Tag Archives: Soul

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)

Tzom Gedaliah and Mystical Secrets of Fasting

Clay Bulla of Gemaryahu ben Shaphan, dated to 586 BCE.

Today is the Fast of Gedaliah, one of the “minor fasts” of the Jewish calendar. This fast commemorates the assassination of Gedaliah ben Achikam, the governor of Judah, some 2500 years ago. After the Babylonians destroyed the Temple and sent the majority of Jews into exile, they left a small number of Jewish farmers in their newly-created province of Judah, under the leadership of the righteous Gedaliah. Gedaliah was the grandson of Shaphan, one of the court scribes of Judean royalty who likely played a role in the composition of the Biblical Book of Kings, among others. (Incredibly, Jeremiah 36:10 describes how Shaphan had a son named Gemaryahu, and recently Israeli archaeologist Yigal Shiloh discovered a bulla in Jerusalem inscribed with the words: “belonging to Gemaryahu ben Shaphan”.)

The Books of Jeremiah (ch. 41) and II Kings (ch. 25) describe how a certain Ishmael killed Gedaliah “in the seventh month”, during what appears to be a feast day, which our Sages stated was Rosh Hashanah. The reason for the assassination is not explicitly given. It seems Ishmael believed that if anyone should govern in Israel, it should be him since he was a member of the Judean royal family and a descendant of King David. Ishmael didn’t think the whole thing through very well. Assassinating Gedaliah immediately raised fears that the Babylonians would return to punish the Jews for smiting their appointed governor. The fearful Jewish populace thus fled to Egypt, while Ishmael himself escaped to Ammon.

The tragedy was a great one not only because of the grotesque assassination of a righteous Jew by his fellow (Ishmael also slaughtered a handful of other Jews, as well as innocent pilgrims on their way to worship in Jerusalem.) Perhaps more significantly, the fleeing of the last Jews of Judea meant that the Holy Land was essentially devoid of its people for the first time in nearly a millennium. While Jews from Babylon would later come back to rebuild, they would be faced with new settlers that had since filled the vacuum in Israel: the Samaritans. This people would be a thorn at the side of the Jews for centuries to come. Worst of all, the assassination of Gedaliah is yet another example of sinat chinam, baseless hatred and Jewish in-fighting, which seems to always be the root of all Jewish problems.

The Sages instituted a fast to commemorate all of these things. And the fast’s timing is particularly auspicious, as it comes during the Ten Days of Repentance when we should be focusing on kindness, prayer, and atonement. Now is the time to repair relationships and form new bonds, for families and communities to come together. For many, it also something of a “practice run” for the more famous fast that comes just days later: Yom Kippur. This brings up an important question. What exactly does fasting have to do with atonement, spiritual growth, and self-development?

The Power of Fasting

Offerings on the Altar (Courtesy: Temple Institute)

Aside from its well-documented health benefits, fasting brings a great deal of spiritual benefits, too. In the fast day prayers, we read how fasting is symbolic of sacrificial offerings. In the days of the Temple, people would atone by bringing an offering, shedding its blood, and watching its fat burn on the altar. In Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh (Kavanot haTaanit), Rabbi Chaim Vital, the Arizal’s foremost disciple, explains that the sight of the animal being slaughtered would immediately inspire the person to repent. They would feel both a great deal of regret for their sin, and compassion for the animal, and would recognize that it should have been them slaughtered upon the altar. In lieu of a Temple, we fast to burn our own bodily fat, and “thin” our blood. The Arizal taught that the penitent faster is thus likened to a korban.

Rabbi Vital then reminds us that the food we eat contain spiritual sparks, and even the souls of reincarnated people. While we hope that our blessings and proper intentions when eating frees these sparks and elevates them to Heaven, we are not always successful in this regard—especially when we lose sense of the meal and eat purely for physical reasons. These sparks remain with us, and can even affect our thoughts and emotions. The Arizal explains that a fast day is an opportunity to free those sparks trapped within. We avoid eating anything new, resulting in the body shedding its fat and blood, and just as these things “burn up” physically, the sparks lodged within them “burn up” and ascend as well with the help of our prayers and pure thoughts and intentions. Moreover, the difficulty of fasting breaks apart the kelipot, the spiritual “husks” that trap those holy sparks.

(Interestingly, this passage in Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh shows an incredibly detailed and accurate knowledge of the digestive system. Rabbi Vital explains how the stomach and intestines break down the food, absorb it into the bloodstream, where it goes to the liver for further processing, and then to the heart which delivers the nutrients to the rest of the body, particularly the brain, the seat of the neshamah.)

