Tag Archives: Chemistry

Abraham’s Stardust Children

In this week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, God forges a covenant with Abraham and promises Abraham that his offspring will be as numerous as the dust of the earth (Genesis 13:17) and the stars of heaven (15:5). The Midrash (Lekach Tov) comments on this by stating that “So, too, are [Abraham’s] children: When they rise, they rise as high as the heavens; when they fall, they fall as low as the dust.” Israel is compared to both stars and dust simultaneously. Peering a little further, there is actually a much more profound, scientific connection hiding in this statement.

According to modern scientific understanding, the dust of the earth and the stars of the cosmos are intricately linked. Where did the dust of the earth come from? For that matter, where did all elements of Earth, and its entire mass of material, come from? The scientific answer may at first sound blasphemous, but actually fits neatly with the Torah and the ancient teachings of our Sages. Scientists believe that Earth (and the entire Solar System) formed about 4.5 billion years ago (on the issue of the age of the universe, see here), probably from the remnants of a previous star that exploded in a massive supernova. The supernova resulted in a nebula of dust and gas, that then reformed into new worlds.

Going back to the very beginning, the first element to form in the universe was simple hydrogen, with just one proton and one electron. It remains the most abundant element in the cosmos. In our sun, hydrogen atoms fuse together under immense pressure to form helium, the second element (with two protons and two neutrons). Eventually, as hydrogen will start to run out, even helium atoms will start participating in fusion. This will give birth to the first and lightest metal, lithium (three protons), and then beryllium (four protons), and so on. This process generally keeps going until iron (26 protons), the most stable atom and most abundant metal in the universe. When a star explodes, or when neutron stars merge, even heavier elements may be generated, including gold and silver.

As such, it is believed that planet Earth condensed from the minerals spewed out of an exploding star long ago. The lithium and iron we mine from the ground were once part of a star! In fact, the very atoms that make up our bodies were once part of the stars, too! The Torah tells us that the body of Adam was made from the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7), yet the dust of the earth itself was forged in the stars. With that in mind, we can have quite a literal understanding of God’s statement to Abraham that his children are both dust of the earth and stars of heaven. It also allows us to appreciate the ancient mystical teaching that man is an olam katan, a “mini-universe” or microcosm of the universe (see, for instance, Zohar III, 33b, Ra’aya Mehemna) while the universe is, in turn, an adam kadmon, a “primordial man”.

The big question is: what do we make of these scientific statements? Might they be true? Could Earth have formed from the destruction of previous worlds? Amazingly, our Sages taught exactly that!

Disorder to Order

The Torah states that before God created our world, space was tohu v’vohu and a tehom, a chaotic and unformed abyss. What does this really mean? King Solomon stated in Ecclesiastes 3:11 that God “made everything precisely at its time; even the world…” [gam et ha’olam] In the Midrash, Rabbi Tanchuma explains that this means even the Earth had a specific time when it could be created (Kohelet Rabbah 3:11). Rabbi Abahu then teaches: “We learn from this that the Holy One, blessed be He, would create worlds and destroy them, create worlds and destroy them…” until He finally made a world that “pleased” Him. Rabbi Elazar concludes by suggesting this is alluded to by the great tehom before Earth’s formation, and says this is why God ultimately stated that everything He made was “very good”. God was finally satisfied!

Thus, long ago our Sages already taught what modern science has recently come to realize: our Earth itself was made from the remnants of previous worlds that God had destroyed! It is amazing to think that the wedding ring on your finger—meant to symbolize an eternal bond—is made from gold atoms made by God billions of years ago in a massive cosmic blast, or that the iron coursing through your veins was forged by God in the furnace of an old star. It gives such things immensely more meaning.

On that note, it is important to remember that God programmed the universe with certain unyielding natural laws (as stated, for instance, in Jeremiah 33:25). And God generally follows His own rules, working through derekh hateva, “natural ways”, as our Sages taught. It therefore isn’t surprising that He also generated all the many worlds of the universe through natural means.

A “star factory” nebula in the constellation Aquila

Intriguingly, the last Mishnah in the tractate Uktzin famously states that God made 310 worlds for each tzadik, to be enjoyed in the World to Come. This is based on Proverbs 8:21 where God promises He will reward those who love Him with yesh (יש), “substance”, the value of which is 310. It is also God’s “gift” to the righteous, since the value of “gift”, shai (שי) is 310. Going back to the Midrash above, our Sages imply that God made a multitude of worlds that pleased Him, not just the one which we inhabit now. This is probably referring to all the wonderful worlds He made—through derekh hateva, the laws of nature—for the righteous, 310 each, to inhabit in the future. And for those who like gematria, it is fitting that the value of derekh hateva (דרך הטבע) itself is 310!

A final thought: what can we learn from the notion that Abraham’s offspring are both dust of the earth and stars of heaven? Or, in other words, as the old saying goes, that “we are stardust”? We can learn from this that even if we see ourselves as minute and insignificant, a fleck of dust in the vastness of space, God nonetheless always sees us as His precious, glowing stars.

