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SIDIC Periodical XVII - 1984/2
The Prophet Elijah (Pages 10 - 12)

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Elijah in Kabbalah and Mysticism
M. J. Stlassny


Students of the religious phenomenon are amazed at the important place that Elijah has assumed in Jewish spirituality. It is easy to see how Moses, the liberator and lawgiver, became a hero. Likewise, it is not difficult to understand why David, the king par excellence, is the prototype of the Messiah-King. Elijah as depicted in the Books of Kings would seem to deserve a more modest place among the colorful personalities of biblical history. It is understandable that legend should expand certain characteristics of "the man of God", but how and why did he acquire this pre-eminence which grew and developed both in biblical texts and in Jewish tradition throughout the ages? Undoubtedly it is on account of his ascension; liberated from the bonds of time and space, Elijah enjoys absolute freedom, the gates of both transcendence and immanence being open to him. His entrance into heaven without tasting death is not the important thing but rather the fact that he kept his identity after his ascension, enabling him to continue and complete the work which he began on earth. It is not chance but rather a kind of psychological constraint which makes Jewish tradition speak of the assumption of Moses just as Christian tradition celebrates the assumption of Mary. In the same way, it is permissible to speak of the ascension of Jesus. The dead hero may become the object of an anamnesis evocation and then be relegated to ever-deepening shadows of oblivion; the ascended hero will elicit an epiclesis invocation; his help will be implored in the vicissitudes of life and often his return will be expected during, or at the end of history.

The Development of Tradition

Jewish midrash is not only an elaboration of biblical tradition but also its transfiguration. This holds true also for Jewish mysticism: a bewildering synthesis of traditional elements with a gnosis which refashions them according to its own categories. Only a few decades ago Judaism was considered to be essentially halakhah or legislation, together with a few legendary stories which could be ignored by seriously minded people. A Judaism "within the grasp of reason" seemed to be the only Judaism worthy of the attention of scholars. Mysticism could be simply ignored.

This 'age of enlightenment' which was in fact obscurantist, has now ended, one might say, by the grace of God. Midrashim are no longer seen as labulae nugatoriae, but rather as the mirror of Judaism and a triumph for the creative Jewish imagination. As to Kabbalah, after the works of Gershom Scholem, his disciples and his opponents, it is recognized that no aspect of Jewish life can be understood without taking its impact into account.

Elijah in Jewish Mysticism

To speak of the role given to the Prophet Elijah in Jewish mysticism I had recourse to that excellent work of Aharon Wiener: The Prophet Elijah in the Development of Judaism (London, 1978). The author is a Jewish Doctor of Medicine from Jerusalem, rich in years and experience; in him are united an interest in historical research and psycho-analytical training. This double specialization has allowed him both to sift the vast mass of material which is part of Jewish (as well as Christian and Islamic) tradition on Elijah and to give a most interesting analytical interpretation of it.

In the Midrash Elijah already acts as messenger: he passes on messages from on high to both famous rabbis and simple Jews hungry for knowledge. Being at the same time heavenly and earthly, he can lift the veil which separates the two regions. The Kabbalab is at one and the same time knowledge and freedom: by its very essence it is an initiation. It addresses not the reason but rather the higher soul or neshamah (nazis in Greek, menr in Latin). The spiritual master can only transmit information on the subject of Kabbalab, he cannot bring about enlightenment. It is for this that the intervention of Elijah is needed; he is the mystagogue, the revealer and the revelation at one and the same time.

R. Joseph Caro (1488-1575), a mystic known primarily as the codifier of Jewish law, the Shahan Arukh, tells us that Elijah can enter into contact in three ways: in a dream, in the waking state when he appears without speaking, and finally in the waking state when he answers questions put to him.

R. Moses Cordovcro (1522-1570), the great Kabbalist of Safed, disciple of Joseph Caro and master of Isaac Luria, also speaks of Elijah's revelation:

"Elijah enters into the soul of a man and reveals to him what is hidden there. The man has the impression that he has discovered something for himself, as if a thought had surfaced from the depth of his consciousness."

For Cordovcro, the essential is an inner or interiorized Elijah: "interior interiors meo quia superior superion meo".

This revelation of Elijah, gilui Eliyahu, has an important place in assuring the continuity between rabbinic tradition and the "innovations" of the kabbalists. The best way to link new revelations to what could be called the depositum is to give them a supernatural authority: to cover them with the mantle of Elijah. After the last of the prophets, inspiration was no longer given by the Holy Spirit. Divine intervention came via a bat kol, a voice from heaven. When the bat kol was silent in its turn, it was replaced by the gilui Eliyahu, the "Eliophany".

