Tag Archives: Binah

The Genius of Mishnah

This week’s parasha (outside of Israel) is Emor, which begins with God commanding Moses to speak to the kohanim and to teach them. This is one of the key verses having a clear reference to the Oral Torah. Moses relayed not just the five books of the Written Torah, but also many more oral teachings and explanations that were passed down over the millennia. Another source for the Oral Law is Exodus 34:27, where God tells Moses to write down the words of Torah, and then adds that al pi—literally meaning “orally” or “on the mouth”—of these words of Torah, God is making a covenant with us. The Sages point out that this is another major allusion to the Torah sh’b’al peh, the Oral Torah (see Gittin 60b).

The necessity of an Oral Torah is actually self-evident since Torah laws are very brief and usually come with no explanations or details. For instance, we are told numerous times to bind certain signs upon our arms and to tie fringes on our clothes, but there is no description of what these things should look like. Another classic example is Deuteronomy 12:21 where we are told to slaughter animals for consumption “as I have instructed you”, yet no instructions or slaughtering procedures are written anywhere in the Torah. The obvious implication is that Moses relayed many teachings and instructions that were not recorded.

Eventually, those teachings did come to be recorded in the Mishnah. The term Mishnah comes from the verb lishnot (לשנות), “to repeat”, since these laws and teachings were originally learned through constant repetition, to reinforce the knowledge and memorize it crystal clear. Less known is that, since the same exact verb is leshanot (לשנות), meaning “to change”, the Oral Law was not meant to be written down in order to keep it fluid and flexible.* Judaism is always evolving, and halakhah must change under varying circumstances and as new problems emerge. The central idea behind having an Oral Law was so that it would not come to be “set in stone” like the written law. The Torah thus remains fresh in every generation, and open to new ideas, applications, and chiddushim. This is really the beauty of the Oral Torah. (In fact, when the Arizal relates the different aspects of Torah to the mystical Sefirot, he points out that the Mishnah specifically is in Tiferet, “Beauty”, see Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh.)

On a more mystical level, Mishnah (משנה) has the same letters and numerical value as Neshamah (נשמה), “soul”, for while the Written Torah is the “body” of Judaism, the Oral Torah is its inner dimension and true essence. (This is also why it is customary to recite Mishnayot in honour of the dead, to elevate their souls.) It is important to clarify that while the Mishnah is certainly not the entire Oral Torah, it is the first text of the Oral Torah and the foundation for the rest. Continue reading

Ten Sefirot: A Brief History

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

This week, in parashat Yitro, we read the Ten Commandments. As with all other things that are ten in the Torah, the Ten Commandments correspond neatly to the Ten Sefirot. Just as the first three of the Sefirot are on a higher plane, referred as the mochin, the first three of the Commandments are also distinct and relate directly to God (to know there is a God, to have no other gods or idols, and not to take God’s Name in vain). We saw a similar division of ten into groups of three and seven in the Ten Plagues, where the first seven are read in parashat Va’era, and the final three in parashat Bo. Likewise, we find a division of ten into three and seven in the very first case of ten: the Ten Utterances of Creation.

As our Sages famously teach, God created the entire universe through Ten Utterances (Avot 5:1). When we look in the first chapter of Genesis at the account of Creation, we find the expression “And God said” exactly 10 times. It was through these Ten Utterances that God brought the entire cosmos into existence. It is important to note that the last instance of “And God said” (1:29) is really just a continuation of the ninth instance (1:28). The actual remaining Utterance is the first word of the Torah: Beresheet. This word itself was the First Utterance, and was the initial burst of energy that brought a dark universe into existence. The Second Utterance was “Let there be light”, and the Third was “Let there be a firmament”. While the first three clearly involve grand cosmic developments, the remaining seven Utterances all relate specifically to Earth.

Of course, all of the above tens correspond to the Ten Sefirot, the first emanations that emerged out of God’s Infinite Ein Sof. The Ten Sefirot permeate all of existence, which is why we find so many patterns of ten in the Torah and all around us in Creation. The notion of Ten Sefirot is a foundational and inseparable part of Judaism, yet few are aware of where all the information about the Sefirot came from! It is commonly thought that the Sefirot were first revealed by the Zohar, but this is highly inaccurate. Discussion of the Sefirot dates back centuries before the first publication of the Zohar. So, let’s take a brief trip back in time to explore the historical revelation of the Sefirot. Continue reading

Stages of Spiritual Development

Last week, we discussed the distinction between body and soul, and the need to develop each in its own way. The pure soul must be freed of the kelipot that encapsulate and suppress it, while the animalistic body must be refined and strengthened, both externally and internally. We are reminded of this again in this week’s parasha, Ekev, where Moses famously poses “What does Hashem, your God, ask of you?” The answer is to fear God, walk in His ways, to love Him, and to serve Him with all of one’s heart and soul, as well as to fulfill His mitzvot. We are then told to metaphorically “circumcise our hearts” (Deuteronomy 10:16). This, too, is an allusion to the kelipot, those spiritual “foreskins” that must be removed.

What we didn’t discuss last week is how exactly this process of refinement is accomplished. Aside from the general directive to fulfill mitzvot, what specifically needs to be done at each level of spiritual development? How does a person know whether they are in the “nefesh” stage, or the “ruach” stage? Should one focus on “neshamah”, or are they ready for “chayah”? This is what we will examine this week. Continue reading