Tag Archives: Chessed

The Hidden Geometry of Pirkei Avot

Between the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot it is customary to read one chapter of Pirkei Avot on each of the six Sabbaths. While the plain text of the Mishnaic tractate Avot is already full of significant statements that can be meditated on at length, a closer look reveals much more beneath the surface. One thing that becomes clear is that each chapter has its own unique structure and essence. When it comes to Chapter One, we find an obvious pattern—a hidden geometry based on a fundamental Kabbalistic principle. As is well-known, the central concept of Jewish mysticism is the framework of the Ten Sefirot. These are arranged in three columns, and in three rows:

The most important of the three rows is the middle one; composed of Chessed on the right, Gevurah on the left, and Tiferet in the centre. In fact, mystical texts often see the entire right column as an extension of Chessed, and the entire left column as Gevurah, and the entire middle column as Tiferet. The dichotomy between Chessed and Gevurah permeates Jewish writings, both mystical and plain. For example, in Jewish law one must put on their right shoe first and their right sleeve first, and just about everything is done with the right side first—to favour the side of Chessed, kindness. This is also why the right tefillin strap is longer than the left, and why we wash the right hand first in netilat yadayim. We favour the right because the left is Gevurah, “restraint” or “severity”, also known as Din, “judgement”. The left is a more “negative” quality, and is also associated with the impure forces of the Sitra Achra, along with the evil inclination. We favour the right in order to overpower the left.

Balancing these two is Tiferet in the middle, also referred to as Rachamim, “mercy” or “compassion”, as well as Emet, “truth”. Too much Chessed is not good, just as too little Gevurah is not good. A person should judge themselves regularly in order to iron out their own weaknesses and improve. And a person should not be too kind and easy-going, for then they might become a pushover and get taken advantage of. The true path is Tiferet, where severity is mitigated by kindness—hence the term Rachamim, or mercy (for more, see ‘The Meaning of Tiferet’). This is actually where many practices in Judaism come from.

For example, it is customary to add a few drops of water to the Kiddush cup of wine. This is because the red, bitter wine represents Gevurah, while the clear, life-giving water represents Chessed. Adding water serves to “sweeten the judgement”, and brings balance to the opposing forces. For the same reason, Israel has three patriarchs: first came the overly hospitable and generous Abraham, who was Chessed; then came the tough, reclusive Isaac (whose relationship with God is described as pachad, “fear”), who was Gevurah; only then came the wholesome Jacob to balance the previous two. Due to his measured approach, it was Jacob who merited becoming “Israel” and fathering the nation. Abraham leaned just a bit too far to the right, while Isaac was just a bit too far on the left. In Jacob, God had the perfect balance. Fittingly, our tractate is called Avot, literally “patriarchs”, so there is an obvious allusion to our three patriarchs here. Indeed, we find that the first chapter is built all around such threes.

Truth in Threes

The Kabbalistic trifecta described above is not just a mystical idea, but is seen as the foundation for all of Creation. It represents the cosmic balance of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Three is a most special number, and the Talmud (Shabbat 88a) points out that God “gave a three-fold Torah to a three-fold people through a third-born, on the third day, in the third month.” There are three parts to the Holy Scriptures (Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim), and three parts to the Jewish people (Kohen, Levi, Israel), and Moses was a third-born child (after Miriam and Aaron), and the Torah was given on Sinai after three days of purification, in the third month of Sivan. All of these threes reflect the mystical trio of Chessed, Gevurah, and Tiferet.

Similarly, we see that many statements in Pirkei Avot are relayed in three clauses. In fact, every single verse in the first chapter of Pirkei Avot is split into three. When further examining each verse, we see how the Sages clearly paralleled each of their three clauses to one of the three Sefirot. The first teaching comes from the men of the Great Assembly who taught: “Be cautious in judgement, raise many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah.” The first explicitly speaks of din, “judgement”, referring to the Sefirah of Gevurah. The second is about having many students, just as Chessed represents abundance (while Gevurah is restraint), and just as Abraham was famous for having many students (while Isaac, our Sages say, only had one). The last clause is about the Torah, and the Kabbalists always speak of the Torah as emanating from the central Sefirah of Tiferet, or Emet.

In the next verse, Shimon haTzadik teaches that “the world stands on three things: on the Torah, on the service of God, and on acts of kindness.” Once more, the parallel to the three Sefirot is clear: kindness is Chessed, service (avodah, literally “labour”) is Gevurah, and the Torah is Tiferet. Shimon’s student Antigonus taught: “Do not be as servants who serve their master for the sake of a reward; rather, be as servants who serve their master not for the sake of a reward; and may the awe of Heaven always be upon you.” The one who serves his master (or Master) only out of obligation and fear is in the difficult realm of Gevurah, while the one who serves his master out of love is, of course, in Chessed. Whatever the case, one should never forget the truth of who the real Master is, and have the awe of Heaven upon them (Tiferet).

