Tag Archives: Brain

Mishkan & the Kabbalah of Organ Systems

This week’s parasha, Terumah, begins outlining the construction of the Mishkan, the mobile Tabernacle. As is well-known, the Mishkan was a microcosm of the universe, and also paralleled the human body and its components. Commenting on the construction materials listed at the start of the parasha, Midrash HaGadol states:

“Gold” is the soul; “silver”, the body; “copper”, the voice; “blue” [tekhelet], the veins; “purple”, the flesh; “red”, the blood; “flax”, the intestines; “goat hair”, the hair; “ram skins dyed red”, the skin of the face; “tachash skins”, the scalp; “shittim wood”, the bones; “oil for lighting”, the eyes; “spices for the anointing oil and for the sweet incense”, the nose, mouth and palate; “shoham stones and gemstones for setting”, the kidneys and the heart.

At the same time, we find that there were (not surprisingly) ten major components in the structure of the Mishkan: (1) the courtyard, (2) the laver for washing, (3) the sacrificial altar, (4) the inner “Holy” place, and its three components (5) the Table of Showbread, (6) Menorah, and (7) Incense Altar, followed by (8) the Veil, behind which was (9) the “Holy of Holies”, containing (10) the Ark of the Covenant. As with all tens in the Torah, they correspond to the Ten Sefirot. One way to parallel them to the Sefirot is as follows:

In mystical texts, the trifecta of Binah-Tiferet-Malkhut always represent divine space and Divine Presence. These neatly correspond to the three spaces within the Mishkan: the large and mostly empty courtyard is Malkhut, often described as an “empty” vessel, but also identified most closely with the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence of God as manifest in this lowest of worlds. As soon as a person entered the Mishkan, they would sense the Shekhinah in the courtyard. When one passed the next partition, they entered the Holy space, corresponding to Tiferet. Finally, the innermost sanctum of the Mishkan was the Kodesh Kodashim, the Holy of Holies, the space of which parallels lofty Binah.

Before performing their services, the kohanim first needed to wash in the copper laver. The purifying waters of the laver, of course, represent Chessed, always associated with pure water, kindness and positive energy. Following this, the kohanim could bring offerings on the sacrificial altar to atone for sins, representing the realm of Gevurah and Din, harsh severity and judgement, always associated with fire. Fittingly, this is the place of slaughtering and burning in the Mishkan.

Inside the Holy place, there were three structures. First and foremost was the Menorah, its eternal, ever-burning flames representative of eternal Netzach. The Menorah became a symbol of all of Israel, the oldest symbol of Judaism. It is indicative of our flame that shall never be extinguished, and that no matter how much we are oppressed, we emerge victorious. Opposite the Menorah stood the Shulchan, a table with twelve loaves of bread that remained miraculously fresh. This is symbolic of splendorous Hod. The root of Hod literally means to “acknowledge” and to “thank”, and the Torah commands that it is specifically after eating a bread-meal that we must recite birkat hamazon to thank God and acknowledge all the good that He bestows upon us. (Almost all other berakhot requirements are of rabbinic origin.) Last of the three structures in the Holy is the incense altar, facilitating atonement of the gravest sins, especially those in the sexual realm, associated with Yesod.

Then came the Holy of Holies, corresponding to the highest three Sefirot of the Mochin. The kohen gadol entered past the special Veil, paralleling Chokhmah, and stood before the Ark of the Covenant, representing the very Will of God, Keter. The Ark contained the Ten Commandments, inscribed with a total of 620 letters, the gematria of “Keter” (כתר)! From between the Cherubs above the Ark came the voice of God, revealing His Divine Will. Better yet, mystical texts speak of two higher energies emanating from Keter, called Ta’anug (“Pleasure”) and Emunah (“Faith”). This tie in neatly with the two other items in the Holy of Holies: the jar of manna, representing delicacy and Ta’anug; and the almond-rod of Aaron, representing true Emunah in God and His laws. The hidden Sefirah of Da’at was represented by the “Cloud” of God that descended upon the Tabernacle.