Secrets of Fasting

Etz Chaim, “Tree of Life”. Note the sefirot of Gevurah and Hod on the left column.

The Arizal mentions how it is good to fast not only on the six established fast days of the Jewish calendar (Gedaliah, Kippur, 10 Tevet, Esther, 17 Tamuz, and 9 Av), but on every Monday and Thursday. This is, in fact, an ancient Jewish custom that is attested to in numerous historical documents. (One of these is the Didache, an early Christian text of the 1st century CE that tells its adherents not to fast on Mondays and Thursdays because that is when the Jews fast!) The Arizal explains that Monday and Thursday, the second and fifth days of the week, correspond to the second and fifth sefirot of Gevurah and Hod. Gevurah and Hod are on the left column of the mystical “Tree of Life”, and the left is associated with judgement and severity. By fasting on these days, one can break any harsh judgments decreed upon them.

The Arizal also taught that one who fasts two days in a row—48 hours straight—is likened to having fasted twenty-seven day fasts, and one who can fast three days straight has fasted the equivalent of forty day fasts. This is important because one of the most powerful fasts in Jewish tradition, which will completely purify the greatest of sins, particularly sexual ones, requires 84 day-fasts. (The number 84 comes from the fact that Jacob was 84 years old when he was first intimate, with Leah, and conceived Reuben.) Usually, this was done by fasting 40 days straight (eating only at night), followed by another 44 days (or vice versa). A person can thus accomplish the same purification by fasting both day and night for a whole week straight, from the end of one Shabbat to the onset of the following Shabbat.

As this would be a personal fast, it may be permissible to consume salt and water, as the Talmud (Berakhot 35b) does not consider these to be “food”, and permits them on personal fasts only. The Arizal actually gives a tip for one who feels thirsty during a fast: they should meditate on the words Ruach Elohim (רוח אלהים). Recall that Genesis begins by telling us that God’s Divine Spirit, Ruach Elohim, “hovered over the waters”. And so, one who meditates upon this should see his thirst quickly dissipate. Ultimately, the Arizal says that Torah study is the best way to repent and expiate sins, much more so than any fast. So, a person who is not up to the task of intermittent fasting may substitute with diligent Torah study.

Soon enough, there will be no need to fast at all, as the prophet (Zechariah 8:19) states: “So says Hashem, God of Hosts: The fast of the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth days shall be for the house of Judah for gladness, joy, and good times; for love of truth and peace.” With each passing moment, we near the time when all of these fast days—the fourth (ie. the 17th of Tammuz, in the fourth month), the fifth (9 Av, in the fifth month), the seventh (Tzom Gedaliah), and tenth (10th of Tevet) shall turn into joyous feast days. May we merit to see this day soon.

Gmar Chatima Tova!   

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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A Mystical Look at Pregnancy and Abortion

This week we read a double portion of the Torah, Tazria and Metzora. It begins by stating that a woman who gives birth to a son is spiritually impure for seven days, and requires another 33 days of purification afterwards. If she gives birth to a female, the impurity lasts fourteen days, followed by 66 days of purification.

The Zohar (III, 43b) comments on this section by first reminding us that each soul has male and female halves, and when the soul enters this world, it splits and enters two different bodies, male and female. If the two soulmates merit it, they will find each other and reunite. We are then told that the female part of the soul is larger and more powerful, which is why a woman who gives birth to a female needs double the purification time.

The Zohar explains why the Torah prescribes these specific time periods: 7 and 33 days for boys; 14 and 66 days for girls. It states that at birth, the soul first enters the body and is in complete disarray. For the first seven days, the unsettled soul “roams the body to find its place”. On the eighth day, the soul is finally getting comfortable in its new home. This is one reason why circumcision is done on the eighth day, once the soul is no longer distressed. The soul then needs an additional 33 days to acclimatize to its new environment until it has completely settled into the body. For the greater female souls, the time periods are doubled.

Note how these time periods are referring to the soul of the newborn, yet it is the mother that is described as being “impure”. This is because the mother carried the child, and its soul was housed within her temporarily. (Perhaps this extra soul is responsible for the well-known “pregnancy glow”.) Once the baby is born, its soul leaves the mother’s shelter and is now independent in the baby’s body. (And that pregnancy glow is gone!) The sudden loss of spiritual energy is difficult on the mother as well, and she requires forty (or eighty) days to get back to herself.

