What will Elijah restore?
Charles David Isbell
cisbell at home.com
Tue Jan 2 09:51:49 EST 2001
Moses Auerbach has a succinct article on Elijah in Encyclopedia Judaica, a
portion of which I have copied for you below. I hope it answers part of
Charles David Isbell
In the Aggadah
The deep impression left by Elijah's revolutionary ministry and his
miraculous translation to heaven in a "chariot of fire" drawn by "horses of
fire" (II Kings 2:11) had already made Elijah a legendary figure in biblical
times. Malachi's final prophecy that Elijah would be sent by God "before the
coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord," so that he may "turn the
hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to
their fathers" (Mal. 3:23ff.) became the point of departure for the
subsequent association of Elijah with the Messianic age.
Ben Sira (c. 200 B.C.E.), in his eulogy of Elijah, attributed the future
restoration of "the tribes of Jacob" to him (Ecclus. 48:10). By the first
century C.E., it was taken for granted that Elijah was to be the precursor
and herald of the Messiah. Jesus himself was at first believed to be Elijah,
but when he revealed his own messianic claim, he proclaimed John the Baptist
as having been the reincarnated Elijah (Matt. 11:10ff.; 17:10ff.; Mark
It was perhaps against this Christian and sectarian tendency to associate
Elijah with religiously dubious and politically dangerous movements that
attempts were made to counter the excessive veneration accorded to Elijah
among apocalyptic-sectarian and Christian circles. It was, accordingly,
denied that Elijah had ever gone up to heaven (Suk. 5a), biblical evidence
to the contrary notwithstanding. Elijah's habit of revealing divine secrets
to pious mortals (cf. BM 59b) once earned him a severe punishment of 60
lashes of fire (BM 85b). Elijah's denunciation of Israel for having forsaken
the divine covenant (cf. I Kings 19:10, 14) had so angered God that He
dismissed Elijah from His service and appointed Elisha in his place (Song R.
1:6, no. 1; cf. I Kings 19:16). Above all, the scope of Elijah's future
tasks was limited to the solution of certain halakhic problems (Eduy. 8:7;
Tosef., Eduy. 3:4). Subsequently, too, it was believed that "when Elijah
comes, he will tell us" (Ber. 35b., cf. Men. 45a; Bek. 24a). He was indeed
supposed to have his own court (Av. Zar. 36a), and legal problems which
defied solution were to be referred to him (Shek. 2:5; BM 1:8; 2:8; 3:4-5;
Men. 63a). Nevertheless, the predominant tannaitic view was that Elijah was
not only to solve halakhic disputes, but also to be the great peacemaker in
the world (Eduy. 8:7).
Rabbis and pious men endowed with a mystical frame of mind established a
spiritual communion with Elijah, and were reputed to have been guided by him
in their studies (cf. Tanna de-Vei Eliyahu, ed. M. Friedmann, 27ff.;
Ginzberg, Legends, 4 (1913), 217-23). Nine aggadic beraitot in the Talmud
are introduced by the words "It was taught at Elijah's school" (cf.
Friedmann op. cit. 44ff. for a complete list). Although these beraitot may
have originated from a compilation by a tanna called Elijah (Ginzberg,
Legends, 6 (1928), 330, n. 70) or from a school called after Elijah
(Friedmann, op. cit., 60-61), they were soon attributed to the prophet. In
post-talmudic times, the Midrash Tanna de-Vei Eliyahu ("It was taught at
Elijah's school") was likewise believed to have emanated from the prophet's
Despite such relatively restricted rules assigned to Elijah by the rabbis,
his primary task of heralding the redemption of Israel was never forgotten
(cf. also the third benediction after the reading of the haftarah), and in
the post-talmudic era it assumed primary importance in Jewish eschatology
(cf. PR 35:161). Even earlier, Elijah appears almost invariably in the role
of one who is deeply concerned about Israel's suffering and exile, and who
does what he can to speed the day of deliverance. In a beautiful tannaitic
aggadah, R. Yose relates how Elijah once told him that "whenever Israelites
enter synagogues and houses of study... the Holy One, Blessed be He, as it
were shakes His head and says: Happy is the king who is thus praised in his
house! Woe to the father who exiled his children, and woe to the children
who are banished from their father's table" (Ber. 3a).
R. Simeon b. Yohai, a relentless opponent of Roman rule who had to flee from
Roman persecution, was freed from his hiding place in a cave by Elijah's
announcement that the emperor had died (Shab. 33b). As the carrier of good
tidings for Israel (cf. the Grace after Meals, in which Elijah is assigned
the function of bringing good news to the Jewish people), Elijah inevitably
became the antithesis of Rome and all it stood for. Thus, he sharply rebuked
R. Ishmael b. Yose who had undertaken police work on behalf of the Romans:
"How long will you deliver the people of our God for execution?" (BM
83b-84a). Similarly, when the pious R. Joshua b. Levi, who was said to have
been in constant communication with Elijah (cf. Sanh. 98a; Mak. 11a; Gen. R.
