SHABBAT HOL HAMOED PESACH
ELIJAH THE PROPHET
“Eliyahu HaNavi – Elijah the Prophet, Elijah the Tishbi, Elijah the Giladi, May he soon come in our days with the Messiah the son of David.” (classical Hebrew chant, often sung at the Passover Seder.)
As I am writing this, I just returned from a bris (the ritual circumcision on the eighth day of a baby boy.) Elijah the Prophet was there. We even had a special chair for him. In fact, according to tradition Elijah the Prophet is present at every bris. After his confrontation with the prophets of Baal, Queen Jezebel tried to put him to death. Elijah went into hiding. In his despair, he cried out that the people Israel had forgotten the covenant. So God told him, as proof that the people will remember the covenant, that he must visit every bris.
At Passover seders round the world we will also open the door and invite Elijah in. A special cup of wine is poured for him. When I was a young child, my parents told me to look very carefully at Elijah’s cup when we open the door. The amount of wine will go down a bit. When I complained that I did not see anything, my parents explained that Elijah has a lot of seders to visit. Elijah does not want to become too drunk. So he takes the tiniest sip.
Do not think that Elijah visits circumcisions and seders because he has a drinking problem. Certainly, wine is served at both. But he visits seders to answer an unanswered question. Should we drink four or five cups of wine at the seder? Traditionally we drink four cups. But there is a strong argument for drinking five. So we pour the fifth cup of wine and leave it for Elijah. According to Jewish tradition, someday Elijah will come and answer all the unanswered questions of our tradition.
According to the song mentioned at the beginning of this message, we sing to Elijah, declaring that he will bring the Messiah. This is a verse from Malachi that we read in synagogue last Shabbat, Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat before Passover. According to Malachi, Elijah will come to declare the coming of the Messiah. We sing the song to Elijah each Saturday night at the end of the Sabbath. The Messiah will not come on the Sabbath, because it is already a foretaste of the Messianic Age. But when the Sabbath ends, we sing the hope that this will be the week that the Messiah comes.
We can see from this that Elijah has taken a major role in the rituals and traditions of Judaism. Nonetheless, when he was alive, he was a zealot for God with little patience for the people. I cannot imagine Elijah as the kind of person I would want to go out for beer with. He was harsh and impatient. Nonetheless, he had a deeply developed sense of right and wrong. One of my favorite moments in the Bible was when Elijah returns to Mt. Sinai, where amidst lightening and fire God gave us the Ten Commandments. Elijah heard an earthquake, a great wind, and a fire, but God was not in any of these. Then, in one of the most quoted Biblical moments, Elijah heard God in a “still small voice” (I Kings 19:12). God speaks to us not in great dramatic moments but in the inner voice of conscience.
In the end, Elijah did not die the death of a normal man. According to the Bible, he ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot. This gave the Rabbis a vision of Elijah still alive, traveling between heaven and earth. There are multiple stories of Elijah visiting a good-hearted, poverty-stricken person, to create a miracle for them. Other times, the Rabbis would get a message from Elijah declaring what God was thinking. The Talmud gives the famous story of the Oven of Achnai where the Rabbis ignored a voice from heaven regarding a point of Jewish law. Elijah said at that moment, God was laughing and saying, “My children have defeated me.” (Baba Metzia 59b.)
As we open the door for Elijah, let us consider the man we are inviting into our Seder. He continues to play an amazing role in our tradition.