Things You Didn’t Know About Abraham

Abraham’s Journey to Canaan, by Jozsef Molnar (1850)

After two parashas that span the first two millennia of civilization, the Torah shifts its focus to the origins of Israel and the Jewish people starting with, of course, Abraham. Abraham is probably most famous for something that he actually isn’t: being the first monotheist. Noah was a monotheist long before Abraham, as was Noah’s son Shem, who was already a priest of the one Supreme God (El Elyon, as in Genesis 14:18). In Jewish tradition, it is said that Shem established the first yeshiva, and the patriarchs studied there. Was Abraham the first monotheist? No, but he is described as being the first person to actively preach monotheism to the world. He took it upon himself to crusade against idolatry—and the immoral behaviours that went with it.

Some of our Sages also state that Abraham invented the concept of a positive mitzvah. This means drawing closer to God not by abstinence and asceticism but through acts of kindness and the performance of physical actions. For this reason, the gematria of “Abraham” (אברהם) is 248, equal to the number of positive commandments in the Torah. Not surprisingly, Abraham is well-known for his legendary hospitality, his great compassion, and his ceaseless efforts on behalf of his fellow man.

Jewish tradition describes Abraham’s house as having a front door on each side so that guests wouldn’t have to look for the entrance. Meals were always on the house, as long as the guest was willing to thank God for it. Of his compassion, we read in the Torah how Abraham questioned God before the destruction of Sodom, seeking to exonerate the people despite their cruelty (Genesis 18). In this week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, we read of all the “souls that they had made” (Genesis 12:5), the countless people that Abraham and Sarah inspired and brought closer to God. In fact, the Meshekh Chokhmah (of Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk) on Genesis 33:18 states that Abraham later migrated to Egypt specifically because it was the capital of idolatry and impurity at the time, and Abraham wished to bring some light to that dark place.

What else do we know about Abraham? Extra-Biblical texts reveal some intriguing details in the life of Judaism’s first patriarch.

Discovering God

There are three major opinions as to when Abraham came to know God. The Talmud (Nedarim 32a) holds that he first recognized his Creator when he was three years old. This is deduced from Genesis 26:5, where God says Abraham had “listened to My voice”, ekev asher shama Avraham b’koli. The term “ekev” (עקב) has a numerical value of 172, and since we know Abraham lived 175 years, we learn that Abraham had listened to God’s voice for 172 of them, starting at age 3.

The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204), meanwhile, writes in his Mishneh Torah that Abraham came to know God at age 40 (Hilkhot Avodat Kochavim 1:3). A more commonly-held view is that Abraham came to know God at age 52. This is based on the Talmudic statement that history is divided into three eras: the first 2000 years being the era of “chaos”, the next 2000 years being the era of Torah, and the final 2000 years being the era of Mashiach (Avodah Zarah 9a). Since we know that Abraham was born in the Hebrew year 1948, and the era of Torah started in the year 2000, Abraham must have been 52 when he came to know God.

One way to reconcile these three opinions is as follows: Abraham first realized there must be one God when he was three years old. By age 40, he was ready to begin his life’s work, and set forth in preaching his message. This got him into a lot of trouble, for which he was imprisoned, and ultimately sentenced to death. The Talmud (Bava Batra 91a) clarifies that he was imprisoned for 10 years. Then came the day of his execution. Abraham was thrown into the flames of Ur Kasdim when he was 52, and at this point God actually revealed Himself to Abraham for the first time, miraculously saving him from death. Therefore, there are those who say it wasn’t God who chose Abraham, but Abraham who chose God.

Abraham was already preaching long before he received any kind of prophecy or communication from Hashem. He logically deduced there must be one Creator to this world, and recognized the folly of idolatry on his own. He then took it upon himself to teach this truth, despite never having “heard” anything from God, or being summoned to do so. God chose him precisely because of this incredible initiative. We learn this explicitly from Genesis 18:19, where God says:

For I have known him, that he commands his children and his household after him, that they should keep the way of God, to do righteousness and justice; therefore God brings upon Abraham that which He has spoken of him.

God chose Abraham because he was already teaching others to be more Godly! At age 52, the God that Abraham had been preaching about for so long finally revealed Himself, in miraculous fashion. This sets off a new 2000-year era, that of Torah and prophecy, spanning from Abraham until the times of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, who compiled the Mishnah, thus putting the Oral Torah in writing for the first time.

Abraham the Kabbalist

The Talmud (Bava Batra 91a) states that Abraham was world-famous for being an unparalleled astrologer and healer. According to tradition, he was also a great mystic. It is believed that he authored, or in some other way originated, Sefer Yetzirah, the “Book of Formation”, one of the most ancient Kabbalistic text. The book explains how God fashioned the universe through the Hebrew letters. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 67a) suggests that mastery of this text would allow the mystic to create ex nihilo, out of nothing, and such was done by Rav Oshaya and Rav Chanina every Friday afternoon. These two rabbis would create a chunk of veal, and make a barbecue!

‘Abraham and the Three Angels’ by James Tissot

It appears the same was done by Abraham. We read in Genesis 18:7 that when the angels visited him, Abraham hastened to “make” a calf, v’imaher la’asot oto. The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush Wisser, 1809-1879) comments on the Torah’s strange choice of verb by stating that Abraham literally created a calf through the wisdom of Sefer Yetzirah. This is why, he explains, the next verse has Abraham serving butter and milk. It is unthinkable that Abraham would serve veal with dairy—an explicit Torah prohibition—unless the veal was of his own creation, and was therefore not real meat that once had a soul. Abraham may have been the first person to serve vegan burgers.

Where did Abraham get this wisdom? According to one tradition, the angel Raziel (literally “God’s secret”) taught these mysteries to Adam. Adam passed it down to his son Seth, and onward it went down to Noah, then to his son Shem. Midrashic texts have Shem teaching Abraham, circumcising Abraham (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 29), and even ordaining Abraham as a priest (Midrash Aggadah, Genesis 14:19).

Alternatively, Abraham received mystical knowledge on his own. Kabbalah implies something “received”, and is often seen as being conferred directly by the Heavens to those who are worthy. In his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, the Ravad (Rabbi Avraham ben David, c. 1125-1198) lists the names of the angels that taught our patriarchs this mystical wisdom:

The master of Shem was Yofiel. The master of Abraham was Tzidkiel. The master of Isaac was Raphael. The master of Yakov was Peliel. The master of Yosef was Gabriel. The master of Moshe Rabbeinu was Metatron. The master of Elijah was U’maltiel. Each of these angels passed down Kabbalah to his disciple, whether through a book or orally, in order to enlighten him, and to inform him of future events.

