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!