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SIDIC Periodical XVII - 1984/2
The Prophet Elijah (Pages 04 - 09)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

The Prophet Elijah in Jewish Liturgy
Nello Pavoncello


The following article first appeared in Italian in Rivista Biblica, XXIX (1981) and has been translated and reproduced here with the very kind permission of the author and of the editor of Rivista Biblica. With their permission also the editors of the SIDIC Review have abbreviated the first part of this article; beginning with the third paragraph of our text, the author's writing is printed in full, with the exception of the notes which we have taken the liberty of simplifying.

The scope of this article is to investigate and explain, in the light of traditional Jewish sources, the origins and content of the invocation to the Prophet Elijah which is found in certain rites.

The point emphasized by the story of his life and his burning zeal for the mission entrusted to him, both of which are known to us through the biblical text, is that the Prophet Elijah occupied and still occupies a very prominent and important place in the history of the Jewish faith; one might almost say a place even higher and more pre-eminent than that of Moses, the greatest of the prophets, or of any other biblical prophet; it marks him out in a special way both in Jewish liturgy and daily religious life because, according to ancient rabbinic tradition, the Prophet Elijah did not die like any ordinary mortal, but was assumed into heaven in a whirlwind and borne aloft by a fiery chariot; in this he resembles another biblical figure, of whom it is said in the Book of Genesis: "(he) walked with God; and he was not, for God took him" (Gen. 5:22-24).

The Assumption of Elijah

Both the assumption of the Prophet Elijah and his immortality remain shrouded in a veil of mystery and religious tradition; they have been embroidered over the ages with stories of miracles and enriched with parables. In these, to be "eternally alive" is one way of being present in every action of people's lives, doing them good and revealing to them occult and hidden things. At times he even comes down from heaven to be a guest in the homes of the God-fearing, teaching them wisdom and the law.

This is substantially the scope and content of the ancient collection of midrashim: Tanna de-vci Eliyahu, which the prophet himself might well have studied together with the author, Rabbi Arian! Here are some passages by way of example: Rabbi Yose was the best of Elijah's pupils and the prophet was accustomed to go frequently to his house; at times we find him at the entrance to the cave in which Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai and his son were hidden; at times he flies in a manner far superior even to the angels Michael and Gabriel in order to render aid in moments of trial ar misfortune; at times he even assumes a human form. Modern hasidic literature is very rich in the way in which it portrays Elijah coming to its own rabbis in the latter manner.1

Elijah in Jewish Liturgical Rites

In Jewish liturgy there are five occasions on which the person praying invokes the presence and spiritual aid of the Prophet Elijah: during the recitation of the grace after meals; in the ceremony of the Havdalah (dividing the sacred time of the sabbath from the beginning of the working week on Sunday); in the ceremony of the Seder meal on the first two evenings of the Passover festival; in the ceremony of circumcision; during prayers for rain in times of drought. In subsequent paragraphs each of these ceremonies will be looked at in more detail.

Grace after Meals

The grace after meals (Birkhat laa-Mazon) comprises four blessings: in the fourth, prayer is addressed to the Lord, asking him to bless all those present, to send the Prophet Elijah and the promised Messiah and to render each one worthy of the life to come. There arc two formulae for the grace after meals, in both of which these sentiments are expressed. One of these is used by the Jews of the Italian rite ("the sons of Rome"), the other belongs to the Ashkenazi rite (Europe). The first formula reads: "May it always be remembered that the Holy One sends us the Prophet Elijah (Mal. 3:23) to impart to us an invaluable teaching and to open to us his great treasures." The second says more precisely: "May the All-merciful send us Elijah the Prophet (let him be remembered for good), who shall bring us good tidings, salvation and consolation."'

Farewell to the Sabbath

At the Havdalah ceremony at Motseh Shabbat, the end of the Sabbath, it is customary in all Jewish communities to make use of some of the hymns and canticles in which there are frequent references to the name of the Prophet Elijah. These hymns and canticles are full of nostalgia and faith in the speedy coming of the Messiah, heralded by the Prophet Elijah and following in the steps of the Prophet Malachi. They were composed and further enriched with new content and supplications to the Prophet Elijah in some of the most difficult moments in the history of Judaism. From this arose the belief, idea and hope that the Prophet Elijah might appear at the end of the Sabbath to announce the coming of the Messiah. It can therefore be asked why the presence of the Prophet Elijah and the proclamation of salvation and redemption are in fact invoked at the Havdalah. This question is answered by Avraham ha-Yarhi, author of Sefer haManhig (the Book of Guidance), one of the greatest exponents of French rabbinics in the second half of the fourteenth century. He says:

