Tag Archives: Israel

Secrets of Rosh Hashanah

This first of this week’s two Torah portions, Nitzavim, is always read right before Rosh Hashanah, and appropriately begins: “You are all standing today before Hashem, your God…” The verse has traditionally been seen as an allusion to Rosh Hashanah, when each person stands before God and is judged. The Torah says today, implying one day, yet everyone celebrates Rosh Hashanah over two days. This is true even in Israel, where yom tovs are typically observed for only one day.

The reason for this is because in ancient times there was no set calendar, so a new month was declared based on the testimony of two witnesses. Once the new month was declared in Jerusalem, messengers were sent out to inform the rest of the communities in the Holy Land, and beyond. Communities that were far from Israel would not receive the message until two or three weeks later, so they would often have to observe the holidays based on their own (doubtful) opinion of when the holiday should be. They therefore kept each yom tov for two days.

Rosh Hashanah, however, is the only holiday that takes place on the very first day of the month, so as soon as the new month of Tishrei was declared, it was immediately Rosh Hashanah, and messengers could not be sent out! Thus, even communities across Israel would observe the holiday for two days, based on their own observations.

Although today we have a set calendar, and there is no longer a declaration of a new month based on witnesses, two days are still observed since established traditions become permanent laws. Of course, this is only the simplest of explanations, for there are certainly deeper reasons in observing two days, especially when it comes to Rosh Hashanah.

Judgement in Eden

Rosh Hashanah commemorates the day that God fashioned Adam and Eve. On that same day, the first couple consumed the Forbidden Fruit, were judged, and banished from the Garden of Eden. Originally, they had been made immortal. Now, they had brought death into the world, and God decreed that their earthly life would have an end. Adam and Eve were, not surprisingly, the first people to be inscribed in the Book of Death. Each year since, on the anniversary of man’s creation and judgement, every single human being (Jewish or not) is judged in the Heavenly Court, and inscribed in the Book of Life, or the Book of Death.

This is the idea behind the symbolic consumption of apples in honey. In Jewish tradition, the Garden of Eden is likened to an apple orchard, with the scent of the air in Eden being like that of apples. (Having said that, it is not a Jewish tradition that the Forbidden Fruit itself was an apple!) The apple reminds us of the Garden—of Adam and Eve and their judgement—and we dip it in honey so that our judgement should be sweet.

But what happens when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat? It is well-known that there is no judgement on Shabbat. The Heavenly Court rests, and even the souls in Gehinnom are said to have a day off. This is illustrated by a famous exchange in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 65b) between Rabbi Akiva and the Roman governor of Judea at the time, Turnus Rufus:

Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva: “How does [Shabbat] differ from any other day?”
He replied: “How does one official differ from another?”
“Because my lord [the Roman Emperor], wishes it so.”
Rabbi Akiva said: “the Sabbath, too, is distinguished because the Lord wishes it so.”
He asked: “How do you know that this day is the Sabbath?”
[Rabbi Akiva] answered: “The River Sambation proves it; the ba’al ov proves it; your father’s grave proves it, as no smoke ascends from it on Shabbat.”

An illustration of Rabbi Akiva from the Mantua Haggadah of 1568

Rufus asks Rabbi Akiva how the Jews are certain that the Sabbath that they keep is actually the correct seventh day since Creation. Rabbi Akiva brings three proofs:

The first is a legendary river called the Sambation (or Sabbation), which was known in those days, and which raged the entire week, but flowed calmly only on Shabbat. The second proof is that people who summon the dead from the afterlife (practicing a form of witchcraft called ov) are unable to channel the dead on Shabbat. (I know of a person who was once involved in such dark arts and became a religious Jew after realizing that he was never able to summon spirits on the Sabbath or on Jewish holidays!) Lastly, Rabbi Akiva notes how Turnus Rufus’ own father’s grave would emit smoke every day of the week, except on Shabbat. This is because the soul of Rufus’ wicked father was in Gehinnom, but all souls in that purgatory get a reprieve on Shabbat. (Historical sources suggest that Rufus’ father was Terentius Rufus, one of the generals involved in the destruction of the Second Temple.)

Based on this, we can understand why Rosh Hashanah must be observed over two days. When the holiday falls on Shabbat, no judgement can take place, so the judgement is pushed off to the next day. This is also related to the fact that when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat, the shofar is not blown. This is not at all because blowing a shofar is forbidden on Shabbat, which is, in fact, permitted.

The simple explanation given for this is that we’re worried the person blowing the shofar might carry it to the synagogue (in a place without an eruv), and carrying is forbidden on Shabbat. The deeper reason is this: Blowing the shofar is supposed to “confound Satan”. Satan is not the trident-carrying, horned demon of the underworld (as popularly believed in Christianity). Rather, Satan literally means the “one who opposes” or the “prosecutor”. It is Satan’s job to serve as the prosecution in the Heavenly Court. The shofar’s blow confuses Satan, and prevents him from working too much against us. On Shabbat, the Heavenly Court rests, and Satan is having a day off, so there is no need to confound him!

