Elijah is a biblical prophet and a central figure in Jewish folklore, which is riddled with stories of his roaming the earth, performing miracles, and providing spiritual and physical healing. The Talmud features many tales of ancient rabbis encountering Elijah, who weighs in on their legal conversations, answers questions, gives advice, and reports what is going on in heaven.
In Jewish tradition, Elijah is the one who will announce the coming of the messiah and the redemption of Israel, a fact celebrated in a song traditionally sung during the Havdalah service at the close of Shabbat, which prays for Elijah’s return “speedily in our time.” Some also sing this song during the Passover Seder, as they invite Elijah into their homes to drink from a cup of wine poured just for him, and during ritual circumcisions, as a newborn male is brought into the covenant between God and the Jewish people.
Although his story spans only a handful of chapters of the Bible and there is no biblical book that bears his name, Elijah’s legacy surpasses that of virtually all his colleagues. But who was Elijah and how did he come to earn such a prominent place in Jewish tradition?
Elijah’s Hebrew name literally means “my God is Yahu,” a form of the biblical name of God, symbolizing perhaps his zealousness for God and his efforts to keep the Israelites from straying from God’s path. He hailed from Tishbeh, a town in Gilead, east of the Jordan River in present day Jordan, which makes him an outsider of sorts in the king’s court in northern Israel, where he was sent to deliver God’s message.
Elijah’s time as a prophet coincided with a period in which the Israelite people have been led astray, induced to worship the foreign deity Baal, who they believed was a bringer of rain. A defining moment comes when Elijah summons the people to Mount Carmel and challenges the prophets of Baal to offer a sacrifice without the use of fire. The prophets call out to Baal repeatedly, but to no avail — their sacrifice remains unconsumed.
In response, Elijah places a sacrifice upon the altar and douses it with water. He calls out to God and summons a fire from the heavens which consumes not only the sacrifice, but the stone altar and surrounding earth as well. Transformed for the moment, the people proclaim that God alone is the true God — a peak moment for Elijah.
But it turns out to be short-lived. The people’s faith wavers and the king’s wife Jezebel seeks to have Elijah killed. Fearing for his life, Elijah flees to the desert, where, in a moment that echoes the revelation at Sinai, God sends a shattering wind, an earthquake, and then a fire. Elijah does not encounter God in any of these powerful phenomena, but in the calm that follows, when he hears a “still, small voice” — and within it, he finds God. For theologians, this moment is an archetypal one, underscoring that Spielbergian special effects are not a prerequisite for a revelatory encounter with the Divine.
Elijah’s powerful moment of intimacy with God in the desert does not restore him and he is unable to continue serving as prophet. He seeks out Elisha, who assumes his role as God’s spokesperson to the kings of Israel.
On the face of it, Elijah’s story is not unique for a biblical prophet — others also perform miracles, chastise the people, face resistance and retribution and have personal experiences of revelation that bring them closer to God. Yet, Elijah’s story sets him apart from his peers and helps explain the unusually prominent place he has come to occupy in the Jewish imagination.
The chapters in which he appears are among the most dramatic in all of the Bible. Elijah’s zealousness for God, his prophetic angst, and his existential loneliness have an intensity that is unmatched by other prophets. The Torah declares that “never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom God encountered face to face.” But Elijah’s encounter with God makes him a close second — except for the one way in which Elijah’s intimacy with God surpasses even that of Moses.
When his time on Earth comes to a close, Elijah does not die; rather, the Bible reports that God transports him to the heavens on a fiery chariot. While God honored Moses by attending to him at the moment of his death, it is Elijah who is invited into the divine realm.
While the Book of Kings provides little explanation about this curious feature of Elijah’s story, his journey to the heavens has captured the imagination of many early interpreters of the Bible, who began to develop visions of Elijah’s unique afterlife. Already in the Second Temple period, his role as the harbinger of divine redemption was noted by the biblical prophet Malachi.
The rabbis of the Talmud imagined Elijah sitting intimately with God in the heavenly court and traveling back and forth between the divine and human realms. These stories, and those that followed, depict an Elijah who continues to take interest in the world he left behind, offering assistance to those in need and seeking out the one who will usher in the messianic era.
Elijah became a part of not only the Jewish past, but the Jewish present and our hopes for the Jewish future. Chance meetings with a stranger that led to a fortuitous reversal of fortune were spun into tales of personal encounters with Elijah. Over the centuries, Jews came to look out for Elijah at times of difficulty in the hope of personal or communal redemption.
And so, Elijah became part of our ritual life. We sing of him as Shabbat comes to an end in the hope that in the new week he will announce that redemption is at hand. We welcome him into our homes during Passover, the holiday that celebrates our redemption. We look for him as we bring a newborn into the covenant, in the hopes that the newborn child might be the messiah who will usher in the era of our redemption. And those of us who have been fortunate enough to encounter him along the way tell the tales of how he assisted us at a time of need.