Elijah the Prophet kept on turning up in my grandparents’ house. Every time the family sat down to a Shabbat meal, there was an empty place, fully set—just in case Elijah might turn up. If a guest came unexpected, he sat there—after all, he might well be Elijah in disguise.

My grandmother was a seamstress. When great-grandsons began to arrive on the scene, she put her skills to work ornately upholstering a chair for the circumcision event. A chair for, you guessed it, Elijah the prophet. It’s a universal Jewish tradition that Elijah has been sworn to turn up at every single circumcision performed by Jewish people—as long as he is explicitly invited by the words, “This is the chair of Elijah the prophet.”

Saturday night, when Shabbat is over, we say a little prayer on the wine, smell some spices and light a multi-threaded candle—and then sing a song about Elijah the prophet coming to herald the Messianic era. You see, Elijah wouldn’t come on Friday, because people are too busy then preparing their Shabbat meals. And on Shabbat—well, Jewish people don’t travel on Shabbat. Which leaves Saturday night as the time to once again await his imminent arrival.

Then there are all the stories my grandmother told me, of saintly rabbis who studied under Elijah, righteous people who were plucked by Elijah from disaster at the last moment, and not-so-righteous who were given their chance to make amends through Elijah’s intervention.

So, you can imagine that I was quite thrilled when given the opportunity to interview Elijah himself. It was a short interview, but the ramifications of his responses still shake through my bones. —Tzvi Freeman

TF: Elijah, we all know you as the perennial man-behind-the-scenes of Jewish history. But you’re also known for your unique feat of ascending to the heavens with your body intact—and returning as well.

ETP: Not so unique. There was Enoch, grandson of Adam. It says about him that “Enoch walked with G‑d, and then he was no longer” (Genesis 5:24). In fact, when human beings were originally created, this was the standard repertoire. Before their fall, Adam and Eve would wander in and out of the heavenly chambers with their physical bodies.

TF: Their real physical bodies?

ETP: I know that sounds kind of strange, but remember, this was before the extreme dichotomy of physical and spiritual came into play. Physicality originally was just a way of tightly focusing in on divine energy. Making abstract ideas more “concrete,” so to speak. Only when the world descended, and Adam had to leave the garden, did physicality come into the conflict with spirituality we see now.

TF: But what you achieved, even Moses didn’t manage. After all, Moses had to be buried.

ETP: Moses was a much greater prophet than I—on a whole other scale. He was born from day one with this incredible soul. He never really had to purify his body or work with it much—his soul just overwhelmed and shone right through it. But the flip side is that when that soul left, the body was left without much real change.

My soul didn’t have that same power. I had to work very hard for many years to achieve prophecy. So that body I had worked with became purified, approaching something like Adam’s body before the fall.

TF: So once you achieved this capability, how did it come in handy?

ETP: Well, aside from the obvious stuff, like saving people in big-time trouble, testing people so they can receive their reward, message delivery—that sort of thing—my main position is in education. In each generation, there are key individuals who are to receive crucial new revelations of the inner soul of the Torah. Major secrets of the cosmos and beyond. My job is to teach them those things so they will understand them thoroughly and be able to teach them to others.

Some of my better-known students were Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who recorded much of what I taught him in the Zohar; Rabbi Isaac Luria, who learned how to explain the Zohar to his students; and Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, who began the Chassidic movement.

TF: You’re also traditionally known as the Messiah’s advance publicity agent.

ETP: That’s actually rather central to everything I do. In fact, when the second verse in Genesis says, “And the spirit of G‑d hovered over the face of the waters,” that’s talking about the spirit of the Messiah, and it’s talking about my soul.

TF: Not sure I see the relationship there.

ETP: When the creation began, the goal was set from the start: the inhabitants of the lowest physical plane were to transform their world into a transparent vessel for the Infinite Light. So the mission of my soul was to provide a precedent of sorts, for each person and for the entire cosmos.

TF: You mean to say that every person can achieve what you have?

ETP: In a certain way, every time you do a mitzvah, you are achieving just that: you are making your physical body and your physical world into a temple for the divine. As for permanent status—that’s the idea of the resurrection of the dead, which is a fundamental belief in classic Judaism. That’s a period following the Messianic era when bodies will once again be in the state of Adam and Eve. Eventually, all of physicality will be in that state. That was the original goal, so it really is quite inevitable.

TF: So will we be seeing you at the Passover Seder this year?

ETP: I always take any and all invitations. Just that I’m usually mistaken for just another obnoxious shnorrer. So nobody pays much attention when I make my announcements. As your grandmother told you, I generally travel incognito.

See also Three Visits from Elijah by Professor Yaakov Brawer.