Category Archives: Mysteries & Origins

Who Was the First Rabbi in History?

Tuesday evening marks the start of Chanukah. This is the only major Jewish holiday without a basis in the Tanakh. However, there is a scriptural Book of Maccabees—which recounts the history of Chanukah and the chronicles of Matityahu, Judah and the Hashmonean brothers—but it was not included in the Tanakh. Some say it was not included because by that point (2nd-century BCE), the Tanakh had already been compiled by the Knesset haGedolah, the “Great Assembly” which re-established Israel after the Babylonian Exile. Others argue that the Tanakh was not completely sealed by the Knesset, since it appears that the Book of Daniel may have been put together around the same time as the Book of Maccabees, but was included in the Tanakh, while later still the rabbis of the Talmud debate whether certain books (such as Kohelet, “Ecclesiastes”, and Shir HaShirim, the “Song of Songs”) should be included.

It is possible that the Book of Maccabees was not included for the same reason why there is no Talmudic tractate for Chanukah, even though there is a tractate for every other major holiday. (Chanukah is discussed in the Talmud in the tractate of Shabbat). Some argue that the events of Chanukah were so recent at the time that everyone knew them well, so having a large tractate for Chanukah was simply unnecessary. The other, more likely, reason is that although the Hashmonean Maccabees were heroes in the Chanukah period, they soon took over the Jewish monarchy (legally forbidden to them since they were kohanim) and actually adopted the Hellenism that they originally fought so valiantly against!

The first Hashmonean to rule was Shimon, one of the five sons of Matityahu. He was the only son to survive the wars with the Seleucid Greeks. He became the kohen gadol (high priest), and took the title of nasi, “leader” or “prince”, though not a king. Although he was a successful ruler, Shimon was soon assassinated along with his two elder sons. His third son, Yochanan, took over as kohen gadol.

Yochanan saw himself as a Greek-style king, and took on the regnal name Hyrcanus. His son, Aristobulus (no longer having a Jewish name at all) declared himself basileus, the Greek term for a king, after cruelly starving his own mother to death. Aristobulus’ brother, Alexander Jannaeus (known in Jewish texts as Alexander Yannai) was even worse, starting a campaign to persecute rabbis, including his brother-in-law, the great Shimon ben Shetach. Ultimately, Yannai’s righteous wife Salome Alexandra (Shlomtzion) ended the persecution, brought her brother Shimon and other sages back from exile in Egypt, and ushered in a decade of prosperity. It was Salome that re-established the Sanhedrin, opened up a public school system, and mandated the ketubah, a marriage document to protect Jewish brides. After her death, the kingdom fell apart and was soon absorbed by Rome.

‘Alexander Jannaeus feasting during the crucifixion of the Pharisees’ by Willem Swidde (c. 1690)

Sadducees and Pharisees

While Alexander Yannai was aligned with the Sadducees, Salome Alexandra was, like her brother Shimon ben Shetach, a Pharisee. The Sadducees (Tzdukim) and Pharisees (Perushim) were the two major movements or political parties in Israel at the time. The former only accepted the written Torah as divine, while the latter believed in an Oral Tradition dating back to the revelation at Sinai. Thus, “Rabbinic Judaism” as we know it today is said to have developed from Pharisee Judaism.

Because the Sadducees only accepted the written Torah, their observance was highly dependent on the Temple and the land of Israel, since most of the Torah is concerned with sacrificial and agricultural laws. When the Romans ultimately destroyed the Temple and the majority of Jews went into exile, Sadducee Judaism simply could not survive. (Later, a similar movement based solely on the written Torah, Karaite Judaism, would develop.) Meanwhile, the Pharisees and their Oral Tradition continued to develop, adapt, and flourish in exile, resulting in the Judaism of today.

Avot d’Rabbi Natan states that the Sadducees get their name from one Tzadok, a student of the sage Antigonus. Antigonus famously taught (Pirkei Avot 1:3) that one should serve God simply for the sake of serving God, and not in order to receive a reward in the afterlife. It is this teaching that led to Tzadok’s apostasy. Indeed, we know that the Sadducees did not believe in the Resurrection of the Dead or apparently any kind of afterlife at all. This makes sense, since the Sadducees only accepted the Chumash as law, and the Chumash itself never mentions an afterlife explicitly.

