Tag Archives: Kabbalah

Torah on the Big Bang and the Age of the Universe

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

According to Science

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

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

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

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

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

Zohar haRakia

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

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

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

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

The Secret of Beresheet and the Big Bang

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

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

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

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

Time is Relative

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

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

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

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

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

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

14.2 billion years

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

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

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!   

Does the Torah Punish a Rapist?

This week’s parasha, Ki Tetze, contains a whopping 74 mitzvot according to Sefer HaChinuch. Two of these deal with a situation where a man seduces an unbetrothed virgin girl. In such a case, the man must pay the girl and her father fifty pieces of silver, and not only must he must marry her (unless she does not want to marry him) but he is never allowed to divorce her.

It is important to mention that the Torah is not speaking of rape. Unfortunately, this passage is commonly misunderstood and improperly taught, resulting in people being (rightly) shocked and offended to hear that a rapist gets away with his crime, having only to pay a relatively small fine. The Torah is not speaking of rape!

In our parasha, the Torah uses the term shakhav imah, “lay with her”. In the infamous case of Dinah being raped by Shechem (Genesis 34), the Torah says shakhav otah, he “laid her”, forcefully, before saying v’ya’aneah, “and he raped her”. This terminology does not appear in the verses in question. Another tragic case is that of the “concubine of Gibeah”, where the shakhav root does not appear at all, and the Torah says ita’alelu ba, “abused her”. In both of these cases, the punishment was death. Rapists deserve capital punishment.

In our parasha, the Torah continues to say that “they were found” (v’nimtzau)—not that the man was found committing a crime, but that they, the couple, were discovered in the act. This suggests that there was at least some level of consent. That’s precisely how the Zohar (Ra’aya Mehemna) interprets it, explaining that they both love each other, but she does not want to be intimate with him until they are properly married. He manages to get her to sleep with him anyways. The Zohar concludes that this is why the Torah states he must marry her. She was worried to be with him until he was formally committed to her; until they were “married with blessing”. So, the logical result is that he must marry her, and not just a sham marriage where he will divorce her shortly after, but a marriage with no chance of divorce (unless she wants to)! This makes far more sense; the Torah cannot be speaking of rape—why would a rape victim ever want to marry her rapist?

Spiritual Unification

In Sha’ar HaGilgulim, the Arizal explains that when a man lies with a woman, he infuses a part of his soul within her. The two are now forever linked. This is essentially how two soulmates re-connect to become one again, as stated in Genesis 2:24. The Talmud speaks of this as well. For example, in one place (Sotah 3b) we learn how Joseph “did not listen to her, to lie with her, to be with her” (Genesis 39:10), means that Joseph did not want to sleep with Potiphar’s wife “in this world, or to be with her in the World to Come.” Had he been intimate with Potiphar’s wife, their souls would have been linked eternally.

It seems that not even divorce can break this powerful bond. In another Talmudic passage (Pesachim 112a), Rabbi Akiva teaches Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai five important things, one of which is not to marry a divorced woman. This is because the woman is still spiritually linked to her former husband (some say only if her ex-husband is still alive). Another teaching is then cited: “When a divorced man marries a divorced woman, there are four minds in the bed.” Both divorcees are still attached to their former spouses mentally and emotionally, which will undoubtedly complicate their relationship. (Having said that, other sources insist that, of course, it is still better to be married to someone than to stay single.)

In the same vein, a man who seduces his girlfriend has spiritually bonded with her, and must therefore marry her. Meanwhile, a rapist should be put to death, for it seems that this is the only way to spiritually detach him from his victim (at least in this world).

God Seduces Israel

The Zohar takes a deeper look at this case, and sees it is a beautiful metaphor for God and Israel. Just as Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, is traditionally interpreted as a love story between God and His chosen people, the Zohar identifies God with the seducing man and Israel with the virgin. Indeed, Israel is compared to a young maiden or virgin girl throughout the Tanakh. The Zohar cites Amos 5:2, which states “the virgin Israel has fallen”, then quotes Hosea 2:16, “Behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly unto her.”