The First Shabbat

One might argue that Rosh Hashanah should only be two days long when it falls on Shabbat; in other years, one day would suffice. Other than the fact that this would be confusing—as the holiday would span different lengths in different years—there are other explanations for the two days, including that each day involves different types of judgement (for example, one day for sins bein adam l’Makom, between man and God; and one day for bein adam l’havero, between man and his fellow). Nonetheless, our Sages still describe Rosh Hashanah as really being one day—one unique, extra-long, 48-hour day which our Sages called yoma arichta, literally the “long day”. Perhaps this is another reason for the custom of not sleeping on the “first night” of Rosh Hashanah. (The other reason: how could anyone possibly sleep through their own trial?)

Finally, the story of Rabbi Akiva and Turnus Rufus gives us one more reason to commemorate Rosh Hashanah over two days. Rufus questioned Rabbi Akiva on how he can be so sure that the Sabbath which he keeps is indeed the correct seventh day going back to Creation. If Rosh Hashanah is the day Adam and Eve were created, then it corresponds to the sixth day of Creation. That means the very next day was the seventh day of Creation, and that the second day of Rosh Hashanah always commemorates the very first Sabbath. When we celebrate on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we mark Adam and Eve’s first Shabbat, and recognize that each seventh day has been observed ever since, and will continue to be observed for another, 5778th upcoming year.

Shana Tova u’Metuka!

Tisha B’Av: The Untold Story of Napoleon and the Jews

Today is Tisha b’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. This holiday commemorates many historical tragedies, most significantly the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem. One of the most common stories heard on Tisha b’Av is about Napoleon walking by a Paris synagogue on this day, hearing the lamentations and loud weeping of the Jews. In the story, he asks what the Jews are crying about, and after being told about the destruction of the Temple nearly two millennia ago, apparently remarks something along the lines of: “A nation that cries and fasts for 2,000 years for their land and Temple will surely be rewarded with their Temple.”

Hearing this story immediately sets off some alarms. Firstly, Napoleon was no ignoramus, and was certainly well aware of the destruction of the Temple (after all, the Temple is featured in the “New Testament” and plays an important role in Christian history as well). More notably, Napoleon was a military man his entire life; his biography is the very definition of a tough guy. This man lived by the sword—it is highly unlikely that he would praise people for sitting and crying about something.

In fact, the myth of Napoleon and Tisha b’Av has been debunked multiple times (see here for example). One of the earliest known sources of the legend is a Yiddish article from 1912, later included in the 1924 American Jewish Yearbook, and similarly appearing in a 1942 book called Napoleon in Jewish Folklore. Here, we are given a far more logical version of the story: After hearing the weeping of the Jews in a synagogue in Vilnius, Napoleon points to his sword and says, “This is how to redeem Palestine.”

Napoleon and the Jews

An 1806 depiction of Napoleon emancipating the Jews

Napoleon would actually play a tremendous role in Jewish history, and might even be credited with starting the process of “redeeming Palestine”. It was Napoleon that ushered in the “emancipation” of Jews in Europe. Wherever he conquered, he would free the Jews from the ghettos, and give them equal rights. In France, he went so far as to declare Judaism one of the state’s official religions in 1807. Napoleon also famously sought (and failed) to re-establish the Sanhedrin.

These actions brought upon him the ire of many of his contemporaries, especially Czar Alexander of Russia, who branded Napoleon the “Anti-Christ” for liberating the despised Jews. Moscow’s religious authority at the time proclaimed:

In order to destroy the foundations of the Churches of Christendom, the Emperor of the French has invited into his capital all the Judaic synagogues and he furthermore intends to found a new Hebrew Sanhedrin—the same council that the Christian Bible states condemned to death (by crucifixion) the revered figure, Jesus of Nazareth.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the “Alter Rebbe” (1745-1812)

Of course, most Jews were ecstatic, and relished their newly acquired liberties. It became common for Jews to name their children “Napoleon”, or adopt the last name “Schöntheil”, the German translation of “Bonaparte”. Yet, not all Jews were happy about this development. The Alter Rebbe—founder of Chabad, who lived during the times of Napoleon—wrote the following in one of his letters:

If Bonaparte will be victorious, Jewish wealth will increase, and the prestige of the Jewish people will be raised; but their hearts will disintegrate and be distanced from their Father in Heaven. But if Alexander will be victorious, although Israel’s poverty will increase and their prestige will be lowered, their hearts will be joined, bound and unified with their Father in Heaven…

The Alter Rebbe thus fled from the approaching French forces, inspired his followed to do the same, and even supported the Russian military. He was right about Bonaparte. Napoleon had no interest whatsoever in seeing the Jews flourish as Jews, or practice their religion proudly. His intentions were clear: the complete assimilation of the Jews into European society. It was Napoleon that first permitted Jews to serve in the military, openly stating that “Once part of their youth will take its place in our armies, they will cease to have Jewish interests and sentiments; their interests and sentiments will be French.”

