Elijah’s Cup and Miriam’s Cup are two items that can be placed on the seder table at Passover. Both cups derive their symbolic meaning from biblical characters: Elijah and Miriam.
Elijah’s Cup (Kos Eliyahu)
Elijah’s cup is named after the Prophet Elijah. He appears in the biblical books of I Kings and II Kings, where he frequently confronts King Ahab and his wife Jezebel, who worship the pagan god Baal. When Elijah’s biblical story ends it is not because he has died, but rather because a chariot of fire lifts him into the heavens. “Behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire… and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven,” states II Kings 2:11.
This spectacular departure eventually made it possible for Elijah to become a legendary figure in Jewish tradition. Many stories recount how he saved Jews from peril (often anti-Semitism) and to this day his name is mentioned at the end of Shabbat, when Jews sing about Elijah “who should come speedily, in our days…along with the Messiah, son of David, to redeem us” (Telushkin, 254). In addition, Elijah is thought to be the guardian of newborn baby boys and for this reason a special chair is set aside for him at every brit milah (bris).
Elijah also plays a part in the Passover seder. Every year in Jewish homes around the world, families set out Elijah’s Cup (Kos Eliyahu in Hebrew) as part of their seder. The cup is filled with wine and children eagerly open a door so that Elijah can come in and join the seder.
Though it makes sense to assume that Elijah’s Cup is simply an honorary remembrance of the prophet, Elijah’s Cup serves a practical purpose. When determining how many cups of wine we should drink during the Passover seder, the ancient rabbis couldn’t decide whether that number should be four or five. Their solution was to drink four cups and then pour another one for Elijah (the fifth cup). When he returns it will be up to him to decide whether this fifth cup should be consumed at the seder!
Miriam’s Cup (Kos Miryam)
A relatively new Passover tradition is that of Miriam’s cup (Kos Miryam in Hebrew). Not every houeshold includes Miriam's Cup at the seder table, but when it is used the cup is filled with water and placed next to Elijah’s cup.
Miriam was the sister of Moses and a prophetess in her own right. When the Israelites are freed from bondage in Egypt, Miriam leads the women in dance after they have crossed the sea and escaped their pursuers. The bible even records a line of the poem she chants while the women dance: “Sing to the Lord for he has triumphed gloriously. Horse and driver has he hurled into the sea” (Exodus 15:21). (See: The Passover Story.)
Later when the Israelites are wandering through the desert, legend says that a well of water followed Miriam. “Water…did not abandon them in all their forty years’ wandering, but accompanied them on all their marches,” writes Louis Ginzberg in The Legends of the Jews. “God wrought this great miracle for the merits of the prophetess Miriam, wherefore also it was called ‘Miriam’s Well’” (Legends of the Jews, Vol. 3).
The tradition of Miriam’s cup stems from the legendary well that followed her and the Israelites in the desert and also the way in which she spiritually supported her people. The cup is meant to honor Miriam’s story and the spirit of all women, who nurture their families just as Miriam helped sustain the Israelites. The bible tells us she died and was buried in Kadesh. Upon her death there was no water for the Israelites until Moses and Aaron prostrated themselves before God.
The way Miriam’s cup is used varies from family to family. Sometimes, after the second cup of wine is consumed, the seder leader will ask everyone at the table to pour some of the water from their glasses into Miriam’s Cup. This is then followed by singing or with stories about important women in each person's life.
- Telushkin, Joseph. "Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible." William Morrow: New York, 1997.
- Ginzberg, Lous. "Legends of the Jews - Volume 3." Kindle Edition.