Tag Archives: Prayer

Marriage and Prayer: Why They Are the Same, and How to Succeed in Both

This week’s parasha is Toldot, which begins:

And these are the genealogies [toldot] of Isaac, the son of Abraham; Abraham begot Isaac. And Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebecca… for a wife. And Isaac prayed to Hashem opposite his wife, because she was barren, and Hashem accepted his prayer, and Rebecca his wife conceived.

The Torah explicitly juxtaposes Isaac’s marriage to Rebecca with Isaac’s successful prayer. One of the Torah’s central principles of interpretation is that when two ideas or passages are placed side by side, there must be an intrinsic connection between them. What is the connection between marriage and prayer?

Another central principle of interpretation is that when a word or concept appears for the first time in the Torah, its context teaches the very epitome of that word or concept. The first time that the word “love” is used between a man and woman in the Torah is with regards to Isaac and Rebecca, and the two thus represent the perfect marital bond, as we’ve written in the past.

So, we see that Isaac and Rebecca were very successful in their love and marriage, and simultaneously very successful in their prayers. In fact, our Sages teach that when the Torah says “Isaac prayed… opposite his wife”, it means that the two prayed together in unison, and some even say they prayed while in a loving embrace, face-to-face, literally “opposite” one another. God immediately answered their prayers. What is the secret of Isaac and Rebecca’s success in love and prayer?

Understanding Prayer

It is commonly (and wrongly) believed that prayer is about asking God for things. Not surprisingly, many people give up on prayer when they feel (wrongly) that God is not answering them, and not fulfilling their heartfelt requests. In reality, prayer is something quite different.

A look through the text of Jewish prayers reveals that there is very little requesting at all. The vast majority of the text is made up of verses of praise, gratitude, and acknowledgement. We incessantly thank God for all that He does for us, and describe over and over again His greatness and kindness. It is only after a long time spent in gratitude and praise that we have the Amidah, when we silently request 19 things from God (and can add some extra personal wishes, too). Following this, we go back to praise and gratitude to conclude the prayers.

Many (rightly) ask: what is the point of this repetitive complimenting of God? Does He really need our flattery? The answer is, of course, no, an infinite God does not need any of it. So why do we do it?

One answer is that it is meant to build within us an appreciation of God; to remind us of all the good that He does for us daily, and to shift our mode of thinking into one of being positive and selfless. Through this, we build a stronger bond with God, and remain appreciative of that relationship.

The exact same is true in marriage. Many go into marriage with the mindset of what they can get out of it. They are in a state of always looking to receive from their spouse. Often, even though they do receive a great deal from their partner, they become accustomed to it, and forget all the good that comes out of being married. They stop appreciating each other so, naturally, the marriage stagnates and the couple drifts apart.

Such a mindset must be altered. The dialogue should be like that of prayer: mostly complimenting, acknowledging, and thanking, with only a little bit of request. The Torah tells us that God created marriage so that man is not alone and has a helper by his side. The Torah says helper, not caretaker. We should appreciate every little bit that our spouses do, for without them in our lives we would be totally alone and would not even have that little bit. The Talmud (Yevamot 62a) tells a famous story of Rabbi Chiya, whose wife constantly tormented him and yet, not only did he not divorce her, but he would always bring her the finest goods. His puzzled students questioned him on this, to which he responded: “It is enough that they rear our children and save us from sin.”

A Kind Word

By switching the dialogue to one of positive words and gratitude, we remain both appreciative of the relationship, and aware of how much good we do receive from our other halves. Moreover, such positive words naturally motivate the spouse to want to do more for us, while constant criticism brings about the very opposite result.

Similarly, our Sages teach that when we constantly praise God and speak positively of Him, it naturally stirs up His mercy, and this has the power to avert even the most severe decrees upon us. We specifically quote this from Jeremiah (31:17-19) in our High Holiday prayers:

I have surely heard Ephraim wailing… Ephraim is my precious child; a child of delight, for as soon as I speak of him, I surely remember him still, and My heart yearns for him. I will surely have compassion for Him—thus said Hashem.

Ephraim is one of the Biblical names for the children of Israel, especially referring to the wayward Israelite tribes of northern Israel. Despite the waywardness, Ephraim’s cries to God spark God’s compassion and love for His people.