Tying this back to the beginning—the Mishkan as a model of the human body—we find that there are also ten organ systems in the human body that work together to keep us alive and functioning. These organ systems correspond to the Sefirot, too. Keter, the origin from which all the divine energy emerges, is often called the “skull”. It corresponds to the skeletal system that gives structure to the entire body, and without which the body would collapse and have no form or function. Chokhmah is the brain and the nervous system (self-explanatory).

Although Binah is a mental faculty, it is also associated with the heart. Today, scientists know that the heart has a neural network of its own, and may indeed play some role in our emotions and unconscious. The heart has even been called “the little brain” by some researchers. Thus, Binah is a fitting place for the circulatory system. Binah is described as the “mother” that gives birth to the Sefirot below and keeps them nourished. Similarly, the circulatory system delivers vital oxygen and nutrients to every cell of the body.

It is intriguing to note here that Binah is considered a “feminine” Sefirah (being Ima, the “mother”) and we find that women have less issues with heart disease and cardiovascular disorders than men do. Meanwhile, Chokhmah is called the “father” and is a masculine quality, and studies show that women are three times more likely than men to have mental health issues! This gives us further evidence for seeing how the Sefirot manifest themselves in the organ systems of men and women.

The main interface between the nervous system and the circulatory system is the endocrine system, controlling the production and release of hormones. The endocrine system doesn’t actually have any major organs of its own, just a set of glands distributed around the body and overlapping with other systems (like the kidneys of the excretory system and the pancreas of the digestive system). The main control centre of the endocrine system is the brain’s hypothalamus, regulating which hormones get released into the bloodstream. Thus, the endocrine system bridges together the circulatory and the nervous systems—without having any specific organs of its own—nicely paralleling the hidden Da’at which bridges Chokhmah and Binah.

Next in the Sefirot is Chessed, associated with water and with excess and overflow (it is also known as Gedulah, “largesse”). This is the little-known lymphatic system of the body, which transports and regulates excess fluids around the body. The lymphatic system is also important in the development and transport of immune cells (lymphocytes) that protect the body from foreign invaders, another link to the protective energy of Chessed. Moreover, Chessed is typically associated with whiteness, like the milky lymph fluid and the immune system’s white blood cells. In the Mishkan, the laver of Chessed served to wash away germs and impurities (both spiritual and physical), another link to the germ-fighting power of the immune system and lymph nodes.

On the other side of Chessed is strict and fiery red Gevurah, “severity” and “strength”. This parallels the red musculature, the heaviest system in the body, and the one that burns the vast majority of the body’s energy. Like Gevurah, it is the muscles that give us strength. Fittingly, the meat of the sacrificial animal that was consumed in the Mishkan was, of course, muscle. Then comes Tiferet, associated with the element of air, and paralleling the respiratory system. Just as Tiferet plays a central role being in the middle of the Sefirot, and balances them all, the respiratory system is in the middle of the body, bringing in vital oxygen for every cell to stay alive. Tiferet is described as “God’s Throne”, where the Divine Light of Creation is concealed, and to which we all aspire. (The people and Land of Israel are rooted in Tiferet, as explored here.) It is the respiratory system that allows us to elevate our souls Heavenward, to have an “out-of-body experience”, whether through meditative breathwork or through (risky) shortcuts like inhaling various substances.

The dual Sefirot of Netzach and Hod are usually associated with the kidneys, and other filtering organs of the body. They neatly parallel the excretory (urinary) system and the digestive system, respectively. Netzach lies below watery Chessed (of the lymphatic system), and the kidneys filter the fluids in our bloodstream and work in tandem with the lymphatic system. In our prayers, we often speak of God “examining” or “testing” our kidneys (bochen klayot), and some might see in this a metaphor that whenever God gives us tests or tribulations, it is only to “purify” us, just as the kidneys do for the blood. This parallels what was said above about the Menorah as a victorious symbol of our ever-burning flame, despite the difficulties of our history.