A major question arises here: if the soul only enters the newborn at birth, why is abortion forbidden? Religious groups of various faiths have argued for centuries on when exactly the soul enters the body, and many have taken the stance that a fetus already carries a soul, making abortion indistinguishable from murder. What do Jewish texts say?

Abortion and Gestation in the Talmud

In one passage, the Talmud includes abortion under the category of murder. However, it also famously states that if the mother’s life is at risk—at any point in the pregnancy—the fetus must be removed, “limb by limb” if necessary. In such cases, the fetus is seen as a rodef, a “pursuer”, referring to the Torah law that if one is “pursuing” another to kill them, it is permitted to kill the pursuer first. The Talmud concludes that a fetus can be aborted at any point until its head has emerged. Once the head has emerged, the newborn is considered completely alive, and in cases of life-risk, it is no longer clear who the “pursuer” is. The Sages suggest that the soul fully enters the newborn only at birth, and it is only then that the newborn is a complete person.

Three-month old fetus (Courtesy: BabyCentre)

Elsewhere in the Talmud (Niddah 8b), we are told that the fetus already resembles a person at the three-month mark. We now know that it is precisely around this point that the developing baby has the features of a human (and is no longer called an “embryo”, but a “fetus”). The Talmud adds (Berakhot 60a) that until this three-month mark, a person should pray every day that there shouldn’t be a miscarriage. After three months, a person should pray that the fetus will not be stillborn, and after six months, a person should pray that the mother has an easy delivery. We are told that one should pray for the baby’s desired gender only before the 40-day mark. This, too, shows incredible wisdom on the part of our Sages. Today we know scientifically that the sex organs begin their development around day 42. The ancient rabbis knew that after day 40, gender development is already in progress, and there is no point praying for something different.

In a related passage, we are told that until day 40, the fetus is insignificant and more lifeless than living (Yevamot 69b). Today we know that the neural tube which will make the brain forms around day 40, and this is when the first neurons start signalling. Scientifically speaking, there could be no talk of any kind of consciousness or brain activity before day 40.

Because of this, most rabbinic authorities are far more lenient when it comes to abortions before the 40th day of pregnancy. Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (1863-1940), who was widely recognized as the greatest posek of his generation, even suggested that abortions before the 40th day are not Biblically prohibited (Achiezer, III, 65:14). Nevertheless, even before the 40th day there is a potential to produce a living human being, and life is valued above all else, which is why abortions are still forbidden except for cases of absolute necessity.

By the 20-week mark (midway through pregnancy), fetuses are seen rolling around, sucking their thumbs, and responding to the prodding of the ultrasound. There is no doubt that the fetus is alive and aware at this point, and any abortion other than a life risk is hardly distinguishable from murder.

Soul Infusion

The fact that the fetus is aware by the 20-week mark (if not sooner) suggests that it does indeed have some level of soul. Yet, earlier we saw sources seemingly propose that the soul does not enter until birth. How do we reconcile these apparent contradictions?

To answer this question it is important to keep in mind that the soul is not one uniform entity. Rather, the soul is composed of multiple layers, each made up of countless sparks. The lowest level of soul is called nefesh, the basic life essence. Above that is the ruach, “spirit”, an animating force that, among other things, gives a person their drives and inclinations. Then comes the neshamah, a higher level of consciousness and the part that gives one their unique traits and qualities. Further still is the chayah, the aura that emanates from the body, followed by the loftiest level, the yechidah, which may be described as a spiritual umbilical cord between each soul and its Creator.

The Arizal taught that ever-higher levels of soul are accessed gradually over the course of one’s life. At birth, a person has only a complete nefesh. As they grow, they are infused with ruach, which becomes fully accessible at bar or bat mitzvah age. At this point one starts to tap into their neshamah, which is wholly available only at age 20. (For this reason, the Torah considers an adult one who is over 20 years of age. Only those over 20 were counted in the census and allowed to join the military. Our Sages state that although one may be judged for their crimes before age 20 here on Earth, only those sins accrued after age 20 are judged in Heaven. Meanwhile, the Midrash notes that Adam and Eve were created as 20 year olds.) The Arizal taught that most people never end up accessing their entire neshamah, and only the most refined individuals ever unlock their chayah and yechidah.

Based on this model, we see that right from conception the developing embryo is steadily infused with nefesh, the basic life force. By day 40, there is enough nefesh for the embryo to be considered alive. In fact, it is said that this is why the gematria of אם, “mother”, is 41, since a woman becomes a mother on the 41st day of pregnancy.

