First Day of Shavuot
(Ezekiel 1:1-28, 3:12)
May 17, 2002
Ezekiel’s` vision of the divine chariot serves as one of the fundamental metaphors of the Jewish mystical tradition. In this vision, Ezekiel caught sight of four heavenly creatures whose form was, at once, human together with other characteristics which are bound to strike the reader as bizarre. Ezekiel desribes their manner of standing this way: “the legs of each were [fused into] a single rigid leg (regel yisharah)”. (verse 1:7)
Rashi gives two different interpretations of what this might have looked like. In his first explanation, based on the Targum Yonathan, he describes the legs of the creature as “directed one toward the other”. What this actually means seems difficult to describe but later commentators attempted to make sense of it. Rabbi Joseph Kara, the 12th century French commentator, interpreted this to mean, that the feet of these creatures faced in all directions so that like their many faces, their feet also faced in all directions. Rashi’s second interpretation is more extraordinary. He records that “regel yisharah”, literally “straight leggedness” means that these divine creatures “did not have joints in their knees that would allow them to bend legs and were therefore incapable of sitting or lying down…” Professor Moshe Greenberg (Anchor Bible) offers a third explanation. He explains that it is possible that Ezekiel meant that the creatures had extended legs (see verse 23). [Again it is unclear what this might look like.] He notes that each of these interpretations presents us with creatures which faced in all directions at all times.
The Talmud (Berachot 10b) contends, in passing, with an ancillary question. How many legs did each of these creatures have? Did they have one leg or two legs? On this question there is no clear answer but the following passage allows us to infer an answer: “And Rabbi Yose the son of Rabbi Hanina said in the name of Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov: ‘One who prayers [the Amida] should align his legs [emulating the posture of the divine creatures], as it is written: ‘and their legs were a straight leg’ (see alternative translation for this verse above). Rashi, in his commentary to this Talmudic pasage, interprets this to mean that when a person recites the Amidah, their legs should appear as if they are ‘one leg’. Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, the 14th century author of the code known as the Tur, explains that the positioning of the legs should be one foot along side the other foot while praying. (Tur Orach Hayim 95)
This physical posture causes us to emulate the angels when we prayer, offering us the opportunity to allow our prayers to soar heavenward. The Hafetz Hayim, Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen, the famous 19th-20th century Talmudist from Radun, explained it this way: “since we are speaking with God, it is necessary for a person to remove all bodily thoughts from one’s heart and to try as best one can to be like an angel.” (Mishnah Brurah Orach Hayim 95:1) Ezekiel’s prophecy then becomes not only a model for the mystical tradition but also a model for our every day communion with God.
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.
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