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Things You Didn’t Know About Abraham

Abraham’s Journey to Canaan, by Jozsef Molnar (1850)

After two parashas that span the first two millennia of civilization, the Torah shifts its focus to the origins of Israel and the Jewish people starting with, of course, Abraham. Abraham is probably most famous for something that he actually isn’t: being the first monotheist. Noah was a monotheist long before Abraham, as was Noah’s son Shem, who was already a priest of the one Supreme God (El Elyon, as in Genesis 14:18). In Jewish tradition, it is said that Shem established the first yeshiva, and the patriarchs studied there. Was Abraham the first monotheist? No, but he is described as being the first person to actively preach monotheism to the world. He took it upon himself to crusade against idolatry—and the immoral behaviours that went with it.

Some of our Sages also state that Abraham invented the concept of a positive mitzvah. This means drawing closer to God not by abstinence and asceticism but through acts of kindness and the performance of physical actions. For this reason, the gematria of “Abraham” (אברהם) is 248, equal to the number of positive commandments in the Torah. Not surprisingly, Abraham is well-known for his legendary hospitality, his great compassion, and his ceaseless efforts on behalf of his fellow man.

Jewish tradition describes Abraham’s house as having a front door on each side so that guests wouldn’t have to look for the entrance. Meals were always on the house, as long as the guest was willing to thank God for it. Of his compassion, we read in the Torah how Abraham questioned God before the destruction of Sodom, seeking to exonerate the people despite their cruelty (Genesis 18). In this week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, we read of all the “souls that they had made” (Genesis 12:5), the countless people that Abraham and Sarah inspired and brought closer to God. In fact, the Meshekh Chokhmah (of Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk) on Genesis 33:18 states that Abraham later migrated to Egypt specifically because it was the capital of idolatry and impurity at the time, and Abraham wished to bring some light to that dark place.

What else do we know about Abraham? Extra-Biblical texts reveal some intriguing details in the life of Judaism’s first patriarch.

Discovering God

There are three major opinions as to when Abraham came to know God. The Talmud (Nedarim 32a) holds that he first recognized his Creator when he was three years old. This is deduced from Genesis 26:5, where God says Abraham had “listened to My voice”, ekev asher shama Avraham b’koli. The term “ekev” (עקב) has a numerical value of 172, and since we know Abraham lived 175 years, we learn that Abraham had listened to God’s voice for 172 of them, starting at age 3.

The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204), meanwhile, writes in his Mishneh Torah that Abraham came to know God at age 40 (Hilkhot Avodat Kochavim 1:3). A more commonly-held view is that Abraham came to know God at age 52. This is based on the Talmudic statement that history is divided into three eras: the first 2000 years being the era of “chaos”, the next 2000 years being the era of Torah, and the final 2000 years being the era of Mashiach (Avodah Zarah 9a). Since we know that Abraham was born in the Hebrew year 1948, and the era of Torah started in the year 2000, Abraham must have been 52 when he came to know God.

One way to reconcile these three opinions is as follows: Abraham first realized there must be one God when he was three years old. By age 40, he was ready to begin his life’s work, and set forth in preaching his message. This got him into a lot of trouble, for which he was imprisoned, and ultimately sentenced to death. The Talmud (Bava Batra 91a) clarifies that he was imprisoned for 10 years. Then came the day of his execution. Abraham was thrown into the flames of Ur Kasdim when he was 52, and at this point God actually revealed Himself to Abraham for the first time, miraculously saving him from death. Therefore, there are those who say it wasn’t God who chose Abraham, but Abraham who chose God.

Abraham was already preaching long before he received any kind of prophecy or communication from Hashem. He logically deduced there must be one Creator to this world, and recognized the folly of idolatry on his own. He then took it upon himself to teach this truth, despite never having “heard” anything from God, or being summoned to do so. God chose him precisely because of this incredible initiative. We learn this explicitly from Genesis 18:19, where God says:

For I have known him, that he commands his children and his household after him, that they should keep the way of God, to do righteousness and justice; therefore God brings upon Abraham that which He has spoken of him.

God chose Abraham because he was already teaching others to be more Godly! At age 52, the God that Abraham had been preaching about for so long finally revealed Himself, in miraculous fashion. This sets off a new 2000-year era, that of Torah and prophecy, spanning from Abraham until the times of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, who compiled the Mishnah, thus putting the Oral Torah in writing for the first time.

