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The Secret Power of Tzitzit

This week’s parasha, Shlach, is primarily concerned with the Sin of the Spies. At the end of the parasha, we read the commandment to wear tzitzit on the corners of our clothes:

Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them that they shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations, and they shall affix a thread of blue on the fringe of each corner. This shall be fringes for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of God to perform them, and you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes after which you are going astray. So that you shall remember and perform all My commandments and you shall be holy to your God. (Numbers 15:38-40)

The passage above states that the purpose of tzitzit is to remind us of God’s commandments. The Torah states that people fall to sin because they follow after their evil inclination—residing in the heart—which itself follows after the eyes. The eyes see and stimulate the temptation inside the heart, and then the entire body succumbs. As an antidote to straying eyes, when we look at tzitzit we remember God’s mitzvot, and this should save us from sin. Rashi famously comments that the word “tzitzit” (ציצית) has a gematria of 600, and when adding the five knots and eight strings on each fringe, one gets 613 to represent the 613 commandments of the Torah.

The Talmud (Menachot 44a) recounts a story of a man who once went out of his way to sleep with a certain beautiful harlot. When it came time to undress, his tzitzit “struck him in the face”. He saw the fringes and remembered God, and held himself back from sin. The harlot was so impressed (as none was ever able to restrain himself from her) that she abandoned her whole world and her great wealth and went to study in the academy of Rabbi Chiya. She ended up converting to Judaism, and marrying that man. The Talmud uses this story both to illustrate the power of tzitzit, and also to show that “There is not a single precept in the Torah, even the lightest, whose reward is not enjoyed in this world.”

Lower Vision

The Sages state that the word tzitzit comes from the root verb l’hatzitz, “to gaze”. One is meant to see them and be reminded of God and His commandments. This is why the mitzvah was given in this week’s parasha in particular, which is mainly concerned with the Sin of the Spies. The spies were all great leaders and outstanding members of Israelite society. Yet, when they went out to spy the land and saw all kinds of things that terrified them, they followed after their eyes. They should have remembered God, and all the miracles that God had wrought for them. Instead, their hearts were filled with fear, and they led the entire nation astray. (Except for the righteous Joshua and Caleb.)

Similarly, the passage immediately preceding that of tzitzit is the story of the mekoshesh etzim—a man who had desecrated the Sabbath by going to deliberately gather wood, a forbidden act. He, too, had forgotten God’s mitzvot, and paid the ultimate price. This may be why the common Ashkenazi custom is to make 39 winds on the tzitzit, corresponding to the 39 melachot of Shabbat. Between the five knots, Ashkenazi tzizit have 7, 8, 11, and 13 winds, corresponding to the four categories of forbidden labours on Shabbat. There are 11 actions associated with farming and field work, 13 associated with producing fabrics, 7 with producing leather, and 8 that mostly involve construction.

Sephardic tzitzit, meanwhile, tend to have 26 knots, corresponding to the gematria of God’s Ineffable Name. Between the five knots are 10, 5, 6, and 5 winds, corresponding to the values of the letters of the Tetragrammaton. Perhaps Ashkenazis connected tzitzit to the mekoshesh etzim while Sephardis connected tzitzit to the Spies, as both narratives appear in the parasha commanding tzitzit. Both stories end with a punishment that could have been averted had the people involved worn and seen their tzitzit.

The different styles of tying tzitzit. (Credit: Tekhelet.com)

Just as tzitzit are supposed to be seen to prevent a person from sinning, they also serve as a spiritual rectification for having seen improper things. And just as they serve to rectify our plain, physical sense of sight, on a deeper level they are powerful tools to gaze into the spiritual worlds.

Higher Vision

The same root verb, l’hatzitz, “to gaze”, is used in one of the most enigmatic passages in the Talmud: the Four Who Entered Pardes (Chagigah 14b). There, we read how Ben Azzai hetzitz, “gazed” at the Heavenly realms, and perished from the overwhelming experience. We learn from this that the verb l’hatzitz is not just referring to physical vision, but alludes to the possibility of spiritual vision. And this is intricately connected to tzitzit.

In his commentaries on Sefer haBahir (pg. 153-154), Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan writes how tzitzit are specifically meant to hang around the legs of a person, and the legs in Kabbalah correspond to the sefirot of Netzach and Hod. Without delving into what these sefirot are, we can briefly state that these sefirot are the two which are always described as the sources of prophecy. Rabbi Kaplan cites the Kabbalists as saying that the tzitzit, or tallit, is related to a phenomenon called hashmal. The word first appears in Ezekiel’s vision of the Merkavah, God’s “Divine Chariot” (Ezekiel 1:4). In Modern Hebrew, the word means “electricity” (for good reason, though this is beyond the scope of the present discussion).

The Kabbalists split the word hashmal (חשמל) into the letter chet (ח), which has a value of 8, and semel (שמל), which means “garment” or “dress” (like simlah). In other words, hashmal is associated with that garment that has eight strings on each end: a tallit. The Zohar (I, 100b, Sitrei Torah) explicitly states that hashmal is the force that allowed the prophets to see their spiritual visions. It explains that the eight refers to the Octagrammaton, a Name of God where the Tetragrammaton is combined with Adonai into an eight-letter name, as follows: יאהדונהי. (This is seen many times in our prayers inside many siddurim.) This is the Name through which God communicates with prophets. It is the chet of hashmal, and the mystical meaning of the eight tzitzit strings.

‘Ezekiel Prophesying’ by Gustave Doré

If we go back to the first place in the Tanakh where hashmal appears, we will find that the connection to tzitzit runs even deeper. Ezekiel describes the great Chariot of God, and states that God’s Throne is made of blue sapphire (1:26). On this, the Talmud (Sotah 17a) states that God commanded one blue thread inside the tzitzit because it resembles the blue sapphire of His Throne. Interestingly, the Torah calls this blue thread a kanaf, literally a “wing” (Numbers 15:38). When Ezekiel describes God’s Chariot, with the four angels at its four corners, he says:

And every one had four faces, and every one of them had four wings [knafaim]. And their legs were straight legs; and their feet were like the feet of a calf; and they sparkled [notzetzim] like the colour of burnished brass. (Ezekiel 1:6-7)

There are three key terms here which bring everything together. There are four wings, like the four blue threads of tzitzit which are called “wings”, and which hang around the legs. And once again, there is that same root within the word notzetzim, “sparkling”, alluding to the tzitzit. In short, tzitzit have the power to bring one into a state of prophecy, and witness the Merkavah, which is the vehicle of prophecy. The Sages state this outright, and explains that when the Torah says v’haya lachem l’tzitzit u’raitem oto, it does not mean “you will see it”—the string—but rather “you will see Him”—God! (Oto in Hebrew can mean either “it” or “him”.) With tzitzit, one can see pnei Shekhinah, “the face of the Divine Presence”. (See Menachot 43b and Sifrei Bamidbar 115.)

