Tag Archives: Constellations

Should Jews Celebrate Birthdays?

At the end of this week’s parasha, Vayeshev, we read that it was “Pharaoh’s birthday” (Genesis 40:20). This is the only place in the Torah that explicitly mentions a birthday, which leads to the question: are birthday celebrations kosher? Where did birthday parties come from, and what is so special about the day of birth anyway?

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The Passover Seder and the Order of Creation

This Friday night we will be gathering to celebrate the holiday of Pesach. It will also be Shabbat, which is highly appropriate because Pesach and Shabbat are deeply intertwined. While Shabbat is mentioned multiple times in the Torah, there are two places in particular where Shabbat is commanded and explained: the two times that the Torah records the Ten Commandments. These two passages are nearly identical except for, primarily, the description of Shabbat. In the first account, Exodus 20, we read:

Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days shall you labour, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto Hashem, your God, in it you shall not do any manner of work; you, your son, your daughter, your servant, your maid, your cattle, and the stranger that is within your gates; for in six days Hashem made Heaven and Earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore Hashem blessed the Sabbath day, and sanctified it.

In the second account, Deuteronomy 5, we read:

Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy, as Hashem your God commanded you. Six days shall you labour, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto Hashem your God, in it you shall not do any manner of work; you, your son, your daughter, your servant, your maid, your ox, your donkey, your cattle, and the stranger that is within your gates; that your servant and your maid may rest as well as you. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and Hashem your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore Hashem your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.

There is one striking difference between the two passages. In the first, the reason for keeping Shabbat is to remember Creation, since God created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh. In the second, the reason for keeping Shabbat is to remember the Exodus, and that we were once slaves that worked tirelessly seven days a week, and now that God has freed us from slavery we should make sure to take a day off. We must never be slaves again, nor are we allowed to enslave others, with God insisting that even our servants and maids “rest as well as you”.

From this alone, we see a strong link between Pesach and Shabbat. In fact, each Shabbat when we recite Kiddush we mention how it is both to commemorate maase Beresheet and yetziat Mitzrayim, both Creation and the Exodus. In the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 10b), the Sages even debate when God had created the world: was it in Tishrei, or in Nissan, the month of the Exodus? And just as Shabbat is a “mini-Pesach”, Pesach is a “mini-Shabbat”. When the Torah commands counting the Omer, it says to being the count mimachorat haShabbat, “from the day after Shabbat”, which is actually referring to Pesach, when we begin the count (on the second night).

The Kabbalists explain that the events of Pesach and the Exodus rectified all of Creation. The Ten Plagues corresponded to the Ten Utterances of Creation, and each one was meant to repair a level of Creation that the Egyptians had tarnished. (See ‘The Ten Plagues: Destroying the Idols of Egypt’ in Garments of Light.) On a mystical level, the Pesach seder reflects this, too.

The Hand of God

The seder has a total of fourteen distinct steps, easily remembered by the classic rhyme: Kadesh, Urchatz; Karpas, Yachatz; Maggid, Rochtza; Motzi Matzah; Maror, Korech; Shulchan Orekh; Tzafun, Barech; Hallel, Nirtzah. (Note that it is sometimes said that there are 15 steps to the seder, with Motzi and Matzah separated as two, even though they are one mitzvah of eating the matzah.) The fact that there are fourteen parts to the seder is not coincidental. The most common way, by far, that the Torah describes the Exodus is by saying God took us out of Egypt b’Yad chazakah, “with a strong Hand”. The term appears twelve times throughout the Tanakh. Additionally, we read of “God’s Hand” during the plague of pestilence (Exodus 9:3), and at the end of the account of the Splitting of the Sea:

And God saved Israel from the hand of Egypt [mi’yad Mitzrayim], and Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the sea shore. And Israel saw the great Hand [haYad hagedolah] with which God acted in Egypt, and the people feared God; and they believed in God and in His servant Moses. (Exodus 14:31)

Altogether, we see the word yad used in metaphorical fashion fourteen times with regards to the Exodus, particularly in relation to God’s great “Hand”. And the gematria of yad (יד) itself is 14. I believe this is why the Sages specifically wanted to immortalize the seder with 14 steps.

