Tag Archives: 613 Commandments

The First Pesach: Did the Patriarchs Celebrate Passover?

The holiday of Passover commemorates the Exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt over three thousand years ago. The Torah tells us that because of their hasty departure, the dough of the Israelites did not have time to rise, hence the consumption of matzah. Yet, the term matzah appears in the Torah long before the Exodus! We read in Genesis 19:3 that Lot welcomed the angels into his home and “made them a feast, and baked matzot, and they ate.” Since the angels came to Lot immediately after visiting Abraham and Sarah to announce the birth of Isaac at that time next year (Genesis 18:10), the Sages learn from this that Isaac was born on Passover. Of course, the Exodus only took place four hundred years after Isaac’s birth! How is it that the patriarchs are already eating matzah?

An Eternal Torah

Although the Torah was given to the Israelites following the Exodus, Jewish tradition affirms that the Torah is eternal, and even predates existence. A famous verse in the Zohar (II, 161a) states that “God looked into the Torah and created the universe.” Adam knew the whole Torah, and was taught its deepest secrets by the angel Raziel. Many of these teachings were passed on by Adam to future generations, down to Noah, then his son Shem, and eventually to the Patriarchs who, according to tradition, studied at Shem’s academy. So, while the Torah tradition officially dates back to Sinai, in some ways it dates back all the way to Creation! It’s also important to keep in mind that the Patriarchs were prophets, which means that even though they did not have a physical, written Torah, there is no reason why they could not have received the Torah’s wisdom directly from God.

As such, it is said that the Patriarchs kept the entire Torah and fulfilled all the mitzvot. When Jacob sends a message to Esau after his sojourn in Charan he tells him “I have lived [garti] with Laban” (Genesis 32:5). On this, Rashi says that garti (גרתי) is an anagram of taryag (תרי״ג), the 613 commandments, meaning that despite living under the oppressive Laban for twenty years, Jacob still observed all 613 commandments. Yet, this is impossible since Jacob married two sisters—a clear Torah prohibition! Similarly, when Abraham meets Melchizedek (ie. Shem) following his victory over the Mesopotamian kings, he tells him that he will not take any reward whatsoever, not even “a thread or strap” (Genesis 14:23). For this, the Sages say, Abraham’s descendants merited the mitzvah of tzitzit (the threads) and tefillin (the straps). In that case, Abraham himself did not wear tefillin or tzitzit. From such instances we see that the patriarchs did not keep the Torah completely, at least not the Torah as we know it.

Emanations of Torah

While Kabbalistic texts often point out that the Torah is eternal and served as the very blueprint of Creation, they also go into more detail to explain that this primordial Torah was not quite the same as the Torah we have today. Each of the four mystical universes (Asiyah, Yetzirah, Beriah, Atzilut) has an ever-more refined level of Torah, with the highest being the Torah of Atzilut. Our Torah is the one of Asiyah, and is full of mitzvot only due to Adam’s sin and the corruption of mankind. In Olam HaBa, the Torah of Atzilut will finally be revealed, which is why Jewish tradition holds that many mitzvot will no longer apply in that future time. This is said to be the meaning of Isaiah 51:4 where God proclaims that in the messianic times “a Torah will go forth from Me”; and of Jeremiah 31:30 where God says He will forge a brit chadashah, a “new covenant”, with Israel. (This latter term was usurped by Christians for their “New Testament”.)

An even more intriguing idea is that the “New Torah” will be composed of the exact same letters as the current one we possess, just rearranged to form new words! Yet another is based on the well-known principle that the Heavenly Torah is composed of “black fire on white fire”. This is often used to explain the fact that the Torah actually has 304,805 letters, even though it is always described as having 600,000 letters (one for each Israelite at Mt. Sinai)—there are 304,805 letters of “black fire” and the rest are the invisible letters of “white fire”. Gershom Scholem cites a number of Kabbalistic and Hasidic texts suggesting that these currently-invisible “white fire” letters are the true eternal Torah! (See Scholem’s Kabbalah, pgs. 171-174, for a complete analysis of these concepts.)

It is this primordial Torah that was originally taught to Adam, and was passed down through his descendants to the Patriarchs, who carefully observed it. As such, it appears that eating matzah is an eternal mitzvah that already appeared in the primordial Torah before the Exodus and the revelation of the current Torah of Asiyah. What was the meaning behind that consumption of matzah?

Bread of Faith

Matzah is called the “bread of faith”. It symbolizes our faithfulness to God, who took us out of Egypt to be His people: “Let My people go so that they may serve Me” (Exodus 7:16, 26). Further emphasizing this point, the word matzot is spelled exactly like mitzvot. This simple, “humble” bread symbolizes our subservience to God’s commands. We are His faithful servants, just as the Patriarchs were His faithful servants. So they, too, ate matzah as a sign of their faith. They ate matzah because God had liberated them, too, from various hardships.