According to the Book of Jubilees (12:25), Abraham was also taught Hebrew directly from Heaven. It had been lost following the Great Dispersion of the Tower of Babel. Now, the Holy Tongue was restored. Of course, it wouldn’t have been possible for Abraham to learn Kabbalah and the mysticism of Sefer Yetzirah without knowledge of Hebrew, upon which it is all based. Interestingly, the Book of Jubilees (11:6) also paints Abraham as a great engineer. He first became famous for inventing a seed-scattering device attached directly to a plow, as well as a method for keeping birds from eating the seeds of farmers.

The Torah tells us that at the end of his life, Abraham gave over his entire inheritance to Isaac, his rightful heir, but left various matanot, “gifts”, for his other children (Genesis 25:6). He then sent those other children eastward, to live outside the borders of Israel, so that it would be clear that the Holy Land belongs solely to Isaac and his descendants. What were these gifts? The Sages state that these were kernels of mystical wisdom to take with them. Some say this was white magic, and others black magic. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 91a) associates it with impure wisdom of some sort. Many see in these gifts the mystical wisdom that would give rise to the ancient religions of the Far East. So perhaps there is a connection after all between the Hindu concept of Brahman—and the Hindu priestly caste of Brahmins—with the name Abraham.

While Abraham is generally seen as a forefather—whether biological or spiritual—of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, he is also a forefather of many other nations through his many other children that we often forget about (see Genesis 25). Our Sages say he is called “Avraham” because he is av hamon goyim, the father of a multitude of nations. He might very well be the father of all the world’s major religions, too.

The Origins of Ashkenazi Jews

In this week’s parasha, Noach, we read about how the seventy primary descendants of Noah settled the Earth after the Great Flood. Noah had three sons, and it is often said that they divided the three continents of the Old World amongst them: Yefet (Japheth) got Europe, Shem got Asia, and Ham got Africa. This is not exactly accurate.

For one, Canaan is a son of Ham, but did not inhabit Africa, while Nimrod is said to be a son of Cush—also of Ham—yet we know Nimrod ruled Mesopotamia (Genesis 10:10). Another son of Ham is Mitzrayim, which is Egypt, yet Mitzrayim’s own children include Pathrusim and Caphtorim, names generally associated with Greek lands. (There is historical evidence to suggest that the early pre-Greek peoples did come from Egypt.) Yavan, the classic term for Greece, is a son of Yefet. As discussed in the past, Yavan is the same as Ionia, which is the western coast of Turkey, then inhabited by Greek-speaking peoples. (The famous city of Troy was in Ionia, in modern-day Turkey.)

In fact, essentially all of the seventy places inhabited by Noah’s descendants are places in modern Turkey or the Middle East. This makes sense, since the Torah was originally speaking to an audience that was unaware of most of Europe, the Far East, sub-Saharan Africa, and needless to say, the New World. The Torah mentions the origins of those territories that were familiar to the ancient Israelites, and that would have been their immediate neighbours. It also makes sense practically, since Noah got off the Ark in Ararat—somewhere in modern Turkey—and his children and grand-children would have settled lands that weren’t too far away from there.

Mt. Ararat, as seen from Yerevan, Armenia. It isn’t certain whether this Ararat is the Biblical Ararat.

One of Noah’s descendants is named Ashkenaz (Genesis 10:3). He is a grandson of Yefet, whose children all seem to have inhabited territories in Asia Minor and Armenia. Ashkenaz, too, is in that vicinity. Even in the time of the prophet Jeremiah centuries later, Ashkenaz was a kingdom in Turkey: “Raise a banner in the land, blow the shofar among the nations, prepare the nations against her, call together against her the kingdoms of Ararat, Minni, and Ashkenaz…” (Jeremiah 51:27) The prophet goes on to call on these and other powers in the area to come upon Babylon. Ashkenaz is one of the Turkish kingdoms bordering Babylon to the north, along with Ararat.

Modern-day villages in Northeastern Turkey. (Credit: theconversation.com)

Amazingly, to this day ethnic Armenians in the region name Ashkenaz as one of their ancestors! This claim is not recent; the fifth-century Armenian scholar Koryun described the Armenians as an Askanazian people. Not surprisingly then, multiple places in Northeastern Turkey today still bear similar-sounding names, including the villages of Iskenaz, Eskenez, and Ashanas.

If Ashkenaz is a place in Turkey, how did it become associated with European Jews? Did Ashkenazi Jews come from Turkey?

Debunking Khazaria

One popular explanation for the Turkey-Ashkenaz connection points to the Kingdom of Khazaria. This was a wealthy and powerful kingdom that ruled the Caucasus, southern Russia, and parts of Turkey and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages. Historians credit the Khazars with checking the rapid Arab conquest, and preventing a Muslim takeover of Europe from the East. It is said that around 740 CE, King Bulan grew tired of his people’s backwards pagan beliefs and converted to Judaism. According to legend, he had invited representatives of the major faiths to argue their case, and concluded that Judaism was the true faith. (This is the basis of Rabbi Yehuda haLevi’s [c. 1075-1141] famous text, the Kuzari.)

Although Bulan did not impose his new religion on anyone, it is thought that much of his kingdom had become Jewish anyway within about a century. Remarkably, a large reserve of antique Khazar coins was found in Sweden in 1999, bearing the inscription “Moses is the Prophet of God”. (Modeled on, and sometimes just refashioned from, Arab coins saying that “Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah”!) Archaeologists have found similar Khazar coins all over the Old World, from England to China, showing the tremendous extent of Khazaria’s wealth and influence.

Khazar coin from c. 837 CE, with the inscription “Moses is the prophet of God”.

Like all kingdoms, Khazaria had an expiration date. It was eventually overrun by the Rus, Mongols, and others. Some say that many Jewish Khazar refugees migrated westward to Europe, and settled in the sparsely populated and resource-rich lands of Germany. Since they had come from a place traditionally known as Ashkenaz, they were labelled “Ashkenazi Jews”. This is a great story, but one that has far too many holes.

From a historical perspective, most scholars reject the Khazar hypothesis simply because there is little evidence that Khazaria experienced a mass conversion to Judaism. It is generally agreed that only a small portion of the Khazar nobility had converted, at best. Khazaria simply attracted many Jews to settle there since it was a rich kingdom with freedom of religion. In that case, any Jewish refugees that might later flee Khazaria to Europe would not be ethnic Khazars anyway.