Then comes Yose ben Yoezer: “Let your home be a meeting place for the wise; dust yourself in the soil of their feet, and drink thirstily of their words.” The wise, like the Torah, stem from the Sefirah of Tiferet. One should roll around in the dust of their feet (meaning to humble one’s self before them, which is Gevurah) and drink thirstily (evoking water and abundance, both symbolic of Chessed).

His partner, Yose ben Yochanan, taught: “Let your home be wide open, and let the poor be members of your household, and do not engage in excessive conversation with the woman…” To have one’s door open is to be hospitable—Chessed. To remember the poor, who are undoubtedly experiencing tremendous din upon them, is Gevurah. We have already discussed in the past the real meaning of not speaking excessively to “the” woman. Rabbi Yose explains that this will ultimately lead a man to “neglect the study of Torah”—Tiferet.

Yehoshua ben Perachiah then famously says: “Assume for yourself a master, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every man to the side of merit.” One’s master will (hopefully) lead them to the balanced life and teach them truth—Tiferet; a friend is a companion in Chessed; judging others favourably is the right way to approach Din and Gevurah.

Nitai haArbeli speaks next: “Distance yourself from a bad neighbor, do not cleave to a wicked person, and do not abandon belief in retribution.” While one should always be kind to their neighbours, they should also be weary of the bad apples. Remember, too much Chessed is not a good thing! One should certainly distance from the wicked person (who is attached to that negative Left Side). And no matter how hopeless it may seem (especially now with what’s going on in the world), there will in fact be a great reckoning to come, just as the Torah promises—do not lose hope in this truth! The “era of Tiferet” will soon be upon us, so don’t abandon belief in divine retribution.

Yehuda ben Tabbai then says that one should not act like a lawyer (Chessed), and one should be neutral when judging (Gevurah), and once judgement is passed one should see both litigants as righteous since they have accepted the truth (Tiferet). His colleague Shimon ben Shetach similarly teaches that a judge should be diligent in questioning witnesses in order to reach the correct verdict (Chessed), though a person should be restrained in their speech and careful with every word (Gevurah), lest their speech lead to the proliferation of falsehood (the opposite of Tiferet and Emet).

One can continue in this manner for the rest of the chapter and unravel the three-part structure of every phrase, with clear allusions to Chessed, Gevurah, and Tiferet each time. The very last verse mirrors the first, and gives the most explicit reference to these three Sefirot. In the beginning, Shimon haTzadik told us that the world stands on three things, and now at the end Shimon ben Gamliel tells us the world endures through three things: Din, Emet, and Shalom, three alternate names for Gevurah, Tiferet, and Chessed, respectively. In this way, we can understand each line of the first chapter of Avot on a far more profound level.

Shabbat Shalom!

The Kabbalah of Fingers and Toes

The essay below is an excerpt from the newly-released third volume of Garments of Light, available here (and now on Amazon here). 

In parashat Tzav, we read about the many details of the sacrificial procedures. One of the strange practices described is that Moses took some of the blood of the sacrifices and smeared it on the right ear, the right thumb, and the right toe of the kohanim (Leviticus 8:23). This procedure was later replicated by the kohanim when purifying others (Leviticus 14). What is its significance? One beautiful explanation is given by Rabbeinu Bechaye (1255-1340).

He begins by saying that the universe God created has three domains: the “world of angels”, the “world of spheres”, and the “lower world” which we inhabit. The highest world is mostly spiritual, while our lower world is mostly physical. In between is the cosmos, the “world of spheres”, referring to all the stars and planets. Moses constructed the Mishkan to mirror the three parts of Creation. The inner-most Holy of Holies corresponded to the world of angels; then the Holy space around it to the world of spheres; and the courtyard within the Mishkan to the lower world.

Outlines of the Mishkan, with the inner “Holy of Holies” (Kodesh haKodashim), the antechamber known as “the Holy” (Kodesh), and the outer courtyard (chatzer) with the sacrificial altar.

Similarly, since man is an olam katan, a microcosm of the universe, the human body also has three parts: head, upper body, and lower body. The head corresponds to the highest worlds, and hence this is where divine speech emerges from—speech containing the very powers of Creation, just as God spoke the cosmos into existence. The upper body, containing the heart that gives life to the whole body, corresponds to the world of spheres. Just as the heart is intertwined with the entire body, and circulates blood and nutrients all around, so too is the world of spheres entirely intertwined, with spheres orbiting around other spheres along precise paths in a dance held together by gravity (and other forces). Finally, the lower body from the waist down corresponds to the earthly world, as expected. With this in mind, we can better understand the procedure of the ear, thumb, and toe.

Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that the blood on the ear of the head corresponds to (and rectifies) the world of angels, the blood on the thumb of the upper body corresponds to the world of spheres, and the blood on the toe of the lower body corresponds to the lower world. He also mentions how these correspond to the soul. Recall that there are three major levels to the soul, the lowest being the animalistic nefesh, above it the more spiritual ruach, and the highest being the intellectual neshamah. The nefesh corresponds to the lower body, the ruach to the upper body, and the neshamah is seated in the brain. Thus, the sacrifice is able to atone for the entire soul, and for the entire body, as well as rectifying every aspect of the universe and of God’s Creation.

Souls and Senses

Rabbeinu Bechaye continues further on in his commentary to explain how the fingers are connected to the senses. He states that, of course, every organ and body part has a specific purpose, and nothing in God’s design is superfluous. (Classic case: for decades it was thought that the appendix is useless and an unnecessary “vestigial organ” that can be removed without a second thought. Today we know that the appendix does, in fact, play an important role in the digestive system.) The sense of taste requires the mouth and Rabbeinu Bechaye points out that people typically clean their teeth and mouth with their thumbs or thumb-nails. The sense of smell is in the nose, and people typically clean their nose with their index finger. The sense of touch is associated mostly with our hands, and people tend to feel things and sense textures by using their middle finger (or rubbing something between the thumb and middle finger). The ring finger is commonly used to clean and rub one’s eyes. Finally, the small pinky finger is the right size to clean the ear. In this way, every finger is connected to one of the five senses, and every finger can be used to clean the organ of that particular sense!

Rabbeinu Bechaye stops here, but there is more to be said. Although we typically speak of three main souls (nefesh, ruach, and neshamah), there are two more levels to the soul (sometimes described as the “neshamahs of the neshamah”) called chayah and yechidah. This complete array of five soul-levels further corresponds to the five fingers, and to the five senses. The short thumb is the lowest nefesh. As the lowliest “animal” soul, it sits separately from the other fingers. The nefesh is the one that always remains with the body, while the other parts are able to migrate. We learn, for instance, that when one is asleep the four higher souls can wander, while the nefesh always remains in the body (otherwise the body will not survive). Moreover, the Torah always says the nefesh is contained within the blood, and this is why meat must be drained of all blood before being consumed. We can now better understand why the blood of the sacrifice had to go specifically on the thumb of the person, and not any other finger.

The ruach part of the soul is the most “active”, and is the one that animates a person. Fittingly, it corresponds to the index finger, which is the most active and most-used of the digits. The biggest and longest of the fingers naturally corresponds to the biggest part of the soul, the neshamah. The ring and pinky fingers are the least-used, just as the chayah and yechidah are the loftiest and least accessible. The chayah is associated with one’s aura, the only part of the soul that might be perceived visually, so it neatly fits with the ring finger that is associated with eyes and vision. (The chayah plays an important, albeit subtle, role in the relationships and interactions between people so it is also appropriate that wedding rings are typically worn on this finger!)

The highest level of soul corresponds to the pinky finger and to the sense of hearing. That might explain why Moses’ final song to his people, the climax of his prophecy right before his passing, was Ha’azinu, literally charging the people “to listen”. And it might explain why the most powerful dictum in all of Judaism, the Shema, similarly commands the nation “to hear”. And it might further explain why the Talmud often introduces a new teaching with the words ta shma, “come and hear”. To summarize:

Left and Right

In Jewish thought, the right side is always associated with positivity and Chessed, kindness, while the left side is associated with Din and Gevurah, judgement and restraint. In mystical terms, the right side represents the realm of goodness and holiness, while the left side is commonly referred to as the Sitra Achra, the “other side”, the realm of impurity and evil. Indeed, we find that in many languages and cultures, the right side is associated with goodness and correctness (like being “right” in English) while the left is associated with evil. In Latin, for instance, the word for “left” is sinister! In Hebrew, there is a similar connection between the word “left”, smol, and the wicked angel that embodies evil, Samael. In Russian, something described as being “left” is a fake or a knock-off. Throughout history, being left-handed was perceived as somehow inappropriate, and left-handed people were often forced to use their right hands instead.

