Haftarah Parshat Yitro
February 2, 2013
22 Shevat 5773
Isaiah, in this, his inaugural prophecy, has a tremendous sense of his inadequacy for his new role as a prophet. He felt himself to be a sinner, his mouth too impure to convey God’s word. As a consequence, a fiery angel approached him, took a glowing stone from the altar, touched it to Isaiah’s mouth, and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt shall depart and your sin shall be purged away.” (6:7) The fiery stone excised the sin from Isaiah’s mouth, purified him and prepared him for his mission as God’s prophet.
This same verse plays an interesting role in a passage in the Talmud regarding Shabbat: “Rava said, while others say, it was R. Joshua b. Levi who said: Even if an individual prays on the eve of the Sabbath, he must recite, And [the heaven and the earth] were finished [etc.] (vayahullu) (Genesis 2:1-3); for R. Hamnuna said: He who prays on the eve of the Sabbath and recites \’and [the heaven and the earth] were finished,\’ Scripture treats him as though he had become a partner with the Holy One, blessed be He, in the Creation, as it says: ‘Va-yehullu [and they were finished]’; don’t read it Va-yehullu but Va-yehallu [and they finished]. Said R. Eleazar: How do we know that speech is like action? Because it is said: ‘By the word of the Lord were the heavens made.’ (Psalms 33:6) Said R. Hisda in the name of Mar Ukba: He who prays on the eve of the Sabbath and recites and [the heaven and the earth] were finished, two ministering angels who accompany the person [on Shabbat evening] place their hands on his/her head and say to him/her: ‘your guilt shall depart and your sin shall be purged away.’” (Shabbat 119b)
Rabbi Yom Tov ben Abvraham Ashvilli (Ritba – 14-15 century Spain) explains the association between the verse from Isaiah and the recitation of “Vayahullu” on the eve of Shabbat. He asserts, in the name of Rabbeinu Yehiel, that “anyone who does not recite ‘vayahullu’ on the eve of Shabbat to offer testimony to the creation of the world is like one who withholds testimony [in a legal case], about whom it is written: ‘One who has either seen or learned of the matter but does not tell, is subject to punishment (literally – ‘nasa avono – carries his sin’)’ (Leviticus 5:1) Therefore, when a person offers his or her testimony [regarding the Creator of the world], they say ‘your sin has been purged’ This is why we say ‘Vayahullu’ in the synagogue while standing (since testimony must be offered standing).”
When a person testifies to God’s role as Creator of the world and Founder of the day known as Shabbat, he or she has performed an act which the Talmud considers world transforming. Mar Ukva felt that such an act is also personally transforming. This message rings true of all of our actions.
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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