"The fact that those hymns and canticles which refer to the Prophet Elijah are recited throughout the Jewish diaspora at the end of Sabbath comes from the tradition that the prophet has the special task of announcing the final redemption. It is certain that he will come neither on the vigil of the Sabbath nor on the vigils of solemn festivals because of people's fatigue, as it is written in the Babylonian Talmud;3 for this reason this tradition is attached to the Havdalah, because the Lord will then award the prize and send the redeemer for whom there is such great longing."3a

In the most ancient traditional sources two other motifs are to be found. In the Tosefta (additions to the Mishnah), for example,

"at the closing of the Sabbath the Prophet Elijah, of venerated memory, sits under the tree of life and writes down the merits of those who have scrupulously observed the Sabbath, in conformity with the principles of the Torah."

In the works of D. Havudharam (commentary on the liturgical texts according to the Spanish rite), we find again:

"If the Jewish people could observe at least one Sabbath perfectly as it should be observed, no-one would ever be able to overcome them. For this reason, if anyone who has observed the Sabbath should turn to the Lord in prayer, he may send the Prophet Elijah to announce the final redemption. "4

Sabbath Hymns in Honor of the Prophet

Hymns and canticles in honor of the Prophet Elijah are present in a special way in the Formulae of Prayer used by both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews. A good sixteen of these hymns are included in the work of Davidson.' Although mostly by anonymous authors, they are undoubtedly rich in both faith and doctrinal content. The most well-known of these is now included in all the prayer formularies of the diaspora (even in the Italian rite which is the most ancient, and which contains elements which came directly from the Promised Land to Italy). Known as Eliyahu ha-Nadi, it is composed of rhymed phrases in the form of an alphabetic acrostic, based on various verses of the Bible which recall the works and miracles of the Prophet Elijah.

The verses quoted below are recited during the Havdalah in the community of the Italian rite and arc included in all the editions of the prayer formularies:

O happy week, may you always be remembered with good wishes.
Elijah the Prophet, Elijah the Prophet, Elijah the Prophet,
come quickly to us with the Messiah,
descendant of the House of David.
He who has been jealous for the name of the
he who proclaims peace through Jekuthiel;
he who comes and redeems the sons of Israel. Elijah...
He whose eyes have seen twelve generations,' who is noted for his abundant hair,
whose loins are girded with a leather belt, Elijah...
O you who are called the Tishbite,
You who make us successful in the study of the Torah,
you will make us listen to your voice, bringing good news,
you will bring us out of darkness into light. Elijah...
Blessed is he who has seen your face in his dreams, blessed is he to whom you have brought greetings, and who has responded to them;
The Lord grants strength to his people,
and blesses his people with peace.
As it is written: "Behold I will send you Elijah the Prophet
before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes,
and he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children
and the hearts of children to their fathers.9

Others were added to these hymns, one of the oldest coming from the pen of a Jewish author of Italian origin, Arran ben Marinos da Siponto, which is worth quoting here:

1. O Prophet Elijah, why do you delay?
your beloved son has his eyes turned towards you and awaits your coming.
Come quickly, come quickly, quickly and tarry not.
0 come, 0 come and do not delay.

5. There is a time to keep silence and a time to speak,"
How long will you be silent?
a thousand years have already past"
and you still keep silent
while the serpent bites and the asp stings. Come quickly, come quickly, quickly and tarry not,
0 come, 0 come and do not delay.

Here ate some verses from another hymn, also based on the Prophet Elijah but less well known, which is to be found in an eighteenth century prayer formulary:

1. O Rock, who dwells above the heavens, remember the city of Jerusalem.
How long will you forget your sons and be zealous
for your holy name / have pity on

5. the descendants of your faithful,
because we have borne a double slavery. 0 Rock._
Speedily send Elijah
your Prophet.
Proclaim the good news to them from your Tabernacle
for the sake of the children
O Rock...

10. 0 Lord, magnify your name and send
your Messiah, to save your people
as you saved our fathers when they were slaves in the land of Egypt.
O Rock, who dwells above the heavens...

Elijah and Passover

Passing on to the ceremony of the Seder, we find it develops according to a fixed order and pattern containing diverse ideas and based particularly on the number four; in fact there are four cups that the Jew is obliged to drink, there are four foods (the shank-bone of a lamb, unleavened bread, bitter herbs and haroset or fruit paste) over which are recited some special formulae contained in the Haggadah (the book in which is recounted, in legendary form, the departure of the Hebrews from Egypt); the questions asked of his father by the youngest child also number four and serve to introduce the narration; there are four sons representing the four types which oblige the parents to respond and to narrate the events which brought about the liberation from the land of Egypt and the house of bondage.