God took a “virgin”, unbetrothed, godless people out of Egypt, led them into the wilderness, and as the Talmud famously states, coerced them into a covenant with Him:

“And they stood under the mount,” [Exodus 19:17] Rav Abdimi bar Hama bar Hasa said: This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and said to them, “If you accept the Torah, it is well; if not, this shall be your burial.”

Israel didn’t have much of a choice at Sinai. (It is commonly said that on Shavuot, God chooses us and gives us His Torah; and it is only on Simchat Torah when we choose God, joyfully dancing with the Torah He gave us.) God is like that seducing man, so to speak. As such, according to His own Torah, He must “marry” us forever, and cannot ever abandon us. (Those Christians and Muslims that believe they have “replaced” Israel and God created a new covenant with them are terribly mistaken!)

The Zohar doesn’t end there. The Torah says the man must pay fifty pieces of silver. What are the fifty pieces of silver God gave us? One answer is the very special Shema, which we recite twice daily, and has exactly fifty letters (not counting the three additional paragraphs). Our Sages state that the Shema is not just an expression of God’s Oneness. Rather, its deeper meaning is that Israel is one with God; we are eternally bound to Him. And perhaps a day will soon come when, as the prophet says (Zechariah 14:9) all of humanity will reunite with God: “Hashem will be King over the whole earth; on that day, Hashem will be One, and His Name will be One.”


Second edition of Secrets of the Last Waters (Mayim Achronim Chova) out now!
Click here to get the newly revised, expanded, and redesigned book. 

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.

The Mystical Power of Beards

Last week, we discussed the prohibition of shaving with a razor. We mentioned briefly that while there is little substance to the prohibition itself, there are Kabbalistic reasons for maintaining a beard, some of which we will explore this week. The Zohar’s Idra Zuta (289a-b) writes:

All things precious come from the beard of Atika Kadisha. It is called the “Mazal of Everything”. From the Mazal beard—which is the most precious of all precious things—both upper and lower beings are sustained; they all look up to that Mazal. All life derives from, and is nourished by, Mazal. Heaven and Earth are dependent on Mazal… There are thirteen streams of very good oil flowing from the beard of Mazal, the most precious of all… Through this, Mazal’s tangled supernal knots are untied from the Head of all heads, which is unknown and inconceivable, not known to either upper or lower beings. In this way, all things derive from Mazal.

Daniel’s Vision of Atik Yomin, the Ancient of Days

This enigmatic passage speaks of the beard of Atika Kadisha, which literally means “The Ancient Holy One” in Aramaic. The term derives from the seventh chapter of Daniel, where he beholds a Heavenly vision and describes a great being who is “Ancient of Days” (Atik Yomin), with “his raiment as white snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne of fiery flames, and its wheels of burning fire.”

Daniel is describing the mystical Merkavah, “God’s Chariot”. While the anthropomorphic description of God is troubling for modern readers, we find such anthropomorphisms throughout Jewish literature. The Talmud speaks of God “wearing tefillin”, while the Midrash describes God teaching Torah in Heaven, and even citing the rabbis!

The ancient mystical text Shiur Komah is most explicit, speaking of various “divine measurements” of God, and saying that God “resembles an old, handsome man”. While the text claims to have been revealed by the angel Metatron to Rabbi Ishmael (and later taught to Rabbi Akiva), the Rambam, among others, declared it heretical. Nonetheless, other great rabbis defended it.

The Zohar, too, often speaks of God in anthropomorphic terms. Of course, as in the passage above, it adds that these representations are “unknown and inconceivable”, both to humans and angels. They appear to be only metaphoric descriptions.

Whatever the case, we are told that God’s Beard, called Mazal, is the source of all life and sustenance in Creation. Mazal literally means “flow” (the Hebrew word for liquid is nozel) and all fortune and goodness “flows” down from God’s Beard. The Beard has thirteen knots, and the untangling of these knots allows sustenance to flow smoothly.

