Eliyahu (Elijah) was a prophet in the Book of Kings who championed the worship of God during the reign of King Ahab, a time when many were turning to the worship of the Canaanite god Ba'al. He worked miracles to prove the superiority of God. He never died, but was taken to the heavens in a fiery chariot.
Bekitzur, a rabbi named Yehoshua ben Levi found the prophet Elijah (who is said to have never died) standing at the entrance of a cave. He asked Elijah, "Will I make it to World to Come?" and Elijah answered, "Yes, if this Master wills it." (Who 'this Master' is in this answer is ambiguous; it could be Hashem, or it could be the rabbi himself.)
Rabbi Yehoshua then asked the prophet, "When will the moshiach come?" Elijah told him, "Go ask him." Surprised and delighted to find that the moshiach was alive, Rabbi Yehoshua asked, "Where can I find him?" Elijah answered, "He is sitting at the entrance of Rome among the poor who suffer from terrible illnesses." "But how can I know which one he is?" the rabbi pleaded. "Watch the sick people change their bandages," Elijah said, "everyone will untie all their bandages at once, but the moshiach will be untying and retying his bandages one by one, so he can be ready at a moment's notice if he is needed to redeem the world."
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi set off for Rome at once. Arriving at the gates of the city, he watched the sick people change their bandages. Sure enough, one man changed his bandages one at a time. The rabbi approached him and said, "Shalom to you, my rabbi and my teacher." The moshiach greeted him, "Shalom to you, bar Levi." Rabbi Yehoshua asked him, "When will you come and bring redemption?" The moshiach smiled and said, "Today."
Satisfied, Rabbi Yehoshua traveled home and waited for the redemption to come. But days passed and turned into months and the moshiach never came. One day, Rabbi Yehoshua met Elijah again and told him about his trip to Rome. "The moshiach lied to me," the rabbi said bitterly, "he said he was coming today, but he still has not come." Elijah told him, "This is what he said to you: today, if you listen to his voice." (Psalm 95:7)
Questions to Consider
1. What is the situation in which Nahum of Gam Zu finds himself?
2. What is the aphorism Nahum of Gam Zu is known for?
3. What is the role Elijah plays in this story?
4. How would you characterize Elijah here? Is the role Elijah plays similar to or different from the role he plays in the Tanakh?
Vilna Gaon, 18thC
We have the custom of pouring a fifth cup and calling it the Cup of Elijah the prophet. The reason is that there is a dispute in the Gemara over whether one needs a fifth cup, and the halakhah is not determined. When Elijah comes, the doubt will be clarified. Therefore, based on this doubt, the cup is poured but not drunk, and it is called the Cup of Elijah, for when he comes, all doubts will be clarified, including this doubt.