Abraham the Kabbalist

The Talmud (Bava Batra 91a) states that Abraham was world-famous for being an unparalleled astrologer and healer. According to tradition, he was also a great mystic. It is believed that he authored, or in some other way originated, Sefer Yetzirah, the “Book of Formation”, one of the most ancient Kabbalistic text. The book explains how God fashioned the universe through the Hebrew letters. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 67a) suggests that mastery of this text would allow the mystic to create ex nihilo, out of nothing, and such was done by Rav Oshaya and Rav Chanina every Friday afternoon. These two rabbis would create a chunk of veal, and make a barbecue!

‘Abraham and the Three Angels’ by James Tissot

It appears the same was done by Abraham. We read in Genesis 18:7 that when the angels visited him, Abraham hastened to “make” a calf, v’imaher la’asot oto. The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush Wisser, 1809-1879) comments on the Torah’s strange choice of verb by stating that Abraham literally created a calf through the wisdom of Sefer Yetzirah. This is why, he explains, the next verse has Abraham serving butter and milk. It is unthinkable that Abraham would serve veal with dairy—an explicit Torah prohibition—unless the veal was of his own creation, and was therefore not real meat that once had a soul. Abraham may have been the first person to serve vegan burgers.

Where did Abraham get this wisdom? According to one tradition, the angel Raziel (literally “God’s secret”) taught these mysteries to Adam. Adam passed it down to his son Seth, and onward it went down to Noah, then to his son Shem. Midrashic texts have Shem teaching Abraham, circumcising Abraham (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 29), and even ordaining Abraham as a priest (Midrash Aggadah, Genesis 14:19).

Alternatively, Abraham received mystical knowledge on his own. Kabbalah implies something “received”, and is often seen as being conferred directly by the Heavens to those who are worthy. In his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, the Ravad (Rabbi Avraham ben David, c. 1125-1198) lists the names of the angels that taught our patriarchs this mystical wisdom:

The master of Shem was Yofiel. The master of Abraham was Tzidkiel. The master of Isaac was Raphael. The master of Yakov was Peliel. The master of Yosef was Gabriel. The master of Moshe Rabbeinu was Metatron. The master of Elijah was U’maltiel. Each of these angels passed down Kabbalah to his disciple, whether through a book or orally, in order to enlighten him, and to inform him of future events.

According to the Book of Jubilees (12:25), Abraham was also taught Hebrew directly from Heaven. It had been lost following the Great Dispersion of the Tower of Babel. Now, the Holy Tongue was restored. Of course, it wouldn’t have been possible for Abraham to learn Kabbalah and the mysticism of Sefer Yetzirah without knowledge of Hebrew, upon which it is all based. Interestingly, the Book of Jubilees (11:6) also paints Abraham as a great engineer. He first became famous for inventing a seed-scattering device attached directly to a plow, as well as a method for keeping birds from eating the seeds of farmers.

The Torah tells us that at the end of his life, Abraham gave over his entire inheritance to Isaac, his rightful heir, but left various matanot, “gifts”, for his other children (Genesis 25:6). He then sent those other children eastward, to live outside the borders of Israel, so that it would be clear that the Holy Land belongs solely to Isaac and his descendants. What were these gifts? The Sages state that these were kernels of mystical wisdom to take with them. Some say this was white magic, and others black magic. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 91a) associates it with impure wisdom of some sort. Many see in these gifts the mystical wisdom that would give rise to the ancient religions of the Far East. So perhaps there is a connection after all between the Hindu concept of Brahman—and the Hindu priestly caste of Brahmins—with the name Abraham.

While Abraham is generally seen as a forefather—whether biological or spiritual—of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, he is also a forefather of many other nations through his many other children that we often forget about (see Genesis 25). Our Sages say he is called “Avraham” because he is av hamon goyim, the father of a multitude of nations. He might very well be the father of all the world’s major religions, too.

The Names of the Torah’s Hidden Women

‘Shemot’ is also the name of the second book of the Torah, known in English as ‘Exodus’.

This week’s parasha, Shemot, literally means “names”. The Sages stress how important a name really is, so much so that the word shem and neshamah (“soul”) appear to share a root. The Talmud (Berakhot 7b) teaches that a person’s name affects their destiny, and changing one’s name can change one’s fate (Rosh Hashanah 16b). (Other things that can change one’s fate: moving to a new place, charity, prayer, and repentance.) The Zohar (II, 179b) further elaborates that the combinations of letters in a person’s name can reveal much about them.