As such, the beard becomes a symbol of tremendous importance in Kabbalistic thinking. Since our very purpose is to emulate God and be like Him—as the Torah repeatedly commands—keeping a long, flowing beard is therefore of great significance. It can help bring one mazal, good fortune, as well as open the paths to wisdom:

The Idra Zuta goes on to explain that the beard grows because of the great forces of wisdom emanating from “God’s Brain”. As this light travels down from the brain into the spinal cord, the narrow passage of the neck is unable to contain the illumination, causing the energy to exude outwards and manifest as a beard. This is why the beard grows continuously.

Keep in mind that the Hebrew term for “beard”, zakan, is related to the word for “elder”, zaken, because an elder is one who has wisdom. The Sages explain that “zaken” is a contraction of ze kanah chokhmah, “this one has acquired wisdom”. Similarly, the beard, “zakan”, represents wisdom.

The 13 Points

The Zohar states that the Mazal beard has thirteen knots, or locks. The Kabbalists would tie this concept with that of the five “corners” of the beard that are forbidden to be shaved. Whereas the Talmud speaks of five corners, later mystical texts speak of thirteen corners! These thirteen are tied to God’s famous “Thirteen Attributes of Mercy”, which describe His everlasting kindness. The beard thus also becomes a symbol of Chessed, the sefirah of kindness.

Conversely, the Arizal explains that hair on top of the head represents Din (or Gevurah), strict judgement. This is why Rabbi Akiva would shave his head and go bald (the Talmud calls Rabbi Akiva “kereach”, the bald one, and his son was known as Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karchah, son of the bald one). The Arizal teaches that Rabbi Akiva would shave in order to remove the Din from upon him and allow him to more easily bring people to holiness. (As such, going bald is actually a good sign according to the Arizal!) The Arizal further explains that this is why the Levites had to be entirely shaved in their initiation rite, to remove all the forces of Din from upon them.

Meanwhile, white hair represents rachamim gmurim, “complete mercy”, and should not be shaved. Rachamim is typically associated with the sefirah of Tiferet. Thus, the beard is Chessed, the hair opposite the beard on top of the head is Gevurah (which is opposite Chessed), and white hair on the head, whether top or bottom, is Tiferet. The white hair is symbolic of the white, wool-like hair of Atik Yomin, as described by Daniel, and is the highest form of Divine Imitation.

For these reasons, many followers of Jewish mysticism leave their beards completely untouched, and the hair on top of their heads trimmed short (if not entirely shaven). Yet, Ezekiel (44:20) states that one should not shave their head, nor allow their locks to grow long! Meanwhile, various Kabbalistic texts also state to keep the moustache trimmed, since it grows over the mouth and “blocks” one’s prayers. Above, we saw that the untangling of the locks of Mazal allow fortune to flow. We may therefore conclude that it is important to keep the beard groomed and unknotted, as twists, ties, and knots constrict the flow.

A young Menachem Mendel Schneerson with trimmed beard, and as the Lubavitcher Rebbe with untouched white beard.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe is a perfect case study: countless photographs show that he trimmed his beard and kept it well-groomed in his youth. However, as an elder his white hairs were clearly untouched. In one of his letters, he responds to a man who had shaved his beard. We will conclude with his words, which summarize much of the above:

You laboured and compelled your Divine Soul to remove the “Image of G-d” from your face, by cutting and removing the beard which corresponds to the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy. The beard is the channel for one’s livelihood. Perhaps your intention was to assist the Almighty in providing your livelihood by causing your outward appearance to resemble the gentiles, making it easier to be given a position. Such conduct is contrary not only to divine intellect, but also to human intellect. Even one who is not so intelligent will easily understand that this is contrary to simple faith to suggest that laxity in observance of the mitzvos – distancing oneself from the Source of life – will bring the person a large flow of blessing…