A kind, endearing word can go very far in prayer, as in marriage. The same page of Talmud cited above continues to say that Rav Yehudah had a horrible wife, too, yet taught his son that a man “who finds a wife, finds happiness”. His son, Rabbi Isaac, questioned him about this, to which Rav Yehudah said that although Isaac’s mother “was indeed irascible, she could be easily appeased with a kindly word.”

Judging the Self

The Hebrew word for prayer l’hitpalel, literally means “to judge one’s self”. Prayer has a much deeper purpose: it is a time to meditate on one’s inner qualities, both positive and negative, and to do what’s sometimes called a cheshbon nefesh, an “accounting of the soul”. Prayer is meant to be an experience of self-discovery. A person should not just ask things of God, but question why they are asking this of God. Do you really need even more money? What would you do with it? Might it actually have negative consequences rather than positive ones? Would you spend it on another nice car, or donate it to a good cause? Why do you need good health? To have the strength for ever more sins, or so that you can fulfill more mitzvot? Do you want children for your own selfish reasons or, like Hannah, to raise tzadikim that will rectify the world and infuse it with more light and holiness?

Prayer is not simply for stating our requests, but analyzing and understanding them. Through proper prayer, we might come to the conclusion that our requests need to be modified, or sometimes annulled entirely. And when finally making a request, it is important to explain clearly why you need that particular thing, and what good will come out of it.

Central to this entire process is personal growth and self-development. In that meditative state, a person should be able to dig deep into their psyche, find their deepest flaws, and resolve to repair them. In the merit of this, God may grant the person’s request. To paraphrase our Sages (Avot 2:4), when we align our will with God’s will, then our wishes become one with His wishes, and our prayers are immediately fulfilled.

Once more, the same is true in marriage. Each partner must constantly judge their performance, and measure how good of a spouse they have been. What am I doing right and what am I doing wrong? Where can I improve? How can I make my spouse’s life easier today? Where can I be more supportive? What exactly do I need from my spouse and why? In the same way that we are meant to align our will with God’s will, we must also align our will with that of our spouse.

The Torah commands that a husband and wife must “cleave unto each other and become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). The two halves of this one soul must reunite completely. This is what Isaac and Rebecca did, so much so that they even prayed as one. In fact, Isaac and Rebecca were the first to perfectly fulfil God’s command of becoming one, and this is hinted to in the fact that the gematria of “Isaac” (יצחק) and “Rebecca” (רבקה) is 515, equal to “one flesh” (בשר אחד). More amazing still, 515 is also the value of “prayer” (תפלה). The Torah itself makes it clear that marital union and prayer are intertwined.

One of the most popular Jewish prayers is “Nishmat Kol Chai”, recited each Shabbat right before the Shema and Amidah. The prayer ends with an acrostic that has the names of Isaac and Rebecca. The names are highlighted to remind us of proper prayer, and that first loving couple which personified it.

Confession

The last major aspect of Jewish prayer is confession. Following the verses of praise and the requests comes vidui, confessing one’s sins and genuinely regretting them. It is important to be honest with ourselves and admit when we are wrong. Among other things, this further instills within us a sense of humility. The Talmud (Sotah 5a) states with regards to a person who has an ego that God declares: “I and he cannot both dwell in the world.” God’s presence cannot be found around a proud person.

In marriage, too, ego has no place. It is of utmost significance to be honest and admit when we make mistakes. It is sometimes said that the three hardest words to utter are “I love you” and “I am sorry”. No matter how hard it might be, these words need to be a regular part of a healthy marriage’s vocabulary.

And more than just saying sorry, confession means being totally open in the relationship. There should not be secrets or surprises. As we say in our prayers, God examines the inner recesses of our hearts, and a couple must likewise know each other’s deepest crevices, for this is what it means to be one. In place of surreptitiousness and cryptic language, there must be a clear channel of communication that is always wide open and free of obstructions.

To summarize, successful prayer requires first and foremost a great deal of positive, praising, grateful language, as does any marriage. Prayer also requires, like marriage, a tremendous amount of self-analysis, self-discovery, and growth. And finally, both prayer and marriage require unfailing honesty, open communication, and forgiveness. In prayer, we make God the centre of our universe. In marriage we make our spouse the centre of our universe. In both, the result is that we ultimately become the centre of their universe, and thus we become, truly, one.

