Elijah's Chair: Or: The prophet was zealous and the chair came in handy

At the Brit Milah, a special chair, called Kisei Eliyahu ha-Navi (Chair of Elijah) is designated for Elijah the Prophet. In some communities a regular chair is used and covered with a special cloth embroidered with the name "Elijah the Prophet." The designation of a Chair of Elijah is derived from a tradition that relates to the days when King Ahab (who reigned over the northern Israelite kingdom from c. 874-852 B.C.E.). abandoned Israel's covenant with God.[1] Elijah speaks out in pain: "I am moved by zeal for the Lord, the God of Hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant…"[2] Later tradition equates Elijah's zeal for the covenant with his concern for the specific commandment of circumcision, since circumcision is the symbol par excellence of the covenant.

Elijah's chairFourteenth-century commentator Rabbi David Abudarham[3] cites a midrash from the Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer[4] which explains the emerging tradition requiring Elijah's presence at every brit milah:

Elijah the Prophet, in his zeal for fulfillment of this mitzvah, took a child and ran away to a cave. When the Almighty discovered him there and asked Elijah what he was doing in the cave, Elijah replied: "I was zealous for the Lord God of Israel in seeing that the children of Israel are transgressing Your covenant with them. So I have come here to see that this circumcision is performed." Whereupon the Almighty said to him: "By your life! Inasmuch as you have been zealous for the commandment of Milah, every time a circumcision is performed, you will give testimony to the children of Israel that they shall preserve this mitzvah." Since that time we include a chair of Elijah, who is known as the Angel of the Covenant, at the ceremony. [5]

According to this tradition as it were, God declares to Elijah, zealous "champion of the covenant," that no Brit milah will take place unless Elijah oversees that it be performed in accordance with the Almighty's dictates.[6] If Elijah's presence is an established requirement, providing him with a symbolic chair at every Brit milah is de rigueur![7]

Others suggest a more anthropological explanation. The chair of Elijah may be an adaptation of a local non-Jewish custom of setting aside a chair or table in the house for a god of fortune who was thought to bring good luck. Talmudic sages forbade the custom, without success; in the eighth or ninth century it was legitimized by connecting the chair to Elijah in the manner just described. Conversely, the dedication of the special chair may be a carryover from the ancient custom of resting the Torah on a special chair when not in use. That chair was called the "Cathedra [chair] of Moses."[8]

In communities where the circumcision ritual is performed in the synagogue, a special chair is dedicated for this purpose. Regional differences are apparent in the chair's structural style, size and decoration. However, a chair designated to be used as a Chair of Elijah is usually much finer than chairs used in daily life: ornately carved, painted or upholstered in especially beautiful fabric, it sometimes bears a dedication signifying its special purpose.

To this day, the baby is placed on the Chair of Elijah at the beginning of the circumcision ritual, and then on the knees of the sandek. In some communities, the sandek sits on the Chair during the ritual, whereas in others, this chair is left empty for the Prophet.[9]


1. 1 Kings 16ff [back]
1 Kings 19:10 [back]
David ben Joseph Abudarham was a liturgical commentator in Spain. His Sefer Abudarham was written in 1340 in Seville. [back]
Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer is a midrash on Genesis and part of Exodus and Numbers. It is attributed to Rabbi Eliezer Ben Hyrcannus (late 1st-early 2nd century CE, Israel), the most important student of Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai and head of the Academy in Lod. However, the final compilation was probably completed in the 8th century, on the basis of earlier materials. [back]
Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 29 [back]
Yalkut Me'am Loez, Sefer Debarim, Alef, pp. 33-34 [back]
Rabbi Herbert C. Dobrinsky "The Life Cycle as Experiences in the Sephardic Traditions" in Rabbi Marc D. Angel, editor, Exploring Sephardic Customs and Traditions.( New York: Ktav Publishing House, Inc, 2000), pp. 57-58. [back]
Hyaim Schauss, The Lifetime of a Jew (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1950), pp. 35-36. [back]
Michele Klein, A Time to be Born (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1998), pp.184-85. [back]




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