Tag Archives: Rambam

The Incredible Midrash of the Death of Moses

‘The Death of Moses’ (Illustration from the Providence Lithograph Company)

On the holiday of Simchat Torah, we conclude the yearly cycle of Torah readings with the final portion, V’Zot HaBerakhah. This short parasha relays Moses’ final blessing to the people before ascending Mt. Nebo and returning to his Maker:

Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died. His eye had not dimmed, nor had he lost his vigour… And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses, whom Hashem knew face to face…

The Torah tells us that Moses was incomparable, and there was never a prophet like him. Indeed, in his 13 Principles of Faith, the Rambam has one principle (#6) stating that God communicates with man through prophecy, and a separate belief (#7) that Moses’ prophecy is the greatest of all. The Sages stated that while all the other prophets saw visions only through a blurry (or dim) lens, Moses saw visions through a perfectly clear lens. While all the other prophets only received visions while dreaming or entranced, Moses alone could communicate with God fully conscious and awake.

‘Moses Coming Down From Mt. Sinai’ by Gustav Doré, with rays of light shining forth from Moses’ face.

The Midrash (Devarim Rabbah 11:3) presents an intriguing passage where various Heavenly figures argue with Moses on who is the greatest. Adam comes first and says: “I am greater than you because I was created in the image of God.” Moses replied that although Adam was initially very great, his honour was taken away from him, whereas the Torah says that Moses had not “lost his vigour”. The Sages teach that Adam initially glowed with a pure light. This light was lost after the consumption of the Forbidden Fruit, leaving behind only frail skin. Moses reversed this: upon his return from the summit of Sinai, his skin glowed so brightly that he had to wear a mask (Exodus 34:35).

After Adam, came Noah and said: “I am greater than you because I was delivered from the generation of the Flood.” Moses replied: “I am far superior to you. You saved only yourself, but had no strength to deliver your generation, while I saved both myself and my generation when they were condemned to destruction at the time of the Golden Calf.”

Abraham arose next, and said: “I am greater than you because I used to give hospitality to all wayfarers.” Moses replied that while Abraham “fed uncircumcised men, I fed circumcised ones” and while Abraham “gave hospitality in an inhabited land, I fed them in the wilderness.”

Isaac argued he was greater than Moses because he was willing to die upon the altar, and witnessed the Divine Presence at that moment. Moses countered that he regularly spoke “face to face” with the Divine Presence, and his eyes had not dimmed from this, while Isaac had ultimately gone blind.

Finally, Jacob said: “I am greater than you because I wrestled with the angel and prevailed.” Moses replied: “You wrestled with the angel in your own territory [on Earth], but I went up to their territory, and they feared me.” The passage concludes by saying that this is what King Solomon hinted to when he wrote v’at alit al kulana, “…and you have excelled them all.” (Proverbs 31:29)

The Ascent of Moses

The Midrash continues to describe the moment of Moses’ passing. When the time came, God instructed the angel Gabriel to bring up Moses’ soul. Gabriel told God: “Master of the Universe! How can I witness the death of him who is equal to 600,000? How can I behave harshly to one who possesses such qualities?” So God told the angel Michael to bring Moses. Michael replied: “Master of the Universe! I was his teacher, and he my pupil, so I cannot witness his death.” God then had to summon the wicked Samael to bring up Moses’ soul. Samael took his sword and went gladly, for he had been waiting a very long time for that moment. However, when he approached Moses and saw the pure light shining from his face, he trembled and said: “Surely no angel can take away Moses’ soul!”

Samael tried to take Moses anyway, telling him that he should come willingly, for all mortals must die. Moses argued that he is unlike any other mortal, and proceeded to give a resume of his achievements. Convinced, Samael went back to Heaven. God insisted that Samael go back to bring Moses, and not take no for an answer. Samael returned sword in hand, and Moses drew his staff for battle. The Midrash says that Moses readily defeated Samael, blinded him, and “removed his beam of glory”.

At this point, a voice called forth from Heaven and said: “The time of your death has come.” Still, Moses would not relent, so God had to do the job Himself. As soon as He extracted Moses’ soul, the soul itself protested:

Master of the Universe! I know that You are the God of all spirits and all souls, the souls of the dead and the living are in Your keeping, and You have created and formed me and placed me within the body of Moses for a hundred and twenty years. And now, is there a body in the world purer than the body of Moses…? Therefore I love him and I do not desire to leave him.

The Soul continued to tarry until finally “God kissed Moses and took away his soul” with a Divine Kiss. It was then that the Divine Presence proclaimed: “And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses…”

When reading such Midrashic passages, it is important to remember the old adage that those who deny the validity of the Midrash are heretics, yet those who take the Midrash literally are fools. Although this Midrash probably shouldn’t be taken literally, it certainly captures the incomparable greatness of Moses.