The Most Important Torah Reading

Two columns of parashat Ha’azinu in a Torah scroll

This Shabbat we will be reading Ha’azinu, a unique parasha written in two poetic columns. Ha’azinu is a song; the song that God instructed Moses to teach all of Israel: “And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the children of Israel.” (Deut. 31:19) Of course, the entire Torah is a song, chanted with specific ta’amim, musical cantillations. In fact, the mitzvah for each Jew to write a Torah scroll of their own (one of the 613) is derived from the verse above, where God commands the Children of Israel to write this song for themselves. While the simple meaning is that God meant to write the song of Ha’azinu, our Sages interpreted it to refer to the entire Torah. (Since most people are unable to write an entire kosher Torah scroll by themselves, the mitzvah can be fulfilled by writing in a single letter, or by financially contributing to the production of a Torah scroll.)

Why is the song of Ha’azinu so special that God commanded Moses to ensure it will always remain in the mouths of Israel? A careful reading shows that Ha’azinu essentially incorporates all of the central themes of the Torah. We are first reminded that God is perfect, “and all His ways are just” (32:4). While it is common for people to become angry at God and wonder why He is seemingly making life so difficult for them, Ha’azinu reminds us that there is no injustice in God, and that all suffering is self-inflicted (32:5). The Talmud reminds us that hardships are issurim shel ahavah, “afflictions of love”, meant to inspire us to change, grow, repent, learn, and draw us closer to God. Isaac Newton said it well:

Trials are medicines which our gracious and wise Physician gives because we need them; and the proportions, the frequency, and weight of them, to what the case requires. Let us trust His skill and thank Him for the prescription.

History is the Greatest Proof

In the second aliyah, we are told to “remember the days of old and reflect upon the years of previous generations” (32:7). Is there any greater proof for God and the truth of the Torah than Jewish history? Despite all the hate, persecution, exile, and genocide, the Jewish people are still alive and well, prospering as much as ever.

Does it make sense that 0.2% of the world’s population wins over 20% of the world’s Nobel Prizes? (Out of 881 Nobels awarded thus far, 197 were awarded to Jews, who number just 14 million or so. Compare that to the 1.8 billion Muslims in the world—roughly 25% of the world’s population—who have a grand total of three Nobel Prizes in the sciences.) Does it make sense that a nation in exile for two millennia can return to its ancestral homeland, defeat five professional armies that invade it simultaneously (and outnumber it at least 10 to 1), and go on to establish a flourishing oasis in a barren desert in just a few short decades? Does it make sense that tiny Israel is a global military, scientific, democratic, and economic powerhouse? And yet, does it make any sense that the United Nations has passed more resolutions against Israel than all of the rest of the world combined?

There is no greater proof for God’s existence, for the truth of His Torah, and the distinctiveness of the Jewish people than history itself. It is said that King Louis XIV once asked the French polymath and Catholic theologian Blaise Pascal for proof of the supernatural, to which the latter simply replied: “the Jews”. Although Pascal—who was not a big fan of the Jews—probably meant it in a less than flattering way, he was totally correct.

The Consequences of Forgetting God

From the third aliyah onwards, Ha’azinu describes what the Jewish people have unfortunately experienced through the centuries: God gives tremendous blessings, which eventually leads to the Jews becoming “fat and rebellious”. They forget “the God who delivered” them (32:18). This is precisely when God hides His face (32:20), and just as the Jews provoked God with their foolishness and assimilation, God in turn “provokes [them] with a foolish nation”. God sends a wicked foreign nation to punish the Jews—whether Babylonians or Romans, Cossacks or Nazis—to remind the Jews who they are supposed to be: a righteous, Godly people; a light unto the nations. If the Jews will not be righteous and divine, God has no use for them.

Having said that, this does not exonerate those Cossacks and Nazis, for they, too, have been judged. They are a “foolish nation”, a “non-people”, who themselves merit destruction, and God “will avenge the blood of His servants” (32:43). The song ends with a promise: Israel will atone and fulfil its role, its enemies will be defeated, and God will restore His people to their land.

