The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit
The Eliyahu Narratives
Yeshivat Har Etzion
#94: The Storm
7: Eliyahu Lives On
Rav Elchanan Samet
(1) "And it was, when God took up Eliyahu in
a storm to heaven…
(3) … 'Do you know that today God will take
your master from over your head…'
(5) … 'Do you know that today God will take
your master from over your head…'
(9) 'What shall I do for you, before I am
taken from you?'
(10) 'If you see me taken from you, it shall
be so for you.'
(11) … And behold, a chariot of fire and
horses of fire, and they separated the two of them, and Eliyahu ascended in a
storm to heaven."
"Did Eliyahu die, or did he not?"
is the purpose of the description of Eliyahu's ascent to heaven in II
Melakhim 2 – a description so radically different from the account of any
other death recorded in Tanakh? Are
his "ascent" (mentioned twice) and his being "taken" (mentioned four times)
meant as a euphemistic indication of his death, or are they telling us the
opposite – that Eliyahu did not die?
we are to remain loyal to the literal text, it must be acknowledged that it
describes Eliyahu's bodily ascent.
Elisha watches his ascent until he disappears from sight – "and he saw
him no more" (v. 12). The only
tangible evidence that remains after Eliyahu's ascent is his mantle, which has
fallen from him. This tells us that
Eliyahu ascends bodily, dressed in his clothes – except for his mantle. Indeed, the apprentice prophets, who
comb the area for Eliyahu for three days, do not find him (vv.
if this is so, and Eliyahu's ascent to heaven is meant to signify his transition
from this world to that which lies beyond, to the Divine realm, then we are
faced with a difficult theological problem. The beraita (Sukka 5a)
Yosei said: "The Divine Presence never descended, nor did Moshe or Eliyahu
ascend on High, as it is written (Tehillim 115:16), 'The heaven is God's
heaven, and the earth He has given
Yosei draws an absolute and unequivocal distinction between the human realm and
the Divine. (His categorical denial
of any possibility of blurring the boundaries is doubtless directed towards the
various pagan mythologies, up to and including Christianity.) The Gemara questions this assertion,
citing instances that would appear to contradict it. The same response is used to counter
the Divine Presence not come down?
But it is written (Shemot 19:20), "God descended upon Mount
higher than ten handbreadths.
it is written (Zekharya 14:4), "His legs will stand that day upon the
Mount of Olives"!
higher than ten handbreadths.
did Moshe and Eliyahu not ascend on High?
But it is written (Shemot 19:3), "Moshe ascended to
lower than ten [handbreadths].
it is written, "Eliyahu ascended in a storm to heaven"!
lower than ten [handbreadths]."
handbreadths" represents the boundaries of man's domain, while whatever exists
above "ten handbreadths" belongs to God's domain. While there does exist some mutual
relationship between God and man, as evidenced in the verses cited by the Gemara
as well as many other sources, this connection never represents any blurring of
the sharp distinction between the two realms.
limitation of man, in his human, bodily state, from crossing this barrier is
conveyed to Moshe, "master of all the prophets" (Shemot Rabba 21:4),
during the Revelation at Chorev (Shemot 33:20):
said, "You shall not be able to see My face, for no man shall see Me and
when a person's soul is separated from his body, when it departs from the world
that is "under the sun" (Kohelet 1:3, et al.) and "below ten
handbreadths" – only then can the soul rise up (ibid.
dust settles back upon the earth, as it was, while the spirit returns to God,
Who gave it.
then, are we to reconcile Eliyahu's ascent to heaven with his human, material
state? Furthermore, what is the
meaning of the Talmudic solution to the question – that he went "lower than ten
us compare the approaches of two commentators – the Radak and the Ralbag. Both introduce their discussion of our
question in verse 1 of our chapter – "And it was, when God took up Eliyahu in a
storm to heaven."
Radak comments as follows:
stormwind took him up from the ground into the air. As one lifts things that are light, so
[the wind] lifted him, by God's will, to the fiery [chariot] wheel, which burned
his clothes – except for the mantle.
His flesh and his life were consumed, while the spirit returned to God,
Who had given it."
Radak returns to this image in his comment on verse 11, "And Eliyahu ascended in
a storm to heaven:"
I have explained… Eliyahu became a spiritual entity, with his body consumed in
the Divine fire, such that each element returned to its source. Elisha witnessed his ascent from the
earth, and when he became air, he saw the image of a fiery chariot, with horses
of fire, which separated them from each other.
the Radak's view, then, Eliyahu dies.