35:2), persuaded a Jew sought by the Roman authorities to give himself up,
thereby saving the entire Jewish community of Lydda from destruction, Elijah
shunned R. Joshua for about thirty days. Later he explained that he could
not be "a companion to informers": and although R. Joshua had acted
according to mishnaic law, Elijah maintained that "this should have been
done by others, not by you" (TJ, Ter. 8:10, 46b; Gen. R. 94:9, end).
On another occasion, Elijah told R. Joshua b. Levi that the Messiah was to
be found among the beggars of Rome ready and willing to redeem Israel,
although, as he subsequently explained, only if they repented and obeyed God
(Sanh. 98a). A late Midrash, however, maintained that Israel would repent
only when Elijah made his public appearance (PdRE 43, end).
Elijah's association with the Messiah became more pronounced in the late
talmudic and post-talmudic ages. Increasingly, Elijah becomes not only a
precursor, but an active partner of the Messiah. Both Elijah and the Messiah
are busy recording the good deeds of the righteous, no doubt with a view to
hastening the day of Israel's redemption (Lev. R. 34:8; Ruth R. 5:6).
Ultimately, Elijah and the Messiah are to be among four world conquerors
(Song R. 2:13, no. 4); though, according to one Midrash, Elijah himself is
destined to overthrow the foundations of the heathen (Gen. R. 71:9). Elijah
is, indeed, accorded the exclusive privilege of bringing about the
resurrection of the dead (Sot. 9:15 end; cf. Song R. 1:1, no. 9)-no doubt
because of his achievement in reviving the son of the widow of Zarephath (I
Elijah's solicitude for Israel's safety was also demonstrated in the past.
Thus, when Haman was threatening to exterminate the Jews, Elijah was said to
have intervened with the Patriarchs and with Moses to secure their
intercession with the Almighty. At the decisive moment he appeared in the
guise of Harbonah to denounce Haman (Esth. R. 7:13; 10:9). Likewise, at the
time of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, Elijah was searching
among those who were languishing with hunger in the hope of saving those who
might renounce idolatry (Sanh. 63b).
Of equal concern to Elijah were individual pious Jews who happened to be in
trouble. Among those whose lives were saved or whose health was restored by
Elijah's timely appearance in various guises were Nahum of Gimzo (Ta'an.
21a: Sanh. 109a), R. Meir (Av. Zar. 18b), R. Eleazar b. Perata (Av. Zar.
17b), Judah ha-Nasi (TJ, Kil. 9:4, 32b; Gen. R. 33:3 , 96:5), R. Shila (Ber.
58a), R. Kahana (Kid. 40a), and many others (cf. also Matt. 27:47ff. And
Mark 15:35-36 for similar expectations in connection with Jesus'
crucifixion). Innumerable legends and stories are still told of the poor and
hopeless being aided by Elijah.
It was because of Elijah's great love for Israel that he had boldly assumed
an attitude of insolence toward God, Whom he blamed for turning their hearts
away from Him (cf. I Kings 18:37). God, however, eventually agreed with him
(Ber. 31b-32a). The furious zeal displayed by Elijah on that occasion (cf. I
Kings 18:40; 19:10, 14) was so similar to that shown by Aaron's grandson
Phinehas (cf. Num. 25:7ff.; Ps. 106:30) that in rabbinic literature the two
are often identified, either expressly or by implication (PdRE 47; cf. BM
114a-b; Kid. 70a; Num. R. 21:3; Targ. Yer., Num. 25:12), and both are,
accordingly, regarded as immortal (BB 121b; Gen. R. 21:5; 25:1; Num. R.
Elijah is often associated with Moses in both rabbinic and Christian
literature-first because Elijah was to inaugurate Israel's future redemption
just as Moses had liberated the Israelites from Egyptian bondage; second,
because his career resembled that of Moses' inasmuch as both were granted
revelations at Mount Sinai in somewhat similar circumstances (Ex. 3:2 ,
19:16ff.; 20:18. Deut. 4:11ff., 33ff.; I Kings 19:11-12); and since,
moreover, Malachi's admonition to "remember the law of Moses" and his
prediction of the future mission of Elijah are in close juxtaposition (Mal.
3:22-24). Elijah appears as a disciple and follower of Moses and also as a
fellow prophet active in the same cause of delivering Israel, in which both
are to participate on the advent of the messianic age (Tosef., Sot. 4:7;
Tosef. Eduy. 3:4; Sot. 13a, TJ, Sanh. 10:1, 28a; Ex. R. 44:1: Num. R. 18:12;
Lam. R. 1:2, no. 23: Matt. 17:3ff.: Mark 9:4ff.; Luke 9:30ff. et al. For a
detailed comparison of the careers of Moses and Elijah, see PR 4:13).
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