The Spiritual Power of Ha’azinu

The song of Ha’azinu beautifully summarizes the purpose and history of the Jewish people, and elegantly lays down the responsibilities, benefits, and consequences of being the nation tasked with God’s mission. Not surprisingly then, God wanted all of Israel to know Ha’azinu very well, and meditate upon this song at all times. This is why it was given in the format of a song, since songs are much easier to memorize and internalize then words alone. Music has the power to penetrate into the deepest cores of our souls.

In fact, the Zohar on this parasha writes that music is the central way to elevate spiritually, and can be used to attain Ruach HaKodesh, the prophetic Divine Spirit. Elsewhere, the Zohar goes so far as to say that Moses’ prophecy was unique in that all other prophets needed music to receive visions, while Moses alone could prophesy without the help of song!

Today, we have scientific evidence that music deeply affects the mind. It triggers the release of various neurotransmitters, and can rewire the brain. It has a profound impact on mood and wellbeing, and can be used to induce all sorts of mental and emotional states. Music is powerful.

And so, the Torah concludes with a song. After relaying Ha’azinu, the Torah says that “Moses finished speaking all of these words to Israel” (32:45). The lyrics were the last of the Torah’s instructions. Indeed, Ha’azinu is the last weekly Torah reading in the yearly cycle. (Although there is one more parasha, it is not read on its own Shabbat, but on the holiday of Simchat Torah, at which point we jump right ahead to Beresheet, the first parasha.)

So important is Ha’azinu that it is always read during the High Holiday period, usually on Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Repentance, or Return. So important is Ha’azinu that it is most often the first parasha read in the New Year. And so important is Ha’azinu that it was commonly believed the entire Torah is encoded within it. When our Sages derived the mitzvah of writing the Torah from the command of writing Ha’azinu, they literally meant that Ha’azinu encapsulates the whole Torah! The Ramban went so far as to teach that all of history, including the details of every individual, is somehow encrypted in Ha’azinu. This prompted one of the Ramban’s students, Rabbi Avner, to abandon Judaism and become an apostate. In a famous story, the Ramban later confronts Avner, and proves that Avner’s own name and fate is embedded in one of Ha’azinu’s verses.

In past generations, many people customarily memorized Ha’azinu. The Rambam (Hilkhot Tefillah 7:13) cites another custom to recite Ha’azinu every morning at the end of Shacharit, and the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 31a) states that in those days it was read every Shabbat. This Shabbat, take the time to read Ha’azinu diligently, and see why it was always considered the most important Torah reading. Perhaps you will even find your own life encoded in its enigmatic verses.

Wishing everyone a sweet and happy new year! Shana tova v’metuka! 

How to Receive God’s Blessing

This week’s parasha is Re’eh, which begins by stating:

Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing, if you will heed the commandments of Hashem your God, which I command you today; and the curse, if you will not heed the commandments of Hashem your God…

God promises that a person who fulfils His mitzvot will be blessed, and one who does not will be cursed. The phrasing is interesting: we might assume it would be clearer to say a person who fulfills God’s mitzvot would be blessed, and one who sins or transgresses the mitzvot will be cursed. Instead, the Torah connects the observance of mitzvot with receiving blessing. What, exactly, is a blessing? And what does it have to do with a mitzvah?

Heaven Down to Earth

The Hebrew word for blessing, brakhah (ברכה), shares a root with two similar words. The first is brekhah (spelled the same way), which means a “pool” or source of water. The second is berekh (ברך), which means a “knee”. What do these seemingly unrelated things have to do with blessing?

Our Sages teach that a blessing is a source of abundance, like a well from which water can be drawn continuously, hence its relation to brekhah. Each blessing in Judaism begins with the words Barukh Atah Adonai, meaning not that we are blessing God (which is impossible), but that we recognize God is the infinite source of all blessing and abundance. The name of God used here is the Tetragrammaton, denoting God’s eternity and infinity, alluded to by the fact that the Name is essentially a conjunction of the verb “to be” in past (היה), present (הווה), and future (יהיה) tenses.

The blessing continues with the words Eloheinu Melekh haOlam. Now, the name of God switches to Elohim, referring to His powers as manifest in this world. Thus, he is described as Melekh haOlam, the “king of the universe”. That same ungraspable, ineffable God permeates every inch of the universe He created, controlling and sustaining the tiniest of details. And so, when we recite a blessing, we are stating that God is the ultimate source of all things, transforming the infinite into the finite, and showering us with constant abundance.

