Category Archives: Torah & Science

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.”

Torah on the Big Bang and the Age of the Universe

This past Shabbat we started a new cycle of Torah readings with the first parasha, Beresheet. This portion is most famous for its opening account of Creation over a span of six days. Many have questioned the validity of this narrative in light of the findings of modern science. In reality, the Torah’s account is quite accurate in scientific terms, and the Jewish tradition described the origins of the universe and its age with stunning precision centuries before modern science caught up.

According to Science

The current scientific model holds that 13.7 billion years ago, the entire universe was compacted into a super tiny point with infinite density. For some unknown reason, this point suddenly burst in a massively vast and rapid expansion of energy and radiation. As the early universe cooled and expanded, particles began to form, and then whole atoms, starting with hydrogen. Hydrogen atoms fused into helium atoms, and later on heavy elements formed from further fusion in the cores of stars and their explosions. Everything that we see today—the entire universe and all matter within it—emerged from that initial expansion, “the Big Bang”.

The evidence for a Big Bang is extensive. In fact, you can see some of it when you look at the “snow” on an old television that is not tuned to any channel. The antenna is picking up some of the cosmic microwave background radiation, the “afterglow” of the Big Bang. The entire universe is still glowing from that initial expansion! Popular physicist Brian Greene writes in his bestselling The Hidden Reality (pg. 43):

…if you were to shut off the sun, remove the other stars from the Milky Way, and even sweep away the most distant galaxies, space would not be black. To the human eye it would appear black, but if you could see radiation in the microwave part of the spectrum, then every which way you turned, you’d see a uniform glow. It’s origin? The origin.

The universe is glowing, it’s just that most people cannot see it because human eyes perceive only a very narrow part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which we call “visible light”. Light of a higher energy and frequency includes dangerous x-rays and gamma rays, while light of lower energy and frequency includes microwaves and radio waves. The seeming blackness of the universe is actually radiating with light—we simply cannot see it. Incredibly, this is precisely what the Torah states.

The electromagnetic spectrum. Visible light makes up just a tiny sliver of the spectrum. Some living organisms can see in UV or infrared wavelengths.

Zohar haRakia

We read in the Tanakh (Daniel 12:3) that “they who are wise shall shine as bright as the rakia…” The Torah tells us that God established a rakia (wrongly translated as “firmament”) on the second day of Creation, and this is where all the stars and planets are suspended (Genesis 1:15). The Talmud (Chagigah 12a), composed over 1500 years ago, further elaborates that above the earth is the vilon, the atmosphere that stretches over the planet, and beyond the vilon is the rakia, a vast expanse within which are all the stars. Beyond the rakia is a region called shechakim, the interface between the physical and spiritual realms, and further still are the highest levels of the Heavens, inhabited by angels and transcendental beings. From this, and other ancient sources, it is clear that rakia refers to outer space.

Daniel tells us that the wise will shine like the rakia, and goes on to state that “they who turn the many to righteousness [shall shine] as the stars”. We can understand how people might shine bright like stars, but why would Daniel say the rakia is shining? Outer space is totally dark! Of course, as Brian Greene described, today we know that the universe is indeed glowing.

One of the most ancient Jewish mystical texts is Sefer HaBahir. According to tradition, it dates back some two thousand years, and was first published at least seven hundred years ago. This book gets its name from another verse in the Tanakh (Job 37:21), which states “And now, men do not see the light that is bright [bahir] in the skies.” Once again, Scripture tells us that the universe is glowing with a bright light that humans are unable to perceive. Science has found that this glow comes from the Big Bang, and this too is accurately described by the most famous of Jewish mystical texts, the Zohar.

Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, the glow of the universe, discovered in the 1960s by Robert Wilson and Jewish physicist Arno Penzias.

