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Shavuot (first day) 5763

First Day Of Shavuot
(Ezekiel 1:1-28, 3:12)
Friday, June 6, 2003

The haftarah for the first day of Shavuot describes Ezekiel’s greatest yet most obscure prophetic revelation. This prophecy, known as the vision of the chariot – Maaseh Hamerkavah, has been a source of debate in the rabbinic tradition. The controversy has taken two forms. The first question reflects on how the tradition defines this vision? What exactly is Ezekiel attempting to describe? The second controversy is actually an extension of this first question. Who should be permitted to study this “esoteric” form of religiosity?

The debate on these questions centers on a piece of rabbinic legislation found in the Mishnah regarding the permissibility to teach the secrets embodied in this passage from Ezekiel. The Mishnah states: “One should not interpret … the chariot tradition even before a single individual unless he is a sage and understands his own knowledge.” (Mishnah Hagigah 2:1) The sages probably legislated great care in transmitting this particular tradition not only because of its inherent difficulty but also in order to ensure that the person receiving its secrets could be trusted with them. The interpretation of this mishnah is in itself an issue. Does it mean that one can teach this material only to a single individual since in this way one can be most assured that the person truly is worthy of understanding its secrets or does it mean that one is prohibited to study this material even on one’s own if one is inadequately prepared. The Talmud contains both opinions. (see Hagigah 11b and 13a)

What actually constitutes the chariot traditions? As is obvious from the content of the prophecy itself, Ezekiel is attempting to describe a deeply mystical vision of God. The form and content of this tradition expanded in the rabbinic period. It represents one of the core elements of the Jewish mystical tradition. It is also fascinating that Ezekiel’s vision was transformed by the Jewish tradition’s rationalist trend into a symbol for its own studies. Maimonides, the major voice of this tradition, declared the merkavah tradition to be a symbol for metaphysical and philosophical contemplation. In other words, all attempts to study the nature of God, the soul and what will be after a person’s death are, for Maimonides, examples of maaseh merkavah and should only be shared with great care because of their potential for misleading people. (see Mishnah Torah Yesodei Torah chapter 2)

Rabbi Ovadiah from Bertenura, the 16th century Italian Mishnah interpreter, rejected Maimonides’ definition of “maaseh merkavah” in favor of a retrospective interpretation of this term. He asserts that this secretive tradition is concerned with the practical mysticism, such as the use of God’s name, which will allow a person to understand the nature of God.

A later authority, Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller (Moravia, 16th-17th century), in turn, rejects this interpretation and integrates the ideas of Maimonides with those of the mystical tradition. He sums up the issue this way: “… all of these things are called ‘maaseh merkavah’, as a way of honor. This means to say, we are incapable of knowing the Creator Himself and even the prophets have insufficient power to understand this wisdom to its depths. Therefore we attempt to understand that which is close to God and by doing so we will learn about God, i.e. by understanding the chariot of God, perhaps we will understand God better – this is what Ezekiel meant…”

What seems clear from this discussion is the concern that the sages have for the limitations of human understanding. In both theological and mystical speculation, there is always the danger that improper understanding will lead to false conclusions and either loss of faith or false presumptions about God. This is why religious speculation requires human beings to tread with humility and care.

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.
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