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  • Rabbi Edward Friedman

Thoughts on Elijah the Prophet

We are entering the final days of Passover and, as in the latter portion of the Haggadah, the end of the holiday tends to emphasize our hopes and prayers for the future redemption of the world. Most notable is the haftarah for the eighth day, the last of the Passover biblical readings, taken from the book of Isaiah. The prophet speaks of the coming of a wise and just ruler from the family of King David, “a shoot..out of the stump of Jesse.” In this utopian world which he describes, “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid; the calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together, with a little boy to herd them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion like the ox, shall eat straw.” As he continues, Isaiah says, “The land shall be filled with devotion to the Lord as water covers the sea.” The prophet envisions a new Exodus where exiles will come out of Assyria, the great enemy of his day, on a highway “such as there was for Israel when it left the land of Egypt.” This is one of several of Isaiah's visions which our sages understand as foretelling a messianic era at the end of days.

Prior to the holiday, on the Shabbat preceding it, Shabbat HaGadol, we read the final words of the prophet Malachi, in which he speaks of a great and awesome day of the Lord, again at some undetermined time in the future. The prophet writes, “Behold I send to you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers.” Though Elijah's activity here on earth, as recorded in the book of Kings, predated Malachi by several centuries, Jewish tradition holds that when we last saw Elijah, ascending to heaven in a fiery chariot, he was still alive and thus as far as we know, he remains alive and is the focus of a massive collection of stories and legends. Most significantly, based on this prophecy of Malachi, he is expected to announce the coming of the Messiah in days to come.

In the interim, Elijah is invited to attend every Briss. A chair is set aside for him and the service begins with the words, “Zeh hakisei shel Eliyahu hanavi, zachur latov. This is the chair of Elijah the prophet, may he be remembered for good.” Since in Kings, Elijah questioned the commitment of the Jewish people to the covenant (the brit), tradition says he is required to see us fulfill that covenant at every circumcision, when we enter a newborn child into the covenant of Abraham.

There are numerous stories of rabbis who encounter Elijah and present questions to him. He is asked when the Messiah will come and he explains he could come even today if you listen to His voice, if we keep His commandments. Elijah is purportedly the one who in future days will resolve all the unresolved questions in Jewish law, such as whether there should be four cups of wine at the seder or five. A cup of wine awaits him on our seder table each year, Kos Eliyahu, the cup of Elijah.

In countless folktales, Elijah often appears in disguise at the homes of pious individuals, some of whom are destitute, others who are barren. He is welcomed into these homes and offered hospitality and ultimately bestows blessings upon their inhabitants before disappearing. Only later do they realize that they have been visited by Elijah himself. The great folklorist Dov Noy claims that there are some 15,000 stories of Elijah in the Folklore archive in Israel from Jewish communities around the world.

It seems that the two traditions at the seder associated with Elijah, the Elijah's cup and opening the door for Elijah were introduced relatively late into our Passover rituals. In the Schechter Haggadah with commentary by Rabbi Joshua Kulp, he includes an essay on the verses we recite when we open the door for Elijah. These verses which begin with “Sh'fokh chamatcha el hagoyim asher lo y'daucha, Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not know You,” have become somewhat controversial in our day and in some haggadot are either replaced or supplemented by verses that seem more open to interfaith cooperation. These verses recited after the third cup of wine following the Grace after meals, are not mentioned in the Talmud, geonic literature, haggadot from the Cairo genizah, early Yemenite haggadot, or most haggadot by early authorities (Rishonim). They first appear in Ashkenazic haggadot shortly after the First Crusade and, while we have four verses in our tradition, other haggadot have only three, and some have more than four verses. Clearly they are a response to the massacres of Jews at that period, and in that light, they provide a rather mild rebuke to the enemies who have attacked them unprovoked at that time. They join other liturgical piyyutim in this section of the haggadah which speak of messianic times and the meting out of justice to those who have oppressed us.

