Dear Straight Dope:
I'm a relatively knowledgeable goy, but I was stumped when I went to my girlfriend's brother's Passover seder recently. My sweetie's niece, at 4.5 years old, was wondering who this Elijah is who figures so prominently in the ceremony--indeed, she was actively scanning the street to see whether the prophet would show up. The adults present didn't quite know what to tell her . . . a concept? an angel? an immortal of some sort? We knew that Elijah was associated with births, so we told her he was present when she was born, and was also associated with the end times and Messianic comings, but that seemed too scary to lay on one so young. What's this prophet's scoop? And why does Elijah figure in a holiday which is otherwise about Exodus-era events?
Elijah is a major character in the Old Testament–his exploits are found in the Book of Kings, specifically I Kings 16:29 through II Kings 2:13, which is thought to have been written somewhere around 640-580 BCE. He is sometimes classified as a pre-classical prophet: he doesn’t have his own book, and he doesn’t prophesy about the future. He condemned immorality in his time. King Ahab ruled the north kingdom of Israel (roughly 871-852 BCE); his Queen Jezebel had introduced the worship of the Phoenician fertility god Baal among the Israelites. Elijah publicly denounced the queen and king for being immoral.
Our main (OK, our only) information about Elijah comes from the Bible. To explain why Elijah has a prominent place at the Passover seder even today, we’re obliged to rely on textual interpretation plus centuries of rabbinic interpretation. We’re not dealing with the historical existence of Elijah nor the historical validity of the stories about him, but rather with text and tradition.
We might call Elijah a fire-and-brimstone zealot. He denounced the king for immorality, including the legal murder of Naboth on trumped-up charges to obtain a vineyard. ("Naboth’s vineyard" has been used proverbially to mean a coveted object–something to be obtained at all costs.) He accused the Israelites of abandoning God. He challenged the priests of Baal to a duel of gods: set up altars for sacrifice on top of a mountain, and let each deity ignite the sacrifice miraculously to see which is more powerful. It’s a wonderful story, regardless of whether you believe it to be "true."
The finale (and the critical point for the seder) is that Elijah didn’t die. Instead, he was carried to heaven in a whirlwind by a "fiery chariot with fiery horses" (II Kings 2:11). There are only two characters in the Hebrew bible who don’t die but are taken directly to heaven. Elijah is one; the other is Enoch (Gen 5:24) who "walked with God, and then he was no more, for God took him."
Elijah wasn’t made into some sort of angel, he’s just a human being who didn’t die. The Jewish concept of the Messianic age includes the resurrection of the dead, and here’s someone who won’t need to be resurrected. That, plus his fiery stance against injustice, led to the belief that Elijah will usher in the Messianic age.
We’re not sure exactly when this folkloric tradition arose, but it was certainly early. Our first record is from the prophet Malachai (around 450 to 400 BCE). The last verses of the last book of the Hebrew Bible (Malachai 3:23), say: "Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord." Thus, not just folklore but biblical text (accepted by Christians as well as Jews) says that Elijah will herald the coming of the Messiah. Later, the rabbis of the Midrashic period (roughly 50 BCE to 200 CE) told stories about Elijah returning to earth to confront injustice, performing miracles to help the downtrodden, and hold even the pious to an uncompromising standard of morality.
The format for today’s seders was formalized in Roman times, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. Before that, Passover celebrations were held in the Temple and were different: for one thing, they had an actual sacrificial lamb. The extent of home ceremony during the Temple era is not known, but after the central worship place was destroyed, the Passover celebration moved primarily into the home, not into the synagogue.
Most Jewish ceremonies involve elements of the past, present, and future. The seder recalls the past (the Exodus from Egypt) while remaining grounded in the present (the child asks, "what’s this about?"). Elijah, the one who will announce the coming of the Messiah, represents the future. Thus towards the end of the seder, we read the last few verses of the book of Malachi, set out a glass of wine, and open the door to welcome Elijah the Prophet into the house, hoping that tonight will be the night he appears to announce the Messianic era and the redemption of mankind.
How you explain all that depends on the audience. The interpretation should be geared to the child’s capacity to understand (as is true of all of the Passover seder; see note below). For young children like your niece, Elijah is tangible–at our seder, for instance, when we open the door and sing to Elijah, we tell the children to watch the cup of wine set aside for him, and lo! The wine jiggles, as if someone were taking a sip. (My knee under the table probably helps this along.) For most seder-goers, of course, it’s all symbolic: we open the door in the hope of peace on earth and an end to human suffering.
If, when we opened the door, there stood a gnarly wild-eyed guy in robe and sandals, saying he was Elijah here to challenge our morality, we’d be taken aback–about the same way Christians would react if such a person appeared during Easter services and said he was Jesus and it’s the second coming. By the way, Christians who think the story of Jesus is the fulfillment of Jewish biblical prophecy usually construe John the Baptist in the role of Elijah, announcing the coming of Jesus as Messiah.
For similar reasons, Elijah is also present at a Jewish ritual circumcision (not at a birth, as you suggested). A chair is usually set aside for Elijah, expressing hope for the future. Some commentators suggest that Elijah wrongly berated the Israelites for forsaking the covenant, and so must attend circumcisions (the sign of the Abrahamic covenant) in atonement.
You comment that the end of times is scary for kids. If you read apocalyptic New Testament books like Revelation, it’s pretty scary for adults, too. However, the Jewish prophetic vision of the Messianic era doesn’t emphasize Armageddon. Yes, the wicked will acknowledge the error of their ways or be destroyed (versions differ), but we’re not talking about normal people being condemned to eternal torment for minor everyday sins. We’re talking the end of real evil here, the end of war and suffering, and an era of peace and goodwill, when the lion shall lie down with the lamb and nation shall not lift up sword against nation. So, no, the dawn of the Messianic era is not scary but hopeful.
One last thing–you should politely but firmly suggest to whoever led the seder that they buy a Haggadah (the book describing the ceremony) with explanatory notes. Versions are available for Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews. Any Jewish bookstore will carry a dozen or so; if you don’t know of one close by, find one online and place an order. It’s silly for a seder leader not to have answers to straightforward questions.
NOTE: Fairly early in the Passover seder, we read about four different children who ask about the rituals and are told the story of Exodus. One child is wise, one is simple, one is wicked, and one doesn’t even know how to ask a question. Rabbis traditionally interpret this to mean that instruction should be geared to the individual’s level of knowledge.
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