Rabbi Pini Dunner

Rav Pini Dunner, Rav of Young Israel North Beverly Hills

One of the most prominent rabbis in sixteenth century Europe was R. Yehuda Loewe (1527-1609), the Chief Rabbi of Prague usually referred to as the ‘Maharal of Prague’. His numerous works on Torah were famous even during his lifetime, and after his death his many students continued to propagate the Maharal’s deep and insightful ideas, until they became the fundamental theology underpinning the essence of Jewish life in Europe. His influence continued to grow with each century that passed, and it continues to grow to this day. So imagine the joy and excitement surrounding the publication of his ‘Haggada shel Pesach’ in Warsaw, Poland, at the beginning of the twentieth century. Apparently, based on a long lost manuscript that had lain undiscovered in an obscure French library, the publisher claimed it had been composed by the Maharal’s son-in-law, R. Yitzchak Katz of Nikolsburg, who recorded material taught to him by the Maharal during his lifetime, and it also included information about the Maharal’s customs during the Seder itself, as observed by R. Katz.

 The most stunning information contained in this new Hagada was that the Maharal had included a fifth cup of wine at his Seder, a cup that only he drank, and over which he recited a special proclamation. Maharal aficionados began to introduce this practice into their own Pesach Seders, and the revelation of this fifth cup custom that had been practiced by such a prominent rabbinic authority generated great excitement across the rabbinic world.

One of the enduring mysteries of Seder night is the confusion over the need for a fifth cup of wine. All of us are familiar with the requirement to drink four cups of wine at the Seder, based on a Talmudic explanation that matches each cup of wine with an expression of redemption in the Exodus narrative (Shemot Chapter 6, 6 & 7). We are also familiar with a fifth cup of wine at the Seder, known as the ‘Cup of Eliyahu’. This is a solitary cup of wine poured towards the end of the Seder, but not drunk by anyone. Some have the custom to pour the wine in this cup back into the bottle after the Seder, while others use this cup of wine for Kiddush the following day.

So what are the origins of this ‘fifth cup’ custom? Why would we pour a cup of wine that no one is going to drink? Why is it known as the ‘Cup of Eliyahu’?

The Mishna at the beginning of the tenth chapter of Pesachim instructs us to ensure that no member of the community is without four cups of wine at the Seder, even if it means we have to use charitable funds to pay for their wine. Later on in the chapter we are informed exactly when to drink the four cups, with the fourth one coinciding with the conclusion of Hallel. The Gemara adds a piece of information that is quite mystifying: ‘Rabbi Tarfon says that the fourth cup coincides with the end of Hallel, and one says Hallel Haggadol’ (Hallel Hagadol is a chapter of Tehillim consisting of thirty-six lines of praise to God, all ending ‘ki le’olam chasdo’ – ‘His kindness is eternal.’)

Although the text of the Gemara we have does not mention a fifth cup, both Rashi and Tosafot assert that the text of the Gemara must be amended not to include reference to a fifth cup, as it is not possible that Rabbi Tarfon would mandate a fifth cup of wine at the Seder. Tosafot also mentions an opinion that permits anyone who ‘needs’ to drink a further cup of wine to do so. Evidently these early medieval rabbis had conflicting Gemara texts in front of them, and based on their own knowledge and experience of Seder customs they concluded that the text they had access to which mentioned five cups must be wrong. Meanwhile, R. Yitzchak Alfasi, who preceded both Rashi and Tosafot and was the author of the authoritative halachic distillation of Talmud known as ‘Rif’, clearly had quite a different view. His version of the Gemara clearly states that R. Tarfon mandated a fifth cup over which one should recite ‘Hallel Hagadol’.

  1. Alfasi was not alone. The Rambam mentions a fifth cup, although he says it isn’t mandatory. The Rambam’s greatest critic was the French rabbi, R. Avraham ben David of Posquières (also known as ‘Ravad’). On this occasion he utterly concurs with his bête noir, confirming that R. Tarfon obligates a fifth cup to match up with a fifth expression of redemption in the Exodus narrative – ‘veheiveiti’ – ‘and I shall bring you to the land that I promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’. Similarly, Rabbeinu Asher ben Yechiel (known as ‘Rosh’) dismisses the claim that the Talmud text talking about a fifth cup is wrong, as it is clear R. Tarfon considered a fifth cup obligatory, even if contemporary practice had reduced it to a voluntary custom.

Later rabbinic authorities understood this confused picture to have been a result of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. All Seders during the Temple period had included five cups of wine, not just four, allowing Jews to commemorate all five expressions of redemption. But once the enduring reality of the Second Temple’s destruction sunk in, the custom to drink a fifth cup of wine lost its shine, and then slowly receded into the background. After all, how could one celebrate Jewish dominion over the Land of Israel if that dominion no longer existed, and Jews had been dispersed across a far-flung diaspora?