Chag Sameach! 

‘Moses on Mount Sinai’ by Jean-Léon Gérôme (c.1900)

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! 

Why Physical Labour is a Spiritual Necessity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is the Lubavitcher Rebbe Mashiach?

Today is the third of Tammuz, the yahrzeit of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, better known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe. There is no doubt that the Rebbe was among the greatest sages of the last century (if not of all time). From the moment he took up the leadership of Chabad, the Rebbe began to make waves in the Jewish world, and quickly transformed Lubavitch into an international powerhouse. Today, Chabad finds itself in 81 countries, operating 3500 institutions.

The Rebbe himself inspired countless souls, both Jewish and non-Jewish. One of the latter was Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (the first black woman in Congress). When Chisholm was first elected to the House of Representatives, she met fierce opposition and outright racism. Shortly after, she received a call from the Rebbe, who quelled her concerns and offered her advice on how to make the most of her situation. Chisholm went on to create programs that benefited millions of poor people, including the expansion of food stamps across the US. At her retirement breakfast, she said: “If poor babies have milk and poor children have food, it’s because this rabbi in Crown Heights had vision.”

With such vision, along with tremendous wisdom, righteousness, and charisma, it isn’t very surprising that a messianic movement would develop around the Rebbe. Despite the fact that he passed away in 1994, many within the Chabad movement continue to believe that he is Mashiach. Is there substance to this belief?

Mashiach Resurrected

One of the major arguments used by the so-called Mashichistim is a verse in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98b) that states Mashiach can come from “among the living” or from “among the dead”. The Talmud states that if Mashiach is of the living, it would certainly be Rabbi Yehuda haNasi (who was also called, simply, Rebbi), the great compiler of the Mishnah; if of the dead, it would be the Biblical Daniel. Within Chabad, this passage is used to support the fact that despite the Rebbe’s passing, he may still return to be the messiah.

However, other texts state that Mashiach cannot be from the dead. For example, Midrash Rabbah (on Genesis 49:18) writes how Jacob saw a vision of Samson—who had the potential to be Mashiach—but when Jacob saw Samson’s death, he was saddened that Samson wouldn’t be the messiah and said, “I await Your salvation, Hashem!”

Some believe the Rebbe is not really dead (besides, if Mashiach is from “among the dead”, the Talmud already told us it would be Daniel!) but he is only “concealed”. Multiple Jewish sources state that Mashiach will come, then disappear for a certain amount of time, and then return again. For example, Midrash Rabbah (on Numbers 11:3), writes:

Just like the first redeemer, Moses, revealed himself to the Jews and then concealed himself… similarly, the final redeemer will reveal himself, then conceal himself… and then return and reveal himself again.

Thus, the Rebbe is said to only be “hidden”, and will imminently return. Of course, this isn’t very different from the Christian belief in Jesus’ “second coming”. Christians have been waiting eagerly for two millennia—much like Chabad has been waiting eagerly for two decades.

In reality, when ancient Jewish sources speak of Mashiach’s concealment and return, they do not mean that Mashiach will disappear for millennia, or even decades. The Midrash cited above itself says that Moses was hidden from the Israelites for three months, and Mashiach would be hidden for only 45 days. Though there are other opinions, the lengthiest is three years (based on Isaac disappearing from the Torah narrative for three years following the Akedah). And so, the potential for the Rebbe being Mashiach appears to have long expired.

The Rebbe on Being Mashiach

One of the things that the Rebbe was adamant about was studying and following the teachings of the Rambam. The Rambam makes it clear who Mashiach is: a Jewish leader who, among other things, successfully reunites the entire nation in Israel (ending the exile), defeats the nation’s enemies, and rebuilds the Temple in Jerusalem. Only one who has successfully accomplished these tasks can be titled “Mashiach”. The Rambam writes that if a person was on his way to fulfilling these, but died in the process, he is clearly not the messiah. The Rambam brings Shimon bar Kochva as an example. Although Bar Kochva was able to push the Romans out of Israel, reclaim the Temple Mount and start rebuilding the Temple, and was even proclaimed the messiah by Rabbi Akiva, he died and his messianic potential died with him.

In one of his talks, the Rebbe himself stated that one is only confirmed to be Mashiach when the Third Temple is built. Obviously, since the Rebbe did not build the Third Temple in his lifetime, he cannot be the messiah. If it turns out that the Rebbe does return somehow in the future, and accomplishes all the messianic tasks, then and only then can he be titled “Mashiach”. To do so now is premature and naïve, if not altogether wrong.