Once its entire nefesh has been infused, the baby is ready to be born. At birth, it begins to receive its next soul level, the ruach. A careful look at the Zohar passage with which we started reveals that this is precisely what the Zohar meant, as it explicitly mentions the ruach entering at birth, requiring forty days to fully settle in. Therefore, a developing fetus does indeed have a soul, which is why abortion is so highly discouraged—reserved only for true medical cases—and why it has been compared to murder.

Solving a Scientific Mystery

The above also answers a mystery that has been perplexing biologists for decades: what is it that drives an embryo to grow? Why do the cells multiply, and how do they know to differentiate? Each cell is exactly the same, with the exact same set of DNA, yet one clump of cells knows to form the eyes while another knows to form the liver, and so on. Scientists have still not been able to figure out how the embryo “knows” what to do. (For that matter, we can’t figure out how any cell really “knows” what to do.)

The Kabbalists have an answer: it is the steady infusion of soul that drives a mass of undifferentiated cells to do what it needs to. It is the soul that gives the instructions for how the DNA is to be transcribed and translated in each cell, and how the cells are to interact with one another. As the soul grows, so too does the body. It is therefore not surprising that around the age when most people’s bodies stop growing, their souls tend to stop “growing” as well.

This should remind us that our education does not end with formal schooling, nor does maturing stop with the end of puberty. The process of growth and refinement, both physical and spiritual, must continue throughout life. This is the key to true self-fulfillment and happiness.


Make your Shavuot night-learning meaningful with the Arizal’s ‘Tikkun Leil Shavuot’, a mystical Torah-study guide, now in English and Hebrew, with commentary.

Everything You Wanted to Know About Reincarnation in Judaism

This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim, which is concerned with the first major set of laws that the Israelites received following the Ten Commandments. While the term mishpatim literally means “ordinances” or “judgements”, the Zohar (II, 94a) suggests a very different interpretation:

‘And these are the judgements which you shall set before them…’ These are the rules concerning reincarnation, the judgement of souls that are sentenced according to their acts.

The Zohar goes on to interpret the laws in the Torah with regards to the mechanisms of reincarnation. For example, whereas the Torah begins by describing a Hebrew servant who is indentured for six years of labour and must then be freed in the seventh year, the Zohar interprets that this is really speaking of souls which must reincarnate in order to repair the six middot before they could be freed. (The middot are the primary character traits: chessed, kindness; gevurah, restraint; tiferet, balance and truth; netzach, persistence and faith; hod, gratitude and humility; and yesod, sexual purity.)

While the Zohar speaks at length about reincarnation, it is the Arizal who systematically laid down the rules of reincarnation and explained the Zohar in depth. His primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital, recorded these teachings in a famous treatise known as Sha’ar HaGilgulim, “Gate of Reincarnation”. The following is a brief condensation of the basic rules of reincarnation that are defined in this tremendous text, answering many of the common questions people have about spiritual transmigration.

Why Do People Reincarnate?

At the start of the eighth chapter, Rabbi Vital writes:

למה מתגלגלים. דע, כי הנשמות יתגלגלו לכמה סבות, הראשונה הוא, לפי שעבר על איזו עבירה מעבירות שבתורה, ובא לתקן. הב’ הוא, לתקן איזו מצוה שחסר ממנו. השלישית היא, שבא לצורך אחרים, להדריכם ולתקנם… לפעמים יתגלגל, ליקח את בת זוגו, כי לא זכה בראשונה לקחתה

Why do people reincarnate? Know that souls reincarnate for several reasons: The first is that one transgressed one of the prohibitions in the Torah, and returns to repair it. The second is to fulfil a mitzvah that one lacks. The third is in order to assist others, to guide them, and rectify them… Sometimes one reincarnates to marry their soulmate, which they did not merit to do in a previous life.

The Ari explains that people mainly reincarnate in order to atone for sins of past lives, or to fulfil mitzvahs that they didn’t do previously. Later, in Chapter 16, we read that people who return do not have to fulfil all the mitzvahs in one lifetime, but only have to accomplish those that their souls are still lacking. Some reincarnate not for their own rectification, but to assist others. We are told elsewhere that these are usually very righteous individuals who agree to return to this world in order to help others.