The Schechter Letter

Then came a huge discovery from the Cairo Geniza. Now known as the Schechter Letter (as it was discovered by Solomon Schechter, 1847-1915), the text is a correspondence between a Khazari Jew and a Sephardi Jew, most likely Hasdai ibn Shaprut (c. 915-970 CE). The letter includes a brief history of Khazaria, and states that Khazaria’s Jews originally came from Persia and Armenia, from which they had fled persecution. One of their descendants, named Sabriel, eventually rose to Khazarian nobility, and finally became king. His wife, Serach, convinced him to go public with their Jewish heritage, and they did, inspiring others in the kingdom to convert to their new king’s religion.

The Schechter Letter confirms that the majority of the Jews in Khazaria were not actually Turkic converts but migrants from Persia and Armenia. Shortly after the letter was written, the Khazari Kingdom fell apart in 969 CE. (We know the letter must have been written after 941 CE, since it refers to a battle in that year for which we have other historical records.) The supposed Jewish exodus from Khazaria would have happened in the ensuing decades.

Yet, we read in the commentaries of French-born Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, 1040-1135) how he learned certain things from his visits to Jewish communities in neighbouring Ashkenaz (see, for example, Ketubot 77a), and that Ashkenaz is undoubtedly German (with Rashi occasionally using German/“Ashkenazi” words, as in Sukkah 17a, for instance). This implies that by Rashi’s time—less than a century after the fall of Khazaria—a geographical region in Western Europe referred to as “Ashkenaz” was already well-known, with Jews there freely conversing in German. It is unlikely that this would happen so soon after the fall of Khazaria; Ashkenaz must have existed long before.

Besides, we know that Jews already lived in Europe at the time of Charlemagne (742-814 CE), who had a good relationship with his Jewish subjects. Charlemagne was born right around the time King Bulan is supposed to have converted to Judaism, and before the rise of Sabriel (whom some identify with Bulan). This alone proves that Jews were already living in Europe long before any Khazari Jews appeared on the scene.

Among the Ashkenazi Jews of the Middle Ages themselves, the tradition was that they had been there since the destruction of the Second Temple. For example, the Rosh (Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel, c. 1250-1327) wrote in one of his response (20, 20) that when he moved to Toledo, Spain:

I would not eat according to [Sefardi] practice, adhering as I do to our own custom and to the tradition of our blessed forefathers, the sages of Ashkenaz, who received the Torah as an inheritance from their ancestors from the days of the destruction of the Temple. Likewise the tradition of our predecessors and teachers in France is superior…

A portrait identified with Rabbeinu Asher ben Yechiel, the “Rosh”

The Rosh speaks of three distinct European Jewish communities: Sefarad, Ashkenaz, and Tzarfat (France). This makes one wonder whether Rashi would have considered himself Ashkenazi (as people typically see him today) or Tzarfati? Rashi was born and died in Troyes, France, though he spent time in Worms and Mainz in Germany, hence the reference above to his having learned things while visiting “Ashkenaz”. This implies that Rashi may not have considered himself Ashkenazi at all. (His father was called Rabbi Itzchak haTzarfati, and though he lived for a time in Worms, probably hailed from Lunel in Southern France.) Whatever the case, we see that the Sefardi, Ashkenazi, and Tzarfati Jewish communities were already firmly entrenched at the time of Khazaria’s fall.

Delving into Ashkenazi Genes

Science can shed further light on Ashkenazi origins. One study of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA, which is passed strictly from mother to child) found that some 40% of Ashkenazi Jews come from a group of mothers in Europe, possibly converts, approximately 2000 years ago (another related study here). This would have been around the destruction of the Second Temple. We know that many Jews fled Judea (or were expelled) at the time, and settled across the Roman Empire and beyond. Similarly, a study of Y chromosomes (passed strictly from father to son) shows that most Ashkenazi Levites have a common ancestor who lived at least 1500 years ago, most likely in the Middle East or already having migrated to Europe. These scientists conclude that the Khazar hypothesis is “highly unlikely”.

Other genetic studies do appear to show high degrees of relatedness between Turkic and Iranian peoples with Ashkenazi Jews, especially males. Of course, Jews have lived and migrated just about everywhere, and undoubtedly mixed with local populations, while drawing numerous converts. One interesting study found that about 5% of Ashkenazi males are part of the Q3 haplogroup, part of the wider Q group which represents Native Americans and Asians. The researchers concluded that Q3 entered the Jewish gene pool sometime in the 1st millennium. Some say this is due to the Ashina Turks (among the Khazar elite) who converted to Judaism and took Jewish wives. Either way, it is only a tiny minority of Ashkenazis that carry such genes.*

What we see from genetic studies is that most Ashkenazi Jews today descend from ancestors that were already in Europe long before the rise of the Khazars. Historical evidence confirms the existence of widespread Jewish communities in Europe before the time of Khazaria, too. In reality, the Khazar hypothesis keeps being resurrected because it is a convenient tool for anti-Semites to attack modern Jews as “imposters” (meanwhile completely forgetting the other half of the world’s Jews which are not Ashkenazi at all!) or for anti-Zionists to deny a Jewish connection to the land of Israel.

Having said all that, we must still answer the key question: where did the “Ashkenazi” label come from?

Adapting Names

When we look at the seventy “original” nations—descendants of Noah—we find that they represent a very small geographical area. Of the seventy, fourteen come from Yefet and represent Asia Minor, Armenia, and the Aegean islands (Genesis 10:5), nine are Cushites (presumably dark-skinned people), eight of Mitzrayim, twelve are Canaanites, and twenty-six are Middle Eastern, or possibly even just Mesopotamian. As already mentioned, the Torah’s narratives are confined to a narrow geographical space that was relevant to the ancient Israelites.

A “Table of Nations” from the ArtScroll Stone Chumash

When Jews started migrating out of Israel and beyond the Middle East, they needed to come up with names for these new territories they inhabited. So, they adapted the Biblical place-names of locations that no longer existed or whose identity was no longer known. For example, Sefarad became Spain and Tzarfat became France. When scripture speaks of Sefarad or Tzarfat (as in Ovadiah 1:20), it is certainly not speaking of Spain or France! For instance, the prophet Elijah went to Tzarfat, which is described as being next to Sidon (I Kings 17:9). Sidon is, of course, a well-known ancient city, in what is now Lebanon.

For the first Jews who settled in Spain and France, they had migrated the farthest West they could possibly go at the time. For them, these new lands were the most distant from Jerusalem, so they fittingly adapted terms for places described as being exceedingly far from the Holy Land (as in Ovadiah 1:20). They couldn’t use the names of places that were still extant, but only those ancient names that were no longer relevant. In the same fashion they described Germany as “Ashkenaz”, while Bohemia was surprisingly called “Canaan”. Therefore, to say that Ashkenazi Jews are Turkish because Ashkenaz was originally a place in Turkey is like saying French Tzarfati Jews are Lebanese because Tzarfat was originally a place in Lebanon!

