Category Archives: Jewish Law & Life Cycle

The Jewish View on Cards and Gambling

In this week’s parasha, Matot-Massei, we read how the Israelites were supposed to divide up the Holy Land between the Twelve Tribes:

And you shall inherit the land by lot according to your families; to the more [numerous] you shall give the more inheritance, and to the fewer you shall give the lesser inheritance; wherever the lot falls to any man, that shall be his…

We learn that the land of Israel was apportioned based on family size, with larger families logically receiving a larger share. Now, to determine which chunk of land a family would receive, the Israelites cast lots. The Talmud (Bava Batra 122a) describes how this was done: two urns were prepared, one containing the names of the Twelve Tribes, and the other containing the names of the various allotments of land. Elazar the High Priest would pick one name from each urn, thus designating a piece of land for a particular tribe.

Casting lots was very common in Biblical times, and is mentioned frequently in the Tanakh. For example, the Torah commands casting lots to determine which goat is sent to Azazel on Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:8). In the Book of Jonah (1:7), the sailors on Jonah’s ship cast lots to determine who was guilty of causing the storm. In the time of King David, the kohanim were thus divided into 24 groups (I Chronicles 24). Haman cast lots to determine the best day to attack the Jews, and this is why the holiday is called “Purim”, since purim was the Persian word for “lots” (Esther 3:7).

Casting lots suggests a large degree of chance or randomness in the process. Yet, people of faith are naturally quite averse to the concept of random chance, for isn’t everything determined by God? Not surprisingly, the word “lot” (goral) also takes on the meaning of “fate” in the Tanakh. For instance, Isaiah (17:14) prophesies: “At evening there will be terror, and before morning they are not. This is the portion of them that spoil us, and the goral of them that rob us.” The ultimate fate of those that harm the Jewish people will be utter destruction. The Sages, too, were uncomfortable with the idea of dividing the Holy Land by seemingly random lots. They therefore stated (ibid.) that the lots were really just a show for the people to see what God intended. In reality:

Elazar was wearing the Urim and Tumim, while Joshua and all Israel stood before him… Animated by the Holy Spirit, he gave directions, exclaiming: “Zevulun” is coming up and the boundary lines of Acco are coming up with it. [Thereupon], he shook well the urn of the tribes and Zevulun came up in his hand. [Likewise] he shook well the urn of the boundaries and the boundary lines of Acco came up in his hand…

Elazar would prophetically see which tribe needed which land, and when he then shook the urns those exact pairs that he foresaw would emerge! So, the process was not random at all, but simply a materialization of the Divine Will. Still, the Sages insist that in the messianic era the Holy Land will not be apportioned through this method of casting lots, but rather “The Holy One, blessed be He, Himself, will divide it among them; for it is said [Ezekiel 48:29], ‘And these are their portions, says the Lord God.’”

If the Sages were not fond of casting random lots by chance, how would they feel about playing games of chance and gambling?

Gambling in the Talmud

In 1999 and 2000, the Muslim Waqf (Temple Mount authority) dug up 9000 tons of Temple Mount soil and unceremoniously dumped it in the Kidron Valley, creating one of the largest archaeological catastrophes in history. Thankfully, archaeologists did not give up on this precious soil, and began the “Temple Mount Sifting Project”. Among the many incredible finds are these Second Temple-era playing dice.

In a list of people that are ineligible to serve as witnesses or as judges, the Mishnah includes a mesachek b’kubia, a person who plays with dice, and mafrichei yonim, “pigeon flyers”. According to the Talmud, the latter most likely refers to people who bet on pigeon races, which were apparently common in those days. We know from historical sources that gambling with various dice games was very popular in Greek and Roman times. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 24b) goes on to discuss what the problem with such people is.

Rami bar Hama teaches that the issue with gambling is that it is essentially built on a lie: each player agrees to pay a certain sum of money if they lose, yet they hope (and fully intend) not to lose at all! That means the initial agreement made by the players is not even valid. The losing gambler is entirely dejected, and gives up their money reluctantly, often with a nagging feeling of being robbed or cheated out of their money.

Rav Sheshet disagrees. After all, there may be some people who are not so sad to part with their money, or are simply addicted to the game itself. Whatever the case, Rav Sheshet holds that gambling is inappropriate because it is a terribly unproductive waste of time, and the gambler contributes nothing to “the welfare of the world”. This is why, Rav Sheshet says, the Mishnah above concludes by saying that only a full-time gambler is prohibited, but one who has an actual job and just plays for fun on the side is permitted.

Nonetheless, Rav Yehudah holds that regardless of whether the gambler has an occupation or not, or whether he is a full-time player or not, a gambler is disqualified from being a kosher witness or judge. Rav Yehudah bases his statement on a related teaching of Rabbi Tarfon, and on this Rashi comments that a gambler is likened to a thief. The Midrash is even more vocal, saying that gamblers “calculate with their left hand, and press with their right, and rob and wrong one another” (Midrash Tehillim on Psalm 26:10).

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 25b) goes on to state that the prohibitions above don’t only refer to a literal dice-player, but any kind of gambler, including one who plays with pebbles (or checkers), and even with nuts. The Sages state that such a person is only readmitted when they do a complete repentance, and refuse to play the game even just for fun without any money!

Halachically-speaking, the Shulchan Arukh (Choshen Mishpat 370:2-3) first states that any kind of gambling is like theft and is forbidden, but then suggests that while it may not exactly be theft it is certainly a waste of time and not something anyone should engage in.

A Ban on Gambling

While the Talmud does not explicitly forbid gambling, later rabbis recognized its addictive nature and sought to ban the practice entirely. In 1628, for example, the rabbis of Venice issued a decree (to last six years) excommunicating any Jew who gambled. Part of the motivation for this decree was the case of Leon da Modena (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Modena, 1571-1648).

Rabbi Leon Yehudah Aryeh da Modena

Born in Venice to a family of Sephardic exiles, da Modena went on to become a respected rabbi and the hazzan of Venice’s main synagogue for forty years. A noted scholar, he wrote about a dozen important treatises. In Magen v’Herev, he systematically tore down the major tenets of Christianity, while in Ari Nohem he sought to discredit Kabbalah and prove that the Zohar has no ancient or divine origin. (The latter is probably why he isn’t as well-known in Jewish circles today as he should be.)

In 1637, he published Historia de’riti hebraici, an overview of Judaism for the European world, meant to dispel myths about Judaism and quell anti-Semitism. Historians credit this with being the first Jewish text written for the non-Jewish world in over a millennium, since the time of Josephus. The book was incredibly popular, and played a key role in England’s readmitting Jews to the country in the 1650s (after having being expelled in 1290).

More pertinent to the present discussion, Rabbi da Modena wrote Sur miRa (“Desist from Evil”), outlining the problems with gambling. He would know, since he was horribly addicted to gambling himself. He wrote of this problem in his own autobiography, Chayei Yehudah. And because such a high-profile sage was a gambler, his rabbinic colleagues in Venice issued that decree to ban any form of gambling.

Rabbi da Modena’s game of choice was cards. At that point in time, playing cards had become wildly popular in Europe. First invented in China in the 9th century, playing cards slowly made their way across Asia, and reached Europe around 1365. They have remained popular ever since, both for gambling and non-gambling games. While it is clear from an halachic standpoint that card games involving money (like Poker or Blackjack) should not be played, is it permissible to play non-gambling card games (like Crazy Eights or Go Fish)?

At first glance, it may not seem like there should be a problem with this. Yet, some rabbis have recently spoken out against all playing cards. Usually, this prohibition is connected not to gambling or wasting time, but rather to cards’ apparent origins in idolatry or the dark arts. Although it is true that some types of cards are used in divination and fortune-telling, it is important to examine the matter in depth and determine whether cards really are associated with forbidden practices.

