Tag Archives: Berakhot (Tractate)

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!   

Why is Honey Kosher if it Comes From Non-Kosher Insects?

At the start of this week’s parasha, Ki Tavo, the Torah reminds us that God gave us the land of Israel, “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deut. 26:9). When the Torah says honey, it likely does not mean honey from bees, but rather “honey” from fruit trees, particularly date honey and fig honey. This is illustrated by a well-known story from the Talmud (Ketubot 111b):

Rami ben Ezekiel once paid a visit to Bnei Brak where he saw goats grazing under fig trees while honey was flowing from the figs, and milk ran from them, and these mingled with each other. “This is indeed,” he remarked, “[a land] flowing with milk and honey.”

If the Torah does not speak of bee honey, while clearly stating that bees are not kosher for consumption, why is bee honey kosher? This is especially problematic in light of the Mishnaic principle that “whatever goes forth from the unclean is unclean, and whatever goes forth from the clean is clean”.

Yet, from other places in Scripture we see that bee honey is absolutely kosher. For example, we read in Judges 14:5-9 about Samson’s famous brawl with a lion on his way to Timnah. Samson killed the lion and later, on his way back home, saw that bees had strangely built a nest inside the lion carcass, at which point Samson took some of their honey and ate it, and even brought some to his parents.

Amazingly, in 2010 archaeologists discovered the earliest known beekeeping and honey-making apparatus in the world, dating back three thousand years—in Israel! Bee honey was clearly as popular among ancient Israelites as it is among modern-day Jews. How is it kosher?

Excretions of Flying Insects

The Talmud (Bechorot 7b) comments on the above Mishnah and discusses the nature of bee honey:

“Whatever goes forth from the unclean is unclean, and whatever goes forth from the clean is clean”… an objection was raised: Why did [the Sages] say that honey from bees is permitted? Because the bees store it up in their bodies but do not drain it from their bodies… The Divine Law expressly permitted honey, for it was taught: R. Jacob says, “Yet these may you eat of all the winged swarming things…” [Leviticus 11:21] This you may eat, but you are forbidden to eat an unclean winged swarming thing. But is not an unclean winged swarming thing expressly mentioned in the Scripture [as forbidden]? Rather we must explain [thus]: An unclean flying thing that swarms you must not eat, but you may eat what an unclean flying thing casts forth from its body. And what is this? This is bees’ honey.

This passage follows a long discussion which analyzes different excretions of non-kosher animals; whether they are thick or thin, and whether they come out like they came in, or if the animal had processed the substance in its body and transformed it. The Talmud suggests that bees take up the nectar and collect it in their sacs, but do not actually digest and “excrete” it. This is true, as we know that nectar is collected into a special sac, the “honey stomach”, where it is mixed with enzymes and transformed into honey, before being regurgitated into the honeycomb. (More specifically, the bees actually regurgitate the pre-honey substance into the mouths of other bees, multiple times, before the substance is put into the comb, then exposed to air currents from the bees’ beating wings in order to evaporate out the water and produce that final, thick and sweet product.)

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that one who eats honey is not just consuming flower nectar, but also ingesting compounds from the bee itself. The Talmud knows this, which is probably why it goes on to prove that honey is still kosher by creatively interpreting the Torah’s verses. It concludes that while flying insects themselves are not kosher to eat (except several species of locust, as explicitly stated in the Torah), the excretions of such flying insects are kosher. Interestingly, this relates to another special flying insect, whose excretions have been identified with none other than manna!

Manna from Heaven or Manna from Lice?

Manna mealybug anatomy, from the Israel Journal of Entomology Vol XXX, pg. 20

The Sinai Peninsula is home to a species of lice called Trabutina mannipara. This lice infests the Tamarisk trees that grow in the Sinai, sucking the tree’s sap, and in turn, excreting a white, honey-like substance. This edible substance is very sweet, and also very light and flakey, which means that it doesn’t last long before the sun dries it all up. Sounds familiar?

The Torah tells us that the Israelites consumed sweet, white manna in the wilderness, which was like frost and had to be harvested in the morning just as the dew ascended (Exodus 16:14, Numbers 11:7-8). Not surprisingly, the Trabutina mannipara lice has been nicknamed the “manna mealybug”, and its excretions are called mann by the Sinai Bedouins who still harvest and eat it.

Based on the Talmudic principle of the excretions of flying insects being permissible for consumption, the lice manna, like bee honey, is kosher. In fact, the Talmud (Berakhot 57b) overtly connects the two substances, stating that “honey is one-sixtieth of manna”.