This is where the second related root of berakhah comes in—the knee. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains that the purpose of the knee is to allow a person to bend down or descend. Thus, when one recites a blessing, they are causing God to “descend” into this world, so to speak, and bless us. When we are blessing, what we are really doing is receiving a blessing. This is alluded to by the very root letters of the word for blessing, beit (ב), reish (ר), and khaf (כ), whose corresponding numerical values are 2, 200, and 20, respectively. These doublets represents the two-way nature of a blessing.

Plugging in to the Source

Our holy texts affirm that God is constantly showering us with blessings. Yet, oftentimes it may seem like our lives are devoid of blessing. What’s going on? Imagine walking out into a torrential rain and trying to catch the water with your bare hands. No matter how much water is pouring over you, it is unlikely that you will succeed. Now imagine doing the same thing with a bucket in each hand.

The same is true for blessings. One needs the appropriate vessel to receive the abundance. In this case, the vessel is the person. To receive holy blessings, the vessel must be made holy. This is accomplished through the performance of mitzvot, which are designed to rectify and sanctify the person.

On a deeper level, the purpose of the mitzvot is to bind a Jew directly to God. In fact, it is taught that the root of mitzvah actually means “to bind”. God is the Infinite Source of all things, and if one wants to receive from the Infinite, they must only tap into It and form the right connection. Once such a connection is made, there is no end to how much blessing can be obtained.

This is why the parasha begins by telling us that a person who fulfils the mitzvot will be blessed, while a person who does not fulfil them will be “cursed”, devoid of all blessing. It is also why Jews going to receive a berakhah from a great tzaddik are often given a blessing only on the condition that they take upon themselves some kind of mitzvah. The same is true in prayer, during which it is customary to give tzedakah, tying our requests with the fulfilment of an important mitzvah.

Every mitzvah that is done opens up another channel of Heavenly Light, and each time it is repeated that channel is widened and reinforced. In fact, our Sages speak of precisely 620 channels of light shining down into this world, corresponding to the 613 mitzvot of the Torah, and the additional 7 mitzvot instituted by the rabbis (or the additional 7 Noahide laws).

As we enter the month of Elul and begin a forty day period of heightened repentance and prayer, we should be thinking about which mitzvahs we can take on, which we might improve upon, and how we can further sanctify ourselves in order to become the purest possible vessel of divinity. We mustn’t forget that the blessing is always shining down upon us; we must only be prepared to receive it.

What Do Your Dreams Mean?

Joseph's Dream, by Susan Govatos

Joseph’s Dream, by Susan Govatos

This week’s parasha is Miketz, which begins by describing Pharaoh’s strange dreams. None of Pharaoh’s wise men are able to give a satisfying interpretation, so Joseph is summoned to decipher the cryptic visions. In the previous parasha we read of Joseph’s own dreams, and his accurate analysis of the dreams of Pharaoh’s attendants. All of these people happen to be experiencing prophetic dreams.

The Talmud (Berakhot 57b) famously states that dreams are “one-sixtieth of prophecy”. The Arizal notes that dreams are one of five types of divine communication in lieu of true prophecy – which disappeared when the Second Temple was destroyed. The other four are Ruach HaKodesh, a “holy spirit”; messages from the souls of departed Tzadikim; communication with angels called Maggidim; and with Eliyahu HaNavi. Of the five types, only dreams are accessible to everyone, since the other four require a great deal of spiritual refinement to attain. Therefore, dreams are potentially of very great significance, and may hold important information.

joseph-dreamThe Talmud devotes several pages to dream analysis in the tractate Berakhot. It starts by stating that there are three things a person should always pray for: a good king, a good year, and a good dream. Nonetheless, we are then told that a bad dream is better than a good dream! Rabbi Yochanan teaches in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai that “just as wheat cannot be without straw, so too there cannot be a dream without nonsense.” It is concluded – based on Joseph’s dreams – that no dream is ever totally fulfilled, but only parts of the dream are. We also learn from Joseph that a person should wait as long as 22 years for the fulfilment of a dream, since this is the amount of time that elapsed between Joseph’s dreams and when the dreams were finally realized.

