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The Origins and Kabbalah of Kaddish

This week’s parasha begins with the passing of Sarah, the first Matriarch. We read how Abraham “eulogized Sarah and bewailed her” (Genesis 23:2). Today, the ritual most associated with Jewish death and mourning is undoubtedly the recitation of Kaddish. This has become one of those quintessentially Jewish things that all Jews—regardless of background, denomination, or religious level—tend to be very careful about. It is quite common to see people who otherwise never come to the synagogue to show up regularly when a parent or spouse dies, only to never be seen again as soon as the mourning period is over. Kaddish has become so prevalent that it has gone mainstream, featured in film and on TV (as in Rocky III and in the popular Rugrats cartoon), on stage (in Angels in America and Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony no. 3), and in literature (with bestselling novels like Kaddish in Dublin, and Kaddish For an Unborn Child).

 

Sylvester Stallone, as Rocky Balboa, recites Kaddish for his beloved coach and mentor. 

And yet, the origins of Kaddish are entirely clouded in mystery. It isn’t mentioned in the Tanakh, nor is there any discussion of reciting Kaddish for the dead in the Mishnah or Talmud. Even in the Rambam’s monumental Jewish legal code, the Mishneh Torah—just over 800 years old—there is no discussion of a Mourner’s Kaddish. Where did it come from?

Praying for Redemption

The Talmud refers to Kaddish in a number of places (such as Berakhot 3a, for example), though not in association with mourning the dead. Around the same time, we see a prayer very similar to Kaddish in the New Testament (Matthew 6:9-13), which has since become known as the “Lord’s Prayer” among Christians. This suggests that Kaddish existed before the schism between Judaism and Christianity, and this is one reason scholars date the composition of Kaddish to the late Second Temple era.

Many believe that it was composed in response to Roman persecution. The text of the Kaddish makes it clear from the very beginning that it is a request for God to speedily bring about His great salvation. It certainly makes sense that such a prayer would be composed in those difficult Roman times. In fact, the first words of Kaddish are based on Ezekiel 38:23, in the midst of the Prophet’s description of the End of Days (the famous “Gog u’Magog”), where God says v’itgadalti v’itkadashti. The Sages hoped the travails they were struggling through were the last “birth pangs” of the End Times.

In Why We Pray What We Pray, Barry Freundel argues that Kaddish was originally recited at the end of a lecture or a Torah learning session—as continues to be done today. It likely came at a time when public Torah learning or preaching was forbidden, as we know was the case in the time of Rabbi Akiva. So, the Sages ended their secret learning sessions with a prayer hoping that the Redemption would soon come, and they would once more be able to safely preach in public.

If that’s the case, how did Kaddish become associated with mourning the dead?

The Mourner’s Kaddish

Freundel points out that the earliest connection between Kaddish and the souls of the dead is from the Heikhalot texts. These are the most ancient works of Jewish mystical literature, going as far back as the early post-Second Temple era. (Scholars date the earliest texts to the 3rd century CE). One of these texts reads:

In the future, the Holy One, blessed be He, will reveal the depths of Torah to Israel… and David will recite a song before God, and the righteous will respond after him: “Amen, yehe sheme rabba mevorach l’olam u’l’olmei olmaya itbarach” from the midst of the Garden of Eden. And the sinners of Israel will answer “Amen” from Gehinnom.

Immediately, God says to the angels: “Who are these that answer ‘Amen’ from Gehinnom?” [The angels] say before Him: “Master of the Universe, these are the sinners of Israel who, even though they are in great distress, they strengthen themselves and say ‘Amen’ before You.” Immediately, God says to the angels: “Open for them the gates of the Garden of Eden, so that they can come and sing before Me…”

The Heikhalot connect Kaddish (specifically its central verse, “May His great Name be blessed forever and for all eternity…”) to a Heavenly prayer that will be recited at the End of Days, when the souls in Gehinnom will finally have reprieve. We can already start to see how this might relate to mourning, or spiritually assisting, the recently deceased.