Similarly, the digestive system of Hod nicely corresponds to the Shulchan and its loaves of bread in the Mishkan. Recall that Hod is the place of berakhot, through which we “acknowledge” and “thank” God—as mentioned above—and the most frequent way to do this is by reciting blessings on food for the digestive system! Hod lies beneath muscular Gevurah, and there is an important connection here: The digestive system depends on a network of involuntary smooth muscles to move food matter through the system (plus an extra layer of muscle around the stomach to “churn”). Without smooth muscles, digestion would be impossible.

In Kabbalistic texts, fiery Gevurah sometimes represents the entire left pillar of Binah-Gevurah-Hod, all of which is associated with redness and severity; while watery Chessed stands for the entire right pillar of Chokhmah-Chessed-Netzach, associated with whiteness and fluidity. With this in mind, it is especially appropriate that in the array of organ systems, the entire left side relies on red muscles (cardiac muscles of the heart for Binah, skeletal muscles for Gevurah, digestive smooth muscles for Hod); while the entire right side relies on fluids (cerebrospinal fluid for the nervous system of Chokhmah, lymph fluids for Chessed, blood plasma for the kidneys of Netzach).

Lastly, we have the reproductive system for Yesod (obviously), followed by the largest and most superficial integumentary system (of skin, hair, and nails) for lowliest and earthliest Malkhut. Just as skin envelops our bodies, curtains of animal skins enveloped the courtyard of the Mishkan, corresponding to Malkhut. In these ways, we can see how the ten organ systems of the human body neatly parallel the Ten Sefirot, and the ten components of the Mishkan—both a macrocosm of the human body and a microcosm of the universe. To summarize:

The Mystical Significance of Bones

In this week’s parashah, Beshalach, the Israelites finally leave Egypt. We read how Moses made sure to take with him ‘atzamot Yosef, the “bones of Joseph” (Exodus 13:19). It is interesting that a bone is called an ‘etzem (עצם), which literally means an “essence”. As an adjective, ‘atzum (עצום) means “strong”, as well as “shut” or “closed up”. This is fitting since bones are the strongest components of the body, and “closed up” within muscles and other tissues. (For those who like numbers, the gematria of עצום is 206, which is the total number of bones in the human body!) There is something especially significant about bones. God made Eve from Adam’s bone, and Adam later declared that Eve is “bone of my bone” (‘etzem mi’atzamai), implying that her essence is like his essence, and now he would finally be happy and no longer feel alone. What is so special about bones that they hold the very essence of a person?

One of the amazing wonders of biology is that each and every cell of our bodies contains our entire genome (except, of course, the reproductive cells). So, the DNA inside the nucleus of eye cells contains the genes that also program toenails, and the toes have the DNA of the retinal proteins in our eyes! It remains one of the great mysteries of biology how cells are able to control exactly which genes are turned “on” or “off” in every cell, and how they make sure that eyes don’t have nails, and nails don’t grow eyes. In our adult bodies, most cells have already been differentiated into something specific (like eyes or toes), but there is one place where cells remain undifferentiated, and could become anything. These are called stem cells, and they exist mainly within our bones. Here in the bone marrow, we do indeed find our ‘etzem, the core essence of who we are, still undifferentiated and full of potential to become anything.

This explains why God made Eve from Adam’s bone specifically, as if He took some of Adam’s undifferentiated stem cells to create Eve! This is precisely how a modern-day scientist experimenting with genetic engineering or organ printing would do it. Better yet, when scientists and surgeons need to extract bone marrow for stem cell transplants today, the rib bone is actually a great place to get them, since they are near the surface and easily accessible, with little meat around them. (I know that some people will quote a different opinion from our Sages, as in Berakhot 61a, that Eve was “split” from a two-faced Adam, or that she was made from his “tail”, but the rib opinion makes a great deal of sense from a scientific perspective.) In any case, when we remember that our bones contain our undifferentiated cells and our untampered DNA, we appreciate the beauty of divine Hebrew in calling a bone an “essence”.