As it turned out, opening the doors for Jews to serve in the French military would lead to the proliferation of the Zionist movement, and the establishment of the State of Israel.

France and Israel

1899 Guth painting of Alfred Dreyfus for Vanity Fair

In 1894, Theodor Herzl was a young journalist working in Paris. He was covering the infamous “Dreyfus affair”, where a Jewish captain in the French military, Alfred Dreyfus, was wrongly accused of treason. During this time, Herzl witnessed the extreme anti-Semitism of the French firsthand. He realized that no matter how much the Jews assimilate, they would still never be accepted into European society, and reasoned that the Jews must have their own free state. Thus, it was a Jewish soldier in the French military—what Napoleon so dearly wanted—which catapulted the Zionist movement.

Interestingly, Napoleon himself seemed to have supported the notion of a Jewish state in Israel. In 1799, before he was emperor, and while besieging the city of Acre in Israel, Napoleon issued a proclamation inviting “all the Jews of Asia and Africa to gather under his flag in order to re-establish the ancient Jerusalem. He has already given arms to a great number, and their battalions threaten Aleppo.” Ultimately, the British defeated Napoleon’s forces, and the plan never materialized.

Nonetheless, Napoleon’s role in igniting the flames of Zionism cannot be overlooked. Zionism was primarily a secular movement, its most fervent supporters being assimilated European Jews who, like Herzl, were frustrated that they were still hated and unwanted in European society. This secularism was a direct result of Napoleon’s campaigns. Without his spearheading of the Jewish “emancipation”, it is doubtful that there would have ever been a Zionist movement to begin with.

And although there is much to criticize about Zionism, these mostly secular European Jews succeeded in re-establishing a free Jewish state in the Holy Land after two very long millennia. Yes, the Israeli government is unfortunately secular, and Mashiach has not yet come, and there is a great deal of work to do to restore a proper Jewish kingdom as God intended. However, the State of Israel allowed for the majority of Jews to return to their homeland, escape persecution, live openly as Jews, fulfil mitzvot only possible in the Holy Land, and travel freely to Jerusalem. Israel is undoubtedly paving the way for the Final Redemption, which is why many great rabbis of recent times have described it as reshit tzmichat geulatenu, the first steps of the redemption.

It is therefore fitting that the gematria of “France” (צרפת), where the whole process began, is 770, a number very much associated with redemption as it is equivalent to בית משיח, the “House of Mashiach”. Ironically, this number is most special for Chabad—the same Chabad that so resisted Napoleon and the French! (And at the same time, adopted the tune of Napoleon’s military band as their own niggun, still known as “Napoleon’s March” and traditionally sung on Yom Kippur!)

Most beautifully, it appears to have all been predicted long ago by the Biblical prophet Ovadia, who prophesied (v. 17-21):

And Mount Zion shall be a refuge, and it shall be holy; and the house of Jacob shall possess their heritage… And they shall possess the Negev, the mount of Esau, and the Lowland, with the [land of the] Philistines; and they shall possess the field of Ephraim, and the field of Samaria; and Benjamin with Gilead. And the great exile of the children of Israel, that are wandering as far as צרפת [France], and the exile of Jerusalem that is in Sepharad, shall possess the cities of the Negev. And saviours shall come upon Mount Zion to judge the mount of Esau; and the kingdom shall be God’s.

Deciphering Bilaam’s End of Days Prophecy

‘Balaam and the Angel’ by John Linnell

This week’s parasha is Balak, named after the Moabite king that sought to curse Israel. Balak hired the sorcerer Bilaam to do the job, but instead of cursing Israel, Bilaam’s mouth would utter blessings and prophecies. The parasha is perhaps most famous for Bilaam’s last prophecy, concerning acharit hayamim, the “End of Days” (Numbers 24:14-25):

“I see it but not now, I behold it, but it is not soon. A star will go forth from Jacob, and a staff will arise from Israel which will crush the princes of Moab and uproot all the sons of Seth. Edom shall be possessed, and Seir shall become the possession of his enemies, and Israel shall triumph.” When he saw Amalek, he took up his parable and said, “Amalek was the first of the nations, and his fate shall be everlasting destruction.” When he saw the keini, he took up his parable and said, “How firm is your dwelling place, and your nest is set in a cliff. For if Cain is laid waste, how far will Assyria take you captive?” He took up his parable and said, “Alas! Who can survive these things from God? Ships will come from the Kittim and afflict Assyria and afflict those on the other side, but he too will perish forever.” Bilaam arose, left, and returned home…

What is the meaning of these cryptic words? The first part seems relatively clear: in the distant future, a leader will arise for Israel who will “uproot all the sons of Seth”, meaning all of mankind, who come from Adam’s third son, Seth. Israel’s enemies will be defeated for good, as will the evil Amalek. Bilaam is, of course, speaking about Mashiach. Then it gets more complicated. Who is the “keini”? Why does he dwell in a nest? What does Cain have to do with anything, and who is Assyria taking captive?