Jewish tradition holds that an angel whispers a baby’s name to its parents. And yet, many Jews don’t have a Jewish name or don’t connect to their given name. Thus, the Arizal taught (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 23) that a person can have two names: a name from the side of kedushah, “holiness”, and a name from the side of kelipah, unholy “husks”. Meanwhile, the Midrash states that each person has three names: the name given by the parents, the common name (or nickname) called by close ones, and the name that a person acquires for himself. (The best of these, the Midrash concludes, is the name one makes for himself.)

The Midrash also states that Israel merited to be redeemed from Egypt because they preserved their Hebrew names, among other things.* Fittingly, Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh points out that the midwives Shifrah and Puah ensured the survival of the Jewish babies, so the gematria of their names equals 746, the value of shemot (שמות).

Where Are The Women?

Clearly, names are very important. Yet, while the names of Shifrah and Puah are mentioned, the names of many other important female figures are not! The Talmud (Bava Batra 91a) is troubled by this, and even states that in those days people argued against the Torah’s authenticity by pointing out all those missing female names (especially because Judaism passes down through the mother). And so, the Talmud fills in the details and tells us some of these important names:

Rav Chanan bar Raba stated in the name of Rav: the mother of Abraham was Amatlai, the daughter of Karnevo [אמתלאי בת כרנבו]; the mother of Haman was Amatlai, the daughter of ‘Oravti [אמתלאי בת עורבתי]… The mother of David was Nitzevet, the daughter of Ada’el [נצבת בת עדאל]. The mother of Samson was Tzlelponit [צללפונית], and his sister was Nashyan [נשיין]…

What about the others? What was the name of Rachel and Leah’s mother? How about Lot’s salt-pillar-turning wife? The wife of Potiphar that tried so hard to seduce Joseph? It is said that one of the reasons Cain killed Abel is because of a dispute over a girl (see Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, Ch. 21 or Beresheet Rabbah 22:7). What was her name? Luckily, other texts provide the answers.

Sefer HaYashar states that the mother of Rachel and Leah was called Adina (עדינה), while the wife of Potiphar was Zuleikha (זליכא). There are two main opinions as to the name of Lot’s wife: either Idit/Edith (עידית), according to sources like Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (ch. 25), or Irit (עירית), according to the commentary of the Ramban (on Genesis 19:17).

Another great source for names is the apocryphal Book of Jubilees. Here (4:2) we learn that the name of Cain and Abel’s sister was Aven (און). In traditional Jewish texts, Cain was born with a twin sister and Abel was born with two twin sisters, whom they were meant to marry. Cain reasoned Abel’s second twin should be his wife since he was the elder, and the firstborn deserves a double-portion. Abel argued that if that was the case she would have been born alongside Cain! This was one of their major points of contention, leading to Cain’s murder of Abel. The Book of Jubilees says none of this, and holds that Cain killed Abel out of anger that God did not accept his offering.

The Book of Jubilees also states that Noah’s mother was called Bethnah (ביתנה), and his wife was Emtzarah (אמצרה). Meanwhile, the Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 23:3) holds that Noah’s wife was Na’amah (נעמה), the sister of Tuval-Cain (Genesis 4:22). Interestingly, Jubilees gives us the name of Shem’s wife, too: Tzedeket-Levav (צדקת לבב). This is fitting, since Jewish tradition identifies Shem with Melchizedek. Interestingly, Jubilees states that all three of Noah’s sons built cities for themselves, and named the cities after their wives!

The Mothers of Israel

The Torah devotes quite a bit of attention to the Four Mothers of Israel (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah), but what about the names of the wives of the Twelve Tribes? The Torah only mentions the wife of Joseph (Osnat) and passively mentions the wife of Judah, calling her the daughter of Shuah. Seder HaDorot states that her name was actually Eilat, and fills in the rest:

The wife of the elder Reuben was a Canaanite woman named Elyarem. Shimon’s wife—according to this particular text; there are other opinions—was his sister Dinah, the daughter of Leah. (The Midrash explains that Shimon had to marry her because he killed Shechem, whom she was meant to marry.) Levi married Adina, a descendent of Ever, one of the forefathers of Abraham. It seems Issachar married Adina’s sister, Arida.