Of the four cups which the ancient rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud established were to be drunk during the unfolding of the Seder ceremonial, it is written in the Jerusalem Talmud:

"What is the origin of these four cups?" Rabbi Yohanan answers the question thus in the name of Rabbi Berakhiah: "...they correspond to the four expressions of salvation quoted in the book of Exodus... I will bring you out, I will deliver you, I will redeem you, and I will take you for my people" (Ex. 6:6-7).

On the contrary, others would maintain that they are a reminder of the four punishments with which the Lord will chastise those who have oppressed the Jewish people over the centuries, according to the words of Jeremiah and the psalmist (Jer. 25:15; 51:7. Pss, 75:48; 11:6). Finally, others think that the four cups stand for the four consolations reserved by the Lord for the people of Israel, according to what is written in the book of Psalms:

"The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup"
"I will lift up the cup of salvation"
(Pss. 16:5; 116:13)

where the use of the plural for the word: salvation makes one think that there are at least two cups and:

"my cup overflows" (Ps. 23:5).

Each of these four cups has its own particular function: the Kiddush or sanctification of the festival is pronounced over the first; the Haggadah is recited with the second, that is to say, the narration of events which took place at the going forth from Egypt; the Birkhat ha-Mazon or blessing after the meal is prayed with the third; the reading of the IIallel is completed with the fourth. A fifth is added in relation to the continuation of the verse from Exodus, already quoted, where it is written:

"and I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession, I am the Lord" Ex. 6:8.
"Our Rabbis taught: At the fourth he concludes the Hallel and recites the great Hallel (that is, Ps. 136); this is the view of R. Tarfon" Pcsahim 118a.

The opinion of Rabbi Tarfon was naturally accepted by the rabbinic Academy of Jerusalem, but not by the Babylonian Academies, where a dispute arose between the Gaonim, that is to say, the heads of the academies of Sun and Pumbedita. According to the latter, five cups were drunk. According to the opinion of Rabbi Tarfon, only four. Maimonides followed current practice in his Mishneh Torah (Repetition of the Law) and thus decides: during the Seder meal a fifth cup must be mixed and the Hallel ha-Gadol (the great Halle].) recited over it; and he adds: this cup, naturally, is not obligatory like the first four!? Against the decision of Maimonides is set that of the French Rabbinate, which leans towards a compromise. They accept the opinion of Rabbi Tarfon, that although the great Hallel should be recited during the Seder, a fifth cup should not be drunk. The rabbinic controversy over this fifth cup was finally closed by Joseph Caro, the author of the ritual work: Shulhan Arukh, which enunciates the norm to be followed thus: "After the fourth cup no more wine should be drunk, but only water", and in the marginal gloss Rabbi Mose Isserles adds: "If someone is perhaps sickly and feels the need to drink, he may drink a fifth cup of wine and recite over it the great Halle. 14

The Covenant of Circumcision

Once the Prophet Elijah was identified with the Angel of the Covenant, according to the well-known expression of the Prophet Malachi (Mal. 3:1f; 23f), a special scat or throne has always been set aside for him during the ceremony of circumcision, known as the Kisse shel Eliyahu. It remains empty during the ceremony and the newly-born child is brought close to it. The mohel (circumciser) makes reference to it in the prayer which is recited before the operation, and the name of the Prophet Elijah even appears in the special hymns (piyyutim) which are recited on the Sabbath preceding the ceremony. h is the custom in some communities, especially Sephardic ones, for the seat to be left in place for three days following the circumcision, as these are thought to be the most hazardous for the newly-born infant (Cf Gen. 34).

What is the source of the custom and tradition of preparing the seat for the Prophet Elijah? The Sefer Tanya, an ancient book of ritual, attributes it to the Roman, Rabbi Yehiel, son of Jekuthiel Anaw (13-14 cent); we learn that:

"during the ceremony of circumcision it is the custom to prepare a seat for the Prophet Elijah, called the Angel of the Covenant because, during the division of the Davidic kingdom (Israel to the north, Judah to the south), the northern kingdom neglected the precept concerning circumcision; on this account the Prophet Elijah, impelled by fervent religious zeal, called upon the heavens to send neither dew nor rain upon the earth. Queen Jezebel, King Ahab's wife and a Phoenician by birth, heard of this and tried to put the Prophet Elijah to death, as is recounted in the first book of Kings. It is said that the Holy One blessed him thus: during your lifetime you must be present whenever a Hebrew fulfils the duty of circumcision. This is what impelled the ancient masters to prepare a scat in honor of the Prophet Elijah, therefore of the Angel of the Covenant." 15

