Tag Archives: Bava Batra

The Names of the Torah’s Hidden Women

‘Shemot’ is also the name of the second book of the Torah, known in English as ‘Exodus’.

This week’s parasha, Shemot, literally means “names”. The Sages stress how important a name really is, so much so that the word shem and neshamah (“soul”) appear to share a root. The Talmud (Berakhot 7b) teaches that a person’s name affects their destiny, and changing one’s name can change one’s fate (Rosh Hashanah 16b). (Other things that can change one’s fate: moving to a new place, charity, prayer, and repentance.) The Zohar (II, 179b) further elaborates that the combinations of letters in a person’s name can reveal much about them.

Jewish tradition holds that an angel whispers a baby’s name to its parents. And yet, many Jews don’t have a Jewish name or don’t connect to their given name. Thus, the Arizal taught (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 23) that a person can have two names: a name from the side of kedushah, “holiness”, and a name from the side of kelipah, unholy “husks”. Meanwhile, the Midrash states that each person has three names: the name given by the parents, the common name (or nickname) called by close ones, and the name that a person acquires for himself. (The best of these, the Midrash concludes, is the name one makes for himself.)

The Midrash also states that Israel merited to be redeemed from Egypt because they preserved their Hebrew names, among other things.* Fittingly, Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh points out that the midwives Shifrah and Puah ensured the survival of the Jewish babies, so the gematria of their names equals 746, the value of shemot (שמות).

Where Are The Women?

Clearly, names are very important. Yet, while the names of Shifrah and Puah are mentioned, the names of many other important female figures are not! The Talmud (Bava Batra 91a) is troubled by this, and even states that in those days people argued against the Torah’s authenticity by pointing out all those missing female names (especially because Judaism passes down through the mother). And so, the Talmud fills in the details and tells us some of these important names:

Rav Chanan bar Raba stated in the name of Rav: the mother of Abraham was Amatlai, the daughter of Karnevo [אמתלאי בת כרנבו]; the mother of Haman was Amatlai, the daughter of ‘Oravti [אמתלאי בת עורבתי]… The mother of David was Nitzevet, the daughter of Ada’el [נצבת בת עדאל]. The mother of Samson was Tzlelponit [צללפונית], and his sister was Nashyan [נשיין]…

What about the others? What was the name of Rachel and Leah’s mother? How about Lot’s salt-pillar-turning wife? The wife of Potiphar that tried so hard to seduce Joseph? It is said that one of the reasons Cain killed Abel is because of a dispute over a girl (see Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, Ch. 21 or Beresheet Rabbah 22:7). What was her name? Luckily, other texts provide the answers.

Sefer HaYashar states that the mother of Rachel and Leah was called Adina (עדינה), while the wife of Potiphar was Zuleikha (זליכא). There are two main opinions as to the name of Lot’s wife: either Idit/Edith (עידית), according to sources like Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (ch. 25), or Irit (עירית), according to the commentary of the Ramban (on Genesis 19:17).

Another great source for names is the apocryphal Book of Jubilees. Here (4:2) we learn that the name of Cain and Abel’s sister was Aven (און). In traditional Jewish texts, Cain was born with a twin sister and Abel was born with two twin sisters, whom they were meant to marry. Cain reasoned Abel’s second twin should be his wife since he was the elder, and the firstborn deserves a double-portion. Abel argued that if that was the case she would have been born alongside Cain! This was one of their major points of contention, leading to Cain’s murder of Abel. The Book of Jubilees says none of this, and holds that Cain killed Abel out of anger that God did not accept his offering.

The Book of Jubilees also states that Noah’s mother was called Bethnah (ביתנה), and his wife was Emtzarah (אמצרה). Meanwhile, the Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 23:3) holds that Noah’s wife was Na’amah (נעמה), the sister of Tuval-Cain (Genesis 4:22). Interestingly, Jubilees gives us the name of Shem’s wife, too: Tzedeket-Levav (צדקת לבב). This is fitting, since Jewish tradition identifies Shem with Melchizedek. Interestingly, Jubilees states that all three of Noah’s sons built cities for themselves, and named the cities after their wives!

