Category Archives: Torah & Science

Kabbalah of Judaism’s Four Holy Cities

In this week’s parasha, Re’eh, a unique term appears a whopping five times: l’shakhen shmo sham, a place where God will choose “to rest His Name there”. Outside of this parasha, the term only appears once in the rest of the Tanakh. It refers to the only place where Jews are allowed to bring any sacrifices to Hashem (Deuteronomy 12:11), and where Jews should pilgrimage on the major holidays to “rejoice before God” (Deuteronomy 16:11). Although the Chumash doesn’t explicitly say where this place is, it is of course referring to Jerusalem, as we learn later in the Tanakh (for example, I Kings 11:13).

“Pilgrimage to the Second Jerusalem Temple” by Alex Levin

Why doesn’t the Chumash itself name Jerusalem? This is because the Israelites were still in the Wilderness at the time, and at that point they brought their sacrifices in the mobile Mishkan, or “Tabernacle”. In the Wilderness, the Mishkan was the place where God’s Presence rested. Even when the Israelites entered the Holy Land, it took many years for them to reconquer and settle all of it, so the Mishkan remined mobile. The Talmud (Zevachim 118b) lists all the places where the Mishkan was parked:

After 39 years in the Wilderness (since the Mishkan was built and inaugurated a year after the Exodus), it was in Gilgal for 14 years. Half of that time was spent conquering and half dividing up the land among the Tribes. The Mishkan was then placed in Shiloh and remained there for 369 years. However, there was no king in Israel then, and no leader arose to build a permanent Temple. The Talmud states that when Eli the Priest died, Shiloh was destroyed so the Mishkan was moved to the town of Nov. Later in the Tanakh we read how Nov, too, was destroyed, so the Mishkan was moved to Gibeon. When David became king he first reigned for seven years from Hebron. After that, he acquired Jerusalem and brought the Mishkan there. Henceforth, Jerusalem became the seat of the Davidic dynasty, and the place where God’s Name would rest forever.

What makes Jerusalem so special?

Centre of the Universe

Jerusalem’s Temple was built atop Mount Moriah, and the Holy of Holies over a special stone. The Talmud (Yoma 54b) states that this stone, even shetiyah, the Foundation Stone, is literally the point from which God created the universe. The Sages find proof in Psalms 50:1-2, which states: “God spoke and called the Earth, from the rise of the sun until it sets, out of Zion all beauty God shone forth.” That initial burst of light in Creation was at this very point atop Jerusalem.

The word “Zion” itself implies a foundation of sorts. In the Tanakh, we read how the Jebusites built a massive fortress there, metzudat tzion, which the Sages say means an “outstanding fortress”, one with such strong foundations that none could conquer it. Until King David, that is. The Jebusites scoffed at David when he approached with his armies, thinking that their fortress was unconquerable. David proved them wrong, then renamed the fortress after himself, and called the city ‘Ir David, “City of David” (see II Samuel 5).

Long before it was known as City of David, or Zion, and before it was settled by Jebusites, it was already famous as a holy mountain. Upon it, various priests would come to offer incense. This is where the name Moriah comes from, literally mor, “myrrh” (or “incense”), and Yah, “God”. The first priest active there was Melchizedek, identified with Shem, the son of Noah. The Torah calls him a “priest of God, the Most High” and introduces him as the “king of Shalem” (Genesis 14:18). The Book of Jubilees tells us how Noah divided up the Earth among his three sons, and Shem received all the holy places, including Zion (Jubilees 8:19).

Shem built his home on Zion, and called it Shalem, a place that was “wholesome” and “peaceful”. Later on, God commanded Abraham to take Isaac upon Mt. Moriah. At the end of that episode, we read how Abraham called the place Hashem Yireh, since this is the place where “God is seen” (Genesis 22:14). The Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 56:10) states that this holy site now had two names: Yireh and Shalem. Each of these names was given by a holy man, so which would stick? In order not to favour one holy man over another, the two were combined to create Yerushalem, or Yerushalayim, “Jerusalem”.

