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Everything You Wanted to Know About Reincarnation in Judaism

This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim, which is concerned with the first major set of laws that the Israelites received following the Ten Commandments. While the term mishpatim literally means “ordinances” or “judgements”, the Zohar (II, 94a) suggests a very different interpretation:

“And these are the judgements which you shall set before them…” These are the rules concerning reincarnation, the judgement of souls that are sentenced according to their acts.

The Zohar goes on to interpret the laws in the Torah with regards to the mechanisms of reincarnation. For example, whereas the Torah begins by describing a Hebrew servant who is indentured for six years of labour and must then be freed in the seventh year, the Zohar interprets that this is really speaking of souls which must reincarnate in order to repair the six middot before they could be freed. (The middot are the primary character traits: chessed, kindness; gevurah, restraint; tiferet, balance and truth; netzach, persistence and faith; hod, gratitude and humility; and yesod, sexual purity.)

While the Zohar speaks at length about reincarnation, it is the Arizal who systematically laid down the rules of reincarnation and explained the Zohar in depth. His primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital, recorded these teachings in a famous treatise known as Sha’ar HaGilgulim, “Gate of Reincarnation”. The following is a brief condensation of the basic rules of reincarnation that are defined in this tremendous text, answering many of the common questions people have about spiritual transmigration.

Why Do People Reincarnate?

At the start of the eighth chapter, Rabbi Vital writes:

למה מתגלגלים. דע, כי הנשמות יתגלגלו לכמה סבות, הראשונה הוא, לפי שעבר על איזו עבירה מעבירות שבתורה, ובא לתקן. הב’ הוא, לתקן איזו מצוה שחסר ממנו. השלישית היא, שבא לצורך אחרים, להדריכם ולתקנם… לפעמים יתגלגל, ליקח את בת זוגו, כי לא זכה בראשונה לקחתה

Why do people reincarnate? Know that souls reincarnate for several reasons: The first is that one transgressed one of the prohibitions in the Torah, and returns to repair it. The second is to fulfil a mitzvah that one lacks. The third is in order to assist others, to guide them, and rectify them… Sometimes one reincarnates to marry their soulmate, which they did not merit to do in a previous life.

The Ari explains that people mainly reincarnate in order to atone for sins of past lives, or to fulfil mitzvahs that they didn’t do previously. Later, in Chapter 16, we read that people who return do not have to fulfil all the mitzvahs in one lifetime, but only have to accomplish those that their souls are still lacking. Some reincarnate not for their own rectification, but to assist others. We are told elsewhere that these are usually very righteous individuals who agree to return to this world in order to help others.

Fresco of the Resurrection of the Dead from the ancient Dura-Europos Synagogue

Some also reincarnate because they either did not marry, or married the wrong person. They must return to reunite with their true soulmate. The Arizal teaches that, unfortunately, some people are so deeply mired in kelipot, negative spiritual “husks”, that they are unable to find their soulmate in this world. These people will reunite with their other half only in Olam HaBa, the “next world” at the time of the Resurrection. With regards to finding soulmates, this is directed particularly at male souls, for it is primarily a man’s responsibility to find his soulmate.

On that note, the following chapter tells us that female souls actually reincarnate very rarely. To begin with, female souls are more refined than male ones, and are unlikely to require more rectifications. What does happen more commonly is that male souls are reincarnated into female bodies! This opens up a number of fascinating scenarios which Rabbi Chaim Vital describes.

What Do People Reincarnate Into?

In Chapter 22, we read that people can reincarnate not only into human bodies, but also animals, vegetation, and even inanimate matter. For example, a person who feeds others non-kosher food reincarnates as a tree; one who sheds blood reincarnates into water; those who transgress various sexual prohibitions reincarnate into bats, rabbits, and other animals; while proud people and those who talk too much reincarnate into bees. (We are told that this is what happened to the judge Deborah who, despite her greatness and wisdom, had a bit of pride and was required to reincarnate into a bee, hence her name devorah, which literally means “bee”!)

It is important to mention, though, that an entire human soul does not fully reincarnate into another organism. Rather, souls are complex entities made up of many different interacting sparks. It is only those sparks that require rectification that return to this world (Chapter 14). Interestingly, the Arizal teaches that when two people really dislike each other, and are constantly in conflict with one another, this is often because the two are sharing sparks from one soul!

How Many Times May One Reincarnate?