Rabbi Yochanan tells us that three types of dreams are fulfilled: an early morning dream, a dream that a friend has about you, and a dream interpreted within the dream. Others add, based on this week’s parasha, a dream that one sees multiple times. Having said that, we are then given an opinion that dreams are simply a product of one’s own thoughts.

A couple of pages later, we are told that seeing a well, river, bird, or pot is a sign of peace. If one sees a reed, it is a sign of wisdom, and several reeds is a sign of understanding. Pumpkins, palm hearts, and waxes are all good signs. We are then given five interpretations with regards to seeing oxen doing various things in a dream.

mashiach-on-donkey-by-elhanan-ben-avraham

Mashiach on his donkey, by Elhanan ben Avraham

Seeing a donkey is a sign of salvation, since Mashiach is said to come on a donkey. A cat can be a positive sign, or a sign of a bad change coming. White grapes are always a good sign, while black grapes are only a good sign when in season. Similarly, a white horse is always a good sign, while a red horse is only good if walking gently, not galloping. If one sees Ishmael in their dream, it means their prayers will be answered. The Talmud clarifies that it must be Ishmael himself, and not any other Arab. If one sees Pinchas, a miracle is coming their way. If one sees an elephant, they will experience a wonder, and if many elephants, many wonders! Others say seeing elephants or monkeys is a bad sign.

If one sees a funeral eulogy, it is a sign of mercy. If one dreams that they are reciting Shema, they are worthy of the Shekhinah to rest upon them, while one dreaming of donning tefillin will find greatness. Dreaming of praying is a good sign, too. We are then presented with a number of sexual dreams (“if one dreams they have intercourse with…”) which, surprisingly, are all really good signs! These bring wisdom, understanding, Torah knowledge, and even a share in the World to Come!

We are then given a list of agricultural symbols. Among them, pomegranates are a sign for more business, while split pomegranates mean one will be a great Torah scholar. Olives are good for business, too, while an olive tree means many children. Barley or palm trees mean “one’s iniquities will come to an end.”

Michelangelo's Jeremiah

Michelangelo’s Jeremiah

Goats are a great sign, and one who sees an etrog is honoured by God. Geese bring wisdom and a coming promotion, while a rooster will bring a son, and many roosters bring many sons. We are later told that, generally, seeing animals is a good thing (except for apes). A snake means life, and if one is bitten by a snake it is even better. All birds are good except owls and bats, all vegetables except turnips, and all colours except blue. Seeing various kings, rabbis, and books of Tanakh is usually a sign of piety and wisdom – except if it is King Ahab or the prophet Jeremiah, the apostate Rabbi Elisha ben Avuyah, or the Books of Job and Lamentations, all of which bring punishment.

The Talmud gives a number of other details and signs. Ultimately, it affirms that “all dreams follow the mouth”, meaning that all dreams are fulfilled according to how they are interpreted. Rabbi Bana’ah once went to 24 different dream-interpreters in Jerusalem, and the dream was fulfilled according to each of the 24 interpretations! Thus, the Sages suggest that a person should relate their dreams to a good person they trust, who will surely give them a positive interpretation.

And if one does not remember their dreams:

…let him stand before the priests at the time when they spread out their hands [to bless the congregation] and say as follows: “Master of the Universe, I am Yours and my dreams are Yours. I have dreamt a dream and I do not know what it is. Whether I have dreamt about myself or my companions have dreamt about me, or I have dreamt about others, if they are good dreams, confirm them and reinforce them like the dreams of Joseph, and if they require a remedy, heal them, as the waters of Marah were healed by Moses, our teacher, and as Miriam was healed of her leprosy and Hezekiah of his sickness, and the waters of Jericho by Elisha. As You did turn the curse of the wicked Balaam into a blessing, so turn all my dreams into something good for me.”

Chag sameach!

Secrets for Living a Long Life

This week’s parasha is Ekev, continuing Moses’ final speech to the nation in the last 37 days of his life. In this parasha we find the second paragraph of the Shema. This paragraph ends by stating:

And you shall place these words of Mine upon your heart and upon your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes. And you shall teach them to your children to speak with them, when you sit in your house and when you walk on the way and when you lie down and when you rise. And you shall inscribe them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates, in order that your days may increase and the days of your children…

The passage tells us to meditate upon God’s Word constantly, to never cease learning Torah, and teaching Torah. It tells us to place these wise words upon our hearts and souls, our arms and between our eyes, and onto our doorposts. It concludes by saying that doing so will lengthen the days of one’s life, and the lives of one’s children. God guarantees that persistent study and contemplation will lead to longevity.