Zevulun married a Midianite named Marusha, while Dan married a Moabite woman named Aflala. Naftali married Merimat, a distant cousin descended from Nachor, the brother of Abraham. Gad married her sister Utzit. Asher married a great-granddaughter of Ishmael named Adon, and after she passed away, married a woman named Hadurah. Benjamin had two wives: one called Machlat, and another Arvat, the granddaughter of Abraham from his later wife Keturah.

Each of these names certainly carries deep meaning, as do all names and appellations. Jewish texts call God by many different names and titles, each of which captures a different essence of God, and thereby helps us understand Him. Similarly, all of a person’s various names and titles combine to make up who they are.

To conclude with a famous story that illustrates this, it is said that a three-year old Tzemach Tzedek (the third rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, 1789-1866) was once sitting on the lap of his grandfather, the Alter Rebbe (first rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, 1745-1813). The Rebbe asked his grandson: “Where is grandpa?” The child quickly pointed to his grandpa’s head, to which the Rebbe said, “That’s just grandpa’s head! Where is grandpa?” The child tried again and again, pointing to other parts of the body to which the Rebbe similarly replied. Later on, the young Tzemach Tzedek was playing outside and called his grandfather. The Rebbe immediately hurried over to him, and the smiling child said: “There’s grandpa!”

The Alter Rebbe and the Tzemach Tzedek

*This is actually a problematic Midrash. Names like Aaron and Pinchas don’t seem to have a meaning in Hebrew but do in ancient Egyptian! Aaron is believed to come from the Egyptian aha rw, “warrior lion”, while Pinchas sounds like the common Egyptian name Pa-Nehasi, “the bronze one”. Thankfully, a variant Midrash preserves a different tradition. While Vayikra Rabbah (Ch. 32) states that Israel was redeemed on account of their names, language, abstaining from lashon hara and licentiousness, Pesikta Zutrata (on Ki Tavo, 46a) states that it was because of their clothing, food, and language.

The Shocking Opinion that the Akedah Never Happened

This week’s parasha is Vayera, which concludes with the famous account of the “binding of Isaac”, or Akedah. Last year we explored how God never intended for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, nor did He command it. This year we explore a much bigger question: did the Akedah even happen? In his Moreh Nevuchim (“Guide for the Perplexed”, Part II, Ch. 41) the Rambam writes:

Know again that in the case of everyone about whom exists a scriptural text that an angel talked to him or that speech came to him from God, this did not occur in any other way than in a dream or in a vision of prophecy.

The Rambam gives a number of examples of events that did not physically happen, but were only dreamt, including, quite surprisingly, Jacob wrestling the angel, Bilaam and his donkey, and the three angels that visit Abraham at the start of this week’s parasha. The Ramban, meanwhile, criticizes the Rambam for his approach, going so far as to say that “It is forbidden to listen” or “to believe” in such ideas.

Nonetheless, the notion that the Akedah happened entirely in a dream vision persisted long after the Rambam and Ramban. Marc B. Shapiro presents a thorough analysis of this conflict in his Changing the Immutable (pgs. 67-71). Shapiro notes that among those who accepted the Rambam’s opinion are the great Rabbi Abraham Abulafia (1240-1291), the Efodi (Rabbi Isaac ben Moses haLevi, c. 1350-1415), and Rav Nissim of Marseilles (c. 13th-14th century), who stated that Ibn Ezra (c. 1089-1167) also took this approach.

These sages argue that the Akedah passage is highly uncharacteristic of Abraham. When God told Abraham that He would smite Sodom, Abraham immediately protested and argued with Him. Yet here, God commands something incomprehensible, and Abraham does not even say a word? Abraham spent his entire life combatting idolatry, including child sacrifice, and now he suddenly and willingly goes to sacrifice his own child? It simply cannot be! The Akedah must have been a dream.

Is the Torah a History Book?

In truth, the notion that the Akedah was only a vision doesn’t hold much water. The text itself states that “Abraham woke up in the morning”—God’s command was certainly a vision, but the rest did physically happen. It was a three day’s journey, and after the incident Abraham names the place that would eventually be Jerusalem. At the end, we are told that Abraham returned to Be’er Sheva. It is difficult to see how the whole thing could be a dream. The same is true for the three angels visiting Abraham. How could it be a dream if Sarah interacted with these angels as well, and two of the angels went on to destroy Sodom?

Of course, there are those who argue that none of this happened at all, and the Torah is nothing but a set of national myths or stories. This brings up an important question: is the Torah a history book?

