Shabbat HaGadol 5774 – Becoming Elijah

Eliyahu Ha-navi

Eliyahu Ha-Tishbi

Eliyahu, Eliyahu, Eliyahu ha-Gil’adi

Bimheira b’yameinu, yavo eileinu

Im mashiach ben David, im mashiach ben David.


Elijah the Prophet.

Elijah the Tishbite.

Elijah the Gileadite.

Speedily, in our days, may he come to us

with the Messiah, son of David.


We’ll be singing these words at the end of our meals in just a couple of days as we invite the biblical prophet Elijah to join us at our Seder for a drink.

When we actually read the stories about Elijah in the Bible, though, he seems like an unlikely drinking buddy.

Elijah lived in the ninth century, b.c.e., during the reign of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel.  Jezebel is a Pheonician princess who brings her worship of Baal with her.  Her devoted husband Ahab even builds a Temple where Israelites can worship the God of Israel and Baal side-by-side.

Elijah is not happy.  He challenges the four hundred fifty prophets of a Baal to a showdown on Mount Carmel, and invites all of Israel to watch.  It’s a great scene, one that always reminds me of a professional wrestling match.  In bombastic language, Elijah challenges the audience:  “How long will you keep hopping between two opnions?  If the Lord is God, follow Him; and if Baal, follow him.”  (I Kings 18:21)

The silence is deafening.

The four hundred fifty prophets set out their sacrifices and pray to their god to send fire down to consume them… and nothing happens.  Elijah taunts them:  “C’mon you guys.  Baal can’t hear you.  Maybe he’s asleep, or on a journey.  Shout louder.”  So they scream and shout, and gash themselves with knives.  Nothing happens.

Now it’s Elijah’s turn.  He sets out his sacrifices, and then turns on the fire hose.  He douses everything with water until it’s streaming in rivulets down the mountain.  Elijah then prays to God, and fire shoots down from heaven, consume the burnt offering in an instant.  The crowd goes wild.  At Elijah’s command, they slaughter the prophets of Baal.

Jezebel is not happy, so she puts a bounty on Elijah’s head.  Elijah flees to the South, arriving at Mount Horeb, otherwise known as Sinai, where he stays for forty days and forty nights and encounters God in the midst of a storm.  Sound familiar?

Elijah eventually returns to Israel, where he continues his prophesizing and miracle-working.  He takes on an apprentice named Elisha.  Before he leaves with his new master, Elisha wants to gives his mother and father a hug and say goodbye.  Elijah does not approve.

Elijah grows old, but he does not die.  Instead, a fiery chariot with flaming horses scoops him up and carries him off into the sky.  It’s the ninth century b.c.e. version of a Harley Davidson.

That’s Elijah.  He is not a patient prophet.  He is zealous for God, but does not relate well to people.  He sees the world in black and white.  You are either for God, or for Baal.  Elijah does not seem to understand that life is full of gray zones.

After his fiery exit into the heavens, legends about Elijah begin to emerge.

We hear of Elijah later on in the Bible from the prophet Malachi, in a passage that we read today in the conclusion of the Haftarah for Shabbat HaGadol.

Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.  (Malachi 3:23-24)

Elijah is said to not have died (one of only two biblical figures, the other being Enoch).  Instead, he is wandering the earth, waiting for the time when he can announce the coming of the Messiah and the redemption of the world.

Elijah is invoked at particular moments in Jewish life: at the Passover Seder; during Havdallah at the end of Shabbat; and at a brit milah.

The speech I give at a bris goes like this:  It is said that in every generation there is a potential messiah in hiding.  It could be this new baby, who holds in him the potential to redeem the world.  That is why we set aside a special chair for Elijah and invite him to the bris.  We want them to meet each other, just in case.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin offers a slightly darker interpretation.  Eliyahu’s presence at a brit milah is in fact a punishment.  Elijah in the Bible demonstrates little understanding of the relationship between parents and children.  He constantly complains to God that the people Israel have abandoned the covenant and turned to idol worship – every single person except for him.  And so, because of his excessive zeal, Elijah will have to stick around through the millenia.  Telushkin writes:

He who sees himself as the last Jews is fated to bear constant witness to the eternity of Israel, to be present when every male Jewish child enteres the covenant, and when every family celebrates the Seder… Elijah stands in a long line of despairing Jews who erroneously have prophesied the end of the Jewish people.  (Joseph Telushkin, Biblical Literacy, pp. 257-258)

His eternal life is a kind of curse.  He has to wander the earth and wait, watching, always watching, bearing witness to humanity’s imperfections, to the inability of people to get along, to the ever-present divisions between parents and children.

This helps us understand Malachi’s prediction, that Elijah will be the one who brings about reconciliation between parents and children.  The prophet who would not allow his disciple and successor, Elisha, to say goodbye to his parents, will have to correct the misunderstanding and act with compassion to save humanity.  For the world to be redeemed, it is Elijah himself who must also be redeemed.

He is sentenced to be the great reconciler.  He is cursed, but it is a hopeful curse.

There is more to the legend of Elijah.  More folktales of Elijah exist than any other biblical figure.