In that same first chapter of Pirkei Avot, we read that Antigonus was the student of Shimon haTzadik, the last survivor of the Knesset HaGedolah. Antigonus passed down the tradition to Yose ben Yoezer and Yose ben Yochanan, who passed it down to Yehoshua ben Perachiah and Nitai haArbeli, who passed it down to Shimon ben Shetach and Yehuda ben Tabai. This means that Shimon ben Shetach, brother of Queen Salome Alexandra, lived only three generations after Shimon haTzadik, the last of the Great Assembly. This presents a problem since, according to traditional Jewish dating, the Great Assembly was about 300 years before the rule of Salome. (It is even more problematic according to secular dating, which calculates nearly 500 years!) It is highly unlikely that three generations of consecutive sages could span over 300 years.

The rabbinic tradition really starts with Shimon haTzadik, the earliest sage to be cited in the Talmud. He is said to have received the tradition from the last of the prophets in the Great Assembly, thus tying together the rabbinic period with the Biblical period of prophets. Yet, Shimon haTzadik himself is not called a “rabbi”, and neither is his student Antigonus, or Antigonus’ students, or even Hillel and Shammai. The title “rabban” is later used to refer to the nasi of the Sanhedrin, while the first sages to properly be called “rabbi” are the students of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, the leader at the time of the Temple’s destruction by the Romans.

Despite this, the title “rabbi” is often applied retroactively to earlier sages, including Shimon ben Shetach, Yehoshua ben Perachiah, and others, all the way back to Shimon haTzadik, the first link in the rabbinic chain. Who was Shimon haTzadik?

The Mystery of Shimon haTzadik

The most famous story of Shimon haTzadik is recounted in the Talmud (Yoma 69a). In this story, Alexander the Great is marching towards Jerusalem, intent on destroying the Temple, so Shimon goes out to meet him in his priestly garments (he was the kohen gadol). When Alexander sees him, he halts, gets off his horse, and bows down to the priest. Alexander’s shocked generals ask why he would do such a thing, to which Alexander responds that he would see the face of Shimon before each successful battle.

‘Alexander the Great and Jaddus the High Priest of Jerusalem’ by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669)

While it is highly doubtful that the egomaniacal Alexander (who had himself declared a god) would ever bow down to anyone, this story is preserved in a number of texts, including that of Josephus, the first-century historian who was an eye-witness to the Temple’s destruction. In Josephus, however, it is not Shimon who meets Alexander, but another priest called Yaddua. Yaddua is actually mentioned in the Tanakh (Nehemiah 12:22), which suggests he was a priest in the days of the Persian emperor Darius. Of course, it was Darius III whom Alexander the Great defeated. It seems Josephus’ account is more accurate in this case.

In fact, in Sotah 33a, the Talmud tells another story of Shimon haTzadik, this one during the reign of the Roman emperor Caligula. We know that Caligula reigned between 37 and 41 CE—over three centuries after Alexander the Great! The Talmud thus gives us three different time periods for the life of Shimon haTzadik: a few generations before Shimon ben Shetach, or a few centuries before in the time of Alexander the Great, or centuries after in the time of Caligula. Which is correct?

The First Rabbi

The Book of Maccabees (I, 2:1-2) introduces the five sons of Matityahu in this way:

In those days, Matityahu ben Yochanan ben Shimon, a priest of the descendants of Yoariv, left Jerusalem and settled in Modi’in. He had five sons: Yochanan, called Gaddi; Shimon, called Thassi; Yehuda, called Maccabee; Elazar, called Avaran; and Yonatan, called Apphus.