Tamarisk tree in the desert

Of course, the Torah states that manna was miraculously sent from Heaven, and the Talmud (Chagigah 12b) notes precisely where in the Heavens it was “ground up”. Besides, only about 500 pounds of “Sinai manna” is produced annually by the lice—not nearly enough to feed an entire nation of people subsisting off of manna almost exclusively.

Still, the existence of Sinai manna is no coincidence. A well-known Jewish dictum is that all things in the material world are only a reflection of spiritual entities above. Perhaps the lice manna is that physical counterpart of the Israelites’ Heavenly manna.

Honey, too, must have a spiritual counterpart. Rabbi Avraham Schorr points out that the gematria of dvash (דבש), “honey”, is 306, equal to the difference between guf (גוף), “body”, and neshamah (נשמה), “soul”. Honey is symbolic of that spiritual substance that “glues” the soul to the body. In just two weeks’ time, we will be dipping various foods in honey during the Rosh Hashanah meal, in part symbolizing our hope to be inscribed in the Book of Life, thus keeping the soul glued to its body for one more sweet new year.

Why Physical Labour is a Spiritual Necessity

In this week’s Torah portion, Ekev, Moses tells the Israelites that if they follow God’s commandments, He will “give the rain of your land in its season, the former rain and the latter rain, and you shall gather in your corn, and your wine, and your oil.” The Talmud (Berakhot 35b) asks:

“And you shall gather in your corn.” What is to be learned from these words? Since it says, “This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth,” I might think that this injunction is to be taken literally. Therefore it says, “And you shall gather in your corn”, which implies that you are to combine the study of them with a worldly occupation.

Although elsewhere the Torah states that one should always be meditating upon the Torah, here we are told that we should be working the fields. The Sages learn from this the importance of combining Torah study with some form of employment. This sentiment is expressed throughout rabbinic literature. Pirkei Avot (2:2) famously states:

Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, would say: Beautiful is the study of Torah with the way of the world, for the toil of them both causes sin to be forgotten. And all Torah study that is not accompanied by work will eventually be negated and lead to sin.

Rabban Gamliel goes so far as to say one who only learns Torah and does not combine it with labour will have their Torah learning nullified, and will be lead to sin. The Rambam (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:10) takes an even more hard-line approach:

Anyone who takes upon himself to study Torah without doing work, and derive his livelihood from charity, desecrates [God’s] Name, dishonours the Torah, extinguishes the light of faith, brings evil upon himself, and forfeits his life in the World to Come, for it is forbidden to derive benefit from the words of Torah in this world.

Our Sages declared: “Whoever benefits from the words of Torah forfeits his life in the world” … Also, they commanded and declared: “Love work and despise rabbinic positions,” and “All Torah study that is not accompanied by work will eventually be negated and lead to sin.” Ultimately, such a person will steal from others.

Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, the Rambam (1135-1204)

In another place (Hilkhot Matnot Ani’yim 10:18), the Rambam further elaborates:

Even a dignified Sage who becomes poor should work in a profession, even a degrading profession, rather than seek public assistance. It is better to skin the hides of dead animals than to tell the people, “I am a Sage” or “I am a priest, support me.”

… Our greatest Sages were wood-choppers, porters of beams, water-drawers for gardens, blacksmiths, and charcoal-makers. They did not ask anything from the public and refused to accept anything that was given to them.

The Sages that the Rambam is referring to include the great Hillel, who famously worked as a wood-chopper, though just enough to support his family and pay the entrance fee to the Torah study hall (Yoma 35b), and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah who was a blacksmith and charcoal-maker (Berakhot 28a). Meanwhile, Rav Papa and Rav Chisda were beer brewers, and Rav Chanina and Rav Oshaia were cobblers (Pesachim 113a-b). The Rambam was himself a physician.

Of course, today we need rabbis who devote themselves full-time to the needs of the community, and to serve as teachers, judges, counsellors, and so on. Such leaders certainly deserve a good salary for their work. However, those adults that simply learn Torah most of the day, subsisting off of the community while giving little in return, are engaging in a tremendous transgression.