It is worth pointing out here that scholars have also recently pinpointed the Biblical Sefarad. There is now strong historical evidence to identify Sefarad with the ancient town of Sardis, also in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), of course. Sardis was known to the Lydians who inhabited it as Sfard, and to the Persians as Saparda. It goes without saying that Sephardic Jewish origins have nothing to do with Turks, as don’t the origins of Lydians (probably the “Ludim” of Genesis 10:13, or the Lud of Genesis 10:22), nor the Yavanim, the Greek Ionians, all of whom inhabited that same area of Asia Minor.

The Tower of Babel

‘Turris Babel’ by Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680)

After telling us the divisions of the nations in Genesis 10, the Torah goes on to relate the narrative of Migdal Bavel. We are told that the people were all still unified at this point, speaking one tongue. They gathered in Babylon to build a tower to the Heavens, with nefarious intentions. Their plans were thwarted by God, who then scattered the people all over the world and confounded their tongues.

From a mystical perspective, at this point those seventy root nations—which originally inhabited Asia Minor and the Middle East—were spread all around the globe into a multitude of various peoples with new cultures and languages. Thus, all of the world’s thousands of nations and ethnicities, wherever they may be, are spiritually rooted in one of Noah’s seventy descendants.

Consequently, there were those who believed that Ashkenaz was dispersed to Central Europe. What’s amazing is that this was not only a Jewish belief, but a Christian one, too. The evangelical Christian pastor Ray Stedman (1917-1992) wrote:

The oldest son of Gomer was Ashkenaz. He and his descendants first settled around the Black Sea and then moved north into a land which is called Ascenia, and which later became known as the Islands of Scandia, which we now know as Scandinavia. You can trace a direct link between Ashkenaz and Scandinavia.

Basing himself on earlier sources, he lists Ashkenaz as referring to all Saxons, Scandinavians, and Germanic tribes. This argument was made at least as far back as the 4th century (long before the Khazars appeared on the scene), in Eusebius’ Historia Eccliesiastica, where Ashkenaz is Scanzia, another name for Scandinavia and/or Saxony.

Around that same time, the Talmud (Yoma 10a) identifies Gomer (the father of Ashkenaz) with Germamia. While this Germamia is possibly referring to Cimmeria, or Germanikia in Syria—which would have been more familiar to the Babylonian Sages living in the Persian Empire—it is very likely that Jews who settled in Germany would see Germamia as referring to their new land. Combined with the alliteration between “Ashkenaz” and “Saxony”/“Scanzia”, we can understand why the Jews that settled in Germany adapted the name Ashkenaz.

As an intriguing aside, the Talmud cited above holds that Yefet is a forefather of the Persians, too. The Talmud reads: “How do we know that the Persians are derived from Yefet? Because it is written: ‘The sons of Yefet: Gomer, and Magog…’” The Sages seem to connect Magog with the Persians. That might make alarm bells go off in the heads of modern readers who see Iran as playing a central role in an End of Days Gog u’Magog scenario.

To conclude, the hypothesis that Ashkenazi Jews originate among Turkish converts is completely false. While some Turkish converts certainly joined the Jewish nation in the Middle Ages, Ashkenazi Judaism predates this phenomenon by centuries. Both historical evidence and genetic analyses confirm a European Jewish presence as far back as 2000 years ago.


*Shortly after publishing this article, Kevin Brook pointed out the following to me, from his book The Jews of Khazaria (pg. 204):

Some researchers thought it was possible that these could have been inherited from the Khazars, but this idea is no longer viable. Ashkenazim belong to the Q haplogroups that were later precisely identified as Q-Y2200 (Q1b1a1a1a) and Q-YP1035 (Q1b1a1a1a2a2). On the Y chromosome tree, Q-Y2200’s parent haplogroup Q-Y2225 (Q1b1a1a1) was found in an Italian sample from Sicily, and geneticists determined that QY2225’s distant ancestors had apparently lived in the Middle East. The Ashkenazic branches of Q are very different from Q1a1b-M25 and Q1a2-M346, which are common among Turkic-speaking peoples, and the common ancestor between them all lived many thousands of years ago, far in advance of Khazaria’s existence.

What Was the Forbidden Fruit?

This week we begin a new cycle of Torah readings with Beresheet, undoubtedly the most mysterious parasha of the Torah. We read of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and how they were forbidden from consuming the fruit of the Etz HaDa’at Tov v’Ra, “Tree of Knowledge of God and Evil”. What was this tree? What was its fruit? And why were Adam and Eve barred from eating of it?

In Western artwork, the Forbidden Fruit is usually depicted as an apple. This has no origin in Jewish thought, and instead comes from the interplay of the nearly identical Latin words mălum¸“evil” (as in the English “malevolent”), and mālum, “apple” (also the root of English “melon”). Having said that, Jewish texts do describe the Garden of Eden as having the smell of an apple orchard (see Rashi on Genesis 27:27). Maybe this is why the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was associated with an apple tree—and why the Latin words for “evil” and “apple” are so similar!

In the Talmud, the Sages give three possibilities for the identity of the Forbidden Fruit (Sanhedrin 70a, Berakhot 40a). The first is that it was grapes. Apparently, Adam and Eve became drunk from wine, and this led to their sin. The Sages here admonish Noah for having planted a vineyard after the Flood (Genesis 9:20), for he should’ve known from Adam and Eve that this was a bad idea! The second opinion is that the Tree of Knowledge was a variety of wheat. This is based on the relatedness of the words chitah (חטה), “wheat”, and chet (חטא), “sin”. The third opinion is that it was a fig tree, since we read how Adam and Eve covered themselves up with fig leaves right after consuming the fruit (Genesis 3:7). Rabbi Nehemiah holds that, in poetic fashion, just as they sinned with the fig, they were covered up with the fig.

Of course, all three of these possibilities are problematic. Neither grape nor wheat is a “tree” in the traditional sense. And it is hard to imagine that the common fig would have once been the Forbidden Fruit. Conversely, the fig is generally portrayed in very positive terms in the Tanakh (see, for example, Deuteronomy 8:7 and Micah 4:4).