Each of the five sons of Matityahu has a nickname. The second son, Shimon, is called “Thassi” (or “Tharsi”). This literally means “the wise” or “the righteous”, aka. HaTzadik. It was Shimon who survived the Chanukah wars and re-established an independent Jewish state. In fact, the Book of Maccabees (I, 14:41-46) tells us:

And the Jews and their priests resolved that Shimon should be their leader and high priest forever until a true prophet should appear… And all the people agreed to decree that they should do these things to Shimon, and Shimon accepted them and agreed to be high priest and general and governor of the Jews…

Apparently, Shimon was appointed to lead the Jews by a “great assembly” of sorts, which nominated him and, after his acceptance, decreed that he is the undisputed leader. The Book of Maccabees therefore tells us that Shimon the Maccabee was a righteous and wise sage, a high priest, and leader of Israel that headed an assembly. This is precisely the Talmud’s description of Shimon haTzadik!

Perhaps over time the “great assembly” of Shimon was confused with the Great Assembly of the early Second Temple period. This may be why Pirkei Avot begins by stating that Shimon haTzadik was of the Knesset haGedolah. In terms of chronology, it makes far more sense that Shimon haTzadik was Shimon Thassi—“Simon Maccabeus”—who died in 135 BCE. This fits neatly with Shimon ben Shetach and Salome Alexandra being active a few generations later, in the 60s BCE as the historical record attests. It also makes sense that Shimon haTzadik’s student is Antigonus, who carries a Greek name, just as we saw earlier that following Shimon the leaders of Israel were adopting Greek names.

Thus, of the three main versions of Shimon haTzadik in the Talmud, it is the one in Avot that is historically accurate, and not the one in Yoma (where he is placed nearly three centuries before Shimon ben Shetach) or the one in Sotah (where he is in the future Roman era).

‘Mattathias of Modi’in killing a Jewish apostate’ by Gustav Doré

Furthermore, we must not forget that Shimon the Maccabee was one of the instigators of the revolt against the Greeks and their Hellenism. He was the son of Matityahu, a religious, traditional priest, who fled Jerusalem when it was taken over by Hellenizers (as we quoted above, I Maccabees 2:1). Shimon was certainly aligned with the traditional Pharisees, and it was only his grandson Alexander Yannai who turned entirely to the more Hellenized Sadducees and began persecuting the Pharisees. As Rabbinic Judaism comes directly from Pharisee Judaism, it makes sense that the tradition begins with Shimon the Maccabee, or Simon Thassi, ie. Shimon haTzadik.

Interestingly, the Book of Maccabees states that Matityahu was a descendent of Yoariv. This name is mentioned in the Tanakh. I Chronicles 24:7 lists Yoariv as the head of one of the 24 divisions of kohanim, as established in the days of King David. The same chapter states that Yoariv was himself a descendent of Elazar, the son of Aaron the first kohen. Thus, there is a fairly clear chain of transmission from Aaron, all the way down to Matityahu, and his son Shimon.

Shimon continued to pass down the tradition, not to his son Yochanan—who was swayed by the Greeks and became John Hyrcanus—but to his student Antigonus. (Depending on how one reads Avot, it is possible that Yose ben Yoezer and Yose ben Yochanan were also direct students of Shimon haTzadik.) It appears we have found the historical Shimon haTzadik, and closed the gap on the proper chronology of the Oral Tradition dating back to Sinai.

If this is the case, then Chanukah is a celebration of not only a miraculous victory over the Syrian Greeks, but of the very beginnings of Rabbinic Judaism, with one of Chanuka’s central heroes being none other than history’s first rabbi.

Chag sameach!

Secrets of God’s Hidden Names and Segulot for Fertility

“Jacob’s Ladder” by Stemler and Cleveland (1925)

This week’s parasha is Vayetze, and begins with Jacob’s departure from the Holy Land towards Charan. Along the way, he has his famous dream of the ladder ascending to Heaven. The Torah introduces this passage with an interesting set of words: “And he encountered the place and lodged there because the sun had set…” (Genesis 28:11) What does the Torah mean when it says that Jacob “encountered” the place, v’ifgah, as if he literally bumped into it? And which “place” is it referring to? Traditionally, this verse has been interpreted to mean that Jacob had arrived at the place, the holiest point on Earth—the Temple Mount. Indeed, after waking from his dream Jacob names the place Beit El, “House of God”.

