From The Chassidic Dimension,
adapted by Rabbi Sholom B. Wineberg
In addition to the four cups of wine that each participant drinks during the Pesach Seder, a fifth cup is placed on the Seder table. This cup, which is not drunk, is known as kos shel Eliyahu, Eliyahu’s Cup.
Regarding this cup, the Baal HaTanya states in his Shulchan Aruch: “It is customary in these countries to pour an additional cup — one more than for those seated. This cup is called kos shel Eliyahu.”1
What is the reason for this additional cup, and why is it so named? There is a difference of opinion in the Gemara 2 regarding the necessity of pouring a fifth cup of wine. Since this matter was not clearly adjudicated, there are those who say3 that a fifth cup is placed on the table. This cup, they say, is called kos shel Eliyahu, because, just as Eliyahu will clarify all doubtful Halachic matters, he will clarify the ruling about this cup as well.
However, from Chok Ya’akov4 and the Shulchan Aruch HaRav5 , it is clear that the fifth cup and kos shel Eliyahu are two distinct entities, each involving different rulings as to whether it need be poured at all, whether the wine may be drunk, and whether it is poured for each individual in attendance, or only once for all those assembled.
The question thus remains: What is the reason for the custom — not mentioned at all in Gemara or the Rishonim — of placing an extra cup of wine on the table, a cup which is not drunk, and calling it kos shel Eliyahu?
The very fact that kos shel Eliyahu is merely placed on the table and not consumed indicates that it is bound up with a level of Divine service loftier than man’s drinking of wine. This is so, for kos shel Eliyahu is bound up with the final Redemption, something that transcends man’s service.
The fact that kos shel Eliyahu and the ultimate Redemption are intimately linked is to be deduced from the fact that the Baal HaTanya relates the custom of kos shel Eliyahu after first stating:
“In some places, it is the custom on the [first] night of Pesach to leave the bedroom doors unlocked, for it is a propitious night for the Jewish people unto all generations that they then be redeemed from this exile.
“For if Eliyahu (the individual who brings the tidings of Redemption) comes, he will find an open door, and we will go out and greet him speedily. We firmly believe this, and in believing so, there is great reward.”
The Baal HaTanya then goes on to state: “And it is customary in these countries to pour… kos shel Eliyahu.” Clearly then, the kos shel Eliyahu is bound up to the Jews’ faith in the coming Redemption.
This belief is to be found within all Jews, for all are “believers and children of believers.” And this is so, notwithstanding the individual’s revealed level of service. For every Jew intrinsically believes in and awaits the coming of Moshiach — this belief and anticipation being a Divine command both in the written and oral Torah.6 Moreover, these feelings grow ever stronger as we move closer to the Redemption.
This is why it is specifically in these later generations, when the time for the final Redemption draws closer and the passionate longing for its coming grows stronger, that the custom of pouring a kos shel Eliyahu has become widespread.
Also, the expression “to pour an additional cup — one more than for those seated,” alludes to the fact that Eliyahu HaNavi becomes one of those who are seated at the Seder table.
For the belief of the Jewish people on this night — the night when Gd revealed Himself in His full glory, and which finds physical expression in the cup and the wine — is in itself sufficient to unite Eliyahu with the partakers of the Seder, to the degree that the prophet himself becomes a participant.
Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXVII, pp. 52-55
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1. Orach Chayim, 481:1.
2. Pesachim 118a, according to the text of the Gaonim, Rif and Rambam. See Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXVII, p. 48 and footnotes and places cited there.
3. Quoted in Taamei HaMinhagim I, Section 551.
5. Cited above.
6. See Rambam, Hilchos Melachim, beginning of ch. 11, and ch. 12:2.