This is certainly unnecessary and, needless to say, there is nothing wrong with being left-handed! All humans were endowed with two hands, left and right, and on a mystical level they are simply meant to represent the two sides within Creation. This ties back to the gift of free will, with the hands standing as symbols of our ability to choose. The ultimate choice is whether to believe or not; whether to serve God and fulfil His commands, or not. Our Sages famously declare that “all is in the hands of Heaven [hakol b’yadei shamayim], except the fear of Heaven” (Berakhot 33b), while King Solomon taught that “death and life are in the hand of the tongue”, mavet v’chayim b’yad lashon (Proverbs 18:21). Over and over again, we see the hands used as symbols of choice between good and evil, between right and left, holiness and unholiness. Just as we have the power to use our hands, we have the power to subdue evil and act with goodness and kindness.

Thus, altogether the ten fingers of both hands embody all aspects of Creation. The ancient Sefer haBahir explains that the ten fingers correspond to the Ten Sefirot, as well as the Ten Utterances of Creation (see #124 and 138). Moreover, the Bahir says this is why kohanim have to arrange all ten fingers in that particular shape when blessing the congregation, thereby channeling all Ten Sefirot and activating all aspects of Creation. In later Kabbalistic texts, we are taught that the right thumb and index finger are Keter and Chokhmah, while the left thumb is Binah. The right middle finger is Chessed, the left index finger is Gevurah, the right ring finger is Tiferet, the left middle finger is Hod. The right pinky is Netzach, the left ring finger is Yesod, and the left pinky is Malkhut. The five Sefirot of Keter, Chokhmah, Chessed, Tiferet, and Netzach veer to the right, while the five Sefirot of Binah, Gevurah, Hod, Yesod, and Malkhut veer to the left. (We might learn from this yet another good reason for the common practice of wearing a wedding ring on the left ring finger, since it corresponds to Yesod, the domain of intimacy and reproduction.)

All of this can help us further appreciate the power of netilat yadayim and mayim achronim. The fingers link up to all aspects of our bodies, our senses, our souls, and even the cosmos at large. Thus, when we purify them correctly with life-giving waters, the unseen cosmic effects of these rituals are truly monumental.

What about the feet and toes?

Upper and Lower Worlds

The prophet Isaiah tells us that God created the upper worlds with His hands as He “measured the waters with a hand’s hollow, and established the Heavens with a little finger [zeret].” (Isaiah 40:12) The Earth, meanwhile, is described as God’s “footstool” (Isaiah 66:1). Thus, the hands and the “upper fingers” of the body represent the upper spiritual worlds, while the feet and the “lower fingers” of the body represent the lower material world. Indeed, the Zohar (I, 20b-21a) tells us that when we look at the reflection of the flame on our fingernails during Havdallah, we should meditate upon the higher spiritual worlds that the fingers of the hands represent. (More specifically, just as God told Moses that he could only see God’s “back”, but not His face, so too do we look only at the “backs” of the fingers, the fingernails!)

Interestingly, with this information we may be able to understand—from a mystical perspective—the difference in arrangement of fingers between the hands and the feet. On the hands, the biggest finger is the middle one, corresponding to the neshamah, while on the feet, the biggest finger is the toe, corresponding to nefesh. This further reinforces the notion that in this lower world (represented by the feet), the lower animalistic nefesh dominates. In the upper worlds (represented by the hands), it is the spiritual and lofty neshamah that is supreme. Unlike with the hands, the big digit on the feet is not separated from the rest of the toes—the nefesh seems to enjoy equal status with the other souls! On the hands, though, there is a clear distinction, mirroring the realities of the upper worlds.

Finally, the feet are grounded in the impurities of this lowly world. They are the coarsest parts of the body, and often the filthiest. The generation of Mashiach is compared to the feet, and the time before Mashiach is referred to as ikvot haMashiach, literally the “heels of the Messiah”. Like the feet, the people of this generation tend to be coarse and lowly, materialistic, lacking true spirituality. At the same time, however, the feet are among the strongest parts of the body, and can withstand tremendous weights and pressures. The feet can bear the greatest burdens, and only the feet can move us steadily onwards towards the final destination, the Messianic Age. Most beautifully, in the divine anatomy of the human body each foot contains exactly 26 bones, reminding us that God Himself is carrying us forward, as 26 is the exact numerical value of His Ineffable Name.

The Zohar Prophecy of the Six-Day War

Tonight, we usher in Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, commemorating the liberation of Jerusalem on the 28th of Iyar, 5727 (June 7, 1967) during the Six-Day War. As explored in depth before, Yom Yerushalayim happens to be on the day of Sefirat haOmer that corresponds to Chessed sh’b’Malkhut, literally “Kindness in Kingdom”. It is the first day, and first step, of the Malkhut week. In the same way, the liberation of Jerusalem on that day in 1967 was the first step towards re-establishing the ultimate Malkhut, God’s Kingdom, here on Earth, and restoring Malkhut David, the Kingdom of David in Israel. After all, it is King David who first established Jerusalem as Israel’s eternal capital. The aspect of Chessed on this day was that Yom Yerushalayim—and the entire miraculous Six-Day War in general—was a clear display of God’s Kindness. More amazing still, the Zohar seems to have exactly predicted this day many centuries earlier.

