Thursday, March 28, 2013

Why do we invite Eliyahu Hanavi to our Passover Seder?

Eliyahu Hanavi is one of the most fascinating people in Tanach and Rabbinic literature. Eliyahu appears in our Rabbinic literature as an old Zaidy or loving uncle who is a beloved guest at our every holiday and life cycle event. Eliyahu is the מלאך הברית for whom we set up a special chair, the כסא של אליהו, so he can attend every Brit Milah. He visits every Passover Seder, coming through the open door when we state שפוך חמתיך על הגוים, Pour out thy wrath against the nations, and "sips" from the כוסו של אליהו, the fifth cup of wine that we pour for him. We sing for his return every Motzi Shabbat immediately following Havdalah.

However, this is far removed from the persona of Eliyahu in much of Tanach. In Eliyahu's first appearance in Tanach, he stops the rain due to the wicked deeds of Achab and his generation, causing a 3 year famine. Later, Eliyahu only brings back the rain after his showdown with the prophets of Baal at Har Carmel who after being proven false, Eliyahu summarily slaughters.

Later, Eliyahu is forced to flee to the desert and sees a vision of God on Har Horeb (Har Sinai). Hashem first asks Eliyahu what he is doing there. Eliyahu's response illustrates his worldview. He says:

וַיֹּאמֶר֩ קַנֹּ֨א קִנֵּ֜אתִי לַיהוָ֣ה ׀ אֱלֹהֵ֣י צְבָא֗וֹת כִּֽי־עָזְב֤וּ בְרִֽיתְךָ֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶת־מִזְבְּחֹתֶ֣יךָ הָרָ֔סוּ וְאֶת־נְבִיאֶ֖יךָ הָרְג֣וּ בֶחָ֑רֶב וָֽאִוָּתֵ֤ר אֲנִי֙ לְבַדִּ֔י וַיְבַקְשׁ֥וּ אֶת־נַפְשִׁ֖י לְקַחְתָּֽהּ׃

I have been zealous for Hashem, God of hosts, because the Children of Israel have forsaken your covenant, destroyed your altars, and killed your prophets by the sword. I am the lone prophet left and they want to take my life as well. (Kings I, 19: 10; Translation is my own.)

Eliyahu indicts the Israelites for their wicked deeds. Hashem then proceeds to show him a vision of Wind, Thunder, and Fire in which God is in none of these, followed by a soft still voice in which Hashem appears. As the Malbim explains, Hashem is trying to communicate to Eliyahu through this vision that the proper approach of a prophet towards his people should not be one of harsh rebuke and stinging indictment but rather to pull them with cords of love and soft words. (For a more extensive elaboration on this approach see the book Yonah ben Amitai ve-Eliyahu: le-hora'at sefer Yonah al pi ha-mekorot by Rav Yehoshua Bachrach.)

However, Eliyahu refuses to accept this message. Even after this vision when Hashem asks him once again what he is doing here, Eliyahu's response is identical to the one he gave previously,

קַנֹּ֨א קִנֵּ֜אתִי לַיהוָ֣ה ׀ אֱלֹהֵ֣י צְבָא֗וֹת כִּֽי־עָזְב֤וּ בְרִֽיתְךָ֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶת־מִזְבְּחֹתֶ֣יךָ הָרָ֔סוּ וְאֶת־נְבִיאֶ֖יךָ הָרְג֣וּ בֶחָ֑רֶב וָֽאִוָּתֵ֤ר אֲנִי֙ לְבַדִּ֔י וַיְבַקְשׁ֥וּ אֶת־נַפְשִׁ֖י לְקַחְתָּֽהּ.

Eliyahu is a zealot and will not change this about himself. Later on, Eliyahu kills legions of soldiers of Achab's son Achaziah with fire and eventually ascends to heaven on a chariot of fire. Eliyahu seems to hardly be the Zaidy or loving uncle that he is depicted in rabbinic literature. Based on this portrayal, I doubt that we would want to invite him to our Brit Milah or seder.

However, this is not the last time Eliyahu is mentioned in Tanach. Eliyahu makes one last appearance in Tanach in the last chapter of the Prophets.