Balak’s Bird

The parasha begins: “And Balak ben Tzippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites, and Moab became terrified of the people…” The Zohar comments on the name Balak ben Tzippor (literally “Balak, son of a bird”) by saying that Balak was a powerful sorcerer who was able to do all sorts of witchcraft using various birds. One of those birds was called Yadua, and through it he was able to see visions. What did Balak “see” that made him so terrified of Israel?

The Zohar says that Balak took the Yadua bird as usual and performed his rituals, but this time, the bird flew away. When it returned, he saw the bird engulfed in flames, and this made him fear Israel. Why did the image of a flaming bird strike fear in Balak’s heart? What does this flaming bird have to do with Israel?

The Phoenix

In almost every culture around the world there is a myth of a magical flaming bird. The ancient Egyptians worshipped Bennu, the “solar bird” which lived for 500 years before being reborn from its own egg. The Persians spoke of Simurgh, a peacock-eagle that lived 1700 years before igniting itself in flames, and had lived so long that it saw civilization destroy itself three times. The most famous version of the myth is from the Greeks, who called the flaming bird Phoenix. The name derives from the fact that the bird comes from, and sets its nest, in the land of Phoenicia.

Phoenix by FJ Bertuch (1747-1822)

Phoenicia is another name for Lebanon, whose territories once overlapped with Israel’s. The Phoenicians and Israelites had very similar cultures and used the same alphabet. The Tanakh describes the central role that the Phoenicians played in the construction of the First Temple. They sent skilled artisans and builders, as well as gold and the cedar trees that served as the Temple’s framework. King Solomon gave the Phoenician king Hiram twenty Israelite cities around the Galilee as a gift. The two merged their navies and did business together, and are even described as “brothers” (see I Kings 5).*

In the Greek account, the eternal Phoenix builds its nest in one of the cedars of Lebanon before the nest catches fire and the Phoenix is cremated into ash. From the ashes emerges an egg, and the selfsame Phoenix hatches from it. This story is very similar to one told in the Midrash.

In the Garden of Eden

The Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 19:5) describes what Eve did after eating the Forbidden Fruit. She gave some to Adam, and then

… She fed [the Forbidden Fruit] to all the beasts and all the animals and all the birds. All of them listened to her, except for one bird, called Hol, as it says, “Like the hol that has many days” (Job 29:18). The School of Rabbi Yannai said: “It lives for a thousand years; and at the end of a thousand years, fire comes out of its nest and burns it and leaves the size of an egg from it, and it comes back and grows limbs and lives.”

According to the Midrash, it wasn’t just Adam and Eve that ate the Fruit, but all living things had a taste, making them all mortal. However, there was one bird that did not listen to the humans, and flew away, escaping death. It lives one thousand years, then burns to ashes in its nest, and is reborn. Adam, too, was meant to live in segments of one thousand years, being reborn each millennium. However, after eating of the Fruit, his life was capped at a single one thousand year segment. (Of this 1000 years, he gave up 70 to King David, which is why Adam lived 930 years, and David exactly 70. See ‘How Did Adam Live 930 Years?’ for more.)

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b) also speaks of this immortal bird. Here, the Phoenix is waiting patiently for Noah to give it food, so he blesses it with eternal life. In both Midrashic and Talmudic passages, the scriptural source is Job 29:18, which speaks of Hol, the Hebrew term for the Phoenix. Why was Balak terrified when he saw an image of the firebird?

The Bird’s Nest

Some of the most ancient Jewish mystical texts are collectively known as Heikhalot, “Palaces”. These texts describe the ascents of various sages to the Heavens, and their descriptions of what they see. For example, Heikhalot Zutrati describes the ascent of Rabbi Akiva while Heikhalot Rabbati describes that of Rabbi Ishmael. In their description of the Heavenly architecture, the residence of Mashiach is called kan tzippor, the “Bird’s Nest”. This moniker is used throughout later Kabbalistic texts as well. Mashiach is said to be dwelling in a bird’s nest.

Mashiach’s role can be summarized in this way: his task is to complete the various spiritual rectifications (tikkunim) and return humanity to the Garden of Eden. Central to this is restoring a world without death—the world of resurrection. Note how Jewish prayers never request for us to enter some kind of ethereal afterlife in the Heavens, but rather to merit techiyat hametim, the resurrection of the dead, here in the earthly Garden of Eden. The Sages refer to that world as Olam HaBa, the world to come; not some other world or dimension, but the coming world that is here. (See here for more on the Jewish perspective on the afterlife.)