Similarly, God created His universe with that same great “Hand”. When we look closer at the account of Creation, we find that there are a total of fourteen distinct actions associated with Creation itself:

First there’s “Beresheet”, which the Sages identify as the first Divine Utterance, the origin of time. Then God “hovered over the waters”, said to refer to the formation of the soul of Mashiach (see Ba’al HaTurim on Genesis 1:2, and Beresheet Rabbah 2:4). Then came (3) the creation of light, followed by (4) the division of the waters on the Second Day. On that same day, God created (5) various spiritual worlds, including the heavenly Gan Eden and Gehinnom, and populated them with all the Heavenly hosts and angels (See Yalkut Shimoni, chapter 1, passage 5, and Beresheet Rabbah 1:3). On the Third Day, God (6) gathered all the waters below, and (7) made the dry land appear, before (8) filling the earth with vegetation. Next came (9) the stars on Day Four, followed by (10) fish and birds on the Fifth Day. That day, there was an additional creation described in and of itself (11): “And God created the taninim hagedolim…” (Genesis 1:21). Then came the (12) land animals, (13) mankind, and lastly, (14) Shabbat.

All in all, we see fourteen clear steps in the account of Creation. It is worth mentioning here that in Hebrew the account of Creation (Genesis 1:1-2:4) was traditionally referred to as Seder Beresheet Bara. Creation is a “seder”, too. And we find very clear parallels between the fourteen parts of the Pesach seder and the fourteen steps of the Creation seder.

The Seder of the First Day

The first step of the seder is Kadesh, when we recite Kiddush and drink the first cup of wine. This officially ushers in the holiday and begins the seder process, just as the first act of Creation, Beresheet, officially started time and began the Creation process.

The next step is Urchatz, washing the hands with a cup of water. This first washing is done without saying the blessing al netilat yadayim. In Creation, the second verse tells us that God’s spirit “hovered over the waters.” The connection is self-explanatory.

Eating a vegetable (Karpas) is the third step and parallels the creation of light. As we’ve written in the past, the word “karpas” appears just once in the Tanakh, in describing the great banquet of King Achashverosh at the start of Megillat Esther. It refers to a certain fabric used in the drapery of the banquet. Mystically, it alludes to the fabric of Joseph’s special coat, which was dipped in blood and presented before Jacob to “confirm” the youth’s death. Jacob hence plunged into inconsolable grief and tears. We symbolically dip the karpas into salt water “tears”. That event—the sale of Joseph—led to the young man’s rise to power in Egypt, followed by his family’s settlement there, and then their enslavement, and finally the Exodus. So, that coat—karpas—set the events of the Exodus in motion. While the sale of Joseph was a sad and tragic event, Joseph himself insisted at the end that it was meant to be and all is well.

Joseph is credited for possessing a good eye, and for always being able to see the good within each situation, no matter how terrible (this is why the Sages state that, in turn, the evil eye did not affect Joseph at all). This is the secret of the Light of the First Day. It is called Or HaGanuz, the “hidden light”, and is the light through which Tzadikim see the world. On a deeper level, it represents that hidden divine light concealed within all things. A person like Joseph can see beyond the external into the Godly light inside. Ultimately, the light of the First Day of Creation was preserved for the righteous in the World to Come (Chagigah 12a), who will bask in this divine light in their own Heavenly “banquet”, draped with hur karpas u’techelet, “white, pure, and blue fabrics” (Esther 1:6).

Becoming Angels

Step four in the seder is Yachatz, when the middle matzah is divided in half. This clearly corresponds to the next act of Creation, the division of the waters on the Second Day. On this day, God made a permanent separation between the “upper waters” (Heaven, or Shamayim in Hebrew, literally “waters there”) and the “lower waters” that cover over 70% of the Earth. The larger waters, the Heavens, were concealed by God, just as the larger piece of matzah from the Yachatz is concealed for the afikoman.

Next comes Maggid, when we relate the Exodus story. This corresponds to the other major event of the Second Day. Though not mentioned explicitly in the Torah, the Sages state that God populated the Heavens with angels on this day. Appropriately, the term maggid is actually used to refer to angels that communicate with people. Throughout history, multiple rabbis described how they received mystical secrets from Heaven through a “speaking angel”, a Maggid. The most famous example of this is Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575), the compiler of the Shulchan Arukh, who was visited by a Maggid and recorded some of these teachings in a book called Maggid Mesharim. An angel is first and foremost a messenger, and our job during the Maggid portion of the seder is to act as messengers in relaying the Exodus experience to our children.

