Elijah in the Talmud


I asked Elijah to narrate these final pages himself, with Elisheva doing the writing. How do they manage this? God said, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living (Matthew 22:32).

When Jesus said, “They gave Elijah no hero’s welcome,” he must have been thinking of the treatment I got from certain kings. Because common people, like those who knew Ari or my family in Tishbe, seemed glad to see me. And after I left, they traded stories about my activities, across the dinner table or under the weeping willow tree. That’s what Chapter 19 was about.

Hundreds of years later, however, teachers and rabbis started creating new stories and slapping “Elijah” on them. A few based their tales on things that really happened. And most put in those fun apocryphal twists that teachers and rabbis and preachers use to make us remember. But some stories were not fun. Most of these many stories then appeared in the Talmud and a couple in the New Testament. Here are seven.

  1. Earnest Prayer (James 5:17)

Jesus’ brother, Jacob, set me up as an example of earnest prayer. We call him Jacob, even though in later centuries they tried to give him a Gentile name. He told the twelve tribes scattered abroad that I was a man subject to like passions as they were. My Tishbe family cheered when they read this.

Ari saw how Jacob put me on a pedestal, saying I prayed that it might not rain and then again that it would rain. So he poked me in the ribs and said, “Just don’t let it go to your head.” My young friend might seem a little irreverent at times. Remember how he laughed about the Lord hiding 7,000 people in Obadiah’s two little caves? He means well.

Okay, maybe I do tend to talk with the Lord about situations. But to tell the truth, the only things I remember about that drought are the long hike into Jezreel to tell the king and then three years later running like a madman through the storm (1 Kings 17-18). Maybe during both trips I was praying.

  1. Crossing Guard[1]

Rabbis tacked the name “Elijah” on enough tales in the Talmud to fill a small shelf of books.

One said the chariot dropped me off at the crossroads of paradise with three duties.

1) Show the pious the door into paradise.

2) Show the people in hell where to spend their Sabbaths. Getting out of hell for the Sabbath was news to me.

3) After the wicked have suffered for their sins, usher them into paradise.

Nobody in my family liked the idea of me standing at the crossroads day after eternal day, with no time for them.

  1. Travelling Salesman[2]

My brother, Howd, likes to tell the one about the travelling salesman who got into town just as Sabbath was about to start and needed a place to stash his cash. We’re not supposed to carry money on the Sabbath — you knew that.

Well, the salesman went to the synagogue and saw a man wearing our little leather boxes with scripture verses inside. (The more religious among us put these boxes on their hand and forehead as a literal way of doing Exodus 13:16, “And it will be like a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead.” We call these little boxes “phylacteries,” an old word meaning “guards,” because we hope they will guard us from forgetting the Lord’s teachings.)

He thought he could trust this man to hold his money for him. So he gave him his purse until the Sabbath was over.

Sheva always interrupts here with, “How was it legal for one person to carry money and not the other?” But I prefer to let Howd tell his story.

When the salesman came back after the Sabbath, people said, “You gave your money to that hypocrite?!”

Not to worry, for that night I, Elijah, appeared in a dream and showed the salesman how to get his money back from the swindler’s wife.

Sheva again: “Just what did my little brother suggest, Howd?” Howd always keeps a straight face. “The rabbi did not reveal my brother’s methods.”

  1. Happy Puppy Noises[3]

If you ever had a dog, you know how dogs sense our moods, feeling sad with us or happy with us.

It seems a Rabbi in Poland started telling people that because I rescue so many Jews from so many troubles in so many places and so often, their sympathetic dogs learned that my scent meant their masters would soon be released from a certain calamity and again be happy. People all over the Diaspora knew that when their dogs began making happy puppy noises I was nearby, doing a good deed.

You wouldn’t believe how many people lead their dogs up to me to take a whiff.

  1. The Chair of Elijah[4]

Since I was in the neighborhood — every neighborhood — so often, the rabbi’s gave me circumcision duty.

Their technical reason starts with my complaint that the Lord’s people haav forsaken His circumcision covenant (1 Kings 19:10). They say the Lord chose to show me just how wrong I was by requiring me to witness every single brit (circumcision) from here on out.[5] So on the infant’s eighth day, parents reserve an empty bench or chair, and when the mohel (circumciser) walks in, they declare in a loud voice, “This is the chair of Elijah!”

Because the chair remains empty during the whole ceremony, I only have to show up if I know the family. Much better than the crossing guard of paradise.

  1. Making God Laugh[6]

Even though my father thinks the idea is ridiculous that his youngest son should ever give advice to scholars, he likes this story. When my mother first heard it, she looked at Elisheva sideways, while my dad said, “Crazy story. But spot on about God.” This tale, invented by a rabbi in Babylon, starts with Rabbi Eliezer and only mentions me, Elijah, right at the end.