The Mothers of Israel

The Torah devotes quite a bit of attention to the Four Mothers of Israel (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah), but what about the names of the wives of the Twelve Tribes? The Torah only mentions the wife of Joseph (Osnat) and passively mentions the wife of Judah, calling her the daughter of Shuah. Seder HaDorot states that her name was actually Eilat, and fills in the rest:

The wife of the elder Reuben was a Canaanite woman named Elyarem. Shimon’s wife—according to this particular text; there are other opinions—was his sister Dinah, the daughter of Leah. (The Midrash explains that Shimon had to marry her because he killed Shechem, whom she was meant to marry.) Levi married Adina, a descendent of Ever, one of the forefathers of Abraham. It seems Issachar married Adina’s sister, Arida.

Zevulun married a Midianite named Marusha, while Dan married a Moabite woman named Aflala. Naftali married Merimat, a distant cousin descended from Nachor, the brother of Abraham. Gad married her sister Utzit. Asher married a great-granddaughter of Ishmael named Adon, and after she passed away, married a woman named Hadurah. Benjamin had two wives: one called Machlat, and another Arvat, the granddaughter of Abraham from his later wife Keturah.

Each of these names certainly carries deep meaning, as do all names and appellations. Jewish texts call God by many different names and titles, each of which captures a different essence of God, and thereby helps us understand Him. Similarly, all of a person’s various names and titles combine to make up who they are.

To conclude with a famous story that illustrates this, it is said that a three-year old Tzemach Tzedek (the third rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, 1789-1866) was once sitting on the lap of his grandfather, the Alter Rebbe (first rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, 1745-1813). The Rebbe asked his grandson: “Where is grandpa?” The child quickly pointed to his grandpa’s head, to which the Rebbe said, “That’s just grandpa’s head! Where is grandpa?” The child tried again and again, pointing to other parts of the body to which the Rebbe similarly replied. Later on, the young Tzemach Tzedek was playing outside and called his grandfather. The Rebbe immediately hurried over to him, and the smiling child said: “There’s grandpa!”

The Alter Rebbe and the Tzemach Tzedek

*This is actually a problematic Midrash. Names like Aaron and Pinchas don’t seem to have a meaning in Hebrew but do in ancient Egyptian! Aaron is believed to come from the Egyptian aha rw, “warrior lion”, while Pinchas sounds like the common Egyptian name Pa-Nehasi, “the bronze one”. Thankfully, a variant Midrash preserves a different tradition. While Vayikra Rabbah (Ch. 32) states that Israel was redeemed on account of their names, language, abstaining from lashon hara and licentiousness, Pesikta Zutrata (on Ki Tavo, 46a) states that it was because of their clothing, food, and language.

Should Jews Believe in Astrology?

This week’s parasha, the second last of the Torah, is Ha’azinu. This parasha is unique in that it consists almost entirely of one lengthy song – clearly visible when looking at a Torah scroll, where the text of Ha’azinu is split into two narrow columns. Moses sang this prophetic song to the nation right before his passing.

Two columns of parashat Ha'azinu

Two columns of parashat Ha’azinu

In the verses that introduce it (Deut. 31:19), we see God commanding Moses to write the song and “teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it in their mouths so that this song will be for Me a witness for the Children of Israel.” God wanted Moses to diligently teach this song to the entire nation. In fact, the actual wording of the verse has God commanding everyone – each member of the nation – to write the song for themselves. It is based on this verse that the Sages drew the mitzvah of writing a Torah scroll (or participating in writing one), even though the plain text of the verse states only to write this particular song, Ha’azinu.

Perhaps because of this, the Ramban taught that Ha’azinu contains the entire Torah within it. Moreover, he believed that every detail of every person’s life is somehow encoded within this song! In one famous story, when a student of the Ramban, a man named Avner, heard this teaching, he was so baffled by it that he left Judaism entirely, converted to another religion, and became a prominent anti-Semite. When Avner later confronted the Ramban, the Rabbi showed him how one verse in the song did indeed accurately point to this man’s life. Avner was so ashamed that he disappeared, never to be heard from again.