Water, Land, and Passover Stars

After Maggid, we get up to wash netilat yadayim, this time with a blessing, because we then sit down to eat the matzah. We say the regular blessing of hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz, as well as the extra blessing al achilat matzah. These two steps, Rochtza and Motzi Matzah, parallel the next two steps of Creation (Genesis 1:9-10):

And God said: “Let the waters under the Heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. And God called the dry land “Earth” [eretz], and the gathering together of the waters He called “Seas” [yamim]; and God saw that it was good.

Washing the hands is an allusion to the gathering of the waters, and eating the “bread of the earth” (lechem min ha’aretz) alludes to the formation of the earth, eretz.

Right after this, still on the Third Day, God seeded the earth with various grasses, herbs, and vegetation. Needless to say, this corresponds to the next part of the seder, Maror, eating the bitter herbs.

Then comes the “sandwich”, Korech, a combination of matzah, maror, and charoset. As we read in the Haggadah, this step was instituted by Hillel, who would make a sandwich from the matzah, maror, and korban pesach, the Passover lamb, since the Torah explicitly states that the lamb should be eating al matzot u’merorim. Today, we don’t have the Passover lamb, but we do still make a korech. What does the Passover lamb have to do with the next act of Creation, the formation of stars?

Images of the constellation Ares, including a stylized version in the shape of a ram.

The Sages teach that God’s command to take sheep specifically was not without meaning. This is because the Egyptians were idol worshippers and astrologers, and the sheep was one of their main idols and astrological signs. In fact, this bit of astrology remains with us to this day, for the astrological sign of the month of Nissan (or April) is Ares, a constellation in the shape of a ram or sheep. God wanted us to barbeque sheep in particular to once again show the folly of the Egyptians’ idolatrous beliefs. God created the stars as chronological markers for “the holidays, days, and years” (Genesis 1:14), not for them to be worshipped.

Completing the Seder, Completing Creation

We now enter Shulchan Orekh, the great feast. We traditionally begin with eggs and fish. In fact, in olden days some had the custom to place an egg and fish on the seder plate itself (today we retain the egg, but not the fish). These represent what was created next, on the Fifth Day: fish and birds.

The Torah then states that God created taninim gedolim. There is much discussion about the identity of these mysterious creatures. Is the Torah speaking about whales (which, though in the seas, are not fish so they are listed as a separate creation)? Perhaps they are dinosaurs, since the most literal translation would be “large reptiles”? The Sages say that these actually refer to two great monsters or dragons (see Rashi on Genesis 1:21). God created a pair of them, male and female, but they were so terrible that He slayed one immediately afterwards so that the two wouldn’t reproduce. The remaining Leviathan is hidden away, perhaps prowling the deep seas.

‘Destruction of Leviathan’ by Gustav Doré

The taninim correspond to Tzafun, the consumption of the afikoman. The hidden half of the matzah is finally revealed and eaten to end the meal. This alludes to the meal at the End of Days, the so-called “Feast of Leviathan”, where the righteous will join Mashiach in partaking of the Leviathan’s flesh. (For more on the connection between Mashiach and the afikoman, see here.)

With the meal officially over, we recite Birkat Hamazon, and drink the third cup of wine with it. Our rabbis state that on holiday feasts one should especially partake of meat, which is the centrepiece of the holiday meal. (There is even a halachic debate whether one fulfils the mitzvah of a holiday meal if they did not consume meat, and another discussion of whether poultry is okay.) In Temple times, the major part of the meal was the roasted lamb itself. Having consumed our fill of meat, we say Barech to thank Hashem for it. This corresponds to the creation of land animals on the Sixth Day, without which we wouldn’t have the meat to begin with.

We then recite Hallel, to literally “praise” God. This corresponds to the creation of man, who was made for this very purpose. Unlike all other creations, man alone is capable of contemplating Hashem, serving Him, and connecting to Him.

Finally, there’s Nirtzah, where we declare our hope for the Final Redemption, and that next year we will be able to celebrate our complete freedom in Jerusalem. This is a wish for the coming of the great age at the End of Days that will be kulo Shabbat, an everlasting “Sabbath”. Of course, it parallels the final act of Creation: Shabbat.

In these ways, the Passover seder neatly parallels the seder of Creation. To summarize:

Chag Pesach Kasher v’Sameach!