The simplest explanation is that the Tree of Knowledge was a completely unique tree, unlike any other in the world. Perhaps the Sages were trying to describe some of the qualities of the Fruit, and that it had elements of wheat, grape, and fig. Wheat can be turned into flour and made into bread, whose ability to rise is seen as a metaphor for an inflated ego (hence the deeper reason of removing chametz during Pesach). Grape can be turned into wine, the most common way for people to go under the influence and be drawn to sin. Figs are often associated with sexuality in mythology. Maybe the Forbidden Fruit symbolized pride, debauchery, lust—wheat, grape, fig. Interestingly, the initials of these three species in Hebrew can spell da’at (דעת), the Tree of “Knowledge”: Another name for wheat, or grain, in the Tanakh is dagan (דגן); grapes are ‘anavim (ענבים); and fig is te’enah (תאנה).

Blessing Bread and Returning to Eden

The Midrash expands on the Talmudic passage above (Beresheet Rabbah 15:7). It gives a further reason for why the Forbidden Fruit might be wheat. On the surface, the Midrash brings an old figure of speech that a person who lacks knowledge would be described as having never eaten bread. The deeper implication of this Midrash is that, unlike everything else, bread is a quintessentially human food. Animals also eat fruits, vegetables, meat, and milk, but only humans eat bread. Processing hard wheat into edible bread requires divine knowledge. This is symbolic of the divine knowledge found within the Tree of Knowledge.

Bread represents something very powerful: man’s ability to manipulate his environment for his own benefit. Animals do not have this ability; they are victims of whatever nature throws at them. Man alone is able to change nature. This could be as simple as baking bread, or as complex as seeding the clouds to make rain and manipulate the weather. The Tree of Knowledge represents this divine ability, and maybe this is why the Torah says that once man consumes of it, they will be like gods (Genesis 3:22).

Intriguingly, the Midrash goes on to a discussion of the hamotzi blessing recited on bread. Reading between the lines, the Midrash reveals that reciting hamotzi might very well be, from a Kabbalistic perspective, fulfilling a cosmic tikkun for the sin of Eden. God cursed the land following Adam and Eve’s sin, and when we recite birkat hamazon after eating a meal, we bless the good land that God gave us. This serves to “sweeten” (or reverse, or temper) that curse of Eden.

The Etrog as Forbidden Fruit

The same Midrash above also speaks at length about the possibility that the Fruit was a grape or fig. It adds that it could have been a fruit called berat sheva or a different variety called berat ali, the identities of which are no longer clear. Some comment that these are types of figs. Interestingly, Rabbi Abba of Acco says the Fruit was an etrog, the special citron we use on the holiday of Sukkot. He proves it by pointing out how the Torah states Eve saw the Tree of Knowledge was “good for food” (Genesis 3:6), as if the tree itself, and not just its fruit, was edible. Rabbi Abba says that, apparently, no wood is edible except for that of the etrog tree, so the Tree of Knowledge must have been an etrog!

The mitzvah of taking an etrog comes from the Torah’s statement that we should take a pri etz hadar, the fruit of a “precious”, “unique”, or “enduring” tree (Leviticus 23:40). For the Sages, only the etrog fit that description. The same description works for the Tree of Knowledge—certainly a one-of-a-kind and “enduring” species. We can take another mystical plunge into the Midrash and extract that the mitzvah of acquiring an etrog and performing netilat lulav on Sukkot is a spiritual rectification, or tikkun, for the primordial sin of Eden. It has been pointed out that we shake the lulav and etrog a total of 18 times (three times in each of the six directions), with 18 being the gematria of chai (חי), “life”. When Adam and Eve consumed the Forbidden Fruit, they brought death into the world. In turn, we take the etrog and bring life into the world. Fittingly, at no point in the holiday do we actually consume the etrog!

A Tree of Unification

The Midrash cited above concludes by saying all of the opinions are inaccurate, and that the Tree of Knowledge was, of course, its very own species. God “did not, and will not, reveal to man” the identity of this tree. Others hold that it wasn’t a tree at all, and the whole narrative is an allegory. The Tree of Knowledge is symbolic for something else.

The most popular explanation is that the Tree is symbolic of sexual union. The Arizal explains that da’at means sexual intimacy, which is why the Torah describes the union of husband and wife as “knowledge” (as in Genesis 4:1, 4:17, or 4:25). He states that sexual arousal begins in the mind, as does the process of generating seed, hence the relationship to “knowledge” (see Sha’ar HaPesukim on Beresheet). Indeed, today we know from a scientific perspective that the hormones governing the reproductive system and the production of sex cells emerge from the hypothalamus and pituitary in the brain.

From this perspective, Adam and Eve’s “fruitful” encounter is a metaphor for sexual intimacy. This seems to be the plain meaning of the text, which says how Adam and Eve recognized that they were naked, and goes on to state how they produced children. In his Creation Legends of the Ancient Near East (pg. 134), S.G.F Brandon (1907-1971) suggests that this is precisely why the central “punishment” of consuming the Forbidden Fruit was bringing death into the world. Until then, Adam and Eve were alone on a finite planet. Once they learned to procreate, Earth would get more and more populated until there would be no resources left. Death is, therefore, the most natural and fitting consequence. People must die to make way for new people, or else the world would quickly be at its limits. At the same time, when God says consuming the Fruit would make man godly, it means that it would give man the divine ability to create more humans!

Why Must Evil Exist?

If we read the Torah literally, what does it mean that Fruit was of a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? The simplest explanation is that Adam and Eve did not originally have a concept of good or bad. While Eden was entirely good, and full of every possible delight and pleasure, Adam and Eve had no way of appreciating it, for they had never known any suffering. All of us today appreciate pleasure because we have experienced pain. For Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden was just bland.

In a strange kind of way, the world needs evil to exist, at least for a temporary period of time. God wanted a world that was entirely good and pleasurable, but paradoxically, such a world first needs to go through a period of evil and pain. Only afterwards can we truly appreciate the good, and fully revel in the delights of Eden. This is why God tells us that “I form light and create darkness, make peace and create evil, I am Hashem, who makes all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7) We therefore find ourselves in this temporary phase of (unfortunately) very great aches and challenges. In the grand scheme of things, these millennia are just a blip in the cosmic passage of time. Soon enough, this difficult—though necessary—phase will be over, and we shall return to a true Garden of Eden.

Future Utopia (Credit: Kitbash3d.com)

 

The Ten Martyrs & The Message of Yom Kippur

Tomorrow evening we usher in the holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The Torah does not make clear why this day in particular (the 10th of Tishrei) should be a day of atonement. The traditional explanation is that on this day God forgave the Israelites for the Sin of the Golden Calf, and presented Moses with a new set of Tablets. Based on the wording of the Torah, the Sages deduce that Moses ascended Mt. Sinai a total of three times, each for forty days: The first time was from Shavuot until the 17th of Tammuz; the second from the 19th of Tammuz until the 29th of Av; the third form Rosh Chodesh Elul until the 10th of Tishrei, Yom Kippur (see Rashi on Exodus 33:11). On that final day, God forgave the people, and established henceforth that each year should be a day of forgiveness.

