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The Mysterious Custom of Upsherin

In this week’s double Torah portion (Acharei-Kedoshim) we read that “when you will have planted all manner of trees for food, its fruit shall be forbidden; three years shall it be forbidden to you, it shall not be eaten.” (Leviticus 19:23) This refers to the mitzvah of orlah, where a newly-planted tree must be left unharvested for its first three years. Seemingly based on this, a custom has developed to leave the hair of newborn boys uncut until age three. On or around the boy’s third birthday, a special celebration is held (called upsherin or halakeh), often with family and friends taking turns to cut a bit of the boy’s hair. Henceforth, the boy is encouraged to wear a kippah and tzitzit, and his formal Jewish education will begin. It is said that just as a tree needs the first three years to establish itself firmly in the ground before it can flourish and its fruit be used in divine service, so too does a child.

Lag B’Omer 1970 in Meron. Photo from Israel’s National Photo Collection

Indeed, the Torah makes a comparison between trees and humans in other places. Most famously, Deuteronomy 20:19 states that fruit trees should not be harmed during battle, “for is the tree of the field a man?” The tree is not an enemy combatant, so it should be left alone. Although the plain meaning of the verse is that the tree is not a man, an alternate way of reading it is that “man is a tree of the field”. Elsewhere, God compares the righteous man to a tree firmly rooted in the ground (Jeremiah 17:8), and in another place compares the entire Jewish nation to a tree (Isaiah 65:22).

Having said that, the custom of upsherin is essentially unknown in ancient Jewish sources. It is not mentioned anywhere in the Talmud, nor in any early halachic codes, including the authoritative Shulchan Arukh of the 16th century. Where did this very recent practice originate?

Lag b’Omer and the Arizal

The first Jews to take up this custom were those living in Israel and surrounding lands under Arab Muslim dominion in the Middle Ages. We see that Sephardic Jews in Spain and Morocco did not have such a custom, nor did the Yemenite Jews. In fact, Rav David Bar-Hayim points out that Yemenite Jews did not even have a custom to abstain from haircuts during Sefirat HaOmer at all. This is particularly relevant because the upsherin ceremony is often connected with the Sefirat HaOmer period, with many waiting until Lag b’Omer for their child’s first haircut, and taking the boy to the grave of Rashbi (Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai) in Meron for the special ceremony.

It appears that the earliest textual reference to upsherin is from Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), the primary disciple of the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572). Because of this, many believe that upsherin is a proper Kabbalistic custom that was instituted by, or at least sanctioned by, the great Arizal. In reality, the text in question says no such thing. The passage (Sha’ar HaKavanot, Inyan HaPesach, Derush 12) states the following:

ענין מנהג שנהגו ישראל ללכת ביום ל”ג לעומר על קברי רשב”י ור”א בנו אשר קבורים בעיר מירון כנודע ואוכלים ושותי’ ושמחים שם אני ראיתי למוז”ל שהלך לשם פ”א ביום ל”ג לעומר הוא וכל אנשי ביתו וישב שם שלשה ימים ראשו’ של השבוע ההו’ וזה היה פעם הא’ שבא ממצרים אבל אין אני יודע אם אז היה בקי ויודע בחכמה הזו הנפלאה שהשיג אח”כ. והה”ר יונתן שאגי”ש העיד לי שבשנה הא’ קודם שהלכתי אני אצלו ללמוד עם מוז”ל שהוליך את בנו הקטן שם עם כל אנשי ביתו ושם גילחו את ראשו כמנהג הידוע ועשה שם יום משתה ושמחה

On the custom of Israel going on Lag b’Omer to the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Elazar his son (who are buried in the town of Meron as is known) and to eat and drink and rejoice there—I saw that my teacher, of blessed memory [the Arizal], that he went there once on Lag b’Omer with his whole family and remained there for three days, until the start of the sixth week [of the Omer]. And this was that one time, when he came from Egypt, but I do not know if he was then knowledgeable in this wisdom that he would later attain. And Rav Yonatan Sagis related to me that in the first year before I went to him to learn with my teacher of blessed memory, he took his small son with his whole family and there they cut his hair according to the known custom, and he held a feast and celebration there.

First, what we see in this passage is that the Arizal apparently only visited Meron on Lag b’Omer once, when he just made aliyah from Egypt, and before he had become the pre-eminent Kabbalist in Tzfat. (Some say this was actually before he made aliyah, and was simply on a trip to Israel.) Lag b’Omer is the 5th day of the 5th week of the Omer, and the Arizal stayed there for the remainder of the fifth week. Rav Chaim Vital wonders whether the Arizal was already an expert mystic at the time or not. Once he became the leader of the Tzfat Kabbalists, the Arizal apparently never made it a point to pilgrimage to Meron on Lag b’Omer. Rabbi Vital notes just that one time in the past, and it almost seems like once the Arizal was a master mystic, he understood there was nothing particularly mystical about it. In any case, nothing is said here of cutting hair.

The next part of the passage is more problematic. To start, it is unclear whether Rabbi Vital means that he and the Arizal went to study with Rav Yonatan Sagis, or that he and Rav Sagis went to study with the Arizal. We know that Rabbis Sagis and Vital were later both students of the Ari. However, when the Ari first came to Tzfat he was essentially unknown, and was briefly a disciple of other Kabbalists, namely the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570). In fact, the Arizal only spent a couple of years in Tzfat before suddenly passing away at a very young age. Whatever the case, it is unclear from the passage whether it was the Arizal or Rav Sagis who was the one to take his son for a haircut on Lag b’Omer. Based on the context, it would appear that it was Rav Sagis who did so, not the Arizal, since we already learned that the Arizal did not make it a point to pilgrimage to Meron.

The nail on the coffin may come from an earlier passage in the same section of Sha’ar HaKavanot, where we read:

ענין הגילוח במ”ט ימים אלו לא היה מוז”ל מגלח ראשו אלא בערב פסח ובערב חג השבועות ולא היה מגלח לא ביום ר”ח אייר ולא ביום ל”ג לעומר בשום אופן

On the matter of shaving during these forty-nine days [of the Omer], my teacher of blessed memory did not shave his head [hair], except for the evening of Passover and the evening of Shavuot, and would not shave his hair at all [in between], not on Rosh Chodesh Iyar, and not on Lag b’Omer.

