Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ki Tissa

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Ki Tissa 5761/ March 17, 2001


Moses and Elijah

Amos Hakham

The Haftarah of Parashat Ki Tissa is taken from the story of Elijah's battle against the worship of Baal (I Kings, 18). The theme is reminiscent of Moses' battle against worshipping the golden calf, recounted in Parashat Ki Tissa. Scripture writes of Moses: "Moses stood up in the gate of the camp and said, 'Whoever is for the Lord, come here!' And all the Levites rallied to him" (Ex. 32:26). And of Elijah: "Then Elijah said to all the people, 'Come closer to me'; and all the people came closer to him" (I Kings 18:30). At Moses' command, "some three thousand of the people fell that day" (Ex. 32:28); Elijah ordered all the prophets of Baal to be captured and "took them down to the Wadi Kishon and slaughtered them there" (I Kings 18:40).

Today only the Yemenites include this verse in their reading of the Haftarah,[1] whereas other communities today[2] conclude with the double pronouncement, "The Lord alone is G-d. The Lord alone is G-d" (v. 39), and do not read the verse describing the justice exacted of those who worshipped Baal. Perhaps this custom arose because the festive proclamation, "the Lord alone is G-d," is a fine way to conclude, or perhaps because a longer reading -even by a single verse-- would be tiresome to the congregation. Nevertheless, we surmise that the concluding point for the Haftarah was deliberately chosen in order not to publicize Elijah's cruel act against the prophets of Baal, which is described in a manner far more repulsive that the Torah's depiction of Moses' punishment of those who worshipped the golden calf.

It seems that most congregations preferred not to read in public about Elijah's execution of the prophets of Baal, so that they would not hurt the folk image of Elijah as the one destined to bring peace to the world.[3] Indeed, the Sages criticized Elijah for his zealotry, saying that on this account it was decreed that he depart from the world and pass the mantel of prophesy on to his disciple Elisha.[4] Here, too, a similarity can be detected between Moses and Elijah; it was decreed that Moses, as well, not complete the mission of bringing the Israelites into the promised land, but appoint Joshua to take his place. It is not coincidental that Elijah's disciple and successor was called Elisha (Eli-sha), a name similar to that of Moses' successor, Joshua (Yeho-shua). These names differ primarily in the divine name that begins them, but both end with a form of the verb y-sh-'a, "to save". Perhaps Elisha's name begins with E-l precisely in order to allude to the name of his mentor, Elijah, whose name also begins with E-l.

The parallels between Moses and Elijah have been discussed by the Sages, who commented on this subject in Pesikta Rabbati:[5]

R. Tanhum b. R. Abba began: "But when the Lord brought Israel up from Egypt, it was through a prophet" (Hosea 12:14) - namely, Moses. "Through a prophet they were guarded" (ibid.) - namely, Elijah. Thus, you find that two prophets came to the aid of Israel from the tribe of Levi - Moses first, and Elijah last. Both were sent to redeem Israel. Moses was sent by divine mission to redeem them from Egypt: "Come, therefore, I will send you to Pharoah" (Ex. 3:10); and Elijah will be sent by divine mission to redeem them at the end of time: "Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you" (Malachi 3:23). Since Moses first redeemed them from Egypt, they have never again been enslaved by Egypt. And when Elijah shall redeem them from the fourth exile - from Edom - they shall never again be enslaved, but shall be saved forever. Thus, you see that Moses and Elijah are equal in every respect.

At this point the homilist proceeds to list many instances (close to thirty) in which Elijah resembled Moses. However he notes, "In one respect we find that Moses was greater than Elijah, for He said to Moses, "But you remain here with Me" (Deut. 5:28), whereas to Elijah He said, "Why are you here, Elijah?" (I Kings 19:9).[6]

The comparison between these two figures is made in the spirit of Midrash, but for the most part it is also convincing as the literary peshat, for the complex of stories about Elijah's life and deeds aims at teaching us that Elijah's life was reminiscent to Moses'. Moreover, Elijah performed his deeds by virtue of Moses and his teachings. True, Moses is not mentioned by name even once in all the stories about Elijah, but such is the way of Scripture; sometimes Scripture tells of one subject in the format of another that went before, without spelling this out but rather leaving it to the reader to understand it on his own.