The History of Playing Cards

Mamluk Cards

The exact origins of cards are unclear. We do know that they come from China, where paper and printing were invented. Card games are attested to in Chinese texts as early as 868 CE. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Muslims brought cards across Asia. They were particularly popular in Egypt during the Mamluk Sultanate (1250-1517). The Mamluks created the first modern-style deck of 52 cards with 4 suits. The suits were sticks, coins, swords, and cups. In the 15th century, Italians started to make cards of their own, with the suits being leaves, hearts, bells, and acorns. The French had three-leaf clovers for leaves, square tiles (or diamonds) for bells, and pikes for acorns. Although these suit symbols remained, the English names reflect the earlier suits of sticks (“clubs”) and swords (“spades”).

The Muslim Mamluks did not draw any faces on their court cards (since depicting faces in art is forbidden in Islam). The Europeans did not have this issue, and adapted the Muslim court cards of malik (king), malik na’ib (deputy king), and thani na’ib (second deputy) to king, queen, and prince or knight (“jack”). In 16th century France, the four kings were depicted as particular historical figures: the King of Spades was King David, the King of Clubs was Alexander the Great, the King of Hearts was Charlemagne, and the King of Diamonds was Julius (or Augustus) Caesar.

We see that playing cards have no origins in idolatry. The style of cards we know today were developed by staunchly monotheistic Muslims. They were further developed by mostly non-religious European renaissance printers, against the wishes of the Church which sought to ban cards on a number of occasions. Neither are playing cards known for being used in fortune-telling. However, a related type of card is used in divination today.

Tarot Cards and Kabbalah

In 15th century Italy, a different type of playing card developed. These were called trionfi, later tarocchi, and finally “tarot cards”. They, too, have four suits, but with 56 cards. These were, and still are, used for a number of different games, just like regular playing cards are. Outside of Europe, tarot cards are not well-known, and are generally associated with fortune-tellers.

In reality, the earliest mention of tarot cards being used in divination is only from 1750, and it was essentially unheard of until the late 19th century. Besides, most diviners actually use a different deck of 78 cards. Of course, such divination is entirely forbidden according to the Torah. So, it seems like some well-meaning rabbis have confused these tarot cards with regular playing cards. Ironically, many occultists actually claim that tarot cards come from Kabbalah!

The Tarot “Tree of Life” (Credit: Byzant.com)

These occultists tie the 22 additional divination cards to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the 22 paths on the mystical “Tree of Life”. The ten numeral cards (naturally) correspond to the Ten Sefirot, while the four suits correspond to the four olamot, or universes. Finally, the four court cards and the ace represent the five partzufim (with the king and queen appropriately being Aba and Ima). While these parallels are neat, there is absolutely no known historical or textual basis to support these claims. Tarot cards have nothing to do with traditional Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism. (There is a concept in Kabbalah of a negative set of Ten Sefirot belonging to the Sitra Achra, so perhaps there is some connection between these tarot cards and certain evil spiritual forces.)

Having said all that, to forbid playing with cards (or even standard tarot cards) just because some people recently started using them in divination is like forbidding drinking coffee because some people recently started divining with coffee (a practice called “tassology” or “tasseography”). While playing cards copiously is certainly a waste of time, there is nothing wrong with the occasional—no gambling—game.

Ba’al HaTurim

It is fitting to end with the words of the Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, c. 1269-1343) who writes in his commentary on the Torah (Tur HaAroch on Deuteronomy 1:1) that Moses himself cautioned Israel about gambling in his final speech before passing away:

Before Moses got ready to relate all these various commandments, he used the present opportunity, a few weeks before his death, to admonish the people, and to remind them of past sins, and how they had caused Hashem a lot of grief during these years. He reminded them how God had treated them by invoking His attribute of mercy and loving kindness time and again. He warned them not to become corrupt again by gambling… They should not rely on the fact that because they were human they were bound to err and sin from time to time and that God, knowing this, would overlook their trespasses.

The Right Way to Observe the “Three Weeks”

‘The Flight of the Prisoners’ by James Tissot, depicting the Jewish people’s exile after the destruction of the First Temple.

This Sunday marks the start of the “Three Weeks” between the fast days of the seventeenth of Tamuz and the ninth of Av. The Talmud describes five tragedies that happened on each of these fast days, culminating with the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem on Tisha b’Av. Over the centuries, many customs have emerged with regards to this time bein hameitzarim, “between the straits”. Today, it has essentially become a three-week mourning period—even though the Talmud and other early texts say nothing about it. Furthermore, many have come to believe that this is an “unlucky” or “dangerous” time for the Jewish people, and thus abstain from various activities. What is the origin of these customs and how should they be followed?

Surprises in the Talmud

Throughout the Three Weeks period it is customary to abstain from shaving and haircuts, as well as listening to music. Generally, weddings are not held (with minor exceptions), and saying the blessing of shehecheyanu (on new clothes, fruits, or other) is discouraged. The mourning intensifies once the month of Av begins. Henceforth, the consumption of meat and wine is restricted, as is bathing for pleasure, doing laundry, or purchasing valuable new things. The source for most of these prohibitions is in the Talmud (Ta’anit 26b-30a), where we read:

With the beginning of [the month of] Av, rejoicing is curtailed. During the week in which the ninth of Av falls, it is forbidden to cut hair and to wash clothes, but on Thursday it is permissible in honour of the Sabbath. On the eve of the ninth of Av, one may not partake of a meal of two courses, nor eat meat, nor drink wine.

The Mishnaic statement above simply states that once the month of Av begins, one must lessen their joy. This would presumably include going to parties and weddings, and listening to music (which, in those days, could only be enjoyed live). Still, it is only speaking of the first days of Av, not of a three week period from the seventeenth of Tamuz. The Mishnah then states that in the actual week in which Tisha b’Av falls, one should abstain from haircuts and laundry (of course, this is permissible if preparing for Shabbat, the honour of which is greater than any mourning custom). The Talmud then debates this Mishnah:

…it is forbidden to cut the hair and to wash clothes from the beginning of the month until after the fast—this is the opinion of Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Yehudah says: It is forbidden the whole month. Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel says: It is forbidden only on that particular week. … Rava said: The halachah is according to Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel. And Rava further said: The halachah is according to Rabbi Meir. And both decisions are in favour of the more lenient practice, and both are needed [to be stated]. For had it only been stated that the halachah is according to Rabbi Meir, I might have said that the restriction is in force from the beginning of the month, therefore it is also clearly stated that the halachah is according to Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel. And had it only been stated that the halachah is according to Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel, I would have said that the restriction continues even on the days after [Tisha b’Av], therefore it is clearly stated that the halachah is according to Rabbi Meir.

There were three schools of thought in those days: Rabbi Meir held that we mourn from the start of Av until the fast; Rabban Shimon that we only mourn during the week of Tisha b’Av itself; and Rabbi Yehudah was the most stringent, holding that the entire month of Av is mournful. The halacha originally favoured Rabban Shimon, however this presented an ambiguity: If we are meant to mourn in the week of Tisha b’Av, does that mean we must continue to mourn for the remainder of the week after the fast is over? To clarify, Rava combines the view of Rabban Shimon and Rabbi Meir, and concludes that we mourn until the fast, and not after. For this reason, today’s custom is to intensify the mourning practices in the week of Tisha b’Av itself.

Finally, the Mishnah states that in the very last meal one eats before the fast begins, they should avoid meat and wine. The Talmud once more elaborates:

Rav Yehudah said: This restriction applies to any time after midday, but not to any time before midday. Rav Yehudah further said: It applies only to the concluding meal [before the fast] but not to any other meal… One who has a meal on the eve of Tisha b’Av with the intention to have another meal [later], he may eat meat and drink wine; but if not, he may not eat meat nor drink wine.