Heavenly Princes

And so, each and every one of the song’s 43 verses has a great deal to teach us. The eighth verse begins by telling us that God gave each nation their lot, and the ninth verse says that “Hashem’s portion is His people, the lot of His inheritance.” The Zohar comments on these words that while God established Heavenly “princes” to watch over every nation in the world, Israel is watched over by God Himself. The Ramban (in his Discourse on Rosh Hashanah) elaborates:

He gave each and every nation… some known star or constellation, as is known by means of the science of astrology… Higher above [the constellations] are the angels of the Supreme One, whom He appointed as “princes” over them… It is further written, “So shall you be My people, and I will be your God, and you will not be subject to other powers at all.” (Jeremiah 11:4)

When we often say that Hashem is our God (as we do in the daily Shema), or when the Tanakh writes that we are God’s people, this does not mean that gentiles cannot have a relationship with God, or that there are other gods out there for the non-Jewish world. Rather, it means that while God oversees absolutely everything in His universe, and has created all people, He has also appointed various Heavenly (or astrological) forces above each nation – except Israel. These forces are not independent in their own right, as they are subject to the angels above them, and these angels ultimately serve God. As such, the nations of the world have various Heavenly intermediaries between themselves and Hashem. Israel, however, has a direct connection to Him. In fact, this is the hidden meaning within the name “Israel” (ישראל), which can be read as yashar El. (ישר-אל), “straight to God”.

Ain Mazal L’Israel

Long before the Ramban, the Sages of the Talmud debated whether the constellations had an effect on people (Shabbat 156a). The consensus of the Rabbis was that constellations do impact people, but Jews are free from this influence. They learn this from the prophet Jeremiah, who prophesied: “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.” (10:2) God tells Israel not to draw meaning from heavenly signs as the other nations do. The Talmud goes on to tell us a story about Abraham, who cried out to God: “Master of the Universe! I have looked at the constellations and find that I am not fated to have children.” To this, God replied: “Stop your star-gazing! Israel has no constellations.”

Hebrew Zodiac from a 6th Century Synagogue

Hebrew Zodiac from a 6th-Century Synagogue

Elsewhere, the Talmud tells us that Abraham was once a powerful astrologer, and great men from around the world came to consult with him about their fortunes (Bava Batra 16b). When Abraham looked into his own fate, he saw that he would not have children. God commanded him to desist from astrology, for the Jewish people have the power to transcend the stars. Of course, Abraham went on to have many children.

Later on, Moses would record in the Torah the prohibition for Jews to consult various fortune-tellers and astrologers. The Rambam codifies the law in this way:

It is forbidden to tell fortunes. [This applies] even though one does not perform a deed, but merely relates the falsehoods which the fools consider to be words of truth and wisdom. Anyone who performs a deed because of an astrological calculation or arranges his work or his journeys to fit a time that was suggested by the astrologers is [liable for] lashes, as [Leviticus 19:26] states: “Do not tell fortunes.” (Sefer HaMadda, Hilchot Avodah Zarah, Chapter 11, Halacha 9)

Transcending Nature

We see from the above that various Heavenly forces, angels, and constellations do exist, and certainly do influence the world. Astrological signs can be potent forces. Ironically, earlier in his discourse, the Ramban points out how astrology is intricately tied into the Jewish calendar: it is no coincidence that Pesach is celebrated in the month of Nisan, the sign of which is Aries (the ram, or sheep), since the main mitzvah of Pesach was to sacrifice a lamb; and it is no coincidence that Rosh Hashanah – judgement day, when each person is put on trial – is in the month of Tishrei, the sign of which is Libra, the scales of justice. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Shemot 418) even tells us how each of the 12 Tribes of Israel corresponds to one of the 12 astrological signs of the zodiac!

And yet, all the sources are clear: Jews are not to dabble in astrology, for we have no need for intermediaries, and we have all the power to break free from the influence of the constellations. It is precisely when we believe in astrology that it becomes real, just as Abraham had no children as long as he believed in the heavenly signs that he saw. Every Jew must realize that we are Israel, yashar El, and that Hashem alone is our astrological sign. There is no need to believe in what the Rambam calls “emptiness and vanity”. The Rambam ends his laws on this subject by telling us to live up to the Torah’s call (Deut. 18:13) to be of “perfect faith with Hashem, your God.” When one has perfect faith in the Master of the Universe, anything is possible, and this is how God finished his rebuke to Abraham:

“Stop your star-gazing! Ain mazal l’Israel. What is your calculation? Is it because Jupiter stands in the West? Then I will turn it back and place it in the East!”