This is related to another well-known story that is by far the most-oft used as the origin of Kaddish. In this narrative, a certain great sage—usually Rabbi Akiva, but sometimes Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai—sees a person covered in ash and struggling with piles of lumber. The poor person explains that he is actually dead, and his eternal punishment (reminiscent of popular Greek mythology) is to forever gather wood, only to be burned in the flames of that wood, and to repeat it all over again. The Sage asks if there is anything he could do to help, to which the dead man replies that if only his son would say a particular prayer, he would be relieved of his eternal torment.

The nature of that prayer varies from one story to the next. In some, it is the Shema, in others it is Barchu, and in others it is a reading of the Haftarah (see, for example, Kallah Rabbati 2, Machzor Vitry 144, Zohar Hadash on Acharei Mot, and Tanna d’Vei Eliyahu Zuta 17). It is only in later versions of the story that the prayer the son must say is Kaddish. Whatever the case, between the Heikhalot texts, and these Midrashic accounts, we now have a firm connection linking Kaddish with the deceased.

I believe there is one more significant (yet overlooked) source to point out:

The most important part of the Kaddish is undoubtedly the verse yehe sheme rabba mevorach l’olam u’l’olmei olmaya. As we saw in the Heikhalot above, this is the part that especially arouses God’s mercy. The Talmud (Berakhot 3a) agrees when it says essentially the same thing about the entire congregation reciting aloud “yehe sheme hagadol mevorach”. These special words are based on several Scriptural verses, such as Psalm 113:2 and Daniel 2:20. It also appears in Job 1:21.

Here, Job suffers the death of all of his children. Upon hearing the tragic news, he famously says: “…naked I came out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” In Hebrew it reads: Adonai natan, v’Adonai lakach, yehi shem Adonai mevorach. The parallel is striking. The first person in history to recite the great “yehe sheme rabba” upon the death of a family member is none other than Job. In some way, Job may be the originator of the Mourner’s Kaddish.

Birth of a Custom

Officially, the earliest known mention of reciting Kaddish for the dead is Sefer HaRokeach, by Rabbi Elazar of Worms (c. 1176-1238). Shortly after, his student Rabbi Itzchak of Vienna (1200-1270) writes in his Ohr Zarua that Ashkenazim have a custom to recite Kaddish upon the dead. He explicitly states that Tzarfati Jews (and as an extension, Sephardic Jews) do not have such a custom.

That much is already clear from the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204), the greatest of Sephardic sages in his day, who makes no mention of a Mourner’s Kaddish anywhere in his comprehensive Mishneh Torah. (The Rambam does speak about the regular Kaddish, unrelated to the dead, which is recited throughout the daily prayers.) We see that in his time, Kaddish was still a strictly Ashkenazi practice. Why is it that Ashkenazi Jews in particular began to say Kaddish for the dead?

Most scholars believe the answer lies within the Crusades. The First Crusade (1095-1099) was a massive disaster for Europe’s Ashkenazi Jews. While the Crusades were meant to free the Holy Land from Muslim domination, many local Christians argued that there was no need to fight the heathen all the way in the Holy Land when there were so many local Jewish “heathens” among them. The result is what is referred to as “the Rhineland massacres”, described by some as “the First Holocaust”. Countless Jews were slaughtered.

‘Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099’ by Émile Signol

Like in the times of Roman persecution a millennium earlier, the Ashkenazi Sages sought comfort in the words of Kaddish, beseeching the coming of God’s Final Redemption, and at the same time seeking to honour the poor souls of the murdered. It therefore isn’t surprising that Rabbi Elazar of Worms is the first to speak of Kaddish for the dead, as his hometown of Worms (along with the town of Speyer) was among the first to be attacked, in May of 1096.

