Tag Archives: 50 Gates

Tefillin: Past, Present, and Future

Vestments of the regular priest and the High Priest (Courtesy: Temple Institute)

This week’s parasha, Pekudei, summarizes all the components and items of the Mishkan. In the second aliyah, we read about the special ephod and choshen, the apron and breastplate of the kohen gadol. The choshen was studded with precious stones engraved with the names of the Tribes of Israel. Behind the choshen were placed the mysterious urim v’tumim. Through these, the Israelites were able to communicate with God. According to one understanding, the Israelites could ask questions, and God would respond by making the letters engraved on the stones light up.

The Zohar (II, 230a-b) on this week’s parasha connects the ephod, choshen, and urim v’tumim with tefillin. This is the secret of when God showed Moses “His back” but not “His face” (Exodus 33:23). On this, the Sages metaphorically state that God showed Moses the knot on the back of His tefillin (Berakhot 7a). Obviously, God does not literally wear tefillin, so the Zohar explains that it really serves to teach us the power of tefillin: Like the ephod, choshen, and urim v’tumim through which the Israelites could divine both past and future, tefillin can give a Jew the same power. The tefillin box that is on the front of the head is likened to the choshen on the front of the kohen, and represents looking ahead into the future. Meanwhile, the knot of the tefillin at the back (in the shape of a letter dalet) corresponds to the ephod covering the back of the kohen, representing the ability to understand the past. (The Zohar adds that the box on the front represents aspaklaria nahara, a “clear lens”, whereas the knot on the back is a murky lens.)

One explanation from our Sages about Moses being shown God’s “back” is that God showed him all of human history up to that point, so that Moses could see how God acted justly and righteously throughout. Everything that happened was brought about by God for a good reason, measure-for-measure. However, the reasons for future events, God’s “face”, were not revealed to Moses. This ties in to another teaching where Moses asked to see Rabbi Akiva and, while God granted him this request and transported Moses into Rabbi Akiva’s classroom, God did not reveal why Rabbi Akiva had to suffer a gruesome death (see ‘Time Travel in the Torah’).

A different explanation is that showing His “back” meant that God revealed to Moses everything from Creation forward (see Malbim on Exodus 33:23). What happened before Creation, God’s “face”, could not be revealed, for no human mind could possibly grasp this and live (Exodus 33:20). This implies that only after death, when the soul is no longer hindered by the body, could it grasp what happened before Creation. Our Sages taught that Moses attained 49 of the 50 Gates of Understanding, Nun Sha’arei Binah, while alive (see Rosh Hashanah 21b or Nedarim 38a). Only following death could he reach the 50th Gate. This is why Moses died on Mount Nebo (נבו), nun-bo, hinting that he finally had all nun levels of understanding “within him”, bo.

A four-pronged Shin on the head tefillin.

Putting it all together, we can see how the head tefillin gives us access to all Fifty Gates of Binah. There is a nice allusion to this in the two letters shin embossed on the box, one mysteriously having four prongs instead of three. The three prongs of a regular shin correspond to the Sefirot of Chessed, Gevurah, and Tiferet (see Sha’ar haPesukim on Shemot). The four prongs of the special shin are the remaining Netzach, Hod, Yesod, and Malkhut. This gives us all seven lower Sefirot from which the 50 Gates are derived: seven times seven (as we do during Sefirat haOmer), plus the fiftieth being Binah above. It is worth noting that elsewhere (III, 254a-b), the Zohar connects the seven prongs of the two tefillin shins—which are shaped like fire—to the seven branches of the Menorah.

We see that the head tefillin is associated specifically with vision. Fittingly, the knot on the back aligns right with the occipital lobe of the brain, which is the visual processing centre. Meanwhile, the box of the tefillin “between the eyes” alludes to the inner “third eye” of the brain, the pineal gland, which bizarrely has photoreceptors like our eyes despite being deep inside the brain. The pineal gland regulates our sleep cycle and makes us dream, releasing a neurotransmitter called DMT which opens the mind up to all kinds of spiritual visions. (DMT is the active ingredient in Ayahuasca and used as both a therapeutic plant medicine and psychedelic drug. For more on the inner third eye in Judaism, see here.)

