Ezekiel – Chapter 1

You're Not Supposed To Get It!

By Rabbi Jack Abramowitz

G-d appeared to Yechezkel (Ezekiel), a Kohein (priest) who was among the exiles to Babylonia. The Heavens opened and Ezekiel saw a vision of G-d. A wind was coming from the north, and a cloud with fire flashing in it. as well as chashmal (the modern word for electricity, although Rashi suggests that it may be a type of angel). From the middle of this came four chayos (a type of angel), resembling human beings. Each chaya had four faces, each with four wings. Their legs were each a single, straight leg (which is what we emulate when we put our legs together while saying Kedusha) and the feet were rounded, like calves’ hooves, and the legs of the chayos shone like bronze.

The chayos had hands under their wings, and the wings were connected to one another. The chayos didn’t need to turn as they moved, since they had a face in each direction. Furthermore, each face was composed of four faces: a human face in front, a lion on the right, an ox on the left and an eagle on the back. (This gave each chaya a total of sixteen faces, four in each direction, and 64 wings, four per face.) For each face, two wings covered the face and two covered the body. The eyes of the chayos shone like torches and lightning came out of the fire. They traveled back and forth like bazak (a flash of light, possibly related to the word barak, lightning).

Ezekiel saw the chayos and there was an ofan near each one. (An ofan is another type of angel.) The ofanim resembled tarshish, which Rashi says is a type of crystal. “Ofan” means a wheel and the ofanim are described as a wheel within a wheel – Rashi says perpendicularly (imagine a gyroscope) – which enabled them to travel in any direction. The ofanim were tall and impressive; their wheels having the ability to see in every direction. The ofanim moved when and where the chayos moved, because the two groups of angels were inter-related.

Above the heads of the chayos, there was an expanse like ice. Under this, the chayos covered their faces and bodies with their wings. When they moved, the wings made a sound like rushing waters, like the voice of the Al-mighty, like the noise of a multitude of people. When they stopped, they lowered their wings, which were then silent.

Above them was the Heavenly Throne, which had the appearance of sapphire and a form resembling a person on it. (Don’t be mistaken: this was NOT G-d, but a representation of His glory. Even the traditional commentaries tread extremely carefully on this verse, v. 26). From the waist up there was the appearance of chashmal (see above) and from the waist down, the appearance of fire. The effect of all this brilliance was refracted like a rainbow. At this point, Ezekiel tells us that this was the way he was able to perceive G-d’s glory (NOT G-d Himself) and he threw himself on his face. Then a voice spoke to him. (We’ll find out what it said in the next chapter.)

This chapter is called Ma’aseh Merkava, the incident or the workings of G-d’s “chariot.” Don’t worry if you don’t “get” it. I don’t get it. Almost nobody gets it. We’re not supposed to get it. The Talmud (Chagiga 14b) tells us that we cannot teach this subject in depth; the Rambam cites this as the law (Yesodei HaTorah 2:11-12). According to the Mishna on Chagiga 11b and the Gemara there on 13a, Maaseh Merkava may even be more esoteric than Maaseh Bereishis, the Creation account. So rather than attempt any real interpretation of this material, we’ve pretty much gone with straight text and a few scattered explanations from Rashi.

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