01 January 2020

Hidden stories of Jewish
Bratislava: 7, Elijah’s Chair
and the ‘Angel of the Covenant’

Elijah’s Chair in the Museum of Jewish Culture, Bratislava … used at the circumcision of a Jewish boy when he is eight days old (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

During my recent visit to Bratislava, two of us waited for over half an hour for a booked guide who never showed. Eventually, we made our own impromptu tour of Jewish Bratislava, visiting major sites associated with the stories of the Jewish community in the Slovak capital.

The sites we visited included the area that was once the mediaeval Jewish ghetto, the site of the earliest synagogue at the present Ursuline Church, the Chatam Sofer Memorial commemorating the city’s most famous rabbi, the site of the former Neolog Synagogue, the Holocaust Memorial on Rybné Square, the city’s last surviving synagogue on Heydukova Street, and the Museum of Jewish Culture on Židovská Street.

As I pored over my photographs from Bratislava in recent days, I realised I had also come across many other stories of Bratislava’s Jewish communities, including a world chess grandmaster and author, a resistance hero who saved lives during the Holocaust, the lost portal of a mediaeval synagogue, an international wrestler, a visiting Russian pianist and composer, an antiquarian bookshop, and a man who stood up bravely to anti-Semitic gangs.

Rather than tell these hidden stories in detail in one or two blog postings, I decided – as with my recent tales of Viennese Jews – to post occasional blog postings over the next few weeks that re-tell some of these stories, celebrating a culture and a community whose stories should never be forgotten.

A display in the Jewish Museum in Bratislava includes a typical example of Elijah’s Chair, used during the Circumcision of a new-born Jewish boy. The godfather (sandek) sits on the chair and holds the child on his knees.

Typically, the Hebrew text on the right-hand upper backrest reads: ‘This is the chair of Elijah, angel of the Covenant.’

The Hebrew text on the left-hand upper backrest reads: ‘Remembering the good (that he did), let him bring salvation quickly in our time.’

I used an image of this chair to illustrate liturgical resources I posted last week for clergy and readers in the Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe to mark today [1 January 2020] as the Feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus.

In a prayer that has been used at circumcisions since the 14th century but that may be much earlier, God is asked to ‘sustain this child, and let him be known in the house of Israel as … As he has entered into the Covenant of Abraham, so may he enter into the study of Torah, the blessing of marriage, and the practice of goodness.’

The prayer continues: ‘May he who blessed our fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, bless this child who has been circumcised, and grant him a perfect healing. May his parents rear him to have a heart receptive to Torah, to learn and to teach, to keep and to observe your laws.’

The service concludes with the priestly blessing in Numbers 6: 23-26:

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

The Chair of Elijah (כִּסֵּא שֶׁל אֵלִיָּהוּ, kisse shel Eliyyahu) is a special chair placed at the right of the sandak (godfather) at the circumcision ceremony and left vacant. The chair is symbolically meant for Elijah the prophet, who is also known as ‘The Angel of the Covenant’ (see Malachi 3: 1; the Hebrew word berit is used for both covenant and circumcision).

The tradition is to designate a chair for Elijah the Prophet, the ‘Angel of the Covenant,’ at every circumcision. Many synagogues have a special chair for this purpose, and the Chair of Elijah is usually richly carved and ornamented with embroideries.

In some traditions, the custom is to have the sandek, the person holding the child on his lap, sit on this chair. Other traditions use a chair that is wide enough for both the sandek and Elijah.

The custom in most communities is to have the chair positioned from east to west, with the sandek facing west.

The traditions surrounding this chair recall the edicts against circumcision in Jewish history.

Tradition recalls that during the regime of King Ahab (740 BCE) in the northern kingdom, under the influence of Jezebel, Jews were forbidden from circumcising their new-born sons. The Prophet Elijah beseeched God that no rain should fall until the decree was abolished.

Midrashic and rabbinical traditions say God said to Elijah, ‘You always display zeal, and you have displayed zeal now … from now on, Jews will never perform a circumcision without your participation.’

Scholars have suggested that the custom is rooted in the belief in guardian angels for the new-born. Elijah is identified as the guardian angel of the Jewish child. Most probably, the biblical story (I Kings 17: 17-24) in which Elijah revived the widow’s contributed to developing these traditions.

Similar stories are told about the rule of the Syrian Greeks and the Maccabees revolt, told in the Hanukkah story; this year's celebration of Hanukkah came to an end yesterday.

The mohel who performs the ritual, recites several verses describing Elijah’s zeal for God and his reward before the baby is placed the baby on the chair of Elijah. The mohel then chants, ‘This is the seat of Elijah…’ The mohel also asks that Elijah stand to his right and protect him, so nothing will go wrong during the circumcision:

‘This is the Seat of Elijah the Prophet, may he be remembered for good. For your deliverance I hope, O Lord. I have hoped for your deliverance, Lord, and I have performed your commandments. Elijah, Angel of the Covenant, here is yours before you; stand at my right and support me.’

It is also said that in every instance Elijah is to be satisfied that the covenant is not being broken.

The chair is then left in position for three days, not, as said by some, to give Elijah the wanderer time to rest, but because the first three days after circumcision are a period of danger for the child.

One story from late 12th or early 13th century Regensburg recalls how Rabbi Judah ben Samuel ‘the Pious’ (1150-1217) was once asked to be the sandek. The child was brought in and greeted by all, but Rabbi Judah remained silent. When he was asked about this, he said: ‘I do not see Elijah seated at my side.’

As he said this a venerable old man appeared at the window and declared that Elijah refused to come because the child would one day abandon the faith of his forefathers. The prophecy was fulfilled.

The festival of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus today, on New Year’s Day, provides a much-needed opportunity to challenge anti-Semitism in the world today, remembering that Christ was born into a practicing, pious Jewish family, and that this month [January 2020] also marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps in Auschwitz and Birkenau.


Ruth said...

As the director of the Jewish Heritage Europe web site, I've been enjoying your blog posts on Jewish heritage, and I plan to link to your site and some of your posts. You will find many resources to help you on our web site. And the next time you go to Bratislava, be sure to use the new Jewish Bratislava online and in print resources there -- see our story about the latest publication -- https://jewish-heritage-europe.eu/2019/01/16/slovakia-bratislava-jewish-heritage/

Patrick Comerford said...

Thank you so much for your generous words Ruth, Patrick