Scientifically speaking, the human body has four main types of tissues: bones are a type of connective tissue, and then there is muscle tissue, nervous tissue, and epithelial tissue. The Torah, too, speaks of four types of tissues: bones, plus bassar (meat), gidim (nerves), and ‘or (skin), neatly paralleling the four biological categories. We know that all fours in the Torah—such as the four mystical universes, the four Pardes aspects of Torah study, and the four letters of God’s Ineffable Name—match up and correspond to each other. We can link these up yet again with the four tissue types, to see once more the divine anatomy with which we were created:

Skin represents the surface level of Torah study, pshat (פשט), corresponding to the lowest realm, the physical and superficial Asiyah (as well as the lowest level of soul, the nefesh). Interestingly, the word in Hebrew to undress, ie. to remove one’s surface garments and reveal the skin, is lehitpashet (להתפשט)!

Beneath the skin is muscle, the bulkiest and heaviest part of the body, representing the sub-surface level of Torah study, remez, and the angelic realm of Yetzirah, as well as the next level of soul, ruach. The ruach is typically associated with the heart, also a muscle. With this we can understand why bassar (בשר), “flesh” or “meat”, shares a root with revealing news, levasser (לבשר)—for what is levasser but to reveal something currently hidden and as yet unknown? Levasser is to give more information beyond the obvious surface pshat that is already known! Moreover, we can now better understand why the Torah specifically uses the term yetzirah to describe the creation of Adam’s body (Genesis 2:7), and the command later for him to specifically become one bassar with his wife (2:24).

Going onwards, the muscles are innervated and controlled by nerves, paralleling drash, the metaphorical and allegorical level of Torah study, and the higher realm of Beriah, along with the neshamah level of soul. The neshamah is seated in the brain, the largest bundle of nerves in our body.

Finally, the inner-most part of the body is the bone, representing sod, the deepest part of Torah and its very essence. This is the level of soul called chayah, fitting because our Sages taught that Eve (made from Adam’s bone) was originally called Chayah, and only after the consumption of the Fruit did she become Chavah (see Kli Yakar on Genesis 3:20). The bone-sod level corresponds to the highest realm of God’s pure emanation, Atzilut. (The pure white colour of bone symbolically adds to this, along with the alliteration between Atzilut and ‘atzamot!) Atzilut is the place of pure, unadulterated light. Light is אור, with a value of 206, again like the total number of bones in the human body. We see a beautiful phonetic relationship between the surface level of skin, ‘or, spelled עור, and the deepest-most level of bone, corresponding to secret light, or, אור. (A word for an even more profound secret is raz, רז, with a value of 207, going one step further.) Without bones, the body would fall apart into a shapeless mass, just as would Torah without sod. (The Chida, Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai [1724-1806] pointed out that if you take the sod out of Pardes [פרדס], you are left with pered [פרד], a mule!)

And what of the hidden-most “fifth” part—the “crown” atop the Yud of God’s Name and the yechidah soul, paralleling the most mysterious and mystical Adam Kadmon? Perhaps it’s the DNA itself, the very code that gives rise to all four tissue types of our bodies.

To summarize:

A final thought: Damage to the skin often heals back to the way it was before. Muscle and nerve damage is much harder to reverse, and sometimes irreparable. Bones, however, tend to heal back even stronger than they were. There is a wonderful lesson here for each of us, both individually and collectively as a nation: If something hurts us deeply and damages our very essence, we should bounce right back and recover, growing even stronger than we were before, so that our inner essence shines brighter than ever.

Shavua Tov and Happy Tu b’Shevat!

For more on ‘The Divine Anatomy of the Human Body’, see here.

That Purim When Rava “Killed” Rabbi Zeira

‘Two ancient Jewish sages studying and ascending to Heaven’ an image generated for me (in just seconds!) by Midjourney AI (Artificial Intelligence) software.

