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Va-Yishlah 5773

Haftarah Parshat Vayishlah
(The Book of Obadiah)
December 1, 2012
17 Kislev 5773

The book of Obadiah is unique among biblical books. It contains a single chapter and consists almost entirely of a rail against the nation of Edom. Considering its historical context, this prophecy should not be surprising. The nation of Edom was a tiny nation on the eastern side of the Dead Sea which allied itself with the Babylonians in their conquest of Judea. The Edomites took advantage of Judea’s destruction, looting the beleaguered nation. Their depraved behavior became irrelevant sometime later, for Edom was ultimately destroyed and forced to flee into the Negev. There, much of the nation became absorbed into the Jewish nation, Herod the Great being its most famous contribution to the Jewish people.

If its historical relevance became passé, then why did the book of Obadiah become a part of liturgical calendar? The answer to this question is found in the Jewish perception of the history of Edom. Rabbi David Kimche charted the “perceived” history of this nation according to the Jewish history memory: “The nation of Edom is no longer in the hands of Edom, for the nations have become integrated. Most of the Edomites are now Christians or Muslims and nobody can discern who is a Moabite or an Ammonite or any of the other nations, for all were exiled from their lands and all of the nations have become mixed. The nation of Rome, however, was from its beginning made up largely of Edomites. So when the Romans are destroyed, Israel will be redeemed.”

The animosity expressed in this missive was not the result just of political oppression; rather, Roman and later Christian oppression was religious and cultural as well. Edom, then, became the symbol for those forces which sought to obliterate Jewish belief and practice. This oppression is indicated in the following 9th century midrash, explicating the following verse from Obadiah: “For the outrage to your brother Jacob, disgrace shall engulf you” (verse 10) – ‘For the outrage’ that the four nations enacted against your brother Jacob that they would not leave the Torah in his hand” (Midrash Eiyahu Rabbah 22 Ish Shalom ed. p. 126)

Restrictions on Jewish religious behavior whether it be Torah study, Brit Milah (ritual circumcision) or Shechita (ritual slaughter of meat) were among the things which became associated with “Edomite” behavior of yesteryear. How ironic that modern day “Edomites” have arisen under various guises to do what their predecessors attempted to do but failed. As Hanukkah approaches, one can only hope that as those before them disappeared from the annals of history, these latter day Edomites will also fail.

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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