Mashiach and the Mysterious 13th Zodiac Sign

This week’s parasha is Vayechi, where Jacob blesses his children before his passing. He begins by telling his sons that he wishes to reveal to them what will happen b’acharit hayamim, “in the End of Days”. Yet, the text we read does not appear to say anything about the End of Days! The Talmud (Pesachim 56a) states that the Shekhinah withdrew from Jacob at that moment so he was unable to reveal those secrets. If that’s the case, how was he able to properly bless his children?

The Talmud states that when the Shekhinah left him, Jacob worried one of his children was unworthy to hear those secrets. His sons then recited the Shema in unison and said, “just as there is only One in your heart, so is there in our heart only One.” Jacob was comforted to know they are all indeed righteous, and it seems the Shekhinah returned to him at this point, allowing him to bless his children in holiness. Nonetheless, Jacob reasoned that to reveal the secret of the End in explicit fashion would be unwise, so he encoded these mysteries within the blessings he recited. In fact, Jacob not only encrypted what will happen in the End, but summarized the breadth of Jewish history (see ‘How Jacob Prophesied All of Jewish History’ in Garments of Light).

One place where Jacob appears to make an explicit reference to the End is in blessing Dan, when he says, “I hope for Your salvation, Hashem” (Genesis 49:18). Jacob says Dan will be the one to judge his people—alluding to the great Judgement Day—and wage the final battles like a “snake upon the road… who bites the horse’s heel so that its rider falls backwards”. Jacob is speaking of Mashiach. Although Mashiach is a descendent of David and from the tribe of Judah, the Midrash states that this is only through his father, while through his mother’s lineage Mashiach hails from the tribe of Dan.

Why does Jacob compare Mashiach to a snake?

Snakes of Divination

Pythia at the Oracle of Delphi

In cultures around the world, there is a peculiar connection between snakes and prophecy. In ancient Greece, for example, the Oracle went into a prophetic trance when supposedly breathing in the fumes (or spirit) of the dead python upon which the Temple in Delphi was built. According to myth, this great python (a word which has a Hebrew equivalent in the Tanakh, פתן) was slain by Apollo. The Temple was built upon its carcass. For this reason, the Greek prophetess was known as Pythia.

Similarly, the Romans had their sacred hill on the Vatican (later adopted as the centre of Christianity). The second-century Latin author Aulus Gellius explained that the root of the word Vatican is vates, Latin for “prophet”. Others elaborate that vatican refers more specifically to a “divining serpent”. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world the Aztecs had Quetzalcoatl and the Mayans had Kukulkan, the “feathered serpent” god of wisdom and learning. And such mystical dragons appear just about everywhere else, from Scandinavia to China.

Incredibly, the Torah makes the same connection, where Joseph is described as a diviner who uses a special goblet to nachesh inachesh (Genesis 44:5). This term for divination is identical to nachash, “snake”. In Modern Hebrew, too, the term for guessing or predicting is lenachesh.

Why is the snake associated with otherworldly wisdom and prophecy?

Primordial Serpent

Back in the Garden of Eden, it was the Nachash that encouraged Eve to consume of the Forbidden Fruit. This was the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. The Serpent is the one who unlocked the minds of Adam and Eve to higher wisdom so that they could “be like God”. Jewish tradition maintains that Adam and Eve were eventually supposed to eat of the Tree of Knowledge (for otherwise why would God put it there to begin with?) but they simply rushed to do so when they were not yet ready. They transgressed God’s command, and knew not what to do with all of this tremendous information, resulting in the shameful descent of man into sin. The one who instigated it all was the Nachash.

It appears that ever since then, the snake has been a symbol of forbidden wisdom. Such divination and mysticism can be quite dangerous, and most are unable to either grasp or properly use this knowledge. The Talmud cautions as such in its famous story of the four sages who entered “Pardes” (Chagigah 14b). Pardes is an acronym for the depths of Jewish wisdom, from the simple (peshat) and sub-textual (remez) to the metaphorical (drash) and esoteric (sod). The result of entering the mystical dimensions was that Ben Azzai died, Ben Zoma detached from this world, and Elisha ben Avuya became a heretic. Only Rabbi Akiva was able to “enter in peace and depart in peace.” It is important to remember that Rabbi Akiva was the teacher of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the originator of the Zohar. (Still, the Zohar, like most mystical texts, does not speak explicitly of esoteric matters, but cloaks them in layers of garments and complex language which only the most astute can ever unravel.)

