Tag Archives: Neshamah

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!   

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.

A Mystical Journey through the Lives of Sarah

This week’s parasha is called Chayei Sarah, which literally means “the lives of Sarah”. Why does the Torah speak in the plural? Should it not have said “the life of Sarah”? An even greater peculiarity is that despite being named in her honour, the entire parasha essentially says nothing of Sarah, or of her life! It begins by briefly stating that she passed away, and describing how Abraham purchased a burial plot for her. Following this is a very long narrative that takes up the bulk of the parasha, relating in detail the journey of Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, who was instructed to find a bride for Isaac. His mission was successful: Eliezer finds Rebecca. The story ends by telling us that “Isaac brought [Rebecca] to the tent of Sarah his mother, and he married Rebecca, and she became his wife, and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted for the loss of his mother.” (Genesis 24:67) Why did Isaac take Rebecca into his mother’s tent? And how did this comfort him?

Who is Rebecca?

At the conclusion of the last parasha we were told the story of the Akedah – the binding of Isaac. The parasha ends by telling us the progeny of Abraham’s brother Nachor, ending with the birth of Rebecca. This sets the stage for the story in this week’s parasha, where Rebecca and Isaac are united. Why was the passage regarding Rebecca’s birth given at the end of the last parasha, immediately following the Akedah? Rashi answers that this implies Rebecca was born at the time of the Akedah.

We know of one other event that happened at the same time: the passing of Sarah. Rashi quotes the Midrash as saying that Sarah passed away when she heard that Isaac was taken to be sacrificed. Thus, three events happened at the exact same time: the binding of Isaac, the passing of Sarah, and the birth of Rebecca.

The Lives of Sarah

Rashi continues to quote from the Midrash, explaining what happened when Isaac brought Rebecca into his mother’s tent. The Midrash says that while Sarah was alive, a certain blessing was felt in her tent, a flame burned perpetually inside it, and a cloud of holiness hovered above it. When Sarah passed away, these miraculous signs ceased. At the moment that Isaac brought Rebecca into Sarah’s tent, the flame was reignited, the blessing returned, and the cloud reappeared. The Midrash concludes: Rebecca was Sarah!

This is precisely why Rebecca was born at the same time that Sarah passed away. And this is precisely why the parasha is called Chayei Sarah – the lives of Sarah. Sarah’s life did not end in her death, but continued in the life of Rebecca, who is the central figure of this parasha. When Isaac saw the miraculous signs reappear in the tent, he knew that Rebecca had the spirit of Sarah within her, and would successfully continue the divine mission. He was finally comforted, knowing that Sarah’s spark had not been extinguished.

How Old Was Rebecca?

Another major question commonly asked here is: how old was Rebecca? Tradition holds that Isaac was 37 years old at the Akedah, and the Torah tells us explicitly that he was 40 when he got married. If Rebecca was born at the time of the Akedah, this makes her just 3 years old! Could it be that Isaac married a three year old? This makes little sense, which is probably why a parallel tradition holds that Isaac was 26 years old at the time of the Akedah, making Rebecca around 14 years at marriage. But if that’s the case, the connection between Rebecca and Sarah is diminished, since Rebecca would have been born long before Sarah’s passing, and therefore could not be her reincarnation. How do we solve this conundrum?

Levels of Soul

People like to think of a soul as a single entity. In reality, the Kabbalists explain that the soul is a mosaic made up of many different parts. The simplest conception of the soul describes it as being divided into 5 hierarchical levels. The lowest is called the nefesh, corresponding to the basic life force. Above this is the ruach, referring to the “spirit” of a person, which animates them, and gives them their positive and negative inclinations. Higher still is the neshamah, the “essence” of a person which makes them absolutely unique and governs the majority of their inner traits. Beyond these are the chaya (one’s “aura”, and the part that can be said to interact with other souls) and the yechida (the highest level of soul that unites one directly with the Divine, like a spiritual umbilical cord).

These five parts of the soul are dynamic, and flow in and out of a person. For example, it is said that while one sleeps, the four upper souls leave the body and only the nefesh remains – keeping a person alive, but otherwise unconscious and “dead”. Each morning, Jews recite the prayer of “Elohai Neshamah”, thanking God for returning these souls back to the body.

The Gate of Reincarnation

The dynamism of the soul is also reflected in the fact that the five souls “enter” a person’s body at different phases of their life. This is explained in the Jewish manual on reincarnation, Sha’ar HaGilgulim, written by the 16th-century sage Rabbi Chaim Vital, the primary student of the Arizal, perhaps the greatest mystics in Jewish history.

There it is written that a person is born only with a nefesh, and receives the ruach at their bar or bat mitzvah. It is only at age twenty that one can finally access and express their neshamah, which is why the Torah considers an adult one who has reached twenty years of age. This can be seen in the fact that the many censuses taken in the Torah only numbered those individuals over twenty, and the Midrash describes how Adam and Eve were created as twenty year olds.

Rebecca and Sarah

Knowing this, we can finally solve the problem of Rebecca and Sarah. The Arizal explains that what Rebecca received was the ruach of Sarah. Of course, Rebecca could not be exactly the same person as Sarah, with the exact same soul. (That would be quite weird, suggesting that Isaac somehow married his own mother!) No, Rebecca was her own individual, with her own special essence – a unique Mother of Israel. What she carried on was the spirit of Sarah; this is what Isaac saw, and this is what reawakened Sarah’s tent.

And when does one receive the ruach? At the age of bar or bat mitzvah! This means that Rebecca was twelve years old when Sarah passed away, and at that point received her ruach. Therefore, Rebecca was “three years old” only in the sense that it had been three years since she was spiritually reborn as Sarah’s successor. Rebecca got married as a fifteen year old.

And the marriage that ensued was the most beautiful of all those described in Scripture. (And the topic of next week’s blog post.)