And yet, despite this depressing reality, the custom to drink a symbolic fifth cup of wine prevailed in at least some communities as a hopeful reminder of a future return to the Land of Israel under Messianic leadership. Rashi and Tosafot either did not have this custom, or believed it to be misconceived. R. Alfasi, Rambam, Ravad, and the Rosh may have had this custom, or at least they felt it was too important to be dismissed completely. Then, at some point during the late medieval period, the custom of drinking a fifth cup of wine morphed into pouring a fifth cup of wine not drunk by anyone, which became known as the ‘Cup of Elijah’, probably a reference to the traditional idea that Eliyahu Hanavi would be the first person to inform us of the Messiah’s arrival, and of the Jews’ imminent return to the Land of Israel.

Step in Rabbi Yehuda Yudel Rosenberg of Warsaw. R. Rosenberg was a fascinating individual, a rabbinic scholar who claimed to be descended from the Maharal. Born in 1859, in a town called Skaryszew, Poland, he was recognized as a genius at a very young age. Married at seventeen, he was appointed rabbi of a town called Tarlow at the age of twenty-five, and later styled himself as the ‘Tarla Rebbe’, although there was no Tarlow dynasty, and he never ran a Hasidic court.

From Tarlow he moved to Lublin where he served as a dayyan on the Beit Din of R. Shneur Zalman Fradkin, a Hasid of Chabad and author of the acclaimed halachic work Torat Chesed. Although he was an exceptional scholar, R. Rosenberg attracted criticism for his fondness of Russian literature, and eventually moved to Warsaw, where he opened a tiny synagogue and acted as a community dayyan, resolving local disputes and answering halachic questions for payment. But clearly this did not provide him with sufficient income to look after his family, so in 1902 he published a book on the Talmudic tractate Nedarim, an unusually complex volume that is unaided by Rashi’s commentary. This excellently written book was welcomed by Talmud scholars and yeshiva students, and it continues to be utilized by those studying Nedarim to this day.


Rabbi Yehuda Yudel Rosenberg, self-styled ‘Tarla Rebbe’ of Warsaw, who later moved to Canada, where he lived mainly in Montreal. In 1905, R. Rosenberg published the ‘Maharal Haggadah’, based on the ‘discovery’ of a long lost manuscript in the ‘Royal Library of Metz’

Perhaps sales were slow and R. Rosenberg needed more money, or perhaps R. Rosenberg was not content with the publication of an ordinary book that would be lost in a sea of other similar publications. So in 1905 he published the Maharal Haggada. On the title page he asserted that this was the first time it had ever been published, and claimed it was based on an old manuscript originally held at the Royal Library in Metz, a small town on the border of France and Germany which was home to a well-established centuries-old Jewish community.

The title page of the ‘Maharal Hagada’. The controversial inclusion of the custom to drink a fifth cup of wine was welcomed by some, and rejected by others

In his foreword to the Haggada, R. Rosenberg wrote how it had been extremely difficult for him to bring the manuscript to print, particularly because the current owner had refused to part with it under any circumstances. As a result of these difficulties he did not include what he claimed was a long and rambling introduction by its author, the Maharal’s son-in-law, R. Yitzchak Katz, but had instead focused on the Haggada commentary itself.

Below R. Rosenberg’s foreword was a letter addressed to him written by a man called Chaim Scharfstein, and dated 15 Av 5664 (July 27, 1904). Scharfstein wrote that he was sending R. Rosenberg an accurate handwritten copy of the original manuscript previously held in the Royal Library, assuring him that no one else would get a copy besides for him, as agreed between them.

We will return to the Haggada in a moment, but first let us focus on the Chaim Scharfstein manuscript collection, which in the years after 1905 would play a significant role in R. Rosenberg’s literary output. In 1909 R. Rosenberg published another book based on the R. Katz manuscripts from Metz, this time about the Maharal’s creation of a ‘Golem’, the mythical and powerful humanoid creature animated by kabbalistic formulae, who was used by the Maharal to protect the Jewish community of Prague against the evil conspiracies and dastardly scheming of local anti-Semites. The Maharal Golem myth first emerged in 1837, when a German-Jewish poet and author called Berthold Auerbach wrote a fictional account of what must have been an ancient oral legend that described a series of stories involving the Golem of Prague. In the years that followed Auerbach’s version a number of similar accounts were published, all of them folklore-style literature that made no claim of authenticity.