The Secret of Beresheet and the Big Bang

Like Sefer HaBahir, the Zohar was first published around seven hundred years ago, with its teachings dating back two millennia. The Zohar is a parasha-by-parasha commentary on the Torah, and naturally begins with the first section in describing Creation. The book gets its name from the above verse in Daniel which speaks of Zohar haRakia, the glow of the universe. It elaborates (I, 2a, 15a):

בְּשַׁעְתָּא דִּסְתִימָא דְכָל סְתִימִין בָּעָא לְאִתְגַּלְּיָא, עֲבַד בְּרֵישָׁא נְקוּדָה חֲדָא, וְדָא סָלֵיק לְמֶהֱוֵי מַחֲשָׁבָה. צַיֵּיר בָּהּ כָּל צִיּוּרִין חָקַק בָּהּ כָּל גְּלִיפִין… וְרָזָא דָא, בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים. זֹהַר, דְּמִנֵּיהּ כָּלְהוֹ מַאֲמָרוֹת אִתְבְּרִיאוּ בְּרָזָא דְאִתְפַּשְׁטוּתָא דִנְקוּדָה דְּזֹהַר סְתִים דָּא

When the Most Concealed One [God] began to create, He first made a singular point, with which he then formed all formations, and carved out all things… And the secret of “In the beginning, God created…” [Genesis 1:1] is radiance [zohar], from which all Utterances were created, in the secret of the expansion of that point of radiance.

Many centuries ago, the Zohar accurately and elegantly sums up the findings of modern science. God first created a tiny singular point which burst forth in light, and from which He “carved out” all things in existence. All of God’s Utterances (since the Torah says God created by speaking: “And God said ‘Let there be light.’”) came forth from the expansion of that initial primordial radiance.

Time is Relative

All that remains is the seeming contradiction in time. Science estimates 13.7 billion years, while the Torah speaks of six days. Of course, the nature of a “day” in the account of Creation is flexible, considering there was no Earth, sun, or moon until the third and fourth days (so how could there be a 24 hour day as we know it before this?) There were also no humans at this point, and the Torah describes Creation from the perspective of God, for whom “a thousand years is like one passing day” (Psalms 90:4). The fact that time runs differently for man and God actually highlights another scientific principle, as revealed by Albert Einstein.

Einstein’s theory of relativity holds that the passing of time varies depending on an entity’s speed. A person who could board a spaceship and fly near light-speed would experience very slow time. A few days for this person would be equivalent to many years on Earth. (This theme has been explored in countless science fiction books and films, including 2014’s Interstellar.) The Lubavitcher Rebbe often cited this fact to conclude that arguing about apparent space-time contradictions is therefore quite pointless. Meanwhile, physicist Gerald Schroeder has mathematically calculated that six days could be equivalent to 13.7 billion years when factoring in the universe’s expansion. After all, we are looking back in time at an ancient universe through human eyes, while God was looking forward in time from the universe’s first moments.

An infographic explaining the relativity of time. Note the conclusion: “there is no meaning to the concept of absolute time.” The whole debate of 6 days vs 13.7 billion years is therefore quite meaningless.

Physicist and Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explored this issue extensively and cites multiple ancient Jewish texts that support the notion of a very ancient universe (see his book Kabbalah and the Age of the Universe). In multiple places, the Midrash states that before creating this world, God was creating and destroying many previous worlds (see, for example, Kohelet Rabbah 3:14), while the Talmud calculates that “there were 974 generations before Adam” (Chagigah 13b, Shabbat 88a).

On this last point, it has been shown that a generation according to the Torah is forty years (Numbers 32:13), and as we saw, a day for God is likened to 1000 human years (Psalms 90:4), therefore:

            974 generations × 40 years/generation × 365 days/year × 1000 human years/divine day =

14.2 billion years

Compared to the current best estimate of science at 13.7 billion years, it is amazing that one can come to a very similar number by simply putting together a few Torah verses.

What we see from all of the above is that ancient Jewish texts describe the universe’s origins in absolutely perfect detail. And it is only in recent decades that science has finally caught up. In many other ways, too, science has a lot of catching up to do.