It is important to remember that Rabbi Elazar was a member of the Hasidei Ashkenaz, the “German Pietist” movement known for its mysticism and asceticism (not to be confused with the much later Hasidic movement). The Hasidei Ashkenaz would have been particularly well-versed in Heikhalot and Midrashim. Everything points to this group as being the true originators of reciting Kaddish for the dead.

The practice spread from there. Indeed, there was a great deal of Jewish migration in those turbulent times. For example, one of the greatest Ashkenazi sages, Rabbeinu Asher (c. 1250-1327), was born in Cologne, Germany, but fled persecution and settled in Toledo, Spain. His renowned sons, Rabbi Yakov ben Asher (Ba’al HaTurim, c. 1269-1343), and Yehudah ben Asher (c. 1270-1349) continued to lead the Sephardic Jewish community of Toledo. And it was there in Toledo that was born one of the greatest of Sephardi sages, Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575), author of the Shulchan Arukh, still the primary code of Jewish law.

In the Shulchan Arukh we read how reciting Kaddish at a funeral is a must (Yoreh De’ah 376:4). We are then told that there is a custom based on the Midrash to continue reciting Kaddish for twelve months, though only for a parent, and possibly only for a father. The reasoning for the latter is entirely different: since it is a father’s obligation to teach his son Torah, by reciting Kaddish the son demonstrates that the father had fulfilled the mitzvah, and left behind a proper Jewish legacy.

It is quite amazing to see that as late as 500 years ago, Mourner’s Kaddish was still defined in very narrow terms, and described as more of a custom based on Midrash than an absolute halachic necessity. How did it transform into a supreme Jewish prayer?

Enter the Arizal

As with many other Jewish practices we find so common today, it looks like it was the influence of the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572), history’s foremost Kabbalist, that made the Mourner’s Kaddish so universal, and so essential. Fittingly, he was the perfect candidate for the job, being the product of an Ashkenazi father and a Sephardi mother, and ending his life as the leader of the Sephardi sages of Tzfat.

The Arizal discussed the mysteries of Kaddish at great length. Like most of his teachings, they were put to paper by his primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620). The latter devotes a dozen dense pages to Kaddish in Sha’ar HaKavanot. He first explains the various forms of Kaddish recited during the regular prayer services. In brief, we find that Kaddish is recited between the major prayer sections because each part of the prayer is associated with a different mystical universe, and a different Heavenly Palace, and Kaddish facilitates the migration from one world to the next.

Recall that Kabbalah describes Creation in four universes or dimensions: Asiyah, Yetzirah, Beriah, and Atzilut. The four sections of prayer correspond to the four ascending universes: the morning blessings and the first prayers up until Hodu correspond to Asiyah; the Pesukei d’Zimrah corresponds to Yetzirah; the Shema and its blessings parallel Beriah; and the climax of the prayer, the Amidah, is Atzilut, the level of pure Divine Emanation. For this reason, the Amidah is recited in complete silence and stillness, for at the level of Atzilut, one is entirely unified with God.

The Arizal delves in depth into the individual letters and gematrias of Kaddish, its words and phrases, and how they correspond to various names of God and Heavenly Palaces. He relays the proper meditations to have in mind when reciting the different types of Kaddish, at different stages of prayer. To simplify, the Arizal teaches that Kaddish helps us move ever higher from one world to the next, and more cosmically, serves to elevate the entire universe into higher dimensions. We can already see how this would be related to assisting the dead, spiritually escorting the soul of the deceased higher and higher through the Heavenly realms.

More intriguingly, Rabbi Vital writes that Kaddish is meant to prepare the soul for the Resurrection of the Dead. He goes on to cite his master in saying that Kaddish should be recited every single day, including Shabbat and holidays, for an entire year following the passing of a parent. He says that Kaddish not only helps to free a soul from Gehinnom, but more importantly to help it attain Gan Eden. It elevates all souls, even righteous ones. This is why one should say Kaddish for a righteous person just as much as for a wicked person, and this is why it should be said even on Shabbat (when souls in Gehinnom are given rest). Rabbi Vital then says how the Arizal would also say Kaddish every year on the anniversary of his father’s death, which is now the norm as well.

