is like the Jewish holiday commemorating the Exodus out of Egypt, we have a Seder dinner to retell the story of what happened. Part of it is…something that my family does is what we call “Elijah’s cup,” which is essentially just leaving a full cup of wine at the table, and I can’t really remember but at either the end or the middle of dinner, you’re supposed to open the front door and welcome Elijah in to drink the cup. It’s something about welcoming in those who don’t have a dinner or like the less fortunate, but I’m not really sure to be honest. My family does it every year.”

Background: This was a very interesting story for me to hear because I know the story of Passover from the Catholic viewpoint but have never really understood the specific Jewish traditions of Passover, and this was one example with which I was not familiar at all. This is an interesting symbolic touch added to the dinner, which, in my opinion, provides structure to the dinner and increases the level of reverence associated with the dinner if a real object or real food is dedicated to a holy person. I can relate to this because during Catholic mass the most important part is when the bread and wine are supposed to become the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and this tradition creates more respect for the ceremony when we dedicate such an intense belief to a weekly ritual, a characteristic I see reflected in this tradition of Elijah’s Cup. This interview was conducted in person as the informant lives down the hall from me. This story is important to the informant because she conducts this part of the ritual every year at Passover.

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Leaving Wine for Elijah at Passover

The informant is a 66-year old mother, step-mother, former poverty-lawyer, property manager/owner, and is involved in many organizations and non profits. She was born in the Netherlands and immigrated to the United States with her family when she was four years old. She grew up in California, where she also attended college and law school. She lived in the suburbs of Chicago for a short while with her husband and family, and now they live in Pacific Palisades, California.

 

Informant: “Back when I was a kid, with your Opa [the word for “Grandpa” in Dutch] every Passover, we would leave a glass of wine—in our most ornate wine glass—for Elijah, like we do now, but we would also all go around the table after the meal and have to tell a little anecdote about Elijah.

 

Interviewer: “Can you explain who Elijah is?”

Informant: “Elijah is a Jewish prophet. It’s tradition to leave a spot for him at the table at Passover so that if he passes through he will stop at your house and give you good luck and health. So we would go around and all have to tell a short made-up story about him. And it was silly that we did this—I don’t know anyone else who did this, but I know that my dad always said that he had done it with his family at their seders growing up.”

 

Thoughts:

I’ve participated in the Elijah ritual myself, so I can speak from a first-person perspective as well as commenting on my informant’s information. In my opinion, leaving a glass for Elijah symbolizes hope, for the future and for the Jewish people—a people historically oppressed and systematically pushed down. Leaving a glass and/or opening a door for the prophet, Elijah, to come is a way of leaving the door open to positive things to come. As it is a prophet that the glass of wine is left for, this custom can also be seen as a seeking of knowledge or insight.

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Tashlikh

This is a tradition practiced by my informant every Jewish New Year, in Paolos Verdes.

“Instead of going to services, family will go to our local cliff spot and we’ll take a blanket and sit and mom or dad will bring an envelope carrying all of our previous years lettesr and we’ll open them and read all of them to ourselves and become familiar with what our previous years goals were, did we meet them, and we’ll talk to each other about that. And then we’ll get a piece of paper and a pen and we’ll spend some time writing out things that we wish had gone differently, how we would have changed them, and what we wish for the new year. And then we go around and share those if we want, and we seal it. And then we’ll take a couple rocks and think about all the things that we didn’t like about this past year, and following the Jewish tradition where you throw bread, we throw the rocks and “let go” of all the things we felt sad about, or guilty for, or disagreed with in the past year.”

This is a version of the Jewish tradition tashlikh, in which Jews cast bread into the sea to symbolically cast aside their sins from the previous year. It is inscribed in a passage in the book of Micah, 7:18-20, which states “You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea”. The use of letters and sharing would ensure careful thought and consideration, both personally and among the entire family. The substitution of rocks for bread could be for the ready availability of rocks on a cliff face, but it also might be more healing to throw something heavy as symbolic of sin.

 

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