Tag Archives: Merkavah

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…

Is Mount Sinai Really a Mountain?

This week we read another double portion, Behar and Bechukotai, which begins by telling us that God “spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai” (Leviticus 25:1). Why does the Torah constantly reiterate that God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai? Why does Mount Sinai matter so much?

Pirkei Avot opens by stating that Moses received the Torah not “at Sinai” (b’Sinai), but “from Sinai” (miSinai), as if the mountain itself revealed the Torah. More perplexing still, it is said that Sinai was so unique it descended down into this world just for the Torah’s revelation—and can no longer be found today! What do we really know about this enigmatic “mountain”?

A Mountain of Many Names

The Talmud (Megillah 29a, Shabbat 89a) records that Mount Sinai had multiple names, including Horev, Tzin, Kadesh, Kedomot, Paran, Har HaElohim, Har Bashan, and Har Gavnunim. The latter name comes from the root meaning “hunched” (giben) or short. Mount Sinai was a lowly and humble mountain, which is why God picked it in the first place. This name is also a reason why it is customary to eat dairy foods on the holiday of Shavuot—which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai—since gavnunim is related to gevinah, cheese.

The term gavnunim comes from Psalms 68:17, where we read how other mountains were jealous of Sinai. The same verse is cited by Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (ch. 19) in stating that God created seven special mountains, and chose Sinai for the greatest of His revelations. We are told that the name Sinai comes from s’neh, the burning bush that appeared to Moses on this mountain. Delving deeper, however, we see that Moses didn’t just stumble upon the place and, in fact, Sinai was far more than just a mountain.

Mountain, or Vehicle?

In commenting on the first chapters of Exodus, Yalkut Reuveni tells us that Mount Sinai actually uprooted itself and flew towards Moses while he was shepherding his flocks. Meanwhile, the Talmud (Shabbat 88a) famously states that the Israelites stood not at the foot of Sinai, but underneath Sinai, with the mountain hovering over their heads. Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (ch. 41) gives us even more fascinating details:

On the sixth of Sivan, the Holy One, blessed be He, was revealed to Israel on Sinai, and from His place was He revealed on Mount Sinai and the Heavens were opened, and the summit of the mountain entered into the Heavens. Thick darkness covered the mountain, and the Holy One, blessed be He, sat upon His throne, and His feet stood on the thick darkness, as it is said, “He bowed the heavens also, and came down; and thick darkness was under His feet.” (II Samuel 22:10)

Despite being a lowly mountain, Sinai’s summit ascended up to the Heavens. Then God Himself descended upon it, with His “feet” amidst the cloud of thick darkness (‘araphel) surrounding the mountain. The passage continues:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karchah said: The feet of Moses stood on the mount, and all his body was in the Heavens… beholding and seeing everything that is in the Heavens. The Holy One, blessed be He, was speaking with him like a man who is conversing with his companion, as it is said, “And Hashem spoke unto Moses face to face.” (Exodus 33:11)

Moses’s feet were “on the mount”, yet his entire body was in Heaven! This brings to mind the vision of Ezekiel, where the prophet sees the Merkavah, God’s “Chariot”, descending from Heaven before “… a spirit lifted me up, and I heard behind me the sound of a great rushing… also the noise of the wings of the Chayot as they touched one another, and the noise of the wheels beside them, the noise of a great rushing.” (Ezekiel 3:12-13)

A Sci-Fi Version of Ezekiel’s Vision

Like Elijah and Enoch before him, Ezekiel was taken up to Heaven upon a mysterious vehicle, complete with wings and spinning wheels that generated a deafening noise. (With regards to Elijah, we read in II Kings 2:11 that “there appeared a chariot of fire… and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind up to Heaven.”) Similarly, Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer suggests that there were 22,000 such chariots at Sinai! This is based on Psalms 68:18, which says “The chariots of God are myriads, thousands upon thousands; Adonai is among them, as at Sinai, in holiness.”

A Vehicle of Prophecy

The similarities between Ezekiel’s Vision and the Revelation at Sinai don’t end there. Ezekiel (1:4, 13, 24) writes:

… A stormy wind came out of the north, a great cloud, with a fire flashing up… and out of the fire went forth lightning… a tumultuous noise like a great military camp…

Exodus 19:16-18 describes the scene this way:

… There were noises and lightning bolts, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the sound of a horn exceedingly loud… And Mount Sinai was covered in smoke, because Hashem descended upon it in fire…

Both passages speak of fire and lightning, thick clouds and ear-splitting noises. The semblance is undoubtedly the reason for Ezekiel’s Vision being read as the haftarah for the holiday of Shavuot. The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 43:8) even writes that the inspiration for the Golden Calf at Sinai was the face of the bull upon God’s Chariot, as described by Ezekiel (1:10).

These midrashic descriptions suggest that Sinai—far from being simply a mountain—is a vehicle of prophecy and revelation, much like the Merkavah. It is therefore not surprising to see Sinai implicated in various other prophetic visions, including Elijah’s conversation with God (I Kings 19), and Jacob’s vision of the ladder (where “ladder”, סלם, also has the same gematria as “Sinai”, סיני). It explains why Pirkei Avot states that Moses received the Torah from Sinai, and why the Torah constantly connects Moses’ prophecy to it.