Shabbat Shalom!

Medicinal Properties of Arba’at HaMinim

‘Sukkot in the Synagogue’ by Leopold Pilichowski (c. 1894)

As we continue to celebrate Sukkot this week and “shake” our arba’at haminim, it is worth exploring the properties of these unique four species. One of the intriguing things about them is that they all happen to be prominent players in medicine. Perhaps most well-known is the bark and leaves of the willow tree (the aravot of the four species), which is the original source for what is today aspirin. The active ingredient in aspirin is acetylsalicylic acid, a synthetic variant of salicylic acid found in high quantities in willow trees. Incredibly, archaeologists have found that teas made from willow were used medicinally as far back as ancient Sumeria (birthplace of Abraham) and ancient Egypt. The ancient Greeks used it to bring down fevers, and it was a staple medicine among Native American tribes.

It was in 1853 that French chemist Charles Frédéric Gerhardt first synthesized acetylsalicylic acid in the lab. The problem was that these types of medicines were very hard on the stomach. In 1897, a Jewish chemist named Arthur Eichengrün, working for Bayer, invented a new process for producing and purifying acetylsalicylic acid. This one was much easier on the stomach and worked extremely well. Thus, aspirin as we know it was born, and is today the most widely-used drug in the world. Things didn’t turn out so well for Eichengrün, though. When the Nazis came to power, they could not tolerate a Jewish inventor for aspirin, so they wiped his name from the history books and instead made sure to credit German scientist Felix Hoffman with the invention. Eichengrün was arrested and sent to a concentration camp. Thankfully, he survived the Holocaust. Altogether, Eichengrün held 47 patents, and also invented Protargol, which was the standard treatment for gonorrhea for over 50 years.

The way that acetylsalicylic acid actually works in the body was only discovered in 1971. It’s main mode of action is by blocking a family of enzymes called cyclooxygenases (COX), key players in the inflammatory pathway. By inactivating these enzymes, aspirin is able to reduce pain and inflammation. It also helps to block the formation of blood clots. More recently, acetylsalicylic acid has been shown to help improve the function of mitochondria—those tiny organelles within each of our cells that powers our bodies.

One of the main uses of aspirin today is to help treat and prevent heart attacks and heart disease, which is the world’s number-one killer. The main cause of heart disease is poor diet, particularly high cholesterol and saturated fats, as well as high sodium which increases blood pressure. Another major cause is smoking. Fittingly, our Sages taught that the aravot parallel the mouth, and resemble the shape of the lips. The purpose of the aravot is to both spiritually rectify the sins of the mouth, as well as to remind us to control what goes in (and out) of our mouths. We ask every morning in birkot haTorah that God should make words of Torah “pleasant-tasting” in our mouths (וְהַעֲרֶב נָא יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ אֶת־דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָתְךָ בְּפִֽינוּ) and this ties directly to the mouth-like aravot (ערבות). We should increase the use of our mouths for words of Torah, and decrease its use for the oral vices that end up harming people.

Myrtle Leaves

The other leaves in the four species, myrtle or hadassim, also happen to contain high amounts of salicylic acid. Additionally, they are rich in various antioxidants. Those mitochondria mentioned above use the oxygen we breathe in the production of energy. More specifically, producing the energy molecule ATP requires the movement of hydrogen ions. To keep those hydrogen ions moving in the right direction, oxygen comes in to bond with them, and pick up a pair of electrons, too, generating water. This is the main reason for why we need to breathe! The primary role of oxygen in the human body is to be an “electron acceptor”, picking up some electrons and some hydrogens so that energy production can continue.

The Electron Transport Chain within the mitochondria in our cells produces most of our energy. Water is generated at Complex IV, where oxygen comes in to serve as the final electron acceptor. Energy (in the form of ATP) is produced at the Synthase pump, driven by the movement of hydrogen ions. 

In this process, however, sometimes the oxygen molecules don’t bond properly, and form dangerous “reactive oxygen species”, or “oxidants”. These free radical oxidants can attack other structures within the cells, causing cellular damage and “oxidative stress”, strongly linked to aging and cancer. Thus, we need anti-oxidants to neutralize these troublesome free radicals. This is why you might see “antioxidants” advertised on the labels of health foods, cosmetics, and other commercial products. The leaves of hadassim naturally contain very high levels of antioxidants.

Throughout history, myrtle leaves have been used medicinally. Today, they have two main uses: One, the essential oil of myrtle is used in aromatherapy and to treat lung illnesses. Myrtle helps to open up the airway and reduce inflammation in the lungs. Second, it is used to treat and help prevent the spread of HPV, a sexually-transmitted disease. It is interesting to point out that our Sages paralleled the hadassim to the eyes. As we read in the Shema, God warns us not to follow after the lustful desires of the heart, which follow the eyes that are easily enticed by inappropriate sights and images. The Torah specifically uses the word zonim, implying sexual immorality, which begins with inappropriate sight. Thus, the use of myrtle leaves in treating sexually transmitted diseases is all the more appropriate!

