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Why Is There a Chair for Elijah at a Brit Milah (Circumcision)?

Why Is There a Chair for Elijah at a Brit Milah (Circumcision)?

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Art by Lori Loebelson
Art by Lori Loebelson

At the circumcision ceremony (brit milah), it is customary to have a seat designated for Elijah the prophet. According to tradition, Elijah, who is referred to as the “angel of the brit,”1 visits every circumcision ceremony. Here’s why:

During the period when the nation of Israel was split into two kingdoms, Elijah the prophet had a showdown at Mt. Carmel with 450 false prophets of the Baal idol, resulting in their deaths. The king of the northern kingdom, Ahab, together with his wicked wife Jezebel, sent a message to the prophet Elijah: “At this time tomorrow, I will make your life like the life of one of them.”2

Elijah fled, and 40 days later he arrived at a cave on Mount Sinai where he spent the night. There G‑d revealed himself to Elijah and said, “Elijah, why are you here?” Elijah replied: “I have been zealous for the L‑rd, the G‑d of Hosts, for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant . . . and they seek my life to take it.”3

Which covenant did the people forsake? The Midrash says Elijah was referring to circumcision, which is called a brit (“covenant”). Furthermore, according to one midrash, not only did Elijah complain about them abandoning the covenant, but in his zealotry he asked G‑d to punish the sinners of Israel.4

The Midrash says that G‑d rebuked him, saying: “They abandoned My covenant, not yours; they dismantled My altars, not yours; they killed My prophets, not yours. Why are you more zealous than I!?5

“I vow,” continued G‑d, “that whenever My children make this sign in their flesh [i.e., whenever there is a circumcision], you will be present, and the mouth which testified that the Jewish people have abandoned My covenant will testify that they are keeping it."6

By attending every circumcision, Elijah was given the opportunity to rectify his error by testifying in their favor and to their credit that they do keep the covenant.7

It is for for this reason the sages instituted that there be a seat of honor for Elijah at every circumcision.8

At the brit milah we pray that just as Elijah came to testify in our favor, so may he come and herald the final redemption!

Footnotes
4.
See Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1:6.
5.
See Shir Hashirim Rabbah ibid.
6.
Ibid.; Zohar 1:93a.
7.
See Ramak, Ohr Hachamah on Zohar ibid.
8.
See Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 29, and Zohar ibid.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
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Lionel Starkowitz Johannesburg October 27, 2017

Thank you for the information.I too,did not know this and it is very fascinating. It is nearly Shabbos here in Hong Kong(I am visiting on business from Johannesburg South Africa) and I am looking forward to spending the evening at Chabad. Reply

sunil subba India October 27, 2017

Thanks for the explanation of the mysterious chair for Elijah as the meaning adds another dimension and the mitzvah acquires the depth as it is from the creator.The union with the creator of Elijah must have been superb as he ascended into the heavens on a chariot.The relationship must have been like Moses. Reply

Farah Sajid Pakistan October 27, 2017

Shabbos Shalom rabbi, and thank you so much ,for teach us with beautifully explanation about "Elijah Chair" at a "Brit Milan".
Thanks again. Reply

diwellchiwele zambia October 26, 2017

Marvelous and wonderful information on that issue. I am richly satisfied with your explanation. Stay blessed. Reply

Theodore Gutwein Brooklyn October 26, 2017

Thank you so much. I happen to be observant from birth however a simple thing like this I did not know, how sad. I want to thank you very much for this information I genuinely feel richer knowing this. Thank you. Reply

Peter Pesach Weis #36A October 25, 2017

Thank you, Rabbi, for an excellent explanation. I take it personally. Reply

Lynne Newington Australia October 25, 2017

Elijahs Chair Beautiful Reply

Michael Morristown, NJ October 25, 2017

I feel absolutely certain that when Elijah complained to G-d that the people had broken his covenant, he was speaking much more broadly than just about circumcision! Reply

Lynne Newington Australia October 26, 2017
in response to Michael:

“I vow,” continued G‑d, “that whenever My children make this sign in their flesh [i.e., whenever there is a circumcision], you will be present, and the mouth which testified that the Jewish people have abandoned My covenant will testify that they are keeping it."

Makes sense to me, and sadly, it was that same "covenant" that you were recognised by during the Holocaust. Reply

brett summerland bc October 25, 2017

TaNaK vs human philosophy Israel was worshiping idols. Why would anyone have the idea that Elijah needed to repent based on his G-d planned and approved rebuke of them. For certain what is presented in this article is nowhere in the TaNaK. Reply

josh madrid October 28, 2017
in response to brett:

amen brett Reply

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