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Shavuot (first day) 5773

Haftarah First Day Shavuot
(Ezekiel 1:1-28)
May 15, 2013
6 Sivan 5773

The First Day of Shavuot (Ezekiel 1:1-28)

Ezekiel’s inaugural vision is known in rabbinic literature as the “Maaseh Merkavah – the Chariot Vision”. It is the most elaborate and esoteric description of God found in the Prophets. It was considered so mysterious and arcane that certain of the sages wanted to limit access to its interpretation since knowledge of this vision or misinterpretation of its contents might have dire consequences: “One should not [elaborate] on the [subject of the] Merkaveh even to a single individual unless he is wise discerning.” (Mishnah Hagigah 2:1)

Just to get a glimpse of the tantalizingly dangerous nature of this vision, let’s examine the outset of Ezekiel’s vision: “I looked, and lo, a storm wind came sweeping out of the north – a huge cloud and flashing fire, surrounded by a radiance; and in the center of it, in the center of the fire, a gleam as of amber (hashmal).” (1:4)

“Hashmal” was found at the center of the radiant image. What was this “hashmal”? The meaning of this word, which in Modern Hebrew refers to electricity, is uncertain. Modern scholars have attempted to associate the word “hashmal” with words from various cognate languages, for example: elmesu – the Akkadian word for a kind of precious stone which had a special shine; hasmanu – Akkadian for a bluish green precious stone or even the ancient Egyptian word for bronze – hsmn. (See R. Kasher, Ezekiel, Mikra L’Yisrael, p. 155)

The rabbinic tradition, however, saw this word as part of the mystery of God’s being and consequently, invested with danger: “But may one expound [the mysteries of] Hashmal?… The Rabbis taught: There was once a child who was reading at his teacher\’s house the Book of

Ezekiel, and he apprehended what Hashmal was, whereupon a fire went forth from Hashmal and consumed him. [On account of this episode], the sages sought to suppress the Book of Ezekiel, but Hananiah b. Hezekiah said to them: If this child was a sage, does that mean that all children are Sages [that we must suppress this book]?! [After this discussion, the Talmud turns to the meaning of the word.] What does [the word] Hashmal mean? Rav Judah said: Living creatures speaking fire. In a Baraitha (a teaching from the period of the Mishnah) it is taught: [Hashmal means], At times they are silent, at times they speak. When the utterance goes forth from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, they are silent, and when the utterance goes not forth from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, they speak.” (adapted from Hagigah 13a)

Religion can provide great meaning and purpose to life. Still, the sages warn in this passage that it can also be dangerous. Great care must be taken to ensure that one’s encounters with it are properly digested and understood for it to be a meaningful experience.

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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