Humans are meant to be productive. From the very beginning, God made man His partner in creation, to complete what He started – asher bara Elohim la’asot. God explicitly instructed Adam to work the Garden and tend to it (Genesis 2:15). Physical work is part of man’s spiritual rectification. Amazingly, the Talmud (Nedarim 49b) records how Rabbi Yehuda would carry a huge pitcher of water over his shoulder on his way to the beit midrash, and Rabbi Shimon would similarly carry a heavy basket, both saying “great is labour, for it honours its worker”. Women are not exempt from this, and the Talmud famously states that a husband who forbids his wife from doing any work should better divorce her, since “idleness leads to promiscuity” and “idiocy” (Ketubot 59b).

The Rambam once again summarizes it best (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:11):

It is a great thing for a person to derive his livelihood from his own efforts. This attribute was possessed by the pious of the early generations. In this manner, one will merit all honour and benefit in this world and in the World to Come, as it is said: “If you eat the toil of your hands, you will be happy and it will be good for you.” [Psalms 128:2] You will be happy in this world, and it will be good for you in the World to Come, which is entirely good.

A Mystical Look at Pregnancy and Abortion

This week we read a double portion of the Torah, Tazria and Metzora. It begins by stating that a woman who gives birth to a son is spiritually impure for seven days, and requires another 33 days of purification afterwards. If she gives birth to a female, the impurity lasts fourteen days, followed by 66 days of purification.

The Zohar (III, 43b) comments on this section by first reminding us that each soul has male and female halves, and when the soul enters this world, it splits and enters two different bodies, male and female. If the two soulmates merit it, they will find each other and reunite. We are then told that the female part of the soul is larger and more powerful, which is why a woman who gives birth to a female needs double the purification time.

The Zohar explains why the Torah prescribes these specific time periods: 7 and 33 days for boys; 14 and 66 days for girls. It states that at birth, the soul first enters the body and is in complete disarray. For the first seven days, the unsettled soul “roams the body to find its place”. On the eighth day, the soul is finally getting comfortable in its new home. This is one reason why circumcision is done on the eighth day, once the soul is no longer distressed. The soul then needs an additional 33 days to acclimatize to its new environment until it has completely settled into the body. For the greater female souls, the time periods are doubled.

Note how these time periods are referring to the soul of the newborn, yet it is the mother that is described as being “impure”. This is because the mother carried the child, and its soul was housed within her temporarily. (Perhaps this extra soul is responsible for the well-known “pregnancy glow”.) Once the baby is born, its soul leaves the mother’s shelter and is now independent in the baby’s body. (And that pregnancy glow is gone!) The sudden loss of spiritual energy is difficult on the mother as well, and she requires forty (or eighty) days to get back to herself.

A major question arises here: if the soul only enters the newborn at birth, why is abortion forbidden? Religious groups of various faiths have argued for centuries on when exactly the soul enters the body, and many have taken the stance that a fetus already carries a soul, making abortion indistinguishable from murder. What do Jewish texts say?

Abortion and Gestation in the Talmud

In one passage, the Talmud includes abortion under the category of murder. However, it also famously states that if the mother’s life is at risk—at any point in the pregnancy—the fetus must be removed, “limb by limb” if necessary. In such cases, the fetus is seen as a rodef, a “pursuer”, referring to the Torah law that if one is “pursuing” another to kill them, it is permitted to kill the pursuer first. The Talmud concludes that a fetus can be aborted at any point until its head has emerged. Once the head has emerged, the newborn is considered completely alive, and in cases of life-risk, it is no longer clear who the “pursuer” is. The Sages suggest that the soul fully enters the newborn only at birth, and it is only then that the newborn is a complete person.

Three-month old fetus (Courtesy: BabyCentre)

Elsewhere in the Talmud (Niddah 8b), we are told that the fetus already resembles a person at the three-month mark. We now know that it is precisely around this point that the developing baby has the features of a human (and is no longer called an “embryo”, but a “fetus”). The Talmud adds (Berakhot 60a) that until this three-month mark, a person should pray every day that there shouldn’t be a miscarriage. After three months, a person should pray that the fetus will not be stillborn, and after six months, a person should pray that the mother has an easy delivery. We are told that one should pray for the baby’s desired gender only before the 40-day mark. This, too, shows incredible wisdom on the part of our Sages. Today we know scientifically that the sex organs begin their development around day 42. The ancient rabbis knew that after day 40, gender development is already in progress, and there is no point praying for something different.

In a related passage, we are told that until day 40, the fetus is insignificant and more lifeless than living (Yevamot 69b). Today we know that the neural tube which will make the brain forms around day 40, and this is when the first neurons start signalling. Scientifically speaking, there could be no talk of any kind of consciousness or brain activity before day 40.

