One of the better known hymans chanted after Havdalah is "Elijah the Prophet" in which the hope is expressed that he will appear at the conclusion of Shabbat to announce the coming of the Messiah.

The folk leitmotif of "provider" associated with Elijah's name (based on the biblical description of his ability to create rain) may also explain his appearances in the Havdalah ceremony when one marks the beginning of the work week; in the Yiddish song "God of Abraham" chanted by East European Jewish women at Havdalah, Elijah is heralded as both Israel's redeemer and provider.

Here is a quick survey of the evolution of the very popular Elijah the Tishbi.

Detail, The prophet Elijah receiving bread and water from an angel, 1625-28
Pieter Pauwel Rubens,
Oil on canvas
Musée Bonnat, Bayonne


No other biblical figure, not even Moses, has enjoyed as much popularity in the Jewish folk imagination as Eliyahu Ha-Navi, Elijah the Prophet. Paradoxically, the biblical prophet of wrath and intolerance bears little resemblance to this popular Elijah, whom later legend transformed into a compassionate champion of the poor and a heralder of the Messiah.

Elijah lived in the 9th century BCE during the corrupt reign of Kign Ahab and his foreign Queen Jezebel. Zealous on behalf of the worship of the God of Israel and unconditionally opposed to any cult (especially any official cult) other than that of YHWH in Israel, Elijah confronts the powerful priests of Baal, defeating them on Mount Carmel by invoking heavenly fire. [1] At Mount Horeb to where he flees he hears "the small still voice of God" and is taken to heaven in a fiery chariot

By the time of Malachi, the last of the prophets, Elijah had achieved the legendary status of the harbinger of Messianic redemption: "Behold, I will send the prophet Elijah to you become the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord." [2] The early Christians adopted Elijah for their own legendary tradition; in Matthew 11, Yeshua of Nazareth (Jesus) declared that John the Baptist was Elijah to herald his (Yeshua's) coming. Perhaps because of this Christian appropriation, the rabbis made some effort to demythologize Elijah's image, debating his heavenly ascension [3] and criticizing his impatience with the Jewish People. [4] They tried to limit his role to that of the future arbiter of insoluble halakhic (religious legal) questions.

Many proverbial sayings and aphorisms grew around Elijah's name in this role as arbiter. The most popular among them "until Elijah arrives," is used when referring to a doubtful and unsolved matter. This recalls also the folk explanation of the word BcyT (teiku), which is actually a form of MvcyT "let it stand," "stalemate,"; accordingly to the folk explanation, the word teiku is a notarikon consisting of the initial letters of Tishbi yetarez kushyot u-ve'ayot, i.e., "the Tishbite (Elijah) will resolve difficulties and problems."

Despite efforts to limit his role, Elijah's reputation remained not only untainted but embellished with further mantles. Elijah was characterized as peacemaker, recorder of marriages decreed in heaven, blesser of barren women, interpreter of cryptic messages in the torah and Talmud, protector of slaves, the poor and the oppressed. In legends he customarily appears disguised as a beggar or vagabond.

Detail, Prophet Elijah in the desert, 1464-68
Dieric Bouts (1415-75)
Oil on panel, 88 x 71 cm
St. Peters Church, Leuven


Two roles in particular have earned Elijah an honored place at many Jewish rituals and celebrations. Tradition assigns him the task of upholding brit ha-dorot, the covenant between the generations. Accordingly, he serves as the guardian angel of newborn children and young people fated to die prematurely. In the Messianic Age, "He shall reconcile parents with their children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole earth with utter destruction." [5] His presence as protector and messianic herald is invoked at circumcisions, where a special Chair of Elijah is reserved for him.

Even more central is his role as messianic herald. At the End of Days, Elijah at the Messiah's command, will blow the shofar, revealing the Primal Light of Creation, reviving and dead, and rebuilding the Temple. His arrival will banish all evil from the earth. At the Passover seder, a full cup of wine (Elijah's Cup) is set out on the table, but not drunk, in expectation of the prophet's arrival to announce the dawn of the messianic Age. At the Havdalah ceremony, Elijah's name is involved in the hopes that he will come to usher in the final eternal Shabbat of the Messianic Age.

The kabbalists elaborated on the supernatural qualities ofElijah, claiming the prophet wasoriginally an angel, created from the Tree of Life. [6] Periodically, he returns to earth to reveal himself to tzadikim (holy souls), and expounds to them the secrets of the Torah. According to some Hasidic teachings, Elijah integrates the male and female aspects within each human being. [7]

Folk tradition abounds with tales of Elijah's mysterious appearances and disappearances, usually in the service of common people in need. The midrash traces his ancestry back to Rachel, who was praised for her mercy and concern for her exiled children. [8] He frequently plays the role of miracle-worker or fairy godfather, intervening to make peace between husbands and wives, to bestow wishes, to right wrongs. His name is often invoked in amulets and practical Kabbalah (magic), especially to protect children. The expression, "until Elijah comes," is a folk expression meaning "a very long time."


[1] I King 19:8-18
[2] Malachi 3:23
[3] BT Sukkah 5a
[4] Song of Songs Midrash Rabbah 1:6

[5] Malachi 3:24
[6] Ginzberg 4:201; 6:325
[7] Gottlieb, Lamp of God, 403-405
[8] Genesis Rabbah 71:9

footnotesEllen Frankel, Betsy Platkin Teutsch, Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols

HAVDALAH Table of Contents



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