Elijah is not the only figure who has been found to resemble Moses. Also Samuel has been explicitly compared to Moses in certain passages (Jer. 15:1, Ps. 99:6). Jeremiah's initiation as a prophet bears a partial resemblance to Moses' initiation; therefore in many congregations the Haftarah traditionally read for Parashat Shemot is taken from Jeremiah, chapter 1. There is also a homily of the Sages that compares Isaiah with Moses.[7] Moreover, in that source also Elihu (who replies in Job 32-37) is placed on a par with Moses and Elijah.

One could say that since Moses was the greatest prophet, he had in him all the traits that could exist in any prophet, and therefore any of the other prophets could be found to have certain traits that were also shared by Moses.

Upon close examination, we find that the points of comparison between Elijah and Moses are numerous and striking; nevertheless the figure of Elijah in the book of Kings is not to be considered as a "second Moses." The context of Elijah's mission differed greatly from that of Moses, as if Scripture wished to emphasize that Elijah did not attain the stature of Moses.

We shall review briefly the similarities and differences between Moses and Elijah, following the above-mentioned commentary in Pesikta.

1. Moses said, "'Whoever is for the Lord, come here!' And all the Levites rallied to him" (Ex. 32:26). Elijah said to all the people, " 'Come closer to me'; and all the people came closer to him" (I Kings 18:30). In the case of Elijah there were no Levites.

2. Moses "set up an altar at the foot of the mountain, with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel" (Ex. 24:4); and Elijah "took twelve stones, corresponding to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob—to whom the word of the Lord had come: 'Israel shall be your name'—and with the stones he built an altar" (I Kings 18:31-32). In the case of Elijah there were no pillars; therefore the altar was built of twelve stones.

3. Elijah's sacrifice followed the procedure for burnt offerings laid out in Leviticus - laying out the wood, cutting up the bull and laying it on the wood - the only difference being on account of the fire. In the case of Elijah, he did not "take it from a plain priest, but waited for fire to come from Heaven" (cf. Lev. 1:6-8). Just as there were no Levites in the case of Elijah, so too there were no priests, and he himself officiated as priest.

4. Elijah's prayer (I Kings 18:36-37) contains allusions to several passages from Moses' prayers and speeches. See: Exodus 32:13, Numbers 16:28, Deut. 4:39, and 29:3. In the case of Moses, regarding the sacrifices offered on the eighth day it says: "Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces" (Lev. 9:24). In the case of Elijah it says: "Then fire from the Lord descended and consumed the burnt offering, ... When they saw this, all the people flung themselves on their faces and cried out, 'The Lord alone is G-d. The Lord alone is G-d!'" (I Kings 18:38-39). Given the circumstances, the fire in the Tabernacle came forth from before the Lord, whereas with Elijah the fire from the Lord descended. It is described thus to emphasize that it is fire from the Lord and not from Baal, and hence it descends from on high. It is important to note that in the Torah as well as in Kings it does not say that the fire actually came down from heaven. Only at the end of Elijah's days does Scripture explicitly say that he caused fire to descend from heaven and consume the king's emissaries who had come to him brazenly (II Kings 1; to be discussed below). The above verses (I Kings 18:38-39) show a sort of reciprocity: the same Hebrew verb is used to describe the fire descending and the people falling on their faces. With regard to the Tabernacle, it says that the people shouted but does not spell out what they said; whereas in the case of Elijah this is noted explicitly: "The Lord alone is G-d. The Lord alone is G-d!" This is an enactment of Moses' words, "It has been clearly demonstrated to you that the Lord alone is G-d" (Deut. 4:35).

5. Killing the prophets of Baal, as compared with killing those who worshipped the golden calf, as noted above.

6. Like Moses, who fled from the king who sought his death on account of his having killed the Egyptian (Ex. 2:15), so too, Elijah fled from the queen who sought his death on account of his having killed the prophets of Baal (I Kings 13:3). Scripture, however, indicates that he did not actually flee, rather he left the country upon the queen's demand, under threat of death from her.

7. Elijah was sitting under a broom bush when an angel was revealed to him (I Kings 19:4-7). There is some similarity here to Moses driving the flock into the wilderness, where an angel appeared to him out of a bush (Ex. 3:1-2). Here Moses' superiority to Elijah is quite evident. Elijah wished to die, but not Moses (although on another occasion he did request "kill me rather," except that there he was beseeching on behalf of the people of Israel). Elijah was sleeping, but Moses saw the angel while awake.