The Talmud on America’s Solar Eclipse

NASA image from the August 21st solar eclipse

Earlier this week, people across America experienced a unique event that has not occurred there in a century: a coast-to-coast, total solar eclipse. While partial solar eclipses are generally visible from somewhere on Earth twice a year, a total eclipse is harder to catch—the last one in the US was forty years ago, and the last to be visible across the entire span of the country was in 1918.

Despite the fact that a solar eclipse is a regular phenomenon, and one that can be predicted long in advance, the Talmud (Sukkah 29a) seems to suggest it is a sign of human misconduct:

Our Rabbis taught: When the sun is in eclipse, it is a bad omen for the whole world. This may be illustrated by a parable: To what can this be compared? To a human being who made a banquet for his servants and put up for them a lamp. When he became angry with them he said to his servant, “Take away the lamp from them, and let them sit in the dark”.

Our Sages suggest that God brings about eclipses (or more accurately, total eclipses, the only kind that would bring about the kind of darkness described above) when He is unhappy with man’s sinful ways. This apparently contradicts the notion that eclipses are a cyclical, recurring event. Yet, the Talmud is full of discussions illustrating the astronomical expertise of our Rabbis, who could perfectly calculate the arrival of new moons, knew the cosmos like the backs of their hands, and accurately estimated the number of stars in the universe centuries before scientists came up with the same numbers (see Berakhot 32b).

In fact, the current Hebrew calendar that we use was affixed by the Talmudic sage known as Hillel II (not to be confused with Hillel the Elder), who calculated the months far into the future, and was only able to accurately do so by taking into account the dates of predicted solar and lunar eclipses. That means that the sages of the Talmud were certainly well aware of the fact that eclipses are a regular, predictable phenomenon. This was also long known by Greek and Roman astronomers. So, how could the Talmud state that eclipses depend on man’s ways?

Map showing the paths of solar eclipses over a 25 year period. Most do not pass through inhabited areas.

To deal with this conundrum, multiple answers have been proposed. One of these is that the Sages are referring to visible eclipses only. The Torah tells us that the luminaries were created, in part, to serve as signs for humans (Genesis 1:14). If God wanted to make known that He is unhappy, we would obviously have to be able to see the eclipse. Although eclipses can happen multiple times a year, they are seldom visible from habitable locations. Some 71% of Earth’s surface is covered by water, so eclipses are most likely to be visible only from some marine location in the middle of the ocean. Further still, of the remaining portion of Earth that’s covered by land, only 10% is actually inhabited by humans. There could be other factors as well, like cloudy weather. Or, the moon simply does not cover enough of the sun for people to even notice. (As anyone not in the path of the total eclipse probably learned on Monday, when they were unable to look at the sun for more than a split second because it was still way too bright without eclipse glasses—which no one had in Talmudic times.) This is indeed what the Talmud later clarifies:

Our Rabbis taught: When the sun is in eclipse it is a bad omen for idolaters; when the moon is in eclipse, it is a bad omen for Israel, since Israel reckons by the moon and idolaters by the sun. If it is in eclipse in the east, it is a bad omen for those who dwell in the east; if in the west, it is a bad omen for those who dwell in the west…

An eclipse is a bad sign only for that specific place where the eclipse is visible. In His Infinite Wisdom, God pre-programmed Creation so that eclipses would be visible at the precise time and place where they are necessary to give people a wake-up call. As such, it isn’t surprising that America had a coast-to-coast eclipse precisely at this moment, with everything that’s recently been going on in the country.

What exactly is it that God is unhappy about when an eclipse occurs?

Our Rabbis taught: On account of four things is the sun in eclipse: On account of an av beit din who died and was not mourned properly; on account of a betrothed maiden who cried out loud in the city and there was none to save her; on account of sodomy, and on account of two brothers whose blood was shed at the same time.