In fact, the Rebbe constantly made clear that he is not Mashiach. In his monumental biography of the Rebbe, Joseph Telushkin devotes a chapter to this question, and writes:

In 1965, Rabbi Avraham Parizh, an elder Chasid who had been with the movement from the time of the Fifth Rebbe, printed letters stating: “With great joy, we can inform you that King Messiah, for whom we have waited so many years, is already among us. He is the holy Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the King Messiah. His address is 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York. He does not need us to choose him since God has chosen him.” Rabbi Parizh printed up many of these letters and started handing them out in Israel. According to one account, Parizh also distributed these letters by dropping them out of a helicopter.

When the Rebbe learned of the letter, he instructed his secretariat to immediately dispatch a telegram to Parizh, dated June 24, 1965: “We were shocked by the letter [you wrote and handed out] and ask that you immediately cease distributing it. Gather and send to the secretariat all copies of the letter, every last one, and please confirm immediately that you have fulfilled this instruction.” Chasidim tell how Parizh spent several weeks scrounging around the streets of Tel Aviv looking for every such sheet he could find…

In 1991, Rabbi Aharon Dov Halprin, the editor of Chabad’s Israeli magazine, Kfar Chabad, wanted to print an article explaining why the Rebbe was worthy of being considered the presumed Messiah. When the Rebbe learned of this he responded sharply, “If you, God forbid, [plan to write] anything even remotely similar, it is preferable that you shut down the periodical completely.”

In an urgent audience to which the Rebbe summoned Chabad activist Rabbi Tuvia Peles, the Rebbe rebuked those who were making Messianic claims about him, saying, “They are taking a knife to my heart” and “they are tearing off parts of me.”

… Some months later, and shortly before the Rebbe’s stroke, the Alaska-based shliach, Rabbi Yosef Greenberg (author of Y’mei Bereishit), brought a letter to be given to the Rebbe in which he referred to him as “King Messiah”. Later that same day, Rabbi Groner told Greenberg that the Rebbe had looked at the letter, thrown it down in frustration, and then wrote on it, “Tell him that when the Moshiach comes, I will give him the letter.”

An even more definitive statement of the Rebbe on this same issue occurred at around the same time. An Israeli journalist, Sarah Davidowitz of the Kol Ha’ir newspaper, approached the Rebbe and said, “We appreciate you very much, we want to see you in Israel; you said soon you will be in Israel, so when will you come?” The Rebbe responded: “That depends on the Moshiach, not on me.” The journalist persisted, “You are the Moshiach!,” to which the Rebbe responded: “I am not”.

In light of this, to call the Rebbe “Mashiach” is highly inappropriate, and against his own wishes. More dangerously, it risks turning Chabad into a religion of its own. After all, Christianity developed in the very same way; in its first decades, it was nearly indistinguishable from Judaism, and was followed almost entirely by Jews. It took a couple of centuries before the divide between Judaism and Christianity was complete, and by that point, Jesus had become a God-like figure.

The same may very well happen with the Rebbe and Chabad in coming decades. Already, there are elements within Chabad who have taken to equating the Rebbe with some kind of god on Earth. Many in Chabad still write letters to the Rebbe, adorn their homes with countless images and elaborate paintings of him, and read out the Rebbe’s letters at important public events (while everyone is asked to rise in honour of the Rebbe’s “presence”, of course). It isn’t uncommon to see children saluting the Rebbe’s empty chair at 770, while worshippers ecstatically chant “long live our master, teacher, and rabbi, the king Mashiach” (see video here). If Chabad’s leaders do not rein in such activity soon, there is little doubt Lubavitch will morph into a religion of its own. And for the Rebbe—who worked so tirelessly to unite all Jews—that would be a most devastating legacy.

The Mystical Power of Beards

Last week, we discussed the prohibition of shaving with a razor. We mentioned briefly that while there is little substance to the prohibition itself, there are Kabbalistic reasons for maintaining a beard, some of which we will explore this week. The Zohar’s Idra Zuta (289a-b) writes:

All things precious come from the beard of Atika Kadisha. It is called the “Mazal of Everything”. From the Mazal beard—which is the most precious of all precious things—both upper and lower beings are sustained; they all look up to that Mazal. All life derives from, and is nourished by, Mazal. Heaven and Earth are dependent on Mazal… There are thirteen streams of very good oil flowing from the beard of Mazal, the most precious of all… Through this, Mazal’s tangled supernal knots are untied from the Head of all heads, which is unknown and inconceivable, not known to either upper or lower beings. In this way, all things derive from Mazal.

Daniel’s Vision of Atik Yomin, the Ancient of Days

This enigmatic passage speaks of the beard of Atika Kadisha, which literally means “The Ancient Holy One” in Aramaic. The term derives from the seventh chapter of Daniel, where he beholds a Heavenly vision and describes a great being who is “Ancient of Days” (Atik Yomin), with “his raiment as white snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne of fiery flames, and its wheels of burning fire.”

Daniel is describing the mystical Merkavah, “God’s Chariot”. While the anthropomorphic description of God is troubling for modern readers, we find such anthropomorphisms throughout Jewish literature. The Talmud speaks of God “wearing tefillin”, while the Midrash describes God teaching Torah in Heaven, and even citing the rabbis!