The Talmud makes it clear that one need only abstain from meat and wine in the very last meal before the fast begins. There is no Talmudic basis for avoiding meat and wine from Rosh Chodesh Av. In fact, the Talmud goes on to state that while Rabbi Meir said one should avoid meat and wine in that final meal, the rest of the Sages said one should only lessen his consumption of meat and wine:

How should one restrict? If he was in the habit of eating one pound of meat he should eat one half only; if it is his usual practice to drink one log of wine he should drink one half log only…

The Talmud later clarifies that salted meat and new wine is always permitted. It is only fresh meat and the finer, aged wine that shouldn’t be consumed! Despite this, many Jewish communities became more and more stringent over the centuries, and took upon themselves to avoid all meat and wine from the start of the month. Rav Ovadia Yosef held that since it is already an ancient custom, it should be continued. Interestingly, the Yemenite Jews had no such custom, and only abstained from meat and wine in that final meal before the fast, as the Talmud requires. Nonetheless, Rav Ovadia encouraged them to take on the more stringent custom, especially because now they were living in Israel where destruction of the Temple is felt more pressingly.

The Talmud also mentions the custom of bathing:

At the meal intended to be the concluding one before Tisha b’Av, it is forbidden to eat meat or to drink wine, or to bathe after the meal. At the meal which is not intended to be a concluding meal prior to Tisha b’Av, it is permissible to eat meat and to drink wine, but not to bathe. Rabbi Ishmael bar Yose said in the name of his father: So long as it is permissible to eat meat it is also permissible to bathe.

The Talmud at first suggests that bathing may be one of those things one shouldn’t do the week of Tisha b’Av. Rabbi Ishmael comes to conclude that as long as eating meat is allowed, so is bathing. Thus, from a Talmudic perspective alone, bathing is permitted right up until the final meal of Tisha b’Av.

Laying Down the Law

The Rambam, aka. Maimonides

In the 12th century, the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) produced his monumental Mishneh Torah, the first complete, comprehensive, and conclusive Jewish book of laws. While many more law books have been laid out since then, the Mishneh Torah is often seen as the gold standard. Some hold that it is the greatest law code in Judaism (with the Rambam regularly compared to Moses himself), and many today consider themselves “Rambamists” that strictly follow the dictates of the Mishneh Torah.

There are many reasons why the Mishneh Torah is so great. For one, the Rambam wrote it succinctly, clearly, with no grey areas, and covering every aspect of Judaism. (In fact, he himself writes that one need only read Scripture and his Mishneh Torah to know essentially everything about Judaism!) Secondly, the Rambam did not include any customs of non-Jewish origin or of an irrational nature, of which there are unfortunately quite a great deal today. He was perfectly logical and practical in his halacha. On a related note, the Rambam completely avoided anything Kabbalistic, mystical, or magical. He utterly rejected the belief in evil spirits and demons that would later become so popular (mainly due to Christian and Muslim influence). Thus, the Rambam’s law code may be described as a pure, unadulterated compendium of authentic Judaism. (For more on the Mishneh Torah’s supremacy, see here.)

With that in mind, this is what the Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Ta’aniot, 5:6-8) says about the Three Weeks:

When the month of Av enters, we reduce our joy. During the week of Tisha b’Av, it is forbidden to cut one’s hair, to do laundry, or to wear a pressed garment—even one of linen—until after the fast.

It has already been accepted as a Jewish custom not to eat meat or enter a bathhouse during this week until after the fast… One should not eat meat or drink wine at the meal before the fast. One may, however, drink grape juice that has not been left [to ferment] for three days. One may eat salted meat that was slaughtered more than three days previously. One should not eat two cooked dishes.

When does the above apply? When one ate in the afternoon on the day preceding Tisha b’Av. If, however, one eats a meal before noon, although this is the last meal one eats before the fast, one may eat all that one desires.

When the day before Tisha b’Av falls on the Sabbath, one may eat and drink to the full extent of one’s needs, and one may serve even a meal resembling Solomon’s feasts at one’s table. Similarly, when Tisha b’Av falls on the Sabbath, one need not withhold anything at all.

We see from the Rambam that all of the prohibitions really only kick in the week of Tisha b’Av itself. He rules that one is only forbidden from partaking meat and wine in the afternoon of the day preceding Tisha b’Av, though there is an established custom to avoid meat the entire week. And if Tisha b’Av falls on Shabbat (as it does this year), then there is essentially no mourning at all. This last statement likely reflects the position of Rabbi Yehudah haNasi (the redactor of the Mishnah), who said that the fast of Tisha b’Av should be entirely cancelled if it falls on Shabbat. (Others say he wanted to abolish the fast entirely!)

If that’s the case, how did we go from minimal mourning in the time of the Talmud—and even in the time of the Rambam just 800 years ago—to today’s extensive three week period?

The Influence of Midrash and Kabbalah

On Tisha b’Av it is customary to read Megillat Eichah, the Book of Lamentations. This is the prophet Jeremiah’s gruesome account of Jerusalem’s destruction. Jeremiah writes: “Judah went into exile because of affliction and great servitude; she settled among the nations, [and] found no rest; all her pursuers overtook her bein hameitzarim [between the straits].” (Lamentations 1:3) Rashi cites two meanings for the term “between the straits” or “between the boundaries”. The simple meaning is that it refers to the borders of the Jewish people’s former farms and vineyards which have been destroyed. He then cites the Midrash by stating that “between the straits” also refers to the three week period between the seventeenth of Tamuz and Tisha b’Av.

An artist’s rendition of the hairy and ocular “Ketev Meriri”

Going directly to the source, the Midrash (Eichah Rabbah 1:29) suggests that “her pursuers overtook her bein hameitzarim” means that there is an evil spirit that is particularly strong during the Three Weeks, and has the power to pursue and hurt the Jewish people. The Midrash calls this evil spirit Ketev Meriri (קֶטֶב מְרִירִי), which is mentioned just a single time in the Torah (Deuteronomy 32:24), in parashat Ha’azinu: “The wasting of hunger, and the devouring of the fiery bolt, and Ketev Meriri; and the teeth of beasts will I send upon them, with the venom of crawling things of the dust.” Although usually translated as “bitter destruction”, or a “plague”, or “bad vapour”, some hold that Ketev Meriri is some kind of evil entity or demon out to hurt the Jewish people.

The Midrash in question says it is a demon entirely covered with eyes and hair, and anyone who looks upon it immediately dies. While it is allowed to roam free during the Three Weeks, it is only active “between the end of the fourth hour and the start of the ninth hour of the day, and it goes neither in the sun nor in the shade, but right along the border between a sunny and shaded area.” So, this Ketev Meriri is only found for several hours in the day during the Three Weeks, and can only cause damage if a person is standing or walking, alone, right between a sunny and shaded area! This sounds like silly superstition, which is precisely why the Rambam rejects it outright.

Maran Yosef Karo, aka. the “Mechaber”

Nonetheless, it is mentioned in the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim, 551:18), which warns to beware of Ketev Meriri during the Three Weeks, between the fourth and ninth hour of the day. It is important to remember that the Shulchan Arukh was composed by Rabbi Yosef Karo (“Maran”, 1488-1575), one of the great Tzfat Kabbalists. Although some believe that he, too, sought to keep his updated law code free of Kabbalah, one who reads the Shulchan Arukh will undoubtedly see how thoroughly mystical concepts and practices permeate it. This is one key difference between the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah and Maran’s Shulchan Arukh. Of course, the latter went on to become the authoritative law code of Judaism.

It therefore isn’t surprising that a great deal of (superstitious) fear developed among Jews, worrying that something horrible will happen. Over time, it became customary to avoid going swimming, partaking in any kind of “risky” activity, or even flying in an airplane. Under such conditions, it is only natural that the entire Three Week period became one of pretty intense mourning.

