Tag Archives: Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai

Mashiach and the Mysterious 13th Zodiac Sign

This week’s parasha is Vayechi, where Jacob blesses his children before his passing. He begins by telling his sons that he wishes to reveal to them what will happen b’acharit hayamim, “in the End of Days”. Yet, the text we read does not appear to say anything about the End of Days! The Talmud (Pesachim 56a) states that the Shekhinah withdrew from Jacob at that moment so he was unable to reveal those secrets. If that’s the case, how was he able to properly bless his children?

The Talmud states that when the Shekhinah left him, Jacob worried one of his children was unworthy to hear those secrets. His sons then recited the Shema in unison and said, “just as there is only One in your heart, so is there in our heart only One.” Jacob was comforted to know they are all indeed righteous, and it seems the Shekhinah returned to him at this point, allowing him to bless his children in holiness. Nonetheless, Jacob reasoned that to reveal the secret of the End in explicit fashion would be unwise, so he encoded these mysteries within the blessings he recited. In fact, Jacob not only encrypted what will happen in the End, but summarized the breadth of Jewish history, as we wrote last year.

One place where Jacob appears to make an explicit reference to the End is in blessing Dan, when he says, “I hope for Your salvation, Hashem” (Genesis 49:18). Jacob says Dan will be the one to judge his people—alluding to the great Judgement Day—and wage the final battles like a “snake upon the road… who bites the horse’s heel so that its rider falls backwards”. Jacob is speaking of Mashiach. Although Mashiach is a descendent of David and from the tribe of Judah, the Midrash states that this is only through his father, while through his mother’s lineage Mashiach hails from the tribe of Dan.

Why does Jacob compare Mashiach to a snake?

Snakes of Divination

Pythia at the Oracle of Delphi

In cultures around the world, there is a peculiar connection between snakes and prophecy. In ancient Greece, for example, the Oracle went into a prophetic trance when supposedly breathing in the fumes (or spirit) of the dead python upon which the Temple in Delphi was built. According to myth, this great python (a word which has a Hebrew equivalent in the Tanakh, פתן) was slain by Apollo. The Temple was built upon its carcass. For this reason, the Greek prophetess was known as Pythia.

Similarly, the Romans had their sacred hill on the Vatican (later adopted as the centre of Christianity). The second-century Latin author Aulus Gellius explained that the root of the word Vatican is vates, Latin for “prophet”. Others elaborate that vatican refers more specifically to a “divining serpent”. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world the Aztecs had Quetzalcoatl and the Mayans had Kukulkan, the “feathered serpent” god of wisdom and learning. And such mystical dragons appear just about everywhere else, from Scandinavia to China.

Incredibly, the Torah makes the same connection, where Joseph is described as a diviner who uses a special goblet to nachesh inachesh (Genesis 44:5). This term for divination is identical to nachash, “snake”. In Modern Hebrew, too, the term for guessing or predicting is lenachesh.

Why is the snake associated with otherworldly wisdom and prophecy?

Primordial Serpent

Back in the Garden of Eden, it was the Nachash that encouraged Eve to consume of the Forbidden Fruit. This was the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. The Serpent is the one who unlocked the minds of Adam and Eve to higher wisdom so that they could “be like God”. Jewish tradition maintains that Adam and Eve were eventually supposed to eat of the Tree of Knowledge (for otherwise why would God put it there to begin with?) but they simply rushed to do so when they were not yet ready. They transgressed God’s command, and knew not what to do with all of this tremendous information, resulting in the shameful descent of man into sin. The one who instigated it all was the Nachash.

It appears that ever since then, the snake has been a symbol of forbidden wisdom. Such divination and mysticism can be quite dangerous, and most are unable to either grasp or properly use this knowledge. The Talmud cautions as such in its famous story of the four sages who entered “Pardes” (Chagigah 14b). Pardes is an acronym for the depths of Jewish wisdom, from the simple (peshat) and sub-textual (remez) to the metaphorical (drash) and esoteric (sod). The result of entering the mystical dimensions was that Ben Azzai died, Ben Zoma detached from this world, and Elisha ben Avuya became a heretic. Only Rabbi Akiva was able to “enter in peace and depart in peace.” It is important to remember that Rabbi Akiva was the teacher of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the originator of the Zohar. (Still, the Zohar, like most mystical texts, does not speak explicitly of esoteric matters, but cloaks them in layers of garments and complex language which only the most astute can ever unravel.)