Ironically, while Kaddish began as an Ashkenazi custom, Rabbi Vital writes that the Arizal made sure to recite Kaddish according to the Sephardi text!

Repairing the World

Another interesting point that Rabbi Vital explains is why Kaddish is in Aramaic, and not Hebrew like the rest of the prayers. He reminds us the words of the Zohar that both Hebrew and Aramaic are written with the exact same letters because these are the Divine Letters of Creation, but Hebrew comes from the side of purity and holiness, while Aramaic is from the “other side” of impurity and darkness. Hebrew is the language of the angels, while Aramaic is the language of the impure spirits. The angels speak Hebrew, but do not understand Aramaic, while their antagonists speak Aramaic, and do not understand Hebrew. When we learn Torah and Mishnah, in Hebrew, we please the angels who take our words up to Heaven. When we learn Talmud and Zohar, in Aramaic, we destroy those dark spirits who cannot stand the fact that a person is using their tongue for words of light and holiness.

The same applies to our prayers. The bulk of our prayers are in holy Hebrew, the language of angels. Kaddish is in Aramaic because it is meant to elevate us, and the universe around us, into higher dimensions. In this vital task, we cannot risk elevating the impure spirits along with us, contaminating the upper worlds. Thus, by saying it in Aramaic, we push away the impure spirits who are unable to withstand us using their language in purity. Those evil forces are driven away, and we can ascend and rectify in complete purity.

This, in brief, is the tremendous power of Kaddish. This is why we recite it so many times over the course of the day. And this is why every Jew is so mysteriously drawn to this prayer and ritual, possibly above all others. Deep inside the soul of every Jew—regardless of background, denomination, or religious level—is a yearning to repair the world, to destroy the impure, to uplift the universe, and to recite loudly: “May His great Name be blessed forever and for all eternity…”

Red Cow: Quantum Physics in the Torah

This week’s parasha, Chukat, begins with the laws of the Red Cow (or “Red Heifer”). The Torah describes in detail the Red Cow ritual, starting with the production of a special mixture which alone had the power to remove the greatest of impurities, the impurity of death. (Because we lack this mixture today, everyone is considered ritually impure at all times, and this is one reason why most Orthodox authorities discourage Jews from ascending the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.) First, the Torah requires finding a perfectly red calf. The Sages elaborate that even two non-red hairs invalidate a cow. The calf must also be entirely unblemished, and in perfect health. It must not have ever been used for any kind of labour. The simple act of putting a yoke on the cow—even if just for a moment—immediately disqualifies it.

Rabbis inspect a red cow in Israel (Courtesy: Temple Institute). Jewish tradition maintains there have only been nine red cows used in history. The tenth will come in the time of Mashiach.

Once such a cow is found, it is taken to the Temple and appropriately slaughtered. The High Priest takes some of its blood and sprinkles it towards the Holy of Holies (or the “Tent of Meeting”). The cow is then entirely consumed in flames, with the added ingredients of cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson wool. At this point, the High Priest has become impure himself, and must go to the mikveh. Another priest (who is pure) must gather the ashes to be used to make the purifying solution. This person, too, becomes impure. Finally, the third pure person who actually prepares the mixture and sprinkles it on the impure people also becomes impure in the process. Perplexingly, the act of purifying others instantly makes the purifier himself impure.

This strange Red Cow ritual puzzled the ancient Sages. They went so far as to say that even King Solomon—the wisest of all men—could not understand the Red Cow (Yoma 14a). The Sages base themselves on Solomon’s own words (Ecclesiastes 7:23): “All this have I tried by wisdom… but it was far from me.” Solomon had all the wisdom, yet there was one thing that was too “far” for him to grasp, and that was the Red Cow. (The Midrash, meanwhile, comments on Solomon’s words in Proverbs 30:18—“Three things are wondrous to me, and four I do not know”—to mean that Solomon didn’t know seven more things.  The three things wondrous to him were the secrets of the Pesach offering, matzah, and maror; and the four he didn’t know were the mysteries of the four species of Sukkot. See Vayikra Rabbah 30:14)

The Sages conclude that the Red Cow has no human logic and is, as the Torah states, a chok, an incomprehensible divine law. In other words, no one understands the Red Cow.

