Rabbi Eliyahu Haim Aboud
The appearance of mysterious men on missions of rescue and salvation throughout our nation’s history has always been attributed to the Prophet Eliyahu. Who exactly is this man, and how does he continue to impact upon the survival of the Jewish Nation? This month’s installment surveys the words of our Sages and ancient history in order to present a clearer picture of Eliyahu Hanavi and the role he will play in our redemption process and in shaping our nation’s future.
The Last Recorded Prophecy
The Tanach contains many recorded prophecies pertaining to Mashiah’s arrival and the events that will unfold at that time. In the final prophecy recorded before the end of nevua (prophecy), the prophet Malachi conveys the following promise to the Jewish people: “Behold I will send to you Eliyahu Hanavi prior to the onset of the great and awesome day of Gd…” (Malachi 3:23).
The commentariesi explain that “the great and awesome day of Gd” refers to the time of Mashiah’s arrival. Just prior to the onset of the Messianic age, the ancient prophet Eliyahu, who lived during the First Temple era, will be sent forth and appear in person to the Jewish nation to herald our redemption.
When Exactly Will Eliyahu Come?
We find different indications as to when precisely Eliyahu will arrive. The commonly assumed opinionii is that he will arrive together with Mashiah ben David. In fact, many have the custom to recite a short prayer before or after havdalah on Mossa’ei Shabbat, “Eliyahu Hanavi…bimhera yavo elenu im Mashiah ben David – Eliyahu Hanavi… may he speedily come forth to us with Mashiah ben David.”
Other sourcesiii, however, claim that Eliyahu will arrive one or three days before Mashiah ben David, while others say that he will come even earlier, before Mashiah ben Yosef.iv
What is the purpose behind Eliyahu’s arrival? What role will he fill in the redemptive process?
Firstlyv, Eliyahu will come to announce to the world the news of Mashiah’s imminent arrival and the dawn of a new chapter in the existence of mankind – “The Messianic Era.” Secondlyvi, he will guide the Jewish Nation toward complete repentance and prepare them for the final redemption. Lastlyvii, Eliyahu will bring back the special anointing oil for the anointing of Mashiah and the purifying waters of the parah adumah (red heifer) needed to purify the nation.
Our sagesviii explain the intent of why specifically Eliyahu was chosen to announce Mashiah’s arrival as Eliyahu was transformed into an angel and ascended to heaven alive, he is the only one on hand throughout the generations, with the ability to appear at any given moment should the need arise. Now that he has this mission, he will ensure that Mashiah does arrive for the Jewish Nation so that he can complete his task. The Midrash notesix that on five occasions in the Tanach, the name “Eliyahu” is spelled in an unusual fashion, without the letter vav.
Correspondingly, the Midrash observes, we find the name “Yaakov” spelled with an extra vav five times in Tanach. The Midrash explains that Yaakov Avinu took the letter from Eliyahu as a security that he will fulfill his difficult mission to ensure that his children will be worthy of redemption in the end of days. Thus, Malachi’s promise that Eliyahu will come to us essentially promises that Eliyahu will fulfill his mission of preparing us for the final redemption. (Interestingly enough, Yaakov specifically took the letter vav, which has the numerical value of six, alluding to the guarantee that Eliyahu will come to facilitate the redemption by the Hebrew year six thousand.x)
Who is Eliyahu Hanavi?
The book of Melachim relates numerous incidents involving the prophet Eliyahu and the miracles he performed, yet it provides virtually no information about his personal life and background. We are told only that he originated from the town of Toshav and resided in the city of Gilad. He lived and prophesied during the reign of King Ahav and his son King Ahazyahu, who ruled over the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the middle of the First Temple era. We also read that he ascended alive to heaven in a fiery chariot, elevated to the level of the angels.xi However, nothing else about his life or origins is recorded.
The most famous and commonly accepted view identifies Eliyahu as the righteous zealot Pinhasxii, the grandson of Aharon Hakohen, who lived during the Jewish people’s travels in the desert and entered the Land of Israel. Gd rewarded Pinhas with everlasting longevity when he risked his life to kill Zimri, prince of the tribe of Shimon, in defense of Hashem’s honor, thereby rescuing the Jewish Nation from further spiritual deterioration and possible destruction.xiii Indeed, Pinhas is mentioned on several occasions in the books of the Prophets, even during the times of King David – over four hundred years after the incident of Zimri!xiv According to this view, Pinhas spent an extended period in seclusion and reappeared approximately 150 years later under the name Eliyahu. His life, then, spanned a period of 12 generations!