According to the Arizal, one should not shave at all during the entire Omer period, including Lag b’Omer! If that’s the case, then the Ari certainly wouldn’t take his child to Meron for a haircutting on Lag b’Omer. It must be that the previous passage is referring to Rav Sagis. Nowhere else in the vast teachings of the Arizal is the custom of waiting until a boy’s third birthday (whether on Lag b’Omer or not) mentioned. Thus, the Arizal was not the custom’s originator, did not expound upon it, and most likely did not even observe it.

So where did it come from?

A Far-Eastern Custom

While no ancient Jewish mystical or halachic text before the 17th century appears to mention upsherin, a similar custom is discussed in much older non-Jewish sources. The Kalpa Sutras of the ancient Hindu Vedic schools speak of a ceremony called Chudakarana or Mundana, literally “haircutting”. It is supposed to be done before a child turns three, usually at a Hindu temple. It is explained that the hair a child is born with it connected to their past life, and all the negative things which that may entail. Removing this hair is symbolic of leaving the past life behind and starting anew. Interestingly, a small lock of hair is usually left behind, called a sikha, “flame” or “ray of light”, as a sign of devotion to the divine. This is surprisingly similar to the Chassidic custom of leaving behind the long peyos at the upsherin.

Hindu Sikha and Chassidic Peyos

From India, the custom seemingly moved across Asia to Arabia. One Muslim tradition called Aqiqah requires shaving the head of a newborn. Of this practice, Muhammad had apparently stated that “sacrifice is made for him on the seventh day, his head is shaved, and a name is given him.” An alternate practice had Muslims take their boys to the graves of various holy people for their first haircut. The Arabic for “haircut” is halaqah, which is precisely what the Sephardic Jews of Israel called upsherin. Thus, it appears that Jews in Muslim lands adopted the custom from their neighbours. However, many of them waited not until the child is three, but five, which is when the Mishnah (Avot 5:22) says a child must start learning Torah. (In this case, the practice has nothing to do with the mitzvah of orlah or any connection to a sapling.)

In the early 19th century, Rabbi Yehudah Leibush Horenstein made aliyah to Israel and first encountered this practice of “the Sephardim in Jerusalem… something unknown to the Jews in Europe.” He was a Chassid, and in that time period many more Chassidim were migrating to Israel—a trend instigated by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk (c. 1730-1788), the foremost student of the Maggid of Mezeritch (Rabbi Dov Ber, d. 1772), who in turn was the foremost student of the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, 1698-1760) the founder of Chassidism. These Chassidim in Israel adopted the practice from the local Sephardim, and spread it to the rest of the Chassidic world over the past century and a half.

While it has become more popular in recent decades, and has been adopted by other streams within Orthodoxy, and even many secular Israelis and Jews, upsherin is far from universally accepted. The Steipler (Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, 1899-1985) was particularly upset about this practice (see Orchos Rabbeinu, Vol. I, pg. 233). When a child was brought before Rav Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik of Brisk (1886-1959) for an upsherin, he frustratingly replied: “I am not a barber.” Other than the fact that it is not an established or widespread Jewish custom, there is a serious issue of it being in the category of darkei Emori, referring to various non-Jewish (and potentially idolatrous) practices.

Not So Fast

While there is no mention of the upsherin that we know today in ancient Jewish mystical or halachic texts, there is mention of something very much related. In one of his responsa, the great Radbaz (Rabbi David ibn Zimra, c. 1479-1573) speaks of a practice where some people take upon themselves a “vow to shave their son in the resting place of Samuel the Prophet” (see She’elot v’Teshuvot haRadbaz, siman 608).

Recall that Samuel was born after the heartfelt prayer of his mother Hannah who was barren for many years. She came to the Holy Tabernacle in Shiloh and vowed that if God gave her a son, she would dedicate him to divine service from his very birth, and he would be a nazir his entire life (I Samuel 1:11). This means that he would never be allowed to shave or trim the hair of his head, just as the Torah instructs for anyone taking on a nazirite vow. There is something particularly holy about this, and we see earlier in Scripture how an angel comes to declare the birth of the judge Samson and instructs the parents to ensure he would be a nazirite for life, and that no blade ever come upon his head (Judges 13:5).

The Tanakh goes on to state that once Samuel was weaned, Hannah took him to the Tabernacle and left him in the care of the holy priests so that he could serve God his entire life. How old was he when he was weaned? While it doesn’t say so here, there is an earlier case where the Torah speaks of a child being weaned. This is in Genesis 21:8, where we read how Abraham through a great feast upon the weaning of his son Isaac. Rashi comments here (drawing from the Midrash and Talmud) that Isaac was two years old at the time. For this reason, many Chassidic groups actually perform the upsherin at age two, not three.

Back to the Radbaz, he was born in Spain but was exiled with his family in the Expulsion of 1492. The family settled in Tzfat, where the Radbaz was tutored by Rabbi Yosef Saragossi, the holy “White Saint” credited with transforming Tzfat from a small town of 300 unlearned Jews to a holy Jewish metropolis and the capital of Kabbalistic learning. In adulthood, the Radbaz settled in Fes, Egypt and his fame as a tremendous scholar and posek spread quickly. In 1517, he moved to Cairo and was appointed Hakham Bashi, the Chief Rabbi of Egypt. There, he founded a world-class yeshiva that attracted many scholars. Coming full circle, it was here in the yeshiva of the Radbaz that the Arizal began his scholarly career. In the last years of his life, the Radbaz wished to return to the Holy Land, and made his way back to Tzfat. It is possible that the Arizal left Egypt for Tzfat in the footsteps of his former rosh yeshiva. Ironically, the Radbaz (who lived to age 94, or even 110 according to some sources) would outlive the Arizal (who died at just 38 years of age).