  1. Rosenberg’s book was quite different. The title page described how the stories contained in his book had been recorded in writing by R. Katz – the same R. Katz who had recorded the Maharal’s commentary on the Haggada. And just like the Haggada manuscript had lain undiscovered in the Royal Library of Metz, so too had the Golem manuscript. The title page went on to claim that the Metz library had been destroyed during some unnamed war a century earlier, and as a result many Jewish manuscripts had made their way into the possession of wealthier members of the local Jewish community.

The 1909 publication was very popularly received, and was followed in 1913 by another publication: ‘The High Priest’s Choshen Mishpat’. This book was apparently based on an autographed copy of a manuscript written by R. Manoach Hendel, a well-known student of the Maharal who died in 1612. The manuscript was purported to be an attempt to catalogue the whereabouts of sacred utensils that may have survived the destruction of the Temple in Jerrusalem by the Romans in 70A.D. Included in the manuscript was an incredible story that R. Hendel said he had heard from the Maharal himself, about his involvement in the recovery of the twelve precious stones which had been a part of the Choshen Mishpat – the bejeweled breastplate worn by the Temple’s High Priest, and originally worn by the very first High Priest, Aaron Hakohen, brother of Moshe Rabbeinu.

Evidently the twelve precious jewels of the Choshen Mishpat had somehow made their way to England, where they were kept at the ‘Belmore Street Museum’ in London. In the year 1590, the Maharal discovered they had been stolen and went to London to locate them so that they could be returned to the museum for safekeeping. Once in London he pretended to be an antique collector, and in that guise met someone called Captain Wilson, who, as it turned out, was the thief who had stolen the Jewels. The Maharal offered to buy the stones from Wilson and they agreed on a price. They also agreed that the actual transaction would take place two weeks later to give the Maharal enough time to come up with the astronomical amount of money he needed to buy them. But the transaction never happened. During the proscribed two weeks the Maharal fomented such mayhem for Wilson through the medium of kabbalistic miracles, that once the two weeks were up a spooked Wilson agreed to give up the stones for nothing, and they were returned to the museum.

The problem with this riveting story was that it had nothing to do with the Maharal, nor with R. Manoach Hendel, nor, indeed, with R. Yehuda Yudel Rosenberg. Because it was written and published in 1899 by the famous nineteenth century British author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as a short story titled ‘The Jew’s Breastplate’. R. Rosenberg must have been familiar with the story in a Russian translation, and been pretty certain that no one who read his Hebrew version, and later on his Yiddish version, would be remotely familiar with this obscure British piece of fiction. He was so convinced of this that he never even bothered to change any of the names used by Arthur Conan Doyle in the original version! The only thing that changed in R. Rosenberg’s version was the main character in the story, who was no longer the first-person narrator, but instead was the Maharal.

As it turns out, the entire backdrop to these manuscripts is fiction. There was never a Royal Library in Metz. Neither R. Yitzchak Katz nor R. Manoach Hendel left us with any manuscript material relating to the Maharal in the form claimed by R. Rosenberg. Even Chaim Scharfstein was a fictional creation, produced by R. Rosenberg to generate the impression that his Maharal material was authentic. Whether the Maharal ever created a Golem is a question for scholars to debate, but it is certainly the case that R. Rosenberg’s stories about the mythical man-beast were fanciful creations of his literary imagination, and bear no relationship with what may have really happened.

In 1913, shortly after publishing his Choshen Mishpat forgery, R. Rosenberg moved from Poland to Toronto, Canada. In 1919 he moved to Montreal, where he became one of the most prominent rabbis in the city. For the remainder of his life – he died in 1935 – he regularly published books on Jewish subjects, although he never again published any Maharal related material.

It is unclear whether R. Rosenberg believed his fictional Maharal stories would be taken seriously. It is certainly the case, however, that the Haggada was taken seriously, something R. Rosenberg was certainly aware of during his lifetime. But at no time after he published it did R. Rosenberg ever disavow himself of its authenticity, nor admit that his claim it was based on a manuscript was nothing more than a hoax. Much of the material in the Maharal Haggada can be found in existing Maharal commentary on the Torah; R. Rosenberg simply adapted it for Seder night. But anything that cannot be sourced elsewhere in the Maharal’s reliable body of work must be dismissed as fantasy. Which means that the Maharal never drank a fifth cup of wine at the Seder, and that Rosenberg’s claim to the contrary was fake, concocted by him to generate wider interest in his new publication, and no doubt to boost sales.

The fact remains that an ancient tradition existed to drink a fifth cup of wine at the Pesach Seder. The loss of our Temple in Jerusalem resulted in the abandonment of this custom, and it eventually disappeared completely, replaced with the custom of the ‘Cup of Eliyahu.’ Let us hope and pray that we can soon drink a fifth cup of wine at Seder night again, a thought to bear in mind when we say this year at the Seder – ‘Leshana Haba Bi-Yerushalayim’ – ‘next year in Jerusalem!’