Tag Archives: Health

Tzom Gedaliah and Mystical Secrets of Fasting

Clay Bulla of Gemaryahu ben Shaphan, dated to 586 BCE.

Today is the Fast of Gedaliah, one of the “minor fasts” of the Jewish calendar. This fast commemorates the assassination of Gedaliah ben Achikam, the governor of Judah, some 2500 years ago. After the Babylonians destroyed the Temple and sent the majority of Jews into exile, they left a small number of Jewish farmers in their newly-created province of Judah, under the leadership of the righteous Gedaliah. Gedaliah was the grandson of Shaphan, one of the court scribes of Judean royalty who likely played a role in the composition of the Biblical Book of Kings, among others. (Incredibly, Jeremiah 36:10 describes how Shaphan had a son named Gemaryahu, and recently Israeli archaeologist Yigal Shiloh discovered a bulla in Jerusalem inscribed with the words: “belonging to Gemaryahu ben Shaphan”.)

The Books of Jeremiah (ch. 41) and II Kings (ch. 25) describe how a certain Ishmael killed Gedaliah “in the seventh month”, during what appears to be a feast day, which our Sages stated was Rosh Hashanah. The reason for the assassination is not explicitly given. It seems Ishmael believed that if anyone should govern in Israel, it should be him since he was a member of the Judean royal family and a descendant of King David. Ishmael didn’t think the whole thing through very well. Assassinating Gedaliah immediately raised fears that the Babylonians would return to punish the Jews for smiting their appointed governor. The fearful Jewish populace thus fled to Egypt, while Ishmael himself escaped to Ammon.

The tragedy was a great one not only because of the grotesque assassination of a righteous Jew by his fellow (Ishmael also slaughtered a handful of other Jews, as well as innocent pilgrims on their way to worship in Jerusalem.) Perhaps more significantly, the fleeing of the last Jews of Judea meant that the Holy Land was essentially devoid of its people for the first time in nearly a millennium. While Jews from Babylon would later come back to rebuild, they would be faced with new settlers that had since filled the vacuum in Israel: the Samaritans. This people would be a thorn at the side of the Jews for centuries to come. Worst of all, the assassination of Gedaliah is yet another example of sinat chinam, baseless hatred and Jewish in-fighting, which seems to always be the root of all Jewish problems.

The Sages instituted a fast to commemorate all of these things. And the fast’s timing is particularly auspicious, as it comes during the Ten Days of Repentance when we should be focusing on kindness, prayer, and atonement. Now is the time to repair relationships and form new bonds, for families and communities to come together. For many, it also something of a “practice run” for the more famous fast that comes just days later: Yom Kippur. This brings up an important question. What exactly does fasting have to do with atonement, spiritual growth, and self-development?

The Power of Fasting

Offerings on the Altar (Courtesy: Temple Institute)

Aside from its well-documented health benefits, fasting brings a great deal of spiritual benefits, too. In the fast day prayers, we read how fasting is symbolic of sacrificial offerings. In the days of the Temple, people would atone by bringing an offering, shedding its blood, and watching its fat burn on the altar. In Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh (Kavanot haTaanit), Rabbi Chaim Vital, the Arizal’s foremost disciple, explains that the sight of the animal being slaughtered would immediately inspire the person to repent. They would feel both a great deal of regret for their sin, and compassion for the animal, and would recognize that it should have been them slaughtered upon the altar. In lieu of a Temple, we fast to burn our own bodily fat, and “thin” our blood. The Arizal taught that the penitent faster is thus likened to a korban.

Rabbi Vital then reminds us that the food we eat contain spiritual sparks, and even the souls of reincarnated people. While we hope that our blessings and proper intentions when eating frees these sparks and elevates them to Heaven, we are not always successful in this regard—especially when we lose sense of the meal and eat purely for physical reasons. These sparks remain with us, and can even affect our thoughts and emotions. The Arizal explains that a fast day is an opportunity to free those sparks trapped within. We avoid eating anything new, resulting in the body shedding its fat and blood, and just as these things “burn up” physically, the sparks lodged within them “burn up” and ascend as well with the help of our prayers and pure thoughts and intentions. Moreover, the difficulty of fasting breaks apart the kelipot, the spiritual “husks” that trap those holy sparks.