All of this is one big mystical reason (among others) for praying with a tallit wrapped around one’s self. Fittingly, one of the verses customarily said when putting on the tallit is Psalm 36:10, which states “in Your light, we see light”. God grants us some of His divine light, so that we can get a glimpse of the divine. This takes us back to the very origin of Creation, which began with God bringing forth a divine light.

The Sages state that God created everything through “32 paths of wisdom”. This is based on the 32 times that God’s Name appears in the account of Creation (Genesis 1), and is the focus of Sefer Yetzirah, the most ancient of Kabbalistic texts. And this is why a tallit has a total of 32 strings (eight on each corner). Each string represents one of the 32 paths of Creation, a path of light. There is a further allusion to this in the concluding words of the blessing recited before putting on the tallit: l’hita’atef b’tzitzit (להתעטף בציצית). The initials make 32, and also the word lev, “heart”. Just as the heart is intertwined with every little part of the body, and nourishes every cell of the body, so too is God intertwined with every iota of His universe, and brings each tiny particle into existence. The mystical purpose of tzitzit is to give us the spiritual vision to uncover that divine reality.

The Passover Seder and the Order of Creation

This Friday night we will be gathering to celebrate the holiday of Pesach. It will also be Shabbat, which is highly appropriate because Pesach and Shabbat are deeply intertwined. While Shabbat is mentioned multiple times in the Torah, there are two places in particular where Shabbat is commanded and explained: the two times that the Torah records the Ten Commandments. These two passages are nearly identical except for, primarily, the description of Shabbat. In the first account, Exodus 20, we read:

Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days shall you labour, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto Hashem, your God, in it you shall not do any manner of work; you, your son, your daughter, your servant, your maid, your cattle, and the stranger that is within your gates; for in six days Hashem made Heaven and Earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore Hashem blessed the Sabbath day, and sanctified it.

In the second account, Deuteronomy 5, we read:

Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy, as Hashem your God commanded you. Six days shall you labour, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto Hashem your God, in it you shall not do any manner of work; you, your son, your daughter, your servant, your maid, your ox, your donkey, your cattle, and the stranger that is within your gates; that your servant and your maid may rest as well as you. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and Hashem your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore Hashem your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.

There is one striking difference between the two passages. In the first, the reason for keeping Shabbat is to remember Creation, since God created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh. In the second, the reason for keeping Shabbat is to remember the Exodus, and that we were once slaves that worked tirelessly seven days a week, and now that God has freed us from slavery we should make sure to take a day off. We must never be slaves again, nor are we allowed to enslave others, with God insisting that even our servants and maids “rest as well as you”.

From this alone, we see a strong link between Pesach and Shabbat. In fact, each Shabbat when we recite Kiddush we mention how it is both to commemorate maase Beresheet and yetziat Mitzrayim, both Creation and the Exodus. In the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 10b), the Sages even debate when God had created the world: was it in Tishrei, or in Nissan, the month of the Exodus? And just as Shabbat is a “mini-Pesach”, Pesach is a “mini-Shabbat”. When the Torah commands counting the Omer, it says to being the count mimachorat haShabbat, “from the day after Shabbat”, which is actually referring to Pesach, when we begin the count (on the second night).

The Kabbalists explain that the events of Pesach and the Exodus rectified all of Creation. The Ten Plagues corresponded to the Ten Utterances of Creation, and each one was meant to repair a level of Creation that the Egyptians had tarnished. (See ‘The Ten Plagues: Destroying the Idols of Egypt’ in Garments of Light.) On a mystical level, the Pesach seder reflects this, too.

The Hand of God

The seder has a total of fourteen distinct steps, easily remembered by the classic rhyme: Kadesh, Urchatz; Karpas, Yachatz; Maggid, Rochtza; Motzi Matzah; Maror, Korech; Shulchan Orekh; Tzafun, Barech; Hallel, Nirtzah. (Note that it is sometimes said that there are 15 steps to the seder, with Motzi and Matzah separated as two, even though they are one mitzvah of eating the matzah.) The fact that there are fourteen parts to the seder is not coincidental. The most common way, by far, that the Torah describes the Exodus is by saying God took us out of Egypt b’Yad chazakah, “with a strong Hand”. The term appears twelve times throughout the Tanakh. Additionally, we read of “God’s Hand” during the plague of pestilence (Exodus 9:3), and at the end of the account of the Splitting of the Sea:

And God saved Israel from the hand of Egypt [mi’yad Mitzrayim], and Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the sea shore. And Israel saw the great Hand [haYad hagedolah] with which God acted in Egypt, and the people feared God; and they believed in God and in His servant Moses. (Exodus 14:31)

Altogether, we see the word yad used in metaphorical fashion fourteen times with regards to the Exodus, particularly in relation to God’s great “Hand”. And the gematria of yad (יד) itself is 14. I believe this is why the Sages specifically wanted to immortalize the seder with 14 steps.

Similarly, God created His universe with that same great “Hand”. When we look closer at the account of Creation, we find that there are a total of fourteen distinct actions associated with Creation itself:

First there’s “Beresheet”, which the Sages identify as the first Divine Utterance, the origin of time. Then God “hovered over the waters”, said to refer to the formation of the soul of Mashiach (see Ba’al HaTurim on Genesis 1:2, and Beresheet Rabbah 2:4). Then came (3) the creation of light, followed by (4) the division of the waters on the Second Day. On that same day, God created (5) various spiritual worlds, including the heavenly Gan Eden and Gehinnom, and populated them with all the Heavenly hosts and angels (See Yalkut Shimoni, chapter 1, passage 5, and Beresheet Rabbah 1:3). On the Third Day, God (6) gathered all the waters below, and (7) made the dry land appear, before (8) filling the earth with vegetation. Next came (9) the stars on Day Four, followed by (10) fish and birds on the Fifth Day. That day, there was an additional creation described in and of itself (11): “And God created the taninim hagedolim…” (Genesis 1:21). Then came the (12) land animals, (13) mankind, and lastly, (14) Shabbat.

All in all, we see fourteen clear steps in the account of Creation. It is worth mentioning here that in Hebrew the account of Creation (Genesis 1:1-2:4) was traditionally referred to as Seder Beresheet Bara. Creation is a “seder”, too. And we find very clear parallels between the fourteen parts of the Pesach seder and the fourteen steps of the Creation seder.

The Seder of the First Day

The first step of the seder is Kadesh, when we recite Kiddush and drink the first cup of wine. This officially ushers in the holiday and begins the seder process, just as the first act of Creation, Beresheet, officially started time and began the Creation process.

The next step is Urchatz, washing the hands with a cup of water. This first washing is done without saying the blessing al netilat yadayim. In Creation, the second verse tells us that God’s spirit “hovered over the waters.” The connection is self-explanatory.

