The controversial Book of Ezekiel nearly didn't make it into the biblical canon, but it has had a lasting impact on both liturgical practice and mystical traditions.


The author of this introduction to the Book of Ezekiel embraces the once prevalent perspective on the literary prophets, that they were negatively disposed toward the Temple and priestly ritual.  In general, scholars today hold that the literary prophets’ rhetoric critiquing sacrifice is intended not as opposition to Temple ritual per se, but to empty, or hypocritical, Temple practice, the result of sacrifice in the absence of social justice.  In other respects, Dr. Freehof’s article provides a useful and interesting introduction to Ezekiel. This article is excerpted from Book of Ezekiel: A Commentary, and is being used with the permission of UAHC Press.

Ezekiel Barely Makes the Bible

The Book of Ezekiel has always been a problem book. As early as the second century C.E., in the time of the Mishnah, there were doubts and concern about it. These doubts were strong enough, in those early days, to raise the question of whether Ezekiel should be one of the biblical books. The Talmud (Sabbath 13b) relates that Hananiah ben Hezekiah (one of the teachers of the Mishnah, who lived about the year 70) used up three hundred measures of oil (to study by) in order to harmonize the laws in Ezekiel with those given in the Torah. If not for this effort, some believed, the book would have been kept out of the Bible. The phrase used was: “The Book of Ezekiel would have been hidden away” (nignaz Sefer Yehezkel).


Torah letters
Image by Barbara Freedman, BarbaraFreedmanGallery.com.

The rabbis were greatly troubled by the fact that the Book of Ezekiel gives certain laws, chiefly as to the Temple procedures, which actually contradict the laws given in the Book of Leviticus. They had a further objection: The opening chapters (chapters 1-3) of the Book of Ezekiel present a detailed picture of God coming in a chariot, surrounded by retinues of angels, etc. This picture, called “the arrangement of the chariot” (ma’aseh merkavah), became the starting point of special mystical studies. Though deemed important by the rabbis, such studies were considered dangerous for the uninitiated, and therefore the rabbis said that these chapters should not be studied, except by the learned few (Mishnah Hagigah 2: 1). How, then, could they permit such a book to be part of the Bible, to be read by anyone?

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Dr. Solomon Bennett Freehof (1892-1990) was a prominent Reform rabbi, posek, and scholar. Rabbi Freehof served as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Beginning in 1955, he led the CCAR's work on Jewish law through its responsa committee.

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