While neither the Arizal nor his old teacher the Radbaz discuss cutting a three-year-old’s hair in particular (or doing it at the tomb of Rashbi), the Radbaz does speak of a personal vow that one may take to cut their child’s hair at the tomb of Samuel the Prophet. This practice comes from emulating Hannah, who took a vow with regards to her son Samuel. Samuel went on to be compared in Scripture to Moses and Aaron (and the Sages say Moses and Aaron combined!) Of course, Hannah never cut her child’s hair at all, but perhaps there is something spiritual in treating the child like a nazirite until the child is “weaned”.

In any case, the question that the Radbaz was addressing is what one must do if they took up such a haircutting vow but are unable to fulfil it because the authorities prohibit Jews from going to the grave sites of their ancestors. From here, some scholars conclude that the Ottoman authorities at the time really must have prohibited Jews from going to the grave of Samuel, near Jerusalem. Thus, it is possible that those Jerusalem Jews who had a custom of going to Samuel’s grave decided to journey to another famous grave instead. Perhaps it was in these years of the early 16th century that the custom to go to Rashbi in Meron (instead of Shmuel near Jerusalem) evolved.

So, there may be something to the upsherin custom after all. Of course, we still don’t know when the practice of going to Samuel’s grave emerged. That appears to have been a local custom (or possibly not a custom at all, but a personal vow) of Jerusalem’s medieval Jewish community. It, too, may have been influenced by neighbouring Muslims who went to the graves of their saints to cut their children’s hair.

Whatever the case, we see that foundations of upsherin are not so clear-cut. Contrary to popular belief, it is neither a universally accepted Jewish custom, nor a mandatory halachic requirement. It did not originate with the Arizal either, although we do see some basis for it in the writings of the Radbaz. For those who wish to uphold this custom, they have upon whom to rely, and should meditate foremost upon the holy figures of Hannah and Samuel, who appear to be the spiritual originators of this mysterious practice.

Has the Erev Rav Infiltrated Orthodox Judaism, Too?

Last week we opened with a discussion of the Erev Rav, a small group within the Jewish people whose souls stir nothing but trouble for the nation. Their origins are not Israelite, and although halachically Jewish—and possibly even well-meaning people who are not consciously aware of their inner nature—they aim to destroy God’s original Torah. We cited the Arizal in explaining how the weapon of the Erev Rav is da’at: logic, reason, and knowledge, which they twist in the wrong ways to lead people astray.

The Zohar continues to speak of the Erev Rav in its commentary on this week’s parasha, Beshalach, most famous for the account of the Splitting of the Sea. The Zohar starts with an examination of the first verses in the portion, which state that God did not lead the nation directly to Israel, but round-about through the wilderness surrounding the Red Sea. The Torah says God did this so that the nation would not march near the mighty Philistines and fearfully want to return to Egypt.

The Zohar asks: why does God say “the people” (ha’am), and not “My people” (‘ami), as He had always said previously? The Zohar answers that this is because the Erev Rav was among the people, and goes on to prove that whenever the Torah says ha’am (such as in the Golden Calf episode), it refers specifically to the wicked Erev Rav. It was they who would fear the Philistines and might wish to return to Egypt, for certainly no true Israelite would ever wish to return to the slavery and brutality from which they had finally escaped.

The Zohar goes on to confirm that it was the Erev Rav who was responsible for the Golden Calf, and the resultant exile of the Jewish people, as well as “the deaths of thousands among Israel, the submission to foreign kingdoms, and the breaking of the Tablets”. It is the Erev Rav that leads Israel astray, and keeps them in exile. They seek to “break the Tablets”—to twist the Torah in a false direction. And the result is the many horrible catastrophes that befall the nation.

We wrote last week how the Shabbateans, Frankists, and even the leaders of Reform Judaism fit the mold of a modern Erev Rav very well. But what about the Orthodox Jewish world? Has the Erev Rav infiltrated traditional Orthodox communities?

A Battle of Rabbinic Giants

Rav Yonatan Eybeschutz

In the first half of the 18th century, in the decades that immediately followed the Shabbatean heresy, two of the great Ashkenazi rabbis were Yonatan Eybeschutz (1690-1764) and Yakov Emden (1697-1776). Rav Eybeschutz was born in Poland and was quickly recognized as a saintly prodigy, even as a child. He eventually settled in Prague, and would become the head of the city’s yeshiva and its top judge. In 1750 he was elected as the chief rabbi of the “Three Communities” of Altona, Hamburg, and Wandsbek. Altona was the birthplace of Rav Emden, who presided over one of its main synagogues and the city’s printing press.

As we mentioned last week, Prague was one of the strongholds of the Shabbateans. It seems that a young Eybeschutz may have dabbled in some Shabbateanism early on, but rejected it as he grew older and wiser. A text called V’Avo HaYom el Ha‘Ayin originated in Prague in 1724 and was clearly trying to infuse Shabbatean ideas among traditional Jews. Some, including Rav Emden, pointed a finger at Rav Eybeschutz. The latter defended his innocence, and in 1725 spoke out publicly and passionately against Shabbateanism.

The controversy died down, only to be reignited in 1751 by Emden shortly after Eybeschutz was elected as chief rabbi (beating out Emden, who was also a candidate for the position). Apparently, a number of amulets authored by Rav Eybeschutz had Shabbatean symbolism. Eybeschutz again pleaded his innocence, but the attacks grew stronger. Rabbi Yakov Yehoshua Falk (the Pnei Yehoshua, 1680-1756) weighed in, writing of Eybeschutz that “All of his deeds, from the earliest times, are characterized by deceit.”

Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, the Vilna Gaon

Rav Eybeschutz went on a campaign to prove his innocence, collecting 50 letters with 300 signatures of various rabbis that attested to his fine character and virtue. Interestingly, one of the people he asked was a young Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo, the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797). At this time, the Gaon was virtually unknown outside of Vilnius. He began his response with a long, flattering address to “the leader of the nation… the true gaon, the famous, the profound, the erudite lamp of Israel… our teacher and rabbi, Rabbi Yonatan…” yet went on to imply that he could not really take a stance on the matter, for “I come from a distant land, I am young, I hold no office.” He goes on to ask Rav Yonatan for forgiveness, and “that you judge me favourably.” He did seem to suggest that the amulets in question were not inappropriate.