Yet, even the Shulchan Arukh does not speak of such intense mourning. It, too, begins by speaking of mourning from the start of Av. And it is only in the week in which Tisha b’Av itself falls that haircuts and laundry are prohibited (Orach Chaim, 551:3). The same is true for consuming meat and wine, although Maran mentions other customs to abstain from meat and wine from Rosh Chodesh, or even from the seventeenth of Tamuz. He concludes that one who eats meat when his community does not is a sinner and will be—to borrow a Talmudic term—“bitten by a snake” (if he wasn’t already scared enough from Ketev Meriri).

The Shulchan Arukh also lists two different customs for bathing: some abstain from Rosh Chodesh, and others only in the week of Tisha b’Av. And then we are told that some fast every single day during the Three Weeks! (551:16) We see how unlike the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, which is clear as to precisely how a Jew should act, the Shulchan Arukh lists numerous customs without a clear indication which is best. This is another critical difference between the two law codes.

Summarizing the Law

To conclude, if one wants to observe the mourning period strictly as mandated by the Talmud, Mishneh Torah, and even the Shulchan Arukh, one need only abstain from music and festivities from the start of Av, and abstain from bathing, cutting hair, and laundering in the week of Tisha b’Av itself. With regards to meat and wine, although the letter of the law is only to abstain in the last meal before the fast, there is support for abstaining the entire week of Tisha b’Av, and the Shulchan Arukh holds that a person should not deviate from whatever is their local custom.

On the note of bathing and cutting hair or shaving, it is important to remember how great the honour of Shabbat is: While mourning may be an important custom, looking presentable and dignified on Shabbat is actually an halachic requirement. The Talmud makes it clear that one must bathe and cut their hair for Shabbat—even on a Thursday immediately preceding a Tisha b’Av which falls on a Friday. (This is technically not possible in our fixed calendar, but was possible in those days). The Sephardic custom reflects this halachic necessity, while the Ashkenazi custom strangely does not. Rav David Bar-Hayim, despite being of Ashkenazi background himself, holds that the Ashkenazi custom of abstaining from haircuts for the entire Three Weeks—which he traces to about 600 years ago—is plainly wrong and contrary to halacha.

Finally, there is no need to fear of calamities during the Three Weeks, unless one conducts themselves according to Kabbalah, in which case they may need to beware of Ketev Meriri between the fourth and ninth hour of the day, especially if walking alone between sunny and shaded areas.

One, Two, or Three Calebs? In Search of the Primordial Torah

‘The Spies With The Grapes Of The Promised Land’ by Nicolas Poussin (1664)

This week’s parasha, Shlach, is famous for the incident of the spies. The Israelites send a representative from each of the Twelve Tribes to scout the Holy Land. Of the twelve spies, ten return with negative reports, faithlessly arguing that the nation will be unable to settle the Holy Land. Only two spies, Joshua from the tribe of Ephraim and Caleb (or Kalev) from the tribe of Judah, present positive reports. This is one reason why, in the future, it will be the tribes of Judah and Ephraim in particular that dominate the land of Israel, each becoming synonymous with its own kingdom—Judah in the south and Ephraim in the north. While the identity of Joshua is relatively clear, the identity of Caleb is quite murky.

The Torah actually speaks of two Calebs. The first is introduced in this week’s parasha: “For the tribe of Judah, Caleb the son of Yefuneh.” (Numbers 13:6) The second, Caleb the son of Hetzron, appears later in I Chronicles 2:18. The genealogy of the latter Caleb is made explicitly clear: he is a son of Hetzron, the son of Peretz, the son of Judah (through Tamar). The genealogy of the first Caleb, though, is not clear at all. For one, we do not see anyone named Yefuneh from the tribe of Judah. (We do see a person named Yefuneh in I Chronicles 7:38, among a list of descendants of Asher.)

Later, in Numbers 32:12, Caleb is called “Caleb ben Yefuneh HaKenizi [the Kenizzite].” This is how he is referred to several more times in the Tanakh. At first glance, the title is problematic, since the Kenizzites were one of the peoples living in Canaan (or Edom) before Abraham arrived, as we read in Genesis 15:18-21. Caleb is not a Kenizzite in this sense, but rather a descendent of a person named Kenaz. Indeed, we read of Kenaz from the tribe of Judah in I Chronicles 4:13. How Kenaz is descended from Judah is not exactly evident. Kenaz had two sons: Othniel and Seraiah. Yet, we read in the book of Judges (1:13) that Othniel is a brother of Caleb! Two verses later in Chronicles, the text suddenly speaks of “Caleb ben Yefuneh”. Rashi is troubled by this, too, and cites the Talmud (Temurah 16a):

But was Caleb the son of Kenaz? Was he not the son of Yefuneh? The meaning of the word Yefuneh is that he turned [panah] from the counsel of the spies. Still, was [Caleb] the son of Kenaz? Was he not the son of Hetzron, as it says: And Caleb the son of Hetzron begat Azubah? (I Chronicles 2:18) Said Raba: [Caleb] was a stepson of Kenaz. [This can also be proved, since it says: Caleb the son of Yefuneh the Kenezzite, but does not say the son of Kenaz.] A Tanna taught: Othniel is the same as Yabetz. He was called “Othniel” because God answered him [‘ana El], and “Yabetz” because he counselled [ya’atz] and fostered Torah in Israel.

‘Othniel’ by James Tissot. Othniel was the first Judge of Israel following Joshua.

So, either Caleb was really the son of a person named Yefuneh, but was adopted and raised by Kenaz (hence his title of Kenizzite), or there was no such person as Yefuneh at all (since we see no mention of such a Judahite) and this title was given to him because he “turned away” from the other spies. In that case, Caleb would be the biological son of Kenaz. Perhaps we can identify him with Seraiah, which would fit neatly with the statement that Othniel and Caleb are brothers.

The final possibility presented by the Talmud is that Caleb is the same as that other Caleb, ben Hetzron, of I Chronicles 2:18. There, we read that Caleb married a woman named Azuvah, and when she died, took a new wife called Efrat. Caleb’s son with Efrat was Hur, whose son was Uri, whose son was the famous Betzalel, craftsman of the Mishkan.

Where it takes an interesting turn is that our Sages say (see for example Shemot Rabbah 1:17 and Sotah 12a) that Azuvah and Efrat are one and the same person. In fact, “Azuvah” and “Efrat” were two nicknames for Miriam, the sister of Moses! She was initially called Azuvah (“abandoned”) since no one wanted to marry her, perhaps because she wasn’t physically attractive. Caleb decided to marry her not for her exterior beauty, but for her holiness and her great family. As soon as he married her, she miraculously became exceedingly beautiful. Thus, people ceased to call her Azuvah, and instead called her Efrat (“beautiful”).

One or Two Calebs?

Can Caleb ben Yefuneh really be the same person as Caleb ben Hetzron? Did Moses appoint his brother-in-law as one of the spies? The possibility is intriguing. Yet, taking this approach results in multiple issues. The first is chronology.

Caleb ben Hetzron was the fifth generation from Jacob (Jacob-Judah-Peretz-Hetzron-Caleb), like Moses and Miriam (Jacob-Levi-Kohath-Amram-Miriam/Moses). It is therefore very apt that he would be Miriam’s husband. That would make him at least 80 years old at the time of the Exodus (just as Moses was 80 and Miriam was 86). Keep in mind that Betzalel is a great-grandson of Caleb ben Hetzron. At the time of the Exodus then, this Caleb would have had to be old enough to sire three more adult generations after him.

