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Haftarah Parshat Yitro

Haftarah Parshat Yitro
February 3, 2018 |18 Shevat 5778
Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5-6

Not unlike other prophets, including Moses, Isaiah was reticent about being God’s messenger, beset as he was with feelings of inadequacy and sinfulness. After seeing a vision of angels singing God’s praises, he says about himself: “Woe is me, I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.” (6:5) But God sends an angel to bolster Isaiah’s self-confidence with a symbolic act. Taking an ember from the sacrificial altar, the angel touches it to Isaiah’s lips declaring: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt shall depart and your sin be purged.” (6:7) This act makes it possible for Isaiah to accept and perform his prophetic mission.

In the Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbat 119b, the sages give this verse a new context, transporting it from the story of Isaiah the Prophet to the home of every simple Jew  who observes Shabbat. We are taught: “Rav Hisda said in Mar ‘Ukba’s name: He who prays on the eve of the Sabbath and recites ‘Vayakhulu hashamayim va’ha’aretz – and [the heaven and the earth] were finished’, the two ministering angels who accompany man place their hands on his head and say to him, ‘and your guilt shall depart, and your sin be purged.” (Shabbat 119b) In essence, observing Shabbat provides us with the same absolution Isaiah received!

What are we to make of Rav Hisda’s unusual teaching? Rabbi Yom Tov ben Avraham Ishbili (Ritba – 14th century Spain) explains it this way: “… anyone who does not recite ‘Va’yakhulu’ to testify to God’s creation of the world, sins by withholding testimony (See Leviticus 5:1). Therefore, to someone who does recite ‘Va’yakhulu’, [the angels] say: ‘your sin is taken away’. This is why ‘Va’yakhulu’ is said in the synagogue, so that we might offer testimony standing.”

When we recite ‘Vayakhulu hashamayim va’ha’aretz – and [the heaven and the earth] were finished’ – either in synagogue or when making kiddush at home, we are giving testimony that God is the creator of the world who rested on the seventh day and made it holy. For Rav Hisda, such testimony is like prophecy, and giving it makes one like a prophet. Both involve accepting, and fulfilling, one’s responsibility to make God known to the world. When we verbally declare God as Creator of the world and the One who established Shabbat, we are purified through one of Judaism’s greatest acts of faith, allegiance and love.

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
Rashei Yeshiva: Rabbi Joel Levy & Dr. Joshua Kulp.
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