Why You Really (Really!) Shouldn’t Do Kapparot (Even With Money)

Tuesday evening marks the holy day of Yom Kippur. In the early morning hours before this, many Jews will seek to perform the custom of kapparot, which involves taking a live rooster (or chicken), swinging it over one’s head, and then having it slaughtered. In the process, the person states how the rooster will be their “atonement”, and while the rooster will die, the person will go on to live a good life. The rooster’s meat is typically donated. Others swing money over their heads instead of a rooster, and then donate the money to charity. Of course, this strange-sounding custom is not mentioned anywhere in the Torah or Talmud. In fact, throughout history many Jewish Sages tried hard to extinguish this custom, for a number of important reasons.

19th Century Lithograph of Kapparot

19th Century Lithograph of Kapparot

First of all, kapparot sounds much too similar to a korban, a sacrificial offering. In the days of the Temple, the kohanim sacrificed animals in order to atone for the people. The kapparot ritual explicitly states that the rooster serves as atonement, and the rooster is then killed. Despite some people’s claims that kapparot is not a true sacrifice, it clearly mimics the Temple’s sacrificial procedures, and intends to accomplish the same goal. The Mishnah Berurah (605:2) openly admits this, saying that kapparot is basically like a sacrifice. Indeed, an outsider would hardly be able to tell the difference. The problem is that the Torah forbids bringing sacrifices anywhere other than the place that God specifically designates (Deut. 12:5-6), which was the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The Torah also commands that only kohanim are allowed to oversee sacrificial procedures. From this perspective alone, kapparot is contrary to the Torah.

Thirteen Years of Pain

Secondly, kapparot fits squarely under the category of unnecessary cruelty to animals. Commenting on the verse in Psalms (145:9) which states that God has mercy and compassion upon all of His creations, Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch wrote:

Here you are faced with God’s teaching which obliges you not only to refrain from inflicting unnecessary pain on any animal, but to help and, when you can, to lessen the pain whenever you see an animal suffering, even through no fault of yours.
(Horeb, Chapter 60, Section 416)

The Jewish Sages have always been concerned about animal welfare. The Talmud considers it a Torah mitzvah to treat animals with respect and prevent any harm to them (Bava Metzia 32b), so much so that one is allowed to violate various Shabbat prohibitions to help a suffering animal (Shabbat 128b). Let us not forget the story of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, who suffered excruciating pains for thirteen years. Why was he afflicted with such pain?

A calf was being taken to the slaughter when it broke away, hid its head under [Rabbi Yehuda’s] clothes, and lowed [in terror]. “Go”, he said, “for this you were created.” Thereupon it was said [in Heaven], “Since he has no pity, let us bring suffering upon him.”
(Bava Metzia 85a)

The great Rabbi Yehuda – the compiler of the Mishnah – made one uncompassionate remark to a fearful calf that was about to be slaughtered. For this, Heaven rained upon him tremendous pain – six years of kidney stones, and seven of scurvy, so unbearable that his cries could be heard over three miles away. When did his suffering end?

One day [Rabbi Yehuda’s] maidservant was sweeping the house; [seeing] some young weasels lying there, she made to sweep them away. “Let them be,” he said to her; “It is written, ‘And his tender mercies are over all his works.’” It was said [in Heaven], “Since he is compassionate, let us be compassionate to him.”

Rabbi Yehuda quotes the same verse (Psalms 145:9) that Rav Hirsch expounded upon, and has mercy on the young animals in his home. For this, his suffering is finally taken away. If even one little remark to an animal is worth thirteen years of suffering, how much more so if an animal is swung around wildly, then slaughtered needlessly – which is precisely what happens with kapparot. (It has also been pointed out that chickens used in kapparot are usually starving and thirsty, and often have their limbs dislocated or bones broken during the procedure.)

Idolatrous Practices

Lastly, kapparot appears to be connected with various idolatrous practices and non-Jewish customs. The Ramban, among others, considered it darkei emori, the way of idolaters. The Shulchan Arukh, the central halachic text of Judaism, is also staunchly opposed to kapparot, and its author, Rabbi Yosef Karo, called it a “foolish custom”.

Many modern-day authorities, too, from across the Torah-observant world, have been vocally against kapparot. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and the entire Brisker rabbinic lineage before him opposed the custom, considering it irrational. The rabbi of Beit El and rosh yeshiva of Ateret Yerushalaim, Shlomo Chaim Aviner, a prominent authority within the Dati Leumi community, has described it as a “superstition”. And the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, Chaim David HaLevy, beautifully wrote in his Aseh Lekha Rav:

Why should we, specifically on the eve of the holy day of Yom Kippur, be cruel to animals for no reason, and slaughter them without mercy, just as we are about to request compassion for ourselves from the living God?