The very first Patriarch, Abraham, was miraculously saved from Nimrod’s furnace. He also dwelled in Egypt for a time before God miraculously brought him out of there with great wealth, just as his descendants would do centuries later. And then came his greatest test of faith: the Akedah. Amazingly, the apocryphal Book of Jubilees connects this event with the future Passover holiday. In chapter 18, it suggests that God commanded the Akedah to Abraham on the 15th of Nisan. As the Torah states, Abraham journeyed for three days before the Akedah happened and then, naturally, it took him three days to return home. Thus, the whole ordeal spanned seven days, and when Abraham returned, he established a seven-day “festival to Hashem” from the 15th of Nisan. The future seven-day Passover holiday would happen on those same days in that same month.

“Abraham’s Sacrifice”, a 15th century piece of Timurid-Mongolian art

While the Sages do debate whether some of the Torah’s major events (including Creation itself) happened in the month of Tishrei or Nisan, the accepted Jewish tradition is that the Akedah happened in Tishrei. Nonetheless, it is quite fitting that the Binding of Isaac should happen on Passover, when Isaac was born. In this case, the ram that Abraham ultimately offered in place of Isaac would serve as a proto-Pesach offering. After all, the ram is nothing but a male sheep, and it is the ram that is the astrological sign of Nisan, and it was those ram-headed gods that the Egyptians worshipped that needed to be slaughtered by the Israelites (as discussed last week). Whatever the case, the Book of Jubilees offers an intriguing possibility for the spiritual origins of Passover, and for why the Patriarchs themselves ate matzot long before the Exodus.

The Most Important Torah Reading

Two columns of parashat Ha’azinu in a Torah scroll

This Shabbat we will be reading Ha’azinu, a unique parasha written in two poetic columns. Ha’azinu is a song; the song that God instructed Moses to teach all of Israel: “And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the children of Israel.” (Deut. 31:19) Of course, the entire Torah is a song, chanted with specific ta’amim, musical cantillations. In fact, the mitzvah for each Jew to write a Torah scroll of their own (one of the 613) is derived from the verse above, where God commands the Children of Israel to write this song for themselves. While the simple meaning is that God meant to write the song of Ha’azinu, our Sages interpreted it to refer to the entire Torah. (Since most people are unable to write an entire kosher Torah scroll by themselves, the mitzvah can be fulfilled by writing in a single letter, or by financially contributing to the production of a Torah scroll.)

Why is the song of Ha’azinu so special that God commanded Moses to ensure it will always remain in the mouths of Israel? A careful reading shows that Ha’azinu essentially incorporates all of the central themes of the Torah. We are first reminded that God is perfect, “and all His ways are just” (32:4). While it is common for people to become angry at God and wonder why He is seemingly making life so difficult for them, Ha’azinu reminds us that there is no injustice in God, and that all suffering is self-inflicted (32:5). The Talmud reminds us that hardships are issurim shel ahavah, “afflictions of love”, meant to inspire us to change, grow, repent, learn, and draw us closer to God. Isaac Newton said it well:

Trials are medicines which our gracious and wise Physician gives because we need them; and the proportions, the frequency, and weight of them, to what the case requires. Let us trust His skill and thank Him for the prescription.

History is the Greatest Proof

In the second aliyah, we are told to “remember the days of old and reflect upon the years of previous generations” (32:7). Is there any greater proof for God and the truth of the Torah than Jewish history? Despite all the hate, persecution, exile, and genocide, the Jewish people are still alive and well, prospering as much as ever.

Does it make sense that 0.2% of the world’s population wins over 20% of the world’s Nobel Prizes? (Out of 881 Nobels awarded thus far, 197 were awarded to Jews, who number just 14 million or so. Compare that to the 1.8 billion Muslims in the world—roughly 25% of the world’s population—who have a grand total of three Nobel Prizes in the sciences.) Does it make sense that a nation in exile for two millennia can return to its ancestral homeland, defeat five professional armies that invade it simultaneously (and outnumber it at least 10 to 1), and go on to establish a flourishing oasis in a barren desert in just a few short decades? Does it make sense that tiny Israel is a global military, scientific, democratic, and economic powerhouse? And yet, does it make any sense that the United Nations has passed more resolutions against Israel than all of the rest of the world combined?

There is no greater proof for God’s existence, for the truth of His Torah, and the distinctiveness of the Jewish people than history itself. It is said that King Louis XIV once asked the French polymath and Catholic theologian Blaise Pascal for proof of the supernatural, to which the latter simply replied: “the Jews”. Although Pascal—who was not a big fan of the Jews—probably meant it in a less than flattering way, he was totally correct.

