Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Ascension of Eliyahu

There are two links in the Pinchas = Eliyahu bit. One is that Eliyahu HaNavi lived forever, and the other is that Eliyahu is the same person as Pinchas, and that the promise of Beriti Shalom is this promise of eternal life. I want to eventually consider each in turn, and see if we can date each of these claims.

In general, the idea of ascension rather than death is only rarely found in Jewish thought. Thus, in Bereishit 5, we find mention of Chachoch:

כב וַיִּתְהַלֵּךְ חֲנוֹךְ אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, אַחֲרֵי הוֹלִידוֹ אֶת-מְתוּשֶׁלַח, שְׁלֹשׁ מֵאוֹת, שָׁנָה; וַיּוֹלֶד בָּנִים, וּבָנוֹת. 22 And Enoch walked with God after he begot Methuselah three hundred years, and begot sons and daughters.
כג וַיְהִי, כָּל-יְמֵי חֲנוֹךְ, חָמֵשׁ וְשִׁשִּׁים שָׁנָה, וּשְׁלֹשׁ מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה. 23 And all the days of Enoch were three hundred sixty and five years.
And Bereishit Rabbati, from Rabbi Moshe haDarshan casts this as an apotheosis. God replaced his flesh with fire, gave him his own Throne of Glory and ministering angels, and called him "Little YKVK." Indeed, he is Metatron. This might even be peshat in the pesukim, given that he lived the same number of years as there are days in a solar year, and given a possible reading of walked with God. The alternative, of course, was that he was a righteous individual, and this was called walking with God. (There is also the pseudopigraphic Enoch who ascends to heaven.)

We see the idea of entering Gan Eden (the source of the four rivers) and living forever for human beings in the epic of Gilgamesh. But even in Bereishit, it would seem that the original plan before eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was that Man would live forever, and God feared (or is alleged to have feared) that Man would become "as one of us."

Besides Eliyahu, we also have Serach bat Asher, who occurs in a late count, and so the suggestion arose that she was extremely long-lived and eventually ascended to heaven alive. Though pashtanim suggest another interpretation of the relevant pesukim.

What about Eliyahu? Did he become an angel who consistently interacts with the world as Hashem's emissary?