Eating a vegetable (Karpas) is the third step and parallels the creation of light. As we’ve written in the past, the word “karpas” appears just once in the Tanakh, in describing the great banquet of King Achashverosh at the start of Megillat Esther. It refers to a certain fabric used in the drapery of the banquet. Mystically, it alludes to the fabric of Joseph’s special coat, which was dipped in blood and presented before Jacob to “confirm” the youth’s death. Jacob hence plunged into inconsolable grief and tears. We symbolically dip the karpas into salt water “tears”. That event—the sale of Joseph—led to the young man’s rise to power in Egypt, followed by his family’s settlement there, and then their enslavement, and finally the Exodus. So, that coat—karpas—set the events of the Exodus in motion. While the sale of Joseph was a sad and tragic event, Joseph himself insisted at the end that it was meant to be and all is well.

Joseph is credited for possessing a good eye, and for always being able to see the good within each situation, no matter how terrible (this is why the Sages state that, in turn, the evil eye did not affect Joseph at all). This is the secret of the Light of the First Day. It is called Or HaGanuz, the “hidden light”, and is the light through which Tzadikim see the world. On a deeper level, it represents that hidden divine light concealed within all things. A person like Joseph can see beyond the external into the Godly light inside. Ultimately, the light of the First Day of Creation was preserved for the righteous in the World to Come (Chagigah 12a), who will bask in this divine light in their own Heavenly “banquet”, draped with hur karpas u’techelet, “white, pure, and blue fabrics” (Esther 1:6).

Becoming Angels

Step four in the seder is Yachatz, when the middle matzah is divided in half. This clearly corresponds to the next act of Creation, the division of the waters on the Second Day. On this day, God made a permanent separation between the “upper waters” (Heaven, or Shamayim in Hebrew, literally “waters there”) and the “lower waters” that cover over 70% of the Earth. The larger waters, the Heavens, were concealed by God, just as the larger piece of matzah from the Yachatz is concealed for the afikoman.

Next comes Maggid, when we relate the Exodus story. This corresponds to the other major event of the Second Day. Though not mentioned explicitly in the Torah, the Sages state that God populated the Heavens with angels on this day. Appropriately, the term maggid is actually used to refer to angels that communicate with people. Throughout history, multiple rabbis described how they received mystical secrets from Heaven through a “speaking angel”, a Maggid. The most famous example of this is Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575), the compiler of the Shulchan Arukh, who was visited by a Maggid and recorded some of these teachings in a book called Maggid Mesharim. An angel is first and foremost a messenger, and our job during the Maggid portion of the seder is to act as messengers in relaying the Exodus experience to our children.

Water, Land, and Passover Stars

After Maggid, we get up to wash netilat yadayim, this time with a blessing, because we then sit down to eat the matzah. We say the regular blessing of hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz, as well as the extra blessing al achilat matzah. These two steps, Rochtza and Motzi Matzah, parallel the next two steps of Creation (Genesis 1:9-10):

And God said: “Let the waters under the Heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. And God called the dry land “Earth” [eretz], and the gathering together of the waters He called “Seas” [yamim]; and God saw that it was good.

Washing the hands is an allusion to the gathering of the waters, and eating the “bread of the earth” (lechem min ha’aretz) alludes to the formation of the earth, eretz.

Right after this, still on the Third Day, God seeded the earth with various grasses, herbs, and vegetation. Needless to say, this corresponds to the next part of the seder, Maror, eating the bitter herbs.

Then comes the “sandwich”, Korech, a combination of matzah, maror, and charoset. As we read in the Haggadah, this step was instituted by Hillel, who would make a sandwich from the matzah, maror, and korban pesach, the Passover lamb, since the Torah explicitly states that the lamb should be eating al matzot u’merorim. Today, we don’t have the Passover lamb, but we do still make a korech. What does the Passover lamb have to do with the next act of Creation, the formation of stars?

Images of the constellation Ares, including a stylized version in the shape of a ram.

The Sages teach that God’s command to take sheep specifically was not without meaning. This is because the Egyptians were idol worshippers and astrologers, and the sheep was one of their main idols and astrological signs. In fact, this bit of astrology remains with us to this day, for the astrological sign of the month of Nissan (or April) is Ares, a constellation in the shape of a ram or sheep. God wanted us to barbeque sheep in particular to once again show the folly of the Egyptians’ idolatrous beliefs. God created the stars as chronological markers for “the holidays, days, and years” (Genesis 1:14), not for them to be worshipped.

Completing the Seder, Completing Creation

We now enter Shulchan Orekh, the great feast. We traditionally begin with eggs and fish. In fact, in olden days some had the custom to place an egg and fish on the seder plate itself (today we retain the egg, but not the fish). These represent what was created next, on the Fifth Day: fish and birds.

The Torah then states that God created taninim gedolim. There is much discussion about the identity of these mysterious creatures. Is the Torah speaking about whales (which, though in the seas, are not fish so they are listed as a separate creation)? Perhaps they are dinosaurs, since the most literal translation would be “large reptiles”? The Sages say that these actually refer to two great monsters or dragons (see Rashi on Genesis 1:21). God created a pair of them, male and female, but they were so terrible that He slayed one immediately afterwards so that the two wouldn’t reproduce. The remaining Leviathan is hidden away, perhaps prowling the deep seas.

‘Destruction of Leviathan’ by Gustav Doré

The taninim correspond to Tzafun, the consumption of the afikoman. The hidden half of the matzah is finally revealed and eaten to end the meal. This alludes to the meal at the End of Days, the so-called “Feast of Leviathan”, where the righteous will join Mashiach in partaking of the Leviathan’s flesh. (For more on the connection between Mashiach and the afikoman, see here.)

With the meal officially over, we recite Birkat Hamazon, and drink the third cup of wine with it. Our rabbis state that on holiday feasts one should especially partake of meat, which is the centrepiece of the holiday meal. (There is even a halachic debate whether one fulfils the mitzvah of a holiday meal if they did not consume meat, and another discussion of whether poultry is okay.) In Temple times, the major part of the meal was the roasted lamb itself. Having consumed our fill of meat, we say Barech to thank Hashem for it. This corresponds to the creation of land animals on the Sixth Day, without which we wouldn’t have the meat to begin with.

We then recite Hallel, to literally “praise” God. This corresponds to the creation of man, who was made for this very purpose. Unlike all other creations, man alone is capable of contemplating Hashem, serving Him, and connecting to Him.

Finally, there’s Nirtzah, where we declare our hope for the Final Redemption, and that next year we will be able to celebrate our complete freedom in Jerusalem. This is a wish for the coming of the great age at the End of Days that will be kulo Shabbat, an everlasting “Sabbath”. Of course, it parallels the final act of Creation: Shabbat.

In these ways, the Passover seder neatly parallels the seder of Creation. To summarize:

Chag Pesach Kasher v’Sameach!

Shalom Aleichem: To Sing or Not to Sing?