‘Joseph Sold by His Brethren’ by Gustave Doré

There happens to be another, more ancient, explanation for the origins of Yom Kippur. This one comes from the Book of Jubilees, that mysterious apocryphal work dating back to the Second Temple era. Though not canonized by our Sages (it was by the Sages of Ethiopian Jewry), it still tremendously influenced many traditional Midrashic teachings. According to Jubilees, the sons of Jacob sold their brother Joseph at the start of a new year, and returned to their father on the 10th of Tishrei. On that day, they presented their father with Joseph’s bloodied tunic. So sad was this tragic “revelation” that, according to Jubilees, Dinah and Bilhah died from grief! Jacob henceforth commemorated the 10th of Tishrei as Joseph’s yahrzeit. His sons, meanwhile, feeling forever guilty for their sin, begged God for forgiveness each year on that day. Therefore, Jubilees (34:18) concludes, the 10th of Tishrei became the ultimate Day of Atonement for all of Israel.

This explanation may have indirectly found its way into the Rabbinic tradition. Today, it is customary to read an account of the Ten Martyrs on Yom Kippur. These were ten great sages that were murdered by the Romans. The story appears in a number of Midrashim, which don’t all agree on the details. In brief, the Roman Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138 CE) and/or his Judean governor Tineius Rufus (c. 90-133 CE) summon the ten great rabbis of the time. The rabbis are questioned about the sale of Joseph: doesn’t the Torah prescribe the death penalty for an act of kidnapping? If so, why weren’t the brothers of Joseph put to death for their sin?

The rabbis admit that this is indeed the case. The Romans decide that these ten rabbis should be put to death in place of the ten brothers of Joseph. The rabbis request time to deliberate, and ultimately determine that it has been decreed in Heaven. They submit to the edict. Each one is subsequently tortured to death by the Romans. Some say they were slaughtered on Yom Kippur, or at least one of them was—the most famous among them, Rabbi Akiva.

The Arizal further suggests that these ten rabbis were the reincarnations of the Ten Spies (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 36). This was another grave ancient sin the Ten Martyrs had to rectify. The Arizal cites an older Midrash that when Joseph was tempted by the wife of Potiphar, it was so hard for him to resist that ten drops of semen emerged “from his fingertips”, and the Ten Spies were the souls of those ten drops, as were the Ten Martyrs, who finally fulfilled all the necessary spiritual rectifications.

Revisiting the Ten Martyrs

There are several major issues with the account of the Ten Martyrs. First of all, the identity of the ten rabbis is different depending on the source. In Midrash Eleh Ezkerah, the ten are listed as: Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel, Rabbi Ishmael (the Priest), Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion, Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava, Rabbi Yehuda ben Dama, Rabbi Hutzpit (“the Interpreter”), Rabbi Chananiah ben Chakhinai, Rabbi Yeshevav, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua. In Midrash Tehillim (9:14), however, we are given the following list; Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel, Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha (the Priest), Rabbi Yeshevav (the Scribe), Rabbi Hutzpit (“the Interpreter”), Rabbi Yose [ben Halafta], Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava, Rabbi Yehuda haNachtom, Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai, Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion, and Rabbi Akiva.

The problem with the latter list (other than having three, or even four, different rabbis) is that Shimon ben Azzai is known from the Talmud to have died by mystically ascending to Pardes (Chagigah 14b). More intriguingly, just about everyone is familiar with the Talmudic account of Rabbi Akiva’s tragic death—where he faithfully recites Shema while being raked with iron combs (Berakhot 61b)—yet Midrash Mishlei (ch. 9) has a different idea: Rabbi Akiva was indeed imprisoned by the Romans, but died peacefully in his cell on a yom tov. His student, Rabbi Yehoshua, with the help of the prophet-angel Eliyahu, got Rabbi Akiva’s body out while all the guards and prisoners miraculously fell into a deep sleep. He is later buried with a proper funeral in Caesarea, and the presiding rabbis say to him, “Blessed are you, Rabbi Akiva, who has found a good resting place at the hour of your death.”

This Midrash fits with a Talmudic passage that describes how Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai learned from Rabbi Akiva during the latter’s imprisonment (Pesachim 112a). In that passage, Rabbi Shimon incredibly blackmails his master by saying that if he won’t agree to teach, Rabbi Shimon will pull some strings to have Rabbi Akiva executed! Rabbi Akiva goes on to relay five teachings. This suggests that Rabbi Akiva was not scheduled for execution at all, and his punishment for participating in the Bar Kochva Revolt was only imprisonment. It also fits with the accepted tradition that Rabbi Akiva lived to 120 years. It is highly unlikely that the Romans conveniently executed him on his 120th birthday, and far more likely that he died peacefully after living to 120.

Another well-known issue with the account of the Ten Martyrs is that these ten figures lived in different time periods. Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel and Rabbi Ishmael were alive at the end of the Second Temple era. If they were killed by the Romans, it would have been during the Great Revolt, which ended with the Temple’s destruction. The other rabbis lived decades later. They were active in the time of the Bar Kochva Revolt, and would have died around that time (c. 135 CE), some 65 years after the Temple’s destruction. Interestingly, the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus (37-100 CE), who was an eyewitness to the Temple’s destruction, wrote that Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel was killed not by the Romans, but by the Jewish Zealots, one of the extremist factions that terrorized Jerusalem.

Some say that there were two Rabbi Ishmael haKohens. The first was Rabbi Ishmael ben Eliyahu, and he was the one who served as a priest at the end of the Second Temple era. The other was his grandson, Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha, who was a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva. It isn’t clear which of these Rabbi Ishmaels was martyred. According to Midrash Tehillim, it was Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha, which makes sense since it would have been in the times of the Hadrianic persecution, during the Bar Kochva Revolt. (To further complicate things, the Talmud [Gittin 58a] says that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah once ransomed a young Ishmael ben Elisha out of a prison in Rome!)