The United States has been plagued with all of these things: fellow American citizens—brothers—at each other’s throats, “shedding” each other’s blood for silly ideological reasons; the rampant sexual immorality; the tremendous amount of injustice and apathy, where there is seemingly no one to save a “troubled maiden”.

And what of the av beit din? In early Talmudic times, the leader of the Jews was the nasi, the “president” of the Sanhedrin, and his “vice-president” was the av beit din, literally “head of the court”, the top judge of the land. (Appropriately, this week’s parasha is Shoftim, “judges”.) Last year saw the mysterious sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, whose death was unexamined and quickly swept under the rug, triggering a flood of conspiracy theories. This is a sign of far greater societal issues. All of the above is reminiscent of a famous Talmudic prophecy (Sotah 49b) describing the time before Mashiach’s coming:

In the footsteps of Mashiach, insolence will increase and honour will dwindle. The vine will abundantly yield its fruit, yet wine will be dear. The government will turn to heresy, and there will be none to offer them reproof. The meeting places of scholars will be used for immorality. Galilee will be destroyed, and Gablan desolate, and the “people of the border” will go about from place to place without anyone to take pity on them. The wisdom of the learned will degenerate, fearers of sin will be despised, and truth will be lacking. The youth will put the elders to shame; the old will have to stand before the young. A son will revile his father, a daughter will rise up against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and a man’s worst enemies will be the members of his own household. The face of the generation will be like the face of a dog; a son will not feel ashamed before his father. And upon whom is there to rely? Only upon our Father in Heaven.

With everything that’s happening around us right now, it certainly feels like there is none left to rely upon but our Father in Heaven. It is quite fitting that the solar eclipse happened at the end of the Hebrew month of Av, literally “father”, which is precisely meant to remind us of our “Father in Heaven”. As long as we recognize this, and take upon ourselves to be good “children”, there is no need to fear, as the Talmudic passage on solar eclipses concludes:

… When Israel fulfils the will of the Omnipresent, they need not have fear of all these [omens] as it is said, “Thus said Hashem: Learn not the way of the nations, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the nations are dismayed at them”—the idolaters will be dismayed, but Israel will not be dismayed.


Second edition of Secrets of the Last Waters (Mayim Achronim Chova) out now!
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Space Travel in the World to Come?

Kohanim stoking flames upon the altar in the Temple (Courtesy: Temple Institute)

This week’s Torah portion is Tzav, which begins by describing the procedure of the olah, the “burnt-sacrifice”. The Zohar comments on the first verse of the parasha by saying that the word olah, literally “rising”, hints to various “evil thoughts” that may arise in a person’s head. Like the burnt-sacrifice, the Zohar teaches that such thoughts should immediately be burned away from one’s mind. Where the Torah says that the olah must be left burning upon the sacrificial altar all night long, the Zohar says that this hints to the cosmic nahar dinur, the River of Fire, which purifies souls of all evil.

The term nahar dinur appears in many places across Jewish texts, from the Tanakh to the Talmud and Midrash. What is this “River of Fire”? Where does it come from, and what is its real purpose?

Daniel’s Vision

Daniel’s “Vision of the Four Beasts” by Gustave Doré

The earliest mention of the River of Fire is in the Book of Daniel. While in Babylon (during the Jewish exile), Daniel describes his Heavenly vision, starting with the ascent of great beasts out of the sea, including a winged lion and a four-headed leopard. He then witnesses the Merkavah, God’s “Chariot”, with a Throne of “fiery flames, and wheels of burning fire” (Daniel 7:9). It is then that Daniel sees a nahar dinur: “A river of fire issued and came forth from before Him; with thousands upon thousands ministering unto Him, and ten thousand upon ten thousand standing before him.”

