A Haftarah from Yechezkel
We will soon see why I chose this topic for this week’s article.
Question #1: Which Haftarah?
Who chose which haftaros we read?
Question #2: Why is Yechezkel different?
In what ways is the book of Yechezkel unusual?
Question #3: Rarely Yechezkel?
Why is the haftarah on Shabbos seldom from Yechezkel?
On certain Shabbosos and most Yomim Tovim, Chazal established specific haftaros to be read (Megillah 29b-31b). On other Shabbosos,no specific haftarah was instituted, but an appropriate section of the prophets is read. When no specific section of Navi was indicated by Chazal, each community would choose a selection of Navi suggestive of the parsha. Indeed, if one looks at old Chumashim, books of community minhagim and seforim that discuss these topics, one finds many variant practices.
Today, which haftaros are read on specific Shabbosos has become standardized, and our Chumashim mention only the selections that are commonly used. There are still many weeks when Sephardic and Ashkenazic practices differ, especially regarding minor variances, such as exactly where to begin or end the haftarah, whether to skip certain verses, and whether and where to skip to a more pleasant ending.
Almost unique Vayigash
Parshas Vayigash is almost unique, in that it is one of only two regular Shabbosos during the entire year in which the haftarah is always from the prophet Yechezkel. In Ashkenazic practice, we have relatively few haftaros on regular Shabbosos that are from Yechezkel. In addition to parshas Vayigash, the customary haftaros of Ashkenazim for Va’eira (28:55), Tetzaveh (43:27), Kedoshim (22:1) and Emor (44:15) are also from Yechezkel, but, of these, only on Emor do we always read from Yechezkel. Shabbos Va’eira occasionally falls on Rosh Chodesh, in which case we read a special haftarah, Hashamayim Kis’i from the book of Yeshayahu; Tetzaveh sometimes falls on Shabbos Shekalim, in which case the haftarah is from the book of Melachim (Megillah 29b; 30a). And, in practice, Ashkenazim rarely read the haftarah printed in the chumashim for Kedoshim. When Acharei and Kedoshim are combined, as they are in all common years, the haftarah is from Amos, which is printed in the chumashim as the haftarah for Acharei. (We should note that the Levush, Orach Chayim 493:4, disagrees with this practice. However, the other authorities, both before him and after, accept that we read on that Shabbos from Amos.)
Even in leap years, when the parshi’os of Acharei and Kedoshim are read on separate weeks, if Shabbos Acharei falls on erev Rosh Chodesh, most Ashkenazim read Mochor Chodesh on parshas Acharei and the haftarah from Amos on Kedoshim. And, even when Acharei and Kedoshim are read on separate weeks and Acharei is not erev Rosh Chodesh, there are years in which Kedoshim falls on Rosh Chodesh, and we read Hashamayim Kis’i.
Thus, the only time we read a haftarah for Kedoshim from Yechezkel is in a leap year in which neither parshas Acharei nor parshas Kedoshim falls on either erev Rosh Chodesh or on Rosh Chodesh. The next time this will happen under our current calendar is in 5784, although we hope that Moshiach will come soon and that our calendar will once again be established by the Sanhedrin, in which case the pattern may be different.
Although Yechezkel is the source for the haftarah on relatively few regular Shabbosos, there are five special haftaros during the year from the book of Yechezkel. The haftaros for parshas Parah (36:16) and parshas Hachodesh (48:18) are both from Yechezkel, as are the haftaros for Shabbos Chol Hamoed Pesach (37:1), for Shabbos Chol Hamoed Sukkos (38:18) and for Shavuos (1:1).
Reading these haftaros on these special Shabbosos is already recorded by the Gemara (Megillah 30a; 31a). The haftarah read on Shabbos Chol Hamoed Pesach, referred to as the haftarah of the atzamos hayeveishos (literally, the dry bones), is about the bones of the Bnei Efrayim, who were annihilated when they attempted to escape from Egypt, many years before the time of yetzi’as Mitzrayim.
The haftarah read on Shabbos Chol Hamoed Sukkos discusses the wars of Gog and Magog. According to Rashi (Megillah 31a), this haftarah is read then because it continues the theme of the haftarah of the first day of Sukkos, which is the passage discussing the wars of Gog and Magog in the book of Zecharyah.
The Tur (Orach Chayim 490), quoting Rav Hai Gaon, cites the following reason for reciting these two special haftaros on Chol Hamoed: “I heard from wise men that techiyas hameisim will occur in Nissan and the victory of Gog and Magog will transpire in Tishrei, and, for this reason, we recite the haftarah of the dry bones (that, in the haftarah, come back to life) in Nissan and the haftarah beginning with the words Beyom ba Gog in Tishrei.”
So, indeed, we do read haftaros from Yechezkel about eight times a year, but relatively rarely on a “regular” Shabbos.
