There is a story told about the birth of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement. His parents, Reb Eliezer and Sara, were known far and wide for their generous hospitality. Elijah the Prophet was once sent to their home to test their sincerity. One Shabbos afternoon, Eliyahu banged on their door carrying a staff in his hand and a knapsack on his back thereby clearly desecrating the Shabbos.
Reb Eliezer opened the door and warmly greeted his guest. Although Reb Eliezer understood that the beggar had violated Shabbos, he pretended not to notice. Reb Eliezer told his guest. “Please, come and join us.” The next morning, Reb Eliezer and his wife prepared to send the beggar off with a generous donation, as well as provisions for the way. Not once did they mention a word about their guest’s lack of Shabbos observance the previous day.
As he was walking out the door, Eliyahu Hanavi revealed to Reb Eliezer his true identity. “Since you did not shame me when I came to your house,” Eliyahu told him, “you and your wife will soon be blessed with a son who will illuminate the world with the depths of his Torah.” The following year, Reb Eliezer’s wife gave birth to a son, Israel, who become the Baal Shem Tov.
In this story, the prophet Elijah serves as a divine messenger to test the sincerity of mortal humans and to bestow miracles. He also stands in for the modern Jew giving up observance. In the 21st century, these stories continue to flourish with ever-new permutations of Elijah as a divine helper who still shows up on the streets of New York or Jerusalem.
In his recent award-winning book Becoming Elijah: Prophet of Transformation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022), Daniel C. Matt shows how Elijah evolved from his portrayal in the Bible as a zealous prophet, attacking idolatry and injustice, championing God to a folk hero champion of the common Jew. Though residing in heaven, Elijah revisits earth—to help, rescue, enlighten, and eventually herald the Messiah.
Daniel Matt is a noted scholar of Kabbalah who spent 18 years translating the Zohar. His nine-volume annotated translation The Zohar: Pritzker Edition – received various awards and has been hailed as “a monumental contribution to the history of Jewish thought.”. Matt received his Ph.D. from Brandeis and taught for many years at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Daniel lives in Berkeley and currently teaches Zohar online (danielcmatt.com). People I know locally highly recommend his online Zohar class.
Recently, Becoming Elijah was awarded the inaugural Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Book Prize, established by Yeshiva University. It is interesting to note that this is one of the first times the university has given any award to a book not affiliated with Orthodoxy.
Matt’s book Becoming Elijah: Prophet of Transformation was published by Yale University Press in their series Jewish Lives. Therefore, he presents a biography of Elijah through the ages, the way Jack Miles wrote an award-winning biography of God. Matt surveys how this Biblical zealot evolves into a popular figure in Jewish tradition. Becoming Elijah traces how Elijah develops from the Bible to Rabbinic Judaism, Kabbalah, and Jewish ritual (as well as Christianity and Islam) culminating in Hasidut.
The book is enjoyable and a quick reading as a romantic anthology of sources, part folklore, and part literary work. Matt gives most sources no more than a paragraph, so the book is a rapid survey more than analysis, more kaleidoscope than theology. Matt’s bibliography is a gold mine of works on Elijah. I would still recommend as an ancillary reading Aaron Wiener, Prophet Elijah in the Development of Judaism: A Depth-psychological Study(Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1978) which offers psychological analysis. Matt’s book can profitably be read alongside its out-of-print predecessor.
The commitment to the biography format treating each literary unit- Midrash, Kabbalah, Jewish ritual- as if it was a self-contained historic event or major trend may have been too restrictive in that many things were associated together that needed their own section. For example, all Kabbalistic citations are in a single overpacked chapter.
In the last chapter, Matt presents the Hasidic idea that individual people contain an aspect of Elijah in their own souls, in which there is an inner quality of Elijah within all of us. Which he interprets with his own unique Neo-Hasidic homily as the evolution to inner compassion.
The book stops without modernity at the end of the eighteenth century. Therefore, we do not hear the above story of the parents of the Baal Shem Tov. We do not get to hear how S Ansky uses Elijah as a harbinger of the breakdown and destruction of Galicia Jewry. We do not hear how Elie Wiesel treats Elijah “as the chronicler, the historian of Jewish suffering. He takes note of every tragic event, every massacre, every pogrom, every agony, and every tear; thanks to him, nothing is lost. His most magnificent role is that of witness; he is the memory of the Jewish people.“ And we definitely don’t get to hear how Jacques Derrida considers Elijah- which is his own middle name- epitomizes the “coming of the other” into the differential space of language. In the later texts, the figure of Elijah is invoked to signal the promise of a language—performative rather than affirmative, paradoxically determined by its own indeterminability.