8. The experience of Elijah at Horeb bears similarities to that of Moses, but it also has certain differences. Moses spent forty days and forty nights on the mountain; Elijah walked for forty days and forty nights until he reached the mountain, but only remained on the mountain itself briefly. Neither Moses nor Elijah ate or drank for forty days and forty nights. Moses had no need of sustenance whatsoever while he was with G-d. Elijah, on the other hand, who journeyed over land, needed sustenance; but the food and drink that he had prior to setting out - "a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water" - sufficed him for the entire time that he was without food or drink.

Moses was told, "I will put you in a cleft of the rock" (Ex. 33:22), whereas Elijah entered the cave of his own accord and slept there. This indicates that he was not expecting a prophetic revelation while awake, rather a prophetic message in a dream. He heard G-d address him, "Why are you here, Elijah?" (I Kings 19:9). This question could be taken as a reproach: why did you come in here to sleep? Elijah did not respond to the reproach, rather took pride in his zealotry (according to the view of the midrash) out of his criticism of Israel - just the opposite of Moses, who always begged for mercy towards Israel. Elijah's words evoked the following response: "Come out and stand on the mountain before the Lord" (I Kings 19:11). As if to say: You, Elijah, are not like Moses, who stood in the cleft of the rock with the Lord's hand shielding him (Ex. 33:22). Rather, you, Elijah, must come out of the cave immediately. Thus the words said to Elijah, "stand on the mountain before the Lord," are intended to convey to Elijah that he must move away from the sacred place, from the cave; whereas the parallel expression used with Moses, "present yourself there to Me, on the top of the mountain" (Ex. 34:2) is intended to tell Moses to draw closer to the sacred spot.

The description of the divine revelation to Elijah is stronger and more detailed than the parallel description in the case of Moses. This indicates, however, that Moses experienced a more sublime revelation than Elijah. The frightful scenes of wind, earthquake and fire did not occur with Moses. Elijah was not shielded by the hand of the Lord; rather, he himself covered his face with his mantle (I Kings 19:13). Elijah saw nothing of the glory of the Lord, not even the view of His back that Moses was granted (Ex. 33:23). The precise language used with reference to Moses should be noted: "The Lord passed before him" (Ex. 34:6), that is, before Moses; but with Elijah it only says, "And lo, the Lord passed by" (I Kings 19:11), as if simply on His way and not deliberately passing before Elijah. As for the reproach that was voiced a second time, "Why are you here, Elijah?" (v. 13), Elijah repeated what he had said before, and was answered by being sent on a mission of devastation. This stands in complete contrast to Moses, who was answered by a detailed list of the Lord's merciful characteristics. The answer to Elijah begins with the words, "Go back by the way you came, on to the wilderness of Damascus" (I Kings 19:15), as if to say, you have no more business remaining here in the wilderness of Horeb; rather, go to the wilderness of Damascus. In the words that follow he is told obliquely that he will not be able to realize his aspirations of wiping out worship of Baal from Israel, but must appoint Elisha to succeed him and to complete the mission. This is the first hint that Elijah should be prepared to leave the world, because his excessive zealotry does not make him fit to work effectively among the people of Israel.

9. Elijah's departure from the world is described as marvelous and miraculous, far more than Moses'. According to the literal words of the text Moses died, but Elijah did not die, rather he went up to heaven in a whirlwind. Indeed, the Sages did not accept Moses' death as plainly stated:[8] "Some say that Moses did not die, but rather is standing and ministering on high; for here (Deut. 34:5) the word 'there' is used, and elsewhere it says, 'and he was there with the Lord' (Ex. 34:28)." This interpretation, it appears, indicates that Moses was also greater than Elijah in the way he departed this world: Moses' death was but a transformation from a life of flesh and blood to the life of a heavenly servant; whereas Elijah remained in a state of flesh and blood. In recent times various commentators and philosophers have not been able to accept the plain literal sense of Scripture regarding Elijah's departure from the world, and have gone beyond the simple sense of the words,[9] but according to all views the underlying intentions remain the same. Following our own approach, we note that aside from showing Elijah's greatness, the description of Elijah's ascent to heaven also points out the fault that lay in his zeal in this world. In the beginning of his career he brought down fire from heaven (we noted above that Scripture does not explicitly say the fire came from heaven, although those who witnessed it apparently viewed it as such), and following that the prophets of Baal were slaughtered. At the end of his career he brought down fire from heaven and burned the captains of fifty and their men who had been sent to him by the king, even though they had committed no sin deserving death (II Kings 1:10-12). Thus Elijah's end was measure for measure: for his zeal which burned like fire, bringing down fire from heaven and consuming his opponents in fire, he had to depart this world and ascend to heaven in a fiery chariot drawn by fiery horses.