A more mystical interpretation has it that Jacob encountered God, as one of God’s names is Makom, “Place”. This Name of God denotes God’s omnipresence, the fact that God is everywhere, and more than this, that God literally is everywhere. God fills all space, and is every place. In his Understanding the Alef-Beis (pg. 153), Rabbi Dovid Leitner points out something incredible. When we think of place, or space, we think of area. Area is measured by multiplying the width and length of a space, or “squaring” it. This is why measurements of area are given in squared units, like square feet or square metres. What happens when we “square” the values of God’s Ineffable Name?

The sum of the “squared” value of God’s Name is 186, equivalent to the value of Makom (מקום), God’s Name of “Place”!

The Sufficient One

Another of God’s lesser-known Names is El-Shaddai, literally “the God that is Enough”, or “the Sufficient God”. On the simplest of levels, it means that Hashem is the one and only God, and none other is necessary. The Talmud (Chagigah 12a) comments that this Name means that God is the one who told the Universe dai, “enough” or “stop”. This alludes to the origins of the universe, as God began His creation with a massive burst of instantaneous expansion which then quickly slowed down, as science has finally corroborated.

Building on the Talmud, the Arizal saw within El-Shaddai an allusion to the tzimtzum, the primordial “contraction” of God’s Infinity to produce a “space” within which He could create a finite world. Rabbi Leitner points out (pg. 153) how “contracting” the letters dalet and yud of El-Shaddai makes a letter hei, which represents God.

Our purpose is to similarly find God within this universe, which is nothing more than a contraction and concealment of God’s Oneness.


Interestingly, both El-Shaddai and the letter hei are associated with reproduction and fertility. The first time that the name El-Shaddai appears in the Torah is when God comes to a 99-year old Abraham to bless him and Sarah with a child (Genesis 17:1). God adds the letter hei to their names, thus altering their fate and making them fertile. The second time El-Shaddai appears is in Isaac’s blessing to Jacob: “And El-Shaddai will bless you, and make you fruitful, and multiple you, and you shall be a congregation of peoples.” (Genesis 28:3) Similarly, the third appearance of this Name is when God Himself blesses Jacob: “I am El-Shaddai, be fruitful and multiply, a nation and a congregation of nations will come from you…” (Genesis 35:11) Not surprisingly, some have made the connection between El-Shaddai and shaddaim, the Biblical word for breasts, the latter being a symbol of fertility.

Meanwhile, the Arizal points out (Sha’ar HaPesukim on Vayetze) that because the letter hei is associated with fertility, Rachel was the only wife of Jacob that struggled with infertility, since she is the only wife without a hei in her name. (Leah, לאה; Bilhah, בלהה; and Zilpah, זלפה were the other wives.) Since changing one’s name is one of several things that can change one’s fate (along with charity, prayer, repentance, and changing locations, as per the Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 16b) it has been suggested that a woman struggling with infertility may wish to change her name to one that has a hei in it.

Today, there is a long list of segulot to help woman conceive. One is for a husband to be called up to the Torah on Rosh Hashanah for the haftarah reading of Hannah, who also struggled to conceive before being blessed with Samuel. Another is for a woman to immerse in the mikveh right after a pregnant woman. A third is having the husband light Shabbat candles first (without a blessing), then having the wife extinguish them, and relight them (with blessing). This is said to be a tikkun for the sin of Eden, where Eve caused the consumption of the Fruit and the subsequent “extinguishing” of the divine light. The woman relights the candles that she extinguished, thus performing a spiritual rectification.

Rav Ovadia Yosef was not a big fan of any of these or other fertility segulot, but did hold by one: consuming an etrog after Sukkot. Having said that, because etrogim are very sensitive species and are typically not eaten anyway, they are cultivated with massive amounts of pesticides and other chemicals. They should be washed thoroughly and eaten sparingly.

Lastly, there are those who maintain that the best segulah for fertility is to go to a fertility doctor!

Is Your Brain a Quantum Computer? (A Scientific Explanation for the Soul and Afterlife)

This week’s parasha, Chayei Sarah, begins with the passing of the matriarch Sarah. The Torah states that “the lives of Sarah were one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years…” Traditionally, two big questions were asked of this verse: the first is why the Torah describes her life as one hundred, twenty, and seven years instead of simply saying that she was 127 years old when she died. The second is why the Torah says these were the lives of Sarah, instead of life in the singular, especially in light of the fact that the parasha actually describes her death, not life!