Based on the above, we can further understand why the Zohar says the box of the head tefillin represents clear vision while the knot at the back represents murky vision: the box (aligning with the pineal) is for tuning in to higher vision and prophecy, for spiritual vision; the knot at the back (aligning with the occipital lobe) is for regular physical vision. And this helps to explain why the box is associated with the future, while the knot is associated with the past. To get glimpses of what’s to come, we have to tap into our inner prophetic eye. But using our physical eyes we have the ability to look back in history and see God’s fingerprints all over the place. As Moses himself advised the people, if you want to find God, just “Remember the days of old, understand past generations…” (Deuteronomy 32:7) Jewish history—millennia of survival against all odds, and inexplicable success, influence, and prosperity at the same time—is perhaps the greatest proof for God’s existence. “Inquire now to the earliest days that came before you, from the day God created man on Earth, and from one end of Heaven to the other, has there ever been such a great thing? Or has anything like this ever been known?” (Deuteronomy 4:32)

So, the head tefillin takes care of past and future. And what of the present? For that we have the arm tefillin, bound specifically to the arm as a sign of action in the here and now, in this world of Asiyah. The arm tefillin is the present. In this way, our tefillin contain past, present, and future. Recall that the knot on the arm tefillin is in the shape of a letter yud, so altogether we have the shin on the head box, the dalet on the head knot, and the yud on the arm knot, spelling “Shaddai”. This is perfect because the divine name Shaddai embodies God’s presence throughout cyclical time—past, present, and future—and the value of “Shaddai” (שדי) is precisely 314, equal to the 3.14 of cyclical π (see here for more on ‘Secrets of Pi’). With this we come full circle, and get another reason for wrapping tefillin in circular fashion, around our heads, down our arms, hands, and fingers—the “Eternal Jew” binding past, present, and future into one.

Cosmic Shemittot

This week’s double parasha, Behar-Bechukotai, begins: “And God spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I give you, the land shall observe a sabbath to God…” (Leviticus 25:1-2) As is well-known, the Holy Land must be worked for six years, and then left fallow in the seventh “Sabbatical” year, the Shemittah. After seven such cycles, the fiftieth year is the great Jubilee. After explaining the basic peshat meaning of these verses in his commentary, Rabbeinu Bechaye (Rabbi Bechaye ben Asher, 1255-1340) gives an explanation al derekh Kabbalah:

“the land shall observe a sabbath to God…” refers to the [seventh] millennium of “desolation”, which is entirely a sabbath of eternal rest. This is a reference to the World to Come, following the Resurrection… “You shall sanctify the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee…” refers to each of the seven “days” of 7000 years, making a total of 49,000 years, after which the cosmos will return to a state of tohu v’vohu… (Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 25:2-10)

Rabbeinu Bechaye is speaking of the ancient mystical doctrine of the Cosmic Shemittot. Just as there is a 49-year cycle in the Holy Land, the entire cosmos goes through a 49,000-year cosmic cycle. Each of the 7000-year periods correspond to one “day” of Creation. Each period consists of 6000 years of civilization, followed by a resting seventh millennium which is Olam HaBa, the World to Come, corresponding to the delightful and spiritual Shabbat, before restarting a new era of civilization. After 49,000 years, there is a cosmic Jubilee, and the cycle restarts again.

Raphael Shuchat points out that the first mention of this notion goes all the way back to the Second Temple era, to the apocryphal Second Book of Enoch. Recall that Hanokh (“Enoch”) never died, and was transformed into an angel when God “took him” (Genesis 5:23-24). The Book of Enoch is attributed to him, but was not accepted into the official Tanakh canon by our Sages. Nonetheless, the Zohar quotes from the book dozens of times. It was most likely kept outside of the Tanakh, as one of the sifrei hitzonim, because it was too mystical and esoteric.

In the Book of Enoch, we read that God showed Hanokh the entire span of 7000 years, each day corresponding to a millennium. Then “the eighth day will be the first of a [newly] created week, and it thus revolves in a cycle of seven thousand…” (II Enoch 33) The Zohar similarly says there is a civilization span of 7000 years (III, 9b). The Talmud mentions this briefly in several places, too, including Rosh Hashanah 31a and Sanhedrin 97a. In both cases, there is another opinion presented that the Sabbatical millennium is not one thousand years, but two thousand years. This is probably referring to the final Sabbatical and the Jubilee together, since the 49th millennium is a Sabbatical, and then the 50th is the Jubilee, meaning there would be two thousand years of rest at the very end of the cycle. This seems to be the position of the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, “Nahmanides”, 1194-1270) who described the cycle as being a total of 50,000 years, not 49,000 years. He explained (on Leviticus 25:2) that these 50,000 years are the secret of Nun Sha’arei Binah, the “Fifty Gates of Understanding”. And, when the Sages state that God revealed to Moses all Fifty Gates except the last (Rosh Hashanah 21b), it means God showed Moses nearly the entire span—some 49,000 years of hidden history—except for the final fiftieth Jubilee millennium!