Mashiach is the one who is supposed to defeat death and usher in that world of resurrection. The Sages actually describe two messiahs: Mashiach ben Yosef, and Mashiach ben David. The role of Mashiach ben Yosef is to fight Israel’s wars and defeat its enemies, paving the way for Mashiach ben David to re-establish God’s kingdom. However, amidst the great battles, Mashiach ben Yosef is supposed to die. This is first mentioned in the Talmud (Sukkah 52a):

What is the cause of the mourning [at the End of Days]? Rabbi Dosa and the other rabbis differ on the point. One explained: the cause is the slaying of Mashiach ben Yosef; the others explained: the cause is the slaying of the Evil Inclination… Our Rabbis taught: The Holy One, blessed be He, will say to Mashiach ben David (May he reveal himself speedily in our days), “Ask of Me anything, and I will give it to thee”… When [ben David] will see that Mashiach ben Yosef is slain, he will say to Him, “Master of the Universe, I ask of Thee only the gift of life.” God answered him: “As to life, your father David has already prophesied this concerning you, as it is said, ‘He asked life of Thee, Thou gavest it him, [even length of days for ever and ever].’” (Psalms 21:5)

The Talmud links the death of Mashiach ben Yosef with the death of all evil. Mashiach ben David will then ask God to restore Mashiach ben Yosef to life, and God answers that He had already granted that request long ago to David himself, as seen from a verse in Psalms. Ben Yosef will die, then return to life, followed by the return of all the righteous dead after him.

Not surprisingly then, the symbol of Mashiach ben Yosef is a Phoenix, and he dwells in a “bird’s nest”. The Phoenix is said to take residence in the cedars of Lebanon, which is also associated with Mashiach ben Yosef, as it says in Psalms 92:13: “The righteous one will flourish like a palm tree, he shall grow like a cedar in the Lebanon”. [For those who like gematria, the term “cedar” (ארז) has the same value as “ben Yosef” (בן יוסף).]

‘Phoenix’ is one of the 88 constellations in the night’s sky. A modern map is on the left, and a 1742 depiction from Johann Gabriel Doppelmayr’s Atlas Coelestis is on the right. Every year, a meteor shower (called the Phoenicids) appears at the Phoenix constellation, from July 3 to July 18.

Warships in Syria

This is precisely what Balak feared when he saw the Phoenix. He realized that his plot to destroy Israel would fail miserably. Moreover, he saw that he would be the very ancestor of Mashiach, since he is a great-grandfather of Ruth, who is the great-grandmother of David! Unable to work his own magic, Balak summoned another sorcerer, Bilaam. It is highly appropriate that Bilaam’s final prophecy was regarding the End of Days and the coming of Mashiach.

Bilaam sees the “keini” in his nest—Mashiach—and says “… if Cain is laid waste, how far will Assyria take you captive?” What does Mashiach have to do with Cain? The Arizal explains that the tikkun associated with Cain is the most significant, for Cain is the one who actually brought death into the world. He is the first murderer, having killed his brother Abel. Abel’s was the first ever death. If Mashiach is to remove death from the world for good, he must rectify that primordial event.

And so, Mashiach ben Yosef is a reincarnation of Cain, and he must die as a measure for measure rectification for Cain’s murder of Abel. And who is Abel? Mashiach ben David, the one who brings about the resurrection of Mashiach ben Yosef! The brothers finally make peace. Cain and Abel are the two messiahs, and their mission is to restore peace to the entire world—after all, they were the ones that brought conflict into the world to begin with.

What did Bilaam say? He saw the keini, the one of Cain, in his nest. He is taken captive by Assyria—amidst a great battle that brings massive warships from the West—and “will perish”. He must perish because he is Mashiach ben Yosef, and through his demise all death and evil die with him. With these words, Bilaam fittingly ends his prophecy of the End of Days, for that event is the very end of the world as we know it, and the start of an entirely new era into which even Bilaam could not peer.

This week in the news: the USS George HW Bush, one of the largest warships in the world, docks in Haifa, Israel, on its way to a mission in Syria. Does the current Syrian conflict play into Bilaam’s prophecy?


*After the kingdoms of Phoenicia and Israel were destroyed, their outpost of Carthage in North Africa remained. This trading post had become a powerful city-state, and challenged Rome for control of the Mediterranean. The greatest Carthaginian leader was Hannibal. While many are familiar with Hannibal, few are aware of his last name, Barak (Latinized as Barca). Recall that the Biblical Barak was Deborah’s military general. He hailed from the tribe of Naphtali, and it is precisely from this region that Solomon gave Hiram twenty cities. Considering that Hiram and Solomon had combined their navies and traded together across the Mediterranean and Red Sea together, it is very possible that Carthage was one of the joint Israelite-Phoenician outposts, and Hannibal was a descendent of the Biblical Barak! Interestingly, Hannibal spent the last years of his life in Greek Syria, and helped Antiochus III conquer Judea. Unlike his son Antiochus IV (of Chanukah fame), Antiochus III was very friendly with the Jews, and supported Jerusalem’s Temple.

