Tag Archives: Divine Chariot

Is Kabbalah Kosher?

In this week’s parasha, Nitzavim, we read that “The hidden things are for Hashem, our God, and the revealed things are for us and our children forever, to fulfil the words of this Law.” (Deuteronomy 29:28) The verse is a significant one for a number of reasons, one of which is that it is used as Scriptural proof for the Jewish mystical tradition, commonly referred to as “Kabbalah”, those esoteric secrets—“hidden things”—of the Torah. The Torah cautions that these secrets are best to be kept for God, while the revealed parts of the Law are for us and our children.

And yet, Jewish mysticism has been a very popular area of study for millennia. We know of the existence of multiple “mystery schools” in the Second Temple era. Some of the earliest mystical texts were composed in this time period, and have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the centuries following the destruction of the Second Temple, a number of new mystical texts appeared, known as the Heikhalot, Heavenly “Palaces”.

The main protagonists of the Heikhalot are Rabbi Akiva and his contemporary, Rabbi Ishmael. We know from the Talmud that these two were great mystics. The Talmud (Chagigah 14b) famously records how Rabbi Akiva led three other rabbis to the Heavenly realms of Pardes. This is traditionally taken to mean that they plunged into the depths of Jewish esotericism, where “Pardes” is an acronym for pshat, remez, drash, sod, the four main levels of Torah study: the simple, surface meaning; the sub-textual allusions; the allegorical, metaphorical, and extra-Scriptural narratives; and the mystical secrets of Kabbalah.

‘Elijah Taken Up to Heaven’

The three rabbis that went along with Rabbi Akiva didn’t fare so well: Ben Azzai died, Ben Zoma apparently lost his mind, and Elisha ben Avuya became a heretic. Only Rabbi Akiva “exited in peace”. There were many other mystics in their day. The Talmud (Sukkah 28a) states that although Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai (whose students were the teachers of Rabbi Akiva) was the least knowledgeable of Hillel’s eighty disciples, even he was an expert in Ma’aseh Merkavah, “the Work of the Chariot”. Ma’aseh Merkavah refers to the opening account of the Book of Ezekiel, where the prophet describes God’s “Divine Chariot”. Similar holy visions were beheld by the other prophets, including Isaiah and Daniel, while Elijah was taken up to Heaven in such a fiery chariot (II Kings 2:11). Thus, Ma’aseh Merkavah is believed to be concerned with attaining prophecy, or with spiritual ascent to the Heavens. This is precisely how one might elevate to Pardes.

The other major area of mysticism in Second Temple and early Talmudic times was known as Ma’aseh Beresheet, “the Work of Creation” (Chagigah 11b). This refers to the opening account of Genesis, and the secrets of God’s formation of this universe. The study of Ma’aseh Beresheet would presumably allow one to attain certain divine creative powers. This is what the sages Rav Chanina and Rav Oshaia delved into every Friday afternoon, and were able to produce a lamb out of thin air—then barbecue it for lunch! (Sanhedrin 65b)

Such great power exists within the study of Maaseh Merkavah and Maaseh Beresheet that the Sages caution these subjects must not be taught publicly, and not to all those who wish to learn them: “Maaseh Beresheet must not be expounded upon before two, and Maaseh Merkavah even before one, unless he is a sage and understands of his own knowledge.” (Chagigah 2:1) Even to the understanding scholar, the Sages permit only the “chapter headings” to be revealed. The master points the student in the right direction, and nothing more. In this way, only the truly deserving wise one will come to understand the mysteries. Perhaps this is why the study was eventually called Kabbalah, from the root meaning “to receive”, for one could only receive it through divine inspiration from Above, and after having received the chapter headings from a master.

Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, the Vilna Gaon

Interestingly, the term Kabbalah in the Talmud refers not to mysticism but to the Tanakh, specifically to the books of Nevi’im and Ketuvim which follow the Five Books of Moses. This actually makes a lot of sense, since most of Kabbalah is built upon verses and passages in the Prophets and Writings. One who studies Kabbalistic texts will quickly recognize how most of the passages open with Scriptural verses, with concepts supported by Scriptural verses, especially from the Books of Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Shir haShirim, and of course, Ezekiel and Isaiah. Other texts of Tanakh are frequently cited, too. In fact, it is said that the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, 1720-1797), among the greatest of Kabbalists, studied nothing but Tanakh after a certain age, since he could derive everything directly from Scripture.