This position is also held by the ancient Sefer haTemunah, one of the oldest Kabbalistic texts. The main focus of this book is to explain the mystery of the divine Hebrew alphabet, and the secrets of the shapes of the letters. It is an important work not only for Jewish mysticism, but even halakhah, since it is used as a source for proper Torah scribing. Sefer haTemunah speaks of the cosmic cycle, too, and connects it to the Fifty Gates. Intriguingly, it posits that we are currently in the second Shemittah, meaning there was already a previous era of civilization before ours.

The Sefirot of Mochin above (in blue) and the Sefirot of the Middot below (in red) on the mystical “Tree of Life”.

Now, each of the seven cycles of seven thousand correspond to the seven lower Sefirot, the Middot or qualities. Thus, the first era of civilization was one of Chessed, “kindness” and positivity, while the second era, the one in which we are currently, is Gevurah, “severity” and judgement. This explains why the world we know is so difficult and full of evil and suffering. Similarly, the Kabbalists explain that the Torah manifests itself differently in each Shemittah. Since we are in the Shemittah of Gevurah and Din, the Torah in this iteration manifests itself as being full of laws, restrictions, punishments, and the like. In our reality, halakhah takes primacy. It seems that in the previous era, of Chessed, it was the aggadah that was primary, and not the halakhah, and the Torah was expressed in a much softer manner. According to some later sources, in each Shemittah it is the same Torah with the exact same set of letters, but they are rearranged!

A different opinion is that we are currently not in the second Shemittah, but in the fourth. This is discussed by Tiferet Yisrael (Rabbi Yisrael Lifschitz, 1782-1860) in his Derush Or HaChaim, at the end of his Mishnah commentary on Nezikin. He uses the doctrine of Cosmic Shemittot to explain why scientists find ancient fossils and archaeological remains, reasoning that these must be the remnants of past Shemittah civilizations! He interprets the earlier sources a little differently, and says this is the second Shemittah that has human life, but the fourth Shemittah altogether. He says that this is secretly encoded in the first letter of the Torah: the beit of Beresheet is written large to indicate that we are in the second Shemittah that has human life, and the beit is written with four tagin, “crowns”, to secretly encode that we are in the fourth Shemittah overall. Tiferet Yisrael adds that this is the secret of our Sages’ statement that there were 974 generations before Adam (Chagigah 13b-14a, Shabbat 88b). These are the generations of past Shemittot.

Rabbi Yisrael Lifschitz (1782-1860), “Tiferes Yisroel”

Yet another opinion is that we are already in the seventh Shemittah. This was the preferred choice of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, who went into the subject in depth in Immortality, Resurrection, and the Age of the Universe. Rabbi Kaplan favoured this one because it allowed for a calculation that fit most closely with scientific estimates of the age of the universe. He cited sources that say there were already 42,000 years before Adam was created, putting us in the seventh era of Malkhut. This also makes sense because Malkhut is typically described as being “empty” and “lowly”, with no light of its own, which might reflect the reality in which we exist.

Whatever the case, we have an abundance of Torah evidence going all the way back to the Second Temple era that the notion of Cosmic Shemittot is not only legitimate, but accepted by major authorities. However, the Arizal (Rabbi Itzchak Luria, 1534-1572) seemed to be opposed to this notion, and held that the earlier generations simply misunderstood the spiritual dimensions. There are some today who still cite the Arizal in opposing the notion of Cosmic Shemittot. But, if we are going to be honest and rational, can we really say that all of the greats of the past were wrong? The Ibn Ezra, the Ramban, and Rabbeinu Bechaye could not understand spiritual realities? That Sefer Hanokh (cited countless times in the Zohar) and Sefer HaTemunah (which is also an halakhic text) were mistaken? That even the Sages of the Talmud, and the references in the Midrash (such as Kohelet Rabbah 3:11) and Zohar (including III, 61a-b which explicitly states that the souls of this world existed in previous worlds) can’t be taken at face value? In the big picture of Kabbalah, it’s the Arizal (and the Ramak) against everyone else, including major Rishonim and fundamental ancient texts. Rabbi Kaplan writes:

Since this is not a matter of law, there is no binding opinion. Although the Ari may have been the greatest of Kabbalists, his opinion on this matter is by no means absolutely binding. Since there were many important Kabbalists who upheld the concept of Sabbatical cycles, it is a valid, acceptable opinion. (pg. 6-7)

And the reality is, recent scientific and archaeological findings strongly support the notion of Cosmic Shemittot, too.