The Talmud famously quotes the sage Rava as teaching that one should imbibe wine on Purim ad d’lo yada, until one does not know the difference between “cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai” (Megillah 7b). This is a bizarre statement, because a Jew is never supposed to be so heavily under the influence. Indeed, the Talmud continues right after to tell a story of how one Purim, that same sage Rava got so drunk that he seemingly “killed” Rabbi Zeira! All was well though because, great sage that he was, Rava resurrected Rabbi Zeira back to life. The short passage ends by saying that the following year, Rava invited Rabbi Zeira to another Purim feast, and Rabbi Zeira politely declined, saying “miracles don’t happen all the time!” Nothing more is said, leaving the reader scratching his head. What really happened between Rava and Rabbi Zeira?

The simplest reading suggests that the Talmud is trying to disqualify Rava’s opinion. It was Rava who suggested that one should get really drunk, so the Talmud right after describes how Rava himself got so drunk that he ended up murdering someone. Lesson: don’t get drunk on Purim! More ironic still, it was Rava who taught, elsewhere, that one shouldn’t even look at wine, since consuming wine could lead to bloodshed! (Sanhedrin 70a) It is most likely that he only taught this after that infamous Purim incident, when he learned his lesson.

The simple solution above works, but doesn’t answer the big mysteries: why did Rava phrase his teaching that one should not know the difference between Haman and Mordechai? To not be able to differentiate at all between good and evil seems almost impossible, even when totally under the influence. Second, how could a tremendously righteous and wise rabbi like Rava kill another person? This, too, seems impossible, even if he was completely drunk. Finally, if Rava had the power to resurrect another person, why did Rabbi Zeira fear to celebrate Purim with him the following year? Surely Rava wouldn’t make the same mistake again, and even in the extremely unlikely event that he did, couldn’t Rava just revive him once more anyway? To solve these problems, we have to look deeper.

As discussed in the past (see ‘The Secret Behind Wearing Masks and Getting Drunk’ in Garments of Light, Volume Two), the real reason to drink wine on Purim is only to be able to understand Torah on a more profound level. One of the effects of alcohol is that it increases levels of (and/or acts like) the neurotransmitter GABA, an inhibitor which shuts things off in the brain. When one drinks a little bit, GABA starts to shut down processes in the outer cortex and prefrontal cortex of the brain. This includes things like motor function, decision-making, and analysis, which serves to remove various inhibitions and restraints one has, often making a person “softer”, more open and more loving, and able to see things as being more attractive. When applied to Torah, a little bit of wine can help a person notice things they never did before, or come to new realizations. Indeed, GABA is also associated with the formation of new neural connections. And, with their normal analytical mind suppressed, a person may be able to think differently than their usual modes of reasoning, opening up the possibility to chiddushim. (With too much alcohol though, GABA levels start to go up deeper and deeper into the brain, and if it gets all the way to the brain stem—which controls vital functions like breathing—it can become fatal.)

This explains why Rava would teach that drinking wine in moderation can make a person wise (Sanhedrin 70a). Our Sages similarly taught that nichnas yayin, yatza sod: when one drinks wine, “secrets come out” (Sanhedrin 38a). The traditional way to understand this statement is that a person who drinks alcohol is likely to run their mouth and reveal embarrassing secrets. On a deeper level, however, it means that a person who drinks a little bit of alcohol may be able to uncover some new Torah secrets. They may be able to see things on a more profound level. For instance, within the phrase nichnas yayin, yatza sod is a mathematical secret where the value of “wine” (יין) is 70, as is the value of “secret” (סוד). Seventy comes in and seventy comes out!

In the same way, when Rava taught that one should drink until they don’t know the difference between “cursed is Haman” (ארור המן) and “blessed is Mordechai” (ברוך מרדכי), he really meant to look beyond the surface and see that, in gematria, these two statements are exactly equal! (Both add up to 502.) Mordechai is the force of goodness that perfectly neutralized Haman’s evil. So, it’s not that Rava said a person should get smashed on Purim, he meant that a person should drink just enough to learn Torah better and uncover its secrets. With this in mind, we can understand what happened between Rava and Rabbi Zeira that fateful Purim.