(Interestingly, this passage in Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh shows an incredibly detailed and accurate knowledge of the digestive system. Rabbi Vital explains how the stomach and intestines break down the food, absorb it into the bloodstream, where it goes to the liver for further processing, and then to the heart which delivers the nutrients to the rest of the body, particularly the brain, the seat of the neshamah.)

Secrets of Fasting

Etz Chaim, “Tree of Life”. Note the sefirot of Gevurah and Hod on the left column.

The Arizal mentions how it is good to fast not only on the six established fast days of the Jewish calendar (Gedaliah, Kippur, 10 Tevet, Esther, 17 Tamuz, and 9 Av), but on every Monday and Thursday. This is, in fact, an ancient Jewish custom that is attested to in numerous historical documents. (One of these is the Didache, an early Christian text of the 1st century CE that tells its adherents not to fast on Mondays and Thursdays because that is when the Jews fast!) The Arizal explains that Monday and Thursday, the second and fifth days of the week, correspond to the second and fifth sefirot of Gevurah and Hod. Gevurah and Hod are on the left column of the mystical “Tree of Life”, and the left is associated with judgement and severity. By fasting on these days, one can break any harsh judgments decreed upon them.

The Arizal also taught that one who fasts two days in a row—48 hours straight—is likened to having fasted twenty-seven day fasts, and one who can fast three days straight has fasted the equivalent of forty day fasts. This is important because one of the most powerful fasts in Jewish tradition, which will completely purify the greatest of sins, particularly sexual ones, requires 84 day-fasts. (The number 84 comes from the fact that Jacob was 84 years old when he was first intimate, with Leah, and conceived Reuben.) Usually, this was done by fasting 40 days straight (eating only at night), followed by another 44 days (or vice versa). A person can thus accomplish the same purification by fasting both day and night for a whole week straight, from the end of one Shabbat to the onset of the following Shabbat.

As this would be a personal fast, it may be permissible to consume salt and water, as the Talmud (Berakhot 35b) does not consider these to be “food”, and permits them on personal fasts only. The Arizal actually gives a tip for one who feels thirsty during a fast: they should meditate on the words Ruach Elohim (רוח אלהים). Recall that Genesis begins by telling us that God’s Divine Spirit, Ruach Elohim, “hovered over the waters”. And so, one who meditates upon this should see his thirst quickly dissipate. Ultimately, the Arizal says that Torah study is the best way to repent and expiate sins, much more so than any fast. So, a person who is not up to the task of intermittent fasting may substitute with diligent Torah study.

Soon enough, there will be no need to fast at all, as the prophet (Zechariah 8:19) states: “So says Hashem, God of Hosts: The fast of the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth days shall be for the house of Judah for gladness, joy, and good times; for love of truth and peace.” With each passing moment, we near the time when all of these fast days—the fourth (ie. the 17th of Tammuz, in the fourth month), the fifth (9 Av, in the fifth month), the seventh (Tzom Gedaliah), and tenth (10th of Tevet) shall turn into joyous feast days. May we merit to see this day soon.

Gmar Chatima Tova!   

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.

Secrets for Living a Long Life

This week’s parasha is Ekev, continuing Moses’ final speech to the nation in the last 37 days of his life. In this parasha we find the second paragraph of the Shema. This paragraph ends by stating:

And you shall place these words of Mine upon your heart and upon your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes. And you shall teach them to your children to speak with them, when you sit in your house and when you walk on the way and when you lie down and when you rise. And you shall inscribe them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates, in order that your days may increase and the days of your children…

The passage tells us to meditate upon God’s Word constantly, to never cease learning Torah, and teaching Torah. It tells us to place these wise words upon our hearts and souls, our arms and between our eyes, and onto our doorposts. It concludes by saying that doing so will lengthen the days of one’s life, and the lives of one’s children. God guarantees that persistent study and contemplation will lead to longevity.