The Consequences of Forgetting God

From the third aliyah onwards, Ha’azinu describes what the Jewish people have unfortunately experienced through the centuries: God gives tremendous blessings, which eventually leads to the Jews becoming “fat and rebellious”. They forget “the God who delivered” them (32:18). This is precisely when God hides His face (32:20), and just as the Jews provoked God with their foolishness and assimilation, God in turn “provokes [them] with a foolish nation”. God sends a wicked foreign nation to punish the Jews—whether Babylonians or Romans, Cossacks or Nazis—to remind the Jews who they are supposed to be: a righteous, Godly people; a light unto the nations. If the Jews will not be righteous and divine, God has no use for them.

Having said that, this does not exonerate those Cossacks and Nazis, for they, too, have been judged. They are a “foolish nation”, a “non-people”, who themselves merit destruction, and God “will avenge the blood of His servants” (32:43). The song ends with a promise: Israel will atone and fulfil its role, its enemies will be defeated, and God will restore His people to their land.

The Spiritual Power of Ha’azinu

The song of Ha’azinu beautifully summarizes the purpose and history of the Jewish people, and elegantly lays down the responsibilities, benefits, and consequences of being the nation tasked with God’s mission. Not surprisingly then, God wanted all of Israel to know Ha’azinu very well, and meditate upon this song at all times. This is why it was given in the format of a song, since songs are much easier to memorize and internalize then words alone. Music has the power to penetrate into the deepest cores of our souls.

In fact, the Zohar on this parasha writes that music is the central way to elevate spiritually, and can be used to attain Ruach HaKodesh, the prophetic Divine Spirit. Elsewhere, the Zohar goes so far as to say that Moses’ prophecy was unique in that all other prophets needed music to receive visions, while Moses alone could prophesy without the help of song!

Today, we have scientific evidence that music deeply affects the mind. It triggers the release of various neurotransmitters, and can rewire the brain. It has a profound impact on mood and wellbeing, and can be used to induce all sorts of mental and emotional states. Music is powerful.

And so, the Torah concludes with a song. After relaying Ha’azinu, the Torah says that “Moses finished speaking all of these words to Israel” (32:45). The lyrics were the last of the Torah’s instructions. Indeed, Ha’azinu is the last weekly Torah reading in the yearly cycle. (Although there is one more parasha, it is not read on its own Shabbat, but on the holiday of Simchat Torah, at which point we jump right ahead to Beresheet, the first parasha.)

So important is Ha’azinu that it is always read during the High Holiday period, usually on Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Repentance, or Return. So important is Ha’azinu that it is most often the first parasha read in the New Year. And so important is Ha’azinu that it was commonly believed the entire Torah is encoded within it. When our Sages derived the mitzvah of writing the Torah from the command of writing Ha’azinu, they literally meant that Ha’azinu encapsulates the whole Torah! The Ramban went so far as to teach that all of history, including the details of every individual, is somehow encrypted in Ha’azinu. This prompted one of the Ramban’s students, Rabbi Avner, to abandon Judaism and become an apostate. In a famous story, the Ramban later confronts Avner, and proves that Avner’s own name and fate is embedded in one of Ha’azinu’s verses.

In past generations, many people customarily memorized Ha’azinu. The Rambam (Hilkhot Tefillah 7:13) cites another custom to recite Ha’azinu every morning at the end of Shacharit, and the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 31a) states that in those days it was read every Shabbat. This Shabbat, take the time to read Ha’azinu diligently, and see why it was always considered the most important Torah reading. Perhaps you will even find your own life encoded in its enigmatic verses.

Wishing everyone a sweet and happy new year! Shana tova v’metuka! 

The Problem With Kapparot

Tuesday evening marks the holy day of Yom Kippur. In the early morning hours before this, many Jews will seek to perform the custom of kapparot, which involves taking a live rooster (or chicken), swinging it over one’s head, and then having it slaughtered. In the process, the person states how the rooster will be their “atonement”, and while the rooster will die, the person will go on to live a good life. The rooster’s meat is typically donated. Others swing money over their heads instead of a rooster, and then donate the money to charity. Of course, this strange-sounding custom is not mentioned anywhere in the Torah or Talmud. In fact, throughout history many Jewish Sages tried hard to extinguish this custom, for a number of important reasons.

19th Century Lithograph of Kapparot

19th Century Lithograph of Kapparot

First of all, kapparot sounds much too similar to a korban, a sacrificial offering. In the days of the Temple, the kohanim sacrificed animals in order to atone for the people. The kapparot ritual explicitly states that the rooster serves as atonement, and the rooster is then killed. Despite some people’s claims that kapparot is not a true sacrifice, it clearly mimics the Temple’s sacrificial procedures, and intends to accomplish the same goal. The Mishnah Berurah (605:2) openly admits this, saying that kapparot is basically like a sacrifice. Indeed, an outsider would hardly be able to tell the difference. The problem is that the Torah forbids bringing sacrifices anywhere other than the place that God specifically designates (Deut. 12:5-6), which was the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The Torah also commands that only kohanim are allowed to oversee sacrificial procedures. From this perspective alone, kapparot is contrary to the Torah.