The Nazis tried to ban Einstein’s theories and discoveries. They didn’t like quantum physics very much, and once branded it as a “Jewish science”.

Interestingly, there is a parallel phenomenon in the world of science. The past century and a half has seen the rise of a bewildering new field called quantum physics. Like the Red Cow ritual, many experiments in quantum physics yield results that are incomprehensible. They often contradict the foundational principles of classical physics, and are sometimes just plain bizarre. This may be why Albert Einstein once humorously described quantum physics as a “talmudical theory”. (And may be why Jews are so disproportionately represented in the field.) Niels Bohr, meanwhile, said something along the lines of “Those who are not profoundly shocked when they first come across quantum theory have not understood it.” And Richard Feynman concluded: “I think I can safely say that no one understands quantum mechanics.”

Quantum physics is to science what the Red Cow is to the Torah. In fact, a closer examination may reveal a very intimate connection between the two.

Entanglement

One of the central principles of quantum physics is entanglement. This refers to two particles that are intertwined, and appear to affect one another instantaneously even though they may be very far apart. For example, take the case of two entanglement particles, one with a clockwise spin, and the other with a counter-clockwise spin. If the clockwise particle is forced to spin the other way, the counter-clockwise particle immediately changes its spin as well. This is true even over vast distances, and the effect is immediate, suggesting faster-than-light communication. Einstein famously called this strange phenomenon “spooky action at a distance”.

Entanglement has the potential for many practical applications, and scientists are even working on an un-hackable “quantum internet”. Meanwhile, Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose have built an entire biological theory around entanglement, which provides a scientific explanation for the soul, the afterlife, and reincarnation.

Of course, from a Jewish mystical perspective, all souls are intertwined and “entangled”. Entanglement may even explain the strange nature of the Red Cow. Recall that when the pure person sprinkles the mixture upon the impure person, he instantly becomes impure himself while the impure person becomes pure. This is precisely like a counter-clockwise particle instantly switching its spin to clockwise when its fellow entangled particle is made to go from clockwise to counter-clockwise.

Uncertainty Principle

Another foundation of quantum physics is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. In short, this means that when measuring any given particle, we can either determine its position, or its speed, but not both. If we measure its position, then technically at that split instant the particle isn’t really in motion, so we cannot determine its speed. If we measure its speed, than it can’t be standing still in any one position, so we cannot determine exactly where it is. (The principle can be explained with a classic physics joke: a police officer pulls over a speeding particle and asks: “Do you have any idea how fast you were going?” The particle replies: “No sir, but I know where I am.”)

Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh beautifully points out that the Torah actually speaks of the Uncertainty Principle. We read in Job 28 of the difference between man’s limited wisdom and God’s omniscience. We are then told that “God understands her path, and He knows her place.” (Job 28:23) Unlike man, who is incapable of grasping such things, God alone knows both the “path” (momentum) and “place” (location) of a particle! Rav Ginsburgh summarizes:

Now, what is the verse saying? Actually, it is saying exactly what Einstein said when he heard that the uncertainty principle was somehow inherent in nature: “God does not play dice with the universe.” It did not sit well with him that God cannot see beyond the uncertainty principle. Little did Einstein know that he had a verse in the Bible to support his intuition that God does know… (Lectures on Torah and Modern Physics, pg. 90)

Wave-Particle Duality

Perhaps the most well-known principle in quantum physics is that of wave-particle duality. This is the notion that every particle is also a wave. The discovery was a result of a much earlier debate (going back at least to the time of Newton) of whether light is a particle or wave. Over the decades, experiments would alternately show that light behaves as a particle, while others would show that light behaves as a wave. Eventually, it was found that photons (particles of light) behave in both ways, and the same is true for other particles, too.