Jerusalem, Zion, City of David, Moriah, Shalem, Yireh—all are names for this holy place, each signifying something of its incredible past. Indeed, it is said that Jerusalem has seventy different names, just like God, the Jewish people, and the land of Israel, and just as the Torah has seventy different faces. Whatever the case, it is the city that “brings everyone together” (Psalm 122:3) and has the power to “make all Israel friends” (Yerushalmi Chagigah 3:6).

Gate to Heaven

The Midrash states that Zion is the place through which all the blessings from Heaven enter this world, and the place through which all blessings descend upon the Jewish people (Yalkut Shimoni, Ezekiel 392). At the same time, it is the place through which all of our prayers ascend to Heaven, too. This is why Jews always pray towards Jerusalem. And if they are in Jerusalem they pray towards the place where the Holy of Holies stood.

More amazing still, some say that Mt. Moriah is the peak upon which God gave Israel the Torah! In other words, Moriah is one and the same as Sinai. The Midrash (Shocher Tov 68) states that God took off a chunk of Moriah (like a piece of challah) and transplanted it to the Sinai wilderness. After He gave the Torah, He put that chunk back in Jerusalem. This is why the Talmud (Ta’anit 16a, with Tosfot) states it is called Moriah, from root hora’ah, “instruction”, the same as the root of Torah. On Mt. Moriah the Torah was given! And from here, the “fear” or “awe” (mora) of God entered the world.

“Jacob’s Ladder” by Stemler and Cleveland (1925)

There is a further allusion to this in that the gematria of Sinai (סיני) is 130, equal to sulam (סלם), “ladder”, referring to the Heavenly Ladder that Jacob envisioned (Genesis 28:12). This vision also took place upon Mt. Moriah. Afterwards, Jacob called the place Beit El, “House of God”, for he had foreseen that the Holy Temple would be built there. Jerusalem is therefore a “ladder to Heaven”, and a place through which angels enter and exit our world.

Having said all that, it is easy to understand why Jerusalem is so important to the Jewish people. It is mentioned over 600 times in the Tanakh (and, it is fitting to add, not once in the Koran). It has had a nearly continuous (with minor blips) Jewish habitation and presence for some 3000 years. When the Second Temple was destroyed, the Roman historian Tacitus estimated a Jewish population in Jerusalem of 600,000, while Josephus counted over a million.

Even in the most difficult of days, Jews hung on to their holy city. When the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270) arrived in 1267 following the horrors of the Crusades, he still managed to find two Jewish families. By the Ottoman period in the 16th century, Jews once again formed the largest proportion of the population. In 1818, Robert Richardson found that Jews, while not the majority, made up the single largest group of people in the city, and estimated there were twice as many Jews as Muslims. Prussian consul Ernst Gustav Schultz noted something similar in 1844 (counting 7210 Jews to 5000 Muslims, and 3390 Christians), as did Swiss explorer Titus Tobler two years later (7515 Jews to 6100 Muslims, and 3558 Christians).

Today, there are over half a million Jews in Jerusalem. At the time of the Temple’s destruction, the Midrash records that there were a total of 481 synagogues in Jerusalem, each with a Torah school inside (Yalkut Shimoni, Ezekiel 390). A study in the year 2000 found that Jerusalem now has over 1200 synagogues. This is undoubtedly more than at any time in its history. The borders of Jerusalem today are larger than they have ever been, and the city is flourishing in every way. Indeed, this is one of the great prophecies of the End of Days, and Jerusalem will only grow further, as the Talmud (Bava Batra 75a-b) states:

In the time to come, the Holy One, blessed be He, will add to Jerusalem a thousand gardens, a thousand towers, a thousand palaces, and a thousand mansions; and each will be as big as Sepphoris in its prosperity…

Four Holy Cities

A 19th century map of the Four Holy Cities

While the entire land of Israel is holy, and Jerusalem is undoubtedly its focal point, it is often said that Judaism has four holy cities. In addition to Jerusalem, the other three are Hebron, Tzfat, and Tiberias. Where did this notion of four holy cities come from?