‘Caleb before Joshua’

As we saw above, the spy Caleb lived far longer into the future, well into the period of Judges. If he was Caleb ben Hetzron, it would make his lifespan impossibly long (at least for that time period). Caleb ben Yefunah, on the other hand, is listed in Chronicles among much later descendants of Judah, which would make him a young man when sent as a spy. Joshua 14:7 confirms this, with Caleb stating that he was forty years old when Moses sent him to spy out the land. This would easily allow him to live throughout the forty years in the Wilderness and the many years of conquest that followed into the period of Judges.

Maintaining that these were two different Calebs also solves the difficulty of the two different genealogies in Chronicles. In I Chronicles 2, Caleb ben Hetzron fathers Yesher, Shovav, Ardon, and Hur. In I Chronicles 4, Caleb ben Yefuneh fathers Iru, Elah, and Na’am. These are clearly two separate people. And so, of the various Talmudic opinions presented, the correct one must be that the spy Caleb was really the son (or stepson) of Kenaz. It may be best to identify Caleb with Seraiah, one of the two sons of Kenaz. It is possible that just as Yabetz was called Othniel because “God answered him”, Caleb was called Seraiah because he was seen as a righteous emissary or “prince of God” (שר-יה, sar-Yah).

Despite all this, Rashi, following Sanhedrin 69a, still wants to maintain that there is only one Caleb. The result is an absolutely bizarre, legally problematic, morally disturbing—and biologically impossible—explanation that Caleb had his first child when he was eight years old, and each generation on had their first child before eight years! (See his commentary on I Chronicles 2:20.) The reason Rashi resorts to this conclusion is because of a troubling verse suggesting that, in fact, there is a third Caleb.

A Third Caleb?

In I Chronicles, we read how Hetzron later took another concubine, and had more children with her. The firstborn was named Jerahmeel, and then we are told that “…the sons of Caleb, the brother of Jerahmeel, were Mesha, his firstborn, and the father of Zif…” (I Chronicles 2:42) Here we apparently have another Caleb altogether, with a different set of progeny. It is very possible that Hetzron had two children named Caleb. This may be what I Chronicles 2:24 means when it mysteriously mentions Kalev Efrata, ie. it is referring to that Caleb whose wife was Efrat, and not the Caleb whose concubines were Eifa and Maacah (I Chronicles 2:45, 48).

The big problem is that we then read how this third Caleb, apparently, was the father of Hur and Achsah (v. 49-50). That means he was the Caleb ben Hetzron who fathered Hur, as well as the Caleb ben Yefuneh whose daughter was Achsah and whose brother was Othniel! (Judges 1:12-13) It makes no sense! It is probably because of these troubling verses that Rashi and Sanhedrin 69a want to insist there is just one Caleb after all.

Of course, the simplest (but most unpalatable) conclusion is that these couple of verses in Chronicles are just plain wrong. Perhaps some kind of scribal error crept in over the millennia. A scribe who didn’t know how to reconcile the three Calebs tried to unify them, and in so doing opened up a whole new set of issues. Although today we are generally quick to defend all Scripture as being immaculate, with a perfect transmission from generation to generation ever since Sinai, our Sages of old were not so adamant about the text’s exact accuracy.

One example is the case of Chapter 21 of the Book of Joshua. In some versions, there are two extra verses that don’t appear in other versions. The Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, 1160-1235) writes in his commentary on Joshua 21:7 about these two verses that “I have not seen these two verses included in any ancient and authentic manuscript, rather they have been added to a small number of texts.” A lesser example is Isaiah 27:3 where our current text has pen yifkod, while Rashi comments that his text has pen efkod. Rashi’s disciple, the Mahari Kara (Rabbi Yosef Kara, 1065-1135), notes in his commentary that Sephardis and Ashkenazis have different versions of the word, and “only God knows which is the proper version.”

Even the Chumash isn’t safe. Today, the Yemenite Torah has nine one-letter differences compared to the Ashkenazi Torah. The research of J.S. Penkower shows that the Yemenite Torah is essentially the exact same one used by the Rambam, and the only one considered by him to be the authoritative text. (For a detailed analysis, see Marc B. Shapiro’s The Limits of Orthodox Theology, ch. 7.) Meanwhile, Rav Amnon Bazak of Yeshivat Har Etzion notes that there are some 100 minor variants today between the different Torah texts across the Jewish world. In his essay “Fundamental Issues in the Study of Tanakh, he also cites J.S. Penkower, who found some 65 differences between Rashi’s Torah text and today’s Torah text. For example, Exodus 20:5 in Rashi’s text has the word notzer in place of the current oseh, and Rashi’s Exodus 24:17 has kol Israel in place of the current bnei Israel.

These issues go way back in time. The Midrash (Tanchuma on Beshalach 16) admits that even the Knesset HaGedolah, the “Great Assembly” of the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, had to make modifications to the Torah. Another Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 6:5) provides an example, saying how the ancient scribes added a verse to Genesis (18:22) so that people wouldn’t confuse the angels that visited Abraham with God Himself. A third Midrash (Beresheet Rabbati, 209-212) speaks of a variant “Severus scroll” that “came out of Jerusalem in captivity and went to Rome and was stored in the synagogue of Severus”. The Talmud (Yerushalmi, Ta’anit 4:2), too, provides an account of how three slightly different Torahs were once found in the Temple, so the Sages produced a new text by comparing the previous three and seeing where they agree with each other. The Radak explains in his introduction to the Nevi’im that

…during the First Exile, the texts were lost, the scholars were dispersed, and the Torah sages died. The men of the Great Assembly who restored the Torah to its former state found differences in the texts and followed the reading of those which they believed to be in the majority…

Chatam Sofer

All of this has practical, halachic ramifications. For example, the Sha’agat Aryeh (Rabbi Aryeh Leib Gunzberg, 1695-1785) states in his work of that name (siman 36) that there is no longer a mitzvah to write a Torah scroll, since we are unsure of the exact text. The Chatam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, 1762-1839) adds that this is why we do not say a blessing before writing a new Torah scroll (see his She’elot v’Teshuvot on Orach Chaim, siman 52 and 54) while the Rama (Rabbi Moshe Isserles, 1530-1572) holds for this reason that we do not need to take out another Torah scroll if we suddenly discover that the one we are publicly reading from is defective (see his comments on Orach Chaim 143:4).

It is important to stress, of course, that the variations are slight. We are not talking about major differences spanning whole passages. The vast majority of the variances are only in singular letters which do not even change the meaning of the word or verse. Occasionally, there is a substitution of a word (again, not necessarily changing the meaning of the verse), and in only a few places there is an extra or missing verse or two. The overall integrity of the text is undoubtedly preserved. One should not at all lose faith in the Torah’s authenticity, or its message.

Having said that, all of the deeper mystical sources speak of a “primordial Torah”, a perfect Torah, or the original Torah of Creation whose return we await. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah 429) states that Mashiach will bring a “new Torah” and (Kohelet Rabbah 11:12) that our current Torah will be “vain” compared to the new one. The Zohar attests to the same, and Rabbi Isaac of Radavil (1750-1835) comments in his Ohr Yitzchak (on Pekudei):

Regarding that which is stated in the Zohar Hadash that in the future God will give us a new Torah in the days of the redeemer, may he come speedily and in our days, it is not the Torah which is currently in our possession, and also not the Torah which was given on Mt. Sinai. Not this shall God give us, but a new Torah which was in existence two thousand years before the creation of the world. The Torah which God will give us in the future is hidden in the Torah currently in our possession…

A classic example of the Torah written in “black fire on white fire”: Within the “black fire” letter Pei, we see an inner “white fire” letter Beit.