The answer is a definitive no. “Torah” can mean a lot of things (“law”, “instruction”, “teaching”, “guide”) but it does not mean “history”. The Torah is an instructional manual for life. Some of it describes historical events, but most of it records laws, ethics, rituals, and metaphysical realities. The purpose of the Torah is for us to study it and discuss it, “turn it over and turn it over”, analyze it and develop its ideas, and thereby bring the Torah to life. We have already written in the past that Jews don’t really “follow” the Torah, we live it, and we grow with it, and evolve together with it.

Besides, archaeologists have found a plethora of evidence to support the historical aspects of the Torah, including multiple seals bearing the name Yakov, the tomb of a Semitic-Egyptian official that fits the bill of Joseph exactly, Egyptian records describing the expulsion of a large Semitic nation of “shepherd-kings”, and many more events from the Tanakh.

Still, the Torah is not a history book and should not be studied that way. The Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570) wrote that the narratives of the Torah are only its outermost garment, the legal and homiletical aspects are its main body, but it is the spiritual and mystical wisdom within it that is the true soul of the Torah. He based this on the Zohar (III, 152a), which speaks with even harsher language:

Rabbi Shimon said: “Woe to the person who says that the Torah comes to give instructions and tell descriptive stories and simple tales. … Every word in the Torah reflects higher wisdom and higher secrets… The narratives of the Torah are only the outer clothing of the Torah. Whoever thinks that this outer clothing is, in fact, the Torah and there is nothing underneath the clothing is spiritually backward and has no portion in the World to Come…

One who studies the Torah superficially, and accepts its laws and narratives only at face value, without penetrating into the Torah’s depths, is making a big mistake and will ultimately forfeit their portion in Olam HaBa. Such a person’s faith will be weak, and they will be unable to deal with supposed “historical inaccuracies” or “scientific contradictions” which we are bombarded with constantly. In reality, when delving deeper into the Torah and embracing it entirely, it becomes abundantly clear that there are no inaccuracies or contradictions at all. The Torah is truth.

Is Mount Sinai Really a Mountain?

This week we read another double portion, Behar and Bechukotai, which begins by telling us that God “spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai” (Leviticus 25:1). Why does the Torah constantly reiterate that God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai? Why does Mount Sinai matter so much?

Pirkei Avot opens by stating that Moses received the Torah not “at Sinai” (b’Sinai), but “from Sinai” (miSinai), as if the mountain itself revealed the Torah. More perplexing still, it is said that Sinai was so unique it descended down into this world just for the Torah’s revelation—and can no longer be found today! What do we really know about this enigmatic “mountain”?

A Mountain of Many Names

The Talmud (Megillah 29a, Shabbat 89a) records that Mount Sinai had multiple names, including Horev, Tzin, Kadesh, Kedomot, Paran, Har HaElohim, Har Bashan, and Har Gavnunim. The latter name comes from the root meaning “hunched” (giben) or short. Mount Sinai was a lowly and humble mountain, which is why God picked it in the first place. This name is also a reason why it is customary to eat dairy foods on the holiday of Shavuot—which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai—since gavnunim is related to gevinah, cheese.

The term gavnunim comes from Psalms 68:17, where we read how other mountains were jealous of Sinai. The same verse is cited by Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (ch. 19) in stating that God created seven special mountains, and chose Sinai for the greatest of His revelations. We are told that the name Sinai comes from s’neh, the burning bush that appeared to Moses on this mountain. Delving deeper, however, we see that Moses didn’t just stumble upon the place and, in fact, Sinai was far more than just a mountain.

Mountain, or Vehicle?

In commenting on the first chapters of Exodus, Yalkut Reuveni tells us that Mount Sinai actually uprooted itself and flew towards Moses while he was shepherding his flocks. Meanwhile, the Talmud (Shabbat 88a) famously states that the Israelites stood not at the foot of Sinai, but underneath Sinai, with the mountain hovering over their heads. Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (ch. 41) gives us even more fascinating details:

On the sixth of Sivan, the Holy One, blessed be He, was revealed to Israel on Sinai, and from His place was He revealed on Mount Sinai and the Heavens were opened, and the summit of the mountain entered into the Heavens. Thick darkness covered the mountain, and the Holy One, blessed be He, sat upon His throne, and His feet stood on the thick darkness, as it is said, “He bowed the heavens also, and came down; and thick darkness was under His feet.” (II Samuel 22:10)