The Talmud (Chagigah 14a) explains that “Every day ministering angels are created from the fiery stream, and utter song, and cease to be.” The River of Fire gives birth to countless angels who praise God and are immediately extinguished after doing so. Earlier, the Talmud tells us that this river comes from the “sweat of the chayot” and pours forth upon “the heads of the wicked in Gehinnom”. The chayot are a higher class of angels, much greater than those myriad ministering angels that exist only momentarily to praise God. The chayot are the source of the River, which flows all the way down to Gehinnom.

Of course, the purpose of Gehinnom is to purify souls of the wickedness which they accumulate in this world. The Zohar (III, 27a) concludes that the River of Fire is the method of purification, burning away those evil impurities. Fittingly, it is the very sweat of the angels doing God’s holy work that generates the River and cleanses evil.

The Milky Way Galaxy

The Milky Way, as visible from the Earth

The Zohar connects the River of Fire with the olah offering which burned throughout the night. This is not coincidental. In another Talmudic passage (Berakhot 58b), we are told that the nahar dinur is visible in the night’s sky. Here, the rabbis are discussing various astronomical constellations, including Orion, Pleiades, and Ursa Major. We are then told that the “tail” of the constellation Scorpio is in the middle of nahar dinur!

This suggests that the “River of Fire” is actually the arm of the Milky Way galaxy which is visible in the night’s sky. The tail of Scorpio is indeed right in the middle of it. The Talmud says that were it not for this fact, no one would ever be able to survive the sting of a scorpion. We are then told that God brought about the Great Flood by using two stars from Pleiades, and He took away the Flood by using two stars from Ursa Major.

Close-Up of the Scorpio Constellation and the Milky Way

These are just a few examples highlighting the tremendous influence attributed to the stars and celestial objects. Often, these luminaries are described in the same terms as the angels themselves. This may be why Daniel described the River of Fire as being surrounded by countless angels, just as the Milky Way is filled with countless stars.

Psalms 147:4 tells us that God “counts the number of stars, and gives them all names.” Meanwhile, the Talmud (Chagigah 14a) teaches that from “every utterance that goes forth from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, an angel is created.” Incredibly, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan points out that the maximum number of possible “utterances” in Hebrew (ie. permutations of the Hebrew alphabet) is 1021, equal to the estimated number of stars in the universe!

Location of our sun in the spiral Milky Way galaxy

Rewards for the Righteous

Last week, we wrote about the various camps of angels, and how they are likened to military divisions. The stars, too, are described in the same fashion (Berakhot 32b):

… twelve [major] constellations have I created in the firmament, and for each constellation I have created thirty hosts, and for each host I have created thirty legions, and for each legion I have created thirty cohorts, and for each cohort I have created thirty maniples, and for each maniple I have created thirty camps, and to each camp I have attached three hundred and sixty-five thousands of ten-thousands of stars, corresponding to the days of the solar year, and all of them I have created only for your sake.

Multiplying these values again produces 1021 stars (or 1018, depending on how the last sentence is read). This passage ends with God affirming that He created this vast universe just for us. If we take the stars to symbolize angels, this means that all the angels were created for us, to better our lives in some way. We can also take the words more literally:

Why would God create such a mind-bogglingly immense universe? (As far as we can tell, the universe is 93 billion light years wide. This means that if one were to fly at the speed of light—that’s 300,000 kilometres per second—it would take 93 billion years to go from one end of the universe to the other!) What need is there for so much space? What need is there for so many stars—most of which we cannot even see from Earth—not to mention all the countless planets orbiting those distant stars, along with comets, asteroids, and other objects? This vastness makes Earth, and all the living things upon it, seem totally insignificant.

Yet, God reminds us that He created it all for us. The last Mishnah in the tractate Uktzin states that each righteous person in the World to Come will receive 310 worlds as a reward. Traditionally, these were seen as spiritual worlds. Today, however, with space travel technology developing at an ever-faster pace, it isn’t hard to envision how each tzaddik might enjoy 310 planets of his own somewhere in the great, wondrous vastness of outer space. With 1021 stars in the universe, there is certainly no shortage of worlds out there.

