Object of the Month - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Object of the Month

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April 2020

Elijah Cup image

Elijah Cup Robert Lipnick (b. 1947) Ceramic United States, 1991 B’nai B’rith Klutznick Collection of the Cincinnati Skirball Museum  

April brings with it one of the major Jewish spring festivals, Passover, or Pesach. Passover is a seven-day festival that marks the beginning of spring and recalls the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. The Passover seder, meaning order, retells the story of the exodus from Egypt and rich symbolism appears throughout. Near the end of the seder, a cup of wine is poured for Elijah the Prophet and the front door is opened to welcome Elijah into the home. Elijah is often associated with a protective, peaceful presence and he is thought to be the prophet who will announce the advent of the Messianic age, a time of peace.

But why do we open the door for him? What does he have to do with Passover? The custom of opening the door began in the second century, when Pesach eve was also called “the Night of Watching.” The door was left open as if participants were ready to leave at a moment’s notice. When it became dangerous to keep doors open, the practice changed. Now we remember this night by opening the door for just a few minutes. This custom became associated with Elijah, an advocate for social justice and a champion of the poor, who, legend says, visits the seder each year.

Why the cup of wine for Elijah? Back in the second century, a disagreement arose as to whether there should be four or five cups of wine. When a decision couldn’t be reached, it was decided to have four cups to drink and an additional symbolic cup, designated as the cup of Elijah. According to tradition, the first thing Elijah will do after he returns to the Jewish people to proclaim the advent of the messianic age is to resolve all questions of Jewish law that confounded the rabbis.

The colors of Richard Lipnick’s Elijah Cup represent earth, water, and sky. Abstract imagery suggests animal and plant forms and may symbolize creation and the creative process. The fitted lid of the cup is topped with a golden chair representing charity to humankind. On Passover, this chair is reserved for Elijah but is left empty for anyone needing a meal. In discussing this work, Lipnick wrote, “In my dream, next year is a better place.” As we celebrate Passover this year, under stay-at-home orders and in a different kind of exile, that dream resonates loudly and clearly. At the same time, we cannot forget Elijah’s advocacy for social justice and for those who are needy, and while we may not be able to welcome strangers into our homes literally this year, we must remember to do what we can to heal the world through deeds of lovingkindness.