This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

A Heavenly Herald (... and Some Housework) *

It is well known that the Shabbat preceding Passover has been given the special designation Shabbat Ha-Gadol-- the great sabbath. Although numerous explanations have been proposed for that grandiose epithet, I tend to prefer the most prosaic of them, the one that links it to the concluding words of the special scriptural reading (haftarah) from Malachi in which the prophet promises his people Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. Based on Malachi's vision, Jewish tradition has embraced a belief that the great day will first be heralded by a reappearance of Elijah; and this may have contributed to the widespread customs that give the prophet a role at the Passover seder.

These beliefs about Elijah's coming in advance of the Messiah formed the basis of an intriguing technical discussion in talmudic law. The rabbis examined the case of a person who vows to become a nazirite (which includes abstention from wine) while adding the stipulation that the vow will take effect on the day when the son of David arrives.

Though this case is treated as an academic one, some scholars have argued that Jews in antiquity were accustomed to undertake such vows of pious self-denial as a means to hasten the coming of the Messiah.

Because we are never quite certain when the son of David will make his appearance, the rabbis declare that, just to be safe, the person who uttered such a vow must refrain from wine on any date for which there is exists some possibility of the Messiah's arrival. Accordingly, though the prohibition must be observed on most normal days, the author of the vow is nevertheless permitted to drink wine on sabbaths or festivals.

The Talmud demanded a clear and precise explanation why the sages could beso sure that the Messiah will not come on those days. As a starting hypothesis, it proposed to link the assumption to the restrictions against traveling on holy days. After all, the Messiah is presumably coming from somewhere far-off, and Jewish law would prevent him from doing so on a Saturday or festival.

This hypothesis, however, proved to be more problematic than it appeared initially. For one thing, we are not all that certain what mode of transportation the Messiah will choose to make his entrance. Of course, if he were limited to conventional forms of ground transportation then there would be no question that these would be prohibited on sabbaths or holidays. However, a Messiah might well have other options available to him; indeed, who is to say that he will not choose to make his entry by flying--and not necessarily in an aircraft?

Legends about a flying Messiah were current among ancient Jews. The apocalyptic work known as Fourth Ezra described him as a mighty warrior who soars out from the sea to perch atop a great mountain, from which he will smite his foes with a stream of fire that issues from his mouth. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi stated in the Talmud that if Israel proves worthy, they will rejoice in the fulfilment of Daniel's scenario of a redeemer who arrives on the clouds of heaven.

The rabbis, however, were interested primarily in the legal implications of the event. If it could be established that the Messiah may not travel on holy days even by air, then it would resolve an ongoing controversy about whether the halakhic restrictions on travel apply above the ground. Given the typical rabbinic reluctance to resolve juicy questions of that sort, they chose to approach their question from a different perspective.

The Talmud now suggested that it was simply out of the question for the Messiah to show up without warning. After all, did not Malachi state categorically that we will be notified in advance by Elijah! Presumably, to be of any use, that notification would have to take place at least one day earlier--and (as some of the commentators add) Elijah would not postpone his announcement unnecessarily after his arrival. Therefore, as long as we have not heard of the prophet's arrival on the previous day, our dubious nazirite may confidently sip some sauvignon.

However, once the Elijah factor was injected into the discussion, it did not take the Talmud long to realize that it could undermine their entire premise; for if the Messiah's arrival must be preceded by that of Elijah, then we may be confident of his non-arrival on any other day of the week or year unless we have actually heard reports of Elijah's appearance!

Upon rethinking the matter, the discussants were inclined to dismiss the entire issue of Elijah's advance arrival; since it is quite conceivable that he did show up but did not make his presence known immediately to the general public. From the rabbis' perspective, it made better sense to assume that the prophet would first present his credentials before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious court, while leaving the general populace temporarily unaware of his presence. If we accept this premise, then the immanence of the Messiah's arrival can be effectively divorced from our knowledge of Elijah's coming.

So again the Talmud must reconsider its original question: what grounds are there for our certainty that the Messiah will never arrive on a sabbath or festival?

Unlike the rabbis' previous suggestions that were based on subtle legal hairsplitting or procedural considerations, the answer that they now came up with was sublime in its simplicity: Israel have been duly guaranteed that Elijah will not arrive either on the eves of Sabbath or on the eves of festivals--out of consideration for the extra work that would be involved! Simply put, it is inconceivable that Elijah would show up on a busy Friday or on the day preceding a festival; which makes it impossible for the Messiah to arrive on the following day.

What a remarkable understanding of the Jewish redemption is embedded in this discussion! When Elijah finally comes to herald that magnificent milestone for which our people's hearts have yearned throughout the centuries of the exile, he will arrange the scheduling so that that it will not interfere with our domestic preparations.

As the Talmud is quick to point out, if Elijah cannot come on a Friday or a festival eve, then presumably neither can the Messiah himself. This should ostensibly free up those dates for drinking wine. Why, then, did the rabbis not draw that inference with respect to the nazirite vow?

But no, the Talmud retorts, there is an essential difference between Elijah's arrival and that of the Messiah. While the former, as a mere harbinger of the redemption, does not institute any substantial changes, the latter's appearance will have a far-reaching impact in our status as a nation. Specifically, it means that once Israel is redeemed, we will be relieved of some of the drudgery of our household preparations, because these will now be delegated to heathens.

Some interpreters (though assuredly not all of them) were uncomfortable with this chauvinistic image of Jews lording it over other peoples in the redeemed world. Rabbi Joseph Hayim of Baghdad, the renowned Ben Ish Hai, took care to explain that the gentiles would not be serving their Jewish neighbours under any form of servitude, but would choose to do so voluntarily upon learning to appreciate the spiritual nobility of the Torah's teachings.

All this might prevent the prophet Elijah from participating in our seder, at least on the year of the Messiah's arrival. I confess, though, that this might be an eminently fair price to pay for the seductive convenience of having someone to assist in cleaning the house, hauling out the Passover dishes and preparing the festive table.

This article and many others are now included in the book

For Signs and for Seasons

For Signs and for Seasons

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