MY YEAR > TORAH TALK > Eliyahu at the bris
Kisei Eliyahu at a Bris

Why Does Eliyahu Get a Seat at Every Bris?

    Every event in the life cycle of a Jew is marked with holy customs and traditions that are imbued with deep meaning and symbolism.  The bris, or brit milah, which is the ritual circumcision of the Jewish baby boy on the eighth day, is certainly no exception.  One of these customs at the bris is to set aside a special chair for the prophet Eliyahu.  This chair, known as the kisay shel Eliyahu, is often decorated and is to be found at britot milah in both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities.  The origin of this custom is very interesting.

    We find in Sefer Melachim that the Jewish people were in very bad shape. The nation had split in two:  the Northern Kingdom which included the ten northern tribes and the Southern Kingdom which mainly consisted of the tribe of Yehuda.  Led by a succession of evil rulers, the Jewish people strayed from the path of Torah. The wicked king Achav and his non-Jewish wife Jezebel brought idol worship to the people. Among the people there arose false prophets of idol worship known as the Nevei Habaal. Under their influence the Jewish people were led to deny God and to forsake His commandments.  One of the commandments that was abandoned was brit milah.

    Eliyahu Hanavi who was the prophet at that time (and who many identify as Pinchas Hakohen) called for the repentance of the Jewish people.  He went so far as to ask God to withhold rain and dew from the land until they repented. In the midst of the great famine, Eliyahu challenged the Nevei Habaal to a showdown on Mount Carmel.  As the story goes, in this confrontation, only Eliyahu’s sacrifice was consumed by the heavenly fire thus proving him to be the true prophet of God and the Nevei Habaal to be false prophets.  Eliyahu, thereby, won the allegiance of the Jewish people.  At that time, Eliyahu had the Nevei Habaal killed. The people’s acceptance of God signaled the beginning of the end of the famine. We next find Eliyahu Hanavi running for his life. The wicked queen Jezebel was furious at him for what he had done and was determined to take his life.  Eliyahu left the land of Israel and ran to Har Sinai. It was there, after a night of meditation and prayer that God spoke to him. God entered into the conversation and asked Eliyahu why he was there. Eliyahu answered that he had acted with great zeal for God. The Jewish people had forsaken His covenant, brit milah, razed His alters and killed His prophets.

    There are two primary ways to understand God’s answer.  The Prisha, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Alexander HaKohen Falk (1555-1614) writes that some learn that God was upset with Eliyahu’s answer as it was a condemnation of the Jewish people. It’s as if God had said, “you tell Me my children are not keeping the mitzvah of brit milah, therefore, you will be destined to be present at every brit from now on”.  However, the Prisha disagrees with this explanation because the punishment does not fit the crime. If Eliyahu’s sin was saying the Jewish people were not keeping the mitzvah of brit milah, it is illogical that his punishment would be to see every brit milah happen. He therefore answers that this was really a reward. As the Vilna Gaon puts it, God answered Eliyahu, in effect, saying, “you have been zealous for Me two times:  in Shittim (which we find in Sefer Bamidbar), as Pinchas Hakohen when you killed Zimri; and now, with respect to the fulfillment of the mitzvah of brit milah. Therefore, the Jewish people will not make a brit milah until you see it with your own eyes.
    The Shulchan Aruch writes that one should set aside a special chair for Eliyahu before the brit milah by saying, “This is the chair of Eliyahu.” The Zohar and others write that this is an invitation for Eliyahu to come and that if one does not say the words out loud then Eliyahu, in fact, does not attend.  It has become the custom in many shuls to have a very fancy chair that is labeled “kisay shel Eliyahu”.  It seems that while this is certainly a beautification of the mitzvah, nevertheless, any chair will certainly suffice.

    Tradition has it that when Eliyahu comes to the brit he also heals the child. Rabbi Paysach Krohn writes in his book on bris milah a fascinating story. Rav Shlomo Kluger once attended a brit, but the family seemed in no hurry to begin the procedure. There was no apparent reason for their delay for the mohel and baby were both present. The rav inquired about the delay and was told that the father of the child was incurably ill and very near death, and that local custom called for delaying the brit, until the last possible minute, so that if the father would die then the baby could bear his name.

    The rav grew upset and insisted that the baby immediately be taken to the father's bedside and that the brit be performed there without delay. After the brit, the father’s condition began to improve and he eventually recovered completely.  When people started speaking of the miraculous cure effected by R' Shlomo Kluger, the rav replied, “I am no miracle worker, it is merely that when Eliyahu, the angel of the covenant, came to heal the child, he healed the sick father as well.”

    In the end, we see that the custom of placing a chair for Eliyahu at the bris is more than merely another cute custom among many which we observe because our parents did it, but rather, one we observe in order to remind us of the great zeal and dedication of our great prophet Eliyahu Hanavi and of the great love and concern God has for us, his children.

Rabbi Eliezer Kessler
Houston, Texas