Indeed, throughout history we see how our greatest Sages lived very long lives. Some of the earliest rabbis – Hillel, Yochanan ben Zakkai, Akiva – lived to 120 years, like several prophets before them, including Moses and Isaiah. In more recent times, the Lubavitcher Rebbe lived to 92 years, Rav Ovadia Yosef to 93, Rav Elyashiv to 102, and Rav Yitzchak Kaduri to 103 years – and some say 118!

The world-renowned Jewish neurologist Rita Levi-Montalcini said the secret to longevity is “minimal sleep, limited food intake, and always keeping the brain active and interested.” She would know: in addition to being one of the top scientists in the world, she was the first (and so far only) Nobel Prize winner to live over 100 years. Before calmly passing away from natural causes at 103, she still worked in her lab and served on the Italian senate! Her formula for longevity – little sleep, little food, and most importantly, busy brain – is probably true of every great rabbi in Jewish history.

Long before, the wise King Solomon taught the same thing in the ninth chapter of his Book of Proverbs. In this chapter, Solomon personifies Wisdom. He begins by saying that “Wisdom has built her house, hewing out her seven pillars.” He goes on to say that the First Wisdom is “awe of God” and “knowledge of holy things”. Simply collecting information in one’s brain is not enough; one must also be a righteous and Godly individual. A scorner or a proud person can never be truly wise, for such a person hates to be criticised, and will grow little. The real wise person is the one who loves those who critique and reprove him. “Teach the righteous, and he will increase in learning.” Ultimately, the pursuit of wisdom is the path to longevity, “For through me your days will be multiplied, and years of life will be added to you” (Proverbs 9:11).

Seven Pillars of Wisdom

1896 Illustration of King Solomon Drafting the First Temple

1896 Illustration of King Solomon Drafting the First Temple

King Solomon tells us that wisdom has seven pillars. He seems to identify the first of these pillars as being the study of God, holiness, and spiritual matters – in other words, Torah study. What about the other six branches of wisdom? What other studies are worth pursuing? While King Solomon does not explicitly say what they are, a later Kabbalistic text called Kol HaTor does describe them in its Sha’ar Be’er Sheva: mathematics, medicine, grammar, music, and three more that are described as “formations and syntheses”, “repair and integration”, and “how the physical interacts with the spiritual”. The last of these is clearly related to King Solomon’s First Wisdom (others say it is psychology, the study of the mind, which bridges the physical and the spiritual); the other two might be referring to general science (how things form) and perhaps mechanics or engineering.

Unfortunately, Kol HaTor is a very controversial text. It is supposed to be based on the teachings of the Vilna Gaon, but many reject this claim, especially because the book was only published in the last century. More problematic still is that the section called Sha’ar Be’er Sheva (which describes the seven wisdoms) is omitted from many manuscripts because it encourages the study of non-Torah subjects – something the ultra-Orthodox world is typically not fond of.

In any case, we see that the seven pillars of wisdom according to Kol HaTor actually resemble the classical branches of study at some of the earliest universities in Medieval times. These are often referred to as the “seven liberal arts”, and are comprised of three “humanities” and four “scientific arts”. The three humanities, consisting of logic, grammar, and rhetoric, were studied first. Once a person had a good grasp of these three, they moved on to study the more complicated scientific arts of music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. The first three were known as the trivium, and the next four as the quadrivium. Interestingly, this is actually the origin of the English term for something being trivial, meaning very basic or unimportant, since the trivium consisted of basic entry-level subjects while the quadrivium was more advanced study.

Nests and Parents

The Torah mentions longevity with respect to two more specific mitzvot. The first is to honour one’s parents (Exodus 20:11 and Deuteronomy 5:15), and the second is known as shiluach haken, “sending away the mother bird” from its nest (Deuteronomy 22:7). The latter mitzvah applies if one happens upon a bird’s nest and wants to consume its eggs (or chicks).* The person should shoo away the mother bird first so that it does not see its offspring taken away. This is a clear sign of compassion on the parent bird. In this regard, the two mitzvot which promise longevity are actually related, both having to do with compassion and respect for parents.