Kapparot with Money

While it is clearly evident that one should completely avoid kapparot with chickens, some might argue that it is still worth doing kapparot with money. The problem is that the procedure and text are still the same: waving coins or bills over one’s head, stating that the money serves as an atonement, and that donating it will save one’s life.

The truth is that there is no need to do this at all, since any giving to charity automatically fulfils a mitzvah, assists in one’s repentance and atonement, and is said to be life-saving. The Talmud famously tells us (Bava Batra 10a) that charity is the greatest of all forces, and quotes the verse in Proverbs that “charity saves from death” (10:2).

Thus, any charitable contribution, at any time of the year, already does what kapparot claims to do. And so, awkwardly waving money around one’s head and reciting the kapparot verses is nothing more than a funny-looking waste of time, associated with a cruel, idolatrous, nonsensical, and nonJewish custom.

In his list of the 613 Torah mitzvot, the Rambam (who was also opposed to kapparot) lists the 185th positive commandment of the Torah as eradicating any traces of idolatry from Israel. Since many great Sages held the view that kapparot is associated with idolatrous ways, including the Ramban, Rashba, and the authoritative Shulchan Arukh, it is undoubtedly a mitzvah to not only avoid kapparot, but to encourage others to abandon this practice, and to expunge it from Judaism.

Wishing you a fulfilling and uplifting Yom Kippur. Gmar Chatima Tova!

How Charity Can Save Your Life

This week’s Torah portion is Terumah, which is primarily concerned with the construction of the Mishkan, or holy tabernacle. God relays to Moses the instructions for properly constructing the tabernacle, and its purpose: “And they shall make Me a sanctuary, so that I shall dwell in their midst” (Exodus 25:8). God does not state that His presence will dwell in the sanctuary, but rather in the midst of the people. The sanctuary was only there to facilitate this process; to elevate the people so that they would be worthy and holy enough to have God in their presence.

A Modern Mishkan Replica in Timna, Israel

A Modern Mishkan Replica in Timna, Israel

To build the Mishkan, God commanded Moses to ask the people to donate the necessary materials. There were 7 categories of resources: precious metals of gold, silver, and copper; cloths that included dyed wools of blue, purple, and red, as well as linen and goat hair; leathers of rams and tachash (a species whose identity is no longer known, but speculated to be an antelope or rhinoceros); lumber of acacia wood; oils; spices; and precious stones. Over a dozen different precious stones were required – primarily for the High Priest’s breastplate – which we have discussed in the past. There were also 11 main herbs and spices in the Ketoret, the special incense used in priestly rituals, as we read daily in the text of the morning prayers.

Interestingly, in the command to bring the materials, God phrased it in such a way that it suggested a voluntary donation: “…and have them take for Me an offering [terumah], from each person whose heart is generous…” (Ex. 25:2). And the people did indeed give generously, so much so that Moses later had to tell them to stop their contributions! Moreover, the term used for this voluntary offering is terumah, which appears to share a root with the verb to elevate. Why was this offering considered an elevation?

Throughout Jewish texts we see descriptions of the great significance and power of donations and charity. One Talmudic passage (Bava Batra 10a) even states:

Ten strong things were created in the world: mountains are strong, but iron cuts through them; iron is strong, but fire melts it; fire is strong, but water extinguishes it; water is strong, but clouds bear it; clouds are strong, but wind scatters them; wind is strong, but the body contains it; the body is strong, bur fear breaks it; fear is strong, but wine dispels it; wine is strong, but sleep assuages it; and stronger than all of these is death. But charity saves from death, as it is written [Proverbs 10:2], “And charity shall save from death.”

Why is charity so praiseworthy, and so potentially life-saving?

Your Money and Your Soul

To be able to survive, one needs to earn money. Without money, one cannot afford the necessities of life, such as food and shelter. Therefore, money is the tool that keeps one’s soul active in this world; otherwise, the soul departs the body. And to earn money, one must expend their time and energy through work (at least, in most cases). Since without the soul, the body is inanimate, it is ultimately the efforts of the soul that bring one an income. This establishes a fundamental soul-money cycle. In fact, our Sages point out that the gematria of the Torah word for money, shekel (שקל), has the same value (430) as the word for soul, nefesh (נפש). In this world, the two are very much interdependent.