Date Palms

The kapot tamarim, or lulav, is the “spine” of the date palm, and our Sages paralleled it to the spinal cord of the human. Both the fruit of the tree, and the “hearts of palm” of the lulav are highly nutritious. Their high fibre content was historically used to treat constipation. Recall that the Rambam held constipation to be a major root of poor health, writing in the Mishneh Torah that “Whoever sits comfortably and takes no exercise, holds his waste or has ‘hard’ innards, even if he eats all the best foods and follows the top medicine, all his days will be full of pain and his strength will decline.” (Hilkhot De’ot 4:14-15)

Mitochondria under a microscope.

In ancient Israel, the date palm was the source of honey. As is well-known, when the Torah speaks of Israel being a land flowing with “milk and honey”, it is referring to date honey, not bee honey. Honey is about 80% sugar, our body’s main energy source. In fact, those electrons in the mitochondria mentioned above, which drive the “electron transport chain” to produce our ATP energy, are extracted from sugar! We now see how the main ingredients in aravot, hadassim, and lulav all play a big role within our mitochondria, driving our biological life force.

Dates are also very rich in potassium—50% more than in bananas! Potassium ions play the most important role in the transmission of nerve signals. Every nerve conduction requires an exchange of sodium and potassium. So, it is appropriate that the lulav is compared to the spinal cord, the most important bundle of nerves in the body. Sefer haBahir, one of the most ancient mystical texts, states that not only does the lulav parallel the spinal cord, it also parallels the letter nun sofit (ן), which resembles a spinal cord. The value of the nun is 50, alluding to the 50 Sha’arei Binah, “Gates of Understanding”.


Finally, we have the citrus etrog. As expected, it has a very high vitamin C content, typically considered the most important vitamin in the body. The greatest champion of vitamin C was Nobel Prize-winner Linus Pauling. (Pauling is actually one of just four people to win two Nobel Prizes!) He was also ranked the 16th greatest scientist of all time. It was Pauling who first proposed that vitamin C can combat cold and flu infections. He later took it further and suggested vitamin C as a cure for all kinds of ailments, including cancer. His main work was in using vitamin C to treat heart disease and angina. Today, this method is still referred to as Pauling Therapy, though it remains controversial. Nonetheless, it is quite fitting since, of course, our Sages stated that the etrog parallels the heart!

The other known medicinal use of the etrog (or “citron”, in English) is as an antibiotic. Specifically, it is the rind of the etrog which is thought to contain strong antibiotic properties. This would help to explain why the Torah calls the etrog a pri etz hadar, one of the classic explanations of which is that it is a “long-lasting” fruit that doesn’t spoil quickly. Spoilage is caused by a number of factors, one of which is the proliferation of bacteria. By containing an antibiotic in its rind, the etrog stays fresh much longer than other fruits.

Related to this is that the etrog has an insecticide property. The ancient Greek scholar Theophrastus (c. 371-287 BCE) wrote that it was common to keep etrogim around clothes to repel moths and bugs. Similarly, Pliny the Elder (c. 23-79 CE) wrote in his Natural History that the etrog “is very useful in repelling the attacks of noxious insects.” (A useful tip for those of us who have to deal with wasps and mosquitos in the sukkah!) This is yet another reason for the etrog remaining fresh and long-lasting. Both Theophrastus and Pliny note how the etrog bears fruit all year round, which ties to the final reason for why the etrog is identified as the Torah’s enduring pri etz hadar. Lastly, Pliny mentions that pregnant women would chew on etrog seeds to prevent morning sickness and nausea, fitting neatly with the notion that the etrog is a potent segulah for fertility.

In short, just as the four species are physically healing, they are even more so spiritually healing. As the Zohar famously states, this lower material world is only a reflection of the higher spiritual worlds. Thus, if the four species have potent medicinal and chemical properties in this lower world, their root in the spiritual realms must be all the more powerful and effective. Something to keep in mind as we fulfil each day of Sukkot the mitzvah of netilat lulav.

Chag Sameach!

Israel and the Iron Age

In this week’s parasha, Ekev, Moses describes the rich land of Israel and says it is “a good land, a land with brooks of water, fountains and depths, that emerge in valleys and mountains, a land of wheat and barley, vines and figs and pomegranates, a land of oil producing olives and honey…” This first part of the description is well-known, and the source for the Seven Species of Israel. These are the seven plants that are particularly praiseworthy, and are native to the Holy Land: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates (which were used to make the honey that Moses is speaking of). The Zohar explains that all other species of plants have various angels appointed over them, but God alone oversees the growth and flourishing of the Seven Species (see Zohar Chadash on Ruth, 106a).

What we often overlook is the next part of Moses description: “a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, you will lack nothing in it, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose mountains you will hew copper.” Moses promises the Israelites a land full of iron and copper. This statement is actually just as significant as the Seven Species! What is so special about iron and copper that it was so enticing for Israel? Continue reading