Tag Archives: Behar (Parasha)

Cosmic Shemittot

This week’s double parasha, Behar-Bechukotai, begins: “And God spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I give you, the land shall observe a sabbath to God…” (Leviticus 25:1-2) As is well-known, the Holy Land must be worked for six years, and then left fallow in the seventh “Sabbatical” year, the Shemittah. After seven such cycles, the fiftieth year is the great Jubilee. After explaining the basic peshat meaning of these verses in his commentary, Rabbeinu Bechaye (Rabbi Bechaye ben Asher, 1255-1340) gives an explanation al derekh Kabbalah:

“the land shall observe a sabbath to God…” refers to the [seventh] millennium of “desolation”, which is entirely a sabbath of eternal rest. This is a reference to the World to Come, following the Resurrection… “You shall sanctify the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee…” refers to each of the seven “days” of 7000 years, making a total of 49,000 years, after which the cosmos will return to a state of tohu v’vohu… (Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 25:2-10)

Rabbeinu Bechaye is speaking of the ancient mystical doctrine of the Cosmic Shemittot. Just as there is a 49-year cycle in the Holy Land, the entire cosmos goes through a 49,000-year cosmic cycle. Each of the 7000-year periods correspond to one “day” of Creation. Each period consists of 6000 years of civilization, followed by a resting seventh millennium which is Olam HaBa, the World to Come, corresponding to the delightful and spiritual Shabbat, before restarting a new era of civilization. After 49,000 years, there is a cosmic Jubilee, and the cycle restarts again.

Raphael Shuchat points out that the first mention of this notion goes all the way back to the Second Temple era, to the apocryphal Second Book of Enoch. Recall that Hanokh (“Enoch”) never died, and was transformed into an angel when God “took him” (Genesis 5:23-24). The Book of Enoch is attributed to him, but was not accepted into the official Tanakh canon by our Sages. Nonetheless, the Zohar quotes from the book dozens of times. It was most likely kept outside of the Tanakh, as one of the sifrei hitzonim, because it was too mystical and esoteric.

In the Book of Enoch, we read that God showed Hanokh the entire span of 7000 years, each day corresponding to a millennium. Then “the eighth day will be the first of a [newly] created week, and it thus revolves in a cycle of seven thousand…” (II Enoch 33) The Zohar similarly says there is a civilization span of 7000 years (III, 9b). The Talmud mentions this briefly in several places, too, including Rosh Hashanah 31a and Sanhedrin 97a. In both cases, there is another opinion presented that the Sabbatical millennium is not one thousand years, but two thousand years. This is probably referring to the final Sabbatical and the Jubilee together, since the 49th millennium is a Sabbatical, and then the 50th is the Jubilee, meaning there would be two thousand years of rest at the very end of the cycle. This seems to be the position of the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, “Nahmanides”, 1194-1270) who described the cycle as being a total of 50,000 years, not 49,000 years. He explained (on Leviticus 25:2) that these 50,000 years are the secret of Nun Sha’arei Binah, the “Fifty Gates of Understanding”. And, when the Sages state that God revealed to Moses all Fifty Gates except the last (Rosh Hashanah 21b), it means God showed Moses nearly the entire span—some 49,000 years of hidden history—except for the final fiftieth Jubilee millennium!

This position is also held by the ancient Sefer haTemunah, one of the oldest Kabbalistic texts. The main focus of this book is to explain the mystery of the divine Hebrew alphabet, and the secrets of the shapes of the letters. It is an important work not only for Jewish mysticism, but even halakhah, since it is used as a source for proper Torah scribing. Sefer haTemunah speaks of the cosmic cycle, too, and connects it to the Fifty Gates. Intriguingly, it posits that we are currently in the second Shemittah, meaning there was already a previous era of civilization before ours.

The Sefirot of Mochin above (in blue) and the Sefirot of the Middot below (in red) on the mystical “Tree of Life”.

