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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!   

Sefer Yetzirah and the 32 Paths of Creation

This week we begin reading the Torah anew, starting from the very first portion, Beresheet. The first chapter famously recounts God’s creation of the universe. Although the account in Genesis is itself quite brief, the Jewish sages had much to say about the events of creation. This was a topic of particular interest to the Kabbalists. In fact, Kabbalistic teachings are usually divided between two main headings: Ma’ase Beresheet, “the Work (or Narrative) of creation”, and Ma’ase Merkavah, “the Work (or Narrative) of the Chariot”. The former explores the genesis and nature of the universe, along with many metaphysical concepts, while the latter is primarily focused on various aspects of God, and vehicles of prophecy.

One of the earliest known Kabbalistic texts is Sefer Yetzirah, the ‘Book of Formation’. This book outlines how God created the universe, mainly focusing on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Since we see in the Torah that God created the world through speech (“God said ‘Let there be light’…”), it is concluded that the building blocks of the universe must be the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Everything that exists was fashioned out of unique combinations of these special letters.

Along with the 22 letters were the 10 sefirot, divine energies that imbue everything within creation. These 10 sefirot correspond to the 10 digits, from 0 to 9 (and hence, the root of sefirah is the same as that of the Hebrew for number, mispar). Just as modern physicists might argue that the entire universe can be reduced to mathematical equations, Sefer Yetzirah reduces all of creation down to the base numbers and letters. And so, Sefer Yetzirah begins by stating that God created the universe through lamed-bet netivot, “thirty-two paths” of creation.

The Power of Sefer Yetzirah

Sefer Yetzirah is first explicitly mentioned over 1500 years ago in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 65b), where Rabbi Chanina and Rabbi Oshaia studied it together on Friday afternoons. Using the secrets described in the text, the two rabbis learned how to create ex nihilo, like God. Each Friday, they would team up to create a calf from thin air, and eat it!

It is said that the patriarch Abraham was capable of the same feat. The 18th chapter of Genesis describes the well-known story of the three angels that visited Abraham. It then says that Abraham “took butter and milk, and the calf which he had made, and set it before them…” (Genesis 18:8). Many have asked: how is it possible that the forefather of the Jewish people gave his guests a mixture of dairy and meat products? The simple answer is that, of course, Abraham preceded the giving of the Torah, and at that time there was still no prohibition on consuming dairy and meat together. However, Jewish tradition maintains that although the forefathers lived before the giving of the Torah, they still fulfilled its precepts through an oral tradition, and from the prophecies they received from God. So, how did Abraham put both dairy and meat before his guests?

The Malbim’s commentary on the verse quotes earlier mystical teachings that say Abraham knew the secrets of Sefer Yetzirah and fashioned the calf from scratch. This is why the verse clearly says “…and the calf which he had made [asher asah]”. Since Abraham made the calf, it was only a hunk of flesh, with no divine soul (which only God can infuse), and was therefore pareve, considered neither dairy nor meat.

Jewish tradition holds that Abraham was actually the author of Sefer Yetzirah. Others believe it was written by Rabbi Akiva, based on teachings that were initially revealed by Abraham. Either way, today Sefer Yetzirah has been made available through an excellent translation by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. Rabbi Kaplan carefully translated several versions of the text, and included rich commentary and explanations in the book. Anyone interested in a deeper understanding of the foundations of the Hebrew alphabet, the nature of creation and the elements, as well as a Jewish take on meditation, astrology and cosmology, should definitely undertake a careful study of this important book.

A Brief Overview of the 32 Paths

Where exactly are the 32 Paths of Creation derived from? A careful analysis of the Genesis text shows that God (Elohim) is mentioned 32 times in the account of creation. Each of these 32 parallels the 32 paths. There are ten cases where the Torah says Vayomer Elohim, “And God said…” These 10 correspond to the 10 sefirot. The remaining 22 mentions of God correspond to the 22 letters in the following way:

Sefer Yetzirah breaks down the Hebrew alphabet into three groups: the “mothers”, the “doubles”, and the “elementals”. There are three mother letters: aleph (א), mem (מ), and shin (ש). These are the mothers because each is associated with one of the three primordial elements of creation: aleph is the root of air (avir, אויר), mem is the root of water (mayim, מים), and shin is the root of fire (esh, אש). These three correspond to the three times that the Torah says “God created” (Genesis 1:1, 21, and 27).

There are then 7 double letters, those that have two sounds in Hebrew: beit (ב), gimel (ג), dalet (ד), kaf (כ), pei (פ), reish (ר), and tav (ת). (It should be noted that unfortunately, modern-day Hebrew has lost the double sounds of the gimel and reish.) These seven correspond to the seven times that the Torah says “God saw” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). The remaining 12 letters are known as the “elementals”, and correspond to the remaining 12 times that God is mentioned.