This may be one reason, among others, why study of Nevi’im and Ketuvim is so rare in the Orthodox yeshiva world today. Since Kabbalah is often seen as taboo, especially for young minds, it may be best to avoid study of Scriptural passages that may bring up uncomfortable or mystical questions. Indeed, it is the story of the Four Who Entered Pardes that is most commonly used as proof that the young, the uninitiated, or those that have not mastered every facet of Torah must not delve into Kabbalah. The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) codifies this as law.

The Sages of the early generations commanded that these matters should not be explained except to a single individual [at a time]. He should be a wise man, who can reach understanding with his own knowledge. In such an instance, he is given fundamental points, and an outline of the concepts is made known to him. He [is expected to continue to contemplate] until he reaches understanding with his powers of knowledge and knows the ultimate meaning and depth of the concept. (Yesodei HaTorah 2:12)

The Rambam is an interesting case, for he was no Kabbalist by any means. A strictly rationalist thinker, he rejected any notion of evil spirits and demons, thought superstitions to be silly at best, and made sure to expunge all sorts of mysticism-based rituals from his code of law. For the Rambam, Maaseh Merkavah simply refers to the various spiritual entities that God created, mainly the ten types of angels (Yesodei HaTorah, ch. 2). What the prophets saw were just “visions and parables”, not actual concrete things. Maaseh Beresheet, meanwhile, is essentially science and physics—the study of the elements and their properties, the various “spheres” of astronomy, the nature of the luminaries, stars and planets—these are the things he calls “Maaseh Beresheet” (Yesodei HaTorah, ch. 3-4). The Rambam believes this is what is meant by “Pardes” (4:3). For him, Kabbalah is not an exercise in amulets or magic, exorcism or demonology, astrology or fortune-telling—all of which he expressly rejects as irrational, unreal, and absurd.

Ironically, it was the Rambam’s own son, Rabbeinu Avraham (1186-1237), who became a great mystic and played a huge role in the development of modern Kabbalah.

The New Kabbalah

A 17th-century illustration of a Sufi meditating

Rabbeinu Avraham wrote a monumental 2500-page philosophical work called Kitab Kifayah al-Abidin (“A Guide for the Servants of God”). Scholars note how Rabbeinu Avraham integrated a great amount of material from Muslim Sufi mystics. Incredibly, Rabbeinu Avraham himself writes in his book that the ancient mystical tradition of the Hebrew Prophets was forgotten among Jews, “because of their iniquities”, and has been carried forward by the Sufis! He argues that the Sufis “imitate the Prophets [of Israel] and walk in their footsteps.”

The fusion of Jewish and Sufi mysticism continued strongly in Egypt for several generations. Rabbi Gavin Michal beautifully traces how these traditions made their way to Tzfat: Rabbeinu Avraham’s great-great-grandson, Rabbeinu David, the last official nagid of the illustrious Jewish community in Egypt, packed his bags and resettled in Aleppo, Syria in the early 1400s. He brought with him his massive Sufi-inspired Jewish mystical library. This library was a key source of literature for the early Tzfat Kabbalists, who lived a short trip away from Aleppo. Amazingly, historical sources suggest that one of these early Kabbalists was a Sufi convert to Judaism.

Hamsas: not a Jewish thing

It therefore isn’t surprising that Arab and Muslim mystical beliefs strongly influenced Jewish mysticism. In his Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem points out numerous examples of this. While most of these concepts are valuable, some are most unfortunate: Arab demonology and superstition, too, neatly made its way into Kabbalistic literature. This is most evident in the plethora of Arabic hamsas and “evil eye” amulets that have sadly infiltrated so many Jewish homes. (We have also written in the past how Muslim ritual inspired the “mystical” custom of upsherin.)

At the same time that this was happening in the Middle East, a parallel Jewish mystical movement was rapidly developing on the other side of the Mediterranean, in Spain. Their Kabbalah, too, was not immune to the beliefs and practices of the neighbouring Christians.

Rise of the Zohar

In the 11th and 12th centuries, mysticism was slowly spreading in the Sephardic Jewish communities of Spain. It wasn’t until the late 13th century that Kabbalah received an immense boost with the publication of Sefer HaZohar, aka. “The Midrash of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai”. The publication was spearheaded by Rabbi Moshe ben Shem Tov de Leon (1240-1305), a great Kabbalist in his own right. He claimed that this book was the unadulterated teachings of the Talmudic sage Shimon bar Yochai, or Rashbi, a disciple of Rabbi Akiva.