Therefore, our spirit is deeply bound within our finances – which is why many people find it so hard to part with their money. (A famous Bukharian rhyming proverb illustrates this well: jonam geer, pulam ne geer – “take my soul, just don’t take my money!”) The important thing is that because of this intrinsic connection between spirit and money, by using our money for holy purposes, we are directly elevating our souls. Thus, by donating their wealth to produce the holy tabernacle (and by toiling in its construction), the Israelites received an incredible spiritual elevation, and merited to have God’s presence dwell in their midst. This is why the offering was called a terumah, an elevation.

The same is true for us today. If we only spend money on material goods, there is little benefit to our souls. However, when we invest spiritually in donations, charitable acts and charitable organizations, mitzvot, and the like, our money is elevated, and takes our souls with it. The old Jewish adage is pertinent: if a person has $10 and they donate $1, how much do they have left? While most people are quick to answer $9, the real answer is $1, for it is only that $1 mitzvah that the person takes with them to the next world, while whatever material possessions they have remain behind in this world.

The Kabbalah of Earning Money

Kabbalistically, the exile of the Jewish people was little more than an opportunity to gather the fallen spiritual sparks trapped all over the world. In the Kabbalistic model, God had originally created a perfect world – so much so that it shattered into tiny spiritual fragments scattered all over the material world. The purpose of the Jew, and of just about every mitzvah a Jew fulfills, is to free those trapped sparks from their kelipot, “shells”, and elevate them once more to a perfected state.

In the same way that reciting a blessing before consuming food is said to free whatever sparks lie within, so too does acquiring wealth and spending it on spiritual things elevate the cosmic sparks embedded within those riches. Perhaps this is the deeper reason why Jews have been so prosperous historically, wherever they may have been.

“Charity Saves from Death”

1896 Illustration of King Solomon Drafting the First Temple

1896 Illustration of King Solomon Drafting the First Temple

For the same reasons, King Solomon writes tzedaka tatzil mi’mavet, “charity saves from death”. One explanation goes like this: since our wealth is tied to our souls, shedding our wealth towards positive goals is like shedding our souls for a positive purpose. For whatever reason, a person may have a Heavenly decree upon them for their earthly life to come to an end, and their soul to be taken away. By giving charity, it is as if they are voluntary giving away a part of their soul, thus soothing the Heavenly decree, and prolonging their life.

Several years ago, I was driving down a major street and pulled in to the left lane to make a turn at the intersection. A panhandler was walking up and down along the dividing barrier. For a moment, I hesitated giving him money, since a group of the same panhandlers were working a number of intersections along the street for months. At the end, I rolled down my window and gave him some change, then drove on to make the left turn.

Suddenly, a massive dumpster truck appeared head on, unable to brake on the slippery roads. Despite my right-of-way, the truck plowed right through the intersection, and I had only an instant to slam on the brakes. He missed me by an inch. The first thought that came to my head was that had I not stalled to give the panhandler some charity, I may have been minced meat. And immediately King Solomon’s words popped into my head: u’tzedaka tatzil mi’mavet

Noah’s Ark and the Tower of Babel: Not What You Think

This week’s Torah reading is Noach, which begins with the well-known narrative of the Great Flood. We are first introduced to the righteous Noah, and his three sons, Shem, Ham, and Yefet (known in English as “Japheth”), who were living in a world that had become completely corrupted. God commands Noah to construct a sanctuary that could house his own family, along with a sample from the rest of nature. How Noah constructed the Ark, what it was like, and which materials it was made from are, for the most part, a mystery.

'Noah's Ark' by Edward Hicks (1846). According to Jewish tradition, Noah's Ark was nothing at all like this.

‘Noah’s Ark’ by Edward Hicks (1846). According to ancient Jewish texts, Noah’s Ark was nothing at all like this.

In the past, we’ve written of mystical teachings suggesting that Noah constructed the Ark using divine powers of speech. The Torah states that the Ark was made of atzei gofer, translated as “gopher-wood” – an unknown species which, even more perplexingly, is a term that appears nowhere else in any book of the Tanakh. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b) presents one opinion stating that it was more like golamish, a hard stone (see also Psalms 114:8).