Before addressing the rest of our opening questions, let us spend some time appreciating the book of Yechezkel and its author. Of the three major prophets of Nevi’im Acharonim, Yechezkel is the latest, although his lifetime and era of prophecy overlap that of Yirmiyahu. Yechezkel began prophesying shortly before the destruction of the first Beis Hamikdash. Yeshayahu had been assassinated a century before; the elderly Yirmiyahu was in Eretz Yisroel, admonishing the people; and the much younger Yechezkel had been exiled to Bavel as a member of the young leadership of the Jewish people, including such great future leaders as Mordechai, Ezra and Daniel, during the expulsion of King Yehoyachin (Yechonyah).
Yechezkel, the Torah scholar
We are aware that, among the many attributes necessary for someone to attain prophecy, Torah scholarship and meticulousness in halacha are included (Rambam, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 7:1). And yet, even among this very elite group of halachically-concerned individuals, the Gemara demonstrates that Yechezkel stood out as one who was exceptionally careful, particularly in areas of kashrus and tzeniyus (Chullin 44b). He did not eat any food on which a shaylah had been raised, even when a posek subsequently ruled it to be kosher, a meticulousness that the Gemara views as worthy of emulation.
Yechezkel was a qualified member of the Sanhedrin and perhaps its head. The Gemara mentions that, not only was he authorized to create a leap year, a power reserved for the special beis din appointed by the nasi of the Sanhedrin, but he once did so, when he was in chutz la’aretz (Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 1:2). This is unusual, since ruling and declaring the new month must be performed in Eretz Yisroel, and can only be performed in chutz la’aretz when there is no equal in stature in Eretz Yisroel to those leaders in chutz la’aretz (Brachos 63a). This implies that Yechezkel was, at least at this point in his life, the greatest Torah scholar among the Jewish people.
We also know that Yechezkel had received from his teachers the ongoing tradition of specific halachos that had been related to Moshe at Har Sinai as a mesorah, called halacha leMoshe miSinai. Yechezkel took care to record these rulings, so that they would not be lost to the Jewish people (Taanis 17b).
Yechezkel, the man
“Rava said: ‘Whatever Yechezkel saw, Yeshayahu had seen. To whom can Yechezkel be compared? To a villager who saw the king. And to whom can Yeshayahu be compared? To a city dweller who saw the king’” (Chagigah 13b).
The question the Gemara is bothered by is that both Yeshayahu and Yechezkel describe their visions of the Heavenly array of angels, yet Yechezkel’s descriptions are much more vivid and detailed than those of Yeshayahu.
Rashi explains that Yechezkel shares with us all the details he saw in the angels, because he was unfamiliar with seeing “royalty.” Yeshayahu, on the other hand, was of the royal family and was not as astounded by what he saw. For this reason, he did not record as much specific detail when he saw Hashem’s royal retinue.
Yechezkel, the persecuted
Being a prophet was often not a pleasant occupation, perhaps as bad as being a congregational rabbi. Yechezkel underwent intense suffering as part of his role. In addition, the midrash reports that people said very nasty and untrue things about his yichus (Yalkut Shimoni, Pinchas 771).
Yechezkel, the book
Who wrote the Book of Yechezkel? The Gemara (Bava Basra 15a) reports that it was written by the Anshei Keneses Hagedolah, who also wrote Trei Asar, Daniel and Esther. Why did Yechezkel, himself, not write it? Rashi explains that since he was in chutz la’aretz, he was not permitted to write down the prophecies. Therefore, writing it down required awaiting the return of the Anshei Keneses Hagedolah to Eretz Yisroel. Rashi notes that this also explains why Daniel and Esther, both of whom lived in chutz la’aretz, did not write their own books.
Although we are all familiar with the division of the works of the nevi’im into Nevi’im Rishonim (Yehoshua, Shoftim, Shmuel, Melachim) and Nevi’im Acharonim (Yeshayahu, Yirmiyahu, Yechezkel, Trei Asar), this distinction does not show up anywhere in the Gemara or in the early commentaries. The earliest source that I know who mentions this distinction is the Abarbanel, but all he writes is that Nevi’im Rishonim are predominantly historical in style, whereas Nevi’im Acharonim are closer to what we usually think of when we talk about prophecy. This does not tell us anything about why these two terms, Nevi’im Rishonim and Nevi’im Acharonim, are used to describe the two subdivisions, since many of the events of the Nevi’im Acharonim predate those of the Nevi’im Rishonim.
Rav Tzadok Hakohein points out that the Nevi’im Rishonim are written in third person, similar to the way the Torah is written, whereas Nevi’im Acharonim are written in first person. For example, the opening words of Yechezkel read: And it was in the thirtieth year in the fourth (month) on the fifth of the month, and I was in the midst of the exile on the River Kefar. As Rashi notes, this is an interesting literary device whereby the prophet does not identify who is speaking, and requires that his words be interrupted two pesukim later to tell us who this prophet is. Presumably, the interceding pasuk that identifies Yechezkel was supplied by the Anshei Keneses Hagedolah, when they edited his prophecies into a written work, as the Gemara explains (Bava Basra 15a).
Again, this approach of Rav Tzadok Hakohein does not teach us why the terms Nevi’im Rishonim and Nevi’im Acharonim are used to describe them.