One set of relevant pesukim are in Melachim Beis, perek 2. Some excerpts:
א וַיְהִי, בְּהַעֲלוֹת יְהוָה אֶת-אֵלִיָּהוּ, בַּסְעָרָה, הַשָּׁמָיִם; וַיֵּלֶךְ אֵלִיָּהוּ וֶאֱלִישָׁע, מִן-הַגִּלְגָּל. 1 And it came to pass, when the LORD would take up Elijah by a whirlwind into heaven, that Elijah went with Elisha from Gilgal.
ב וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלִיָּהוּ אֶל-אֱלִישָׁע שֵׁב-נָא פֹה, כִּי יְהוָה שְׁלָחַנִי עַד-בֵּית-אֵל, וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלִישָׁע, חַי-יְהוָה וְחֵי-נַפְשְׁךָ אִם-אֶעֶזְבֶךָּ; וַיֵּרְדוּ, בֵּית-אֵל. 2 And Elijah said unto Elisha: 'Tarry here, I pray thee; for the LORD hath sent me as far as Beth-el.' And Elisha said: 'As the LORD liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee.' So they went down to Beth-el.--
ג וַיֵּצְאוּ בְנֵי-הַנְּבִיאִים אֲשֶׁר-בֵּית-אֵל, אֶל-אֱלִישָׁע, וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו, הֲיָדַעְתָּ כִּי הַיּוֹם יְהוָה לֹקֵחַ אֶת-אֲדֹנֶיךָ מֵעַל רֹאשֶׁךָ; וַיֹּאמֶר גַּם-אֲנִי יָדַעְתִּי, הֶחֱשׁוּ. 3 And the sons of the prophets that were at Beth-el came forth to Elisha, and said unto him: 'Knowest thou that the LORD will take away thy master from thy head to-day?' And he said: 'Yea, I know it; hold ye your peace.'--
and then a bit later:
ט וַיְהִי כְעָבְרָם, וְאֵלִיָּהוּ אָמַר אֶל-אֱלִישָׁע שְׁאַל מָה אֶעֱשֶׂה-לָּךְ, בְּטֶרֶם, אֶלָּקַח מֵעִמָּךְ; וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלִישָׁע, וִיהִי נָא פִּי-שְׁנַיִם בְּרוּחֲךָ אֵלָי. 9 And it came to pass, when they were gone over, that Elijah said unto Elisha: 'Ask what I shall do for thee, before I am taken from thee.' And Elisha said: 'I pray thee, let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me.'
י וַיֹּאמֶר, הִקְשִׁיתָ לִשְׁאוֹל; אִם-תִּרְאֶה אֹתִי לֻקָּח מֵאִתָּךְ, יְהִי-לְךָ כֵן, וְאִם-אַיִן, לֹא יִהְיֶה. 10 And he said: 'Thou hast asked a hard thing; nevertheless, if thou see me when I am taken from thee, it shall be so unto thee; but if not, it shall not be so.'
יא וַיְהִי, הֵמָּה הֹלְכִים הָלוֹךְ וְדַבֵּר, וְהִנֵּה רֶכֶב-אֵשׁ וְסוּסֵי אֵשׁ, וַיַּפְרִדוּ בֵּין שְׁנֵיהֶם; וַיַּעַל, אֵלִיָּהוּ, בַּסְעָרָה, הַשָּׁמָיִם. 11 And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, which parted them both assunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.
יב וֶאֱלִישָׁע רֹאֶה, וְהוּא מְצַעֵק אָבִי אָבִי רֶכֶב יִשְׂרָאֵל וּפָרָשָׁיו, וְלֹא רָאָהוּ, עוֹד; וַיַּחֲזֵק, בִּבְגָדָיו, וַיִּקְרָעֵם, לִשְׁנַיִם קְרָעִים. 12 And Elisha saw it, and he cried: 'My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and the horsemen thereof!' And he saw him no more; and he took hold of his own clothes, and rent them in two pieces.
יג וַיָּרֶם אֶת-אַדֶּרֶת אֵלִיָּהוּ, אֲשֶׁר נָפְלָה מֵעָלָיו; וַיָּשָׁב וַיַּעֲמֹד, עַל-שְׂפַת הַיַּרְדֵּן. 13 He took up also the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and went back, and stood by the bank of the Jordan.
יד וַיִּקַּח אֶת-אַדֶּרֶת אֵלִיָּהוּ אֲשֶׁר-נָפְלָה מֵעָלָיו, וַיַּכֶּה אֶת-הַמַּיִם, וַיֹּאמַר, אַיֵּה יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֵלִיָּהוּ; אַף-הוּא וַיַּכֶּה אֶת-הַמַּיִם, וַיֵּחָצוּ הֵנָּה וָהֵנָּה, וַיַּעֲבֹר, אֱלִישָׁע. 14 And he took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and smote the waters, and said: 'Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?' and when he also had smitten the waters, they were divided hither and thither; and Elisha went over.
טו וַיִּרְאֻהוּ בְנֵי-הַנְּבִיאִים אֲשֶׁר-בִּירִיחוֹ, מִנֶּגֶד, וַיֹּאמְרוּ, נָחָה רוּחַ אֵלִיָּהוּ עַל-אֱלִישָׁע; וַיָּבֹאוּ, לִקְרָאתוֹ, וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ-לוֹ, אָרְצָה. 15 And when the sons of the prophets that were at Jericho some way off saw him, they said: 'The spirit of Elijah doth rest on Elisha.' And they came to meet him, and bowed down to the ground before him.
טז וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו הִנֵּה-נָא יֵשׁ-אֶת-עֲבָדֶיךָ חֲמִשִּׁים אֲנָשִׁים בְּנֵי-חַיִל, יֵלְכוּ נָא וִיבַקְשׁוּ אֶת-אֲדֹנֶיךָ--פֶּן-נְשָׂאוֹ רוּחַ יְהוָה, וַיַּשְׁלִכֵהוּ בְּאַחַד הֶהָרִים אוֹ בְּאַחַת הגיאות (הַגֵּיאָיוֹת); וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא תִשְׁלָחוּ. 16 And they said unto him: 'Behold now, there are with thy servants fifty strong men; let them go, we pray thee, and seek thy master; lest peradventure the spirit of the LORD hath taken him up, and cast him upon some mountain, or into some valley.' And he said: 'Ye shall not send.'
יז וַיִּפְצְרוּ-בוֹ עַד-בֹּשׁ, וַיֹּאמֶר שְׁלָחוּ; וַיִּשְׁלְחוּ חֲמִשִּׁים אִישׁ, וַיְבַקְשׁוּ שְׁלֹשָׁה-יָמִים וְלֹא מְצָאֻהוּ. 17 And when they urged him till he was ashamed, he said: 'Send.' They sent therefore fifty men; and they sought three days, but found him not.
יח וַיָּשֻׁבוּ אֵלָיו, וְהוּא יֹשֵׁב בִּירִיחוֹ; וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, הֲלֹא-אָמַרְתִּי אֲלֵיכֶם אַל-תֵּלֵכוּ. {ס} 18 And they came back to him, while he tarried at Jericho; and he said unto them: 'Did I not say unto you: Go not?' {S}
The fact is that it does not literally describe death and burial, but rather ascension to heaven in a whirlwind. However, this may be intended to describe some form of death, as one does not ascend to heaven except when life is over. Perhaps just as Moshe received Neshika, so did Eliyahu receive this particular form of passing from this world.