It is only his spirit that "returns to God, Who gave it." What is special about the description of
his death is the manner in which he died, which is different from any other
death recorded in Tanakh. In
Eliyahu's ascent in a storm to heaven there is a process whereby the body is
separated from the soul. The soul
(spirit) ascends to heaven, while the body and its garments are consumed, such
that there remains nothing for burial.
is the Radak's solution to the fundamental problem set forth
the Radak's explanation compatible with the language and spirit of the
text? The Abravanel is
Eliyahu died or not, and where he is – we have no way of ascertaining these
things through rational logic; we can only go by the tradition of our forebears
and the Sages, and by their interpretations of the verses. Nowhere does the text actually mention
"death" in connection with Eliyahu, as it does concerning Moshe and all of the
other prophets. This indicates that
his body was not separated from his soul, in the manner of all people who pass
away naturally. Although the
commentators have asserted that it is impossible that human bodies dwell among
the heavenly bodies and not upon them…
Still, we need not accept their view that his body and his clothes were
burned in that heated air or in the element of fire that was upon it, while the
soul of the prophet is bound up with the bundle of life, with God, like the
souls of the other prophets and the righteous men of God [as the Radak
explains]. For if this were so, the
text would not elaborate on this matter when Eliyahu was taken up, nor that he
was taken up in a storm. Why is
there no mention of death? Can we
suggest that people who are burned do not die like those who are buried in the
Ralbag takes a different approach.
After presenting the problem – "It is impossible to understand that he
was taken up to heaven, for mortal bodies do not ascend there" – he
is means is, to mid-air. As it is
written, "Great cities, fortified to the heaven" (Devarim 9:1); "A tower
with its top in the heaven" (Bereishit 11:4). God's wind lifted him to an as-yet
unknown place, and he remains alive there, as we have
the Ralbag proves that Eliyahu did not die in his commentary on verse
God will take your master from over your head" – this explains that [Eliyahu]
was taken only from over his head. Likewise, Eliyahu tells Elisha (v. 9),
"before I am taken from you." This
shows that God did not take him altogether, He only took him from
to the Ralbag, Eliyahu lives on, bodily, in some unknown place, where he waits
for the day when he will be manifest again. Where is this place? Is it "in mid-air" (somewhere in the
sky), or is it here on earth? This
is "as-yet unknown."
exegetical innovation, by means of which the Ralbag solves the question with
which he introduces the discussion, is his interpretation of the word "heaven,"
indicating the place to which Eliyahu ascends. In his view, this does not refer to the
Divine realm, that which extends "above ten handbreadths" (as referred to in
several verses speaking of "heaven," including the verse cited by Rabbi Yosei in
the beraita – "the heaven is God's heaven"), but rather to a high place
in our world, "in mid-air," but still within the human realm – "lower than ten
handbreadths." He then cites verses in which the Torah uses the word "heaven" to
indicate a great height, attained by humans, within the human
Ralbag's interpretation sits well with the Sages' teaching in several
places. It would seem that this is
what the Gemara means when it explains the verse, "Eliyahu ascended in a storm
to heaven," with the words, "lower than ten handbreadths." Targum Yonatan on
this verse, as well as on verse 11, would seem to tend towards the same
idea. He translates, "Eliyahu
ascended in a storm towards heaven." Likewise, the Ralbag's interpretation
helps to resolve a debate between Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan, recorded in
Massekhet Mo'ed Katan (26a).
Reish Lakish asks how the laws of rending clothes (for mourners) may be
deduced from the actions of Elisha, who tears his garments when Eliyahu
disappears from his view:
Lakish said to Rabbi Yochanan, "Eliyahu lives on!"
replied, "Since it is written, 'he saw him no more,' we deduce that, for
him, Eliyahu was considered dead."
agree that "Eliyahu lives on," but Rabbi Yochanan's response points in the
direction of the Ralbag's distinction: based on verses 3,5, and 8 we say that
"God did not take him altogether, He only took him from
sort of compromise between the approaches of the Radak and the Ralbag is
proposed in the Chatam Sofer's Responsa (Part 6, Ch.
never ascended bodily more than ten handbreadths, but his soul was separated
from his body there [in accordance with the Radak's view], and the soul rose up
and still serves on High, among the ministering angels, while his body became
fine-pressed and it lies in the lower Garden of Eden, in this world. On the day of God's redemption, may it
be speedily in our days, his soul will be clothed in this holy body, and then he
will be like any other of the sages and prophets of Israel… Likewise, every time that he is revealed
and perceived in this world, he is garbed in his pure body; but when he is
revealed [only] spiritually, as on the day of a circumcision [when he occupies
the "seat of Eliyahu"], then he is not obligated by the commandments, as it is
written (Tehillim 88:6), "The dead are free"… When he is revealed in this way, he is an
angel. [Hence,] even though he
studies Torah and reveals laws, the law is not determined in accordance with his
words, since he is like a dream or a prophetic spirit, and (Berakhot 52a)
"We do not take heavenly voices into account." However, when he is revealed in the garb
of his body, he is like one of the great sages of Israel, and (Tosefot Yom Tov,
Eduyyot 8:7) "[Eliyahu] the Tishbi will resolve questions and
the Chatam Sofer addresses a crucial question pertaining to Eliyahu. The image of this great prophet
continues to manifest itself, in a most wondrous way, throughout the history of
Israel and in its literature. In
most places where Eliyahu is mentioned in rabbinical literature, Eliyahu's
character is completely different from the way in which he is depicted in
Tanakh. In these places he is
described as conversing and debating with the Sages, or as one who is destined
to appear in the future with the solutions to all unresolved halakhic
questions. However, not only during
the period of the Sages, but also afterwards, Eliyahu continues to appear in our
tradition, in our customs, in legends that tell of his appearances, and even in
his revelations to several Jewish sages and leaders. We shall devote a future shiur to
by Kaeren Fish