Eli­jah

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment -

NO MAT­TER who else you have in­vited to your Seder tonight, there is one per­son who al­ways man­ages to get him­self onto the guest list — a man (or is it a spirit?) whom we sum­mon in from the cold to en­joy a nice cup of wine and per­haps a lit­tle matzah.

But how much do you know about the prophet Eli­jah be­sides the fact that he en­joys a drink, prefers to en­ter through the door rather than down the chim­ney and can be a lit­tle elu­sive?

Eli­jah is also men­tioned in the New Tes­ta­ment, is de­scribed as “a great and right­eous prophet” in the Ko­ran and un­in­ten­tion­ally in­spired a multi-os­car win­ning block­buster film.

Eli­jah (in He­brew Eliyahu) is usu­ally trans­lated as “Yah­weh is my God”. He lived in the King­dom of Sa­maria in the 9th cen­tury BCE and, ac­cord­ing to the books of Kings I and Kings II, con­fronted King Ahab and his wife Jezebel over Ahab’s worship of the pa­gan God Baal.

Un­like other prophets, Eli­jah’s story does not fin­ish with him dy­ing but rather be­ing lifted into the heav­ens in a char­iot of fire — hence the poem, Jerusalem, by Wil­liam Blake and Hugh Hud­son’s epic 1981 movie.

It is his spec­tac­u­lar de­par­ture from this world which has al­lowed Eli­jah to be­come a leg­endary fig­ure in Jewish tra­di­tion — in­deed, many be­lieve his re­turn will fore­shadow the com­ing of the Mes­siah.

He is also is said to be the guardian of all new­born boys, which earns him a seat at ev­ery brit mi­lah (but no glass of wine). He also gets a men­tion at the end of Shab­bat in the hav­dalah ser­vice, and has earned his sym­bolic place at the Seder ta­ble.

The Seder ap­pear­ance is a key event to­wards the end of the ser­vice. A glass of wine is poured for Eli­jah, the door is opened and the night sky is scanned for the non-gift­bear­ing Jewish ver­sion of Santa. This is thought to be a fore­shad­ow­ing of his fu­ture ar­rival at the end of the days, when he will come to an­nounce the com­ing of the Mes­siah.

Eli­jah also makes an ap­pear­ance in a large num­ber of Jewish folk sto­ries. In these sto­ries Eli­jah is dressed up as a beg­gar, or an old wan­der­ing Jew, ar­riv­ing to teach those who wel­come him in an im­por­tant les­son about hos­pi­tal­ity

A re­cent tra­di­tion in Lib­eral and Re­form house­holds is to pour two cups, one of wine for Eli­jah and a cup of water for Miriam, stem­ming from the leg­end that says a well of water fol­lowed Miriam through the desert.

There is also a prac­ti­cal rea­son for Eli­jah’s cup. The an­cient rab­bis were un­able to de­cide whether there should be four or five cups of wine drunk at the seder, so they came up with a com­pro­mise. Their so­lu­tion was to drink four cups and then pour an­other one for Eli­jah. When Eli­jah re­turns, it will be for him to de­cide whether this fifth cup should be con­sumed at the seder or aban­doned.

Un­til then, there will al­ways be some joker pour­ing half the cup away while no one else is look­ing – or claim­ing that Eli­jah has made off with the afiko­man.

I SPEND Shab­bat with the Har­low com­mu­nity, the 32nd in my at­tempt to visit all 42 Re­form syn­a­gogues dur­ing my first year. Rabbi Irit Shillor leads a lovely ser­vice. The con­gre­ga­tion is largely young fam­i­lies and older peo­ple, although I meet a thir­tysome­thing first-time vis­i­tor from Hert­ford — a re­minder of our chal­lenge to pro­vide com­mu­ni­ties where all feel at home.

The next day I start pre­par­ing for the fam­ily seder with the Re­form Move­ment’s new Hag­gadah. We’ve printed 1,200 copies this year and are ask­ing for feed­back on this pre­pub­li­ca­tion draft. I am con­fi­dent the very lib­eral Rich fam­ily will have lots to say.

I have cof­fee with an MA grad­u­ate from the Leo Baeck Col­lege. My guest has writ­ten her dis­ser­ta­tion on Ched­erim and why mid­dle class par­ents choose them for their chil­dren but don’t nec­es­sar­ily en­gage with what they are taught. I won­der how much ched­erim are about ed­u­ca­tion and how much they are about com­mu­nity build­ing. Is the more in­for­mal ed­u­ca­tion ap­proach which some of our com­mu­ni­ties are al­ready adopt­ing closer to meet­ing par­ents’ needs?

On Tues­day I hire some­one to de­velop our stu­dent data­base. Re­search sug­gests that Re­form stu­dents can feel un­com­fort­able at Hil­lel Houses. It is in the whole com­mu­nity’s in­ter­est that Re­form Ju­daism gets bet­ter at reach­ing stu­dents, or they will sim­ply van­ish. As ever, it comes down to re­sources. Cheque for £1 mil­lion any­one? The cards are at least on my side that evening at the Can­cer Re­search Bridge Tour­na­ment.

Our Board meets to fi­nalise the Move­ment’s strate­gic plan for the next three and half years. The chal­lenge now is to de­cide what we can pos­si­bly leave un­til later. We de­cide com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment must be the pri­or­ity. I take Thurs­day off for my birth­day. The morn­ing is spent with An­drew Strauss and co — very frus­trat­ing. Then I join what seems like the rest of Har­row for the Queen’s Ju­bilee visit to the Hindu Kr­ish­naA­vanti pri­mary school in Edg­ware. As a gov­er­nor I’m in­vited into the in­ner sanc­tum to see our first years per­form a tra­di­tional In­dian song. Prince Phillip wants to know if the chil­dren are taught English. We ex­plain they study the na­tional cur­ricu­lum. Later I bump into Rabbi Michael Hil­ton of Kol Chai and dis­cover the 200 per­son choir is be­ing con­ducted by one of our mem­bers.

Fri­day is my daugh­ter’s birth­day. Seven years ago I told my wife I wasn’t shar­ing my birth­day with any­one. In an ex­cep­tional mo­ment of com­pli­ance, she waited. Ben Rich is chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Move­ment for Re­form Ju­daism

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