In 1492, the Spanish expelled all of their Sephardic Jews. It is reported that the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II said of his Spanish counterpart at the time something along the lines of: “They tell me that Ferdinand of Spain is a wise man, but he is a fool, for he takes his treasure and sends it all to me.” Bayezid sent his navy to bring many of those Jews to his empire, especially to the cities of Thessaloniki and Izmir. Others went to Europe, North Africa, or even the New World, while some headed straight for the Holy Land.

In 1516, the Ottoman Turks conquered the Holy Land, allowing even more Jews to settle there. Many Jews relocated, particularly to Hebron and Tzfat, in addition to Jerusalem. Just a few decades later, the great Donna Gracia (1510-1569) and her nephew Don Joseph Nasi (1524-1579) sought to re-establish a semi-autonomous Jewish state in the Holy Land (three centuries before the Zionist movement!) and actually received a permit from the Sultan to settle Jews in Israel. Don Joseph particularly liked the Tiberias area, and was officially given the title “Lord of Tiberias” by the Ottoman throne.

By 1640, the Jewish communities of Jerusalem, Hebron, and Tzfat were very large, though still struggling financially. Throughout history, it was customary for Jewish communities in the diaspora to send money in support of Jewish communities in the Holy Land. This was seen as both a huge mitzvah—supporting those brave Jews that risked so much to stay in their ancestral land—as well as a way for Jews in the diaspora to participate in the monumental mitzvah of dwelling in the Promised Land. The Jewish communities in Jerusalem, Hebron, and Tzfat regularly sent emissaries across the diaspora to collect funds. Around 1640, the leaders of these three communities got together and decided to unite their funds. They became known as the “Three Holy Cities” (or by their acronym יח״ץ), and sent a single emissary to collect on behalf of all three. By 1740, the Jewish population of Tiberias had grown large enough that they joined the fund, too, and thus was formed the “Four Holy Cities”. (Some say that the Four Cities first merged earlier, in the late 16th century.)

Still, while the concept of “Four Holy Cities” might be recent, it is by no means meaningless or coincidental.

Four Aspects of Judaism

Why did Jews migrating to Israel choose to settle in these four cities in particular? It was not by random chance that Jews yearned to settle in them! These cities are indeed of greatest significance to the Jewish population, which is why Jews went there in the first place. Jerusalem has already been discussed; what of the others?

Tzfat is first mentioned in the Talmud as a place where signal fires were lit so that all the surrounding towns would know the new moon had been announced (Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashanah 11b). By the end of the 16th century it had become renowned as the centre of Kabbalah, and was the home of greats like the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570) and the Radbaz (1479-1589), the Arizal (1534-1572) and Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620). It is where Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575) produced the Shulchan Arukh, still the foremost code of Jewish law.

Hebron was King David’s first capital before he built Jerusalem. It was there that he was accepted as king by the nation, and where he was anointed by the elders of Israel (II Samuel 5:3). It is the birthplace of the Davidic dynasty. Meanwhile, Hebron is home to the Cave of the Patriarchs, the resting place of the forefathers and foremothers of Israel. It is explicitly mentioned in the Torah multiple times. Later, it would become a centre of Jewish mysticism, too, like Tzfat, and was home to the great Kabbalists Rabbi Malkiel Ashkenazi (d. 1620) and Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas (1518-1587), among others.

Tiberias is actually built on an older Biblical town. It is quite ironic that it is referred to as Tiberias, named after the Roman emperor Tiberius (42 BCE-37 CE). To the ancient Jews it was “Rakat”, as we read in the Tanakh and Talmud (Joshua 19:35, Megillah 5b). Tiberias did not participate in the Jewish revolts against the Roman Empire, and was spared both in 70 CE and in 135 CE. This is why many Jews resettled there, and it is where the Sanhedrin was re-established around 150 CE. Rabbi Akiva was buried in Tiberias, and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai called it home. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi lived there, too, and it is where he put together the Mishnah. The Talmud Yerushalmi followed, and was similarly composed in Tiberias.