Rav Emden went on to publish his own response to Rav Eybeschutz, and called the Vilna Gaon’s light defence “the testimony of a boor from Vilna, an ignorant youth…” Although Emden later regretted this remark—when he realized how saintly and wise that “ignorant youth” really was—he was known to lash out at others with such fiery language. He accused many more of being closet Shabbateans, even the great Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, 1707-1746)! And he scuffled with those who weren’t Shabbateans, too. Emden got into trouble with Rav Moshe Hagiz (1671-1750), the chief Sephardic rabbi of Altona, as well as with Rav Ezekiel Katzenellenbogen (1670-1749), the chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Altona. Some credit Emden with squashing Shabbateanism, while others critique that it was Emden who first made it fashionable to criticize rabbis and speak derogatorily about them—now unfortunately a common practise.

Moses Mendelssohn

Emden was himself a controversial figure, known for a number of questionable stances. He wanted to reinstate polygamy (to be fair, so did the Vilna Gaon, but for other reasons), or at least permit concubines. He spoke negatively of philosophy and science, but positively of alchemy and Christianity; wrote that the Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim (“Guide for the Perplexed”) was written by an imposter, and that major chunks of the Zohar are false. More disturbingly, he had a great relationship with Moses Mendelssohn, the founder of the Haskalah movement and one of the early fathers of reform—whom we had linked with the modern Erev Rav.

It is therefore quite difficult to determine who was right in the Emden-Eybeschutz controversy. Many scholars believe that Eybeschutz may have been a Shabbatean in his youth until 1724, but certainly was not after this. After all, he himself decreed a herem (excommunication) upon the Shabbateans. Yet, he also spoke positively of Mendelssohn and of Christianity, and even hired a former student who had converted to Christianity. In 1760, a group of students from Eybeschutz’s yeshiva revealed themselves to be Shabbateans, resulting in the closure of the yeshiva. At the same time, his son Wolf Eybeschutz joined the Frankists and claimed to be a Shabbatean prophet!

It appears this was enough proof for Emden, who declared himself the winner of the controversy. In fact, he changed his name from Yakov to Israel (or added “Israel” to his name), just as the Biblical Jacob’s name was changed to Israel because he had “fought with great men and prevailed” (Genesis 32:29). The two rabbis died within a couple of years of each other (both were buried in Altona’s Jewish cemetery within a stone’s throw of one another), and the controversy was soon forgotten, replaced by a new one: Chassidim vs. Mitnagdim.

The Battle to Save Judaism

We wrote last week how the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, worked tirelessly to defeat the Frankists and Shabbateans. His Chassidism arguably saved Judaism by providing a kosher alternative to Shabbatean mysticism. At the same time, the early Chassidim appear to have themselves been influenced by Shabbateans, particularly in Poland. The Baal Shem Tov, too, was known to study and speak highly of a book called Sefer HaTzoref. This massive work was written by Yehoshua Heschel Zoref (1633-1700) of Vilna, who had declared himself Mashiach ben Yosef to Shabbatai Tzvi’s Mashiach ben David. Some argue the Baal Shem Tov was unaware of the book’s origins. Nonetheless, Zoref would start a “Chassidic” movement of his own in Lithuania and Cracow. This is one reason why the Vilna Gaon (in Lithuania) was so antagonistic towards the wider Chassidic movement, among whom there could be lurking secret Shabbateans.

In all likelihood, genuine Shabbateanism died out among the Chassidim, and the movement as a whole would prove itself to be legitimate. But various Shabbatean-like tendencies remained, including both occasional antinomianism and frequent messianism. Others “proved” their innocence by being scrupulously pious, as many secret Frankists had done. This kind of piety would become a staple of Chassidism, so much so that “Ultra-Orthodoxy” and “Chassidism” are often used interchangeably by the public. Whether through senseless additional rules that have no origin in Torah, or through blind worship of their rebbes bordering on idolatry, many Chassidic groups have twisted the Torah in a false direction.

Meanwhile, there are those that are vehemently opposed to the State of Israel, as if yearning to stay in exile forever. Yes, the State of Israel is far from ideal, and is not religious as it needs to be, but instead of crusading against it so passionately, why not work to make it the way it should be? Why not put the same effort into infusing Israel with more spirituality and influencing its leaders in a positive direction instead of causing divisions and hillul Hashem? There are even those who have, in a show of support, brazenly met with genocidal Arab and Iranian leaders—do they not realize these people want to “drive the Jews into the sea”? Regardless of one’s stance on the State, there are innocent Jewish families living in the Holy Land, as God commanded them to. Amazingly, the Zohar on this week’s parasha explicitly says that it is the Erev Rav which strives to bring catastrophes upon the Jewish people and keep Jews forever in exile. These “chassidim” do exactly that.

The most famous (and most vehement) of the anti-Israel Chassidic sects, ‘Neturei Karta’ (clockwise from top left) meeting with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, joining an anti-Israel protest in Berlin (under the eye of the Ayatollah), and meeting with former Iranian president Ahmadinejad.

The Battle for Each of Us

We said previously that the power of the Erev Rav is in manipulating knowledge, or da’at. We showed how Reform leaders have used it to twist Jews to the extreme left and abandon the Torah. The same can be done in the opposite direction, though, where Judaism is taken to the other extreme; to the point where the religion becomes a prison of fences, and we forget the real mitzvah that the fences are supposed to safeguard. The Talmud calls this phenomenon being a chassid shoteh, or “pious” to the point of foolishness. Sadly, the Orthodox world of today is full of this. We wrote in the past how the great Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah said this kind of extreme legalism will turn people away from Judaism, make it impossible for the majority to fulfil the law, and destroy the religion in the long run. He went so far as to say that the chassid shoteh “brings destruction upon the world” (Sotah 20a). In many ways, he was right.