This week’s parasha, Vayak’hel, begins with God’s command for Israel to observe the Sabbath. One of the most famous symbols and songs of Shabbat is undoubtedly Shalom Aleichem, traditionally sung before the evening Kiddush. The lyrics of Shalom Aleichem welcome the Sabbath angels into our homes, and for many, serve to set the atmosphere of Shabbat itself. Yet, some of our wise rabbis in the past have cautioned against singing this song!  Where did Shalom Aleichem come from, and who composed it? When did Jews start singing this song, and why?

A Mystery Song

Much of the beloved Kabbalat Shabbat service is of very recent origin. For example, Lecha Dodi, through which we welcome in the Sabbath, was composed by Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz (c. 1500-1576). In fact, the eight verses of Lecha Dodi form an acrostic, the initials spelling his name. Born in Greece, Rabbi Alkabetz later moved to Tzfat, the capital of Jewish mysticism. He studied with Rabbi Yosef Karo (c. 1488-1575), famed composer of the Shulchan Arukh, and was the brother-in-law of the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570), who led the Tzfat Kabbalists before the arrival of the Arizal (Rabbi Itzchak Luria, 1534-1572). Many practices and customs of Judaism as we know them today originated in this incredible circle of Jewish mystics in Tzfat. One of these is the Kabbalat Shabbat prayer service.

Although Rabbi Alkabetz certainly wrote Lecha Dodi, there is little evidence that the wider Kabbalistic circle of Tzfat recited it in his own day. Contrary to popular belief, the Arizal did not sing this song. We know the Arizal’s teachings and practices from the writings of his students, namely his primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital (1542-1620). In Pri Etz Chaim, Rabbi Vital makes it abundantly clear, and repeats multiple times, exactly how the Arizal would perform Kabbalat Shabbat (see, for example, Sha’ar Shabbat, ch. 6):

The Arizal would go out into the fields, and recite Psalm 20 (with the most important verse there being the tenth, which starts Hashem l’mabul yashav, the initials spelling a Name of God, יל״י). He would then say Bo’i Kalah, “come my Bride” three times (based on a teaching in the Talmud, Shabbat 119a). Following this, he would recite Psalm 92 (Mizmor shir l’yom haShabbat), which also contains hidden Names of God. That would be it for Kabbalat Shabbat. Rabbi Vital explains what happens next:

And when you come home from the synagogue after praying Arvit, stand at your place at the meal table, and say “This is the meal of the Holy Apple Orchard”… and after this, encircle the table around the right, silently. Then, take in your hands two bundles of hadas [myrtle branches], and join them together, and say the blessing [besamim] on them, and smell them. And afterwards, encircle the table a second time with the branches in hand, silently. Then say “Zachor v’shamor b’dibbur echad ne’emru”. Then say Kiddush.

After eating the meal, recite some passages from the tractate Shabbat, then birkat hamazon, then say again “Zachor v’shamor b’dibbur echad ne’emru”. Then say the blessing on the hadas a second time. In the morning, for the second Shabbat meal, do the same as you did the previous night [during the first meal], and do the same for the third meal [seudah shlishit].

‘Sabbath Queen’ by Abigail Sarah Bagraim

Thus, while we find some words that remind us of Lecha Dodi, such as “bo’i kalah” and “zachor v’shamor b’dibbur echad” (rearranged by Alkabetz in Lecha Dodi so that “shamor” comes first, to spell his name “Shlomo”), there is no mention of an entire Lecha Dodi. Nor is there any mention of singing Shalom Aleichem (or Eshet Chayil for that matter).

The Arizal did teach that one should say the words “shalom aleichem” three times at the end of Birkat Levanah, the blessing on a new moon recited once a month (Sha’ar Rosh Chodesh Chanukah v’Purim, ch. 3). This is still done today. The Arizal explained that saying shalom aleichem three times serves to remove any kitrug, spiritual “prosecution”. Based on this, some believe that whoever composed the song Shalom Aleichem incorporated this teaching of the Arizal. This is probably why some (especially Sephardis) have the custom to sing only the first three stanzas of Shalom Aleichem, thus saying the words “shalom aleichem” three times. Alternatively, this may be why many others (especially Ashkenazis) have the custom to recite each stanza of Shalom Aleichem three times.

The Origin of Shalom Aleichem

So where and when did Shalom Aleichem first appear? It seems the earliest source is Seder Tikkunei Shabbat, a work first published in Prague in 1641. I found a 1650 Krakow edition, and its Kabbalat Shabbat service and meal table ritual is nearly identical to what is generally practiced today. There are the six Psalms before Lecha Dodi, then Lecha Dodi itself, followed by two more Psalms. Then there is Shalom Aleichem, with all four stanzas—each to be read three times—followed by a prayer called Ribbon Kol HaOlamim, and then Eshet Chayil.

Cover of Tikkunei Shabbat

The cover page of the text says it is based on the teachings of the Arizal. It isn’t clear who exactly put the book together, though it appears to mention a “Rabbi Isaiah Nasi”. That may be Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (Shelah HaKadosh, 1555-1630), a renowned Kabbalist who was born in Prague and lived for a time in Krakow. He got hold of the teachings of the Arizal, and towards the end of his life travelled to Tzfat in hopes of learning directly from the Arizal’s disciples. Considering that Seder Tikkunei Shabbat was first published twenty years after the Shelah left Europe, and eleven years after he died, it may have been put together by someone else, based on his teachings, which were in turn based on the Arizal.

Still, we do not know who it was that composed Shalom Aleichem. Whatever the case, within a century it had become popular enough that there were those who opposed singing it. One of these opponents was Rabbi Yakov Emden (1697-1776). He published his own siddur, where Shalom Aleichem is missing. He pointed out several issues with the song, including the absurd request for angels (and not God Himself) to bless us (although earlier Jewish works don’t necessarily have a problem with this), and the strange wording of the song, especially the word “mimelekh”. Amazingly, modern versions of Rabbi Emden’s Beit Yakov siddur do include Shalom Aleichem! The earliest Beit Yakov siddur I could find was from 1881, which has Shalom Aleichem in full, though without that problematic word mimelekh.

Shalom Aleichem, with commentary, in an 1881 Beit Yakov siddur

The commentary in this version of Beit Yakov explains that the custom of singing Shalom Aleichem is based on the Talmudic statement (Shabbat 119b) that when one comes home from the synagogue on Friday evening he is followed by two angels:

Rav Chisda said in the name of Mar Ukva: “One who prays on Shabbat evening and recites Vaykhulu, the two ministering angels who accompany the person at all times place their hands on his head and say to him: ‘And your iniquity has passed, and your sin has been atoned.’” [Isaiah 6:7] It was taught [in a Baraita]: Rabbi Yose bar Yehuda says: “Two ministering angels accompany a person on Shabbat evening from the synagogue to his home, one good angel and one bad angel. And when he reaches his home and finds a candle burning and a table set and his bed made, the good angel says: ‘May it be Your will that it shall be like this for another Shabbat.’ And the bad angel answers against his will: ‘Amen.’ And if the person’s home is not prepared for Shabbat in that manner, the bad angel says: ‘May it be Your will that it shall be so for another Shabbat,’ and the good angel answers against his will: ‘Amen.’”