Olam HaBa?

Jacob’s Sheep: Genetics and Epigenetics in the Torah

geneticsThis week’s parasha is Vayetze, where we read of Jacob’s arrival in Charan and the details of his twenty-year sojourn there. During this time, Jacob married (twice), had a dozen children, and toiled for his cruel father-in-law Laban. Laban recognized that he had been blessed exceedingly on account of Jacob’s presence, and offered him a new wage for his labour. By this point, Jacob knew not to trust the sly Laban, and asked simply for ownership of all the speckled and spotted sheep. Since these imperfect-looking sheep were few in number, Laban readily agreed. It appears that both Laban and Jacob were well aware of the basic principles of genetics. Today, we know that sheep have 17 or so different colour alleles, and white colour is the dominant one.

For those who have forgotten high school biology: An allele is a variation of a gene. So, for example, all humans have a gene for eye colour, but have different alleles that code for the varying colours: some have alleles for blue eyes, while others have brown eyes, etc. Each person has two alleles for every gene – one from their mother, and one from their father. Certain alleles are “dominant”, while others are “recessive”. Dominant alleles are far more likely to be expressed. In humans, brown eye colour is dominant to blue eye colour, which is why some 55% of people have brown eyes, while only about 8% have blue eyes.

Basic "Punnet squares" showing the probabilities of eye colour for the children of fully brown-eyed and blue-eyed parents, and a brown-eyed parent who carries a blue allele.

Basic “Punnet squares” showing the probabilities of eye colour for the children of fully brown-eyed and blue-eyed parents, and a brown-eyed parent who carries a blue allele. (Courtesy: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

White is the dominant allele for sheep colour, so Laban assumed he was getting a terrific deal from Jacob, who was apparently ignorant of sheep genetics. In reality, Jacob knew sheep genetics quite well, and had something else up his sleeve. He only offered Laban this deal because he knew the greedy Laban would readily agree to it. So, how would Jacob outwit his father-in-law?

A Brief Introduction to Epigenetics

Jacob was evidently a far more knowledgeable geneticist than Laban, as he was aware of a concept that has only come to light in recent decades, called epigenetics. Epigenetics refers to various layers of heritability and genetic effects which are above, or outside of (hence the Greek prefix epi), the actual genetic code. In 2008, scientists defined an epigenetic trait as “stably heritable phenotype resulting from changes in a chromosome without alterations in the DNA sequence.” In simple terms: the chromosome that contains the genes is altered in some way without affecting the DNA sequence (the genetic code) itself. That alteration is heritable, too, and passed down from one generation to the next.

A number of epigenetic mechanisms have been discovered. The most common are methylations and acetylations, where small molecules are attached or removed from the DNA strand, causing it to coil either more tightly or less tightly. When the DNA coils more tightly, the gene is rendered inaccessible, and cannot be expressed. If uncoiled, the gene is exposed, and can be translated into the protein it codes for, thus expressing the trait.

Coiling of DNA and gene expression. (Courtesy: National Institutes of Health)

Coiling of DNA and gene expression. (Courtesy: National Institutes of Health)

While epigenetics is quite complicated, its implications are tremendous. What it means in practical terms is that even though a person has a certain gene, that gene does not necessarily have to be expressed, as it can be silenced through epigenetic mechanisms. For example, a person who has a gene that predisposes them to cancer, God forbid, could potentially have that gene suppressed, thus eliminating their increased cancer risk. (Though they don’t work in this precise fashion, epigenetic cancer drugs are now available.) This also applies to people who might be genetically predisposed to obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or theoretically, any trait at all. A person who has both brown and blue alleles does not necessarily have to have brown eyes (which is what we would expect based on principles of classical, or Mendelian, genetics). The brown eye allele can be silenced, allowing the blue allele to be expressed fully.