Ironically, it is usually these same people who convince others that they are the true holders of Torah and everyone else is only a pretender. The Tanakh speaks of such hypocrites, with God proclaiming that tofsei haTorah lo yeda’uni, “the upholders of Torah do not know Me” (Jeremiah 2:8). God did not say the gentiles don’t know Him, or the idol worshippers, or the Jews that have gone astray, but specifically the Jews who think they know and uphold the Torah best are the ones who are often furthest from Hashem. And this all goes back to another famous prophecy from the Talmud (Sotah 49b):

In the footsteps of Mashiach, insolence will increase and honour dwindle… the meeting place of scholars will be used for immorality… the wisdom of the learned will degenerate, fearers of sin will be despised, and the truth will be missing…

The Talmud speaks of our days as a time when real ancient wisdom will literally “rot” away, when heresy and corruption will be rampant among scholars and leaders, the genuinely righteous and God-fearing will be rejected, and the truth will be hard to find.

It is therefore absolutely incumbent upon every single Jew today to constantly evaluate the community and congregation they are a part of, and to use their critical thinking in analyzing their leaders and their hashkafa. There are many truly virtuous, saintly rabbis, and there are also a fair share of their wayward counterparts that masquerade as such. Do your research, use your head, and listen to your gut. Do not be a sheep.

The Secret Origins of Reform Judaism

Where did Reform Judaism come from? For many centuries, Judaism was a single entity without major divisions or denominations like those in the Christian world (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, etc.) or in the Muslim world (Shiite, Sunni, and others). In the middle of the 19th century, a new “branch” of Judaism suddenly emerged among Ashkenazi Jews in Europe. This was Reform Judaism, which quickly separated itself from “Orthodoxy”, meaning the traditional Jewish way.

An 1806 depiction of Napoleon “emancipating” the Jews

The classic answer to explain this development is that once Jews in Europe were “emancipated” at the turn of the 19th century, they assimilated into European society and wished for a more “modern” version of Judaism that would be acceptable to their “enlightened” Christian neighbours. At the same time, the state of Jewry was at a very low point for a number of reasons (including poverty, persecution, and pogroms), and these early reformers wanted to help the poor “ghetto Jew”; to make him more educated and more prosperous.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch

Of course, this latter reason is admirable, and it is true that many European Jews at this time needed a big boost both morally and financially. This is why the great Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) started a Torah im Derech Eretz movement which strove to educate and empower Jews, but without abandoning Torah and mitzvot, as did his contemporary Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer (1820-1899).

Abraham Geiger

Meanwhile, the Reform movement sought to abandon traditional Torah, and relegate mitzvot to being optional at best. One of the fathers of Reform Judaism, Abraham Geiger (1810-1874) emphatically stated that the “Talmud must go”. He removed prayers that mourned the Temple or spoke of a return to Jerusalem, for this would be unpatriotic for a German to recite. To this day, Reform Jews call their synagogue a “temple”, the idea being that there is no need to yearn for rebuilding the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the local “temple” being a valid substitute. Geiger admitted that his “new” Judaism is modelled on Protestant Christianity, and that the Torah and Talmud should be studied “from the point of view of the historian”. For Geiger and his successors, Judaism was nothing more than ancient history, with a set of voluntary cultural traditions.

Why take such an extreme position? Why work so hard to assimilate Jews and to abandon the Torah entirely? Why not follow the balanced model of Rav Hirsch or Rabbi Hildesheimer? Where did this strong antinomianism (rejection of law) come from?

The Erev Rav

In this week’s parasha, Bo, we are told that an erev rav, a “mixed multitude”, emerged with Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 12:38). These were not Israelite descendants of Jacob, but various Egyptians and other nations among them that were awed and convinced by God’s plagues and miracles, and wanted to join the Israelites. They, too, stood at Sinai, and thus became Jews.

Yet, it was these same erev rav “Jews” that just 40 days later instigated the incident of the Golden Calf. The Sages state there were 3000 of them, and their goal was to incite the Jews to immorality and idolatry, drawing them away from God. After Moses came down from the mountain, we read how these instigators were punished, and Exodus 32:28 states explicitly that 3000 of them were slayed. While this evil erev rav was removed from the Exodus generation, it is said that the same 3000 souls reincarnate in future generations to cause havoc among the Jews (see, for example, the Arizal in Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 39). While they may be halachically “Jewish”, spiritually they are anything but. They are not necessarily conscious of this, and appear to be well-meaning people, but their inner calling is the very elimination of traditional Judaism.

The erev rav accomplishes this through various means, central among them the use of cunning “reason”. The Arizal taught (see Sha’ar HaPesukim on Ki Tisa and Balak) that they twist the power of da’at, “knowledge”, and lead Jews from true da’at Hashem, knowledge of God, to a foreign da’at of idolatry and immorality. [For those who like gematria, the Arizal illustrates this beautifully by pointing out that the numerical value of erev rav (ערב רב) is 474, equal to da’at (דעת).]

The Zohar (I, 25) prophesies that this erev rav will be particularly powerful in the End of Days, and will lead countless Jews astray. Thankfully, they will ultimately be destroyed, and this is the deeper meaning of Zechariah 13:2, which states how the “prophets of the impure spirit” will be removed from the earth. Prior to this, though, they will succeed in causing Jews to abandon true Judaism; to assimilate and to forget the God of Israel and His Torah.

Before we get into the depth of the matter, one can already see how “Reform Judaism” has accomplished the above goal quite well: recent statistics show that only 29% of Reform Jews say they have a strong belief in God, and only 4% regularly attend their “temple”. A whopping 80% of Reform Jews intermarry, with the express approval of the “rabbis” who officiate these weddings. The same rabbis are often quite proud to publicly trample Torah law—in fact, the first graduation ceremony of the Reform seminary Hebrew Union College in 1883 featured frog legs and shrimp, and was called the “treif banquet”.

The leaders of Reform Judaism have accomplished the role of the erev rav quite well. Where exactly did they come from?

A New Cult

The story of Reform Judaism actually begins two centuries earlier. In the middle of the 17th century, there was a great messianic fervour, particularly in Europe. Many Christians believed that the year 1666 would be the last (having the symbolic 666), while some Jews also clung to several opinions—including a possible reference from the Zohar—that the End of Days would come in the mid-1600s. Meanwhile, Eastern European Jews were experiencing perhaps their worst catastrophe yet, the Chmelnitsky massacres.