While the Zohar was undoubtedly full of profound wisdom and authentic mysticism, it immediately aroused a great deal of suspicion. After all, no one had ever seen, or even heard of, such a text before. One scholar who took up the mission of discovering the Zohar’s real roots was Rabbi Itzchak d’min Acco (“Isaac of Acre”, c. 13th-14th century). Rabbi Itzchak was possibly a student of the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270), who had made aliyah after his famous Disputation and settled in Acre, where Rabbi Itzchak was apparently born. Rabbi Itzchak studied among those pre-Tzfat era Kabbalists in Israel. The Crusades made life difficult, and Rabbi Itzchak fled to Spain in 1305.

There, he met Rabbi Moshe de Leon, and questioned him about the Zohar, pointing out that the Kabbalists of the Holy Land knew nothing of such a work. Rabbi Moshe swore that he possessed an original manuscript from Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, back in his hometown of Avila. He promised to fetch the text and show it to Rabbi Itzchak, but suddenly died. Perhaps this untimely death is itself proof enough that Rabbi Moshe de Leon swore falsely!

For Rabbi Itzchak, it was not enough, and he decided to continue his search in Avila. There, he met a rabbi who knew Moshe de Leon’s family, and the rabbi told him that de Leon’s wife admitted he had composed the Zohar by himself, attributing it to Rashbi so that it would be accepted as authentic (and sell more copies). Many later Kabbalists reject this narrative, and believe it is a legend meant to discredit the Zohar. The story appeared in the first edition of Sefer Yuchasin (by Rabbi Avraham Zacuto, 1452-1515), and was censored out of all subsequent editions for over 300 years.

Over those centuries, the Zohar became the primary Kabbalistic text, so much so that it essentially became synonymous with Kabbalah. More ancient and once prominent texts like Sefer Yetzirah and Sefer HaBahir fell far behind. The Zohar inspired a massive new wave of mysticism that made a permanent impact on Judaism. It was the Tzfat Kabbalists of the 16th and 17th centuries in particular that neatly analyzed, categorized, and made sense of the Zohar, producing a whole new worldview and publishing a vast array of novel mystical literature that took the Jewish world by storm.

While halacha was once clearly separated from mysticism, the distinction started to get blurry. We sometimes forget that the Shulkhan Aruch, still the most famous of Jewish law codes, was composed by Rabbi Yosef Karo, a noted Tzfat Kabbalist. As such, he couldn’t possibly omit Kabbalah entirely from his laws, and mystical rituals and beliefs seep in on multiple occasions. The trend would continue, and reach even greater heights under the later Hasidim.

By this point, the authorship of the Zohar was seldom disputed. Still, the belief that it was written by Rashbi himself is false. After all, the Zohar clearly states that Rashbi charged his disciple Rabbi Abba with composing his teachings (see Zohar III, 287b). The Italian Kabbalist Rabbi Mordechai Galante (d. 1560) held that the Zohar was compiled sometime in the Geonic period (c. 589-1038 CE) from these ancient manuscripts of Rabbi Abba. The fore-mentioned Sefer Yuchasin holds that the Zohar may have originated with Rashbi, but was reworked and expanded by future generations of Kabbalists. No one knows exactly where it came from.

Some said it was the Ramban who discovered the Zohar when he arrived in Israel, then shipped it back to Spain (to save it from the Crusader wars or to reveal it to the Sephardi Kabbalists). The ship capsized or went off course, and the text ended up in the hands of Moshe de Leon! Others still believed that the Zohar was discovered by an Arab king, or by Spanish conquistadors, and sent over to the Sephardi Kabbalists for translation.

The Problem with Kabbalah

Gershom Scholem notes a number of issues within the Zohar that make it impossible to have been composed by Rashbi, Rabbi Abba, or anyone else from that time period. In fact, it appears that the person who put together the Zohar was not even a very good Talmudist. For example, the Talmud (Shabbat 33b) says that Pinchas ben Yair was Rashbi’s son-in-law, whereas the Zohar inaccurately says he was his father-in-law. Similarly, the Zohar is pretty confused about its Talmudic history, and in listing Rashbi’s ten main disciples, mixes together Amoraim and Tannaim from different centuries. Scholem also points out that the Zohar improperly uses the Aramaic language, while clearly incorporating many words with Spanish origin (such as esnoga, “synagogue” or gardin, “guardian”).