IDF Paratroopers that liberated Jerusalem, with Rabbi Shlomo Goren holding a Torah scroll, at the Western Wall on June 7, 1967.

In Zohar Chadash on parashat Balak, the Zohar comments on the End of Days prophecy of Bilaam. Recall that the gentile prophet Bilaam was hired by King Balak of Moab to curse Israel, but instead ended up blessing Israel. Within his blessing, he gave a prophecy of Acharit haYamim, the “End of Days” (Numbers 24:14, one of four places in the Torah where Acharit haYamim is mentioned). One of the things that Bilaam predicted was that in the far future (“I see it, but not now…”) the princes of Moab would be subdued. The Zohar Chadash expounds upon this verse and says:

In the End of Days, (according to the metaphorical “days”) when the sun will rise in the “Sixth Day”, when the cycle of years will work out in such a way that the Sabbatical and Jubilee will come together, which will happen 274 years [before the end] of the “Sixth Day”, a sound will go forth to arouse the great heights of the heavens…

The Zohar goes on to describe in detail the events that will happen in those final years, the “birth pangs of the Messiah”, culminating in the coming of Mashiach and his subsequent kingship. The Zohar employs the famous notion that each day of Creation corresponds to a millennium of civilization. Civilization as we know it is meant to last for 6000 years. The Messianic Age must come before the end of the sixth millennium, ie. the cosmic “Sixth Day”, to usher in the final Cosmic Shabbat millennium. The Zohar says that 274 years before the end of the Sixth Day there will be a Sabbatical Shemittah year, followed by a Jubilee (the 50th year of the Sabbatical cycle). So, if we count 274 years from the end of 6000, we get to the Jewish year 5726, or 1966. That year was indeed observed as a Sabbatical year in Israel. The following year, 5727 (corresponding to the end of 1966 and most of 1967), would have been a Jubilee. We also know that the Messianic Age is meant to begin after the conclusion of a Sabbatical year (as stated in multiple places in Midrash and Talmud, such as Sanhedrin 97a). Thus, it seems the Zohar posited long ago that the “Footsteps of the Messiah” period would begin in 1967.

This fits perfectly with what actually happened in 1967, when Israel miraculously routed all of its enemies in a mere six days (which, I think, is further symbolic of this Zohar prophecy that repeatedly speaks of the “Sixth Day” over and over again). More significantly, after two millennia, the Jewish people were once more in control of their holiest city and eternal capital, as well as the surrounding Biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria. Recall that Israel recaptured Jerusalem and the “West Bank” from the Jordanians. Jordan lies on the ancient territory of Moab, and the Zohar specifically gives this prophecy in its discourse on the verse that says the princes of Moab would be subdued!

Rabbi Shlomo Goren blows the shofar by the Western Wall during the 1967 liberation of Jerusalem.

Finally, we can deduce from the Zohar that 1967 was a Jubilee year. The Torah states that in a Jubilee year, a shofar should be blown and “freedom should be proclaimed in all the land…” (Leviticus 25:10) This makes Rabbi Shlomo Goren’s blowing of the shofar at the Western Wall during the liberation of Jerusalem even more significant. It may very well be that the recapture and reunification of Jerusalem in 1967 formally began the pre-Messianic Age, and we are undoubtedly nearing the fulfilment of the rest of the incredible prophecies, too.

Happy Jerusalem Day!

*Postscript: Since first publishing this article, there have been some requests at clarification of the Zohar chronology. The exact language of the Zohar is רע”ד מן יומא שתיתאה, meaning “274 years from the sixth day”. Some interpret it to mean 274 years into the sixth day, meaning the year 5274. However, that year was not a shemittah year, so it cannot be the meaning of the Zohar. We have to say the Zohar means 274 years from the end of the sixth day, meaning 5726, and that year was indeed a shemittah. (Besides, the passage begins by saying this will happen at the End of Days, so we would expect a year closer to the final 6000.) Some have pointed out that certain commentaries say there is an alternate version of this Zohar that says 384 years, not 274, but using 384 is even more problematic since we do not get a shemittah year either counting from the start or from the end of the sixth day! I believe the only possible accurate reading is indeed “274 years from the end of the sixth day”.