Shabbatai Tzvi

In the midst of this, a mentally-unstable Jew named Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676) started to have illusions of grandeur. Although he was a noted Torah scholar, his family and rabbis rejected his fits of megalomania. Tzvi left his hometown of Smyrna and eventually ended up in the Holy Land, where Nathan of Gaza soon proclaimed him the messiah. Although rejected by the majority of rabbis, and at one point excommunicated, Tzvi’s fame continued to spread.

Eventually, he stirred enough of a storm that the Ottomans arrested him and gave him the option of converting to Islam and ending his messianic pretensions, or death. Tzvi converted, and became an honoured Ottoman effendi. His closest followers converted with him. The messianic dream came to an end. Yet, many people still believed him to be the messiah, even after his death. While those of his followers that converted to Islam lived in Turkey and were known as the Dönmeh, there were also Jews who continued to practice Judaism but were secretly “Shabbateans”, particularly in Eastern Europe.

The biggest problem with Tzvi is that he claimed to fulfil the messianic role of bringing a “new Torah”, the Torah of Atzilut, and this Torah does not require strict adherence to mitzvot. He publicly ate chelev, prohibited non-kosher fats, and even recited a blessing over it. The Shabbateans feasted on fast days, and there were also rumours that they suspended the laws of prohibited relationships.

Among the Dönmeh, the latter abolition took particular significance, and their future leader Baruchiah Russo (d. 1720) abolished any restrictions on sexuality, developing a series of bizarre sexual practices. In the middle of the 18th century, this community was paid a visit by one Polish-born Jacob Frank (1726-1791), the son of a secret Shabbatean. In 1755, Frank returned to Poland and started preaching the way of the Dönmeh. He founded his own Shabbatean sect, claiming to be the final incarnation of Shabbatai Tzvi.

Jacob Frank

Following the model of the Dönmeh in Turkey, who outwardly converted to Islam, Frank and his followers outwardly converted to Christianity. Because of this, they were assisted by the Catholic Church. (Frank himself was baptised by King Augustus III of Poland!) The Frankists took antinomianism to an extreme, and sought to destroy Torah law entirely, and all of traditional Judaism with it. While Frank and about 500 of his followers converted, it is estimated that several thousand more (3000?) remained as outwardly practicing Jews, often very religious-looking and supposedly very pious to mask their secret Frankism. Frank believed that in such a way, the Dönmeh will destroy Islam, his Frankists would destroy Christianity, and those secret Frankists among the Jews would destroy Judaism.

Thankfully, their plot was averted. The Dönmeh had no influence on Islam (a tiny isolated community still lives in Turkey today) nor was Christianity affected very much, mainly because there was a much greater wave of atheism and “Enlightenment” already passing over Europe. The Frankists were excommunicated by the rabbis, who also made it incumbent upon every Jew to expose any Frankist they may suspect.

At the same time, the Chassidic movement took off, and it is quite likely that the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, 1698-1760) decided to go public with his previously-secret group of Chassidim to counter the Frankist threat and provide Jews with a valid mystical approach. Sadly, the Baal Shem Tov died in 1760, just months after the Frankists publicly converted to Christianity and reignited a blood libel against Jews at the end of 1759. It is said that the Baal Shem Tov succumbed to a young and untimely death because of his grief over the Frankists. He toiled effortlessly to stop them; his efforts were not in vain.

By the early 19th century, Frank himself was dead, and the movement couldn’t live on without his power, wealth, and charisma. His daughter Eva lead for a while, but soon ended up destitute and without followers. The movement was quashed, but thousands of Frankists remained across Europe, ostracized from the Jewish community, and without any leadership, organization, or support. Where would they go?

Reform and the Franks

Gershom Scholem

World-renowned philosopher and scholar Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) thoroughly researched the origins and history of Shabbateanism and Frankism, and published a great deal of literature on these movements. Besides this, Scholem was an expert on Jewish mysticism, and was once called “without challenge the greatest living authority on Kabbalah.” He was professor of Jewish mysticism at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University for over three decades, and his breadth of Kabbalistic knowledge was astounding.

In The Messianic Idea in Judaism (pg. 141), Scholem wrote:

The leaders of the “School of Mendelssohn”, who were neither Shabbateans themselves, of course, nor under the influence of mysticism at all, to say nothing of mystical heresy, found ready recruits for their cause in Shabbatean circles, where the world of Rabbinic Judaism had already been completely destroyed from within, quite independently of the efforts of secularist criticism. Those who had survived the ruin were now open to any alternative or wind of change; and so, their “mad visions” behind them, they turned their energies and hidden desires for a more positive life to assimilation and the Haskala [“Enlightenment”], two forces that accomplished without paradoxes, indeed without religion at all, what they, the members of the “accursed sect”, had earnestly striven for in a stormy contention with truth, carried on in the half-light of a faith pregnant with paradoxes.

Moses Mendelssohn

Scholem points out that the members of the Shabbatean and Frankist “accursed sect” found a comfortable new home in Reform Judaism, the “School of Mendelssohn”, which accomplished so well what the sect was trying to do through subversion and infiltration. Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) was the backbone of the Reform founders. While himself initially well-intentioned, and wishing to help the “ghetto Jew”, he would end up raising the platform for Reform. In fact, the philosopher Immanuel Kant admitted that Mendelssohn’s work was “the proclamation of a great reform”, while Heinrich Heine proudly credited him: “Mendelssohn overthrew the Talmud.” (Yes, and five of Mendelssohn’s own six children converted to Christianity. So much for his reformed Judaism.)

