Eliyahu hanavi (Elijah the Prophet; 9th c. B.C.E.), whose biblical appearance occurs during the reign of King Ahab in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, is often viewed with fascination as one of the most cryptic, eccentric, and colorful yet tenacious and sympathetic personalities in the Hebrew Bible and its exegetical literature.
When, in the biblical accounts in I and II Kings, King Ahab’s wife, Jezabel—the daughter of a pagan king—induces him to introduce into Israel the Caananite cult of Baal worship, and thereby to have the people embrace idolatry and false gods, Elijah accurately and dramatically predicts a drought as Divine collective punishment. Then, at Mount Carmel, in a demonstration of God’s supremacy and exclusive divinity superseding the nonexistent power of the imagined Baal deity, Elijah successfully orders the slaying of Baal’s supposed prophets—which Baal, of course, is powerless to prevent. Later, Elijah displays his unswerving Judaic monotheistic conviction and his loyalty to God by his courageous denunciation of the king for his role in the murder of Naboth, which Jezabel had accomplished on her husband’s behalf as a “gift” to the king to enable him to appropriate Naboth’s vineyard. Holy Scripture and tradition also relate that Elijah transcended to the afterworld without actually dying first. The Book of Malachi offers assurance that God will ultimately send Elijah the Prophet to restore Israel and to herald the messianic era: “Behold I will send you Elijah the Prophet before the great and awesome day of adonai [God]. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers….” (Malachi 3:23–24). Hence the enduring and pervasive tradition in Judaism that Elijah will appear at the divinely appointed time to announce the coming of the promised Messiah.
Tradition also ascribes to Elijah the role of resolving all disputes, debates, confusions, legal or academic questions, quandaries, and ambiguities just prior to the Messiah’s arrival. In certain religious circles Elijah is believed in the meantime to travel throughout the world—figuratively or literally—for the purpose of assessing continually the worth of humanity, particularly with regard to the Divine mandate for hospitality toward strangers, foreigners, and the needy. Some traditions maintain that he is invisibly present at brit mila ceremonies (circumcision of the covenant) to protect the child from danger (the “angel of the covenant,” Malachi 3:1). Accordingly, a special chair—“Elijah’s chair”—is symbolically reserved for the prophet and placed to the right of the sandek (the person given the honor of holding the infant boy during the brit mila).
Certainly the most widespread and familiar custom associated with Elijah, however, is the fifth cup of wine reserved for him at the Passover seder—viz., in addition to the four cups that are drunk by each person at appointed junctures during the seder. In keeping with this folkloric symbolism, Elijah is said invisibly to visit each Jewish home for a brief moment during the seder to sip a drop of wine from “his” goblet.
At the conclusion of the birkat hamazon (the postprandial expressions of gratitude to God and the acknowledgment of His bounty, or the so-called grace after meals) in the second part of the bifurcated seder, the door of each household is thus customarily opened as a symbolic invitation to Elijah, while the assemblage rises to proclaim its hope for Divine justice and ultimate spiritual as well as national redemption.
In turn, this custom is thought to have arisen from a talmudic discussion or interpretation concerning the required number of cups of wine to be consumed by the seder participants—whether this number should be construed as four or five (Rif [Rabbi Yitzhak Alfasi] commentary on Pesaḥim 118a). According to tradition in this connection, Elijah will eventually clarify the issue when he appears as a precursor to the Messiah and proceeds to resolve all outstanding disputes and questions. Pending that resolution, Elijah’s fifth cup can be viewed not only as representing the hospitality pronounced in the early stages of the first part of the seder (ha laḥma anya … kol dikhfin yeitei v’yekhol; Let all who are hungry come and eat; whoever is in need, let him come and join in celebrating the Passover festival), but also as providing a messianic element to the seder. The fifth cup and the opening of the door for Elijah can represent faith in the promised coming of the Messiah, with Elijah as the messenger of imminent redemption.
Among the vast literature of liturgical and extra-liturgical poetry written by paytanim beginning approximately in the 10th century C.E. in Babylonia and Palestine and extending through the Middle Ages, particularly in Europe, there are a number of poems and hymns that address the theme of Elijah. By the 11th century, it had already become customary in many if not most Jewish communities and rites to include sung versions of one or another of these hymns at the ceremony marking the conclusion of the Sabbath. It also became customary in many traditions to do so at the seder, usually when the door is opened to invite Elijah in. A refrain, which is probably the oldest element in this body of poetry, is shared by at least several of the otherwise unrelated or distinct poems:
Eliyahu hanavi, eliyahu hatishbi, eliyahu hagiladi,
Bimhera [b’yamenu] yavo eleinu im mashi’aḥ ben david.
