The Rabbis had a robust imagination as to the nature of different angels. One of these was the Chayot Hakodesh. This creature had six wings. Each day of the week the Chayot Hakodesh would use a different wing to sing praises to God. The first time the creature reached Shabbat it asked God for a seventh wing to use on that day to praise God. “You don’t need a wing today,” answered God. “There is a wing down on earth which sings for me today as it says:
M’knaf ha’aretz zemiros shamanu – from the edge of the earth we have heard songs.(Isaiah 24:16)
On Shabbat, God tells the angels that God does not need songs and praises, as God has our song and praises. To this end we add many more praises and songs on Shabbat, to fulfill our special job of being the 7th wing. What a beautiful imagination? But,where in the world did the Rabbis get this image?
I was thinking about this when I was reading VaYakel, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:
And he made the candlestick of pure gold: of beaten work made he the candlestick, even its base, and its shaft; its cups, its knobs, and its flowers, were of one piece with it. And there were six branches going out of the sides thereof: three branches of the candlestick out of the one side thereof, and three branches of the candlestick out of the other side thereof; three cups made like almond-blossoms in one branch, a knob and a flower; and three cups made like almond-blossoms in the other branch, a knob and a flower. So for the six branches going out of the candlestick. And in the candlestick were four cups made like almond-blossoms, the knobs thereof, and the flowers thereof; and a knob under two branches of one piece with it, and a knob under two branches of one piece with it, and a knob under two branches of one piece with it, for the six branches going out of it. Their knobs and their branches were of one piece with it; the whole of it was one beaten work of pure gold. And he made the lamps thereof, seven, and the tongs thereof, and the snuffdishes thereof, of pure gold. (Exodus 37: 17- 23)
We are so used to seeing the image of the Menorah that we stopped seeing it as unique. Yes it was a 7 branched candelabra then helped them count the days of the week, but it also was a flaming instrument that has 6 wings like our Chayot Hakodesh. Is it possible that the Menorah is the inspiration for this image?
Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah Yesodei ha-Torah, counts ten ranks of angels in the Jewish angelic hierarchy, beginning from the highest being our Chayot Hakodesh to one of the lowest levels being the Cheruvim which sit on top of the Ark of the Covenant which we also learn about in our portion. It is noteworthy that the Cheruvim is hard for us as moderns to connect with, but the Menorah is everywhere ( insert your pick of many Modern Israel and Jewish Organizations here).
In his Sacred Fragments Rabbi Neil Gillman points out that the broken first tablets and the second tablets are both in the Ark of the Covenant. This means we accept that the myths we held as truth in the first naïveté are in fact myths, but having passed through the critical distance, we begin to re-engage these concepts at a different level. We no longer accept them at face value, as presented by religious authorities, but rather interpret them for ourselves, in the light of having assumed personal responsibility for our beliefs. Both are held sacred in the Ark. It is similarly interesting that in the center of the Mishkan we find both the Cheruvim ( the most accessible) and the Menorah (representing the Chayot Hakodesh the least accessible.) Might this express how we should think about building communities of faith. Different people connect differently. We need to hold at our center different ways to connect in order to create a meaningful and enduring community.