He usually appears in disguise, his identity revealed only at the end.  He is often a beggar, dressed in rags, or else a kind and wise old man.  He tends to play one of several different roles.  He visits a downtrodden person or family whom he helps out through gifts, treasure, the granting of a child, and so on.  He often performs miracles.

Other times, he comes to teach a lesson of compassion by punishing the unjust, often a wealthy person, or a supposedly-wise Torah scholar.

There are also stories in which a particular Rabbi knows Elijah’s secret identity, and consults him on some matter relating to the readiness of humanity for redemption.  The answer is always the same.  We’re not ready yet.

Finally, there are times when Elijah shows up in shul on Yom Kippur to be the tenth person, the one to make the minyan.

In this way, Elijah is “the Jewish alter-ego, the symbol for the whole people; exiled and tortured, but alive and hopeful.”  (Gerson D. Cohen, Studies in the Variety of Rabbinic Cultures, p. 35)

So why does Elijah visit us during Passover?  We take it for granted that opening the door for Elijah is one of the central components of the Seder, but doesn’t it seem kind of odd?  Elijah does not play any role in the Passover story.  In fact, he was born about 300 years after it took place.  If we were going to pick somebody to visit us, I can think of better candidates:  Moses, Aaron, Miriam.

A midrash from the tenth century predicts that Elijah will appear on the eve of Passover.  (Exodus Rabbah 18:12)  It makes a certain sense.  The Exodus from Egypt is the prototype for every subsequent act of redemption.  It is not farfetched to imagine that the final redemption will occur on Passover.

The tradition of opening our doors and reciting the biblical verses beginning with Sh’fokh chamat’kha – “Pour out Your wrath,” most likely began in the Middle Ages, in the wake of the Crusades.  This is how the tradition goes:  After we have finished eating, we open the door and recite several biblical passages.  Here’s the first one:

Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not know You, upon the kingdoms that do not invoke Your name, for they have devoured Jacob and desolated his home.  (Psalms 79:6-7)

Some of us are a little uncomfortable with the violence of these words, and yet it is important to consider the context.  The Jews who first introduced this tradition into the Seder had experienced wave after wave of anti-Semitic pogroms and faced the constant threat of the blood libel.  Every year, around this time, there was a very real fear that a dead Christian baby would be planted on the doorstep of a Jewish home to incite the mob against the community.

For Jews to pray for God to punish their tormentors in times like these is understandable.  Even today, let’s acknowledge that there is terrible evil in the world.  Is it so unreasonable to recite these words asking God (not human beings mind you, but God) to bring the perpetrators of evil to justice?

Opening our doors is a symbolic act of faith.  To open the door is to trust that God will protect us, even though we expose the safety of our homes to the danger and uncertainty of an unpredicable world.  It is also a statement of faith in the ultimate redemption.

It is not surprising that traditions about Elijah came together with traditions of opening our doors and praying for redemption.  Folktales are told of Elijah as something of a Medieval superhero, coming to defend Jewish communities under attack by the blood libel.

Elijah’s Cup is the fifth cup of wine, the cup of future redemption that we do not drink, because the world, and we, are not yet ready.  By inviting Elijah to join our Seder to partake in that fifth cup, we express our hopes for the coming of the Messiah and the final redemption of the world.  When Elijah finally comes to drink that cup, we will be able to join him.  Then he will make a great drinking buddy.

On the other hand. perhaps we ought not take our invitation for Elijah to join us quite so literally.

Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, the great Hassidic Rebbe of the early 19th century, warned that “we err if we believe that Elijah the Prophet comes through the door.  Rather, he must enter through our hearts and souls.”  (Yitzhak Sender, The Commentator’s Pesach, p. 220)

There is a nice custom that has developed in recent years.  Just before we open the door for Elijah, we pass around his empty cup.  Each person at the table then pours a little bit of wine (or grape juice) from his or her own cup.  It symbolizes that we all have a role to play.  To fill up the fifth cup, the cup of future redemption, will require the combined contributions of every one of us.

To illustrate this, I’ll end with a story of Elijah told in Hassidic circles.  (from Aharon Wiener, The Prophet Elijah in the Development of Judaism, p. 139)

A pious and wealthy Jew asked his rabbi, “For about forty years I have opened the door for Elijah every Seder night waiting for him to come, but he never does.  What is the reason?”

The rabbi answered, “In your neighborhood there lives a very poor family with many children.  Call on the man and propose to him that you and your family celebrate the next Passover in his house, and for this purpose provide him and his whole family with everything necessary for the eight Passover days.  Then on the Seder night Elijah will certainly come.”

The man did as the rabbi told him, but after Passover he came to the rabbi and claimed that again he had waited in vain for Elijah.

The rabbi answered: “I know very well that Elijah came on the Seder night to the house of your poor neighbor.  But of course you could not see him.”

And the rabbi held a mirror before the face of the man and said, “Look, this was Elijah’s face that night.”

When we open our doors to invite Elijah to our Seders this year to herald our redemption, may we merit to see his face reflected in ourselves.


(Many of the ideas and sources for this D’var Torah are from David Arnow’s Creating Lively Passover Seders, pp. 301-315.)