ספר מלאכי פרק ג begins with a mention of the מלאך הברית:

הִנְנִי שֹׁלֵחַ מַלְאָכִי, וּפִנָּה דֶרֶךְ לְפָּנָּי; וּפִתְאֹׁם יָּבוֹׁא אֶל הֵיכָּלוֹׁ הָּאָדוֹׁן אֲשֶר אַתֶם מְבַקְשִים, וּמַלְאַךְ הַבְרִית אֲשֶר- - - - אַתֶם חֲפֵצִים הִנֵה בָּא - -אָמַר, יְהוָּה צְבָּאוֹׁת.

Behold I will send my messenger and he will clear a path before me and suddenly come to his sanctuary the lord that you seek, and the Malach HaBrit (messenger of the covenant) that you wish for behold comes, so says Hashem of Hosts. (Translation is my own.)

The identity of this "מַלְאַךְ הַבְרִית" is unclear in this verse but becomes abundantly clear when reading to the end of the chapter.

כג הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי שֹׁלֵחַ לָכֶם, אֵת אֵלִיָּה הַנָּבִיא--לִפְנֵי, בּוֹא יוֹם יְהוָה, הַגָּדוֹל, וְהַנּוֹרָא. כד וְהֵשִׁיב לֵב-אָבוֹת עַל-בָּנִים, וְלֵב בָּנִים עַל-אֲבוֹתָם--פֶּן-אָבוֹא, וְהִכֵּיתִי אֶת-הָאָרֶץ חֵרֶם.

Behold I will send for you Eliyahu the prophet before comes the Day of the Lord, the Great and Awesome Day. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the sons and the hearts of the sons to the fathers lest I come and destroy the land totally.(Translation is my own.)

The Eliyahu of Malachi, the Malach HaBrit who will turn the hearts of the fathers to the sons and the hearts of the sons to the fathers, seems to match well the depiction of Eliyahu in rabbinic literature. However, this does not answer the question but amplifies it. What changed between Eliyahu's ascension to the heavens in a chariot of fire in the Book of Kings and Eliyahu's return to herald the Moshiach in the end of Malachi? How could the same zealot who unwaveringly followed Midat HaDin, divine justice, when dealing with Achab and his generation transform into this symbol of God's mercy and compassion? Why do we invite Eliyahu to have an honored seat at every Brit and a special cup at our Pesach Seder?

I saw a lengthy well-researched article discussing this last issue about the cup for Eliyahu on the Seforim blog. You can read it here. He quotes many different reasons for the cup of Eliyahu first brought down in the late Rishonim/early Acharonim. One notable early source is Rabbi Moshe Chagiz (1671-1750) published in the early 16th century in both his Birchat Eliyahu and Shut Shtei Lechem which connects the כוסו של אליהו at the Seder with the כסא של אליהו at the Brit and, I believe, addresses our fundamental question about the character of Eliyahu as well. I have posted this source together with many of the other sources on this topic here. I will excerpt relevant portions of the Shut Shtei Lechem below.

ועל הכנת הכוס לאליהו זכרו לטוב יש לו שורש למטה וענף עץ עבות למעלה דהנה ודאי /שמעת/ שמעתי עד כה טעם הכנת הכסא לאליהו בשעת המילה וכינוי השם. שהוא אלי' מלאך הברית... והפה שאסור לדבר על ישראל שהפרו את הברית הוא הפה שמאשר ומעיד על ישראל ונעשה עצמו סניגור בהיותו עד הרואה שישראל מקיימין את הברית...

Concerning the Cup of Eliyahu it has a strong basis because the reason for preparing the Chair of Eliyahu at the time of the Milah and giving Eliyahu the nickname the Malach HaBrit is because... the mouth who indicted Israel stating that they forsook the Brit is the very mouth who will give testimony in support of Israel and become their defense attorney when he sees that they are keeping the Brit. (Loose translation is my own.)

Rabbi Moshe Chagiz is referencing a famous Midrash which states that since Eliyahu was the prosector against the Children of Israel accusing them of forsaking the Brit, his Tikkun for all eternity is that he will attend every Brit Milah and be able to testify forever that in fact the Jewish people have not forsaken the Brit. He will testify that through all generations even in times of great persecution and personal sacrifice, the Jews have kept the Brit.

