Growing up, I thought of Elijah as a ghostly and magical figure, and opening the door for him was my favorite part of the Passover seder. My friends and I would watch his glass of wine carefully for any drop in level and would agree that it was definitely getting lower, so Elijah must have visited us.
But during the rest of the year, I didn’t think about him very much. When I started reading the Talmud as an adult, Elijah kept popping up in places I didn’t expect him, interacting with Rabbis in both casual and fantastic ways. It turns out there’s more to this prophet than seder-hopping and wine-binging.
With Passover fast approaching, here are some stories you might not know about Elijah. Just who is this guy we’re inviting into our homes every year, anyway?
In the Torah, Elijah is introduced with no context other than that he’s a Tishbite, which just means he’s from the town of Tishbe. In Kings II, God tells him to go and confront King Ahaziah for seeking answers from Baal. He runs into some soldiers who describe him as “a hairy man […] with a leather belt tied around his waist.” He sits on top of a mountain and sends fire down onto over 100 soldiers to get his message across.
But the most interesting part of Elijah’s story in the Torah is what happened at the end of his life. Instead of dying, one day as he was walking along with his successor Elisha, “a fiery chariot with fiery horses suddenly appeared and separated one from the other; and Elijah went up to Heaven in a whirlwind.” Because Elijah never technically died, the stage was set for all sorts of stories about him coming back to Earth.
Another important part of the mythos of Elijah is his association with the coming of the Messiah. In Malachi 3, the Torah says Elijah will be sent back to Earth before the Messiah comes. It says, “He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents,” which I think is a lovely image to think about during a big family meal like a seder.
Many stories about Elijah feature him appearing in disguise and teaching people lessons. In the Babylonian Talmud Nedarim 50a, there’s one such story about Rabbi Akiva. When Rabbi Akiva got engaged to bar Kalba Savua’s daughter, bar Kalba Savua disinherited her. They got married anyway but lived in poverty, sleeping in straw. One night Rabbi Akiva plucked a piece of straw out of her hair and wished aloud that he could instead put a crown on her head. Elijah then appeared in disguise, knocked on their door, and said, “Give me a bit of straw, as my wife gave birth and I do not have anything on which to lay her.” Rabbi Akiva realized he and his wife had things to be grateful for.
Because Elijah can travel between Heaven and Earth, there are also lots of stories of him revealing mysteries to Rabbis. In Berakhot 3a, Rabbi Yosei describes how one time when he was out on a walk, he stopped in an abandoned building to pray. He noticed Elijah standing in the doorway keeping watch until he was done. Elijah told him he should have prayed on the road rather than enter dangerous ruins. The Rabbis of the Talmud then expound upon this lesson from Elijah and get into why exactly ruins are so dangerous in great detail, the most exciting reason being because there could be demons lurking about.
In at least one case, Elijah went too far and told a Rabbi too much. In Bava Metzia 85b, the Talmud says Elijah was a regular at Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s academy. One day he was unusually absent. When Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi later asked him why he wasn’t there, Elijah said, “I had to wake up Abraham, wash his hands, and wait for him to pray, and then lay him down again.” Elijah said he needed to do the same for Isaac and Jacob which is presumably what prevented him from getting to the academy on time. This is such a surprising and wonderful image of what happens in Heaven and it makes me picture Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all sleeping in the same big bed together like the grandparents in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, ever helpful, suggested, “And let the Master wake them all together.” Elijah then told him that if all three of them were awake and praying at the same time, “they would generate powerful prayers and bring the Messiah prematurely.”
Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi asked Elijah if there was anyone alive on Earth who had similarly powerful prayers, and Elijah told him that Rabbi Hiyya and his sons did. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi quickly decreed a fast and brought Rabbi Hiyya and his sons together to pray with the congregation. As they went through the Amida, the words of the prayers began to come true. When Rabbi Hiyya recited “who makes the wind blow,” wind actually blew, and when he recited “who makes the rain fall,” it started raining. In Heaven, they noticed what was going on and asked, “Who is the revealer of secrets in the world?” Elijah was identified and punished and quickly went back to Earth “disguised as a bear of fire,” the most metal image in the Talmud that I’ve read. As a fiery bear, he was able to distract the congregation and stop Rabbi Hiyya from reciting the phrase “who revives the dead.”
Another short anecdote about Elijah I love is from Berakhot 31b. Much like Abraham negotiating God down from destroying Sodom and Gomorrah to sparing the city if 10 righteous people could be found, or Moses convincing God not to destroy the Israelites after the golden calf incident, Elijah isn’t scared of talking back to God. The Rabbis describe one of Elijah’s prayers as “impertinent” yet say that God “ultimately conceded to Elijah that he was correct.”
Elijah stands for a lot of things in different stories, from mystical knowledge to reminding people to help those in need to standing up to even the very highest authority. This year when we open the door at the seder and invite Elijah in, I’ll be thinking of what it might mean to invite those ideas in too. And I’ll imagine him as a fiery bear. Just because.