Rabbi Leon Yehudah Aryeh da Modena

These issues were already noted by earlier Jewish scholars. Rabbi Eliyahu del Medigo (c. 1458-1493), another great Italian sage, was part of a Kabbalistic circle before growing distant from the mystics. He noted how the Zohar has names of rabbis that lived long after Rashbi. A fellow Italian, Rabbi Leon da Modena (1571-1648) wrote an entire treatise, Ari Nohem, debunking the Zohar. He concludes that it must be only a few centuries old, and its Chokhmat haKabbalah is neither Chokhmah (wisdom) nor is it authentic Kabbalah! Rabbi Yakov Emden (1697-1776) was most vocal in his attack on the Zohar, and stated it was a complete forgery. The Yemenite sage Rabbi Yichya Kapach (1850-1931) believed the same thing.

Others have staunchly defended the Zohar, of course. Those Spanish-looking words may be there because they come from earlier Latin words, which would have been familiar to Rashbi. The names of sages from different time periods may be mixed together in one passage, but we often find the same thing in the Talmud. Truly, one who studies the Zohar will find it hard to believe that it could have all been composed by one Kabbalist, whether Moshe de Leon or someone else. In fact, the Zohar isn’t a monolithic text at all, and is composed of various distinct parts (Raya Mehemna, Midrash haNe’elam, etc.) It probably was pieced together from earlier genuine manuscripts, and was probably edited by a circle of Sephardi Kabbalists in the 13th century, who firmly believed the teachings dated back to Rashbi in some way.

It should be mentioned that Rabbi Itzchak d’min Acco’s account does not end with Moshe de Leon’s family. He continued his search, and met at least two other rabbis that swore on the Zohar’s authenticity. Even Gershom Scholem held that Moshe de Leon was an honest scholar, and certainly no faker who was out to dupe others or make money. (Scholem nonetheless believed that de Leon and his circle were the Zohar’s originators.)

Rav Dessler

Today, the Zohar has seemingly become accepted by all Orthodox communities, and some claim that denying the authenticity of the Zohar is heresy. This is not true. Rav Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1953) held that there is nothing wrong with believing the Zohar was composed by someone in the 13th century. Meanwhile, Rav Ovadia Yosef (1920-2013) said that the Yemenite communities that do not accept the Zohar should not be considered heretics. After all, these communities existed long before the Zohar’s publication, and were never exposed to it. He even conceded that some of their arguments may have substance. (See Ma’ayan Omer, Perek 7, Siman 93.)

Illustrations of Sefirot in von Rosenroth’s ‘Kabbala Denudata’

One of their arguments is that the Zohar was influenced by Christian belief. Gersom Scholem illustrates multiple instances of this in his Kabbalah, especially when it comes to Christian demonology. Aside from that, some of the Zohar’s teachings may be seen as inadvertently supporting Christian theology. In fact, Christian scholars (like Picco della Mirandola, Johann Reuchlin, Christian Knorr von Rosenroth, and even Newton and Leibnitz) actually took up the study of the Zohar themselves, and believed that this text would result in Jews finally converting to Christianity willingly. History shows that while some Jews may have done so, many more Jews instead started to believe in Christian ideas like man becoming god (or god becoming man), and that a messiah can die without completing his task, to return in a future “second coming”. This was a huge issue in the heresy of Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676), and continues to be a significant problem with certain Hasidim today.

One specific example of how Christianity influenced post-Zoharic Kabbalah is particularly relevant now, on the cusp of Rosh Hashanah. It is customary to recite Tefillat HaParnasah, a prayer for sustenance, at the end of each prayer service during the High Holidays. In many Sephardic siddurim, a supposed “name of God” is invoked (though not recited aloud) during this prayer. The “name” is Dikarnosa (דיקרנוסא), which apparently comes from Malachi 3:10, though it is difficult to see how other than the appearance of the word די in the verse.