Thirteen Years of Pain

Secondly, kapparot fits squarely under the category of unnecessary cruelty to animals. Commenting on the verse in Psalms (145:9) which states that God has mercy and compassion upon all of His creations, Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch wrote:

Here you are faced with God’s teaching which obliges you not only to refrain from inflicting unnecessary pain on any animal, but to help and, when you can, to lessen the pain whenever you see an animal suffering, even through no fault of yours.
(Horeb, Chapter 60, Section 416)

The Jewish Sages have always been concerned about animal welfare. The Talmud considers it a Torah mitzvah to treat animals with respect and prevent any harm to them (Bava Metzia 32b), so much so that one is allowed to violate various Shabbat prohibitions to help a suffering animal (Shabbat 128b). Let us not forget the story of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, who suffered excruciating pains for thirteen years. Why was he afflicted with such pain?

A calf was being taken to the slaughter when it broke away, hid its head under [Rabbi Yehuda’s] clothes, and lowed [in terror]. “Go”, he said, “for this you were created.” Thereupon it was said [in Heaven], “Since he has no pity, let us bring suffering upon him.”
(Bava Metzia 85a)

The great Rabbi Yehuda – the compiler of the Mishnah – made one uncompassionate remark to a fearful calf that was about to be slaughtered. For this, Heaven rained upon him tremendous pain – six years of kidney stones, and seven of scurvy, so unbearable that his cries could be heard over three miles away. When did his suffering end?

One day [Rabbi Yehuda’s] maidservant was sweeping the house; [seeing] some young weasels lying there, she made to sweep them away. “Let them be,” he said to her; “It is written, ‘And his tender mercies are over all his works.’” It was said [in Heaven], “Since he is compassionate, let us be compassionate to him.”

Rabbi Yehuda quotes the same verse (Psalms 145:9) that Rav Hirsch expounded upon, and has mercy on the young animals in his home. For this, his suffering is finally taken away. If even one little remark to an animal is worth thirteen years of suffering, how much more so if an animal is swung around wildly, then slaughtered needlessly – which is precisely what happens with kapparot. (It has also been pointed out that chickens used in kapparot are usually starving and thirsty, and often have their limbs dislocated or bones broken during the procedure.)

Idolatrous Practices

Lastly, kapparot appears to be connected with various idolatrous practices and non-Jewish customs. The Ramban, among others, considered it darkei emori, the way of idolaters. The Shulchan Arukh, the central halachic text of Judaism, is also staunchly opposed to kapparot, and its author, Rabbi Yosef Karo, called it a “foolish custom”.

Many modern-day authorities, too, from across the Torah-observant world, have been vocally against kapparot. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and the entire Brisker rabbinic lineage before him opposed the custom, considering it irrational. The rabbi of Beit El and rosh yeshiva of Ateret Yerushalaim, Shlomo Chaim Aviner, a prominent authority within the Dati Leumi community, has described it as a “superstition”. And the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, Chaim David HaLevy, beautifully wrote in his Aseh Lekha Rav:

Why should we, specifically on the eve of the holy day of Yom Kippur, be cruel to animals for no reason, and slaughter them without mercy, just as we are about to request compassion for ourselves from the living God?

Kapparot with Money

While it is clearly evident that one should completely avoid kapparot with chickens, some might argue that it is still worth doing kapparot with money. The problem is that the procedure and text are still the same: waving coins or bills over one’s head, stating that the money serves as an atonement, and that donating it will save one’s life.

The truth is that there is no need to do this at all, since any giving to charity automatically fulfils a mitzvah, assists in one’s repentance and atonement, and is said to be life-saving. The Talmud famously tells us (Bava Batra 10a) that charity is the greatest of all forces, and quotes the verse in Proverbs that “charity saves from death” (10:2).

Thus, any charitable contribution, at any time of the year, already does what kapparot claims to do. And so, awkwardly waving money around one’s head and reciting the kapparot verses is nothing more than a funny-looking waste of time, associated with a cruel, idolatrous, nonsensical, and nonJewish custom.

In his list of the 613 Torah mitzvot, the Rambam (who was also opposed to kapparot) lists the 185th positive commandment of the Torah as eradicating any traces of idolatry from Israel. Since many great Sages held the view that kapparot is associated with idolatrous ways, including the Ramban, Rashba, and the authoritative Shulchan Arukh, it is undoubtedly a mitzvah to not only avoid kapparot, but to encourage others to abandon this practice, and to expunge it from Judaism.


The article above is adapted from Garments of Light – 70 Illuminating Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion and Holidays. Click here to get the book!