The classic answer to the first question is that Sarah was as beautiful at 100 as she was at 20, and she was as pure at 20 as she was at 7 years old. The answer to the second question, as we’ve explored in the past, is that Sarah (or a part of her soul) was immediately reincarnated in Rebecca, and thus Sarah’s life and life’s work continued with her future daughter-in-law. In general, the word for “life” in Hebrew is in plural, chaim, which alludes to the fact that there are really two lives: the transient life in this current physical world, and the everlasting life of the soul.

Today, many question (or outright reject) the possibility of an afterlife. Such people argue that there is no evidence or scientifically plausible explanation for such things. When the body dies, the person dies with it, and that’s it. In reality, there is a great deal of evidence to support the notion of a soul and an afterlife, and even one solid scientific explanation that is slowly gaining popularity and acceptance.

The Quantum Brain

Although there have been millions of cases of “near death experiences” and medically-induced “clinical deaths”—many of which end with the victim or patient describing other worlds and relating accurate information that would have been impossible for them to know—these are all relegated to “anecdotal evidence” and generally not taken seriously in the scientific community. We can put all of that aside (together with countless people’s personal stories of prophetic dreams and premonitions, “out-of-body” experiences, miraculous occurrences, and other inexplicable phenomena), and focus strictly on accepted science.

In recent decades, neurologists studying the human brain have sought to uncover what it is that generates consciousness and actually makes the brain work. Why and how is it that this network of cells produces a “mind”? Biology and chemistry have given us the general mechanisms of electrical signals and neurotransmitters, but have not been able to answer the real fundamental questions. To solve the mystery actually requires the most complex of sciences: quantum physics.

In 1989, world-renowned physicist Sir Roger Penrose published The Emperor’s New Mind in which he argued that classical physics simply cannot explain consciousness, nor can the brain be compared in any way to a typical computer, or be explained with familiar algorithms. Penrose suggested that the only plausible explanation for consciousness can come from quantum physics.

To go into the major principles of quantum physics is far beyond our scope. Indeed, one of the great quantum physicists, Richard Feynman, once noted: “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Suffice it to say that quantum physics has completely revolutionized science and our entire understanding of reality. It has turned the universe into a funky place where just about anything is possible, and where things at the sub-atomic level behave in totally bizarre ways. Niels Bohr, one of the early quantum physicists (and a Nobel Prize winner) offered that “If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet.” Meanwhile, the man who is often called “the father of quantum physics”, Max Planck, stated:

As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.

From his lifetime of studies, Planck concluded that reality as we know it doesn’t exist, and all of matter is held together by some kind of universal mind or consciousness. Building on these ideas, and the complex math and science behind them, Penrose proposed that the brain is a “quantum computer” of sorts, and may be intricately linked to the very fabric of the universe.

Quantum Biology and the Soul

Penrose’s hypothesis inspired a psychology professor in Arizona named Stuart Hameroff. As a practicing anesthesiologist, Hameroff knew that anesthesia works by shutting down small proteins inside neurons called microtubules, and this shuts off a person’s consciousness. Penrose and Hameroff teamed up to continue researching the possibility of the brain as quantum computer. Incredibly, their conclusions suggest that the brain can actually store its quantum information in the universe itself, so that even if the brain was to die, its information would not die with it. That information can be held indefinitely in the universe, and can return to a revived brain, or even into another brain. This would explain near death experiences and clinical deaths, and provides a scientific explanation for reincarnation and a life after death. The death of the body does not at all mean the death of the person, or that person’s memories and thoughts.

While there are those who are quick to criticize the theory and reject it, no one has been able to actually refute it. In fact, since the theory was first proposed, more and more evidence has accumulated to support it. In 2014, quantum biologist Anirban Bandyopadhyay (based in Japan’s National Institute for Materials Science and a visiting professor at MIT) successfully demonstrated the quantum activity of microtubules.