The Torah also mentions that the Ark had a tzohar, again a totally unique word that appears nowhere else in Scripture. Various ancient Jewish texts describe the tzohar as a divine tool with all sorts of supernatural powers. The Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 30:11) describes it as a lamp that illuminated the Ark. The fascinating description here presents the possibility that the Ark was far more than just a boat that fills the imaginations of most people. The Ark was an entire ecosystem, a biodome of sorts, with the tzohar serving as an artificial sky, appearing as the sun during the day, and as the moon during the night. Noah and all those aboard the Ark were in a world of their own. Moreover, the tzohar was an accurate astronomical map that could be used for navigating the skies, and indeed, was later used by Abraham for astrological purposes (Bava Batra 16b).

Further still, the word used by the Torah to describe the flood waters that descended from above is geshem. For the modern Hebrew speaker, there is nothing at all puzzling about this. After all, the common term for rain in Modern Hebrew is geshem. However, this is not so in the Torah. The word “geshem” appears just twice in the Five Books of Moses, both with regards to the flood. Nowhere else is rain called “geshem”, rather it is far more commonly known as mattar (which is the root for the Modern Hebrew word for ‘umbrella’, mitriyah). So what exactly was “geshem”? The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b) says that the “waters” of the flood were actually some sort of thick, hot substance!

This same Talmudic passage also gives us some insight into the pre-Flood world. It is commonly assumed that since this took place thousands of years ago, the people were primitive and ignorant. The truth is quite different. The Talmud states that when Noah warned the people about their impending doom (in fact, he was given 120 years to do so), the people mocked him, not because they didn’t believe that something was coming, but because they thought they could overcome anything sent their way:

‘A flood of what?’ They jeered. ‘If a flood of fire, we have a substance called alitha. If a flood of water: if the water comes from the ground, we can prevent it from rising with iron plates, and if from above, we have a substance called akov (or akosh).’

The pre-Flood generations had knowledge that we can’t even imagine today. Despite the historical time period being before the official “Iron Age”, the people of the flood boasted of their superb iron technology. They had substances to prevent fires and floods. Much of this wisdom came their way through various angelic beings. Mystical literature speaks of an angel called Raziel, which taught Adam and Eve a collection of Heavenly secrets. These mysteries were passed down from generation to generation. Enoch received this wisdom, and it played a role in his bodily ascent to Heaven (Genesis 5:24). Meanwhile, the fallen angels Shamhazai and Azazel taught man both many evils and many otherworldly powers.

In fact, one of the reasons that God sent the flood is because of the misuse of Heavenly powers and the manipulation of angels by humans. After the deluge, the bulk of these mysteries were hidden. However, people eventually rediscovered them, and soon began to use these powers for the wrong purposes once more. This is described in the second major narrative of this week’s Torah reading, that of the Tower of Babel.

Here, the Torah begins by saying that all the people spoke a common language (Hebrew), and had a common purpose. They were united in their goal: to ascend to Heaven and take complete control of the universe (Sanhedrin 109a). Again, this narrative has been commonly taught as a story of ignorant people that foolishly built a very tall tower to the clouds, thinking that the clouds are the homes of angels. But they weren’t going to the clouds.

'Confusion of Tongues' by Gustav Dore

‘Confusion of Tongues’ by Gustav Doré

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 106) speaks of a migdal haporeach b’avir, “a tower flying through the air”. When they were ascending to the Heavens, they meant it. Commenting on the perplexing words of the Torah that states the people of the Tower wanted to nisrefa lisrefa, “burn in order to burn” (Genesis 11:3), Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz (1690-1764) suggests that the Tower had a flame coming out of one end!

These people were not foolish, and their threat was taken seriously. Thus, angels descended from Heaven to destroy their Tower, confound their language, and disperse the people across the world (Genesis 11:7). Why was this specifically the punishment for their crime? The Arizal (in Sefer HaLikutim) teaches that the Tower generation used the secrets of the Hebrew language to access spiritual powers and to manipulate angels. And so, knowledge of Hebrew was taken away from them; their languages were confused and they were scattered around the globe. No longer able to communicate with one another, and spread far apart, they would be unable to unite against the Heavens ever again. The secret supernatural powers of the past were concealed once and for all; the real history of the ancient world was forgotten. In one instant, a single people with a single past was turned into countless nations, each with their own language, culture, mythological origins, and historical narratives.

The beauty of it all, of course, is this: to suggest that the past was ever any different than what we think and know from history books is immediately ridiculed. No one could ever believe such a thing!

And that’s exactly how God and His angels wanted it.