Tu b’Shevat: The Prime Ministers of Israel and the Coming of Mashiach

This Shabbat we celebrate the little-known though highly significant holiday of Tu b’Shevat. This special day is commonly referred to as Rosh Hashanah l’Ilanot, “the New Year for Trees”. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 2a) tells us that there are four “new years” on the Hebrew Calendar:

The first of Nisan is the New Year for kings and festivals; the first of Elul is the New Year for tithing of cattle… The first of Tishrei is the New Year for years, for sabbaticals, Jubilees, plantation, and tithing of vegetables; on the first of Shevat is the New Year for trees according to Beit Shammai, however, Beit Hillel places it on the fifteenth of that month.

The general rule is that we always follow Hillel’s opinion over Shammai’s, and so the New Year for Trees is commemorated on the 15th of Shevat. The Talmud doesn’t explain why Hillel and Shammai disagreed about the date. Perhaps because of this confusion, we are told that Rabbi Akiva would tithe his fruits on both the first and fifteenth of Shevat.

Nonetheless, by the 16th century, Tu b’Shevat had developed into an important mystical holiday, and the Arizal (Rabbi Itzchak Luria) introduced a Tu b’Shevat seder that mirrors the Passover seder. In addition to eating a variety of different fruits that are kabbalistically symbolic, the Tu b’Shevat seder includes drinking four cups of wine like on Passover. The connection is made very clear: Passover celebrates our First Redemption, and Tu b’Shevat celebrates our future redemption with the coming of Mashiach.

Indeed, Mashiach is often likened to a tree or sprouting plant. For example, Zechariah 6:2 tells us that Mashiach’s name is Tzemach, literally “plant”, while Psalms 92:13, in describing the End of Days, says “the righteous one will flourish like a palm tree.” Jewish tradition holds that a potential messiah lives in each generation, so that he may come immediately if the world is ready. Moses was the first redeemer, so his successor Joshua was the first possible mashiach.

Joshua was the first of the so-called “Judges”, the Shoftim that led Israel over the period of nearly five centuries before Israel had a king. It wasn’t just Joshua who was a potential messiah, but each and every one of the Judges. Each was a saviour in their generation, fighting off Israel’s enemies and bringing peace to the Holy Land. Each had the opportunity to reclaim Jerusalem and build the Holy Temple upon it, but failed. We read in Joshua 13:1 how God reprimands Joshua for growing old without completing his task, while the commentaries on Genesis 49:18 tell us how downtrodden Jacob was to prophetically foresee Samson fail to bring about the redemption.

The period of Judges would come to an end, and soon David would ascend the throne. It was he who acquired the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and brought the Ark of the Covenant there. David besought God to allow him to build the Temple, but God denied the request. However, he promised David that his dynasty would be everlasting, and that he would be the progenitor of the Messiah, who would complete David’s divine task.

It took a long and difficult, lawless period of Judges (where each person falsely did “what was right in their own eyes”, as we are told in Judges 17:6 and 21:25), full of warfare and oppression before the first footsteps of the Final Redemption were laid. This strongly resembles our present situation. “There is nothing new under the sun,” said King Solomon, and it appears we are reliving the past in our modern day.

Israel’s Prime Ministers

In 1948, a fully independent Jewish state in the Holy Land was finally re-established, under miraculous circumstances. Jews were returning en masse to their ancestral home, on a scale unseen since the time of Joshua. There was a chance to reclaim all of the ancient borders and even (though it would be astronomically difficult) rebuild the Temple. An even better opportunity presented itself in 1967, after the phenomenal Six-Day War. Yet time and again Israel failed to fulfil its Biblical mission. Alas, we must wait for Mashiach, the scion of David’s dynasty, to get the job done. The feeling among many Jews today is probably similar to that of the Jews in the period of Judges. And the similarities don’t end there.

The Israelite leaders in the period of Judges did some great things, but ultimately failed to realize their main task. A careful reading of the Book of Judges reveals that not all of the Judges were divinely appointed, and some weren’t even righteous! For the most part, the Judges were military leaders selected by the people. The Judge Avimelech was a powerful warrior, but such a wicked man that he was severely punished by God. Nonetheless, he is counted among the Judges because he was elected by the people. Sound familiar?

The situation in Israel today is much the same, with the people electing their leader – the prime minister – who is often a military hero and sometimes not so righteous. The parallels between the ancient Judges and the modern prime ministers of Israel are striking:

The fifth Judge was Deborah, the only female; the fifth prime minister was Golda Meir, also the only female. Prior to Deborah was Shamgar, who had such a brief stint that he is not included in the chronological record. Likewise, before Golda Meir was Yigal Allon, who served for just 19 days and is often excluded from the list of official prime ministers. Unfortunately, we don’t know very much about the Judges to make more detailed comparisons. Many are described in only one or two verses, and some just by name. (Did Prime Minister Ehud Barak appreciate the significance of his name, considering both Ehud and Barak were two central figures in the Book of Judges?)