Now, each of the seven cycles of seven thousand correspond to the seven lower Sefirot, the Middot or qualities. Thus, the first era of civilization was one of Chessed, “kindness” and positivity, while the second era, the one in which we are currently, is Gevurah, “severity” and judgement. This explains why the world we know is so difficult and full of evil and suffering. Similarly, the Kabbalists explain that the Torah manifests itself differently in each Shemittah. Since we are in the Shemittah of Gevurah and Din, the Torah in this iteration manifests itself as being full of laws, restrictions, punishments, and the like. In our reality, halakhah takes primacy. It seems that in the previous era, of Chessed, it was the aggadah that was primary, and not the halakhah, and the Torah was expressed in a much softer manner. According to some later sources, in each Shemittah it is the same Torah with the exact same set of letters, but they are rearranged!

A different opinion is that we are currently not in the second Shemittah, but in the fourth. This is discussed by Tiferet Yisrael (Rabbi Yisrael Lifschitz, 1782-1860) in his Derush Or HaChaim, at the end of his Mishnah commentary on Nezikin. He uses the doctrine of Cosmic Shemittot to explain why scientists find ancient fossils and archaeological remains, reasoning that these must be the remnants of past Shemittah civilizations! He interprets the earlier sources a little differently, and says this is the second Shemittah that has human life, but the fourth Shemittah altogether. He says that this is secretly encoded in the first letter of the Torah: the beit of Beresheet is written large to indicate that we are in the second Shemittah that has human life, and the beit is written with four tagin, “crowns”, to secretly encode that we are in the fourth Shemittah overall. Tiferet Yisrael adds that this is the secret of our Sages’ statement that there were 974 generations before Adam (Chagigah 13b-14a, Shabbat 88b). These are the generations of past Shemittot.

Rabbi Yisrael Lifschitz (1782-1860), “Tiferes Yisroel”

Yet another opinion is that we are already in the seventh Shemittah. This was the preferred choice of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, who went into the subject in depth in Immortality, Resurrection, and the Age of the Universe. Rabbi Kaplan favoured this one because it allowed for a calculation that fit most closely with scientific estimates of the age of the universe. He cited sources that say there were already 42,000 years before Adam was created, putting us in the seventh era of Malkhut. This also makes sense because Malkhut is typically described as being “empty” and “lowly”, with no light of its own, which might reflect the reality in which we exist.

Whatever the case, we have an abundance of Torah evidence going all the way back to the Second Temple era that the notion of Cosmic Shemittot is not only legitimate, but accepted by major authorities. However, the Arizal (Rabbi Itzchak Luria, 1534-1572) seemed to be opposed to this notion, and held that the earlier generations simply misunderstood the spiritual dimensions. There are some today who still cite the Arizal in opposing the notion of Cosmic Shemittot. But, if we are going to be honest and rational, can we really say that all of the greats of the past were wrong? The Ibn Ezra, the Ramban, and Rabbeinu Bechaye could not understand spiritual realities? That Sefer Hanokh (cited countless times in the Zohar) and Sefer HaTemunah (which is also an halakhic text) were mistaken? That even the Sages of the Talmud, and the references in the Midrash (such as Kohelet Rabbah 3:11) and Zohar (including III, 61a-b which explicitly states that the souls of this world existed in previous worlds) can’t be taken at face value? In the big picture of Kabbalah, it’s the Arizal (and the Ramak) against everyone else, including major Rishonim and fundamental ancient texts. Rabbi Kaplan writes:

Since this is not a matter of law, there is no binding opinion. Although the Ari may have been the greatest of Kabbalists, his opinion on this matter is by no means absolutely binding. Since there were many important Kabbalists who upheld the concept of Sabbatical cycles, it is a valid, acceptable opinion. (pg. 6-7)

And the reality is, recent scientific and archaeological findings strongly support the notion of Cosmic Shemittot, too.