Long before, Joseph was a master of this wisdom, surprising even the Pharaoh and his best mystics, who proclaimed: “Can there be such a man in whom the spirit of God rests?” (Genesis 41:38). Joseph, of course, is a prototype of Mashiach. The sages state that Mashiach is a great prophet and sage in his own right, but can he really surpass the unparalleled prophecy of Moses or the wisdom of Solomon? The Alter Rebbe (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, 1745-1812) solved the issue thus:

After the resurrection all will rise… the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, Moses and Aaron, all the righteous ones and the prophets, tens of thousands beyond number. Is it possible that Mashiach will teach them the same Torah that is revealed to us today? …Will all who knew the whole Torah be required to learn new laws from Mashiach? We must therefore say that Mashiach will instruct them in the “good of discernment and knowledge of the secrets of the esoteric teachings of Torah” that the “eyes will not have seen”—Moses and the Patriarchs not having been privileged to that knowledge, for only to Mashiach will it be revealed as it is written of him [Isaiah 52:13] “and he shall be very high.” (Likkutei Torah, Tzav)

Mashiach is the greatest of mystics, the holder of forbidden knowledge which will soon no longer be forbidden. The time will come when, as God originally intended, man will eat from the Tree of Knowledge and be “like God”. That first requires a return of mankind to the Garden of Eden, which is the very task of Mashiach. Beautifully, the gematria of Mashiach (משיח)—the one who brings us back into Eden—is 358, the same as Nachash (נחש)—the one who forced us out to begin with. And so, as Jacob envisions, the snake symbolizes Mashiach himself.

While Mashiach is likened to a serpent, he must also defeat the Primordial Serpent which embodies all evil. Indeed, the Sages speak of two serpents (based on Isaiah 27:1): the “straight” serpent (nachash bariach) and the “twisted” serpent (nachash ‘akalaton). Mashiach is the straight serpent that devours the twisted one. This was all alluded to in Moses’ staff-turned-serpent consuming the Pharaoh’s staff-turned-serpent. In fact, another serpent staff, the nachash nechoshet, is later used by Moses to heal the nation. This healing staff found its way into Greek myth as well, where it was wielded by the healer god Asclepius, and eventually into the modern internationally-recognized medical symbol.

And that brings us back to the End of Days.

The 13th Zodiac

In recent years, there have been whispers of a necessity to change the current 12-sign horoscope to include a 13th zodiac sign. This was featured in the media on a number of occasions, with flashy headlines suggesting that some people’s astrological sign may now have changed. This is based on the fact that there is a “precession of the equinoxes”: the earth’s axis changes very slowly over time, meaning that the constellations which are visible in the night sky change, too.

The astrological signs are based on the 12 major constellations (out of 88 constellations total) that align with the sun and “rule” for about a month’s time every year (each making up 30º of the total 360º). The argument is that due to the precession of the equinoxes, a 13th sign has crept in which we can no longer ignore. The majority of astrologers have rejected this argument, mainly because astrology isn’t really based on the stars but fixed to the vernal equinox. While some in the East (namely Hindus) use “sidereal astrology”, which is based on shifting star positions, the system used in the West (“tropical astrology”) has 12 signs roughly corresponding to the 12 months.*

Either way, whether the horoscope requires modification or not is irrelevant to Judaism, which denies any astrological effect on Israel (a topic we’ve explored in the past). Besides, unlike astrologers, astronomers both ancient and modern have always been aware of this thirteenth constellation. To the ancient Babylonians it was the snake-like Nirah, while to the ancient Greeks it was known as Ophiuchus, the “serpent-bearer”. This constellation is in the shape of a man firmly grasping a twisted snake (the interlinked constellation Serpens). This is, of course, the very symbol of Mashiach, that serpentine saviour who defeats the primordial snake and all of its evil. After being an astrological footnote for a very long time, Ophiuchus has entered the spotlight, as if the cosmos itself is reminding us of Mashiach’s impending arrival.

Ophiuchus (or Serpentarius) grasping Serpens, with Libra and Scorpio on the bottom right, and the bow-wielding Sagittarius on the bottom left.