The Physical Evidence

Archaeologists have found many structures around the world that date far older than previously thought. The most famous example might be the Great Pyramids of Giza and the nearby Sphinx. Though typically dated to about 4000 years old, evidence suggests that they are much older. The Sphinx, in particular, has many layers of water erosion at its base, suggesting that it has lived through years of rainy weather. In recent millennia, Egypt does not have rain, of course. However, meteorological analysis and satellite scans suggest that Egypt was once part of a massive rainforest that spanned what is now the Sahara Desert. Based on new data, some have suggested the Sphinx is something like 12,000 years old, having been built at a time when Egypt’s weather was rainy and wet. Another well-known example is that of Göbekli Tepe, an ancient city unearthed in Turkey that has been dated back some 11,500 years, and sports the world’s oldest known temple. Similarly, the Tel es-Sultan site in Israel, near today’s Jericho, has been dated back to around the same time. And there are many others.

The Sphinx

Tel es-Sultan near Jericho, Israel

The town of Göbekli Tepe in modern-day Turkey dates back some 11,500 years.

Because of these reasons, some have proposed that we should change our year-counting system to start from the earliest signs of complex civilization, and instead of saying we are in 2023 CE, simply add ten thousand on top and say we are in 12023 HE (Human Era or Holocene Era). This happens to fit quite perfectly with Cosmic Shemittot. If we go with the earliest and most authoritative text—Sefer haTemunah—and say we are in the second Shemittah, then we need to add 7000 to our current Jewish year of 5783, making it the cosmic year 12,783 of the cycle! The archaeological evidence strongly supports Sefer haTemunah, as does the general idea that our civilization is full of war, misery, and suffering corresponding to the second middah of Gevurah, and the notion that the current Torah reality is one of strict halakhah and din.

All of this fits well with the increasingly popular “Younger Dryas” hypothesis positing that great civilizations first emerged at the end of the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago, when we suddenly see rising temperatures and rising sea levels all around the planet. There is even a far-out hypothesis arguing that the moon only entered Earth’s orbit about 12,000 years ago (!) and this may be what caused the drastic changes of the Younger Dryas in the first place.

Truly, there is no reason to stop at 12,000, since we can say that the current 50,000 year cycle is not the first, and there were previous Jubilees as well. (In fact, one might argue that we are in the second Shemittah of the second Jubilee, making our reality a Gevurah sh’b’Gevurah era.) This might explain even older pieces of archaeological and scientific evidence. It is worth mentioning that Earth’s rotation and tilt has its own cycle of about 41,000 years, with a wobble that makes the tilt shift between maximums of 22.1 and a 24.5-degree tilts, with massive repercussions for weather and climate. (Recall that it is Earth’s tilt that gives rise to the seasons.) According to scientists, the last maximum tilt position is estimated to have occurred about 10,700 years ago.

To conclude, the mystical notion of Cosmic Shemittot is not only valid and kosher, but attested to by a large number of ancient sources, including the Talmud and Zohar, and many great Kabbalists and Rishonim. It is absolutely fundamental for making sense of Creation and cosmogony, along with a plethora of scientific, archaeological, and historical findings. While it remains to be seen exactly which Shemittah we are currently in, much evidence supports the earliest position that we are in the second, though it may very well be that this is not the first cycle altogether. Either way, as we approach the end of our sixth millennium, we get closer and closer each day to the seventh Sabbatical millennium of universal rest, holiness, and elevation.

10 New Things in the Messianic Age

For Jews in Israel, Pesach will end this Friday, and on Shabbat the Torah reading will be the next parasha, Acharei. For us in the diaspora, Pesach will extend an extra day to Shabbat, meaning we will be reading more holiday-related passages, and continue with Acharei the following Shabbat. It will take quite a while until the Torah readings in Israel and in the diaspora will re-synchronize (at parashat Massei)!

Here outside of Israel, we get to read a special Haftarah for the eighth day of Pesach which centres on Isaiah 11. Fittingly, it is all about the coming Final Redemption and end of the exile, which we in the diaspora are particularly eager for. We read about the miraculous Messianic Age, when “the wolf will dwell with the lamb… the cow and the bear shall graze, with their young lying down together…” Some of our Sages understood this verse metaphorically, symbolizing a time of great peace, and a return to an ecological balance. Others took it literally, that even carnivorous animals will become vegan, and there shall be no death of any kind anymore. One Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 15:21) takes the latter approach, and enumerates this miracle as one of ten “new” things that God will do in the Messianic Age. This comes as a response to Kohelet who had stated that there is currently “nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