Deeply encrypted within our current Torah is that original Torah. And so, one who digs deep enough will discover a perfect Torah within today’s seemingly imperfect one—as the Mishnah says: “Turn it over and turn it over, for everything is within it.” This may be tied to the classic idea that the Torah is “black fire on white fire”. Gershom Scholem (Kabbalah, pg. 174) cites a number of mystical texts which say that the Torah of White Fire is the authentic, primordial Torah, while the Torah of Black Fire is only its outward expression, or perhaps a “commentary” on the White Fire. Here we read how the primordial Torah was beheld by Adam in the Garden of Eden, but because of his sin, the Torah was jumbled—its letters rearranged, more prohibitions added, and mystical secrets removed. Mashiach will restore the world to a state of Eden, and with that reveal the original Torah of Creation, the Torah of White Fire.

May we merit to see it soon.

The Mystical Purpose of the Omer

“Bringing the Omer to the Kohen” by Ahuva Klein

In this week’s parasha, Emor, we read of the commandment to count the Omer. Each of the forty-nine days between the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot must be enumerated. In Temple times, this went along with a special “wave-offering” consisting of sheaves (omer in Hebrew) of barley. The Torah doesn’t clearly spell out why this must be done. However, a big clue is given from the conspicuous interplay between the words Emor (the name of the parasha) and Omer (the mitzvah commanded in this parasha).

The difference between Emor (אמר) and Omer (עמר) is just a single letter: an aleph replaced with an ayin. Our Sages point out that when two words differ in such a way, there is a special connection between them. The letter aleph is the first in the alphabet, with a value of one, representing the One God. (In fact, an aleph is composed of two yuds joined by a vav, the sum of which is 26, equal to God’s Ineffable Name, Yud-Hei-Vav-Hei). Each Hebrew letter is also a word with its own meaning. “Aleph” means “master” or “chief”, once more hinting to God being the Master of the Universe. Ayin, meanwhile, means “eye”. The eyes are the tools with which we see this physical world. Because of this, the eyes mislead us, distracting us from the truth that everything is truly One. Indeed, the Shema that we recite twice daily cautions not to follow “after your eyes”. The aleph therefore represents spirituality, while the ayin represents physicality.

The Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570) suggests that Israel represents the unique, spiritual nation among the seventy root nations of the world that are trapped in physicality, the value of ayin being 70. Here (Pardes Rimonim 13:3), he gives the most famous example of the interplay between aleph and ayin: The Sages state that Adam and Eve were initially created as beings of light (אור). Only after consuming the Forbidden Fruit did their light disappear, replaced with fragile skin (עור). Other examples of such parallel terms described in mystical texts include “me” (אני) and “poor” (עני), “nothingness” (אין) and “eye” (עין), and the words in question: “emor” (אמר) and “omer” (עמר).

“Emor” means to speak. It is one of three major roots for “speaking” in Hebrew. The Zohar (I, 234b) explains that ledaber (לדבר) refers to simple, day-to-day speech; le’emor (לאמר) is to speak from the heart; and lehagid (להגיד) is to speak from the soul. For more practical examples, a simple, everyday Torah insight is called a dvar (דבר), while a long and in-depth discourse is a ma’amar (מאמר), and on Pesach we have a particularly special text that comes straight from the soul called the haggadah (הגדה). The form of speech we are interested in here is emor—speech of the heart.

What is the connection between this type of speech and the Omer?

32 Paths of Wisdom

Sefer Yetzirah, perhaps the oldest Jewish mystical text, explains how God brought about the universe. It begins by stating that God created through 32 Paths of Wisdom. These 32 paths are the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the 10 Sefirot (as explained here). Sefer Yetzirah tells us that the first letters God forged were aleph, mem, and shin, which brought about the three primordial elements: air (avir or ruach), water (mayim), and fire (esh). These central letters therefore stand at the three horizontal axes of the Kabbalistic “Tree of Life”. The Arizal elaborates (Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh, drush 2) that God then brought about the substances of the first day of Creation: light, water, and space, ie. or (אור), mayim (מים), and rakia (רקיע). As we read in the Torah, these were the only things in existence at the end of Day One.

The three horizontal lines of the Tree of Life correspond to the paths of the letters Aleph, Mem, and Shin.

You may have already noticed that the initials of these three things make aleph-mem-reish (אמר), “emor”. Amazingly, it is exclusively this verb of speech that the Torah uses in describing God’s creation: v’yomer, God spoke (ויאמר), and everything came to be. It is this form of speech that contains within it the very power of Creation.

Even more amazingly, the Zohar we saw above states that this is speech from the heart. The heart is a special organ for, unlike any other organ, it literally intertwines with every single living cell in the human body, ensuring that the tiniest bodily component receives oxygen and nutrients. So, too, does God permeate the entire universe, and is intertwined with even the tiniest bit of matter, ensuring its continual existence. In Hebrew, “heart” is lev (לב), which has a value of 32, once more alluding to those 32 paths of Creation.

Better yet, the 32 paths correspond to the 32 times that God (Elohim) is mentioned in the account of Creation. It is only after the account of Creation ends, at the 33rd instance, that the Torah introduces us to God’s Ineffable Name. So, too, during the Sefirat haOmer period, we have 32 days before we reach the climax of the whole Omer period, the 33rd day, the holiday of Lag b’Omer. Of course, man is a microcosm of the universe, so it is only fitting that the human body has a spinal cord with 31 pairs of nerves emerging out of it, sitting beneath the all-important 33rd component, the brain.

With this in mind, we can understand the connection between Emor and Omer.

Rectifying Speech

The Sefirat haOmer period is meant to be one of rectification and purification. Upon the Exodus, the Israelites spent these 49 days preparing to receive the Torah at Sinai. We relive this experience each year, and likewise work on ourselves in these seven weeks. When we count the Omer each night, we quote from the verse in this week’s parasha: “And you shall count for yourselves from the morrow after the day of rest, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the waving [omer hatenufah]; seven weeks shall there be complete; until the morrow after the seventh week shall you count fifty days…” (Leviticus 23:15-16) and then we add, in many versions of the prayer, “in order to purify the souls of Your people Israel from their impurity.” The very purpose of the Omer is personal development and purification. How do we purify ourselves?

The greatest sin that needs to be atoned for is improper speech. The Talmud (Yoma 44a) states that it was for this sin in particular that the Kohen Gadol entered the Holy of Holies just once a year, on Yom Kippur. Conversely, as we saw above, proper speech has the power to create worlds. Impure speech can be immensely destructive while pure speech can rectify anything. King Solomon similarly wrote that “death and life are in the hand of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). It is through the mouth that we speak, and the tongue is its primary organ. Beautifully, the mouth, too, contains 32 teeth to parallel the 32 paths of Creation, with the central 33rd component being the tongue.

More than anything else, the purpose of the Omer (עמר) is to allow us to rectify our speech (אמר). The Torah itself hints to this in the verse above, calling the special offering of these 49 days the omer hatenufah, where the latter word can be split (תנו פה) to mean “give mouth”, or “teach the mouth”. Each of the seven weeks that the Torah prescribes correspond to one of the seven mystical middot of the Tree of Life. In the Omer period, we are meant to rectify these seven “lower” Sefirot (hinted in the term Sefirat HaOmer). We do not mention the three “higher” sefirot above. We can understand why this is so, for the Sages say the upper sefirot are the mochin of the mind, while the lower seven are the middot of the heart—and as we saw above, it is the speech of the heart that we are particularly focusing on. The final Sefirah is called Malkhut, “Kingdom”, which Patach Eliyahu (Tikkunei Zohar 17a) says is פה, the mouth. The very culmination of the Sefirat HaOmer period is the purification of speech.

The mochin above (in blue) and the middot below (in red).