This Rabbi Eliezer proposed technology that would prevent an oven from becoming ritually impure, but the wise men studying with him said his method would not work. He showed them all the ways it would work. But they disagreed.

The Rabbi was so confident that he said, “Look, I’m right, and this carob tree will prove I’m right!” And with everybody watching, the carob tree uprooted itself, moved 100 cubits, and re-rooted itself. The other scholars said, “Carob trees have nothing to do with this discussion.”

“Okay,” he said, “If I’m right, let the water prove it!” But when the stream started flowing backward, they said, “Water has nothing to do with this.”

Again he urged, “Let these walls prove it!” The walls started to fall in on the sages, but Rabbi Joshua lifted his hand toward them. “When we are discussing halakah (the path), what right have you to interfere?!” So the walls stood still, and the sages said, “Walls have nothing to do with this.”

“Hmm …,” Rabbi Eliezer told them, “I know I’m right, and a voice from heaven is going to prove it.” Sure enough, a divine voice boomed down at them, “Why do you dispute Rabbi Eliezer?! He is always right about halakhah!”

But Rabbi Joshua looked up and replied, “The Torah is not in heaven, and we pay no attention to voices from heaven! Our Torah tells us the majority rules (Deut. 30:12, Ex. 23:2)!”

When the study session finally broke up, on his way home, a sage ran into me, Elijah, and asked how the Holy One reacted to Rabbi Joshua’s rebuke. I told him the Lord laughed out loud, “My children have defeated Me! My children have defeated Me!”

My dad says this story shows how our Father in Heaven wants His children to grow up and cooperate. He gave us His Torah, and now He wants us to put our heads together and make it work.[7] My mom says it’s just a silly story.

  1. The Olive Branches (Revelation 11)

Rabbis tacked my name on enough tales to fill a small shelf of books, and most of their stories made us at least chuckle, but this End Times story from the Christians makes my mother nervous.

Jesus’ friend, John, wrote about the two olive branches of Zechariah (4:11) who stand and preach for 1,260 days. These two shoot fire out to destroy the Lord’s enemies, they shut off the rain, they turn water into blood, and they strike the earth with plagues. John mentions nothing about their hotel room or where they eat. He just stands them up in the town square and hangs sackcloth on them for 1,260 days of sermons.

On day 1,261, this horrible creature comes up out of the Abyss and kills them. But the natives refuse to let anyone bury them. In fact, while their bodies rot in the sun, people send messages all over the world — “Hurrah! The two killjoys are dead!” But three and a half days later, the two stand up and fly off to heaven while an earthquake is knocking the city apart.

Exciting, maybe, but not if you’re the mother of the one rotting in the sun. And many Christians name me as one of those olive branches. Some add Moses as the other branch, and some Enoch. But they all name Elijah.

They have their reasons — I’m good with fire and drought, Moses with blood and plagues, and Moses and I talked with Jesus on Mount Tabor (Matthew 17). Furthermore, they quote, “it is appointed unto men once to die” (Hebrew 9:27). Here they point out that instead of normal departures, I took a chariot ride (2 Kings 2:11), Moses climbed a mountain (Deuteronomy 34:5), and God snatched Enoch away (Genesis 5:24, Hebrews 11:5).

Of course, I don’t care if my partner is Enoch or Moses. I’m not interested in the job.

When my family saw this story, Howd jumped on it. “So, ‘The Lord took him.’ Isn’t that a euphemism for ‘he died.’?” My mother put in, “And when your brother went to heaven in a chariot, isn’t ‘went to heaven’ another way of saying ‘died’?” So Sheva had to stand up with, “And Moses didn’t just climb that mountain. Torah says ‘died, d-i-e-d, died.’”

While they beat on that idea, my dad turned to me and said, “Get a good night’s sleep, Son. You’ll need an early start in the morning.”

— The End —


  1. Did the first words make you want to read more? If not, why not?
  2. Did any parts confuse you? Or even frustrate or annoy you? Where exactly? Why/How?
  3. Did it start to lag? Or did you start not caring what happened next? Where? Why?

Anything more to tell me?

Any questions for me?

[1] http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/5634-elijah Pirḳe R. El. l.c.

[2] http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/5634-elijah Pesiḳ. R. xxii.; Yer. Ber. ii.

[3] http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/5634-elijah B. Ḳ. 60b

[4] People who want to nail it down point to Malachi, who named Elijah in his fourth chapter. They insist Elijah is also the “messenger of the covenant” in Malachi’s third chapter.

[5] http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/5636-elijah-s-chair

[6] Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 59b, H.N. Bialik and Y.H. Ravnitzky, eds., Sefer Ha-Aggadah (The Book of Legends), translated by William G. Braude, Schocken Books, NY, 1992). page 223

[7] From Hyam Maccoby

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