The book will make a great gift to your hosts for Passover Seder and buy a second copy for yourself as your Passover book. Pick a nice bottle of wine for a Passover lunch and then spend the day reading the exploits of Elijah, the prophet. Maybe when he visits everyone’s seder this year, he will recount to us his latest adventures to add to his already rich biography.
1) How long have you been interested in Elijah?
I have been interested in Elijah ever since I was a little boy, the curious son of a rabbi. Of course, we expected Elijah annually at the Seder, but he seemed to pop up so frequently, especially every Saturday night, when we sang a song about him as we said “Goodbye” to the Sabbath Queen. I wondered who he was, and if he was real.
Writing Becoming Elijah occupied me for about 5 years: two years of reading and collecting sources, a little more than a year of writing, and then about 2 years of editing and seeing the book through the publication process.
2) What did Cynthia Ozick say about Elijah? Does your book agree with her statement?
One of Cynthia Ozick’s characters (in Envy, or, Yiddish in America) has this to say: “Please remember that when a goy from Columbus, Ohio, says ‘Elijah the Prophet’ he’s not talking about Eliohu hanovi. Eliohu is one of us, a folksmensh, running around in second-hand clothes. Theirs is God knows what. The same biblical figure, with exactly the same history, once he puts on a name from King James, COMES OUT A DIFFERENT PERSON.”
In Becoming Elijah, I make a different distinction, but there is some overlap. The biblical Elijah is a fierce zealot; in his post-biblical career, he becomes a compassionate hero, helping those in need, spreading wisdom, and ultimately making peace in the world.
3) Why is your book called “Becoming Elijah”?
Throughout most of the book, the title Becoming Elijah means: how the biblical Elijah (the fierce zealot) was transformed into the compassionate hero who rescues those in need, the super-rabbi who spreads wisdom and will ultimately bring peace to the world. But at the very end of the book, the reader discovers another meaning of the title: how each of us can cultivate our own “aspect of Elijah” (behinat Eliyyahu), thereby in a sense “becoming Elijah.”
4) Why did you choose the opening quote from Cordovero?
The 16th-century kabbalist Moses Cordovero writes this about Elijah: “His mystery is really the mystery of divinity spreading. Divine energy clothes itself in him, extending to the world. . . Elijah never appears in the world without the mystery of divinity revealing itself through him. The mystery of God on earth is the mystery of Elijah . . . The closest that divinity can possibly come to humanity is the mystery of Elijah.”
I came across this quotation shortly before the book went to press. I chose it as the book’s epigraph because it conveys what Elijah eventually became: the embodiment of the Holy Spirit (ruah ha-qodesh) and a semi-divine figure.
Cordovero’s remarkable statement may strike some readers as more Christian than Jewish, with Elijah functioning as an intermediary between God and humanity. Well, Elijah is unique, and he frequently mediates between heaven and earth. He is a virtuoso of the in-between, communicating heavenly teachings to earth and inspiring the Kabbalists with new insights and revelations. Yes, Cordovero’s formulation is extreme, but already in the Midrash, God Himself affirms His similarity to Elijah:
“The blessed Holy One said, ‘I revive the dead, and Elijah revived the dead…. I bring down rain, and Elijah brought down rain. I stop the rains, and so did Elijah…. I brought down fire and brimstone upon Sodom, and Elijah similarly brought down [fire]…. He lived and will go on living until the revival of the dead.’”
5) How does Elijah evolve over the centuries?
I trace how Elijah evolves over the centuries, how he “becomes” the full-fledged Elijah. In the Bible, he is a fierce zealot, fighting for the one true God and jealous on behalf of YHVH. Already here, there are certainly mythical and legendary elements—and a hint of the mystical, as well. For example, at Mount Sinai, Elijah encounters God not in the loud phenomena of nature (wind, earthquake, fire), but in qol demamah daqqah. In the King James Bible (and ever since), this remarkable phrase is translated as “a still small voice.” But more accurately, it means “a sound of sheer stillness.” From out of stillness—a pregnant, vibrant silence—Elijah hears God’s voice. We can now appreciate this as an indication of the power of meditation: God can be found in stillness and silence.