On his way to the place from which he would depart, it appears that Elijah wished to leave the land of Israel along the route that the Israelites had entered by in the time of Joshua. Just as the Jordan River split then to let the people enter the land, so too Elijah split the Jordan River in order to leave the land; similarly, we have the splitting of the Red Sea by Moses. It seems that by crossing the Jordan River Elijah hoped to depart from this world not far from the place that Moses departed. The disciples of the prophets searched for Elijah's body, believing that it had been carried off in a storm and "cast upon some mountain or into some valley" (II Kings 2:16). Here, too, there is an allusion to the death of Moses, who ascended the mountain and died there, and was buried in the valley (Deut. 32:50 and 34:6). The disciples of the prophets did not find Elijah's body, just as no one knows where Moses was buried.

The book of Malachi concludes with an explicit comparison of Elijah with Moses. This passage actually was intended as the conclusion of the entire section of Prophets and even of the prophetic era of the Israelite people: "Be mindful of the Teaching of My servant Moses, whom I charged at Horeb with laws and rules for all Israel. Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord" (Malachi 3:22-23). This was as if to say that prophecy had departed from Israel and that whoever wished to seek the word of the Lord could no longer ask a prophet, but had to study the Teaching of Moses, its laws and rules, and there find the answer to his questions. Prophecy was destined to return to Israel only in the end of days, through the embassy of the prophet Elijah, who would be sent to Israel in the end of time, just as in antiquity Moses had been sent to them (cf. Ex. 3:10, 13, 14, 15). Hence the conclusion of the midrash which we presented above: "Moses was the first redeemer, and Elijah will be the last." It does not say here that a righteous and holy man will arise and restore prophecy to Israel, rather that the ancient prophet Elijah will be the one through whom prophecy will be restored to Israel. The inner significance is that renewal of prophecy would not found a new faith; rather it would return to the point where ancient prophecy had ceased, picking up the chain where it had broken off and continuing it further without interruption. Elijah was singled out for this role from all the other prophets because he was said to have ascended to heaven in a whirlwind and was not said to have died and been buried; thus it was as if his life had never ended. When he reappears and brings prophetic tidings, it will be clear to all that he is but carrying on his ancient prophetic calling.


[1] According to the customary Haftarah readings given in Maimonides' Mishneh Torah (at the end of Sefer Ahavah).
[2] Also according to the Haftarah readings in Abudarham, Jerusalem ed., 1963, p. 302.
[3] Mishnah, at the end of Eduyot, and Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim 12.2. See the introduction by Meir Ish Shalom to Tanna debe Eliyahu, Meir Ish Shalom edition, Vienna 1902, article 3, especially p. 25.
[4] See the above-mentioned introduction, Chapter 2, p. 17.
[5] Pesikta Rabbati, Meir Ish Shalom ed., Vienna 1880, sect. 4. The title of this section is the verse which is included (according to all customs) in this week's haftarah: "Then Elijah took twelve stones, corresponding to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob—to whom the word of the Lord had come: 'Israel shall be your name'" (I Kings 18:31). From the location and content of this section it follows that this verse was from the haftarah for Hanukkah, even though there is not the slightest hint of such a custom anywhere else. We surmise that this reading was chosen for Hanukkah because of the resemblance between Elijah's battle against the worship of Baal and the battle that the Hasmoneans waged against worshipping the Greek gods. Perhaps the verses, "Then Elijah took twelve stones ... and with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord," were intended to bring to mind the acts of the Hasmoneans, who built a new altar of pure stones (Maccabees 1.4.47, middle section).
[6] The entire homily can also be found in Yalkut Shimoni (I Kings, 209), with Pesikta Rabbati cited as the source. The version there differs slightly from the Pesikta, but the general trend is the same: a comparison of Elijah with Moses.
[7] Midrash Shoher Tov on Psalms 90, also appearing in Yalkut Shimoni, Psalm 90.
[8] Sifre on Deut., sect. 357.5; Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 13b.
[9] Rabbi Meir Ish Shalom dwells on this in his introduction, article 2, "Elijah's Departure."
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