The Physical Evidence

Archaeologists have found many structures around the world that date far older than previously thought. The most famous example might be the Great Pyramids of Giza and the nearby Sphinx. Though typically dated to about 4000 years old, evidence suggests that they are much older. The Sphinx, in particular, has many layers of water erosion at its base, suggesting that it has lived through years of rainy weather. In recent millennia, Egypt does not have rain, of course. However, meteorological analysis and satellite scans suggest that Egypt was once part of a massive rainforest that spanned what is now the Sahara Desert. Based on new data, some have suggested the Sphinx is something like 12,000 years old, having been built at a time when Egypt’s weather was rainy and wet. Another well-known example is that of Göbekli Tepe, an ancient city unearthed in Turkey that has been dated back some 11,500 years, and sports the world’s oldest known temple. Similarly, the Tel es-Sultan site in Israel, near today’s Jericho, has been dated back to around the same time. And there are many others.

The Sphinx

Tel es-Sultan near Jericho, Israel

The town of Göbekli Tepe in modern-day Turkey dates back some 11,500 years.

Because of these reasons, some have proposed that we should change our year-counting system to start from the earliest signs of complex civilization, and instead of saying we are in 2023 CE, simply add ten thousand on top and say we are in 12023 HE (Human Era or Holocene Era). This happens to fit quite perfectly with Cosmic Shemittot. If we go with the earliest and most authoritative text—Sefer haTemunah—and say we are in the second Shemittah, then we need to add 7000 to our current Jewish year of 5783, making it the cosmic year 12,783 of the cycle! The archaeological evidence strongly supports Sefer haTemunah, as does the general idea that our civilization is full of war, misery, and suffering corresponding to the second middah of Gevurah, and the notion that the current Torah reality is one of strict halakhah and din.

All of this fits well with the increasingly popular “Younger Dryas” hypothesis positing that great civilizations first emerged at the end of the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago, when we suddenly see rising temperatures and rising sea levels all around the planet. There is even a far-out hypothesis arguing that the moon only entered Earth’s orbit about 12,000 years ago (!) and this may be what caused the drastic changes of the Younger Dryas in the first place.

Truly, there is no reason to stop at 12,000, since we can say that the current 50,000 year cycle is not the first, and there were previous Jubilees as well. (In fact, one might argue that we are in the second Shemittah of the second Jubilee, making our reality a Gevurah sh’b’Gevurah era.) This might explain even older pieces of archaeological and scientific evidence. It is worth mentioning that Earth’s rotation and tilt has its own cycle of about 41,000 years, with a wobble that makes the tilt shift between maximums of 22.1 and a 24.5-degree tilts, with massive repercussions for weather and climate. (Recall that it is Earth’s tilt that gives rise to the seasons.) According to scientists, the last maximum tilt position is estimated to have occurred about 10,700 years ago.

To conclude, the mystical notion of Cosmic Shemittot is not only valid and kosher, but attested to by a large number of ancient sources, including the Talmud and Zohar, and many great Kabbalists and Rishonim. It is absolutely fundamental for making sense of Creation and cosmogony, along with a plethora of scientific, archaeological, and historical findings. While it remains to be seen exactly which Shemittah we are currently in, much evidence supports the earliest position that we are in the second, though it may very well be that this is not the first cycle altogether. Either way, as we approach the end of our sixth millennium, we get closer and closer each day to the seventh Sabbatical millennium of universal rest, holiness, and elevation.

A Brief Summary of Tithes and Charity

An illustration of bringing bikkurim to the kohen (from the Providence Lithograph Company)

This week’s double parasha, Behar and Bechukotai, begins with the laws of Sabbaticals and Jubilees, and ends with some laws related to tithes. We see here the Torah’s incredible concern for public welfare and social justice—far ahead of its time. The Torah outlines a lengthy system of rules to ensure that the impoverished and the disadvantaged are taken care of, that people have equal opportunities, and that both wealth and land is redistributed to address the disparity between rich and poor, which inevitably results in most societies.