At the end of his biblical career, suddenly a chariot of fire… appeared… and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. Was this a spectacular death? Or did he escape death entirely? The answer is not clear, but the Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash assume that “Elijah lives and endures forever.” These rabbis transform Elijah into a super-rabbi, who appears to certain select rabbis, instructing them. He also miraculously saves worthy people in dire straits.
In medieval Kabbalah, the mystical dimension of Elijah becomes more prominent. He is the source of mystical wisdom who enlightens spiritual seekers, the embodiment of the Holy Spirit. One kabbalist, Hayyim Vital, actually describes how to stimulate “a revelation of Elijah” (gillui Eliyyahu). The various preparations he recommends include normative religious practices and more demanding spiritual ones: turning back to God (teshuvah), intense study of Torah, an ascetic lifestyle (limiting food, drink, and sensual pleasure), seclusion, immersion in a ritual bath (miqveh), meditation on the Divine Name, emptying one’s mind of wordly concerns, and love of God. As Vital concludes, “Through these practices of devotion, Elijah (gratefully remembered) will reveal himself. The greater one’s devotion, the greater [Elijah’s] revelation.”
Later, a Hasidic master teaches how each of us contains “an aspect of Elijah” (behinat Eliyyahu), which can manifest as a mystical insight, a creative urge, an eagerness to uplift others. By cultivating this aspect, or spark, we can, in a sense, “become Elijah.”
6) How is Elijah a shape-shifter?
This is one of the most remarkable things about him. I used to think that the term “shape-shifter” referred mainly to certain superheroes in comic books, but actually it’s a term from the academic study of folklore, referring to mythological characters who adopt different forms. After ascending to heaven, Elijah becomes angelic, but he is capable of assuming various human types. He can appear as an ordinary person or especially an old man, the archetype of wisdom. But often he appears in disguise, adopting whatever personality is appropriate to the situation. In various tales, he impersonates a horseman, an Arab, a Persian, a slave, a royal minister of a gentile ruler, a Roman dignitary. Elijah can mold his angelhood into any identity he needs.
Of his many transfigurations, the most shocking one involves Rabbi Me’ir, a leading sage of the second century. Me’ir had boldly rescued his sister-in-law from a Roman brothel, to which she had been condemned. Consequently, the Roman authorities posted Me’ir’s “wanted” picture on the city gates:
“They went and engraved Rabbi Me’ir’s image at the entrance of Rome and proclaimed, ‘Anyone who sees this face—bring him!’ One day [some Roman officers] saw him and ran after him; he ran away from them. . . . Some say that Elijah appeared to [the pursuing officers] as a prostitute and embraced [Rabbi Me’ir]. [The officers] said, ‘Perish the thought! If this were Rabbi Me’ir, he wouldn’t have done that.’ [Thereby he was saved.]”
To rescue Rabbi Me’ir, Elijah fashions himself into a whore and behaves accordingly. Here, he’s something of a benign trickster, making fools of gentile oppressors; he is champion of the Jews in a risky world.
7) What were your literary principles in deciding the amount of space to give to each use of Elijah in the tradition?
Elijah begins as a biblical hero, so I wanted to devote a good amount of space to the chapters in the book of Kings describing his remarkable life in the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the 9th century BCE. The next major stage is how the Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash transform Elijah into a super-rabbi, and this too deserves a lengthy chapter. The mystical quality of Elijah becomes more prominent in the Kabbalah, and I devoted a full, shorter chapter to this phase. The book is in a series called Jewish Lives, but Elijah is also a significant figure in Christianity and Islam, and I devoted a shorter chapter to this feature of his endless career. Most Jews know of Elijah because of his prominent role in several rituals (especially the Passover Seder and circumcision), so this demanded a separate chapter. The final, brief chapter emphasizes the mending or rectification (tiqqun) of Elijah (from zealot to compassionate hero), and thenreveals the hidden meaning of the title: how each of us can, in a sense, “become Elijah.”
The book is a biography, as are all the books in this series (Jewish Lives). But this is not a normal biography, because according to Jewish (and Christian and Islamic) tradition, Elijah never died. I constructed the book to show how Elijah is reimagined again and again. Each generation pours their yearnings into him and draws comfort from him. So the various portrayals of the immortal prophet reveal not only the multi-faceted character of Elijah, but also the mind of the people of Israel through the ages—their needs and ideals.
8) How does Elijah give hope?