The first of the ten is that the world will be newly illuminated, as it is written: “No longer shall you need the sun for light by day, nor the shining of the moon for radiance [by night]; for God shall be your light everlasting, your God shall be your glory.” (Isaiah 60:19) It is interesting to note that if we take this verse literally, it has already come true that we no longer need the sun and moon for light, thanks to electricity! Of course, the verse is primarily metaphorical, saying that God will be our light. The Midrash asks how this is possible, since we know man is incapable of gazing at God. It answers based on Isaiah 30:26, that “The light of the moon will be like the light of the sun, while the light of the sun will be sevenfold, like the light of the seven days [of Creation].” The verse continues to suggest that this special light will have healing properties. The Midrash adds a quote from Malachi (3:20) that “for you who revere My name a sun of victory shall rise to bring healing…”

Intriguingly, the Midrash says that this new light will shine with 49 parts (based on the seven-by-seven wording of the Isaiah verse). That number always alludes to the 49 aspects of the lower Sefirot, particularly relevant to us now during Sefirat HaOmer when we count the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot. As is well-known (and recorded in most siddurim), each day corresponds to a particular quality tied to the Sefirot. In turn, these relate to the Nun Sha’arei Binah, the “Fifty Gates of Understanding”. The 50th gate is far too lofty, and even Moses was unable to attain it, though he did grasp all the remaining 49, as we hope to do, too (see Rosh Hashanah 21b). Perhaps the Midrash is teaching us in that in the Messianic Age we will finally be able to grasp the 49 levels, and make full use of light’s mysteries to repair the world.

We might see something of an analogy to this in the fact that the world is turning to more and more solar power for our energy needs, which has the potential to significantly improve the health of our planet. While water- and wind-powered machines have been around for centuries (in various mills, for instance), solar power really is a new phenomenon. The sun bathes us with essentially unlimited energy, and can easily satisfy all of the world’s energy needs many times over. The clunky and rudimentary stuff we have today is only just the beginning. There are some truly incredible solar-based and light-based technologies in the works, including artificial photosynthesis and lightning-fast, radiation-free “Li-Fi” internet. And who knows what other secrets are contained within light, of which we still have quite a minimal understanding.

The second new development in the Messianic Age is that healing waters shall go forth from Jerusalem, as prophesied in places like Zechariah 14:8. The Midrash specifically cites Ezekiel: “Every living creature that swarms will be able to go to the streams and be revived…” (47:9) These waters will heal all illnesses. A few verses later, Ezekiel says that “All kinds of trees for food will grow on both banks of the stream… they will yield new fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the Temple. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.” This is the third miracle of the Messianic Age: special Jerusalem trees that will perpetually give healing produce every month. (On another related scientific note, researchers have already been able to genetically engineer certain medicines directly into fruits and plants!)

Canada-based SemBioSys developed a safflower plant that can produce human insulin for diabetics, while back in 1996 scientists had already begun work on a banana carrying an edible Hepatitis B vaccine. These technologies never broke into the commercial market and it remains to be seen whether they are even safe or effective. However, they might provide a model or analogy as to how plant produce might directly treat human illness.

The fourth development of the Messianic Age is the rebuilding of all the ruined cities in Israel, and perhaps elsewhere around the world. As prophesied by Ezekiel (16:55), even Sodom and Gomorrah will be restored! Again, we are already living in a reality where this prophesy has been partly realized, as many ancient towns have now been rebuilt in modern Israel, including Modi’in (of Chanukah fame), Caesarea, Be’er Sheva, Rehovot (not at the same site as the Biblical one), numerous settlements in Judea and Samaria, as well as Jerusalem itself. This leads to the next miracle of the Messianic Age, which is that Jerusalem will be overlain with sapphire stones and other precious gems, and will “shine like the sun” (based on Isaiah 54:11-2).

The sixth miracle is the one with which we started: the restoration of an ecological equilibrium, where all living organisms will be at peace. Related to this is the following development, that all people, animals, and living things on the planet will form a new covenant with God, as it is written: “In that day, I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground…” (Hoshea 2:20) The verse continues to say how there will be no more wars, with Earth entirely at peace, idolatry will be eliminated, and all will know God. This is the true, divine “new world order” which we await.

With this new order come the final three developments, all based on verses in Isaiah (65:19, 25:8, 35:10). The first is that there will be no more sadness or wailing. The second, that there will be no more death. Some take this to mean not that people will live eternally, but simply that people will live very long lives (as Isaiah says in 65:20 that the youngest shall die at 100). Perhaps it means there will be no more tragic, untimely deaths, and that all people will live to a ripe old age and die of natural causes. Whatever the case, the final new development in the Messianic Age is that there will be no more sorrow, but only real joy for all humanity.

Chag sameach!

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