Each Passover, a special cup of wine is filled and put on the seder table. During the Seder, the door of the house is opened and everyone stands to allow Elijah the Prophet (Eliyahu ha-Navi) to enter and drink. At every bris, a chair is also set aside for Elijah. At the conclusion of Shabbat, Jews sing about Elijah, hoping he will come "speedily, in our days...along with the Messiah, son of David, to redeem us."
Elijah is a heroic figure in Jewish tradition. It is he who stands up to King Ahab, whose Phoenician wife has introduced the worship of the idol Baal into the Jewish Kingdom.
Elijah curses Ahab, "As the Lord lives, the God of Israel who I serve, there will be no dew or rain except at my bidding" (I Kings 17:1). Afterward, God tells the prophet to hide from the King in a brook known as Wadi Cherith. Meanwhile, as Elijah warned, the country suffers a serious drought.
After trying to track Elijah down for three years, Ahab's top aide, Obadiah, finds the prophet. Knowing that Elijah's curse had been fulfilled, Obadiah is hesitant to turn him in, but he is also afraid of what the King would do if he does not. Elijah makes the decision easy by promising to go before Ahab that day. He agrees not out of fear of the King, but because God has commanded him, "Go, appear before Ahab, then will I send rain upon the earth" (18:1).
When Elijah meets Ahab he challenges the 450 priests of Baal imported by Jezebel to a contest at Mt. Carmel to prove whose god is the true God. The priests and Elijah slaughter a bull as a sacrifice and call on god to consume it. The priests try a variety of prayers, dances and even self-mutilation, but nothing happens. Elijah then calls on God to prove his power and a great fire comes from the sky and burns the bull. The Israelites who witness the act declare, "The Lord, He [alone] is God" (Adonai, hu ha-Elohim, [I Kings 18:39]), a commitment to monotheism recited today seven times at the end of the Yom Kippur service each year. Elijah then tells the people to kill the priests, and they obey.
Despite his "victory," Elijah sees no change in the kingdom and has to flee to the desert to escape the wrath of Jezebel. God then comes to Elijah again and reassures him that he is not alone, that others have resisted the temptation to worship idols. Elijah is told to go to the mountain of Horeb where he witnesses a series of examples of God's power -- an earthquake, powerful wind and fire -- before being instructed to return to the city (19:12).
Elijah is not too popular with King Ahab. In another incident, Ahab decides he wants to buy a vineyard adjacent to his winter palace in Jezreel, but the owner, Navot, rejects his offer. The King returns home depressed and tells his wife what has happened. She is shocked that a King would allow himself to be treated this way and decides on a scheme whereby she gets two men to testify that Navot has cursed God and the King. Navot is convicted of blasphemy and treason, and stoned to death, allowing the King to seize Navot's land.
Elijah is sent by God to the vineyard to confront Ahab. "Have you murdered and also inherited?" He curses Ahab's descendants and his wife, saying "I will cut off every male in Israel belonging to Ahab" and "The dogs will devour Jezebel in the field of Jezreel" (21:23).
Years later, after Ahab has died and been succeeded by his son Jehoram, a rebel leader named Jehu kills Jehoram and orders Jezebel to be captured and thrown out a palace window. When the soldiers go outside, all they find are her skull, hands and feet. As prophesized by Elijah, the rest of her was eaten by dogs.
Given his career as a prophet, it should not be surprising that it should end in a miraculous way. When Elijah returned from his sojourn in the desert he ran across a young man plowing a field named Elisha. He took Elisha under his wing to be his successor.
One day Elisha becomes aware that Elijah's time on earth is nearly over. They are walking together and, when they reach the Jordan River, Elijah strikes the water with his cloak and the river parts to allow them to cross. Later, the prophet asks Elisha what he can do for him before he goes and Elisha asks for "a double portion of your spirit."
Elijah replies that it is a difficult request, but "If you see me as I am being taken from you, this will be granted to you; if not, it will not" (2:9-10). Then a fiery chariot, drawn by fiery horses, comes out of the sky and takes Elijah away to the heavens. Elisha picks up the cloak Elijah dropped and strikes it against the river, causing the waters again to separate. Seeing this, Elijah's followers proclaim, "Elijah's spirit now rests on Elisha" (2:15).
Sources: Telushkin, Joseph. Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible. NY: William Morrow and Co., 1997. and Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History. NY: William Morrow and Co., 1991.