א"כ הכא זכינו לקיים מנהגן של ישראל בליל פסח להכין לו כסא דמהמנותא ומטה ושולחן ערוך שבו ישראל מקיימים את הפסח שאחד מחוקותיהן ומשפטיו הישרים הוא ית' אשר צוה עליו וכל ערל לא יאכל בו... ובלילה הראשונה שנתקיימה מצוה זו מאכילת הפסח הוצרכו לקיים מצות מילה תחיל' כמ"ש ואעבור עליך מתבוססת בדמיך שדרז"ל זה דם מילה ודם פסח

Based on this, we have reason to establish the custom of Israel on the night of Pesach to prepare a cup of wine and a place at the table where we fulfill the Pesach [for Eliyahu]. Because one of the laws [of the Karban Pesach] is that an uncircumcised male cannot eat it. And on the first night that they fulfilled this mitzvah of eating the Pesach sacrifice, they first needed to fulfill the mitzvah of Brit Milah as it says in Yechezkel (16: 6) and I saw them steeped in blood [and I said, through your blood shall you live, through your blood shall you live]. Our rabbis teach us [that this double reference to blood] refers to the blood of the Milah and the Pesach. [The first two mitzvot the Children of Israel fulfilled prior to the Exodus from Egypt.] (Loose translation is my own.)

We see here the clear connection between the Chair of Eliyahu and the Cup of Eliyahu since the mitzvah of Milah and the mitzvah of Pesach are interconnected. A male cannot perform a Karban Pesach unless he has a Brit Milah. The Maharal and others explain this that the Man is considered to be born imperfect represented by the ערלה, the foreskin. In order to fully join Knesset Yisrael, one must perform the Brit Milah to remove the ערלה and make the Jew the proper receptacle for Kedushah. However, this is only a prerequisite. Then a Jew must do an action of service to Hashem which is represented by the Karban Pesach. This is also the reason why at the time of the Temple every male convert had to not only undergo Milah and Tevilah but had to bring a special Karban as well. (This begs the question of why women don't have a mitzvah comparable to the Brit Milah to "perfect" them but this is beyond the scope of the current discussion.)

אם ודאי להגיד שבחן של ישראל ולהזכיר לפני הקב"ה שהם קיימו מה שקבלו במצות פסח התלויה במילה אין כאן ספק כי בא יבא ברכת אליהו ז"ל בכל בתי ישראל לראות קיום המצוה אחת שהוא שתים פסח ומילה שהם מקיימים ויעלה לנו השמימה להליץ בעד כלל ופרט ישראל למהר ולהחיש גאולתם ופדיון נפשם בגאול' אחרונה דהאי דרגא בתראה דגואל אתקרי שיהיה בב"י =במהרה בימינו= אמן וזה פשוט וק"ל.

This is surely to tell the praises of Israel and to bring a remembrance before Hashem that they have fulfilled the mitzvah of Pesach which is dependent on Milah. There is no doubt that the blessing of Eliyahu will come to every Jewish house to see that they have fulfilled both the Pesach and Milah. This will go up to heaven as a positive testimony to hasten the final redemption speedily in our days. (Loose translation is my own.)

This beautiful idea can answer our seemingly contradictory portraits of Eliyahu. Eliyahu was and always will be a zealot for Hashem. However, once he comes to every Brit Milah and every Pesach Seder for all generations his attitude towards the Jewish people will change. Not because he has changed but because the מציאות, the reality of the situation, has changed. Once he sees that we never forsook the twin covenants of Milah and Pesach, he will become our greatest advocate.

I saw Rabbi Joseph Telushkin bring down this idea, I believe in his work Jewish Literacy. He added that it is up to us to educate Eliyahu. He will only be able to return as the perfect zealot for God in a perfected world. It is incumbent on us, the Jewish people, through our steadfast adherence to Milah and Pesach to prove to Eliyahu that the world is in fact worthy of him to return. Once Eliyahu has been given enough "proof", once he has attended enough of our Brit Milah ceremonies and Pesach Seders celebrating with us our devotion to our civenant with Hashem, he will return to herald the coming of the Moshiach as we say in Birchat Hamazon:

הרחמן הוא ישלח לנו את אליהו הנביא זכור לטוב ויבשר לנו בשורות טובות ישועות ונחמות

May the merciful one send us Eliyahu Hanavi of good memory to announce for us good news, salvations, and consolations.

From the Seforim Blog.

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