Tiberias continued to have a large Jewish population for centuries. The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) was buried there in 1204. The city was completely destroyed during the Mamluk period, and when Rabbi Moshe Bassola (1480-1560) visited in 1522, he found nothing but a few households and many marauding Arabs. This is where Donna Gracia and Don Joseph come into the picture, receiving a permit from the Ottomans in 1561 to rebuild the city and settle Jews there. It was Don Joseph who rebuilt its ancient walls (dating back to the time of the Biblical Joshua), and planted its first orchards.

In short, these three additional Holy Cities all played instrumental roles in Jewish history. Without their flourishing Jewish communities—which produced the Mishnah and Talmud Yerushalmi, the Shulchan Arukh and the bulk of Kabbalah—Judaism as we know it would not exist. So, while the notion of “Four Holy Cities” may have formally originated in the 18th century, its spiritual origins go back much further.

Each city can be said to parallel a different facet of Judaism. Hebron plays a big role in the Chumash, while Jerusalem is the primary locale of the rest of Scripture, the Nevi’im and Ketuvim. Tiberias is the home of the Mishnah and Talmud, while Tzfat is the capital of Kabbalah. Hebron represents the Patriarchs, Jerusalem represents the Prophets, Tiberias the ancient Sages, and Tzfat the Kabbalists. In fact, each of these four cities symbolizes something even greater.

The Four Elements

Ancient texts from all around the world, as well as Jewish mystical texts, speak of four primordial elements: air, water, fire, and earth. Sefer Yetzirah, one of the oldest Kabbalistic texts, explains how God formed all of Creation starting with these fundamental entities. First came the most ephemeral and intangible of them: air. This came out of God’s Spirit, which itself came out of the Ten Sefirot (1:9-10). Then came “water from breath” (1:11), and then “fire from water” (1:12). These three elements correspond to the three “mother” letters of the Hebrew alphabet: Aleph (for avir, “air”), Mem (mayim, “water”), Shin (esh, “fire”). Only much later was created the most physical and tangible of the elements, earth.

These four primordial elements neatly correspond to the four scientific elements upon which all life is built: hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon (sometimes abbreviated as “HONC”). Hydrogen is the key element in water (its name literally means “water-maker”), and it is specifically those intermolecular hydrogen bonds that give water most of its incredible properties. Oxygen is what feeds a flame, and without it no fire burns. Nitrogen makes up 78% of our air, while carbon fills our earth, whether in coal, oil, diamonds, or countless other substances.

The Four Holy Cities also correspond to those four primordial elements. Tzfat is atop a mountain, and with an elevation some 900 metres above sea level, is the highest city in Israel. It is quite literally “up in the air”. Tiberias, meanwhile, rests on the shores of Israel’s most important body of water, the Galilee. Hebron is associated with that plot of earth that Abraham purchased, and within which the patriarchs are buried. And Jerusalem is where the Eternal Flame, esh tamid, burned for centuries, and will be reignited once more in the near future.

Four Holy Cities Summary Table

The Divine Anatomy of the Human Body

This week we conclude the fourth book of the Torah (Bamidbar) with the double parasha of Matot and Massei. The latter lists the 42 stops that the Israelites made during the course of their forty year sojourn in the Wilderness. While we know that this forty year period was a “punishment” because the Israelites failed to enter and settle the Holy Land as commanded, there are deeper reasons as well. One of these is that the Israelites spent those four decades learning the Torah for the first time. In some ways, it was like their gestation period.

The Sages compared the 40 years in the Wilderness to the 40 weeks of pregnancy, and pointed out that the gematria of Bamidbar (במדבר) is 248, equal to rechem (רחם), “womb”. This number is not random, for the Sages enumerated precisely 248 parts of the body, which first develop in the womb. The number agrees with modern science, the human body having 206 bones and about 42 major organs (though the latter number is subject to some controversy, depending on how one defines “organ”). The 42 stops that the Israelites made in the Wilderness neatly parallel the 42 organs. The number 206, meanwhile, is the gematria of davar (דבר), literally “word” or “thing”, and is the root of Bamidbar, “In the Wilderness”. The Wilderness was where Israel first heard the Word of God, and where Israel was officially born as a people.

So, there was something of a “divine anatomy” to the time and place of the Israelite wandering. In a similar—and far more amazing—way, there is a “divine anatomy” to the human body.