What we do know is that there were a total of fifteen Judges, who reigned from the time the Jews returned to Israel after their calamity in Egypt. Three thousand years later, the Jews once again return to Israel after the Holocaust, and thus far there have been thirteen prime ministers. The era of Judges concluded with the start of the monarchy and the subsequent construction of the Temple. It took fifteen judges to get there. Will it take fifteen prime ministers to do it again?

The Secret of Tu b’Shevat

Although the School of Shammai taught that the “New Year for Trees” is the first of Shevat, the School of Hillel insisted that it was on the fifteenth. This is where the holiday gets its name: Tu b’Shevat literally means “fifteenth of Shevat”, where Tu is the traditional Hebrew designation for the number fifteen. (In Hebrew, Tu [ט”ו] is composed of the letters ט and ו, where the former has a value of 9 and the latter 6, totalling 15. It might seem more logical to use the letters yud [10] and hei [5] to represent 15, but that would inadvertently spell a name of God in vain!)

Perhaps the School of Hillel insisted on the fifteenth to remind us of the deeper meaning of the holiday: the Final Redemption that it symbolizes, the foundation of which was laid by the first fifteen Judges and which, perhaps, will be fulfilled by another set of fifteen modern “judges”.

The Kabbalists teach that the letters beit and pei are linked, and are sometimes interchangeable. In fact, within the shape of the letter pei is a hidden beit. With this in mind, the word Shevat (שבט) can be read Shofet (שפט), “Judge”. Thus, Tu b’Shevat may very well hint to the fifteen Judges.

When it comes to the modern-day “judges”, the Prime Minster of Israel is officially the leading member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. And it is the Knesset that gives the necessary “vote of confidence” to elect a prime minister. Incredibly, Israel’s very first Knesset convened on February 14, 1949, which just happened to be Tu b’Shevat!

Prophecies and Miracles

The Tu b’Shevat seder instituted by the Kabbalists cites the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a) that “there is no greater sign of the Redemption than the fulfilment of the verse, ‘And you, mountains of Israel, you shall give forth your branches and you shall bear your fruit for my people Israel, for they shall soon come’ (Ezekiel 36:8).” The Sages state then when we see the land of Israel flourishing once more, and yielding great quantities of fruit, we should know that the Redemption is imminent. Indeed, the modern State of Israel has flourished, growing a whopping 95% of its own produce, and exporting over $1.3 billion in agricultural goods – despite having a land mass that is officially 50% desert!

Back in 1890, Rabbi Ze’ev Yavetz started a tradition by taking his students to plants trees on Tu b’Shevat. Soon after, the custom was adopted by the Jewish National Fund, which has since planted an astonishing 260 million trees in Israel, and played a central role in the nascent state’s success. Today, it is estimated that over a million Jews still participate yearly in JNF’s Tu b’Shevat tree-planting. As such, Tu b’Shevat has grown from an obscure, mystical holiday – a footnote on the Hebrew calendar – to an important holiday marked even by secular Jews, bringing the entire nation together, very much in the spirit of the coming Redemption.

‘The Mulberry Tree’ (1889) by Vincent Van Gogh

Joseph, Tamar, and Mashiach’s Kingdom

josephs-coatThis week’s parasha is Vayeshev, where the narrative starts to shift away from Jacob and towards his children. Before we read about how Joseph’s brothers abandon him in a pit – which led to his eventual rise to power in Egypt – we are told that Jacob gave Joseph, his favourite son, a special garment, described as k’tonet passim. The mysterious wording has stirred quite a bit of debate. Some say it means that the garment was colourful, ornamental, or covered in pictures; others say it was striped or embroidered, long-sleeved, reaching to his feet, and made of either fine wool or silk. Whatever the case might be, a more important question is: why did Jacob give Joseph a garment at all? Of all the things Jacob could have bestowed upon his son, why this k’tonet passim?

There is only one other place in the entire Tanakh where the same term is used: “And she had k’tonet passim upon her; for this is how the king’s virgin daughters were dressed” (II Samuel 13:18). This verse comes from the passage of Amnon and Tamar. (Not to be confused with the other Tamar discussed in this week’s parasha!) Amnon and Tamar were half-siblings, children of King David from different mothers. The Torah prohibits relations between half-siblings, but Amnon lusted after Tamar nonetheless, and ended up seducing her. This created a huge rift in the family, with Amnon ultimately being killed by Tamar’s brother Avshalom. In the verse above, Tamar is described as wearing k’tonet passim because this was the garment worn by virgins. Based on the equivalent wording (gezerah shavah), we may conclude that the garment Jacob gave his son had the same purpose. Why did Jacob want Joseph to wear a garment denoting his virginity?