Scholem further wrote of the link between the old cult and the new reform religion:

Around 1850, a consciousness of this link between Shabbateanism and reform was still alive in some quarters. In circles close to the moderate reform movement, a very remarkable and undoubtedly authentic tradition had it that Aaron Chorin, the first pioneer of reformed Jewry in Hungary, was in his youth a member of the Shabbatean group in Prague. Prossnitz and Hamburg, both in the eighteenth century centers of Shabbatean propaganda and the scene of bitter struggles between the orthodox and the heretics or their sympathizers, were among the chief strongholds of the Reform movement in the beginning of the nineteenth century. The sons of those Frankists in Prague who in 1800 still pilgrimed to Offenbach, near Frankfort, the seat of Frank’s successors, and who educated their children in the spirit of this mystical sect, were among the leaders, in 1832, of the first “Reform” organization in Prague. The writings of Jonas Wehle himself, the spiritual leader of these Prague mystics around 1800, already display an astonishing mixture of mysticism and rationalism… from which it is clear that his particular pantheon had room for Moses Mendelssohn and Immanuel Kant side by side with Shabbatai Tzvi and Isaac Luria. And as late as 1864, his nephew, writing in New York, lengthily praises in his testament his Shabbatean and Frankist ancestors…

Scholem’s conclusions are clear: Reform Judaism became a springboard for a new Shabbateanism. This may explain why it took such a strong antinomian turn, steadily shedding all mandatory observance of mitzvot. And just as it took hold across Europe, it immigrated to the United States, where the New York descendants continued in the footsteps of their fathers, as we see above. Today, the United States is the home of the largest Reform community. The statistics we pointed out earlier confirm that the Frankist vision of a destroyed, assimilated, lawless Judaism—indeed the vision of the first erev rav millennia ago—has been realized in Reform.

It is important to clarify that this does not meant that millions of Reform Jews are all part of some kind of conspiracy or evil faith, God forbid. Rather, Reform Jewish adherents are good-hearted people that have been duped into a flawed system of beliefs. Many are likely unaware of the hidden origins of their religion, and all that it truly represents.

Sure, Reform is not entirely without merit, and has its positive aspects, just as its founders had some valid arguments. Nor is present-day “Orthodox” Judaism perfect (far from it, and even further from it among certain “Ultra-Orthodox” groups). But one side, as a whole, is still cleaving to Hashem, His Holy Land, and His Holy Torah; the other isn’t.

Every Reform Jew, and every Jew in general, should undertake a serious evaluation of their beliefs and the system of which they are a part. Do your diligent research, and find where the real truth lies.

Why Immerse Dishes in a Mikveh?

This week’s parasha is the double portion of Matot-Massei. We read how the Israelites struck back against the Midianites, with a twelve-thousand strong army led by Pinchas that absolutely decimated the enemy. After the battle, Moses instructed that all the warriors must undergo purification (as they had come in contact with corpses), and so too do “all garments, leather items, goat products, and wooden vessels” (Numbers 31:20). Following this, the kohen gadol Elazar proclaimed:

This is the statute that Hashem has commanded Moses: “Only the gold, the silver, the copper, the iron, the tin, and the lead—whatever is used in fire—you shall pass through fire and then it will be pure; it must also be cleansed with sprinkling water. And whatever is not used in fire you shall pass through water. You shall wash your garments on the seventh day and become pure; afterwards, you may enter the camp.”

This is the source for the mitzvah of tevilat kelim, the immersion in a mikveh of vessels used for food. Metal dishes, cutlery, and the like that were previously owned by a non-Jew must be purified before a Jew can use them. Although the Torah mentions gold, silver, copper, iron, tin, and lead specifically, the prohibition was extended to all metals, as well as glass, since glass can also be melted and reformed like metal. Wood and earthenware do not require immersion.

What is the reason for this mitzvah?

Searching for Answers

What exactly do the non-Jewish vessels need to be purified from? The first thing that comes to mind is that non-kosher food was eaten with those vessels, so they need to be made kosher. However, this is already accomplished when the Torah says to put these vessels “through fire”. As is well known from diligent Passover cleaning, vessels are made kosher through the way they are used, so for instance, vessels used with hot food must be koshered with boiling water, etc. This does not require a mikveh. A mikveh is not for physical purification but for spiritual purification.

Some say that the non-Jewish vessels need to be cleansed of the impurity of idolatry. Perhaps they were used in idolatrous ceremonies, or made by a pagan with idolatrous intentions. This makes sense, except that the halakha states (Yoreh De’ah 120:8) that a Jew is actually allowed to borrow dishes from an idol worshipper and use them without immersing in a mikveh!

Others say the vessels need to be purified from the greatest of tumah: death. Indeed, this is the context of the original Torah verses, where Moses and Elazar command the returning warriors to be purified from their contact with corpses, and to purify all the captured belongings as well. The Torah states that the vessels must be “cleansed with sprinkling water”, referring to the sprinkling done with the waters of parah adumah, the red cow. So, immersion might make sense for vessels captured in warfare, but little sense for new dishes purchased from a store. Regardless, the tumah of death cannot be removed in our days anyway since we have no red cow waters.

Complications & Loopholes

The most common explanation for tevilat kelim today is simply that when non-Jewish dishes become Jewish, they must be spiritually purified, much like a non-Jew who converts to Judaism requires immersion. Ironically, though, some halakhic opinions state that a convert does not need to immerse their old vessels! The bigger problem here is that this type of logic can be applied to anything—why stop at dishes and cutlery? Maybe we should immerse our clothes in a mikveh as well? After all, this is precisely what Moses commanded the returning warriors when he said to purify “all garments, leather items” and so on.

And what about vessels that cannot be immersed? Toasters and hot plates, for example, touch food directly, but obviously cannot be submerged in water because they are electrical. Some state that these should be immersed as much as possible, without getting the electrical components wet. Of course, that’s not overly effective since mikveh requires total immersion. This is why others creatively state that such appliances should be “gifted” to a non-Jew and then “borrowed” back permanently!

Speaking of loopholes, anyone who “sells” their chametz dishes on Passover to a non-Jew would theoretically have to take these dishes to the mikveh again! There is even a problem of drinking a beverage from a metal or glass container. Can of pop? Bottle of Snapple? These are non-Jewish vessels! Some ingenious loopholes were created in such cases, including that one should have in mind while purchasing to only buy the contents inside, not the container! (Others maintain it is forbidden, and the liquid must be poured into a kosher cup first.)