It is these angels that Shalom Aleichem is apparently referring to. The angels are welcomed into the home, asked to give us their blessing, and to head back out. We see above that one of the angels is a kategor, a “prosecutor”. As we learned from the Arizal, saying shalom aleichem three times eliminates kitrug, “prosecution”, thus neutralizing that “bad” angel.

As for the argument that the song is requesting blessings from angels, I believe the second argument regarding the strange wording of mimelekh actually serves to neutralize the first argument. This line is meant to remind the singer and the audience that, of course, we are really just request a blessing from God Himself—through His messenger angels (something that happens many times in the Torah)—hence the words “From the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He” (מִמֶּלֶךְ מַלְכֵי הַמְּלָכִים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא). We are welcoming the angels that are coming our way mimelekh, “from the King”, and who are blessing us mimelekh, “from the King”.

To summarize, Shalom Aleichem probably did not emerge among the early Tzfat Kabbalists, nor was it recited by the Arizal as some believe. It had only become widely popular by the middle of the 18th century. The identity of the author remains unknown.

So, should we recite Shalom Aleichem, or not? For those who have reservations (like Rabbi Emden, and apparently also the Vilna Gaon) and feel strongly that it should be skipped (or wish to mirror the early Tzfat Kabbalists as closely as possible), they have on whom to rely. However, it is difficult to avoid such a deeply-rooted and widely-accepted custom. Ultimately, the song is based on a Talmudic passage, speaks only of positive things, and affirms God is the “King of Kings”. It is a mystical, albeit mysterious song, and a beautiful, peaceful way to start the Sabbath festivities.

Time Travel in the Torah

This week’s parasha is Ki Tisa, in which we read of Moses’ return from Mt. Sinai where he had spent forty days with God. During that time, he had composed the first part of the Torah and received the Two Tablets. The Talmud (Menachot 29b) tells us of another incredible thing that happened:

…When Moses ascended on High, he found the Holy One, Blessed be He, sitting and tying crowns on the letters of the Torah. Moses said before God: “Master of the Universe, who is preventing You from giving the Torah [without these additions]?” God said to him: “There is a man who is destined to be born after many generations, and Akiva ben Yosef is his name. He is destined to derive from each and every tip of these crowns mounds upon mounds of halakhot.” [Moses] replied: “Master of the Universe, show him to me.” God said to him: “Return behind you.”

Moses went and sat at the end of the eighth row [in Rabbi Akiva’s classroom] and did not understand what they were saying. Moses’ strength waned, until [Rabbi Akiva] arrived at the discussion of one matter, and his students said to him: “My teacher, from where do you derive this?” [Rabbi Akiva] said to them: “It is an halakha transmitted to Moses from Sinai.” When Moses heard this, his mind was put at ease…

Up on Sinai, Moses saw a vision of God writing the Torah—this is how Moses himself composed the Torah, as he was shown what to inscribe by God—and he saw God adding the little tagim, the crowns that adorn certain Torah letters. Moses was puzzled by the crowns, and asked why there were necessary. God replied that in the future Rabbi Akiva would extract endless insights from these little crowns.

Moses then asked to see Rabbi Akiva, and was permitted to sit in on his class. Moses could not follow the discussion! In fact, the Talmud later says how Moses asked God: “You have such a great man, yet you choose to give the Torah through me?” At the end of the lesson, Rabbi Akiva’s students ask him where he got that particular law from, and he replied that it comes from Moses at Sinai. Moses was comforted to know that even what Rabbi Akiva would teach centuries later is based on the Torah that Moses would compose and deliver to Israel.

This amazing story is often told to affirm that all aspects of Torah, both Written and Oral, and those lessons extracted by the Sages and rabbis, stems from the Divine Revelation at Sinai, and from Moses’ own teachings. It is a central part of Judaism that everything is transmitted in a chain starting from Moses at Sinai, down through the prophets, to the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah, the “Men of the Great Assembly” and to earliest rabbis, all the way through to the present time.

What is usually not discussed about this story, though, is the deeper and far more perplexing notion that Moses travelled through time! The Talmud does not say that Moses saw a vision of Rabbi Akiva; it says that he literally went and sat in his classroom. He was there, sitting inconspicuously at the end of the eighth row. As a reminder, Moses received the Torah in the Hebrew year 2448 according to tradition, which is 3331 years ago. Rabbi Akiva, meanwhile, was killed during the Bar Kochva Revolt, 132-136 CE, less than 2000 years ago. How did Moses go 1400 years into the future?

Transcending Time and Space

In his commentary on Pirkei Avot (Magen Avot 5:21), Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach Duran (1361-1444) explains:

Moshe Rabbeinu, peace be upon him, while standing on the mountain forty days and forty nights, from the great delight that he had learning Torah from the Mouth of the Great One, did not feel any movement, and time did not affect him at all.

As we read at the end of this week’s parasha, Moses “was there with God for forty days and forty nights; he ate no bread and drank no water, and He inscribed upon the tablets the words of the Covenant…” (Exodus 34:28) At Sinai, Moses had no need for any bodily functions. Rabbi Duran explains that from his Divine union with God, Moses transcended the physical realm. In such a God-like state, he was no longer subject to the limitations of time and space.

In this regard, Moses became like a photon of light. Modern physics has shown that light behaves in very strange ways, and does not appear to be subject to time and space. Fraser Cain of Universe Today explains how

From the perspective of a photon, there is no such thing as time. It’s emitted, and might exist for hundreds of trillions of years, but for the photon, there’s zero time elapsed between when it’s emitted and when it’s absorbed again. It doesn’t experience distance either.

Light transcends time and space. In this way, Moses was like light. And this is quite fitting, for this week’s parasha ends with the following (Exodus 34:29-33):

And it came to pass when Moses descended from Mount Sinai, and the Two Tablets of the Testimony were in Moses’ hand when he descended from the mountain, and Moses did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant while He had spoken with him. And Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face had become radiant, and they were afraid to come near him… When Moses had finished speaking with them, he placed a covering over his face.

Moses glowed with a bright light, so much so that the people couldn’t look at him, and he would wear a mask over his face. Moses had become light. And light doesn’t experience time and space like we do. There is something divine about light. It therefore isn’t surprising that the Kabbalists referred to God as Or Ain Sof, “light without end”, an infinite light, or simply Ain Sof, the “Infinite One”. Beautifully, the gematria of Ain Sof (אין סוף) is 207, which is equal to light (אור)!