Continue reading

The Kabbalah of Kippah

‘Balaam and the Angel’ by John Linnell

This week’s parasha, Balak, recounts the attempt of two great sorcerers, Balak and Bilaam, to curse the people of Israel. Balak was a Moabite king who worried that Israel would conquer his land. He hired the famous gentile prophet and wizard Bilaam to curse the nation. Bilaam knew he would be unable to do this, for he can only pronounce what God desires. And so, each time Bilaam sought to pronounce a curse, a blessing emerged from his mouth instead. Balak tried several magical tricks and sacrificial rituals to change that, to no avail. Israel remained blessed.

The persistent motif in this parasha is the eye, or vision more broadly. Right from the beginning, we read:

Balak the son of Tzippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites… He sent messengers to Bilaam the son of Beor, to Pethor, which is by the river of the land of his people, to call for him, saying, “A people has come out of Egypt, and behold, they have covered the eye of the land, and they are stationed opposite me.” (Numbers 22:2-5)

This kind of language permeates the entire parasha, and is perhaps most concentrated in the following passage:

Bilaam raised his eyes and saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes, and the spirit of God rested upon him. He took up his parable and said, “The word of Bilaam the son of Beor and the word of the man with an open eye. The word of the one who hears God’s sayings, who sees the vision of the Almighty, fallen yet with open eyes. (Numbers 24:1-4)

Bilaam had a special “open eye” for seeing divine visions. Interestingly, although translated as “open eye”, the Hebrew is actually shtum or stum ‘ayin, which can be read as “closed eye”. Rashi comments on this dichotomy, bringing sources that favour both translations, with the possibility that Bilaam was blind in one eye or was missing an eye. The deeper mystical meaning is referring to an inner, spiritual eye. Aderet Eliyahu (the commentary of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, 1720-1797) states that this refers to seeing with divine inspiration. The Torah is alluding to an eye that is covered up, not visible on the face of a person. This eye is often referred to as the “third eye”.

When worn properly, the head tefillin points directly to the pineal gland inside the brain.

In Kabbalah, the third eye is associated with the head tefillin, which the Torah commands be placed “between your eyes”. Despite this, we do not put the tefillin between our eyes, but atop the head, above the hairline. This alludes to the fact that the head tefillin is about opening up our third eye, buried deeper in our brains. Science has shed some incredible light on this subject.

Deep in our brains is a small organ called the pineal gland. It releases the sleep hormone melatonin, and has also been found to contain DMT (dimethyltryptamine), a chemical that causes hallucinations and visions. Some say this chemical generates our dreams, or at least plays some role in dreaming. In South American shamanic rituals, a special tea (called Ayahuasca) with a high concentration of DMT is brewed and drunk in a religious ceremony to open one’s eyes to spiritual visions (and apparently works extremely well).

Pineal gland atop a bird’s brain.

If we can point to any part of the brain as being a “receiver” for prophecy, it would certainly be the mysterious pineal gland. Most intriguingly, scientists have found that the pineal gland contains photoreceptor cells similar to those in our eyes! (In animals, it rests higher in the brain and appears to respond to light, and may even be involved in processes like bird migration.) For these reasons, many have identified the pineal gland with the mystical third eye described in ancient mystical texts.

One of these ancient texts is the Zohar, on this week’s parasha. The section on Balak is possibly the longest in the entire Zohar. It includes what some identify as a separate mystical text that was only later incorporated into the Zohar, called the Yenuka, or “Child”. It describes a dialogue that Rabbi Yitzchak and Rabbi Yehuda had with a particularly precocious child. The child reveals some incredible mystical secrets, and one of these is regarding the inner eye. (For more on these secrets, and to the identity of this mysterious child, see the second edition of Mayim Achronim Chova – Secrets of the Last Waters.) The Zohar (III, 187a) reads:

[The Child] opened the discussion with the verse: “The wise man, his eyes are in his head, while the fool walks in darkness…” [Ecclesiastes 2:14] Why does it say the eyes are in his head? Are the eyes of a man in any other place? …Rather, the meaning of the verse is this: it has been taught that a man should not walk four cubits with an uncovered head. What is the reason? Since the Shekhinah rests upon the head, and a wise man’s thoughts and visions are in his head…