Indeed, throughout history we see how our greatest Sages lived very long lives. Some of the earliest rabbis – Hillel, Yochanan ben Zakkai, Akiva – lived to 120 years, like several prophets before them, including Moses and Isaiah. In more recent times, the Lubavitcher Rebbe lived to 92 years, Rav Ovadia Yosef to 93, Rav Elyashiv to 102, and Rav Yitzchak Kaduri to 103 years – and some say 118!

The world-renowned Jewish neurologist Rita Levi-Montalcini said the secret to longevity is “minimal sleep, limited food intake, and always keeping the brain active and interested.” She would know: in addition to being one of the top scientists in the world, she was the first (and so far only) Nobel Prize winner to live over 100 years. Before calmly passing away from natural causes at 103, she still worked in her lab and served on the Italian senate! Her formula for longevity – little sleep, little food, and most importantly, busy brain – is probably true of every great rabbi in Jewish history.

Long before, the wise King Solomon taught the same thing in the ninth chapter of his Book of Proverbs. In this chapter, Solomon personifies Wisdom. He begins by saying that “Wisdom has built her house, hewing out her seven pillars.” He goes on to say that the First Wisdom is “awe of God” and “knowledge of holy things”. Simply collecting information in one’s brain is not enough; one must also be a righteous and Godly individual. A scorner or a proud person can never be truly wise, for such a person hates to be criticised, and will grow little. The real wise person is the one who loves those who critique and reprove him. “Teach the righteous, and he will increase in learning.” Ultimately, the pursuit of wisdom is the path to longevity, “For through me your days will be multiplied, and years of life will be added to you” (Proverbs 9:11).

Seven Pillars of Wisdom

1896 Illustration of King Solomon Drafting the First Temple

1896 Illustration of King Solomon Drafting the First Temple

King Solomon tells us that wisdom has seven pillars. He seems to identify the first of these pillars as being the study of God, holiness, and spiritual matters – in other words, Torah study. What about the other six branches of wisdom? What other studies are worth pursuing? While King Solomon does not explicitly say what they are, a later Kabbalistic text called Kol HaTor does describe them in its Sha’ar Be’er Sheva: mathematics, medicine, grammar, music, and three more that are described as “formations and syntheses”, “repair and integration”, and “how the physical interacts with the spiritual”. The last of these is clearly related to King Solomon’s First Wisdom (others say it is psychology, the study of the mind, which bridges the physical and the spiritual); the other two might be referring to general science (how things forms) and perhaps mechanics or engineering.

Unfortunately, Kol HaTor is a very controversial text. It is supposed to be based on the teachings of the Vilna Gaon, but many reject this claim, especially because the book was only published in the last century. More problematic still is that the section called Sha’ar Be’er Sheva (which describes the seven wisdoms) is omitted from many manuscripts because it encourages the study of non-Torah subjects – something the ultra-Orthodox world is typically not fond of.

In any case, we see that the seven pillars of wisdom according to Kol HaTor actually resemble the classical branches of study at some of the earliest universities in Medieval times. These are often referred to as the “seven liberal arts”, and are comprised of three “humanities” and four “scientific arts”. The three humanities, consisting of logic, grammar, and rhetoric, were studied first. Once a person had a good grasp of these three, they moved on to study the more complicated scientific arts of music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. The first three were known as the trivium, and the next four as the quadrivium. Interestingly, this is actually the origin of the English term for something being trivial, meaning very basic or unimportant, since the trivium consisted of basic entry-level subjects while the quadrivium was more advanced study.

Nests and Parents

The Torah mentions longevity with respect to two more specific mitzvot. The first is to honour one’s parents (Exodus 20:11 and Deuteronomy 5:15), and the second is known as shiluach haken, “sending away the mother bird” from its nest (Deuteronomy 22:7). The latter mitzvah applies if one happens upon a bird’s nest and wants to consume its eggs (or chicks).* The person should shoo away the mother bird first so that it does not see its offspring taken away. This is a clear sign of compassion on the parent bird. In this regard, the two mitzvot which promise longevity are actually related, both having to do with compassion and respect for parents.