It appears that science has finally discovered the soul. There are now valid, empirical evidence-based theories to explain the existence of an eternal mind or spirit, a universal consciousness, the possibility of an afterlife and reincarnation. The scientific community needs to stop aggressively denying anything that seems “spiritual”, and instead delve deeper into this exciting and promising new field. This sentiment was already expressed long ago by Nikola Tesla, considered by many to be the greatest scientist of all time: “The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence.” It was the genius Tesla who first noted that his brain “is only a receiver,” and stated that “In the Universe there is a core from which we obtain knowledge, strength, inspiration. I have not penetrated into the secrets of this core, but I know it exists.”

The Priests and the Aftermath of the Golden Calf

This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tisa, most famous for its account of the Golden Calf incident. Last year, we addressed some of the major questions surrounding the Golden Calf, including who exactly instigated the catastrophe, why it was done in that particular way, and the mystical reasons behind it. Another set of questions arises from the way Moses dealt with the incident. We read how Moses first had the Golden Calf ground up and mixed with water, a mixture that the populace was forced to drink. Then, he called on the perpetrators to be killed by sword. Finally, God sent an additional plague as punishment for the incident. What is the significance of these three measures?

Priestly Procedure

Rashi comments on Exodus 32:20 that Moses “intended to test them like women suspected of adultery”. This refers to the sotah procedure, described in Numbers 5:11-31, where a woman who may have committed adultery is brought before the priests and tested by having her drink a special mixture of “holy water”. If she is guilty, she would die immediately; if innocent, she would be blessed. Moses did the same by grinding the Golden Calf into a special mixture and having the people drink it. This would identify those who were guilty of idolatry. The symbolism is clear: in the same way that the adulteress cheats on her husband, the Israelites at Sinai “cheated” on God.

Rashi further explains that this procedure was only to identify those who had worshipped the Calf secretly, without any witnesses. However, there were those who had worshipped the Calf openly and publicly. Deuteronomy 13:13-18 states that the punishment for such open displays of idolatry—assuming the idolaters had been given a clear warning—is death by sword. It was these people (three thousand of them) who were killed in this particular way.

The last group were those who had worshipped the Calf openly, but were not given a warning. In Jewish law, the death penalty is not meted out unless the perpetrators were given a clear explanation of their sin and were explicitly warned about the consequences beforehand. Since this last group of people worshipped the Calf openly, but without a warning, they could not be punished. In such cases, it is up to the Heavens to dole out justice. This is why they were punished with a plague.

Priestly Origins

Rashi’s comments come from the Talmud (Yoma 66b), which also provides us with an alternate explanation for the three types of punishment. Those that were most involved in the idolatry—sacrificing animals and burning incense to the Golden Calf—died by sword. Those who merely “embraced and kissed” the Calf died by plague. And those who only “rejoiced in their hearts” and worshipped the Calf in secret died by drinking the mixture.

The same page of Talmud reminds us that the entire tribe of Levi did not participate in the sin. The Sages explain that this is why the Levites were elevated to the status of priests. Prior to the Golden Calf, it was the firstborn male of every family that was supposed to ascend to the priesthood. After the Calf, the Levites were designated as the priestly class, with the descendants of Aaron serving as the kohanim, the high priests. For this reason, a firstborn male must be “redeemed” from a kohen in a special ceremony known as pidyon haben thirty days (or more) after his birth.

Illustration depicting Moses commanding the Levites at the Golden Calf, from ‘Compendium of Chronicles’ by Persian-Jewish sage Rashid-al-Din (1247-1308)

Priestly Exceptions

Having said that, we do see a number of exceptions to this rule. Pinchas was a Levite who was elevated to kohen status after his actions brought an end to the immoral affair with the Midianites. He would go on to become the kohel gadol, the High Priest, and hold that position longer than anyone else—over 300 years according to certain opinions!