* The same is true in traditional Jewish thought, where each sign corresponds to a month on the Hebrew calendar, as well as to one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Having said that, including a 13th month for the Jewish system is not a problem at all. In fact, it is actually a solution, since the Jewish calendar has a 13th month in a leap year! Similarly, although we always speak of twelve tribes of Israel, there are really thirteen since, as we read in this week’s parasha, Jacob made Joseph count as two separate tribes: Ephraim and Menashe.

Does the Torah Punish a Rapist?

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

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

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

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

Spiritual Unification

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

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

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

God Seduces Israel

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

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

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

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

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


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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!

When is Mashiach Coming?

This week’s Torah portion is Metzora, loosely translated as “leper”. It begins by detailing the procedures for the purification of one who has been afflicted by leprosy. The Sages famously state (Arachin 15b) that the term metzora comes from “motzi shem ra”, slandering one’s fellow. Thus, a person would be afflicted with skin ailments if they were guilty of slander and evil speech. Since the slanderer is making their fellow look bad in the eyes of the public, they are appropriately punished by becoming visibly unsightly.

The connection between a metzora and a slanderer is seen in the case of Miriam, the sister of Moses. In chapter 12 of Numbers, we read how Miriam confronted Moses about his personal affairs in the presence of others. As a result of this public embarrassment, she was afflicted with leprosy, and became “white as snow” (v. 10).

Strangely, there is one more important figure that is said to be afflicted with leprosy, and for this person, the reasons appear inexplicable. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a) recounts the following:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi met Elijah [the Prophet] by the entrance of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s tomb… and asked him:
“When will the Messiah come?”
[Elijah responded:] “Go and ask him yourself.”
“Where is he?”
“At the entrance [of Rome].”
“And how will I recognize him?”
“He is sitting among the poor lepers, who are untying [their bandages] all at once, and retying them all at once, whereas he unties and reties each bandage separately, thinking, Should I be wanted, I must not be delayed.”

This fascinating passage suggests that Mashiach is sitting at the gates of Rome (according to the Vilna Gaon’s commentary) among all the lepers expelled from the city. Unlike all the other lepers, Mashiach treats one bandage at a time, just in case he might be called to his mantle at any moment, and must always be ready. Indeed, the following page of the Talmud asks what Mashiach’s name might be, and after citing several possibilities, the rabbis conclude that he is known as the “Leper Scholar” (or “the Leper of Rebbi’s School”).

Why would Mashiach be a leper?

The Leper Scholar

The Lubavitcher Rebbe offers one interesting answer to the puzzle. He teaches (Likutei Sichot, Vol. 7, pg. 100) that Mashiach is essentially a perfect person on the inside; however, no human being is completely perfect – such a distinction is reserved only for God – and so, his minor spiritual imperfections appear only on his most outer garments – the skin. The Rebbe goes on to say that the leprosy appearing on his skin is actually a sign of Mashiach’s tremendous spiritual powers. Rabbi Eli Touger describes the Rebbe’s teaching like this: “…there are sublime spiritual influences which, because of the lack of appropriate vessels… can produce negative effects. For when powerful energy is released without being harnessed, it can cause injury. This is the reason for the [leprosy] with which Mashiach is afflicted.”

The Midrash writes that Mashiach’s most powerful weapon is his tongue, and he slays evil with his speech. In one passage (Pesikta Rabbati 37), Mashiach is said to be confronted with 140 wicked kingdoms, and God comforts him: “… do not be afraid, for all of them will perish by the breath of your lips.” This is based on the verse in Isaiah 11, where the Messiah is similarly described as destroying the wicked with his speech. The power of speech is perhaps the greatest of all – it is through speech that God created this entire universe (“And God said ‘Let there be light’…”) – one who knows the true powers of speech can create and destroy worlds!

The power of speech is precisely what the metzora abuses in slandering a fellow, and is thoroughly punished for it with leprosy. Meanwhile, Mashiach uses the same power to root out all evil. Yet, his power is so great that containing it in his feeble body inevitably manifests as a leprosy on his skin.

With this definition in mind, we may see the word metzora in a new light. The Sages say that metzora means motzi ra, literally one who brings out evil. While this can be taken to mean one who brings out evil words about others, it can also be read as one who removes evil from the world, which is Mashiach’s ultimate purpose.

When Will Mashiach Come?