Sha’ar HaGilgulim records that a person can reincarnate thousands of times—but only on the condition that they improve at least a little bit in each incarnation. If they fail to improve, they can only reincarnate a maximum of three times. After three strikes, that particular spark is sent to Gehinnom (loosely translated as “hell”) where it will be purified. However, the souls of those who regularly learn Torah are never sent to Gehinnom, and always merit reincarnation. This is one of the incredible protective powers of regular Torah study.

In multiple places, the Arizal teaches about the reincarnations of Abel, the son of Adam. Abel (הבל) had a good side and a bad one. The good side was represented by the letter Hei (ה) of his name, and the bad by the Beit and Lamed (בל). The bad part needed to be rectified, so it reincarnated in Laban (לבן), the wicked father-in-law of Jacob. Laban didn’t do much better, so he was reincarnated in the gentile prophet Bilaam (בלעם). He, too, was an ungodly person, so the Beit-Lamed soul was reincarnated for the third time in Naval (נבל), the ungrateful man who rejected David. Naval was strike three, and that Beit-Lamed soul no longer returned in a reincarnation.

We see from the above how a person’s name may offer tremendous hints as to their soul sparks, previous lives, tests, challenges, and character traits. When we read about the above individuals in the Tanakh, we see how similar they were. All three were very wealthy, famous, and participated in divination and sorcery. All were cunning, greedy, and deceitful individuals. The Arizal explains in detail what rectifications each was supposed to do, and how one life affected the next, weaving together these three seemingly unrelated Biblical narratives that span nearly a thousand years into one beautiful tapestry.

Which Body Will A Person Have at the End?

Perhaps the most famous question: if a soul has so many different bodies over so many different lifetimes, which body will that soul inhabit in the afterlife, or in the world of Resurrection? Rabbi Vital writes:

וכן הענין בכל נשמה ונשמה, וכאשר יהיה זמן התחיה, כל גוף וגוף יקח חלקו של נשמתו, כפי חלק הזמן שלו באיזו מדרגה היתה

And with each and every soul, when the time of the Resurrection comes, each and every body will take its corresponding soul, according to the part that it had at that particular time.

Thus, each part of the soul will have its own body, and all reincarnations will exist simultaneously as individuals in Olam HaBa!

Breaking Free from Materialism

In Chapter 23, Rabbi Vital suggests that the most important thing to take from all of this is to live a meaningful, spiritual life. When a person is mired in materialism, and cares only for their physical aspects, they become so attached to their bodies that they cannot exist without one. And so, when that person’s body dies their soul is in complete disarray; frightened, pained, and unable to ascend onwards. Angels must come and quickly place the soul in a new body. As such, this person can never free themselves from endless reincarnations into this imperfect, difficult world.

However, those who in their lifetimes tap into their souls, and are comfortable with their spiritual side, are able to simply take off their dead bodies like an old garment, and move on. For such people, their wonderful portion in Olam HaBa is not too far away.

Are There Really Just Four Non-Kosher Animals With One Sign?

This week’s parasha is Shemini, “eighth”, referring to the eighth day of the Mishkan’s inauguration ceremony. On this day, the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, brought an unsanctioned incense offering, and perished because of it. The Torah goes on to describe various sacrificial and priestly laws before going into the rules for kosher food.

When it comes to land animals, those that have split hooves and chew cud are kosher. Animals that do not have both signs are not kosher. The Torah then goes on to give four examples of animals that have one of the signs, but not the other: the camel chews cud, but does not have a completely split hoof; the pig has a split hoof, but does not chew cud; and the shafan and arnevet (unknown species often described as rabbits, hyraxes, or badgers), who chew cud but do not have split hooves.

The Torah uses these as examples of non-kosher animals that were present in Israel and surrounding regions in those days; animals that were familiar to the Israelites. The Torah does not state anywhere that these must be the only four non-kosher animals in the entire world that possess one sign, and not the other. Yet, somehow it became popular for Torah lecturers, particularly in the world of kiruv (Jewish outreach), to suggest that thousands of years ago, the Torah predicted there are only four such animals in the whole world, and to this day, no other animals have been found that only offer one sign. While ancient Jewish literature has plenty of amazing foresight into scientific matters – which may be used to show people its deep wisdom and divinity – this particular argument is highly flawed. The truth is, there are other animals that have one of the two signs, and not the other. Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Hippos & Llamas

A famous problem was the case of the hippopotamus. A hippo has the same foot structure as a pig, and like a pig, does not chew its cud. (While it is herbivorous, eating mostly grass and aquatic plants, hippos have been noted to even eat meat on occasion.) A hippopotamus is thus a perfect example of another animal that has split hooves but does not strictly chew cud.