So, the 32 paths derive from the 32 times that God is mentioned in Genesis, and further broken down into their groupings of 10, 3, 7, and 12 based on the specific type of verb used in relation to God.

Etz Chaim, "Tree of Life"

Etz Chaim, “Tree of Life”

Finally, all of these are embedded into the Etz Chaim, the “Tree of Life”, the most famous of Kabbalistic diagrams, and one we have discussed on several occasions in the past. The 10 blue circles on the diagram correspond to the 10 sefirot. The sefirot are interconnected by 22 lines, corresponding to the 22 letters. There are three horizontal lines, corresponding to the three mother letters; seven vertical lines, corresponding to the seven double letters; and twelve diagonal lines, corresponding to the twelve elemental letters.

This simple diagram amazingly captures a great deal of information, and is therefore a key foundation of Kabbalistic thought – as well as the first step towards creating your very own calf!

Moses and Korach, Abel and Cain, Water and Ice

This week’s Torah reading is named after Moses’ cousin, Korach, and describes his rebellion against the leader of the Jewish people. Rashi’s commentary quotes a number of Midrashic texts to explain Korach’s motivation. Korach was a very wealthy and very wise man. Yet, despite being a distinguished member of the community, and Moses’ cousin, he was not appointed to any prominent roles. The high priesthood was bestowed upon Aaron, while the leadership of the Kohatithes (one of the major divisions of the Levites) was given to Elitzaphan, who was younger than Korach.

Upset by these developments, Korach gathered 250 others and protested: “…the entire congregation, all of them, are holy, and God is in their midst, so why do you raise yourselves above God’s assembly?” (Numbers 16:3) Korach essentially accused Moses of nepotism: putting his own favourites in holy positions to rule over the people, when in reality all the people should be on a high and exalted level, as they are all equally part of God’s assembly.

This was a very good argument, and many were swayed by Korach. After all, God had said to the people that “… you will be a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). Amazingly, Rashi writes that Moses himself agreed with Korach! Moses said:

“Among the nations, there are many forms of worship and many priests, and they do not all gather in one temple. We, however, have only one God, one ark, one Torah, one altar, and one High Priest, but you two hundred and fifty men are all seeking the High Priesthood! I, too, would prefer that. Here, take for yourselves the service most dear [to God] of all: it is the incense, more cherished than any other sacrifice, but it contains deadly poison, by which Nadav and Avihu were burnt, so be warned…” (Rashi on 16:6)

The Incense Offering

The ketoret, or incense offering, was the greatest of Temple services, and could only be performed by the High Priest. It is said that anyone else who attempted it (including the High Priest if he was not in the highest state of purity) would die immediately. The Torah already relayed the story of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron who tried to bring their own incense, and perished.

"Death of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram" by Gustave Doré

“Death of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram” by Gustave Doré

So, Moses told Korach and his supporters that he would have loved for everyone to be at the level of high priesthood. This is how God had originally intended it after all, and one day in the future it would be so. At the present moment, though, the people were simply not ready for it. If they indeed thought they were all capable of being the High Priest, Moses suggested for them to each bring their own incense. He warned them, though, not to forget what had happened to Nadav and Avihu.

The narrative continues with Korach and his supporters bringing their own incense offering, with the result being utter failure, and every one of them losing their life for it (16:35). Korach himself, together with his main supporters Datan and Aviram, was given a more severe punishment: they were swallowed up by the earth. Interestingly, this specific punishment was decreed by Moses. Why did Moses specifically want Korach to be swallowed up by the earth?

Cain and Abel

The Arizal explains that Moses and Korach were reincarnations of Abel and Cain (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, Ch. 29 and 32). Cain had risen up against Abel, argued with him, and then murdered him. The text states that the earth had “opened its mouth” to receive Abel’s blood (Genesis 4:11). This time around, Cain’s soul (within Korach) again rose up against Abel’s soul (within Moses) and quarreled with him. Now, to complete the spiritual rectification, measure for measure, it was Abel that buried Cain in the earth, with the text once again saying that the earth had “opened its mouth” (16:32).

Water and Ice

Practically speaking, Moses and Korach represent two types of people, indicated by their names. Moses, Moshe, was a name given by the Pharaoh’s daughter, who said ki min hamayim mashitihu, “For I drew him out of the water.” Korach, on the other hand, has the exact same Hebrew spelling as kerach, ice. Moses represents water; Korach represents ice. The latter is cold, hard, and unyielding, expanding ever larger as it freezes, symbolic of an inflating ego. The former is fluid, life-giving, and always flows to the lowest possible point, symbolic of humility. The lesson here is for each person to emulate the watery traits of Moses, and not the frozen qualities of Korach.