Rabbi Akiva’s Students

The Sefirat HaOmer period overlaps with the tragic deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students. As is well-known, the students died because they lacked respect for one another. How exactly did they disrespect each other? Although we have discussed in the past that they were probably killed by the Romans during the Bar Kochva Revolt, the Talmud (Yevamot 62b) cryptically states that they died of a disease called croup. Elsewhere, the Talmud (Sotah 35a) suggests that croup is the standard Heavenly punishment for a person who commits slander. We may learn from this that Rabbi Akiva’s students spoke negatively about each other, and thus deserved their cruel death penalty.

Rabbi Akiva’s students ceased to die on the 33rd of the Omer, as if God was hinting at their misuse of the tremendous powers of speech. One of Rabbi Akiva’s surviving students, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, himself had to hide from the Romans for 13 years because he spoke negatively about the authorities. It was he who ultimately fixed the 33rd of the Omer as a holiday. Although this was the day of his death, it was also the day he revealed the depths of Kabbalah, and the teachings that would eventually be compiled into the Zohar. Lag b’Omer is a celebration of this mystical wisdom, much of which is focused on the powers of divine speech.

To bring it all together, we find that the term “lag” (לג) actually appears in the Torah. It is found only in one passage, Leviticus 14, where it refers to a measure of oil, log hashamen. This was a special oil used in the purification procedure for a metzora, loosely translated as a “leper”. The Sages teach that a person would be afflicted with this illness if they spoke negatively about another, motzi shem ra, hence the term “metzora”. Like the Omer, the log hashamen was also a “wave-offering”, a tenufah. Afterwards, the oil was sprinkled and poured upon the leper in order to purify them. If “log” (לג) hints to the oil used to purify improper speech, and Omer (עומר) is the inverse of emor, itself alluding to impure speech, then Lag b’Omer (לג בעומר) takes on an entirely new meaning.

Chag sameach!

The Mysterious Custom of Upsherin

In this week’s double Torah portion (Acharei-Kedoshim) we read that “when you will have planted all manner of trees for food, its fruit shall be forbidden; three years shall it be forbidden to you, it shall not be eaten.” (Leviticus 19:23) This refers to the mitzvah of orlah, where a newly-planted tree must be left unharvested for its first three years. Seemingly based on this, a custom has developed to leave the hair of newborn boys uncut until age three. On or around the boy’s third birthday, a special celebration is held (called upsherin or halakeh), often with family and friends taking turns to cut a bit of the boy’s hair. Henceforth, the boy is encouraged to wear a kippah and tzitzit, and his formal Jewish education will begin. It is said that just as a tree needs the first three years to establish itself firmly in the ground before it can flourish and its fruit be used in divine service, so too does a child.

Lag B’Omer 1970 in Meron. Photo from Israel’s National Photo Collection

Indeed, the Torah makes a comparison between trees and humans in other places. Most famously, Deuteronomy 20:19 states that fruit trees should not be harmed during battle, “for is the tree of the field a man?” The tree is not an enemy combatant, so it should be left alone. Although the plain meaning of the verse is that the tree is not a man, an alternate way of reading it is that “man is a tree of the field”. Elsewhere, God compares the righteous man to a tree firmly rooted in the ground (Jeremiah 17:8), and in another place compares the entire Jewish nation to a tree (Isaiah 65:22).

Having said that, the custom of upsherin is essentially unknown in ancient Jewish sources. It is not mentioned anywhere in the Talmud, nor in any early halachic codes, including the authoritative Shulchan Arukh of the 16th century. Where did this very recent practice originate?

Lag b’Omer and the Arizal

The first Jews to take up this custom were those living in Israel and surrounding lands under Arab Muslim dominion in the Middle Ages. We see that Sephardic Jews in Spain and Morocco did not have such a custom, nor did the Yemenite Jews. In fact, Rav David Bar-Hayim points out that Yemenite Jews did not even have a custom to abstain from haircuts during Sefirat HaOmer at all. This is particularly relevant because the upsherin ceremony is often connected with the Sefirat HaOmer period, with many waiting until Lag b’Omer for their child’s first haircut, and taking the boy to the grave of Rashbi (Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai) in Meron for the special ceremony.

It appears that the earliest textual reference to upsherin is from Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), the primary disciple of the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572). Because of this, many believe that upsherin is a proper Kabbalistic custom that was instituted by, or at least sanctioned by, the great Arizal. In reality, the text in question says no such thing. The passage (Sha’ar HaKavanot, Inyan HaPesach, Derush 12) states the following:

ענין מנהג שנהגו ישראל ללכת ביום ל”ג לעומר על קברי רשב”י ור”א בנו אשר קבורים בעיר מירון כנודע ואוכלים ושותי’ ושמחים שם אני ראיתי למוז”ל שהלך לשם פ”א ביום ל”ג לעומר הוא וכל אנשי ביתו וישב שם שלשה ימים ראשו’ של השבוע ההו’ וזה היה פעם הא’ שבא ממצרים אבל אין אני יודע אם אז היה בקי ויודע בחכמה הזו הנפלאה שהשיג אח”כ. והה”ר יונתן שאגי”ש העיד לי שבשנה הא’ קודם שהלכתי אני אצלו ללמוד עם מוז”ל שהוליך את בנו הקטן שם עם כל אנשי ביתו ושם גילחו את ראשו כמנהג הידוע ועשה שם יום משתה ושמחה

On the custom of Israel going on Lag b’Omer to the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Elazar his son (who are buried in the town of Meron as is known) and to eat and drink and rejoice there—I saw that my teacher, of blessed memory [the Arizal], that he went there once on Lag b’Omer with his whole family and remained there for three days, until the start of the sixth week [of the Omer]. And this was that one time, when he came from Egypt, but I do not know if he was then knowledgeable in this wisdom that he would later attain. And Rav Yonatan Sagis related to me that in the first year before I went to him to learn with my teacher of blessed memory, he took his small son with his whole family and there they cut his hair according to the known custom, and he held a feast and celebration there.

First, what we see in this passage is that the Arizal apparently only visited Meron on Lag b’Omer once, when he just made aliyah from Egypt, and before he had become the pre-eminent Kabbalist in Tzfat. (Some say this was actually before he made aliyah, and was simply on a trip to Israel.) Lag b’Omer is the 5th day of the 5th week of the Omer, and the Arizal stayed there for the remainder of the fifth week. Rav Chaim Vital wonders whether the Arizal was already an expert mystic at the time or not. Once he became the leader of the Tzfat Kabbalists, the Arizal apparently never made it a point to pilgrimage to Meron on Lag b’Omer. Rabbi Vital notes just that one time in the past, and it almost seems like once the Arizal was a master mystic, he understood there was nothing particularly mystical about it. In any case, nothing is said here of cutting hair.

The next part of the passage is more problematic. To start, it is unclear whether Rabbi Vital means that he and the Arizal went to study with Rav Yonatan Sagis, or that he and Rav Sagis went to study with the Arizal. We know that Rabbis Sagis and Vital were later both students of the Ari. However, when the Ari first came to Tzfat he was essentially unknown, and was briefly a disciple of other Kabbalists, namely the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570). In fact, the Arizal only spent a couple of years in Tzfat before suddenly passing away at a very young age. Whatever the case, it is unclear from the passage whether it was the Arizal or Rav Sagis who was the one to take his son for a haircut on Lag b’Omer. Based on the context, it would appear that it was Rav Sagis who did so, not the Arizal, since we already learned that the Arizal did not make it a point to pilgrimage to Meron.

The nail on the coffin may come from an earlier passage in the same section of Sha’ar HaKavanot, where we read:

ענין הגילוח במ”ט ימים אלו לא היה מוז”ל מגלח ראשו אלא בערב פסח ובערב חג השבועות ולא היה מגלח לא ביום ר”ח אייר ולא ביום ל”ג לעומר בשום אופן

On the matter of shaving during these forty-nine days [of the Omer], my teacher of blessed memory did not shave his head [hair], except for the evening of Passover and the evening of Shavuot, and would not shave his hair at all [in between], not on Rosh Chodesh Iyar, and not on Lag b’Omer.

