Eliyahu (Elijah) the Prophet appears in the Bible during the period of the Ten Tribes.
He is a very special personality in Jewish history.
The following is one of several references about Eliyahu in the Talmud, written some twelve-hundred years after he left us and was swept up into the heavens in a fiery chariot (Kings II 2:11).
Jewish law requires us to tear our clothing as a sign of mourning when a great Torah teacher passes away. The Talmud (Moed Katan 26a) bases this on a verse in Kings II which states that when Eliyahu was taken away, his disciple Elisha tore his garments.
The Talmud then records a question that Resh Lakish asked Rav Yochanan, both great scholars. Resh Lakish questioned the relevance of this verse as a source for this law because Eliyahu never really died and he is still alive.
Rav Yochanan responded that since Elisha never saw his master again, for him it was as though Eliyahu was dead and this is why he tore his clothing. We can therefore use this verse as a basis for the law in question.
According to our tradition Eliyahu is among us, somewhere and in some very special state of existence. We designate a special seat for him at every circumcision. We pour a cup of wine for him at the conclusion of our Passover Seder.
There are numerous legends about his interactions with righteous people throughout the generations. We have a book entitled "Tana DBei Eliyahu" which records the lessons that he gave to Rav Anan, a great scholar in the Talmud. If I may say so, he appears to take the role of a one-man Special Operations Force for Heaven.
The final verses of the Bible (Prophets) state openly that Eliyahu will be sent by G-d to help usher in the Messianic era.
"Behold I (G-d) am sending to you Eliyahu the Prophet before the coming of the great and awesome Day of G-d. And he will bring back the hearts of the parents toward (their) children and the hearts of the children towards (their) parents, lest I come and smite the Earth to oblivion." (Malachi 3:23-24)
The Talmud lets stand a number of difficult and complex questions in Jewish law and entrusts their resolution to Eliyahu. We have had a number of Messianic impersonators throughout history. Yet, no one has dared to impersonate Eliyahu. It is possible that this is because of these questions, because only the real Eliyahu is scholarly enough to answer them.
Eliyahu stood up to Achav (Ahab), King of Yisroel (the Ten Tribes). Achav was a very powerful monarch and he attempted to eradicate Judaism. He promoted idolatry and even boasted to have succeeded in installing an idol on every hilltop in his country. His wife Izevel (Jesebel) was a patron of Baal worship and she executed every prophet of G-d that she could find.
Eliyahu (Kings I 18) demonstrated to the Jewish people the falseness of idolatry and the existence of their true G-d.
He publicly challenged the priests of Baal to a contest to prove which religion was true. Both they and he brought an offering on Mount Carmel to let the real G-d respond with a heavenly fire.
The Baals production was a flop. .
Eliyahu prayed, "Answer me, Oh G-d, answer me," and an immense fire came down from heaven. It consumed the offering, the water that was poured on the offering, the altar, and even the earth that surrounded it
Achav was impressed but Izevel didnt budge. She sent Eliyahu a message that tomorrow he will be dead. She didnt want to kill him on the spot because the people were still impressed by the demonstration. She reckoned that the popular enthusiasm would calm down sufficiently by the next day so that she could get away with killing him.
As you can see, Eliyahu and his fellow prophets had their hands full.
Achavs campaign against Judaism was so successful that there were only seven-thousand Jews in his kingdom who did not worship idolatry. Yet, the Medrash finds something very positive to say about Achavs people.
While steeped in idolatry, the people of Achavs generation were victorious on the battlefield. They merited this because they were careful with how they spoke about each other. As proof, Ovadia was Achavs chief steward and he was able to hide a hundred prophets from Izevel. No one turned him into the government.
In contrast, the people in Shauls generation were learned and they did not worship idolatry. However, they were not careful about how they spoke about each other. We find the people denouncing David to Shaul. Shauls advisor Doeg is infamous for his slander. They therefore suffered setbacks on the battlefield. (Paraphrased from the words of Rabbi Shmuel Bar Nachman , as quoted in Devorim Rabbah, 5:10)
Eliyahu performed the sacrifice on Mount Carmel during a period when it was forbidden to make an offering outside of the Temple of Jerusalem. G-d authorized this exception in His prophecy to Eliyahu.
The Torah was given some thirty-three centuries ago and it provides us with G-ds instructions for living. It is binding and relevant for every generation. The Torah provides for exceptions to its laws under very specific situations and conditions. Eliyahus case is cited in the Talmud as a classic example.
A recognized prophet of G-d can instruct us to act in a manner other than what is prescribed in the Torah if the exception is of a temporary nature. A prophet that directs a permanent change to the Torah of Moshe (Moses) is a false prophet by definition.
A new and temporary commandment of G-d that is give through prophecy can supersede any law except idolatry. The Torah assures us that G-d will never ask us to commit idolatry.
As an aside, we have not had any prophets for the past twenty-three hundred years.
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