The ancient mystical text Shiur Komah is most explicit, speaking of various “divine measurements” of God, and saying that God “resembles an old, handsome man”. While the text claims to have been revealed by the angel Metatron to Rabbi Ishmael (and later taught to Rabbi Akiva), the Rambam, among others, declared it heretical. Nonetheless, other great rabbis defended it.

The Zohar, too, often speaks of God in anthropomorphic terms. Of course, as in the passage above, it adds that these representations are “unknown and inconceivable”, both to humans and angels. They appear to be only metaphoric descriptions.

Whatever the case, we are told that God’s Beard, called Mazal, is the source of all life and sustenance in Creation. Mazal literally means “flow” (the Hebrew word for liquid is nozel) and all fortune and goodness “flows” down from God’s Beard. The Beard has thirteen knots, and the untangling of these knots allows sustenance to flow smoothly.

As such, the beard becomes a symbol of tremendous importance in Kabbalistic thinking. Since our very purpose is to emulate God and be like Him—as the Torah repeatedly commands—keeping a long, flowing beard is therefore of great significance. It can help bring one mazal, good fortune, as well as open the paths to wisdom:

The Idra Zuta goes on to explain that the beard grows because of the great forces of wisdom emanating from “God’s Brain”. As this light travels down from the brain into the spinal cord, the narrow passage of the neck is unable to contain the illumination, causing the energy to exude outwards and manifest as a beard. This is why the beard grows continuously.

Keep in mind that the Hebrew term for “beard”, zakan, is related to the word for “elder”, zaken, because an elder is one who has wisdom. The Sages explain that “zaken” is a contraction of ze kanah chokhmah, “this one has acquired wisdom”. Similarly, the beard, “zakan”, represents wisdom.

The 13 Points

The Zohar states that the Mazal beard has thirteen knots, or locks. The Kabbalists would tie this concept with that of the five “corners” of the beard that are forbidden to be shaved. Whereas the Talmud speaks of five corners, later mystical texts speak of thirteen corners! These thirteen are tied to God’s famous “Thirteen Attributes of Mercy”, which describe His everlasting kindness. The beard thus also becomes a symbol of Chessed, the sefirah of kindness.

Conversely, the Arizal explains that hair on top of the head represents Din (or Gevurah), strict judgement. This is why Rabbi Akiva would shave his head and go bald (the Talmud calls Rabbi Akiva “kereach”, the bald one, and his son was known as Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karchah, son of the bald one). The Arizal teaches that Rabbi Akiva would shave in order to remove the Din from upon him and allow him to more easily bring people to holiness. (As such, going bald is actually a good sign according to the Arizal!) The Arizal further explains that this is why the Levites had to be entirely shaved in their initiation rite, to remove all the forces of Din from upon them.

Meanwhile, white hair represents rachamim gmurim, “complete mercy”, and should not be shaved. Rachamim is typically associated with the sefirah of Tiferet. Thus, the beard is Chessed, the hair opposite the beard on top of the head is Gevurah (which is opposite Chessed), and white hair on the head, whether top or bottom, is Tiferet. The white hair is symbolic of the white, wool-like hair of Atik Yomin, as described by Daniel, and is the highest form of Divine Imitation.

For these reasons, many followers of Jewish mysticism leave their beards completely untouched, and the hair on top of their heads trimmed short (if not entirely shaven). Yet, Ezekiel (44:20) states that one should not shave their head, nor allow their locks to grow long! Meanwhile, various Kabbalistic texts also state to keep the moustache trimmed, since it grows over the mouth and “blocks” one’s prayers. Above, we saw that the untangling of the locks of Mazal allow fortune to flow. We may therefore conclude that it is important to keep the beard groomed and unknotted, as twists, ties, and knots constrict the flow.

A young Menachem Mendel Schneerson with trimmed beard, and as the Lubavitcher Rebbe with untouched white beard.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe is a perfect case study: countless photographs show that he trimmed his beard and kept it well-groomed in his youth. However, as an elder his white hairs were clearly untouched. In one of his letters, he responds to a man who had shaved his beard. We will conclude with his words, which summarize much of the above:

You laboured and compelled your Divine Soul to remove the “Image of G-d” from your face, by cutting and removing the beard which corresponds to the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy. The beard is the channel for one’s livelihood. Perhaps your intention was to assist the Almighty in providing your livelihood by causing your outward appearance to resemble the gentiles, making it easier to be given a position. Such conduct is contrary not only to divine intellect, but also to human intellect. Even one who is not so intelligent will easily understand that this is contrary to simple faith to suggest that laxity in observance of the mitzvos – distancing oneself from the Source of life – will bring the person a large flow of blessing…