We see, for instance, that at the Jubilee year (every 50th), all lands reverted to their original owners. In Biblical times, when a person purchased land, they were really only leasing it for a number of years, no more than the number of years left until the next Jubilee. So, even if a family had become destitute in the intervening years, and had to sell off all of their land, they could rest assured knowing that they would eventually get their ancestral plot of land back, and have an opportunity to rebuild their wealth. This would ensure that the mega-rich do not swallow up land and grow ever richer (as we unfortunately see all too often today, such as Bill Gates being the largest owner of farmland in America, and Mark Zuckerberg buying nearly an entire Hawaiian island despite the protest of locals). Continue reading

An Honest Look at Death and the Afterlife

This week we once again read a double Torah portion, combining the parashot of Behar and Bechukotai to complete the book of Leviticus. The main themes of these parashas are the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, as well as God’s rewards and punishments for those who follow His ways and those who do not.

One interesting thing that the reader will note is that there is no mention of any kind of afterlife. All of the rewards and punishments that are listed are described in wholly physical terms: ample rains and abundant harvests, military victories and secure borders, good food and the feeling of God’s presence – and the opposite of these if the people are sinful. Why is it that the Torah does not mention any kind of reward and punishment in the afterlife? After all, we are accustomed to hearing that this world is nothing but a transient “hallway”, so to speak, while the next world is the real deal, where people receive what they deserve.

More puzzling is the fact that the Torah essentially never mentions the afterlife in explicit fashion. Everything appears to happen in this physical world. Yet, there is certainly a discussion of souls, and many spiritual entities. So, what is the real Torah conception of the afterlife?

The Garden of Eden

'Garden of Eden', by Thomas Cole

‘Garden of Eden’, by Thomas Cole

Typically, it is common to think that those who have passed away are now in the “Garden of Eden”, and this is indeed how Hebrew-speakers often refer to the dead, wishing them menucha (rest) in Gan Eden. But where exactly is this “Gan Eden”?

The Torah is quite clear on the fact that God created the Garden of Eden right here on Earth. The Genesis account describes God’s creation of the world, and all of its inhabitants, and concludes with the planting of a garden in Eden, where the first man and woman are placed. After their sin of consuming the fruit, Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden, and continue their lives elsewhere on Earth. There is no mention anywhere in the Torah of a spiritual Garden of Eden located somewhere in the Heavens!

Conversely, it is common for people to refer to an afterlife of damnation in a place called Gehinnom, typically translated as “hell”. Again, there is no explicit mention of a “hell” in Scripture. Gehinnom itself simply means “the Valley of Hinnom” (or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, Gei Ben Hinnom) which is discussed in the Tanakh as a place right outside the Old City walls of Jerusalem. This is described as a place of sinners and idolaters, outcasts that were expelled from the Holy City. Once again, we see that the place usually thought of as hell is simply a physical place here on Earth.

As Above, So Below

By the times of the Talmudic period, the Jewish Sages had developed a unique cosmic worldview. They saw this material world as only a reflection of the spiritual world. What happened down here reflected, in some way, much greater cosmic events that were happening in the Heavens. Thus, just as there was a Jerusalem down here on Earth, there was a Jerusalem shel ma’alah, a “Jerusalem Above” (see, for example, Ta’anit 5a).

Similarly, just as there was a Garden of Eden – a place of utmost peace and pleasure – here on Earth, there must be a similar one above in the Heavens. And just as there was a Gehinnom – a deep valley of evil – here on Earth, there must be such a place in the Heavens, too.

It appears that the idea of righteous souls moving on to a Heavenly Gan Eden, or wicked souls to a Heavenly Gehinnom, came from this view on the nature of God’s universe.

The Big Afterlife Problem

However, this brings about a very large problem: both the Garden of Eden and Gehinnom are described in physical terms. But, after the body dies and decays, only the soul lives on, and how can the soul experience physical pleasures or pains? Additionally, the soul is described as pure and eternal. Why is it the soul that must suffer for the sins accrued by the body? And why should the soul suffer infinitely for a body that had only such a short, finite existence?