The Tzadik

In Jewish tradition, it is customary to append a title to all of the major forefathers and Biblical figures. Each patriarch is called avinu, “our father”, Moses is called rabbeinu, “our teacher”, Aaron and the priests are called hakohen, “the priest”, David and the kings are called hamelech, “the king”, while Samuel and the prophets are called hanavi, “the prophet”. Joseph is unique among all of these. He alone carries the title hatzadik, “the righteous one”. But weren’t all of our forefathers righteous tzadikim?

The 10 Sefirot, with the 9th Yesod, or "Foundation", leading directly to the 10th, "Kingdom".

The 10 Sefirot, with the 9th Yesod, or “Foundation”, leading directly to the 10th, “Kingdom”.

Our Sages explain that the greatest mark of righteousness is one’s ability to control their sexual temptations. While few people have an urge to murder or worship idols, just about everyone grapples with sexuality. These urges are the most difficult for the average person to conquer, and the Torah’s prohibitions of sexual sins are described in the gravest terms. Kabbalistically, the spiritual rectification of sexuality lies within the ninth sefirah, Yesod. The tenth and finally sefirah is Malkhut, “Kingdom”. Thus, it is said that the final test before one reaches their spiritual fulfilment – their own kingdom – is the purification of sexuality. Yesod is the last step before Malkhut.

On a larger scale, the Kabbalists teach that Malkhut represents the Kingdom of Mashiach. Before Mashiach can come, the world needs to rectify all of its sexual sins. The final generation before Mashiach is said to lie within the cosmic sefirah of Yesod. Not surprisingly, our current generation is mired in sexual conflict and immodesty. The media is full of filthy content, pornography is available to anyone and everyone at the touch of a finger, online services offer to set up cheating spouses with secret affairs, smartphone apps allows people to scan countless profiles for quick “hook ups”, and newspapers and magazines are obsessing over an ever-expanding set of acronyms like LGBTQ2. The world celebrates lewd and licentious behaviour parading through the streets as more and more people struggle with their sexual orientation and gender identity. This is a world that is wrestling within Yesod, as the Kabbalists described centuries ago. This is society’s final tikkun. Thus, our Sages state that it will be a special kind of Messiah, not Mashiach ben David, but Mashiach ben Yosef who comes to rectify it all.

The Two Messiahs

The Torah tells us that Joseph was exceedingly handsome, and all the ladies would scale over high walls just to catch a glimpse of him. He never lacked suitors, but was able to resist them all and maintain his chastity. We read of his most difficult sexual test in this week’s parasha, where the beautiful wife of Potiphar (whose name, according to some sources, was Zuleikha, or Zulai) is throwing herself on Joseph. The Midrash famously describes how incredibly difficult it was for Joseph to hold himself back, so much so that, metaphorically speaking, “semen emerged from his fingertips”! And yet, he overcame these tests, eventually found his true soulmate, Osnat, and married her in a wholesome, monogamous union (at a time when polygamy was common, and when a viceroy like Joseph could easily have a harem of many concubines).

Thus, Joseph completely rectified the sefirah of Yesod, and became its very personification. This is why he alone is called “the Tzadik”, as he was the only one confronted with such monumental challenges, and found the fortitude to conquer them all. And so, it is he that returns as “the first messiah”, Mashiach ben Yosef, to fix the world before the final king, Mashiach ben David (who personifies the sefirah of Malkhut) can ascend the throne.

In fact, it is in this week’s parasha that both messiahs are born. Amidst the Joseph narrative that plants the seeds of Mashiach ben Yosef, the Torah takes an aside and tells the story of Judah and Tamar. The result is the birth of the twins Peretz and Zerach, the former being a direct ancestor of King David, the progenitor of Mashiach ben David. These two stories teach us what the generation of Mashiach needs to accomplish. Some will have the strength to be like Joseph and inoculate themselves from society’s sexual woes. Most, however, will have to follow the path of Judah.

Judah had his own sexual struggles, and ended up in the arms of an apparent prostitute. It turned out to be his widowed daughter-in-law, Tamar. When Tamar later confronted him, Judah had the power to deny it all and have her executed. Instead, he owned up to his misdeeds, repented wholeheartedly, and purified himself of sin. This is the task of our generation.

Israel’s Garment

So why did Jacob give Joseph that particular garment? The k’tonet passim was a symbol of chastity, and Jacob gave it to his son to remind him of his divine test, and protect him along the way. The Torah tells us explicitly that Joseph was 17 years old at the time. This is no coincidence, since that is the age when the sexual temptations begin to rage furiously. (Hence, the Mishnah says the ideal age to get married is 18.)

A careful reading of the Torah text reveals that it actually wasn’t Jacob who gave Joseph the garment, but Israel, the name used when Jacob is on a higher, prophetic level. Israel foresaw what Joseph would be going through, and it was Israel, not Jacob, who sent Joseph on that journey that led to his descent to Egypt. All was part of God’s divine plan, in the same way that what society is going through now was set in motion long ago, and in the same way that God’s divine plan will find its fulfilment in the forthcoming arrival of Mashiach.