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Shavuot (first day) 5771

Haftarah First Day of Shavuot
(Ezekiel 1:1 -1:28; 3:12)
June 8, 2011
6 Sivan 5771

Ezekiel’s introductory vision was wholly fantastic. Words were used to describe it but do not do it justice. Conjuring up a representation of the sights and sound of the event is next to impossible. The contrary visions embodied in it were both daunting and striking, causing the sages to attempt to conjure up from them some consistent message. What were the sages to make of the angels who praised God. They were creatures beyond description and even the description given seemed to contradict itself. On the one hand, the angels are described as having “leg which were [fused into] a single rigid leg.” (1:7) This indicated to the sages that the only posture that angels were capable of was standing straight. So, later on when Ezekiel describes them as “standing still (b’omdam), letting their wings droop” (1:24) when not in motion, the sages found this second description superfluous since angels could do nothing other than stand.

The rabbinic sages did not suffer seeming redundancy in the biblical text and sought out (in a midrashic way), the significance of this second mention of the angels’ posture: “And can one sit in the heavens? Said Rabbi Hanina bar Andrei in the name of Rabbi Samuel bar Sistorei: ‘There is no sitting in the heavens, as it is written: ‘And their legs were fused into a single leg’ – they have no joints! So, then, what is the meaning of “b’omdam”? [Understand it to mean]: “ba im dom – come with silence” (This kind of midrash is called a ‘notarikon. This is where we take a word and cut it up so that it forms a number of words.) When the children of Israel recited ‘Hear of Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One’, the angels came and stood in silence. Afterwards, they lowered their wings and recited : ‘Baruch Shem kavod malchuto l’olam vaed – Blessed be His exalted name for ever’.” (Bereishit Rabba 65:22)

What is the point of this explanation? The Shema, which is a central part of our prayer life as Jews, is an integral part of the Torah as are the three paragraphs which comprise it. The line that follows the Shema, however, is not found in the Torah or the Tanach (Bible). This midrash comes to lend veracity to this liturgical addition by asserting that it is the angelic refrain to the human recitation of the Shema. Since the angels chime in by reciting it when humans read the Shema, we join is chorus with them and recite it when we read the Shema.

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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