This problem was presented to Rabbi Yehuda haNasi by the Roman Emperor Antoninus nearly two millennia ago (Sanhedrin 91a-b).

Antoninus said to Rabbi: “The body and the soul can both free themselves from judgment. Thus, the body can plead: ‘The soul has sinned, since from the day it left me I lie like a dumb stone in the grave.’ While the soul can say: ‘The body has sinned, since from the day I departed from it I fly freely in the air like a bird.’”

He replied: “I will tell you a parable. To what may this be compared? To a human king who owned a beautiful orchard which contained splendid figs. Now, he appointed two watchmen, one lame and the other blind. [One day] the lame man said to the blind, ‘I see beautiful figs in the orchard. Come and take me upon your shoulders, that we may procure and eat them.’ So the lame strode the blind, procured and ate them. Some time after, the owner of the orchard came and inquired of them, ‘Where are those beautiful figs?’ The lame man replied, ‘Do I have feet to walk with?’ The blind man replied, ‘Do I have eyes to see with?’ What did he do? He placed the lame upon the blind and judged them together. So will the Holy One, blessed be He, bring the soul, place it in the body, and judge them together…”

Rabbi Yehuda replied with a wonderful parable, and concluded that God brings the body and soul together again, and only then judges the person, and bestows upon them their due rewards or punishments.

So, if the body and soul go back together again after death, then there is no “Garden of Eden” or “Gehinnom” in the sense that we might commonly think.

Gate of Reincarnations

The only way that the body and soul can go back together again is if, following death, the soul returns into bodily form. This is the definition of reincarnation. Roughly 500 years ago, the great kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, better known as the Arizal, revealed many secrets of reincarnation, and these teachings were recorded by his primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital, in a text called Sha’ar HaGilgulim (Gate of Reincarnations).

This text describes reincarnations in great detail, and affirms that those who have lived sinful lives are reincarnated into new lives that are very challenging, and in this way have to make reparations for the mistakes of their past. The righteous, too, are reincarnated, since no one goes through life without making some mistakes, and even the most minute of these errors must be repaired. However, such people will enjoy much better lives, and be given the opportunity to fix those minor details from their past.

Of course, proper repentance can nullify any trials that a person must bear due to a mishap from a past life. Thus, free will ultimately trumps everything else. And what happens to those who have completely fulfilled their missions? In that case, there is indeed a “Garden of Eden” of sorts.

(For more on reincarnation, click here to read ‘Everything You Wanted to Know About Reincarnation in Judaism’.)

Resurrection of the Dead

One form of afterlife that Scriptures do mention explicitly is the Resurrection of the Dead. It is taught that sometime after the coming of Mashiach, all of the righteous souls will miraculously come back to life. They will then enjoy the world as it was always meant to be: a Garden of Eden.

Ultimately, this is the role of Mashiach: to return the world to that perfect, primordial state. It is interesting to note how the figure responsible for driving mankind out of the Garden was the Serpent, Nachash (נחש) in Hebrew, a word which has a numerical value of 358; and the figure responsible for returning mankind to the Garden is Mashiach (משיח), a word which also has a gematria of 358 – measure for measure. Thus, the final step for each soul, once its mission is complete, is to be resurrected in the restored Garden of Eden, right here in a new Earth, following the arrival of Mashiach.

We can now understand why Bechukotai does not speak of any spiritual rewards or punishments in an afterlife. All of the rewards and punishments are right here in this world, where body and soul unite as one, as Rabbi Yehuda told Antoninus. We can now also see why no “Heaven” or “Hell” is ever explicitly mentioned in Scripture, and why we never even mention them in our prayers. The Amidah prayer recited thrice daily makes no reference to souls in some Heavenly realm, but does have a blessing for techiyat ha’metim, the Resurrection of the Dead in a future, perfected world.

May we merit to see it speedily and in our days.

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