If the “First Wisdom” is awe and fear of God, we can understand how respecting parents ties into it. The Ten Commandments were given on Two Tablets: the first listing five commands between God and man, and the second listing five commands between man and man. Honouring one’s parents is on the first tablet, and is considered a mitzvah not between man and man (as one would naturally assume) but between man and God! After all, the Talmud tells us there are three partners in the creation of a person: mother, father, and God. Disrespecting one’s parents is therefore akin to disrespecting God.

A Scientific Look at Longevity

Several years ago, the National Geographic Society backed a project (led by Dan Buettner) to identify and study the world’s “blue zones” – regions where people live the longest. They found a number of places where people regularly live well into their nineties and hundreds, and in good health, too. After studying these populations, they came to a number of conclusions as to how to increase longevity. The first was to do lots of natural exercise, ie. not going to the gym and pumping iron, but simply being active within one’s daily routine. They confirmed the importance of not overeating (phrasing it as the “80% rule”) and to consume more natural, plant-based foods as opposed to processed or meat-based ones.

All of these echo the Rambam’s teachings hundreds of years ago (Hilkhot De’ot 4:2, 14-15):

“A person should not eat until his stomach is full, rather he should stop about a quarter before he is filled… Overeating is to the body of a person like a poison, and it is the source of all sicknesses. The majority of sicknesses come upon a person either from eating bad foods or from filling the stomach and overeating, even with good foods…

“As long as a person exercises and exerts himself a lot, takes care not to eat to the point of being completely full, and keeps his bowels soft, illness will not come upon him and his strength will increase. And whoever sits comfortably and takes no exercise, even if he eats all the best foods and follows healthcare principles in other areas of his life, all his days will be full of pain and his strength will decline.”

Amazingly, the Blue Zone project also showed how huge of an impact religion and community has on longevity. They found that “belonging to a faith-based community” and going to a religious gathering at least once a week for prayer and connection added as much as fourteen years to one’s life! (See Dan Buettner’s full talk on longevity here).

Seven Pillars of Longevity

All of the above information can be neatly summed up in seven key points for living a long life. (1) Keeping the body naturally active, and (2) keeping the brain active and engaged. The study of spiritual matters takes priority, followed by subjects like math, music, and language arts. (3) Keep junk foods and processed foods to a minimum, and avoid overeating. (4) Be a part of a faith-based community, and (5) pray and meditate regularly. (6) Make sure to honour and respect parents, and (7) maintain an attitude of calm, compassion, and kindness in place of stress, anger, and selfishness.

The Blue Zone project narrows it down even further into four key points: have the “right outlook, move naturally, eat wisely, and belong”. Their website has a fun “age calculator” that estimates what your “biological age” is, your life expectancy, and how many extra years you’ve added (or lost) based on your habits.

Ultimately, if all else fails, the Torah mentions longevity four more times. In addition to the four explored above (two for honouring parents, one for the bird’s nest, and one for meditating on God’s Word), there are four that speak in general terms, promising long life for being attached to God and following His ways. This resonates with King Solomon’s final piece of advice in Ecclesiastes:

“The end of the matter, all having been heard: revere God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man.”

(Courtesy: ImmuneTree.com)

(Courtesy: ImmuneTree.com)


*It is important to note that, for some reason, it has become popular to believe that one needs to shoo away the mother bird of a nest even if a person does not need the eggs. Somehow, sending away the mother and taking the eggs is an “illogical mitzvah” that needs to be fulfilled. Such an interpretation is silly. The whole point is to have compassion on the mother bird. How would taking her eggs when there is no need for the eggs be compassionate? That would just be cruel! The Rambam writes that in most cases, this mitzvah is not going to be fulfilled since most birds and their eggs are not kosher – so why would anyone ever destroy a nest for no reason? See, for example, Moreh Nevuchim, III, 38:

“In most cases, this commandment will cause man to leave the whole nest untouched, because [the eggs] which he is allowed to take are, as a rule, unfit for food.”

A deeper analysis of shiluach haken can be found here.