Travelling to the Future

While Moses was instantly teleported into the future, we currently have no scientifically viable way for doing so. However, the notion of travelling into the future is a regular fixture of modern science fiction, and the way it usually presents itself is through some form of “cryosleep”. This is when people are either frozen or placed into a state of deep sleep, or both, for a very long time (usually because they are flying to distant worlds many light years away), and are reanimated in the distant future. For this there is a good scientific foundation, as there are species of frogs in Siberia, for example, that are able to freeze themselves for the winter, and thaw in the spring. They can do this without compromising the integrity of their cellular structure, in a process not yet fully understood. If we could mimic this biological process, then humans, too, could potentially freeze themselves for long periods of time, “thawing” in the future. And this, too, has a precedent in the Talmud (Ta’anit 23a):

[Honi the Circle-Drawer] was throughout the whole of his life troubled about the meaning of the verse, “A song of ascents, when God brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like them that dream.” [Psalms 126:1] Is it possible for a man to dream continuously for seventy years? One day he was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked him: “How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit?” The man replied: “Seventy years.” He then further asked him: “Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?” The man replied: “I found [ready-grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted these for me so I too plant these for my children.”

Honi sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him. As he slept a rocky formation enclosed upon him which hid him from sight and he continued to sleep for seventy years. When he awoke he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree and he asked him: “Are you the man who planted the tree?” The man replied: “I am his grandson.” Thereupon he exclaimed: “It is clear that I slept for seventy years!” He then caught sight of his donkey who had given birth to several generations of mules, and he returned home. He there enquired: “Is the son of Honi the Circle-Drawer still alive?” The people answered him: “His son is no more, but his grandson is still living.” Thereupon he said to them: “I am Honi the Circle-Drawer”, but no one would believe him.

He then went to the Beit Midrash and overheard the scholars say: “The law is as clear to us as in the days of Honi the Circle-Drawer”, for whenever he used to come to the Beit Midrash he would settle for the scholars any difficulty that they had. Whereupon he called out: “I am he!” but the scholars would not believe him nor did they give him the honour due to him. This hurt him greatly and he prayed [for death] and he died…

“Honi HaMeagel”, by Huvy. Honi is famous for drawing a circle in the ground around him and not moving away until God would make it rain. Josephus wrote that Honi was killed during the Hasmonean civil war, around 63 BCE. The Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, 1555-1631) said that people thought he was killed in the war, but actually fell into a deep sleep as the Talmud records.

Honi HaMa’agel, “the Circle-Drawer”, who was renowned for his ability to have his prayers answered, entered a state of deep sleep for seventy years and thereby journeyed to the future! This type of time travel is, of course, not true time travel, and he was unable to go back to his own generation. He prayed for death and was promptly answered.

Travelling back in time, meanwhile, presents far more interesting challenges.

Back to the Future

In 2000, scientists at Princeton University found evidence that it may be possible to exceed the speed of light. As The Guardian reported at the time, “if a particle could exceed the speed of light, the time warp would become negative, and the particle could then travel backwards in time.” This is one of several ways proposed to scientifically explain the possibility of journeying back in time.

The problem with this type of travel is as follows: what happens when a person from the future changes events in the past? The result may be what is often referred to as a “time paradox” or “time loop”. The classic example is a person who goes back to a time before they were born and kills their parent. If they do so, they would never be born, so how could they go back in time to do it?

Remarkably, just as I took a break from writing this, I saw that my son had brought a book from the library upstairs. Out of over 500 books to choose from, he happened to bring Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Now, he is far too young to have read it, or to even known who Harry Potter is. And yet, this is the one book in the Harry Potter series—and possibly the one book in our library—that presents a classic time paradox!

In Prisoner of Azkaban, we read how Harry is about to be killed by a Dementor when he is suddenly saved by a mysterious figure who is, unbeknownst to him, his own future self. After recovering from the attack, he later gets his hands on a “time turner” and goes back in time. It is then that he sees his past self about to be killed by a Dementor, and saves his past self. The big problem, of course, is that Harry could have never gone back in time to save himself had he not already gone back in time to save himself in the first place!

Perhaps a more famous example is James Cameron’s 1984 The Terminator. In this story, John Connor is a future saviour of humanity who is a thorn in the side of the evil, world-ruling robots. Those evil robots decide to send one of their own back to a time before John Connor was born in order to kill his mother—so that John could never be born. Aware of this, Connor sends one of his own soldiers back in time to protect his mother. The soldier and the mother fall in love, and the soldier impregnates her, giving birth to John Connor! In other words, future John Connor sent his own father back in time to protect his mother and conceive himself! This is a time paradox.

Could we find such a time paradox in the Torah? At first glance, there doesn’t appear to be anything like this. However, a deeper look reveals that there may be such a case after all.

When God Wanted to “Kill” Moses

In one of the most perplexing passages in the Torah, we read that when Moses took his family to head back to Egypt and save his people, “God encountered him and sought to kill him.” (Exodus 4:24) To save Moses, his wife Tziporah quickly circumcises their son, sparing her husband’s life. The standard explanation for this is that Moses’ son Eliezer was born the same day that he met God for the first time at the Burning Bush. Moses spent seven days communicating with God, then descended on the eighth day and gathered his things to go fulfil his mission.

However, the eighth day is when he needed to circumcise his son, as God had already commanded his forefather Abraham generations earlier. Moses intended to have the brit milah when they would stop at a hotel along the way, but got caught up with other things. An angel appeared, threatening Moses for failing to do this important mitzvah, so Tziporah took the initiative and circumcised her son. Alternatively, some say it was the baby whose life was at risk.

Whatever the case, essentially all the commentaries agree that God had sent an angel to remind Moses of the circumcision. Who was that angel? It may have been a persecuting angel, and some say he took the form of a frightening snake. Others, like the Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush Weisser, 1809-1879) say it was an “angel of mercy” as Moses was entirely righteous and meritorious. Under the circumstances, one’s natural inclination might point to it being the angel in charge of circumcision, as suggested by Sforno (Rabbi Ovadiah ben Yakov, 1475-1550). Who is the angel in charge of circumcision? Eliyahu! In fact, Sforno proposes that the custom of having a special kise kavod, chair of honour, or “chair of Eliyahu” (though Sforno doesn’t say “Eliyahu” by name), might originate in this very Torah passage. Every brit milah today has such an Eliyahu chair, for it is an established Jewish tradition that the prophet-turned-angel Eliyahu visits every brit.

‘Elijah Taken Up to Heaven’

Yet, Eliyahu could not have been there at the brit of Moses’ son, for Eliyahu would not be born for many years! Eliyahu lived sometime in the 9th century BCE. He was a prophet during the reign of the evil king Ahab and his even-more-evil wife Izevel (Jezebel). The Tanakh tells us that Eliyahu never died, but was taken up to Heaven in a fiery chariot (II Kings 2). As is well-known, he transformed into an angel.

The Zohar (I, 93a) explains that when Eliyahu spoke negatively of his own people and told God that the Jews azvu britekha, “have forsaken Your covenant” (I Kings 19:10), God replied:

I vow that whenever My children make this sign in their flesh, you will be present, and the mouth which testified that the Jewish people have abandoned My covenant will testify that they are keeping it.