Another exception was the prophet Samuel. His barren mother, Hannah, promised that if God would give her a child, she would make the child a nazir (loosely translated as “monk”) from birth and dedicate him to the priesthood. After Samuel was weaned, Hannah—considered a prophetess in her own right—left him under the tutelage of the High Priest Eli. The Tanakh tells us that Eli’s own two sons, Hofni and Pinchas (not to be confused with the Pinchas above) were “base men who did not know God” (I Samuel 2:12), and it appears that Samuel filled the void they left, for he “served before Hashem, a youth girded with a linen ephod” (2:18). The ephod was one of the special vestments worn only by the kohanim, as described in last week’s parasha. Despite Samuel being from the tribe of Ephraim, it appears he became a full member of the priesthood. So great was he that Psalms 99:6 famously equates Samuel with Moses (a Levite) and Aaron (a kohen) combined.

In fact, long before Aaron we read how Melchizedek was a “kohen to God” who came to bless Abraham (Genesis 14:18). Melchizedek is identified with Shem, the son of Noah (appropriately his firstborn son, according to many opinions). He was the first person in history to serve as a proper priest, offering sacrifices to God upon an altar upon exiting the Ark following the Great Flood (see Beresheet Rabbah 30:6).

Finally, the Talmud (Sukkah 52a) speaks of a certain “righteous priest” who is one of the four messianic figures prophesied by Zechariah. While Mashiach himself is said to be from the tribe of Judah and a descendent of King David, there are a number of perplexing sources speaking of Mashiach being a kohen! In fact, there are only four places in the entire Torah where the word mashiach (משיח) actually appears. All four cases are in reference to a kohen, mentioned as hakohen hamashiach. While the simple explanation is that this refers to the “anointed” priest, ie. the High Priest, the deeper meaning suggests that Mashiach himself is somehow a kohen.*

In reality, this isn’t so hard to understand. After all, when Mashiach comes everything will revert to the way it was meant to be originally. The sin of the Golden Calf will be rectified, together with all the other tikkunim. Thus, the priesthood will once again belong to the firstborn. And even this will likely be temporary, for God always intended the Jewish people to be a mamlechet kohanim, for each and every Jew to be a priest, as it is written (Exodus 19:5-6):

…If you would but hearken to My voice, and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasure among all peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation…

Courtesy: Temple Institute

*Interestingly, the breakaway sect of priests known as the Essenes—who likely produced the Dead Sea Scrolls—believed in a messianic figure referred to as moreh tzedek, the “Righteous Teacher”. Scholars have suggested this was a high-ranking kohen named Judah who separated from the corrupt Sadducee priests of the Second Temple and founded the ascetic Essene sect. Judah was ultimately killed for apostasy, and the Essenes apparently believed that he would return to life to usher in the Messianic age. It seems early Christians adopted many elements of this legend. The possibility is explored by Michael O. Wise in The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior Before Christ.

The Mysterious Urim and Thummim, and the Dome of the Rock

Modern Rendition of the Choshen, the High Priest’s Breastplate

This week’s Torah portion is Tetzave, which focuses on the holy vestments worn by the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. Perhaps the most enigmatic of these vestments is the choshen hamishpat, the “breastplate of judgement”. This breastplate was embedded with twelve different precious stones, each symbolizing one of the Twelve Tribes. Housed within the breastplate were the Urim v’Tumim, mysterious objects whose nature has been speculated upon for centuries.

The Torah itself does not elaborate on what the Urim and Tumim are. The Talmud (Yoma 21b) states that they were one of the five things that were in the First Temple but missing in the Second Temple. Many believe that these were a couple of stones used to communicate with God. Unseen and unused for some two and a half millennia, it isn’t surprising that the Urim and Tumim are clouded in mystery.

Guilty or Innocent?

Some scholars see urim rooted in the root arur, “cursed”, and tumim from tam, “innocent”. Thus, these stones were used to figure out if a person was guilty or innocent, or if a certain decision was right or wrong. We read in I Samuel 14:36-44 how King Saul debated whether to pursue the Philistines in battle or not, so the High Priest addressed the question to God. God does not respond, so Saul concludes there must be a guilty person among them causing God to turn away. He then separates the people into groups to see which group contains the guilty party. It turns out that it is Saul’s son Jonathan who erred. This passage highlights the use of Urim and Tumim in divine communication, both in finding whether an action is right or wrong, and in determining guilt and innocence.