Long before, Joseph was a master of this wisdom, surprising even the Pharaoh and his best mystics, who proclaimed: “Can there be such a man in whom the spirit of God rests?” (Genesis 41:38). Joseph, of course, is a prototype of Mashiach. The sages state that Mashiach is a great prophet and sage in his own right, but can he really surpass the unparalleled prophecy of Moses or the wisdom of Solomon? The Alter Rebbe (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, 1745-1812) solved the issue thus:

After the resurrection all will rise… the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, Moses and Aaron, all the righteous ones and the prophets, tens of thousands beyond number. Is it possible that Mashiach will teach them the same Torah that is revealed to us today? …Will all who knew the whole Torah be required to learn new laws from Mashiach? We must therefore say that Mashiach will instruct them in the “good of discernment and knowledge of the secrets of the esoteric teachings of Torah” that the “eyes will not have seen”—Moses and the Patriarchs not having been privileged to that knowledge, for only to Mashiach will it be revealed as it is written of him [Isaiah 52:13] “and he shall be very high.” (Likkutei Torah, Tzav)

Mashiach is the greatest of mystics, the holder of forbidden knowledge which will soon no longer be forbidden. The time will come when, as God originally intended, man will eat from the Tree of Knowledge and be “like God”. That first requires a return of mankind to the Garden of Eden, which is the very task of Mashiach. Beautifully, the gematria of Mashiach (משיח)—the one who brings us back into Eden—is 358, the same as Nachash (נחש)—the one who forced us out to begin with. And so, as Jacob envisions, the snake symbolizes Mashiach himself.

While Mashiach is likened to a serpent, he must also defeat the Primordial Serpent which embodies all evil. Indeed, the Sages speak of two serpents (based on Isaiah 27:1): the “straight” serpent (nachash bariach) and the “twisted” serpent (nachash ‘akalaton). Mashiach is the straight serpent that devours the twisted one. This was all alluded to in Moses’ staff-turned-serpent consuming the Pharaoh’s staff-turned-serpent. In fact, another serpent staff, the nachash nechoshet, is later used by Moses to heal the nation. This healing staff found its way into Greek myth as well, where it was wielded by the healer god Asclepius, and eventually into the modern internationally-recognized medical symbol.

And that brings us back to the End of Days.

The 13th Zodiac

In recent years, there have been whispers of a necessity to change the current 12-sign horoscope to include a 13th zodiac sign. This was featured in the media on a number of occasions, with flashy headlines suggesting that some people’s astrological sign may now have changed. This is based on the fact that there is a “precession of the equinoxes”: the earth’s axis changes very slowly over time, meaning that the constellations which are visible in the night sky change, too.

The astrological signs are based on the 12 major constellations (out of 88 constellations total) that align with the sun and “rule” for about a month’s time every year (each making up 30º of the total 360º). The argument is that due to the precession of the equinoxes, a 13th sign has crept in which we can no longer ignore. The majority of astrologers have rejected this argument, mainly because astrology isn’t really based on the stars but fixed to the vernal equinox. While some in the East (namely Hindus) use “sidereal astrology”, which is based on shifting star positions, the system used in the West (“tropical astrology”) has 12 signs roughly corresponding to the 12 months.*

Either way, whether the horoscope requires modification or not is irrelevant to Judaism, which denies any astrological effect on Israel (a topic we’ve explored in the past). Besides, unlike astrologers, astronomers both ancient and modern have always been aware of this thirteenth constellation. To the ancient Babylonians it was the snake-like Nirah, while to the ancient Greeks it was known as Ophiuchus, the “serpent-bearer”. This constellation is in the shape of a man firmly grasping a twisted snake (the interlinked constellation Serpens). This is, of course, the very symbol of Mashiach, that serpentine saviour who defeats the primordial snake and all of its evil. After being an astrological footnote for a very long time, Ophiuchus has entered the spotlight, as if the cosmos itself is reminding us of Mashiach’s impending arrival.

Ophiuchus (or Serpentarius) grasping Serpens, with Libra and Scorpio on the bottom right, and the bow-wielding Sagittarius on the bottom left.

* The same is true in traditional Jewish thought, where each sign corresponds to a month on the Hebrew calendar, as well as to one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Having said that, including a 13th month for the Jewish system is not a problem at all. In fact, it is actually a solution, since the Jewish calendar has a 13th month in a leap year! Similarly, although we always speak of twelve tribes of Israel, there are really thirteen since, as we read in this week’s parasha, Jacob made Joseph count as two separate tribes: Ephraim and Menashe.