Basic Gematria Chart

Ascending to Heaven

As we might expect, when two sages get together on Purim, they are not getting together simply to party. They surely used it as an opportunity to pursue a higher spiritual endeavour. Purim, like all holidays, is when spirituality is heightened and the Heavens are more accessible. What Rava sought to do, with Rabbi Zeira’s help, is nothing less than ascend to the upper worlds. There is a long tradition of a pair or group of sages getting together to accomplish such feats. Surely the most well-known is the story of the Four Who Entered Pardes:

The Sages taught: Four entered “the orchard” [pardes], and they are: Ben Azzai, and Ben Zoma, Acher, and Rabbi Akiva… Ben Azzai glimpsed and died, and with regard to him the verse states: “Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of His pious ones” [Psalms 116:15]. Ben Zoma glimpsed and was harmed, and with regard to him the verse states: “Have you found honey? Eat as much as is sufficient for you, lest you become full from it and vomit it” [Proverbs 25:16]. Acher “cut the saplings”. Rabbi Akiva came out safely. (Chagigah 14b)

Long before Rava and Rabbi Zeira, Rabbi Akiva led a group of four to ascend to the Heavenly “orchard”. Through various Kabbalistic means, the souls of the four wise men went up to the upper worlds, and the Talmud even describes some of the incredible things they saw. It was so shocking that Acher, previously known as Rabbi Elisha ben Avuya, “cut the saplings” and became a heretic. Ben Azzai’s soul never returned, while Ben Zoma went mad. Only Rabbi Akiva survived the experience and came out whole.

In his Ben Yehoyada, the Ben Ish Chai (Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, 1835-1909) explains that this is precisely what happened to Rava and Rabbi Zeira! They were learning some really deep stuff and Rava was teaching Rabbi Zeira such great mystical secrets that his soul literally left his body and ascended heavenward. Rava was able to then draw Rabbi Zeira’s soul back down to this world and revive him. The Ben Ish Chai connects this to what happened at Mount Sinai, when the entire nation “died” and was “resurrected”, because God’s revelation was so intense. With this in mind, I believe we can properly understand why the Talmud uses a unique word in this passage:

Another version of ‘Two ancient Jewish sages learning Torah and ascending to Heaven’ generated by Midjourney AI

The standard Aramaic term for “killing” in the Talmud is katal (קטל). Yet here, the Talmud doesn’t use that word, but uses shecht (שחט) instead. This word is, of course, the one used in reference to the kosher slaughter of an animal, for meat consumption. So, what does it mean that Rava shechted Rabbi Zeira? We must remember that the purpose of shechitah is not to just kill the animal. Rather, shechitah is the mechanism through which the animal’s soul is able to return to Heaven. On a Kabbalistic level, it functions as a tikkun for the animal’s soul, allowing it to ascend upward. This is precisely what Rava did to Rabbi Zeira, by extracting the soul out of his body and elevating it to the upper worlds, giving him an “out-of-body” experience. I think this is the real reason the Talmud uses the term shecht!

To go back to our three starting questions: 1) Rava did not say one should be drunk out of their minds, rather he taught that one should drink a little wine in order to learn better and be able to unravel Torah secrets. 2) Rava never literally killed anyone, God forbid, but simply elevated the soul of Rabbi Zeira through the depth and breadth of his Torah teachings. 3) Rabbi Zeira did not wish to have another “out-of-body” experience with Rava the following year simply because he knew how perilous such a journey might be. After all, Ben Azzai’s soul was so happy up there that he never returned to Earth. So, it’s not so much that Rava wouldn’t be able to revive Rabbi Zeira again, but that Rabbi Zeira worried he might not wish to return!

It must be mentioned here that there is an alternate way to read the Talmud’s concluding words in this passage. Since the Talmud does not identify who the “he” is, some people read it to mean that it was Rabbi Zeira who asked for another Purim party with Rava—having had such an awesome experience the previous year—and it was Rava who declined, since he was not sure if he could revive Rabbi Zeira again! Whatever the case, we must remember that a Jew need not resort to chemical substances for spiritual elevation; Torah study itself can be far more potent.

Chag Sameach!