Hippo and Pig Hooves

Hippo and Pig Hooves

Despite this, people will still go out of their way to insist that the Torah’s four animals must be the only four. Some even suggest that the hippopotamus must really just be another type of pig! Of course, hippos are no more pigs than they are cows, or any other animal. In fact, today scientists know that hippos are most closely related to whales (and DNA analysis confirms this).

On the other side of the spectrum are the animals that chew cud but do not have fully-split hooves. The llama and alpaca are good examples. Once again, there are those that will insist these must be just another type of camel – even though they have wool, and no humps, are commonly used for their meat, and were once thought to be closer to sheep.

Huacaya Alpaca

Huacaya Alpaca

Some might argue that since camels and llamas are officially grouped by scientists in the same family of ‘camelids’, they can be thought of as being basically the same. In reality, a zoological ‘family’ could be a vast group with very different species. For example, donkeys and horses are in the same family, yet no one in Biblical times (or today) would consider them “the same”. In fact, a donkey has a totally different status in Judaism than a horse, and a firstborn donkey is required to be redeemed in Jewish law. No rabbi would permit a horse to be redeemed in place of a donkey!

Camelids: Bactrian Camel, Llama, and Vicuana

Camelids: Bactrian Camel, Llama, and the deer-looking Vicuna

Truth in Kiruv

At the end of the day, the debate over the four animals listed in the Torah matters very little. The Torah does not claim these are the only four animals, so there is no need to make that conclusion. The problem is when people do make that conclusion, then use it as a proof to convince others of the divinity of Judaism. Those victims might be convinced initially, then go on to do their own research and discover that the “proof” was actually false, which may then serve to push them away from Judaism altogether.

Besides, there are many more solid arguments from ancient Jewish literature that can be used instead. Here are a couple of much better ones:

בְּשַׁעְתָּא דִּסְתִימָא דְכָל סְתִימִין בָּעָא לְאִתְגַּלְּיָא, עֲבַד בְּרֵישָׁא נְקוּדָה חֲדָא, וְדָא סָלֵיק לְמֶהֱוֵי מַחֲשָׁבָה. צַיֵּיר בָּהּ כָּל צִיּוּרִין חָקַק בָּהּ כָּל גְּלִיפִין… וְרָזָא דָא, בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים. זֹהַר, דְּמִנֵּיהּ כָּלְהוֹ מַאֲמָרוֹת אִתְבְּרִיאוּ בְּרָזָא דְאִתְפַּשְׁטוּתָא דִנְקוּדָה דְּזֹהַר סְתִים דָּא

זוהר חלק א (בראשית) דף ב/א, טו/א

“When God began to create, He first made a singular point, with which he then formed all formations, and carved out all things… And the secret of ‘In the beginning, God created…’ [Genesis 1:1] is radiance [zohar], from which all Utterances were created, in the secret of the expansion of the point of radiance.”

The Zohar, a mystical commentary on the Torah first published in the 13th century (based on much older teachings) describes that creation began from a singular point of radiation that expanded to give rise to all things. This is precisely what science tells us today with the Singularity that spawned the Big Bang, and the cosmic expansion and cooling that followed, giving rise to all matter.

The Zohar also tells us:

דהא כל ישובא מתגלגלא בעגולא ככדור, אלין לתתא, ואלין לעילא, וכל אינון בריין משניין בחזוויהו משנויא דאוירא, כפום כל אתר ואתר

זוהר חלק ג (ויקרא) דף י/א

“… The entire planet is rotating in a circle like a ball. There are people below, and people above, all different in appearance due to the different atmospheres of each land.”

At least seven centuries ago, the Zohar already taught that the Earth is spherical, and more significantly, that it is rotating (which scientists only confirmed in the 19th century – see Foucault’s 1852 pendulum experiment). The Zohar also states that despite the Earth’s spherical nature, people live above and below, without falling off the planet, and that people living in different lands have different features because of different environmental conditions, hinting at biological adaptation.

Credit: Dailygalaxy.com

Credit: Dailygalaxy.com

Monkeys, Circumcision, and God’s Covenant

This week’s Torah reading is Lech Lecha, which begins the narrative of Abraham, the first of the forefathers of the Jewish people. In the past, we have written about what it was that made Abraham so special, and why he merited to become the primary forefather of God’s chosen people. It is at the end of this week’s reading that God makes an eternal covenant with Abraham and his descendants:

Abraham Journeying to the Land of Canaan, by Gustav Doré

Abraham Journeying to the Land of Canaan, by Gustav Doré

“And I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and between your descendants after you, throughout their generations, an everlasting covenant… And this is My covenant which you shall observe, between Me and you, and between your descendants after you, that every male be circumcised… at the age of eight days every male shall be circumcised throughout the generations…” (Genesis 17:7-12)

God makes a pact with Abraham that reads something like this: Abraham and his descendants take upon themselves the task of observing God’s commandments in order to repair a once-perfect world, and to spread knowledge of Godliness, righteousness, and morality; to be a “light unto the nations”. In return, God promises Abraham constant blessing and protection, as well as the rights to the beautiful, holy land of Israel.