Despite being a lowly mountain, Sinai’s summit ascended up to the Heavens. Then God Himself descended upon it, with His “feet” amidst the cloud of thick darkness (‘araphel) surrounding the mountain. The passage continues:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karchah said: The feet of Moses stood on the mount, and all his body was in the Heavens… beholding and seeing everything that is in the Heavens. The Holy One, blessed be He, was speaking with him like a man who is conversing with his companion, as it is said, “And Hashem spoke unto Moses face to face.” (Exodus 33:11)

Moses’s feet were “on the mount”, yet his entire body was in Heaven! This brings to mind the vision of Ezekiel, where the prophet sees the Merkavah, God’s “Chariot”, descending from Heaven before “… a spirit lifted me up, and I heard behind me the sound of a great rushing… also the noise of the wings of the Chayot as they touched one another, and the noise of the wheels beside them, the noise of a great rushing.” (Ezekiel 3:12-13)

A Sci-Fi Version of Ezekiel’s Vision

Like Elijah and Enoch before him, Ezekiel was taken up to Heaven upon a mysterious vehicle, complete with wings and spinning wheels that generated a deafening noise. (With regards to Elijah, we read in II Kings 2:11 that “there appeared a chariot of fire… and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind up to Heaven.”) Similarly, Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer suggests that there were 22,000 such chariots at Sinai! This is based on Psalms 68:18, which says “The chariots of God are myriads, thousands upon thousands; Adonai is among them, as at Sinai, in holiness.”

A Vehicle of Prophecy

The similarities between Ezekiel’s Vision and the Revelation at Sinai don’t end there. Ezekiel (1:4, 13, 24) writes:

… A stormy wind came out of the north, a great cloud, with a fire flashing up… and out of the fire went forth lightning… a tumultuous noise like a great military camp…

Exodus 19:16-18 describes the scene this way:

… There were noises and lightning bolts, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the sound of a horn exceedingly loud… And Mount Sinai was covered in smoke, because Hashem descended upon it in fire…

Both passages speak of fire and lightning, thick clouds and ear-splitting noises. The semblance is undoubtedly the reason for Ezekiel’s Vision being read as the haftarah for the holiday of Shavuot. The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 43:8) even writes that the inspiration for the Golden Calf at Sinai was the face of the bull upon God’s Chariot, as described by Ezekiel (1:10).

These midrashic descriptions suggest that Sinai—far from being simply a mountain—is a vehicle of prophecy and revelation, much like the Merkavah. It is therefore not surprising to see Sinai implicated in various other prophetic visions, including Elijah’s conversation with God (I Kings 19), and Jacob’s vision of the ladder (where “ladder”, סלם, also has the same gematria as “Sinai”, סיני). It explains why Pirkei Avot states that Moses received the Torah from Sinai, and why the Torah constantly connects Moses’ prophecy to it.

Ultimately, prophecy and divine revelation will return with the coming of Mashiach and the rebuilding of the Temple. So, it is fitting to end with one more midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah 391), which states that God will bring back Sinai in the future; it will descend upon Jerusalem, and the Holy Temple will be rebuilt right on top of it.


Make your Shavuot night-learning meaningful with the Arizal’s ‘Tikkun Leil Shavuot’, a mystical Torah-study guide, now in English and Hebrew, with commentary.

Space Travel in the World to Come?

Kohanim stoking flames upon the altar in the Temple (Courtesy: Temple Institute)

This week’s Torah portion is Tzav, which begins by describing the procedure of the olah, the “burnt-sacrifice”. The Zohar comments on the first verse of the parasha by saying that the word olah, literally “rising”, hints to various “evil thoughts” that may arise in a person’s head. Like the burnt-sacrifice, the Zohar teaches that such thoughts should immediately be burned away from one’s mind. Where the Torah says that the olah must be left burning upon the sacrificial altar all night long, the Zohar says that this hints to the cosmic nahar dinur, the River of Fire, which purifies souls of all evil.

The term nahar dinur appears in many places across Jewish texts, from the Tanakh to the Talmud and Midrash. What is this “River of Fire”? Where does it come from, and what is its real purpose?

Daniel’s Vision

Daniel’s “Vision of the Four Beasts” by Gustave Doré

The earliest mention of the River of Fire is in the Book of Daniel. While in Babylon (during the Jewish exile), Daniel describes his Heavenly vision, starting with the ascent of great beasts out of the sea, including a winged lion and a four-headed leopard. He then witnesses the Merkavah, God’s “Chariot”, with a Throne of “fiery flames, and wheels of burning fire” (Daniel 7:9). It is then that Daniel sees a nahar dinur: “A river of fire issued and came forth from before Him; with thousands upon thousands ministering unto Him, and ten thousand upon ten thousand standing before him.”