I found an answer to this question in a relatively recent work, Ohel Rivkah by Rabbi Isaac Sender (page 140), who quotes a novel insight from Nevi’ei Emes by Rabbi Avraham Wolf (page 173), a work with which I am unfamiliar. The earlier prophets, such as Eliyahu, warn of difficulties that will befall the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael, but never warn them that their misdeeds may lead to their being exiled. The first prophet to do this is Hoshea, who, according to the Gemara (Bava Basra 14b), was an older contemporary of Yeshayahu. Thus, Hoshea, who is the first of the twelve prophets of Trei Asar, was chronologically the earliest of the prophets to admonish the Jewish people that their misdeeds may lead to their being exiled from the Holy Land, and is the earliest prophet whose works are included in Nevi’im Acharonim. This may provide an explanation as to why the works dating before Hoshea are called Nevi’im Rishonim, and he begins an era called Nevi’im Acharonim.
Yechezkel in chutz la’aretz
At this point, we can address one of our opening questions:
In what ways is the book of Yechezkel unusual?
Well, for one important aspect, the entire book transpired in chutz la’aretz. Although this is true, also, of the books of Esther and Daniel, and possibly Iyov, they are in Kesuvim, rather than being books of prophecy. To quote the midrash (Yalkut Shemoni 336:1), “Until Eretz Yisroel was chosen, all lands were appropriate for prophecy. Once Eretz Yisroel was chosen, the other lands were excluded.”
So, how can the book of Yechezkel open with a statement that he received prophecy while in chutz la’aretz? The answer is that, prior to being exiled to Bavel, Yechezkel had received a prophecy in Eretz Yisroel (Moed Katan 25a, according to the second approach cited by Rashi). This enabled Yechezkel to become a prophet and continue prophesying after he was exiled.
An interesting aspect about Yechezkel is that it is the only book of the prophets of which we are told not to read parts of it as haftarah. This requires clarification.
The Mishnah (Megillah 25a) states:“We do not read, as haftarah, from the passage of Yechezkel called the merkavah, in which he describes the appearance of the Heavenly ‘Chariots’ (Yechezkel 1). However, Rabbi Yehudah permits doing so. Rabbi Eliezer rules that we do not read as haftarah the passage of Yechezkel that begins with the words, Hoda es Yerushalayim” (Yechezkel 16:1).
Let us explain these two disputes among the tanna’im. First the Mishnah records a dispute between the tanna kamma and Rabbi Yehudah. The Rambam explains that the tanna kamma objects to reading the merkavah as a haftarah because people will attempt to understand it in depth, and its subject matter is beyond the ken of mortal man. Rabbi Yehudah is not concerned about this.
How do we rule?
The rishonim note that the Gemara rules that this haftarah should be read on Shavuos. Obviously, the Gemara accepted Rabbi Yehudah’s approach, although we usually follow the tanna kamma (Tosafos; Rambam), and this is the accepted halacha.
Hoda es Yerushalayim
The Mishnah also cited a dispute in which the tanna, Rabbi Eliezer, ruled that the passage in Yechezkel 16 should not be read as a haftarah. Rabbi Eliezer’s reason is either because the passage speaks extremely negatively about the populace of Yerushalayim (Rashi) or because, in the course of its rebuke of Klal Yisroel, it also makes pejorative comments about our forebears (Levush, Orach Chayim 493:4). The halachic authorities all conclude that we rule according to the tanna kamma against Rabbi Eliezer, and that one may recite the haftarah of Hoda es Yerushalayim.
In practice, however, Ashkenazim do not read this haftarah, and the Levush (note to Orach Chayim 493:4) contends that this decision is deliberate. However, there are edot hamizrach communities that do read this passage as the haftarah for Shemos, a practice mentioned by both the Rambam and the Avudraham. Reading these words of Yechezkel, one can readily see why this was chosen for that week’s haftarah, since it describes the bleak origins of the Jewish people. Some of its verses have found their way into the Hagadah that we recite at the Seder on Pesach night, for the same reason.
Two passages of the Book of Yechezkel are “controversial;” in both of those instances we rule that one may use them for the haftarah.
Although Yechezkel is not a frequent choice for haftarahs on regular Shabbosos, there are several readings from it that we use during the year, each one with a powerful message.
Parchas Vayigash haftarah
This week’s haftarah begins exactly where the haftarah of chol hamoed Pesach ends, and discusses how Yechezkel sees two pieces of wood, one marked “for Judah and his associates,” and the other marked “for Yosef, the tree of Efrayim, and his associates.” Yechezkel describes how Hashem told him to bring the two sticks together and that they would become one in his hands. As Dr. Mendel Hirsch notes, when Yechezkel had this prophecy, the ten tribes, symbolized by Yosef and Efrayim, had long been exiled, and the southern kingdom of Judea was about to fall. Yet, the disunion among the descendants of Yaakov had continued long after the dissolution of their two competing monarchies and long after their feud should have ended. Judea and Efrayim continue their separate ways into the exile, and require the involvement of Yechezkel to bring them together again. Yechezkel is called upon to rebuke the Jewish people for this misbehavior – there is no place for internal divisions within Hashem’s people!