As the seats at this year’s seder table fill up again with family and friends, one more guest is always traditionally invited to seders all over the world – Elijah. A look at the portrayal of Eliyahu ha-navi in Tanach and midrash shows why this beloved character plays a key role on Seder night.
There are two characterizations of Eliyahu in Jewish sources. In the books of Kings, Eliyahu is a prophet who performs miracles and attempts to restore the Jewish people’s faith in God. However, he becomes intolerant of their transgressions and is zealous for God, so he is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. This is contrasted with the depiction of Eliyahu in rabbinic literature, as miraculously appearing to Jews throughout the generations. Eliyahu is at times the harbinger of redemption, like when he stands at the entrance to the cave and informs Rashbi and his son that it is safe to emerge after hiding from the Romans. He also resolves debates and spreads peace among the sages. Additionally, his chair is at the center of the brit milah ceremony, marking the continuing of the covenant with God from generation to generation.
The mishna Eduyot ends with the opinion that Eliyahu returns to bring peace to the world, particularly within family relationships based on another biblical source. The prophet Malachi concludes by saying that before the coming of redemption, God will send Eliyahu to reconcile or increase love of parents with children and children with parents.”
When we pour a cup of wine for Eliyahu ha-navi and invite him to our seder, we are highlighting that the seder is a time of potential – for redemption, for nurturing family relationships, for peace and for passing on Jewish tradition from one generation to the next. Chag Sameach! – Karen Miller Jackson