The Talmud (Chagigah 14a) explains that “Every day ministering angels are created from the fiery stream, and utter song, and cease to be.” The River of Fire gives birth to countless angels who praise God and are immediately extinguished after doing so. Earlier, the Talmud tells us that this river comes from the “sweat of the chayot” and pours forth upon “the heads of the wicked in Gehinnom”. The chayot are a higher class of angels, much greater than those myriad ministering angels that exist only momentarily to praise God. The chayot are the source of the River, which flows all the way down to Gehinnom.

Of course, the purpose of Gehinnom is to purify souls of the wickedness which they accumulate in this world. The Zohar (III, 27a) concludes that the River of Fire is the method of purification, burning away those evil impurities. Fittingly, it is the very sweat of the angels doing God’s holy work that generates the River and cleanses evil.

The Milky Way Galaxy

The Milky Way, as visible from the Earth

The Zohar connects the River of Fire with the olah offering which burned throughout the night. This is not coincidental. In another Talmudic passage (Berakhot 58b), we are told that the nahar dinur is visible in the night’s sky. Here, the rabbis are discussing various astronomical constellations, including Orion, Pleiades, and Ursa Major. We are then told that the “tail” of the constellation Scorpio is in the middle of nahar dinur!

This suggests that the “River of Fire” is actually the arm of the Milky Way galaxy which is visible in the night’s sky. The tail of Scorpio is indeed right in the middle of it. The Talmud says that were it not for this fact, no one would ever be able to survive the sting of a scorpion. We are then told that God brought about the Great Flood by using two stars from Pleiades, and He took away the Flood by using two stars from Ursa Major.

Close-Up of the Scorpio Constellation and the Milky Way

These are just a few examples highlighting the tremendous influence attributed to the stars and celestial objects. Often, these luminaries are described in the same terms as the angels themselves. This may be why Daniel described the River of Fire as being surrounded by countless angels, just as the Milky Way is filled with countless stars.

Psalms 147:4 tells us that God “counts the number of stars, and gives them all names.” Meanwhile, the Talmud (Chagigah 14a) teaches that from “every utterance that goes forth from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, an angel is created.” Incredibly, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan points out that the maximum number of possible “utterances” in Hebrew (ie. permutations of the Hebrew alphabet) is 1021, equal to the estimated number of stars in the universe!

Location of our sun in the spiral Milky Way galaxy

Rewards for the Righteous

Last week, we wrote about the various camps of angels, and how they are likened to military divisions. The stars, too, are described in the same fashion (Berakhot 32b):

… twelve [major] constellations have I created in the firmament, and for each constellation I have created thirty hosts, and for each host I have created thirty legions, and for each legion I have created thirty cohorts, and for each cohort I have created thirty maniples, and for each maniple I have created thirty camps, and to each camp I have attached three hundred and sixty-five thousands of ten-thousands of stars, corresponding to the days of the solar year, and all of them I have created only for your sake.

Multiplying these values again produces 1021 stars (or 1018, depending on how the last sentence is read). This passage ends with God affirming that He created this vast universe just for us. If we take the stars to symbolize angels, this means that all the angels were created for us, to better our lives in some way. We can also take the words more literally:

Why would God create such a mind-bogglingly immense universe? (As far as we can tell, the universe is 93 billion light years wide. This means that if one were to fly at the speed of light—that’s 300,000 kilometres per second—it would take 93 billion years to go from one end of the universe to the other!) What need is there for so much space? What need is there for so many stars—most of which we cannot even see from Earth—not to mention all the countless planets orbiting those distant stars, along with comets, asteroids, and other objects? This vastness makes Earth, and all the living things upon it, seem totally insignificant.

Yet, God reminds us that He created it all for us. The last Mishnah in the tractate Uktzin states that each righteous person in the World to Come will receive 310 worlds as a reward. Traditionally, these were seen as spiritual worlds. Today, however, with space travel technology developing at an ever-faster pace, it isn’t hard to envision how each tzaddik might enjoy 310 planets of his own somewhere in the great, wondrous vastness of outer space. With 1021 stars in the universe, there is certainly no shortage of worlds out there.

Olam HaBa?