The same pages of Talmud quoted above (Sanhedrin 98a-b) record that the students of Rabbi Yose ben Kisma asked him: “‘When will the Messiah come?’… So he answered them: ‘When this gate falls down, is rebuilt, falls again, and is again rebuilt, and then falls a third time, before it can be rebuilt the son of David will come.’” Rashi comments here that the “gate” which Rabbi Yose is referring to is none other than Rome (just as the Vilna Gaon commented above that Mashiach is sitting at the gates of Rome).

Rabbi Yose is saying that Rome will fall, and will be rebuilt two more times. When the Third Rome falls, one is assured that Mashiach’s arrival is imminent. Amazingly, historians often speak of “Three Romes”. The first Rome was the original Latin Rome. It collapsed in the 5th century CE, and was replaced by the Greek-speaking Constantinople (today’s Istanbul), the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, later referred to as the Byzantine Empire. When Constantinople fell, the new, “Third Rome” was said to be Moscow. Moscow reached the peak of its global power with the Soviet Union, and collapsed just as dramatically less than 30 years ago.

Three Romes: Ancient Rome, Constantinople, and Moscow

Three Romes: Ancient Rome, Constantinople, and Moscow

Interestingly, Jewish literature commonly referred to Rome as Edom, literally the “red” empire. The Soviet Union, too, was known for its association with that colour; the Communists were commonly referred to as “the Reds”, the Soviet Army as the “Red Army”, with the focal point of their empire being Red Square in Moscow.

It is commonly taught that God created civilization as we know it to last 6000 years, followed by a seventh millennium of a peaceful, cosmic “Sabbath”, mimicking the seven days of Creation (see, for example, Sanhedrin 97a). Throughout the ages, various rabbis attempted to calculate the coming of Mashiach based on this principle. If the Final Era of mankind is the 7th millennium – the Sabbath – then the Messianic Era is the preparatory period that immediately precedes the Sabbath. How long should this period be? Well, how long do we spend preparing for Shabbat?

In Jewish law, one should stop working and start preparing for Shabbat six hours before its onset. If each millennium of human history corresponds to one day, then six hours corresponds to 250 years, which means that the official starting point of the Messianic Era was the year 5750 (since this is 250 years before the start of the 7th millennium). Indeed, 5750 is commonly cited as the beginning of the Ikveta d’Mshicha, the “Footsteps of Mashiach”.

Incredibly, Rosh Hashanah of 5750 was celebrated in September of 1989. The Berlin Wall – and the Soviet Union along with it – came crashing down less than two months after, that same November. The Third Rome had fallen right in line with the prophesized starting point of the “Footsteps of Mashiach”, just as the Talmud records in two brief pages of the tractate Sanhedrin (97a, 98b).

Needless to say, it appears that Mashiach’s arrival may very well be imminent.

The Hidden History of Lag B’Omer

This week’s Torah reading is Emor, which begins with a continuation of various priestly and Temple-related laws. The parasha then lists all of the Biblical holidays, starting with the weekly Sabbath, then Passover, Shavuot, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret. The holidays of Chanukah and Purim are Rabbinically-instituted, having occurred long after the events of the Torah were complete (although it is important to note that the Torah does hint to those future events, too).

It is here in this week’s parasha that we are also commanded to count the 50 days between Passover and Shavuot, the period known as Sefirat HaOmer (the meaning of which we have explored in the past; see ‘The Spiritual Significance of Sefirat HaOmer’ in Garments of Light). There are a number of important dates that fall during the Sefirat HaOmer period. Perhaps the most well-known of these is Lag B’Omer, which literally means “the 33rd day of the Omer” (Lag, ל”ג is the Hebrew designation for the number 33), celebrated this past Wednesday evening and Thursday. This festive holiday is marked with lighting bonfires, playing with bows and arrows, and taking a break from the usual mourning customs of the Omer period.Bonfire

The basic story of Lag B’Omer is that during the first 32 days of the Omer Period nearly two thousand years ago, a plague decimated Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students. All of his students died, hence the mourning customs still observed today to commemorate that tragic event. The plague ended on the 33rd day of the Omer, which is why the mourning rituals are now lifted.

The big question is: why were Rabbi Akiva’s students punished with a plague? What had they done to deserve this? The Talmud (Yevamot 62b) says that apparently these 24,000 students failed to love and respect one another. However, this immediately begs a whole bunch of other questions.