King Solomon alluded to the third eye when he said a wise man’s eyes are in his head and show him the light. The meaning of his words are quite clear, for he didn’t mean that a fool is literally blind, rather that he is lacking spiritual vision, which a wise man has. The Zohar comments by first stating that it is obvious the eyes are in (or on) the head. What one should understand is that contained within our heads are all of our holy thoughts and spiritual visions, imbued by God, and thus God’s divine presence, the Shekhinah, hovers over the head.

The Child goes on to state that a spiritual light emanates from the head of a righteous person, and he sees that light glowing upon the heads of Rabbi Yitzchak and Rabbi Yehuda. The Kabbalists associate that light with the two highest souls of a person, the Chayah and Yechidah. While the three lower souls (Nefesh, Ruach, Neshamah) reside in the body, the higher souls exude outwards and hover over the body. (For more on this, see A Mystical Map of Your Soul.) This is why it is common to wear two head-coverings, for example a kippah and a hat, which is meant to “cover” the two higher souls. These souls are particularly roused during prayer, which is the deeper reason for having a kippah and a tallit over one’s head.

The Child alludes to a Talmudic teaching of Rav Huna, who said he never walked four cubits with an uncovered head because the Shekhinah hovered over it (Kiddushin 31a). Elsewhere in the Talmud, we learn that an astrologer told the mother of Rav Nahman bar Yitzchak that he would become a thief, so his mother made him wear a head-covering his whole life to ensure “the fear of Heaven should always be upon him” (Shabbat 156b). It worked, and Rav Nahman became a great rabbi instead. Some cite this as the source for calling a kippah a yarmulke, meaning “fear of the King”. A kippah should remind a person at all times Who is above them.

Despite such teachings, wearing a kippah at all times was not a halachic requirement in those days. This was especially the case for an unmarried man, as we learn from another passage in the Talmud (Kiddushin 29b):

Rav Ḥisda would praise Rav Hamnuna to Rav Huna by saying that he is a great man. Rav Huna said to him: “When he comes to you, send him to me.” When Rav Hamnuna came before him, Rav Huna saw that he did not wear a head-covering. Rav Huna said to him: “What is the reason that you do not wear a head-covering?” Rav Hamnuna said to him: “The reason is that I am not married.” Rav Huna turned his face away from him, and he said to him: “See to it that you do not see my face until you marry.”

The story comes full circle with Rav Hamnuna. The Zohar states that the mysterious Child—who taught the secret of the inner eye and the kippah—is none other than the son of Rav Hamnuna Saba (“the Elder”). Although it isn’t entirely certain if these are the same Rav Hamnunas, it appears that this is indeed the case. Rav Huna (who was so careful with a head-covering) was the one who taught and made sure that Rav Hamnuna would get married and cover his head. The child that resulted from that marriage was the angelic child, who went on to reveal the secret of the head-covering.

It was Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575), a great mystic in his own right, who incorporated this practice as law in the Shulkhan Aruch, stating that one should not walk four cubits with his head uncovered (Orach Chaim 2:6). In previous centuries, wearing a kippah or head-covering was only mandatory during prayer (Mishneh Torah, Sefer Ahava, Hilkhot Tefilah 5:5). Even in the centuries following Rabbi Karo, there were those that maintained wearing a kippah all the times was not a strict requirement but a middat hassidut, an extra measure of piety. (Such was the view of the Chida, Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azzulai, 1724-1806; as well as the Vilna Gaon, and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888).

Today, it has become accepted for a Jewish man to wear a kippah all the time, and for good reason. It is a mark of modesty, and a symbol of one’s Jewishness. It reminds a person of the Heavens above, and saves them from sin. It (hopefully) motivates a person to do Kiddush Hashem. It reminds a person of their higher souls, and the holy Shekhinah resting upon them. And it serves to stimulate and guard one’s “third eye”, one’s inner vision, and those holy Torah thoughts residing in the mind.