He henceforth became known as malakh habrit, “angel of the covenant”, a term first used by the later prophet Malachi (3:1).

If Eliyahu is Malakh haBrit, and is present at every circumcision, does this only apply to future circumcisions after his earthly life, or all circumcisions, even those before his time? As an angel that is no longer bound by physical limitations, could he not travel back in time and be present at brits of the past, too? God certainly does transcend time and space, and exists in past, present, and future all at once. This is in God’s very name, a fusion of haya, hoveh, and ihyeh, “was, is, will be”, all in one (see the Arizal’s Etz Chaim, at the beginning of Sha’ar Rishon, anaf 1). And we already saw how God could send Moses to the distant future and bring him right back to the past. Could He have sent Eliyahu back to the brit of Moses’ son? Such a scenario would result in a classic time loop. How could Eliyahu, a future Torah prophet, save Moses, the very first Torah prophet? Eliyahu could not exist without Moses!

It is important to note here that there were those Sages who believed that Eliyahu was always an angel, from Creation, and came down into bodily form for a short period of time during the reign of Ahab. This is why the Tanakh does not describe Eliyahu’s origins. It does not state who his parents were, or even which tribe he hailed from. Others famously state that “Pinchas is Eliyahu”, ie. that Eliyahu was actually Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron. Pinchas was blessed with eternal life, and after leaving the priesthood, reappeared many years later as Eliyahu to save the Jewish people at a difficult time. He was taken up to Heaven alive as God promised. In the Torah, we read how God blessed Pinchas with briti shalom (Numbers 25:12). Again, that key word “brit” appears—a clue that Pinchas would become Eliyahu, malakh habrit.

While it is hard to fathom, or accept, the possibility of an Eliyahu time paradox, there is one last time paradox that deserves mention. And on this time paradox, all of our Sages do agree.

The Paradox of Teshuva

When we read our Sages description of the process of teshuva, “repentance”, it is hard not to notice the inherent time paradox lying within. In multiple places, our Sages state that when a person truly repents, the sins of their past are expunged from their record. They are not only erased, but it is as if they never happened to begin with. Some go further and state that not only are the sins completely erased, they transform into merits! (Yoma 86b) In other words, it is almost as if one’s soul travelled back in time and, when presented with that same challenge, actually fulfilled a mitzvah instead! It is much like the classic literary version of a hero going back in time to fix an old mistake. This is the tremendous power of teshuva. It may be the closest any of us will ever come to time travel.

That same page of Talmud goes further in saying that one who truly repents lengthens one’s life. To explain, when a person sins it may be decreed in Heaven that their life will be cut short. When they repent, the sin is erased and so is the decree, so their life is re-extended. Imagine such a parallel in the physical world: a person is a smoker or heavy drinker for decades, then quits and “repents”, and all the damage done to the cells and organs of their body simply vanish. They are instantly as good as new! It doesn’t happen in the physical world, but it does in the spiritual world. Repentance for the past actually has a real impact on one’s future, rewriting one’s destiny, much like time travel.

Finally, that same page of the Talmud states that one who truly repents hastens the Redemption. The Sages reaffirm countless times that the arrival of the Redemption is based solely on our merits. If Israel only “hearkens to His voice”, the Redemption would come “today” (Sanhedrin 98a). The fact that so much time has passed and Mashiach has still not come is a result of our own sins. By wholeheartedly repenting, we wipe away those sins of the past. Like time travel, this rewrites our destiny—our history—and we thereby hasten the Redemption.

Who is Metatron?

In this week’s parasha, Mishpatim, we read about a large set of laws that Moses received on Mt. Sinai following the Ten Commandments. While there, God tells Moses (Exodus 23:20-21):

Behold, I am sending an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Beware of him and obey him; do not defy him, for he will not forgive your transgression, for My Name is within him.

God sends an angel to guide the Israelites through the Wilderness to the Promised Land. This is a very special angel, for God says that He has placed His Name within the angel. The Torah does not identify the name of this angel, but the Talmud does (Sanhedrin 38b):

A certain heretic said to Rav Idit: “It is written: ‘And to Moses He said: Come up to God.’ [Exodus 24:1] The heretic raised a question: It should have stated: ‘Come up to Me.’” Rav Idit said to him: “This is Metatron, whose name is like that of his Master [God], as it is written: ‘…for My Name is within him.’”

‘Angel Appearing to Joshua’ by Gustave Doré. According to the Book of Zerubavel, this was Metatron, the same angel that led the Israelites through the Wilderness.

A heretic challenges Rav Idit by saying that God should have spoken to Moses in the first person, saying “come up to Me”, not “come up to God”. Rav Idit replied that the speaker was the angel Metatron, who was sent by God to be His representative, and has God’s Name within him, as the Torah clearly states.

How do we find God’s Name within the name “Metatron”? The Kabbalists pointed out that the gematria of Metatron (מטטרון) is 314, equal to the Name of God Shaddai (שדי). However, this is only on the surface level. In reality, God’s absolute Name is the Tetragrammaton, and we do not find these four letters (Yud, Hei, Vav, Hei) in Metatron.

Of course, we must remember that the names of angels were generally adapted from non-Jewish sources, as the Talmud affirms (Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashanah 56d). How could this be? The true names of the angels had to be concealed so that people would be unable to summon them. Metatron, therefore, is not the angel’s real name. This is pretty evident in itself because anyone who first hears the term “Metatron” would never guess it is a Hebrew word. It sounds foreign, perhaps Aramaic, or more likely Greek. Indeed, some scholars have suggested that “Metatron” comes from the Greek meta and thronos, meaning “near” or “after the throne”, ie. that Metatron is the angel that sits nearest to the Throne of God, or the one that has authority right after the Throne of God. This brings us to the second place in the Talmud where Metatron is mentioned, in one of the most perplexing and intriguing Talmudic passages.

Sitting in Heaven

The Talmud relates the famous story of the “Four Who Entered Pardes” (Chagigah 14b-15a):

The Sages taught: Four entered “the orchard” [pardes], and they are: Ben Azzai, and Ben Zoma, Acher, and Rabbi Akiva… Ben Azzai glimpsed and died, and with regard to him the verse states: “Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of His pious ones” [Psalms 116:15]. Ben Zoma glimpsed and was harmed, and with regard to him the verse states: “Have you found honey? Eat as much as is sufficient for you, lest you become full from it and vomit it” [Proverbs 25:16]. Acher cut the saplings. Rabbi Akiva came out safely.

…“Acher cut the saplings” [meaning, he became a heretic]. With regard to him, the verse states: “Do not let your mouth bring your flesh into guilt” [Ecclesiastes 5:5]. What was it [that led him to heresy?] He saw the angel Metatron, who was granted permission to sit and write the merits of Israel [some versions add: for one hour a day]. He said: “It is taught that in the world above there is no sitting, no competition, no turning one’s back to Him, no lethargy. Heaven forbid—there are two authorities!”