If the “First Wisdom” is awe and fear of God, we can understand how respecting parents ties into it. The Ten Commandments were given on Two Tablets: the first listing five commands between God and man, and the second listing five commands between man and man. Honouring one’s parents is on the first tablet, and is considered a mitzvah not between man and man (as one would naturally assume) but between man and God! After all, the Talmud tells us there are three partners in the creation of a person: mother, father, and God. Disrespecting one’s parents is therefore akin to disrespecting God.

A Scientific Look at Longevity

Several years ago, the National Geographic Society backed a project (led by Dan Buettner) to identify and study the world’s “blue zones” – regions where people live the longest. They found a number of places where people regularly live well into their nineties and hundreds, and in good health, too. After studying these populations, they came to a number of conclusions as to how to increase longevity. The first was to do lots of natural exercise, ie. not going to the gym and pumping iron, but simply being active within one’s daily routine. They confirmed the importance of not overeating (phrasing it as the “80% rule”) and to consume more natural, plant-based foods as opposed to processed or meat-based ones.

All of these echo the Rambam’s teachings hundreds of years ago (Hilkhot De’ot 4:2, 14-15):

“A person should not eat until his stomach is full, rather he should stop about a quarter before he is filled… Overeating is to the body of a person like a poison, and it is the source of all sicknesses. The majority of sicknesses come upon a person either from eating bad foods or from filling the stomach and overeating, even with good foods…

“As long as a person exercises and exerts himself a lot, takes care not to eat to the point of being completely full, and keeps his bowels soft, illness will not come upon him and his strength will increase. And whoever sits comfortably and takes no exercise, even if he eats all the best foods and follows healthcare principles in other areas of his life, all his days will be full of pain and his strength will decline.”

Amazingly, the Blue Zone project also showed how huge of an impact religion and community has on longevity. They found that “belonging to a faith-based community” and going to a religious gathering at least once a week for prayer and connection added as much as fourteen years to one’s life! (See Dan Buettner’s full talk on longevity here).

Seven Pillars of Longevity

All of the above information can be neatly summed up in seven key points for living a long life. (1) Keeping the body naturally active, and (2) keeping the brain active and engaged. The study of spiritual matters takes priority, followed by subjects like math, music, and language arts. (3) Keep junk foods and processed foods to a minimum, and avoid overeating. (4) Be a part of a faith-based community, and (5) pray and meditate regularly. (6) Make sure to honour and respect parents, and (7) maintain an attitude of calm, compassion, and kindness in place of stress, anger, and selfishness.

The Blue Zone project narrows it down even further into four key points: have the “right outlook, move naturally, eat wisely, and belong”. Their website has a fun “age calculator” that estimates what your “biological age” is, your life expectancy, and how many extra years you’ve added (or lost) based on your habits.

Ultimately, if all else fails, the Torah mentions longevity four more times. In addition to the four explored above (two for honouring parents, one for the bird’s nest, and one for meditating on God’s Word), there are four that speak in general terms, promising long life for being attached to God and following His ways. This resonates with King Solomon’s final piece of advice in Ecclesiastes:

“The end of the matter, all having been heard: revere God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man.”

(Courtesy: ImmuneTree.com)

(Courtesy: ImmuneTree.com)

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*It is important to note that, for some reason, it has become popular to believe that one needs to shoo away the mother bird of a nest even if a person does not need the eggs. Somehow, sending away the mother and taking the eggs is an “illogical mitzvah” that needs to be fulfilled. Such an interpretation is silly. The whole point is to have compassion on the mother bird. How would taking her eggs when there is no need for the eggs be compassionate? That would just be cruel! The Rambam writes that in most cases, this mitzvah is not going to be fulfilled since most birds and their eggs are not kosher – so why would anyone ever destroy a nest for no reason? See, for example, Moreh Nevuchim, III, 38:

“In most cases, this commandment will cause man to leave the whole nest untouched, because [the eggs] which he is allowed to take are, as a rule, unfit for food.”

A deeper analysis of shiluach haken can be found here.