Because of this, most rabbinic authorities are far more lenient when it comes to abortions before the 40th day of pregnancy. Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (1863-1940), who was widely recognized as the greatest posek of his generation, even suggested that abortions before the 40th day are not Biblically prohibited (Achiezer, III, 65:14). Nevertheless, even before the 40th day there is a potential to produce a living human being, and life is valued above all else, which is why abortions are still forbidden except for cases of absolute necessity.

By the 20-week mark (midway through pregnancy), fetuses are seen rolling around, sucking their thumbs, and responding to the prodding of the ultrasound. There is no doubt that the fetus is alive and aware at this point, and any abortion other than a life risk is hardly distinguishable from murder.

Soul Infusion

The fact that the fetus is aware by the 20-week mark (if not sooner) suggests that it does indeed have some level of soul. Yet, earlier we saw sources seemingly propose that the soul does not enter until birth. How do we reconcile these apparent contradictions?

To answer this question it is important to keep in mind that the soul is not one uniform entity. Rather, the soul is composed of multiple layers, each made up of countless sparks. The lowest level of soul is called nefesh, the basic life essence. Above that is the ruach, “spirit”, an animating force that, among other things, gives a person their drives and inclinations. Then comes the neshamah, a higher level of consciousness and the part that gives one their unique traits and qualities. Further still is the chayah, the aura that emanates from the body, followed by the loftiest level, the yechidah, which may be described as a spiritual umbilical cord between each soul and its Creator.

The Arizal taught that ever-higher levels of soul are accessed gradually over the course of one’s life. At birth, a person has only a complete nefesh. As they grow, they are infused with ruach, which becomes fully accessible at bar or bat mitzvah age. At this point one starts to tap into their neshamah, which is wholly available only at age 20. (For this reason, the Torah considers an adult one who is over 20 years of age. Only those over 20 were counted in the census and allowed to join the military. Our Sages state that although one may be judged for their crimes before age 20 here on Earth, only those sins accrued after age 20 are judged in Heaven. Meanwhile, the Midrash notes that Adam and Eve were created as 20 year olds.) The Arizal taught that most people never end up accessing their entire neshamah, and only the most refined individuals ever unlock their chayah and yechidah.

Based on this model, we see that right from conception the developing embryo is steadily infused with nefesh, the basic life force. By day 40, there is enough nefesh for the embryo to be considered alive. In fact, it is said that this is why the gematria of אם, “mother”, is 41, since a woman becomes a mother on the 41st day of pregnancy.

Once its entire nefesh has been infused, the baby is ready to be born. At birth, it begins to receive its next soul level, the ruach. A careful look at the Zohar passage with which we started reveals that this is precisely what the Zohar meant, as it explicitly mentions the ruach entering at birth, requiring forty days to fully settle in. Therefore, a developing fetus does indeed have a soul, which is why abortion is so highly discouraged—reserved only for true medical cases—and why it has been compared to murder.

Solving a Scientific Mystery

The above also answers a mystery that has been perplexing biologists for decades: what is it that drives an embryo to grow? Why do the cells multiply, and how do they know to differentiate? Each cell is exactly the same, with the exact same set of DNA, yet one clump of cells knows to form the eyes while another knows to form the liver, and so on. Scientists have still not been able to figure out how the embryo “knows” what to do. (For that matter, we can’t figure out how any cell really “knows” what to do.)

The Kabbalists have an answer: it is the steady infusion of soul that drives a mass of undifferentiated cells to do what it needs to. It is the soul that gives the instructions for how the DNA is to be transcribed and translated in each cell, and how the cells are to interact with one another. As the soul grows, so too does the body. It is therefore not surprising that around the age when most people’s bodies stop growing, their souls tend to stop “growing” as well.

This should remind us that our education does not end with formal schooling, nor does maturing stop with the end of puberty. The process of growth and refinement, both physical and spiritual, must continue throughout life. This is the key to true self-fulfillment and happiness.


Make your Shavuot night-learning meaningful with the Arizal’s ‘Tikkun Leil Shavuot’, a mystical Torah-study guide, now in English and Hebrew, with commentary.

Space Travel in the World to Come?

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

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

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

Daniel’s Vision

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

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

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

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

The Milky Way Galaxy

The Milky Way, as visible from the Earth

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

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

Close-Up of the Scorpio Constellation and the Milky Way

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

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

Location of our sun in the spiral Milky Way galaxy

Rewards for the Righteous

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

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

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

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

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

Olam HaBa?