One of the most fascinating of all the Jewish Prophets is Elijah, who lived in the Ninth century B.C.E. He has been described as the most romantic and enigmatic character in all of Jewish history. Known for his acts of wonder, stories about his amazing abilities abound in Jewish literature and legend.
He was able to revive children near death, predict droughts as a penalty for the introduction of the Phoenician cult into Israel and even cure toothaches. When Queen Jezebel had Naboth murdered in order to obtain his vineyard for her husband King Ahab, Elijah denounced him for the crime of murder.
Due to his great zeal for God, the Bible (Malachi 3:24) tells us that Elijah was transported to heaven without dying in a chariot of fire. And so, it became a cherished widespread belief that the Prophet Elijah would appear again to restore Israel. “And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers.” (Malachi 3:24)
The Prophet Malachi built onto this story with his prophecy that Elijah would be sent by God before the coming of the great and terrible days of God. Thus began the connection between Elijah and the promise of the Messianic age.
For centuries many legends and much folklore surrounding Elijah have firmly established him as the forerunner of the Messiah. He is not considered to be the actual Messiah, but he will herald the future redemption of Israel. And so, Elijah’s name is invoked weekly in Judaism within the blessing after the meal and on Saturday night when the Jewish people separate the holy Sabbath from the weekdays and sing a song to Elijah during a ceremony called Havdalah. (Separation)
Since Passover is deemed the festival of freedom and redemption there is a part of the Passover Seder meal near the end when a family member opens the door for Elijah and invites him in, having prepared a special cup of wine in his honor. Redemption stories of his visiting the homes of every Jewish family on Passover probably stem from another popular view of Elijah as a kind of heavenly messenger sent to earth to combat injustice.
On the eve of Passover, he is said to punish misers and provide necessities for the seder to the poor. His appearance at the Passover seder is to formally announce the coming of the Messiah.
Today in Jewish homes during the Passover seder meal it continues to be customary to have a special cup filled with wine, called Elijah’s cup, which adorns the Passover table awaiting Elijah’s grand entrance. A designated family member is asked to open the door and offer him an invitation into their home.
As the ever-ready defending champion of his people, Elijah has been supposed to rove about the earth testing the hospitality and goodness of people. As the “angel of the covenant” and protector of children, he is believed to be the invisible participant at circumcision, guarding the baby from any potential danger. A symbolic chair or pillow, called Elijah’s chair/pillow is set aside for the prophet.
Finally, Elijah was known for his ability to deal with conflict and questions that the rabbis of bygone years had difficulty answering. When the Rabbis of the Talmud could not resolve certain disputes, they would suspend discussion until “Elijah comes and resolves it.”
May this Passover bring you and your family peace, happiness, love and every blessing from above. And I wish you and yours many blessings throughout the year and the freedom to enjoy them.
ED. NOTE: Rabbi Isaacs is rabbi at Beth Judah Temple, Wildwood.