They removed Metatron from his place in Heaven and smote him with sixty lashes of fire, so that others would not make the mistake that Acher did…

In this esoteric narrative, four great mystics of the highest order are able to ascend to the Heavens. Ben Azzai died immediately, Ben Zoma lost his mind, and Elisha ben Avuya became a heretic, for which he was referred to as Acher, “the other”. Only Rabbi Akiva exited in peace. (For a deeper analysis of this enigmatic passage, see Secrets of the Last Waters.)

The Talmud relates what it was that turned Elisha ben Avuya into a heretic. He saw Metatron sitting in the Heavens, when it was taught to him that none but God sits in Heaven. He concluded that perhaps there is more than one god, and this led him to abandon the Torah. (We must remember that this was nearly two millennia ago, in a time when most of the world was still polytheistic.) Back in Heaven, Metatron was severely punished for not standing up when the Sages entered, causing Acher’s apostasy.

This narrative seems to support the Greek origins of the name Metatron. He was the angel that was permitted to sit in Heaven—like none other but God Himself—as if on a lesser throne, a throne next to God’s, meta-tron. So, what was his real name?

Becoming an Angel

The renowned scholar of Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, researched the origins of the angel and presented his findings in an essay, “Metatron”. He found that in the most ancient texts which mention the figure (such as the Apocalypse of Abraham) he is called Yeho-El (יהואל). This is precisely what we’d expect, for angel names generally have the suffix El, and Metatron is the one who carries God’s Name, the Tetragrammaton. His real name, then, is simply the Name of God with the angelic El appended to it. In some texts, he is even referred to as the “Lesser God” (יהוה קטן). Not surprisingly, these texts didn’t make it (for the most part) to the official corpus of Rabbinic literature. They did find their way into Gnostic and Mandean texts. (On that note, it should be mentioned that Christians revere Metatron, too, as do Muslims, who refer to him as Mitatrush.)

Scholem also presents alternative possibilities to the name Metatron. It may be rooted in matara, “keeper of the watch”, or metator, “a guide” (after all, Exodus says God designated him to guide the Israelites in the Wilderness). In some ancient texts, Metatron is an angel that preceded Creation and assisted God in bringing about the physical universe. Again, this is a dangerous idea that may lead to a belief in dualism or heresy, and is a problem for a monotheistic Judaism. Instead, Jewish texts generally present the origins of Metatron in a different way.

Cover for the popular 2011 video game ‘El Shaddai – Ascension of the Metatron’, released for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Gamers play as Enoch in defending the world, and are supported by angels like Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael. The game developers clearly did their research!

The Zohar draws from the apocryphal Book of Enoch in teaching that “Enoch is Metatron” (see, for example, Zohar III, 189a). Recall that Enoch was a descendant of Adam (seven generations down) of whom the Torah states “And all the days of Enoch were three hundred sixty and five years. And Enoch walked with God, and he was not; for God took him.” (Genesis 5:23-24) Thus, Enoch never died, but was taken up to Heaven by God, where he was transformed into the angel Metatron. He is the angel that “walks with God”. The one that God sent to Earth to lead the Israelites. This is a fitting role for Metatron, for he was once a man of the Earth, too.

In Jewish tradition, there are two men who became angels, and two angels who descended into this world and became like men. The latter are Shemhazai and Azazel, while the former are Enoch and Elijah. Perhaps we can say that Enoch and Elijah filled the missing spaces of Shemhazai and Azazel. Enoch became the angel referred to as Metatron, while Elijah became the angel referred to as Sandalfon. Interestingly, if Metatron’s real name is Yeho-El, then we find that the names of the two angel-men share the same letters: יהואל and אליהו. In fact, the names are just reversed, and mean the same thing!

It should be mentioned that there were those in the past who rejected the notion that Enoch became an angel. For example, Onkelos translates Genesis 5:24 to say that Enoch was “no more” because God killed Enoch! This would fit with the alternate view that Metatron has nothing to do with Enoch and was already an angel before Creation. In more recent centuries, some Kabbalists even believed there must be two Metatrons, each with a slight variation of the name (מטטרון and מיטטרון). It is also possible that the two became one: an angel called Metatron existed before Creation, and when Enoch went up to God his soul was fused with that angel.

The notion of a fusion of different souls is supported by the teachings of the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572). In one place, he describes how Enoch took the highest and purest soul of Adam, called zihara ila’ah, and fused together with it in becoming Metatron (Sha’ar HaPesukim on Beresheet). Elsewhere, the Arizal writes that any person who refines themselves to the highest degree, and fulfils all of their rectifications, is called a malakh, “angel” (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 39). The Arizal says this was the case with Elijah, as well as Yehudah, Hezekiah, and Metatron, too.

Scribing and Teaching

What is the angelic role of Metatron? We saw above from the Talmud that Metatron is the Heavenly Scribe, writing down the merits of Israel. Gershom Scholem argues that he is one and the same as the Sar HaOlam, the “prince of the world” mentioned in Rabbinic literature, appointed to watch over our Earth. The Talmud (Yevamot 16b) says that he is the subject of the verse: “I have been young, and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread.” (Psalms 37:25) This makes sense, for Metatron began his life as the earthly Enoch; born a baby, grew to adulthood, and was then transformed into an angel with everlasting life.

The Arizal agrees, teaching that Metatron is the “prince of the seventy nations”, the angel above all the lesser angels appointed to watch over each of the seventy root nations on Earth (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 31). In the same place, the Arizal confirms that Metatron is Enoch, who never died. He also reveals that he was the angel that came to Joseph and taught him all seventy languages in one night so that Joseph could present himself before Pharaoh.

In his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, the Ravad (Rabbi Avraham ben David, c. 1125-1198) says that Metatron was the angel that taught Moses. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 3b) states that Metatron teaches Torah to little schoolchildren. Not much else is known of him.

In the past, various critics of Judaism have used the notion of Metatron to suggest that Jews have strayed from monotheism. This is a false claim. From its first pages, the Torah speaks of angels that serve as God’s emissaries and assistants. Metatron is just another angel, albeit one imbued with more powers than others.

This brings us back to the first Talmudic passage cited above (Sanhedrin 38b), which continues with the heretic questioning Rav Idit: “If so, we should worship [Metatron] as we worship God!” Rav Idit replied: “It is written: ‘Do not defy [tammer] him,’ meaning ‘Do not replace Me [temireni] with him.’” In a classic play on words, Rav Idit explains that when God said not to rebel against His appointed angel, He also meant not to start worshipping him in place of God.

We mustn’t forget that there is only one God whom we pray to and turn to. The Jewish people have no intercessors or intermediaries. We are Israel (ישראל), or yashar-El (ישר-אל), “direct to God”. And Rav Idit concludes in the Talmudic passage that the ancient Israelites ultimately rejected Metatron as their guide, and requested that God Himself lead them, as it is written (Exodus 33:15): “If Your Presence go not with me, raise us not up from here.”