Making Sense of the Torah

One can argue that there is no logic to tevilat kelim because it is a chok, traditionally interpreted as a law inexplicable to human reasoning. Indeed, the Torah introduces this command by stating zot chukat haTorah, a preface that only appears two other times: with the red cow, and with the Pesach offering. (In total, the term “chok” is used twenty times in the Torah.) In reality, there is no need to draw such a conclusion. The entire dilemma can be avoided by properly reading the Torah, in context.

Moses told twelve thousand warriors to purify their belongings following a battle. First of all, this was not a mitzvah directed at the entire nation, but to a contingent of soldiers and their loot. Secondly, the command was to purify all things, not just vessels for food. Elazar haKohen clarified what Moses commanded by stating that metal things should be purified with fire, while things that cannot be put through a flame—like wood and leather—should be purified with water. Today, we do not pass newly acquired vessels through fire, nor do we purify wood or leather in a mikveh. Why do we still immerse metal and glass food vessels?

Perhaps the answer requires an entirely different approach. The Baal Shem Tov taught that “God transforms spirituality into physicality; the Jew makes physical things spiritual.” In this light, there is certainly beauty, and meaning, in uplifting our newly-purchased physical vessels, and making spiritual what is otherwise something quite mundane.

 

The Eighth Day of Pesach: Isaac, the Afikoman, and Mashiach ben Yosef

Of the three patriarchs, the holiday of Passover is most intimately tied to Isaac. According to tradition, Isaac was born on Passover. Commenting on Genesis 18:10, Rashi explains that the angels’ visit to Abraham and Sarah occurred on Passover, and the angels promised a son to be born – Isaac – exactly one year from that time. This important detail helps to solve a key chronological problem. Earlier, God had told Abraham that his offspring would be subjugated for 400 years. However, when one makes an accounting of the timeline, they will find that the Jews were only in Egypt for a total of 210 years! How could this be?

Commenting on that verse (Genesis 15:13), Rashi calculates how the Exodus occurred exactly 400 years from the birth of Isaac. Thus, God’s word was perfectly fulfilled, since Isaac was the very first of Abraham and Sarah’s offspring. Although Isaac was not subjugated in the sense that the Jews in Egypt were, nonetheless he was certainly troubled by the Canaanites and Philistines, as the Torah records, and was considered a “foreigner” in the Holy Land throughout his life, since God had not yet officially granted the land to the Jews, nor did Isaac settle it permanently.

Digging further, if Isaac was born on the first day of Passover, then his brit milah (circumcision) would have been on the eighth day of Passover. Though the eighth day is not celebrated in Israel, it is celebrated in the diaspora. According to Chassidic custom, as initiated by the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of Chassidism) the eighth day of Passover is associated with Mashiach. In fact, it is customary to hold a Seudat Mashiach, a “Mashiach Feast” on the final afternoon of the holiday, complete with matzahs and four cups of wine. Just as Passover celebrates the First Redemption (led by Moses), the last day of Passover is meant to represent the Final Redemption (led by Mashiach). And it is only commemorated in the diaspora since, after all, it is diaspora Jewry that needs the Final Redemption and the Ingathering of the Exiles more than anyone.

Finally, during the Pesach seder we have three matzahs to go along with the Pesach platter. It is taught that these three matzahs represent the three patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. One of the fifteen steps in the seder is yachatz, where the middle of the three matzahs is broken in half. The larger half is covered and hidden as the afikoman, while the smaller half remains at the seder table. Thus, the matzah which we break is specifically the one associated with Isaac.

So then, what is the deeper connection between Mashiach and the Redemption, Passover and the Afikoman, and the forefather Isaac?

Who is Mashiach?

The Jewish mystics teach that there are actually two messiahs: Mashiach ben Yosef, and Mashiach ben David. This is derived from a number of texts and principles. One of these is the fact that the Tanakh has a clear pattern when it comes to major national events: first comes a descendant of the matriarch Rachel to usher it in, and then comes a descendant of the matriarch Leah to complete the mission. For example, Yosef (a son of Rachel) came to Egypt first to set the stage, and then came Yehuda (a son of Leah) to prepare the land for the actual arrival of the rest of the family (see Genesis 46:28). First, Joshua (of the tribe of Ephraim, and a descendant of Rachel) brought the Jews into the land of Israel following the Exodus, then Othniel (from the tribe of Yehuda) finished the job of conquering and settling the land. The first king of Israel was Saul (from the tribe of Benjamin, and a descendant of Rachel) and only then came King David (again of Yehuda). Thus, in every major event, we see clearly that first comes a descendant of Rachel to prepare the way and fight the battles, and only afterwards comes a descendant of Leah to finish the job.

In the same way, the Sages teach that first comes Mashiach ben Yosef (a descendant of Rachel), whose mission is to fight all the battles on behalf of Israel, and only after this comes Mashiach ben David (a descendant of Leah), who completes the messianic role. And who is Mashiach ben Yosef? Amazingly, the Sages say that this is none other than Isaac, reincarnated!

Of all the patriarchs and major Torah figures, Isaac is spoken of the least in Scripture. Hardly anything is said of him. It is explained that this is because Isaac has not completed his mission, and his story is not over. He has yet to fight many battles. The Sages permute his name – Itzchak (יצחק) – into the words Ketz Chai (קץ חי), literally that he “will live [again] at the End”. This is one reason why Itzchak (which means “will laugh”) is in the future tense. Isaac is Mashiach ben Yosef, who will come at the End to fight the final battles. Beautifully, the gematria of Itzchak (יצחק) is 208, equivalent to Ben Yosef (בן יוסף), also 208.

This brings us back to Passover and the afikoman. The middle matzah is broken in half. One half – the one associated with the patriarch Isaac – remains on the seder plate, together with the other matzahs that symbolize the other patriarchs. The other half – the larger one – is hidden away, only to be revealed at the very end. This is symbolic of Isaac’s final role as that of Mashiach, whose arrival is also concealed until the very ‘End of Days’. And on the eighth and final day of the Passover holiday – the day on which Isaac was circumcised and entered into the Covenant – we hold a ‘Mashiach Feast’ to celebrate the coming Final Redemption, may it arrive speedily and in our days.

Chag sameach!