This connection between Pinhas and Eliyahu is reflected in the custom to prepare a special chair for Eliyahu Hanavi at every berit milah. The Midrashxv explains this custom as the result of Eliyahu’s complaints to Gd that the Jewish people have betrayed their covenant with Him. Hashem sharply scolded the prophet for his accusation: “Why must you always zealously reprimand My children? You did so in the desert and now with My entire nation during the reign of the idolatrous King Ahav and his false prophets! From now on you must be present at every berit milah to witness the faithfulness of My beloved nation and how they devotedly bring all their baby boys into My special convent!”
Othersxvi, however, believe that Eliyahu and Pinhas were actually two different people, but they possessed the same neshama (soul). Their shared soul accounts for their similar character traits and the similar acts of heroism which they performed.
The Book of Melachim describes in detail numerous miracles which Hashem performed at the hands of Eliyahu Hanavi. In response to King Ahav’s idolatry, Eliyahu declared the withholding of all rain for three years. He also conducted tehiyat hametim (resurrection of the dead) to the only child of a grieving widow, and brought a heavenly fire which consumed the offering he prepared on Mount Carmel in full view of King Ahav and his constituents. On another occasion, an angel provided Eliyahu with “spiritual” bread and water which enabled him to travel for forty consecutive days through the desert without any other food or drink.
Our sages express particular reverence for Eliyahu, calling him “the prince of the prophets” and second only to his master and teacher, Moshe Rabbenu, who was the greatest of all prophets.xvii He beheld prophetic visions with a high level of clarity and while awake and in full control of his senses – similar to the prophecies of Moshe Rabbenu.xviii A number of commentators also note that Eliyahu was the source of much of the prophecy that was present in his time. The intense divine spirit which constantly rested upon him was channeled to other prophets, enabling them to receive prophecy. When Eliyahu ascended to heaven, much of the prophecy of his time was lost.
Throughout the Ages
One of the highest praises that can be said about a saddik is that he learned or received advice from Eliyahu Hanavi. Our sages explain that since Eliyahu never physically died, he can return to this world. Hashem therefore frequently sends him to help the Jewish people when the need arises. In fact, the Zohar writes that all the miracles performed in the world are brought about through Eliyahu Hanavi.xix
Over the course of Jewish history, thousands of instances have been recorded where Eliyahu has appeared and saved the Jewish Nation from calamity. It would be no exaggeration to say that our nation owes its very survival to this extraordinary prophet who has appeared countless times to rescue Gd’s people.
May we all be privileged to behold his shining countenance as he comes to herald Mashiah’s arrival and the end of all our suffering, speedily and in our days, Amen.
Next Issue: The Return of the Lost Ten Tribes
Eliyahu Hanavi to the Rescue
Significant occasions when Eliyahu came to save the Jewish people:
- Purim – It was Eliyahu who revealed to Mordechai the secret decree of Haman and Ahashverosh to annihilate the Jewish Nation, thus enabling him to thwart the plan by inspiring the people to engage in repentance and prayer.xx
- The Oral Torah – In the aftermath of the Second Temple’s destruction (150-200 CE), the Oral Torah was in danger of being forgotten due to the harsh persecution suffered by the Jewish Nation. The famous sage Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi assembled all the scholars of his time and, with the help of Eliyahu Hanavi, composed the Mishna, the written version of the Oral Law and the basic outline of the Talmud.xxi
- The Secrets of Torah – At around the same time, Eliyahu Hanavi revealed Kabbalah, the secrets of the Torah, to the great kabbalist Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai. Rabbi Shimon later put this wisdom into writing, producing the Zohar Hakadosh, the primary source of kabbalistic teaching.xxii
- Our Present Knowledge in Kabbalah – During the 16th century, Eliyahu appeared to the famous kabalistic master Rabbi Yizhak Luria Ashkenazi, zs”l, or the Arizal (1534-1572), revealing to him the forgotten secrets of Kaballah on a clearer level than ever before for over twenty years. His most prominent disciple, Rabbi Haim Vital, zs”l, recorded these teachings in his Sefer Ess Haim, forming the basic text of all Kabalistic writings which is studied by scholars of Kabbalah until today.xxiii
Eliyahu thus quite literally saved much of the Torah from being forgotten, and is thereby responsible for our nation’s spiritual survival throughout the millennia of exile.
These are just a few of the literally thousands of episodes that have been recorded where Eliyahu miraculously intervened to save Jews – and Judaism – from danger.