According to the Arizal, one should not shave at all during the entire Omer period, including Lag b’Omer! If that’s the case, then the Ari certainly wouldn’t take his child to Meron for a haircutting on Lag b’Omer. It must be that the previous passage is referring to Rav Sagis. Nowhere else in the vast teachings of the Arizal is the custom of waiting until a boy’s third birthday (whether on Lag b’Omer or not) mentioned. Thus, the Arizal was not the custom’s originator, did not expound upon it, and most likely did not even observe it.

So where did it come from?

A Far-Eastern Custom

While no ancient Jewish mystical or halachic text before the 17th century appears to mention upsherin, a similar custom is discussed in much older non-Jewish sources. The Kalpa Sutras of the ancient Hindu Vedic schools speak of a ceremony called Chudakarana or Mundana, literally “haircutting”. It is supposed to be done before a child turns three, usually at a Hindu temple. It is explained that the hair a child is born with it connected to their past life, and all the negative things which that may entail. Removing this hair is symbolic of leaving the past life behind and starting anew. Interestingly, a small lock of hair is usually left behind, called a sikha, “flame” or “ray of light”, as a sign of devotion to the divine. This is surprisingly similar to the Chassidic custom of leaving behind the long peyos at the upsherin.

Hindu Sikha and Chassidic Peyos

From India, the custom seemingly moved across Asia to Arabia. One Muslim tradition called Aqiqah requires shaving the head of a newborn. Of this practice, Muhammad had apparently stated that “sacrifice is made for him on the seventh day, his head is shaved, and a name is given him.” An alternate practice had Muslims take their boys to the graves of various holy people for their first haircut. The Arabic for “haircut” is halaqah, which is precisely what the Sephardic Jews of Israel called upsherin. Thus, it appears that Jews in Muslim lands adopted the custom from their neighbours. However, many of them waited not until the child is three, but five, which is when the Mishnah (Avot 5:22) says a child must start learning Torah. (In this case, the practice has nothing to do with the mitzvah of orlah or any connection to a sapling.)

In the early 19th century, Rabbi Yehudah Leibush Horenstein made aliyah to Israel and first encountered this practice of “the Sephardim in Jerusalem… something unknown to the Jews in Europe.” He was a Chassid, and in that time period many more Chassidim were migrating to Israel—a trend instigated by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk (c. 1730-1788), the foremost student of the Maggid of Mezeritch (Rabbi Dov Ber, d. 1772), who in turn was the foremost student of the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, 1698-1760) the founder of Chassidism. These Chassidim in Israel adopted the practice from the local Sephardim, and spread it to the rest of the Chassidic world over the past century and a half.

While it has become more popular in recent decades, and has been adopted by other streams within Orthodoxy, and even many secular Israelis and Jews, upsherin is far from universally accepted. The Steipler (Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, 1899-1985) was particularly upset about this practice (see Orchos Rabbeinu, Vol. I, pg. 233). When a child was brought before Rav Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik of Brisk (1886-1959) for an upsherin, he frustratingly replied: “I am not a barber.” Other than the fact that it is not an established or widespread Jewish custom, there is a serious issue of it being in the category of darkei Emori, referring to various non-Jewish (and potentially idolatrous) practices.

Not So Fast

While there is no mention of the upsherin that we know today in ancient Jewish mystical or halachic texts, there is mention of something very much related. In one of his responsa, the great Radbaz (Rabbi David ibn Zimra, c. 1479-1573) speaks of a practice where some people take upon themselves a “vow to shave their son in the resting place of Samuel the Prophet” (see She’elot v’Teshuvot haRadbaz, siman 608).

Recall that Samuel was born after the heartfelt prayer of his mother Hannah who was barren for many years. She came to the Holy Tabernacle in Shiloh and vowed that if God gave her a son, she would dedicate him to divine service from his very birth, and he would be a nazir his entire life (I Samuel 1:11). This means that he would never be allowed to shave or trim the hair of his head, just as the Torah instructs for anyone taking on a nazirite vow. There is something particularly holy about this, and we see earlier in Scripture how an angel comes to declare the birth of the judge Samson and instructs the parents to ensure he would be a nazirite for life, and that no blade ever come upon his head (Judges 13:5).

The Tanakh goes on to state that once Samuel was weaned, Hannah took him to the Tabernacle and left him in the care of the holy priests so that he could serve God his entire life. How old was he when he was weaned? While it doesn’t say so here, there is an earlier case where the Torah speaks of a child being weaned. This is in Genesis 21:8, where we read how Abraham through a great feast upon the weaning of his son Isaac. Rashi comments here (drawing from the Midrash and Talmud) that Isaac was two years old at the time. For this reason, many Chassidic groups actually perform the upsherin at age two, not three.

Back to the Radbaz, he was born in Spain but was exiled with his family in the Expulsion of 1492. The family settled in Tzfat, where the Radbaz was tutored by Rabbi Yosef Saragossi, the holy “White Saint” credited with transforming Tzfat from a small town of 300 unlearned Jews to a holy Jewish metropolis and the capital of Kabbalistic learning. In adulthood, the Radbaz settled in Fes, Egypt and his fame as a tremendous scholar and posek spread quickly. In 1517, he moved to Cairo and was appointed Hakham Bashi, the Chief Rabbi of Egypt. There, he founded a world-class yeshiva that attracted many scholars. Coming full circle, it was here in the yeshiva of the Radbaz that the Arizal began his scholarly career. In the last years of his life, the Radbaz wished to return to the Holy Land, and made his way back to Tzfat. It is possible that the Arizal left Egypt for Tzfat in the footsteps of his former rosh yeshiva. Ironically, the Radbaz (who lived to age 94, or even 110 according to some sources) would outlive the Arizal (who died at just 38 years of age).

While neither the Arizal nor his old teacher the Radbaz discuss cutting a three-year-old’s hair in particular (or doing it at the tomb of Rashbi), the Radbaz does speak of a personal vow that one may take to cut their child’s hair at the tomb of Samuel the Prophet. This practice comes from emulating Hannah, who took a vow with regards to her son Samuel. Samuel went on to be compared in Scripture to Moses and Aaron (and the Sages say Moses and Aaron combined!) Of course, Hannah never cut her child’s hair at all, but perhaps there is something spiritual in treating the child like a nazirite until the child is “weaned”.

In any case, the question that the Radbaz was addressing is what one must do if they took up such a haircutting vow but are unable to fulfil it because the authorities prohibit Jews from going to the grave sites of their ancestors. From here, some scholars conclude that the Ottoman authorities at the time really must have prohibited Jews from going to the grave of Samuel, near Jerusalem. Thus, it is possible that those Jerusalem Jews who had a custom of going to Samuel’s grave decided to journey to another famous grave instead. Perhaps it was in these years of the early 16th century that the custom to go to Rashbi in Meron (instead of Shmuel near Jerusalem) evolved.

So, there may be something to the upsherin custom after all. Of course, we still don’t know when the practice of going to Samuel’s grave emerged. That appears to have been a local custom (or possibly not a custom at all, but a personal vow) of Jerusalem’s medieval Jewish community. It, too, may have been influenced by neighbouring Muslims who went to the graves of their saints to cut their children’s hair.

Whatever the case, we see that foundations of upsherin are not so clear-cut. Contrary to popular belief, it is neither a universally accepted Jewish custom, nor a mandatory halachic requirement. It did not originate with the Arizal either, although we do see some basis for it in the writings of the Radbaz. For those who wish to uphold this custom, they have upon whom to rely, and should meditate foremost upon the holy figures of Hannah and Samuel, who appear to be the spiritual originators of this mysterious practice.