What Are Ofanim? Originally published April 20-21, 2018

The notion of a many-eyed many-sphered transporting creature (I envision something like an armillary sphere with eyes) which can travel in any direction and looks like shining beryl (emerald is a common type of beryl, for instance) is intriguing.  Yet for all their wonder, and even though they appear daily in our liturgy, the Ofanim seem to be one of the least discussed creatures in the literature.  I would have expected to find volumes written about them, but have not yet found any.  I did find a lot of music written about them, though.

Seen on page 153 of the Siddur Lev Shalem, just before the Shema, Ofanim are joining the chorus of Serafim and other holy creatures praising God.  In Ezekiel 1:15 et seq. and also 10:9 et seq., they are transports of higher creatures, and later accompany them.  The name “ofanim” means “wheels,” singular “ofan,” and is related to the Hebrew word for bicycle, ofanayim (which literally means “two wheels,” as there is a special plural form in Hebrew called “dual” made with the suffix “-ayim”).

Also sometimes called “galgalim,” “spheres,” they are generally described as heavenly creatures, and according to Wikipedia one of the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q405) mentions them as a form of angel.   They are mentioned in the Book of Enoch (we shall have to look further into that book, said to be the tale of Noah’s great-grandfather but not a part of the Tanakh) where they join the Keruvim (a/k/a Cherubim) and Serafim in guarding the throne of God.

The liturgy on page 153 comes from Ezekiel, and shows the Ofanim and other holy creatures rising up facing the Serafim in glorious and loud voice proclaiming, “Praised is God’s glory in his place” (or as Siddur Lev Shalem says, “wherever God dwells” which also could be “throughout the universe” as in the Siddur Sim Shalom translation).

The Zohar has the Ofanim listed as fifth of the ten orders of angels, while Maimonides ranked them second, just after the Hayot HaKodesh.  The Kabbalah also discusses angels, as do many other sources.  We shall have to look at angels in general and specifically in the Kabbalah for future columns. 

For now, we shall be singing “Round, like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel…”