As a sign of this eternal covenant, God requests that Abraham and all of his heirs be circumcised. The reasons for this are numerous and carry a profound meaning. One of these reasons is to serve as a constant reminder to men – who are naturally very prone to sexual immorality and licentiousness – the true purpose of sexual intimacy and reproduction. A deeper reason is that originally, God had created man without the foreskin. As a result of Adam’s consumption of the Fruit, and the subsequent exile from Eden, the foreskin grew out as a mark of imperfection. As always, the physical world is only a reflection of the spiritual, and just as man’s spiritual composition was tainted, so too was man’s physical composition.

Indeed, from a biological perspective, the foreskin serves no significant purpose. Although many hypotheses have been proposed for why it may exist, none have been corroborated. Moreover, it is well-known that circumcision reduces the risk and transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. (Despite the objections of many in recent years who claim that circumcision does not reduce risk of STDs, recent studies do in fact show a clear advantage. Click here to read more.)

Finally, it is interesting to note that the animal world is devoid of foreskins. (Many animals do have a ‘penile sheath’ which is often mistaken for a foreskin.) However, there is one family of mammals that do exhibit a foreskin quite similar to that of humans: primates.

Ape, Humans, and Opposable Thumbs

Although the religious community and the scientific community are frequently at odds with one another when it comes to evolution, both sides agree on one thing: humans and apes share a very special bond. From a scientific perspective, humans and apes share over 95% of our genes, as well as a very recent common ancestor. It is important to note that this does not mean, as many wrongly believe, that “humans came from monkeys”. Humans did not come from monkeys, nor any other apes that exist in the world today. What science suggests is that humans and apes descended from a common ancestor. (So, apes would be more like our biological cousins, and not our “grandparents” as many wrongly assume).

What may surprise a lot of people is that traditional Jewish holy texts say something similar. Judaism divides all created things into four categories: domem, inanimate matter; tzameach, plant life; chai, animal life; and medaber, speaking beings. Humans alone are in the category of medaber, while all animals are in that of chai. The apes, however, are an exception, as they are considered neither chai, nor medaber, but something in between! (A discussion of this can be found in Sha’ar HaMitzvot, on parashat Ekev.)

The Opposable Thumb: essential for fine dexterity, grasping, and making tools.

The Opposable Thumb: essential for fine dexterity, grasping, and making tools.

The great apes are unique in that they, too, are very intelligent, can make tools, and even have opposable thumbs. The opposable thumb is a defining feature, and often said to distinguish humans and apes from the rest of the animal world. Incredibly, nearly 500 years ago the Arizal wrote of the opposable thumb’s spiritual significance, and described it as an appendage that stems from, and symbolizes, the sefirah of Binah, literally “understanding” and intelligence (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, Ch. 36).

So, both Torah and science agree that apes are unique and human-like. What exactly is their spiritual significance?

Stop Monkeying Around

Although apes are very similar to humans from a physical standpoint, when it comes to spirituality we inhabit totally opposite spheres. Though apes can communicate, humans alone possess verbal language. Although they can also make rudimentary tools, humans alone have the ability to create, construct, and build civilizations. Whereas apes are known for their sexual promiscuity and polyamorous relationships, humans are meant to be monogamous and loving. Whereas apes are wild, instinctual, and prone to petty violence, humans are meant to be cultured, restrained, and peaceful. In short, apes symbolize the worst of what it means to be human. Those humans that are promiscuous, violent, and animalistic essentially fall to the level of an ape.

In an intriguing passage, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 109a) tells us what happened to those people that built the Tower of Babel. Those that built it with the intention of dwelling in the Heavens were scattered around the Earth. Those that built it simply for idolatrous purposes had their language confounded. Finally, those that built it in order to wage war, to gain more power and material gain, were turned into apes – an appropriate measure-for-measure punishment.

It is therefore not surprising that of all animals, only apes and humans share the trait of foreskin. Apes represent the very spiritual imperfection that humans aim to repair. And of course, while apes are powerless to do anything about it, humans alone have the ability to remove their foreskins. Humans have the power to repair their imperfections, to restore their divine image, and to return to a perfect state of Eden, as God had originally intended.