Closely related to this is what is known as the “observer effect”, that the presence of a conscious “observer” actually affects whether a particle will behave as a particle or wave. In the famous double-slit experiment, whenever scientists “watch” a particle it always passes through one slit and leaves a single mark on the screen behind as expected. Yet, whenever they remove the measuring devices and shoot particles without any observation, the particle seemingly goes through both slits simultaneously, and produces a wave-like pattern on the screen!

Notions like this led Max Planck, often called the “father of quantum physics”, to conclude:

As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear-headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.

Rav Ginsburgh once more shows how wave-particle duality is secretly embedded in the language of the Torah. The Torah’s word for a “wave” is gal (גל), while the Torah’s word for a tiny drop, or “particle”, is egel (אגל). The two share one root, meaning there is a profound connection between them. Rav Ginsburgh cites ancient commentaries (ibid, pg. 128-129) which explain how a multitude of tiny drops of dew blanketing a field combine to form the appearance of a wave. The Sages are speaking of an observer who seems to be looking at a wave but, upon closer examination, is seeing individual particles of dew. This is little more than a poetic way of describing the scientific “observer effect”, where close observation and measurement shows particles while lack of measurement shows waves.

String Theory in Kabbalah

For decades, physicists have been looking for a “theory of everything” that can elegantly explain all of the various phenomena in the universe. Currently, one very popular such theory is string theory, which holds that the universe boils down to a set of tiny vibrating strings. Differing vibrations would result in particles of different masses and charges, giving rise to the variety of forces and particles in the universe, including a particle that carries gravity (called a graviton). String theory is therefore a good “theory of everything” that can neatly unify all of physics.

Edward Witten is also Jewish, and the son of Louis Witten, another well-known physicist.

In reality, string theory is not one theory, and has multiple versions. In the past, there were five major, accepted models. Then, in 1995 Edward Witten was able to unify these models into one wholesome theory, called M-theory, sparking a “superstring revolution”. Since then, a great deal of work has been done to strengthen and support M-theory, which continues to be one of the leading models in modern physics.

Interestingly, M-theory suggests that the universe has a total of 11 dimensions. Three of these are the familiar dimensions of space (length, width, height). The fourth is the dimension of time, which is really inseparable from the three of space, and part of one continuum. In addition to these, there are seven more dimensions unperceivable to human senses:

 

Etz Chaim, “Tree of Life”, showing the upper sefirot (Keter/Da’at, Chokhmah, and Binah, known as the Mochin), and the seven lower sefirot.

Anyone who has dabbled in Kabbalah will immediately recognize that this conception of 11 dimensions perfectly parallels the “dimensions” of Kabbalah, ie. the Sefirot. In the arrangement of the sefirot, too, we have the three sefirot of the mochin, which are tied to a fourth (usually hidden) sefirah of Da’at, just like the three spatial dimensions are intertwined with time. Below the three mochin are the seven middot. Like the 11 dimensions of M-theory, the Kabbalistic “Tree of Life”—as made popular by the Arizal—is typically shown depicting 11 sefirot. (Yet, the Sages insist that there are ten sefirot, never eleven! It should be noted that in non-M-theory versions of string theory, there are indeed only 10 dimensions.) One who studies both M-theory and the Arizal’s teachings of the sefirot will quickly find tremendous overlap between them.

And one who has delved into the Kabbalah of the Arizal will know just how easy it is to get lost in descriptions of dimensions within dimensions, and universes superimposed upon universes; in souls entangled across vast distances, and across eons of time; and in lengthy formulas of yichudim, kavvanot, and tikkunim (“unifications”, “meditations”, and “rectifications”). In fact, studying the Arizal sometimes feels like studying quantum physics. Truly, the two go hand-in-hand, and are poised to bridge the gap between the realm of science and the realm of the spirit.