Ultimately, prophecy and divine revelation will return with the coming of Mashiach and the rebuilding of the Temple. So, it is fitting to end with one more midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah 391), which states that God will bring back Sinai in the future; it will descend upon Jerusalem, and the Holy Temple will be rebuilt right on top of it.


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?

The Guardian Angels and Hybrid Beasts Known as Cherubs

This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, relates God’s instructions to the Israelites for constructing the Mishkan, the Holy Tabernacle. The most important part of this elaborate structure was undoubtedly the Aron HaKodesh, the Ark of the Covenant. Throughout the centuries, this gold-plated Ark has often been depicted in art, history, and even film (perhaps most notably with Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark). However, what the Ark actually looked like is hard to discern. The Ark disappeared two and a half thousand years ago when the First Temple was destroyed. Since then, many different versions and interpretations for its appearance have been proposed, both by Jewish Sages and secular scholars.

Common Depiction of the Ark

Common Depiction of the Ark

The issue is not so much with the Ark itself, since the Torah is pretty clear on its description: a box two and a half cubits long, one and a half cubits wide, and one and a half cubits high, made of wood and plated with gold from the inside and out. (A cubit is somewhere in the area of two feet long.) What’s not so clear is the part that follows: the Ark’s cover, with its two golden Cherubs.

What is a Cherub (kruv, in Hebrew)? The only descriptor the Torah gives is that the Cherubs had wings. Rashi, drawing from the Talmud, comments on verse 25:18 that they had the face of a child. The Torah describes the two as being set on the cover ish el echav, literally “a man facing his brother”. This suggests a human form to the Cherubs, along with their child-like face and wings. Indeed, this is how the Cherubs are generally depicted. The reality may be quite different, though. A look at the historical and Biblical evidence may shed some more light as to the true identity of the Cherubs.

Raphael's Cherubs, from his 'Sistine Madonna'

Raphael’s Cherubs, from his ‘Sistine Madonna’

The Evidence

A similar word for the Hebrew term kruv is found across the languages of the Ancient Near East: kuribu in Akkadian, karabu or kirubu in Babylonian and Assyrian. These refer to very large statues placed at entrances to important venues which served as guardians. They had the body of a bull or lion, with wings, and a human head. At times, they were worshipped as guardian deities.

Assyrian Karibu, now housed at the University of Chicago

Assyrian Kirubu, now housed at the University of Chicago

Karibu at the Louvre

Kirubu at the Louvre

This parallels the Torah’s original description of Cherubs. The very first time Cherubs appear is in Genesis 3:24. Following Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden, God placed Cherubs to guard the entrance to Eden so that man could not return. Like the Mesopotamian kuribu, the Cherubs are guarding an entrance.

This could be why the Cherubs were placed atop the Ark, again as guardians of the holy vessel. When the Tanakh describes how King Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem (I Kings, chapter 6), it states that Solomon had two massive ten-cubit high Cherubs placed at the entrance to the Holy of Holies (the room in which the Ark of the Covenant was kept). The following chapter describes them as kruvim arayot, “Cherub-Lions” (7:36). Not only do we once again see the Cherubs as guarding an entrance, but we now have some evidence that the Cherubs had a lion-like appearance, just as the Mesopotamian kuribu often had.

All of this appears to hint to a famous passage in the Bible: Ezekiel’s Vision of the Chariot.

Ezekiel’s Chariot

In the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, we are given a detailed description of the Merkavah, the Divine Chariot:

“And I looked, and, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, a great cloud, with a fire flashing up, a brightness was all around it; and from within the appearance of electrum, out of the midst of the fire. And from within it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had the likeness of a man. And every one had four faces, and every one of them had four wings. And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot… As for the likeness of their faces, they had the face of a man; and all four had the face of a lion on the right side; and all four had the face of an ox on the left side; all four had also the face of an eagle.” (1:4-10)

Ezekiel describes his angelic vision, with winged figures that have attributes of a lion, an ox, an eagle, and the appearance of a man. The figures are leading the way for the Divine Chariot, again serving as sentries or guardians.

This description allows us to potentially synthesize the Torah’s description of Cherubs with the historical and Biblical evidence: human-like winged creatures with aspects of a lion and a bull or ox. Although Cherubs are not explicitly mentioned in Ezekiel’s account, the Merkava, or Chariot, is explicitly mentioned, and it shares the same root letters (k-r-v or r-k-v) as Cherubs, kruvim.

We can draw further proof from the Book of Psalms, which states that God “rode upon a Cherub, and flew, and swooped down upon the wings of the wind,” (18:11) as well as from II Samuel, which says God “rode upon a Cherub, and flew, and was seen upon the wings of the wind,” (22:11). Clearly, the Cherubs are associated with the Divine Chariot, so it isn’t hard to relate them to Ezekiel’s vision.

So, are the Cherubs innocent child-like, winged angels, as depicted in art, or are they powerful Heavenly guardians with the hybrid qualities of various majestic beasts?

Ultimately, we may never know the true appearance of the Cherubs. Perhaps they are not even concrete entities, but rather metaphorical devices or prophetic visions, like the Divine Chariot is often interpreted to be. Whatever the case, we may just have to rethink the way we commonly draw the Ark of the Covenant and its Cherubs.