WHAT DOES THE CHAIR OF ELIJAH SYMBOLIZE AT A BRIT MILAH?
Few mitzvot (commandments) are as widely observed as brit milah. Fulfillment of this precept is indeed at the heart of Jewish life; it is lovingly performed irrespective of a person’s background or level of observance. For this reason, throughout our people’s history, this practice has been among the first to be forbidden by oppressors seeking to eradicate the Jews’ adherence to Divine commandments.
At the time the First Temple stood, King Ahab, who allowed himself to be swayed by his heathen wife, forbade the ritual’s observance. During those dark days, Elijah the Prophet begged G-d to withhold rain as long as the decree was in effect. The Almighty answered that because of Elijah’s zeal “from now on, Jews will never perform a circumcision without your participation.” The Midrash (Shir haShirim Rabba) states that the Almighty reproached the prophet for his comment that “the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant.” As a result, G-d determined that Elijah will attend every brit milah to acknowledge that Jews are faithful to this covenant.
The Zohar elaborates. Elijah’s presence at every brit milah is for the purpose of acknowledging the faithfulness of the Jews in keeping the covenant (“brit” in Hebrew). As G-d says, “By your life, in every place that My children will make this holy mark in their flesh, you will be there, and the mouth that testified that Israel abandoned, it will testify that Israel fulfills this covenant.”
As Jews make preparations for this mitzvah, we provide a seat of honor for the blessed guest before he arrives to perform his exalted duty. There are a variety of traditions surrounding the Elijah’s chair. Many congregations reserve a special chair for the ceremony. The sandek (the individual given the honor of holding the baby during the brit) may sit on Elijah’s chair; and it may be wide enough for the prophet and the sandek. Others have the minhag to put the infant on the chair.
The brit ceremony is short but meaningful. As the kvatterin brings the baby from his mother and gives him to her husband, the kvatter, the guests greet the child by saying “Baruch haba” (Blessed be he who comes). The mohel recites poignant passages, including verses lauding those who are zealous for G-d. When the infant is placed on the chair of Elijah, the mohel continues with a prayer praising the Almighty and asking the prophet to stand at his right side as he performs the mitzvah. The brit milah is performed, the new member of our people receives his name, and the participants respond with a joyous “mazel tov!”
For there is no greater simcha than knowing that we continue an unbroken chain that transcends time and place. This continuity is also expressed in the practice of anticipating the prophet’s arrival at every Pesach (Passover) seder. And we look forward to the day when Elijah will come and announce that the long-awaited redemption of our people has arrived.