Elijah gives hope because since he never died, he is available—ready to help those in need, able to traverse the world, reaching any destination “in four glides.” Furthermore, he will announce and herald the coming of the Messiah. This is foreshadowed in the Bible itself, not in the book of Kings, but in the later book of Malachi, which concludes with God’s promise: Look, I am sending you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the day of YHVH, great and awesome. He will bring fathers’ hearts back to their children and children’s hearts to their fathers.
Unlike Christians, who can pretty easily picture Jesus, it’s difficult for Jews to picture the Messiah. Elijah provides a more readily imaginable figure, which made it easier to Jews to maintain their belief in the ultimate redemption. That’s why in the Grace after Meals, we ask God to send us not the Messiah, but “Elijah the prophet…, who will bring us good tidings of salvation and comfort.”
9) How is Elijah like Moses?
The Midrash lists about 30 parallels between the two! For example, “Moses redeemed [Israel] from Egypt…, and Elijah will redeem them in the time to come.” Both are called “man of God” (ish ha-Elohim). Moses parted the Red Sea, while Elijah parted the Jordan River toward the end of his biblical career. Both had a zealous quality, though Elijah was more extreme. Both were in a cave (or crevice) on Mount Sinai. Moses spent 40 days and forty nights on Mount Sinai, while Elijah journeyed forty days and forty nights to the same site. Both, in moments of despareration due to the stubbornness of the Israelites, asked God to take their lives. Both ended their earthbound lives in the same vicinity: east of the Jordan River, across from Jericho.
How are they different? First of all, Moses died a natural death, whereas Elijah, it is told, neve died, but rather ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot and ever since has been returning intermittently to earth to help those in need. In this sense, you could say that Elijah surpassed Moses.
In a crucial way, however, Moses outshone Elijah. After the sin of the Golden Calf, he pleaded with God to spare Israel. Elijah, on the other hand, kept accusing Israel, complaining to God, The Israelites have forsaken Your covenant… and I alone remain. Moses was rewarded with divine intimacy, whereas Elijah was relieved of his prophetic duties for failing to defend Israel. According to one early midrash, when God told Elijah to anoint a successor in your place, what God meant was: “I no longer want your prophesying!” Elijah is the only prophet who, roughly speaking, was fired!
10) Do we encounter Elijah today? Why did you not include any stories of later eras or modern encounters with Elijah?
There are many contemporary stories of encounters with Elijah, for example, those assembled by Eliezer Shore in his book Meeting Elijah. These modern accounts are certainly interesting, but they aren’t significantly different than earlier tales and traditions in the Talmud, Midrash, Jewish folklore, Kabbalah, and Hasidism.
We can encounter Elijah in several ways. One is by imagining him—opening the door for him at the Seder, or sensing his presence as the guardian of the covenant at a ritual circumcision. Another is by following the advice of Hayyim Vital, and making some of the preparations he recommends (see above, question 3), which may lead to a mystical experience, a “revelation of Elijah” (gillui Elliyahu). Another is by discovering an aspect of Elijah (behinat Eliyyahu) within ourselves (see above, questions 3 and 5).
What really happens when a person experiences a “revelation of Elijah” (gillui Eliyyahu). Is this an inner experience or a direct encounter with the immortal prophet? According to several kabbalists, the distinction is not that clear. Moses Cordovero writes, “Sometimes Elijah clothes himself in a person’s mind, revealing to him hidden matters. To the person, it seems as if he pondered those things on his own, as if that innovation suddenly entered his mind…; it feels as if he said it himself.”
A famous contemporary of Cordovero’s shares this view. Discussing a Talmudic story in which Rabbi Yehoshua son of Levi meets Elijah, the Maharal (R. Judah Loew) of Prague writes: “It makes no difference whether [Elijah] was revealed to [Rabbi Yehoshua son of Levi] in a vision or whether he was revealed as such, not in a vision. For frequently Elijah would speak words to someone, and that person did not know where they came from. It seemed to him as if those words came from himself―but they were the words of Elijah, speaking to him.”
In other words, the encounter with Elijah can take place deep within. In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, it is “an inner experience, a fact in the soul.”
11) You end the book with a Hasidic story and then conclude about our need to become an Elijah of compassion in ourselves. Can you explain?
Over the course of his endless life, Elijah learns to tame his fanaticism, but he never loses his passion. Rather, he channels that passion into mending himself, his people, and the world. We can “become” Elijah by imitating his transformation. By caring for others, we embody his quality.