The Talmud states that during the Water-Drawing Ceremony of Sukkot, the greatest celebration of the year in Temple times, Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel I would juggle with fire! His descendant, Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel II, taught “Great is peace, for Aaron the Priest became famous only because he sought peace.”
(Illustration by Ilene Winn-Lederer)

Similarly, there are two Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliels. While the second one was alive during the Bar Kochva Revolt, we know he survived that conflict, and went on to head the new Sanhedrin in Usha. It is possible that he was eventually killed by the Romans. He himself stated how terribly unbearable the persecutions were in his day (Shabbat 13b, Shir HaShirim Rabbah 3:3). In that case, perhaps the list in Midrash Eleh Ezkerah is accurate. If it was Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel II (not I, who was killed by Zealots), and Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha (not ben Eliyahu), then all Ten Martyrs lived around the same time. Still, they wouldn’t have been executed in one event, but that isn’t necessarily a requirement. We know that Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava, for example, survived for some time after Rabbi Akiva, and ordained five of the latter’s students (Sanhedrin 14a). The list in Midrash Tehillim must be mistaken, as is the alternate account of Rabbi Akiva’s death in Midrash Mishlei. (There is little doubt that Rabbi Akiva was a victim of the Romans, considering he was a key supporter of the Bar Kochva Revolt.)

The Message

Going back to our original question, the Ten Martyrs died as a spiritual rectification for the sale of Joseph. The two are linked by the Yom Kippur holiday, which is said to be the day of Joseph’s false “yahrzeit”, and the day that the Ten Martyrs were murdered (or their fate decreed). The key lesson in all of this is that from the very beginning, the number one problem plaguing Israel is sinat hinam, baseless self-hatred and infighting. This was the issue with the very first, literal, Bnei Israel, the sons of Jacob, who conspired against one of their own, and continues to be the primary issue to this very day.

If we want true atonement and repentance, along with the Final Redemption, we must completely put an end to the incessant conflicts within our singular nation. This applies to both personal conflicts among family and friends, as well as larger political or cultural ones. We have to start seeing beyond the divides—Ashkenazi/Sephardi, secular/religious, Litvish/Hassidic, Orthodox/non-Orthodox, Israeli/Diaspora, liberal/conservative—and fully embrace one another. Long ago, the Arizal instituted an important practice of reciting each morning: “I accept upon myself the mitzvah of ‘and you shall love your fellow as yourself’, and I love each and every one within Bnei Israel as my own soul.” (הֲרֵינִי מְקַבֵּל עָלַי מִצְוַת עֲשֵׂה שֶׁל: וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוךָ, וַהֲרֵינִי אוהֵב כָּל אֶחָד מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כְּנַפְשִׁי וּמְאודִי) Centuries earlier, it was Rabbi Akiva himself—first among martyrs—who declared this mitzvah to be the greatest in the Torah.

Gmar chatima tova!

Three Reasons to be Religious

An artist’s rendition of the Ark of the Covenant

In this week’s parasha, Vayelech, we read how Moses completes writing the Torah and places it inside the Ark of the Covenant. The parasha cautions multiple times that we must not stray from this Torah, for our own benefit. At this introspective time of year, it is especially pertinent to ask: what is the benefit of living a Torah life? Why bother being religious? Aside from the simple answers, like fulfilling God’s will, earning an afterlife, or knowing this is the right way, what are the tangible, clear, positive impacts of living religiously? While there are, of course, many reasons, the following are three vital benefits of a life according to God’s Torah.

1. Personal Development that Works

Although Mussar as a large-scale movement only began in the 19th century, it has always been a central part of Judaism. The root of the word mussar (מוּסַר) literally means “restraint” or “discipline”. It is about developing self-control, awareness, morality, and being in tune with one’s inner qualities. The origin of this word is actually in the Book of Proverbs, which begin with this very term: “The proverbs of Solomon, the son of David, king of Israel, to know wisdom and mussar, to comprehend sayings of understanding, to receive mussar of reason, justice, law, and ethics.”

Before Proverbs, the word mussar appears once in the Torah, in reference to God disciplining us (Deuteronomy 11:2). The Torah instructs us to be kind and generous, humble and wise, restrained and strong; to take care of the widow and orphan, of the poor and oppressed. The prophets of Israel continued to instruct the people in this way, reminding them to be upright and just individuals. The tradition continued into the Rabbinic period, with ancient treatises like Pirkei Avot (a tractate of the Mishnah) wholly devoted to inspiring personal growth and self-improvement.

One who lives a Torah lifestyle is immersed in such teachings. Whether it’s simply reading the weekly parasha, or listening to the rabbi’s dvar; going through Avot in the weeks between Passover and Shavuot, reciting Selichot in the Forty (or Ten) Days of Repentance, or participating in the various fasts throughout the year, a religious Jew is simply unable to abstain from personal growth of some kind. We are constantly reminded of the humility of Moses, the selflessness of Abraham, the devotion of David, and the wisdom of Solomon; the incomparable patience of Hillel, the studiousness of Rabbi Akiva, and the tremendous qualities of countless other great figures. These are our heroes, and we are constantly prompted to emulate them.

There is no doubt whatsoever that a Jew who is truly religious (and not just religious in appearance, or because this is how he grew up) is continually becoming ever kinder, more humble, and generally a better human being. Now, it may be argued that even a non-religious person can focus on personal growth, and there isn’t a lack of secular self-help literature out there. This is true, but there is one key difference:

The secular person is improving for their own benefit (and the benefit of those immediately around them), while the religious person is improving not only for that benefit, but also because he understands that God demands this of him. This is important because the secular person might feel like reading a self-improvement book this week, or working hard on himself this year, but might completely forget about it next week, or might have a very busy year in which he didn’t have any time for this kind of thing at all. The religious Jew does not have this luxury. He will be fervently repenting and reflecting during the High Holiday season, and during Sefirat HaOmer and during the Three Weeks, because he is obligated to do so and cannot abstain. Religion forces us to improve. It demands that we become better, and God will judge us if we do not. This makes all the difference.

Take, for example, a person going on a diet. We all know that the vast majority of diets fail. Why is this so? Because there is nothing external forcing a person to stick to the diet. Eventually, they will slip up once, and then again, and soon enough the diet will be a forgotten thing of the past. Meanwhile, a religious person who takes upon themselves a kosher diet is unlikely to lapse. Most religious Jews happily stick to a kosher diet their entire life, despite the fact that it is so difficult. Why is such a diet successful? Because there is an external factor—God—that keeps us firmly on the diet.

Thus, while every 21st century Westerner might be engaged in some sort of secular personal development, these fleeting periods of growth are inconsistent at best, and completely ineffective at worst. Religious-based personal development works, and this is one major benefit to a Torah lifestyle.

2. The Importance of Community

While other religions may be practiced in solitude, Judaism is an entirely communal faith. The ideal prayer is in a minyan of ten or more, the ideal Torah study in pairs; marriage and child-bearing are a must, a holiday is no holiday without a large gathering, and even a simple daily meal should ideally have at least three people. Judaism is all about bringing people together. Indeed, Jews are famous for sticking together and helping each other out. There are interest-free loans, and a gmach that freely provides to those in need of everything from diapers to furniture. Jews pray together, feast together, study together, and take care of each other. A Jew can visit the remotest Chabad House in the farthest corner of the world and still feel like he is having a Shabbat meal at home.

