Shevirat haKelim and the Kings of Edom

This week’s parasha, Vayishlach, has an entire chapter outlining the progeny of Esau in detail, along with all the future “kings of Edom” that emerged from him. The inclusion of this passage in the Torah is somewhat puzzling: why should we care to know about all of these foreign rulers? Like we explored last week with Jacob’s sheep, though this information may seem trivial on the surface, mystical texts actually derive a great deal of meaning from this chapter. In fact, the Arizal stated that the secrets of shevirat hakelim, the famous “Shattering of the Vessels” at the start of Creation, are relayed specifically in this chapter.

Recall that God originally made the cosmos entirely with Gevurah, or Din, with strict measure, strong judgement, and precise severity. This is why the account of Creation uses only Elohim as the name of God, for that is the name associated with Din (whereas the Tetragrammaton is typically associated with Chessed, unlimited kindness, and more specifically, with Rachamim, mercy and compassion). However, that universe was “too perfect” and too fragile, unable to contain God’s light. Of the ten “vessels” (the Sefirot) that held the universe together, the lower seven “shattered” and had to be reconstructed. The Arizal notes that they shattered into 288 major fragments. This is alluded to when the Torah says that the Spirit of God “hovered” over the primordial waters (Genesis 1:2). The word “hovered”, merachefet (מרחפת), is an anagram of met-rapach (מת רפ״ח), the fall or “death” of the 288 pieces (see Sha’ar HaPesukim on Beresheet).

The lower seven Sefirot (from Chessed to Malkhut) that “shattered” are the ones that emerge out of the Sefirah of Binah above them. Altogether, these eight entities are alluded to by the eight kings of Edom described in Genesis 36. The first seven kings correspond to the seven lower Sefirot that shattered. First among them is Bela of Dinhava. The name of his domain, Dinhava, clearly alludes to the fact that the Sefirot were unable to contain the immense Din. This is explained by Recanati (Rabbi Menachem of Recanati, Italy, 1223-1290) in his commentary. Meanwhile, the eighth and final king, named Hadar, alludes to Binah above, which is why the Torah specifically mentions his wife here, too, since Binah is called Ima, the “mother”. At the same time, Hadar signifies the rectification of the lower seven Sefirot:

The way that God reconstructed the lower seven is by infusing the right measure of Chessed, lovingkindness, to balance out the Din/Gevurah. Mathematically, the value of Gevurah (גבורה) is 216, while Chessed (חסד) is 72, so the sum of the two, together in harmony, is 288! It is when the two are combined in the right proportions that the 288 shattered pieces are rectified. There is a small hint to this in the name of the last king, Hadar (הדר), whose name is nearly identical to Chadar (חד״ר), a common mystical acronym for Chessed-Din-Rachamim, where Chessed and Din are neatly balanced in Rachamim.

The Chanukah Connection

In the same Sha’ar HaPesukim passage cited above, the Arizal explains that there are a total of 320 channels of judgement flowing into the world. This number is derived from the 288 fallen pieces, plus the 32 times that “Elohim” is mentioned in Creation. The sum of these two numbers is 320. These 320 channels of judgement are referred to as shakh dinim (ש״ך דינים). One might notice that shakh is the spiritual root of choshekh (חשך), “darkness”, the time when the forces of judgement are particularly strong. Looking more closely, choshekh (חשך) is simply the 320 of shakh (שך), plus the 8 (ח) symbolizing the eight Sefirot associated with shevirat hakelim—which gave rise to those 320 channels in the first place!

Now, the 320 channels are intricately linked to the five Gevurot, the five special Hebrew letters that have a unique shape when appearing at the end of a word (their nature has been explored in depth before here). Each one of them is a major conductor of judgement into the world, and each of them actually contains 320 channels. So, altogether there are 5 x 320 channels, or 1600 in total. Paralleling these, the Zohar (II, 243a) states that there are specifically 1600 camps of destructive angels that God created. These angels serve to fulfil God’s judgement and mete out His punishment in this world. Their supervisor is the leading angel Katzpiel (קצפיאל), whose name literally means “God’s wrath”. These were some of the camps of angels that Jacob saw at the very end of last week’s parasha (Genesis 32:3), which directly sets up the beginning of this week’s parasha when Jacob dispatches angels towards Esau.

After sending the angel-messengers, along with gifts to appease Esau, Jacob was left alone at night. The Torah makes sure to specify that it was at night, in the time of darkness, choshekh. As is well-known, Jacob was alone because he had gone off to find some vessels that had fallen behind. Our Sages connect these vessels to the future cruse of oil that would be found by the Maccabees during Chanukah. Here we find a profound connection between the holiday, Jacob’s vessels, the Shattering of the Vessels, and the Kings of Edom.

The Arizal taught that the eight lights of Chanukah correspond to the same eight Sefirot alluded to by the Kings of Edom, from Binah down to Malkhut. The first day of Chanukah corresponds to Binah, the second to Chessed, and so on. The last day of Chanukah, called Zot Chanukah, is Malkhut. In fact, the numerical value of “Zot Chanukah” (זאת חנוכה) is equal to Malkhut (מלכות), with a kollel. As such, Chanukah serves as a major rectification for the Shattering of the Vessels. Lighting the candles or oil lamps helps to restore the primordial lights of Creation. This is the mystical meaning behind Jacob going back for his lost and “fallen” vessels, and then encountering the angel of Esau—the spiritual overseer of all the future Kings of Edom—at night, in the darkness. Lighting Chanukah candles is meant to dispel that darkness of Edom, the darkness that resulted from the Shattering of the Vessels symbolized by the Kings of Edom.

Moreover, our Sages famously taught that the Torah alludes to the Four Exiles of the Jewish people right at the start of Creation (Genesis 1:2), and when the Torah says “darkness” in this verse, it refers to the third of the Four Exiles, ie. the Syrian-Greek oppression of Chanukah (Beresheet Rabbah 2:4). The Midrash here, and the Zohar (I, 16a), too, adds that the same “darkness” refers to Esau! It is the Chanukah lights that serve as the perfect antidote for that darkness. And it is no coincidence that, over the course of the holiday, we light a total of 36 candles or oil lamps.

Recall that the number 36 is associated with the primordial Light of Creation, since that original divine light shone for only 36 hours (as explained here). The 36 lights of Chanukah help to subdue the negative forces of Esau, which are outlined specifically in the 36th chapter of Genesis! Thus, in lighting the Chanukah lights, we help to rebuild the spiritual vessels of Creation, repel the forces of judgement, and bring the world one step closer to the Messianic Age.