That Hasidic story conveys this nicely: A pious Jew once asked his rabbi why Elijah never appeared on the night of the seder, even though the door was opened for him and his goblet of wine was waiting on the table. The rabbi told him: “There is a very poor family in your neighborhood. Go visit them and propose that next year you and your family will celebrate Passover with them in their house and that you’ll provide everything they need for the whole holiday. Then on the night of the Seder, Elijah will certainly come.” The man did as he was told, but after the following Passover he returned to the rabbi, complaining that once again Elijah had failed to appear. The rabbi responded, “Elijah came, but you couldn’t see him.” Holding a mirror to the man’s face, he continued, “Look, this was Elijah’s face that night.”
12) Can we compare Elijah to a Bodhisattva. Have you thought more about that comparison?
In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is a person who could enter the ultimate bliss of nirvana but instead decides to remain here in the mundane world in order to help others, both materially and spiritually. Elijah is transported to heaven, but he, too, refrains from basking eternally in celestial bliss and instead makes himself available to human beings here below. He inspires and demands ethical behavior and spiritual progress.
People often contrast Buddhism and Judaism, and there certainly are significant differences. But this parallel enables us to appreciate their shared wisdom. The bodhisattva, refusing to abandon life on earth, remains committed to the here and now. This brings to mind the contrast between Enoch and Elijah. According to the Jewish mystical tradition, Enoch, like Elijah, was transported to heaven, becoming an angel. But these two heroes proceed to act very differently. Enoch never leaves heaven. Why should he? It’s so blissful up there. But Elijah remains committed to people struggling down here on earth. That is his greatness.
13) You seem to have avoided the Jungian approaches entirely such as Aaron Wiener’s book on the prophet Elijah or Jung’s depiction in the Red Book. Why?
Wiener’s book, The Prophet Elijah in the Development of Judaism, was actually very important to me, and I cite him frequently in my extensive endnotes (12 times, to be precise). Already in the Introduction, I paraphrase one of Wiener’s basic claims, that “Elijah follows the path of the archetypal hero: uncertain origins, trials and adventures, transformation, and return into the world.” I proceed, throughout the book, to illustrate Elijah’s heroic journey. What I avoided was Wiener’s repetitive Jungian jargon, which I find tiresome.
14) Do you think you have a spark of Elijah in your soul? Do we all? What does your book mean for contemporary spirituality?
We each have a “spark of Elijah,” which the Hasidic master Nahum of Chernobyl also calls “an aspect of Elijah” (behinat Eliyyahu).
Elijah is important for contemporary spirituality because he isn’t perfect. He is a flawed human, like each of us. To me, the most striking thing about Elijah is how he undergoes a mending or rectification (tiqqun). You could say that certain rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash engineered this tiqqun because they couldn’t bear the harsh, fanatical contours of Elijah’s biblical personality. For them, he was simply too extreme, too remote and exalted, unable to mediate between God and mere humans. They criticize him, but more significantly they refashion him, softening and refining his image.
But from another perspective, Elijah effects his own tiqqun. He becomes immortal because his task has not been completed; he needs to mend his ways. Frequently returning to earth, he harnesses his zeal to help the persecuted and wretched. Instead of castigating the people of Israel, he fervently defends them. His wrath is spent. Now, in helping others, he cultivates kindness; his heart opens, and he discovers how to love.
Centuries after encountering God on Mount Sinai, he finally grasps an implication of the sound of sheer stillness (qol demamah daqqah)that he experienced there: to succeed in transforming others, fierce power is often less effective than patient gentleness.
In the Bible, Elijah saw everything as black-and-white. In his later phase of existence, he realizes that conflicting views can sometimes be equally true. As he declares in the Talmud, “Both these and those are words of the Living God.” He reveals the unity within the contradictions of tradition. Eventually, paving the way for the Messiah, he will “harmonize disputes.” The biblical zealot who slayed his opponents will come “to make peace in the world.”
Having mended himself, Elijah can stimulate others to strive for personal and social tiqqun. Having been flawed, he is familiar with failure. He failed to turn Israel completely and firmly back to God, and consequently, he begged God to take his life. But, having sunk so deeply in despair, over the ages he gradually learns how to lift anyone’s spirit.
Elijah is a model for how we can deal with failure, with negativity, with our negative traits. If we feel rage, we can learn from the immortal prophet how to transmute it into compassion. By quieting our restless mind, we can become attuned to the soothing yet potent sound of sheer stillness.