“Belongingness” fills the third rung of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Judaism neatly facilitates the fulfilment of all five rungs.

Jews are not a nation, culture, ethnicity, or even a religion; we are, as Rabbi Moshe Zeldman put it, a family. And it is worth being a part of this extended family. We know from the field of psychology how important “belongingness” is. We know the troubles that people go through just to feel like they belong, or to have a community around them. We know how loneliness plays a key role in depression and mental illness. We know that “no man is an island”, and how important it is to be surrounded by a supportive community. The religious Jewish community is tight-knit like no other. Doors are always open for Sabbaths and holidays, charities are always open to help, and the synagogue serves as the nucleus of the community.

It is important to mention here how necessary it is for a community to stay physically close together. This is one major positive side-effect of not driving on Shabbat. In so doing, we must remain within walking distance of the synagogue, and therefore within walking distance of the whole community. The fatal error that the Conservative movement made was in allowing driving to the synagogue. As soon as this change was made, people saw no need to live close to the synagogue, and bought homes further and further away, tearing the community apart. Once the largest Jewish denomination in America, Conservative Judaism has been on a steadily decline ever since.

And so, the second major reason to be religious is the close community that comes with it. Dan Buettner, who famously spent decades studying communities around the world where people live longest and healthiest, concluded that being part of a “faith-based community” adds as much as fourteen years to a person’s life!

3. Cultivating the Mind, Mastering the Universe

Today, we find ourselves in an incredible age where centuries worth of philosophy, mysticism, and science are converging. Going back at least as far as George Berkeley (1685-1753), and really much farther to Plato (c. 427-347 BCE), philosophers have long noted the illusory nature of this physical world, and some denied the very existence of concrete material as we perceive it. The only real substance to this universe, according to them, is the mind. We live in a mental universe.

While this may sound far-fetched, the physics of the past century has brought us a great deal of proof to support it. The Big Bang taught us that the entire universe emerged from a miniscule, singular point, and that all was once in a ball of uniform energy, and that all matter (which appears to come in so many shapes and forms) really emerges from one unified source. The famous double-slit experiment showed us that all particles of matter are also simultaneously waves. Sometimes particles behave like solid objects, and other times like transient waves. The only difference is the presence of an observer, a conscious mind. Our minds literally impact our surroundings. Max Planck, regarded as the father of quantum physics, remarked:

As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.

The “matrix” of this vast universe is the mind. Of course, this has been a central part of Kabbalah and other schools of mysticism for millennia. The Tikkunei Zohar (18b) transforms the first word of the Torah, Beresheet (בראשית), into Rosh Bayit (ראש בית), ie. that this entire universe (bayit), is a product of God’s “Mind”, or perhaps existing in His head (rosh). In fact, the Kabbalists say that if God were to stop thinking about a person even for the briefest of moments, that person would cease to exist. This is related to what we say daily in our prayers, that God “each day, constantly, renews Creation.” God is that Mind that holds the universe in existence.

And we are all a part of that Mind. After all, He made us in His image, with a small piece of that universal consciousness. This is related to the “quantum brain” hypothesis we have spoken of in the past, a scientific theory suggesting that our brains are entangled with the universe, which may itself be “conscious” in some way. In short, thousands of years of human reason, mysticism, and experimentation points to one conclusion: the only real currency in this universe is the mind.

In that case, the only thing really worth developing is the mind. The more powerful one’s mind is, the greater control one wields over the universe. This isn’t just a pretty saying, we know scientifically that our minds affect the universe around us. More personally, studies have shown that meditation (and prayer) can actually impact the way our genes are expressed! We may be able to consciously affect the biology of our bodies down to the molecular level.

The placebo effect is the best proof for this. Science still cannot explain how it is that a person who simply believes they are receiving treatment will actually heal. Surgeons have even done placebo surgeries, with results showing that people who were only led to believe they were operated on still improved just as well as those who actually went under the knife. How is this possible?

The answer is obvious: our minds have a very real, concrete, physical affect on reality. Unfortunately, most people are unaware of this latent power, and must be duped into it (as with placebos). But that power is definitely there, and its potential is immeasurable. One must only work to develop these mental powers.

Judaism provides us with exactly this opportunity. Like no other religion, Judaism is entirely based on ceaseless mental growth. We must always be studying, praying, blessing, meditating, contemplating, and reasoning. Scripture tells us to meditate upon the Torah day and night (Joshua 1:8), and the Talmud reminds us that talmud Torah k’neged kulam, learning Torah is more important than all other things. The mystical tradition, meanwhile, is built upon mental exercises like hitbonenut (“self-reflection”) and hitbodedut (“self-seclusion”), yichudim (“unifications”) and kavannot (“intentions”). A religious Jew is constantly developing not only their outer intellect, but their inner mental capacities.

And this is the true meaning of Emunah, loosely translated as “faith”. The first time the word appears in the Torah is during the battle with Amalek, following the Exodus, where we read how Moses affected the outcome of the battle by holding up his arms emunah (Exodus 17:12). Moses was very much affecting the universe around him. The only other time the word appears in the Torah itself is in next week’s parasha, Ha’azinu, where God is described as El Emunah (Deuteronomy 32:4). In light of what was said above, this epithet makes sense: God is that Universal Mind that brings this illusory physical world into existence. God is the ultimate mental power, and our minds are only tapping into that infinite pool.

Not surprisingly, the prophets and sages describe Emunah as the most powerful force in the universe. King David said he chose the path of Emunah (Psalms 119:30), while King Solomon said that one who breathes Emunah is the greatest tzaddik, and has the power to repair the world with his tongue (Proverbs 12:17-18). Amazingly, the Sages (Makkot 23b) reduced the entire Torah—all 613 mitzvot—to one verse: “The righteous shall live in his Emunah” (Habakkuk 2:4). Perhaps what they meant is that the purpose of all the mitzvot is ultimately to develop our Emunah; to strengthen our minds, to recognize the Divine within every iota of the universe, and to align our consciousness with God’s. This is the secret of the rabbinic maxim: “Make your will like His will, so that He should make His will like your will. Nullify your will before His will, so that He should nullify the will of others before your will.” (Avot 2:4)

Being religious Jews provides us with a regular opportunity (and requirement) to develop our mental faculties. Aside from the many positive health effects of doing so (including staving off mental and neurological illnesses, and even living longer), we are also given a chance to become real masters of the universe around us; to transcend our limited physical bodies. At the end of the day, that’s what life is all about.