The ancient prayer recited by the circumciser before proceeding with the operation is to be found in the prayer formulary, Avodat Israel.' According to the text, he takes the new-born child from its parents, places him on the seat prepared for the Prophet Elijah and says:

"This is the throne of the Prophet Elijah, may he always be remembered;" I wait for thy salvation, Lord (Gen. 49:18); I wait for thy salvation and I observe thy precepts. 0 Prophet Elijah, Angel of the Covenant, behold he who belongs to you is before you. Remain at my right hand and sustain me; I wait for thy salvation, Lord. I rejoice at thy word (Ps. 119: 162), great peace have those who love thy Law; nothing can make them stumble (Ps. 119:165). Blessed is he whom thou Bost choose and bring near to dwell in thy courts! We shall be satisfied with the goodness of thy house, thy holy temple."

A similar tradition is recorded also in the Zohar, a mystical work. In the commentary on Gen. 13 it is said that the Prophet Elijah reported a slander against the people of Israel. As if to punish him, if one can say such a thing, the Lord obliged him to be present at every ceremony of circumcision in order to make him mindful of the future fulfilment of the precept for this. So, concludes the passage from the Zohar, every Jew must arrange a seat or throne in honor of the Prophet Elijah and pronounce the words: Den Kursaya de-Eliyahu (this is the throne of the Prophet Elijah). These words are written or embroidered on every throne destined for the Prophet which are found in all their splendor in the various communities where this custom has taken root, especially among those of Sephardic origin. 18

Prayer for Rain in Time of Drought

One last thought: the Prophet Elijah is still invoked in times of drought. Of the six blessings which are added to the Amidah or Shemoneh Ezreh (Eighteen Benedictions) during a public fast to intercede for rain, the fifth reads:

"May he who listened favorably to the Prophet Elijah on Mount Carmel listen to you and bend his ear to the voice of your cry this day. Blessed are you, 0 Lord, who hears our prayer. 19

* Rav Nello Pavoncello is archivist and librarian for the Jewish Community of Rome. As professor in Torah and Jewish History he is an authority on the Jewish Communities of Italy, and has written numerous articles on this subject as well as on other topics.religious tradition; they have been embroidered over the ages with stories of miracles and enriched with parables. In these, to be "eternally alive" is one way of being present in every action of people's lives, doing them good and revealing to them occult and hidden things. At times he even comes down from heaven to be a guest in the homes of the God-fearing, teaching them wisdom and the law.

1. CE Martin Buber: The Legend of the Baal-Shem, East & West Library, London 1956; Tales of the Hasidim, 2 vols., Schocken, New York 1970.
2. Joseph Hertz, ed.: The Authorized Daily Prayer Book, Bloch, New York 1965, p. 975.
3. T.B. 'Erubin 43b.
3a. Sefer ha-Manhig of R. Avraham, son of R. Yarhi, Jerusalem 1961, 55, par. 71.
4. D. Havudharam: Commento alle Preghiere, Venice
5. I. Davidson: Ozar ha-Sird we-ha-Piyyut (Encyclopedia of Jewish Poetry) New York 1970.
6. 1 Kgs. 19:10.
7. One of the seven names of Moses as recorded in T.B. Megillah 13a.
8. Nahshon, Salmon, Boaz, Obed, Jesse, David, Solomon, Rehoboam, Abijah, Asa, Jehoshaphat, Joram.
9. Mal. 3:23f, Hebrew or, following the Greek, 4:5.
10. Eccles. 3:7.
11. A thousand years after the destruction of Jerusalem, hence the theory that the hymn was written just after 1070.
12. It was recited on the last day of Succot, Simhat
13. Maimonides: Mishnah Torah, Hilkhot Hametz u-Matzah, viii, 10.
14. J. Caro: Shulhan Arukh, Ililkhot Pesah 481.
15. Sefer Tanya, Mantova ed. 1504.
16. Siddur Avodat Israel, I.D. Bet ed., Riidelheim 1878.
17 Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, 29.
18. Shulban Arukb 25, 11. (In some communities, Rome for example, which is the oldest among the European diaspora, the throne of the Prophet is cared for by a special confraternity or society: The Godfathers'
Society, or the Society of the Prophet Elijah. In addition to providing and caring for the Throne, the Society also provides what is needed for poor Sandakim the Godfathers who hold the infants at circumcisions. There developed over the centuries the placing of a double Throne one for Elijah and one for the Godfather who holds the child on his knees as it enters into Abraham's Covenant, that is to say, becomes part of the people of Israel).
19. Order of Prayers for Extra Fast Days according to the Italian Rite: D. Goldschmidt, ed., Milan Jerusalem 1956, 77-89.


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