Elijah in the Kabbalistic System

In the synthesis of Moses Cordovero, Elijah is joined by another biblical figure who, long before him, in the beginning "walked with God; and he was not, for God took him" (Gen. 5:24): Enoch. There is no room here to speak of all the literature which bears the name of the prophet in the intertestamentary period, but one must emphasize the importance given to him in the kabbalistic system. There is a great difference between Enoch and Elijah: after assumption, the body of Enoch was consumed by fire and his soul united to the angel Metatron; the Prophet Elijah kept his body and is thus able to maintain contact with the world here below and appear there at will. Elijah on entering heaven was united to another angel, Metatron's brother, by name Sandalfon. In the kabbalistic tradition Metatron and Sandalfon are called "the young men", ha-ne'arim, which can also be translated as "the servants", the firstbeing the greater light (the sun) and the second the lesser light (the moon). Metatron is the highest angel, the prince of the world, first-born of all creation; Sandalfon (the word is of Greek origin and means "with the brothers") is the angel of the covenant, mal'akh ha-bent, mediator between the Jewish people and their heavenly Father, guarantor of "the covenant of peace" that God has made with Israel. His office, or perhaps it should be called ministry, is to restore harmony, shalom, by rebuilding the world which was broken up as a result of sin. This rebuilding is called tikkun, humankind in general and the kabbalist in particular having no other end than to 'mend the world so that it may become the Kingdom of God"; in this way things here below will reflect faithfully the perfection of the archetype on high. This is the meaning of the prayer: "May he who has established shalom in the highest heavens grant shalom to us and to all Israel." Cosmic order is established on an axis (Jacob's ladder), where Enoch-Metatron assures the flow of heavenly benefits here below and ElijahSandalfon makes our desires mount heavenwards.

Elijah in Hasidic Literature

Hasidism was nourished by the fire of the Kabbalah. Nevertheless there is a difference between the two movements: by its very nature the Kabbalah is theosophical speculation limited to a small number of initiates, while Hasidism is a mystical experience which, at least in principle, is accessible to every Jew. It is a royal road leading directly to mystical union. The word which keeps on turning up is devekut, which is usually translated as adhesion and which actually means to be soldered to: the soul clings to God not in a superficial way but so that nothing at all could separate it from him. There is no need to look forward to a future redemption; redemption is already present through the communion of the soul with God.

The adventure of Shabbetai Zevi (he proclaimed himself Messiah in 1665; his messianic claim was recognized by the greater part of contemporary Jewry, and he became a Moslem the following year) traumatized the Jewish soul in the same way as that other traumatic experience, the messianic claim of Bar Kokhba a hundred years after the death of Christ. The coming of the Messiah is still confessed as an article of faith but is no longer a live issue capable of changing the course of history. Hasidism is a post Sabbetean movement: redemption is no longer expected through the appearance of the Messiah, but the effort to be made is to redeem oneself hic et nunc and also to redeem the universe: the liberation of the individual, the microcosm, brings about the redemption of the universe, the macrocosm. A person saves his (her) soul by allowing the divine spark to take fire and consume it completely. Hasidism likes to make use of yet another image well-known in the history of spirituality: redemption is like an awakening; from ignorance the soul arrives at a realization that it is indwelt by the divinity. We are in the presence of a Jewish rediscovery of the Song of the Pearl. It is here, in a way proper to Hasidism, that Elijah comes in; it is thanks to him that the ordinary Jew is transformed into a Hasid.

In Hasidic literature, illumination is called da'at, a very rich expression which describes knowledge becoming perception which leads to mystical union, according to the hasidic interpretation of Gen. 4:1: "Adam knew his wife Eve". We are in the midst of salvific gnosis where, thanks to illumination, man is at one and the same time saved and savior. Da'at is the unifying factor, fruit, not of the tree of knowledge in the primeval garden which brought death in its train, but fruit of the tree which brings both knowledge and life; this fruit is infinitely desirable and is within our reach because the tree itself grows in the garden of the soul. Before growing into a tree, da'at is a tiny seed buried and as it were captive in the soil. The possibility of growth, of opening up more and more to the divine, is called in IIasidism "the Elijah potential".

The hasid who has fully activated this Elijah potential is the zaddik. According to the text in Proverbs 10:25, "the righteous (zaddik) is the foundation (yesod) of the world"; Jewish spirituality has developed a long series of reflections on the role of the zaddik, insisting above all on his function as a mediator. The hasidic zaddik is not only a disciple of Elijah, he is the prophet's alter ego, mediator between God and humankind, and a mystic capable of awakening in the faithful the power of Elijah within them.


One cannot but admire Jewish creativity in the spiritual and mystical domains which arc to be found in both the Kabbalah and Hasidism. The fact that Elijah the Prophet has such an important place in both these movements shows that the "power of Elijah" is more than a literary fiction; it is a permanent factor in the collective conscious of the Jew.

Infinitely old and infinitely young, Elijah appears around a bend in the road like a beggar turned prince, or like a child who brings us back to our condition before the Fall. The youth of this old man makes him an ever-present reality.


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