How did the stones communicate this? The word urim can mean “lights”, so it is thought that the stones glowed: one stone for yes/innocent, and the other for no/guilty. Others hold that the Urim and Tumim gave power to the Breastplate itself, causing the letters engraved upon it to glow. Each of the twelve stones on the Breastplate was engraved with the name of the corresponding tribe. However, the twelve names do not include all twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet! The missing letters—Chet, Tet, Tzadi, Kuf—are in the names of the patriarchs, which were also engraved onto the plate, together with the phrase shivtei yeshurun, “Tribes of Jeshurun”. (Jeshurun was an ancient name for Israel.)

Interestingly, Rabbi Chaim Vital writes that this is how the Arizal could “read” people’s faces, by seeing a sort of Breastplate on their forehead. In Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh, he explains that each person’s forehead has the twenty-two letters mystically engraved upon it, and the letters glow allowing the adept to penetrate into one’s soul and fortune. Each letter symbolizes different things. If no letters at all are shining, the person is nearing their death!

The Foundation Stone

Meanwhile, Targum Yonatan comments (on Exodus 28:30) that the Urim and Tumim were themselves inscribed with the alphabet, through a mystical name of God—“the name through which He created all three hundred and ten worlds”. Again, the letters would glow in sequence to provide the answer to one’s question. Targum Yonatan appears to suggest that the Urim and Tumim were special stones formed from the great Even HaShetiya, the Foundation Stone. According to tradition, this is the Stone from which Creation began, some seeing it is the very centre of the universe. Targum Yonatan says the Foundation Stone was placed by God to “seal up the mouth of the great deep at the beginning”.

This refers to the account of Creation, where it is stated at the beginning that everything was “chaos and void, with darkness upon the deep” (Genesis 1:2) before God said, “Let there be light.” Looking at these verses carefully, we see that the Torah uses the word tehom for the great deep, before the introduction of light, or. It isn’t difficult to see a connection between or v’tehom and urim v’tumim. The Urim and Tumim are meant to be conduits for communicating with the Divine, while the Foundation Stone has traditionally been seen as the very link between the Heavens and Earth.

Where is this Foundation Stone? The Talmud (Yoma 53b) tells us that the Even Shetiya is precisely the site of the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Temple, where the High Priest entered just once a year on Yom Kippur. The Stone served as the foundation for the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark, too, was a means of Divine Communication, with a Heavenly Voice emanating from between the Cherubs on the Ark’s Cover. We therefore see a link between the Ark and the Urim v’Tumim. The Talmud tells us that both the Ark and the Urim were missing in the Second Temple, together with the Shekhina and the spirit of prophecy. In short, the Second Temple era was devoid of any real divine communication.

The Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall. Some believe the Temple was located right in front of the Wall, in the forested area pictured above.

So, what stood instead of the Ark in the Holy of Holies of the Second Temple? The Foundation Stone! It protruded “three fingers above the ground” and it is on this Stone that the High Priest would place the burning coals and incense on Yom Kippur (Yoma 53b). It is atop this Stone that the Muslims built the famous gold-topped Dome of the Rock (hence the name).

The Rabbis debate whether the Rock inside the Dome really is the Foundation Stone or not. The Arizal is among those who believed it is not, suggesting instead that the Temple was built right in front of where the Western Wall is today. Meanwhile, the Radbaz and Rav Ovadia of Bartenura maintained that it is indeed the Stone. They are supported by an ancient Midrash which prophesies that the Ishmaelites will do fifteen things in Israel, one of which is building a shrine atop the Holy of Holies (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 30). The midrashic passage concludes by presciently saying the Ishmaelites will instigate three great wars at the end: one in Arab lands, one in the Sea, and one in the West. It is in the midst of these wars that Mashiach will come.

Top view of the Stone housed in the Dome of the Rock.

When that time comes, the Ark of the Covenant—which many believe is currently hidden under the Foundation Stone—will be restored, together with the Priestly Vestments. In light of the fact that we are now quite clearly living out the final verses of that midrashic passage, it seems we shall soon be able to finally unravel the mystery of the Urim v’Tumim.

A picture from beneath the Rock, the area known as the “Well of Souls”