First of all, it was Rabbi Akiva who taught that the greatest principle of Torah is to love your fellow (TY Nedarim 9:4). Could it really be that Rabbi Akiva’s own students failed to uphold their master’s central teaching? And if it really was the case that these students didn’t love or respect each other, then they really weren’t very righteous people, so why are we so fervently mourning their deaths? Throughout history, there have been much greater numbers of much greater people who have perished, yet we do not mourn for such a lengthy period of time for any of them!

What’s Really Going On?

The Talmud (TY Ta’anit 24b) tells us that Rabbi Akiva was a central supporter of Shimon Bar Kochva during the Bar Kochva Revolt (132-136 CE), also known as the Third Roman-Jewish War. Bar Kochva was initially very successful against the Romans, and it seemed like the Jews would be able to throw off the yoke of the Roman authorities, and rebuild the Temple (after it was destroyed by the Romans around 70 CE). Not surprisingly, Rabbi Akiva went so far as to declare Bar Kochva as the Messiah! After all, the major role of Mashiach is to secure Israel’s borders, end the exile, and rebuild the Temple – which Bar Kochva seemed to be doing. Rabbi Pinchas Stolper has written that Bar Kochva’s army may have reconquered Jerusalem on Lag B’Omer itself (hence the holiday), and began the reconstruction of the Temple on that day. In fact, the Third Temple was nearing completion when Rabbi Akiva announced the messiahship of Bar Kochva.

Unfortunately, Bar Kochva’s power got to his head, and it seems that he became a violent dictator, even killing his own uncle, Rabbi Eleazar haModa’i. Soon, his armies fell to the Romans, who brutally quashed the rebellion. The Romans went on a killing spree, massacring countless people in Judea. One of their victims was Rabbi Akiva himself, who was tortured to death with iron combs (Berachot 61b).

It isn’t hard to imagine that Rabbi Akiva’s students were killed in a similar fashion, during this tragic time period. The “plague” that took their lives was the Romans, and the war ended on Lag B’Omer. Indeed, one explanation for why we light bonfires on Lag B’Omer is to commemorate the Bar Kochva war, when the Jewish guerilla warriors would light signal fires to each other. It may also explain why there is a custom to this day to play with bows and arrows – implements of war.

So why would Jewish texts say that Rabbi Akiva’s students died in a plague? It wasn’t uncommon in those days for the secular authorities to censor various texts. Perhaps the Romans, in a propaganda effort, forbid the Jews from publicly speaking about the real reasons for the deaths of the 24,000. Others suggest that it was the Sassanians, under whose domain the Talmud was completed, that censored the text to discourage Jews from rebelling against Sassanian authority (as they had rebelled against Rome so many times and so devastatingly). The Rabbis therefore had to encode the real history of Lag B’Omer through indirect means, like bonfires and bows and arrows. Maybe this is why they said that Rabbi Akiva’s students died out of failure to respect one another. They knew that such a statement would immediately set off alarm bells, for this is probably the last thing Rabbi Akiva’s students would fail in.

Many scholars of the past, both religious and secular, have explored this possibility in depth, including Rav Sherira Gaon, Nachman Krochmal, Eliezer Levi, and Rabbi Isaac Nissenbaum, as well as Rabbi David Bar-Hayim and others in modern times.

Rashbi and Kabbalah

Ultimately, the story ends with a small number of Rabbi Akiva’s students – some say five, others a little more – surviving “the plague”, and going on to re-establish Judaism, saving it from extinction. One of those students was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (also known as Rashbi). The Talmud (Shabbat 33b) is explicit in telling us that he hid from the Romans in a cave for 13 years, together with his son, surviving off of a carob tree. This is yet another piece of evidence suggesting Rabbi Akiva’s students were killed by the Romans, and not in a plague.

It was Rabbi Shimon who was first to publicly reveal the mystical teachings of Kabbalah. It is said that he did this to his own students on the day of his death – which was the 18th of the month of Iyar, and the 33rd day of the Omer. The central book of Kabbalah, The Zohar, which was first published sometime in the 13th century, is believed to have originated with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and is directly based on those teachings that he revealed. According to tradition, those Kabbalistic teachings were so holy and powerful that when Rabbi Shimon expounded on them on that day of his death, the very house in which he and his students were in appeared to be engulfed in flames. This is cited as another reason for lighting bonfires on Lag B’Omer.

Rabbi Shimon told his students not to mourn his death, for it was a happy occasion: the deepest of spiritual and mystical secrets were now revealed, and would help to preserve the Jewish religion and nation for centuries to come.