Elijah the Prophet, Elijah the Tishbite [who lived in Toshav],
Elijah the Giladite [who also lived in Gil’ad],
May he quickly come to us [in our own days] with the
Messiah, the son of David.
The best-known and most familiar of these Elijah-related poems is an anonymous strophic, alphabetical acrostic—with the above refrain. Each of the first nine of the eleven stanzas is introduced by the same word, ish (“man,” in reference to Elijah), followed in stanzas 1–7 by an attribute, deed, action, or accomplishment associated—by tradition, biblical citation, or the poet’s imagination and extension—with Elijah; and in stanzas 8 and 9 by an expression of hope for imminent “good news” of his arrival.
The ninth stanza related directly to the conclusion of the Sabbath in its wish that Elijah’s reappearance—viz., the advent of the messianic era—will enable him to “gladden children along with their parents at the departure of the Sabbath” (and the launch of the new week).
The first letters of the second word of each of the first nine stanzas provide the acrostic—the Hebrew alphabet in order. Stanza 10, which quotes the Divine promise concerning Elijah’s coming (Malachi 3:23), and 11, with its prayer for God’s blessing of peace, serve as a kind of epilogue.
It is likely that at one time the entire poem was sung, so that there would have been a variety of musical versions that provided a repeated tune for the individual stanzas as well as for the refrain. At least some versions probably contained a separate tune for the refrain, since its rhythmic structure and syllabic content differ from those elements of the stanzas. Only the refrain is generally sung today, except perhaps in certain Hassidic circles—whether at the conclusion of the Sabbath or at seders. Although there still remain extant numerous distinct tunes for this refrain as a self-contained text, most survive only in notated compilations and anthologies or in the repertoire of individual family traditions. Several may be found, for example, in collections such as Musikalisher Pinkes, compiled and edited by Abraham Bernstein and published in Vilna by the Jewish Historical Ethnographic Society in 1927; Zamru Lo, published by the Cantors Assembly in New York; Z’mirot Anthology, compiled and edited by Neil Levin with Velvel Pasternak, published by Tara Publications in Cedarhurst, New York, in 1981; and Arno Nadel’s Die Hauslichen Sabbatgesange, published in Berlin in 1937. Most of these versions, however, have receded over time into virtual oblivion and are all but unknown. The single exception, which has now more or less become the exclusive tune for Eliyahu hanavi in American Ashkenazi circles and may be regarded as a ubiquitous folk or traditional melody, is the tune upon which Shapiro based his series of variations for solo cello. The provenance, age, and origin of the tune—which has accrued several variants, some with more free-flowing melismatic passages than the presently established one—remain undetermined. But it was already common among Ashkenazim in America by at least the dawn of the 20th century. It was also known much earlier in the 19th century among eastern European Jewry, who probably hosted either its birth or its adaptation for these words; and Western variants were known as well to German-speaking Jewry in the 19th century. One of the latter appears in the Braunschweig-Tempel Hymnbook (1835), which has been cited as the earliest known notation of the tune. A similar variant is also found in the aforementioned Sabbatgesange, edited by Arno Nadel in Berlin.
The Braunschweig-Tempel Hymnbook variant, which served as the source for Abraham Zvi Idelsohn’s inclusion in his watershed book Jewish Music in Its Historical Development (1929), has fewer dotted rhythms than the presently sung variant. It departs more radically in the second part of the tune, beginning with the words bimhera v’yavo, where the meter gives way to a quasi-recitative passage. The continuation of the melody into the second line of text may, therefore, have been a later accretion. Despite its inclusion in a German-Jewish hymnbook, the tune is notable for its polonaise rhythmic pattern and for the mazurka-like stress on the second beat, both of which elements reflect Polish characteristics. It is true that the mazurka had come to Germany as a dance form as early as the mid-18th century. However, the extension of the incipit in the current variation, together with its basic rhythmic pattern, speaks additionally for possible Polish-Lithuanian influence.
In the course of the twelve variations of this original work, the theme is treated with many of the conventional compositional devices typically employed in classical thematic variation. They include inventive and idiomatic ornamentation of phrases, exploitation of intervallic content through broad extensions and wide leaps, repeated arpeggios, diminution of motives, and development of compact pitch cells. All these techniques are applied to components of the basic melody, which is stated at the outset. The tenth variation exhibits a subtle degree of jazz treatment. While each variation focuses on a particular melodic or rhythmic property extracted from the theme, the work displays an audible sense of unity throughout.
Performers: Sato Knudsen, Cello