There could be a nafka mina in terms of whether Eliyahu haNavi's wife could remarry.

Three interesting points, to my mind:
  1. This ascension appears to have happened on a spiritual plane, such that Elisha's seeing of anything meant that he would have twice the spirit.
  2. Elisha cried and tore his clothing, which would typically be considered signs of mourning. This is appropriate for someone's death, but only arguably appropriate for someone becoming an angel. In fact in Moed Katan 26a Resh Lakish objects that Eliyahu is alive, so why the tearing (and why learning about the status of such a tear), and Rabbi Yochanan answers that since he no longer saw him, he was considered as if dead.
  3. Elisha knows that they can look all they want, but they will not find Eliyahu. It seems that Eliyahu is really taken from this world and is not interacting with it anymore. It would therefore be strange to have Eliyahu interacting within the same generation of even subsequent generations.
Yet even in Tanach we see a later promise of Eliyahu's interaction with the world. In the last of the books of prophets, Malachi, at the very end, we read:
כב זִכְרוּ, תּוֹרַת מֹשֶׁה עַבְדִּי, אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִי אוֹתוֹ בְחֹרֵב עַל-כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, חֻקִּים וּמִשְׁפָּטִים. 22 Remember ye the law of Moses My servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, even statutes and ordinances.
כג הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי שֹׁלֵחַ לָכֶם, אֵת אֵלִיָּה הַנָּבִיא--לִפְנֵי, בּוֹא יוֹם יְהוָה, הַגָּדוֹל, וְהַנּוֹרָא. 23 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD.
כד וְהֵשִׁיב לֵב-אָבוֹת עַל-בָּנִים, וְלֵב בָּנִים עַל-אֲבוֹתָם--פֶּן-אָבוֹא, וְהִכֵּיתִי אֶת-הָאָרֶץ חֵרֶם. 24 And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers; lest I come and smite the land with utter destruction. {P}
Perhaps we can read this figuratively, as a prophet in an Eliyahu HaNavi role, much as Eliyahu on har haKarmel. Or we can read this literally, in which case it is a promise to send Eliyahu haNavi.

If the latter, that tells us at the least how Malachi read the pesukim in Melachim Beis. This may or may not be the same as peshat in Melachim Beis -- though on the other hand, these are words of nevuah.

There is furthermore a difference between interacting only immediately before the yom hashem hagadol vehanorah on the one hand, and continuously interacting with people in multiple incidents, on the other.

In the words of Chazal, we find reference to Eliyahu as interacting with the world, so this conception had taken hold.


Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

i wrote a long post (based on a shi‘ur) about Eiliyahu; it's over here. it doesn't get into whether he died or not — yishar koahh, btw, on recognizing that it's not the chariot that takes him up to Heaven, something many people miss — but it does talk a little at the end about the significance of him coming back.

joshwaxman said...

thanks. very interesting.


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