Elijah’s Ascent to Heaven.
I’m trying to understand what exactly occurred when Elijah was taken up in a fiery chariot (II Kings 2:11). The Torah states that he was taken up to Heaven in a whirlwind. Was this a form of death? Elijah is mentioned later in the Torah – that he will come to the people before the arrival of the Messiah, so it seems that he is still alive in some form.
The Aish Rabbi Replies
Thank you for raising the interesting issue. According to the Sages, Elijah the Prophet (Eliyahu HaNavi in Hebrew) did not die in the incident, but ascended to Heaven alive (see Talmud Baba Batra 121b, Mo’ed Katan 26a). He was one of very few to have perfected himself to such a degree that he was permitted to enter Heaven during his lifetime. (The other known example is Enoch, great-grandfather of Noah – see Genesis 5:4).) As a result, Elijah became part human and part angel. (See for example Talmud Brachot 4b that he flies more slowly than other angels – presumably because he is part physical (Maharsha there).)
One of the commentators explains that the chariot of fire represented that Elijah’s body (in its original physical state) was consumed, and he thus assumed angelic form when he ascended to Heaven (Radak to II Kings 2:11). Alternatively, the fire separated the spiritual and physical sides of Elijah into two separate parts. He could thus ascend to Heaven as a spiritual being, while his body remaining separate – as a “garment” he could put back on whenever he would need to assume physical form (Malbim there).
As a result, Elijah is alive today, living as an angel in Heaven yet regularly visiting Earth in human form to meet with people and to carry out missions. The Talmud, as well as later Jewish tradition, contains literally hundreds of stories of Elijah visiting great rabbis (many on a regular basis) or disguising himself as an ordinary human (such as a palace guard) and using his assumed identity to intercede with non-Jewish authorities and the like. (See e.g. Talmud Brachot 3a, 29b, Shabbat 33b, Yoma 19b, Ta’anit 22a, etc.) Occasionally Elijah would bring other righteous people with him on visits to Heaven (Baba Metziah 85b, 114a).
There is further a tradition that Elijah will come one day to resolve all doubts we have in Jewish law. The Sages have a common expression that an item whose status cannot be resolved (such as a lost item whose owner cannot be located) “shall rest until Elijah comes” (e.g. Mishna Bava Metziah 1:8, 2:8). (This in particular relates to ruling on situations where we lack information (such as here, the identity of the object's owner). Matters of Jewish law proper are in the hands of the courts to decide.)
The most famous appearance Elijah will make, God willing, will be the one you mentioned. The prophet Malachi, in the final prophecy of all the books of the Prophets, states (3:23-24): “Behold I will send to you Elijah the Prophet, before the coming the great and awesome day of the Lord. And he will bring back the hearts of the fathers to the sons, and the hearts of the sons to their fathers…”
Shortly before the Messiah’s arrival and the great battles of the End of Days, Elijah will come. He will warn us of the upcoming Armageddon, and help bring us to unity and to repentance, in order that we are spared the suffering and live to merit the Redemption.
There are a few rituals which Elijah is particularly associated with today. One is a circumcision (brit milah), in which we set up a special chair for Elijah (“Kisei Shel Eliyahu”). The second is the Passover Seder, in which the “cup of Elijah” is poured towards the end of the evening, when we open our doors and ask God to bring the Final Redemption. According to one opinion in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 11b), the redemption will occur in the month of Nissan, when Passover falls. We likewise open our doors in anticipation of Elijah’s arrival to herald the wondrous event.
(There doesn’t seem to be a source for what I and many learned in first grade – that if you look very closely at the cup, you’ll see it go down a tiny sip when Eliyahu visits – although it’s not hard to imagine you saw it.)
It’s possible to suggest a connection between these two events. Circumcision represents that we see ourselves as God’s special people, different from the nations of the world. Every time a new baby is born and circumcised, we further assert that we are a separate people. Because we have maintained our identity, God will one day recognize us as His own nation and redeem us. Elijah is invited to every circumcision to witness the devotion we have to maintaining our identity and tradition. And as a result, we can be confident that he will visit us at the Seder one year to proclaim to us the imminent arrival of the Messiah.
May the Messiah come speedily in our days!