The same is true for Jacob’s sheep. While the alleles for speckled and spotted sheep are recessive, the dominant white allele can be suppressed, resulting in more speckled and spotted sheep. In the Torah, we read how Jacob took tree branches and stripped away some of their bark to expose the inner white layers so that their pattern resembled that of the speckled and spotted sheep. He then placed these branches in front of the white sheep that were mating, and this resulted in the white sheep producing more speckled and spotted offspring. In this way, Jacob was quickly able to multiply the number of irregular-looking sheep in the flocks, increasing his own wealth, and leaving Laban in utter surprise.

What does science have to say about this? Is it really possible for the white sheep to produce speckled and spotted offspring just by looking at speckled and spotted tree branches? Which factors actually affect epigenetics?

The Epigenetics Revolution

In northern Sweden lies a small, isolated town called Överkalix. This town kept detailed historical records, including births, illnesses, and deaths, as well as harvests and food prices. Researchers started poring over this data and noted a number of emerging patterns. Surprisingly, those who grew up in times of relative abundance tended to live shorter and sicker lives, while those who grew up in times of relative famine were healthier and lived longer! Even more shocking was that these traits passed on to their children and grandchildren. The grandsons of those who grew up in times of abundance lived roughly six years less than grandsons of those who grew up in times of famine!

The Överkalix study opened the door to much more research on the subject, and today we know that not only does food impact our epigenetics, but so does smoking, alcohol, exercise, and just about every lifestyle choice we make. Moreover, recent studies find that not only do our actions impact our epigenetics, but even our thoughts do! In 2013, scientists discovered that meditation affects epigenetic mechanisms and results in, among other things, less inflammation in the body, better stress responses, and faster mental processes.

TIME Magazine Feature on Epigenetics

TIME Magazine Feature on Epigenetics

Epigenetics has brought about a revolution in biology, and a new realization that we are not slaves to our genome. We are very much in control of how our genes operate, and seemingly every choice we make affects our health and wellbeing, as well as the health and wellbeing of our children and grandchildren, since these epigenetic patterns are heritable. This is one of the most enlightening and liberating scientific findings, putting each person in the driver’s seat of their biological fate. It should also motivate us to make healthy lifestyle choices because, even if we might not care so much about our own health, the health of our offspring is directly impacted by our choices.

The Return of Jacob’s Sheep

If meditation plays a role in how our genes are expressed, there is no reason why other mental processes cannot do the same. By visually exposing his sheep to speckled and spotted images, Jacob may very well have triggered an epigenetic change resulting in suppression of white alleles. Neurologists have long known that there is essentially no difference in brain patterns when a person is literally seeing something versus when they are simply visualizing the same thing. If mental visualizations like meditation can affect the epigenome, then why not actual visual displays? Armed with this knowledge, Jacob outwitted his father-in-law and became an exceedingly wealthy man.

Of course, one cannot deny God’s role in the process, as Jacob himself explained to his wives (Genesis 31:7-9):

…your father mocked me and changed my wages ten times, but God did not permit him to harm me. If he would say, “Speckled ones shall be your wages,” all the animals would bear speckled ones, and if he would say, “Ringed ones shall be your wages,” all the animals would bear ringed ones. Thus, God separated your father’s livestock and gave it to me…

Changing one’s epigenetics is not so simple! As with everything else, a little help from Above is always needed. Jacob put in his effort by exposing the animals to stimulating sights, and God took care of the rest.

Jacob's sheep are unique not only in their colour, but also in that the rams have extra horns.

Jacob’s sheep are unique not only in their colour, but also in that the rams have extra horns.

Interestingly, this week saw the arrival of 119 “Jacob’s sheep” to Israel. This ancient breed of sheep originated in the Middle East approximately 5000 years ago. They were extirpated from the land of Israel long ago, but thankfully some survived and were brought across North Africa to Europe and finally America. The rare speckled and spotted sheep are in the Holy Land once more, perhaps a sign of the forthcoming return of all of Jacob’s children to their ancestral home.