Fresco of the Resurrection of the Dead from the ancient Dura-Europos Synagogue

Some also reincarnate because they either did not marry, or married the wrong person. They must return to reunite with their true soulmate. The Arizal teaches that, unfortunately, some people are so deeply mired in kelipot, negative spiritual “husks”, that they are unable to find their soulmate in this world. These people will reunite with their other half only in Olam HaBa, the “next world” at the time of the Resurrection. With regards to finding soulmates, this is directed particularly at male souls, for it is primarily a man’s responsibility to find his soulmate.

On that note, the following chapter tells us that female souls actually reincarnate very rarely. To begin with, female souls are more refined than male ones, and are unlikely to require more rectifications. What does happen more commonly is that male souls are reincarnated into female bodies! This opens up a number of fascinating scenarios which Rabbi Chaim Vital describes.

What Do People Reincarnate Into?

In Chapter 22, we read that people can reincarnate not only into human bodies, but also animals, vegetation, and even inanimate matter. For example, a person who feeds others non-kosher food reincarnates as a tree; one who sheds blood reincarnates into water; those who transgress various sexual prohibitions reincarnate into bats, rabbits, and other animals; while proud people and those who talk too much reincarnate into bees. (We are told that this is what happened to the judge Deborah who, despite her greatness and wisdom, had a bit of pride and was required to reincarnate into a bee, hence her name devorah, which literally means “bee”!)

It is important to mention, though, that an entire human soul does not fully reincarnate into another organism. Rather, souls are complex entities made up of many different interacting sparks. It is only those sparks that require rectification that return to this world (Chapter 14). Interestingly, the Arizal teaches that when two people really dislike each other, and are constantly in conflict with one another, this is often because the two are sharing sparks from one soul!

How Many Times May One Reincarnate?

Sha’ar HaGilgulim records that a person can reincarnate thousands of times—but only on the condition that they improve at least a little bit in each incarnation. If they fail to improve, they can only reincarnate a maximum of three times. After three strikes, that particular spark is sent to Gehinnom (loosely translated as “hell”) where it will be purified. However, the souls of those who regularly learn Torah are never sent to Gehinnom, and always merit reincarnation. This is one of the incredible protective powers of regular Torah study.

In multiple places, the Arizal teaches about the reincarnations of Abel, the son of Adam. Abel (הבל) had a good side and a bad one. The good side was represented by the letter Hei (ה) of his name, and the bad by the Beit and Lamed (בל). The bad part needed to be rectified, so it reincarnated in Laban (לבן), the wicked father-in-law of Jacob. Laban didn’t do much better, so he was reincarnated in the gentile prophet Bilaam (בלעם). He, too, was an ungodly person, so the Beit-Lamed soul was reincarnated for the third time in Naval (נבל), the ungrateful man who rejected David. Naval was strike three, and that Beit-Lamed soul no longer returned in a reincarnation.

We see from the above how a person’s name may offer tremendous hints as to their soul sparks, previous lives, tests, challenges, and character traits. When we read about the above individuals in the Tanakh, we see how similar they were. All three were very wealthy, famous, and participated in divination and sorcery. All were cunning, greedy, and deceitful individuals. The Arizal explains in detail what rectifications each was supposed to do, and how one life affected the next, weaving together these three seemingly unrelated Biblical narratives that span nearly a thousand years into one beautiful tapestry.

Which Body Will A Person Have at the End?

Perhaps the most famous question: if a soul has so many different bodies over so many different lifetimes, which body will that soul inhabit in the afterlife, or in the world of Resurrection? Rabbi Vital writes:

וכן הענין בכל נשמה ונשמה, וכאשר יהיה זמן התחיה, כל גוף וגוף יקח חלקו של נשמתו, כפי חלק הזמן שלו באיזו מדרגה היתה

And with each and every soul, when the time of the Resurrection comes, each and every body will take its corresponding soul, according to the part that it had at that particular time.

Thus, each part of the soul will have its own body, and all reincarnations will exist simultaneously as individuals in Olam HaBa!

Breaking Free from Materialism

In Chapter 23, Rabbi Vital suggests that the most important thing to take from all of this is to live a meaningful, spiritual life. When a person is mired in materialism, and cares only for their physical aspects, they become so attached to their bodies that they cannot exist without one. And so, when that person’s body dies their soul is in complete disarray; frightened, pained, and unable to ascend onwards. Angels must come and quickly place the soul in a new body. As such, this person can never free themselves from endless reincarnations into this imperfect, difficult world.

However, those who in their lifetimes tap into their souls, and are comfortable with their spiritual side, are able to simply take off their dead bodies like an old garment, and move on. For such people, their wonderful portion in Olam HaBa is not too far away.