As for the opening of the door which takes place nowadays at this point in the seder, it was originally independent of the recitation of Sh'fokh chamatcha. It is mentioned in the Geonic period in the 9th century by Rabbi Matityahu Gaon, who says that the custom was originally to keep the door open throughout the seder in order to invite the poor to join the meal. Now, he notes, instead we give food to the poor prior to the holiday. Rabbi Elazar HaRokeach in the 12th and early 13th century also mentions the custom of keeping the door open throughout the seder. The Rokeach adds, “Thus is our custom, so that when Elijah comes we will speedily go out to meet him without any delay, for on Pesach Israel will be redeemed in the future.” That custom of leaving the door open throughout the seder was later abandoned because of the danger in many communities in doing so. However, in the 16th century, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, the Ashkenazic glossater on the Shulchan Aruch, connects the recitation of Sh'fokh Chamatcha to the verse which states that “It is a night of watching” and he says at this point they open the doors as we read these verses.

Thus by the 13th century, the theme of Elijah's arrival was connected to the recitation of the Sh'fokh chamatcha and some haggadot picture the Messiah arriving on a donkey on this page of the haggadah. In some circles, the custom was for someone to dress up like Elijah and appear at the seder at this point.

At around the same period, the Elijah's cup was also introduced. It is mentioned in a 15th century work. Rabbi Zeligman Binga in that period writes, “I have seen some people on Pesach eve pour a special cup for Elijah and they place it on the table and say 'this is the cup for Elijah,' but I do not know the reason for this custom.” Of course, later authorities come up with reasons. Some attempt to link it to the debate over the question of a fifth cup at the seder and Elijah's resolution of unresolved Talmudic debates. However, others point out the flaws in this argument and instead see it simply as a folk custom reflecting the hope of our people for redemption. My mother used to set a whole place at the table for Elijah each year.

Kulp mentions a practice based on the law against drinking from a cup with wine remaining in it. The custom in some places was to place a pitcher in the middle of the table for pouring out the remains of a wine cup before refilling it. This pitcher some would refer to as the cup of Elijah, perhaps jokingly at first.

Rabbi Moshe Hagiz in the 17th - 18th century was asked about the custom of preparing a cup for Elijah at the beginning of the seder. Hagiz links the tradition of Elijah attending a briss to witness our fulfillment of the covenant and suggests that so too the prophet comes to the seder to see if we are fulfilling this mitzvah about which the Torah writes that an uncircumcised person may not eat of the Paschal lamb.

Whatever reasons were later devised to explain the custom, Kulp believes that it was simply a case of taking a common practice and giving it an association with our hopes for redemption. Once the custom was established there appear variations on it. Some fill the cup before the meal, others do so after the meal. Some have the tradition of passing the cup around the table and everyone contributing some of their wine to it. This indicates our participation in bringing about the coming of the messianic age. I'm not sure when the custom of singing Eliyahu hanavi developed, but though it is not written into the traditional text of the haggadah, it has become a common practice to sing of the prophet when we open the door.

My friend, Rabbi Steve Sager, tells of his daughter Ariel asking him when she was very young why she couldn't see Elijah when he comes in the door. He told her that she was looking for the wrong thing. Elijah was with them throughout the seder and when the door was opened, he went out into the world. He suggested that she close her eyes and she will see him leave (and he'll be wearing purple socks). Sure enough, she followed the instructions and saw Elijah leave, and before he went out, he raised one pant leg and showed her the purple socks he was wearing. The point, it seems, is that Elijah is reminding us of our obligation to follow him out into the world and to work for redemption for all humanity. Like Elijah in the folktales, we have the responsibility to bring blessing into the homes of all those in need.

This is the message of the seder and of the holiday of Pesach. Coming forth from Egypt, we know the heart of the stranger and need to carry on the message of redemption after the holiday ends. For years I have followed a tradition I read of once of ending the holiday by eating one last piece of matzah, a kind of afikomen. I end the holiday with the taste of matzah on my lips and then I sing the Nirtzah prayer once more. Chasal siddur Pesach k'hilchato, the seder (the order) of Pesach has been concluded in its regulations, in all its precepts and statutes. Just as we have been privileged to arrange it, so may we be privileged to perform it. O pure One who dwells in heaven, raise up the congregation, too numerous to count. Soon lead the firm saplings redeemed to Zion in song. L'shanah habaah biYerushalayim, Next year in Jerusalem!”

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