In reality, Dikarnosa means absolutely nothing in Hebrew or Aramaic. However, it has a clear Spanish (or Latin) root: dei (“god”) and karne (“meat” or “flesh”). Some believe karnosa is a combination of karne and sanguis, “blood”. Whatever the case, the meaning is pretty clear: either the name is invoking a “god of meat” or speaking of a “god of flesh and blood”. Dikarnosa may be the name of an old pagan Spanish deity of abundance (hence the association with parnasah) or, according to one Catholic priest, potentially rooted in an old appellation for Jesus who, according to Christianity, is God literally incarnated in “flesh and blood”.

While Dikarnosa is not explicitly mentioned in the Zohar, it emerged in post-Zoharic Kabbalah circles, and was already firmly accepted in the times of the Arizal. His primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), wrote about it in Pri Etz Chaim (Sha’ar HaAmidah, ch. 19). It isn’t surprising then that the Dor De’a of Yemen claimed that modern Kabbalah is contaminated with paganism.

Such are the possible dangers of studying the Zohar, and the Kabbalah that emerged from it. Some become imprisoned in demonic fears, others become extremists, or adopt all sorts of bizarre rituals, while others still are drawn to real heresy. This is one reason why the Noda b’Yehudah (Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, 1713-1793) went so far as to ban (unsuccessfully) the study of Zohar and Kabbalah. There are so many mystical texts out there that it isn’t clear which are genuine and which are not, which have been influenced by Christianity or Shabbateanism (or other heretical movements) and which have not. It is easy to be led astray.

That brings us back to the story of the Four Who Entered Pardes. We learn from that story that maybe one in four who delve into Kabbalah will emerge unscathed. The remaining three are in danger of being lead to heresy, mental issues or extreme asceticism, or worse, an untimely death.

In Search of Authentic Kabbalah

Having said all that, we mustn’t forget that there absolutely is an authentic Jewish mysticism out there. As already stated, the Tanakh itself is full of genuine mysticism, as is the Talmud. The schools of Ma’aseh Merkavah and Ma’aseh Beresheet are real, and existed. There were mystical texts that predated the Zohar, as did the central concept of Ten Sefirot. There is no doubt that much of this authentic mysticism made its way into the Zohar and subsequent works, which is why it became so popular, spread so quickly, and was accepted by so many.

Certainly, there are countless kernels of truth within the Zohar, which were further refined and polished by later Kabbalists like the Ramak and the Arizal. It is a repository of tremendous wisdom (and we have, of course, cited it frequently in this forum). It played a key role in preserving Judaism in the face of attractive Christian and Muslim mysticism in the first half of the last millennium, and in the face of enticing secular “Enlightenment” in the second half. (Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, 1728-1790, famously said that “the Zohar has kept me Jewish.”)

Today, Kabbalah has become inseparable from Judaism, and has engrained itself into every aspect of our faith—without most Jews even being aware of it. Simple things like doing netilat yadayim in the morning to rid of an impure spirit (something completely omitted in the law code of the rational Rambam), staying up all night on Shavuot, or just commemorating Hoshana Rabba are all based on mystical teachings. Any discussion of reincarnation, cosmogony, eschatology, or even a classic Torah-versus-science debate is impossible without Kabbalah. There is little doubt that the mystical tradition has immensely enriched Judaism.

But what do we make of those foreign influences? Some have argued that foreign influence is actually a good thing. After all, the Rambam himself had stated that we should “accept the truth from whomever speaks it”. There is an old mystical idea that the Torah, too, is in exile among the nations, and we must rediscover these true concepts from the nations, refine them, and restore them to their holy source. When looking from this perspective, we recognize that even the Talmud had adopted (or rediscovered) countless ideas from neighbouring Greeks, Romans, and Persians. And ancient Kabbalah, too, long before the Zohar, drew from other mystical traditions.

Like the critics of today, Rabbi Leon da Modena recognized way back in the 16th century that Kabbalah was essentially Greek Neoplatonism in Jewish clothing. Meanwhile, in his Jews, God, and History, historian Max I. Dimont argues that from the very beginning, Kabbalah “fed on noncanonized prophecy, Zoroastrian resurrection mythology, Greek science, numerology, gnostic heresies.” He concludes that “This was the material Jewish saints and scholars worked on for centuries, distilling it, shaping it, blowing life into it.” There is still much work left to be done in distilling, shaping, and refining Kabbalah. There are some ideas that are best to be buried and forgotten, and some truly profound ideas that should be disseminated further.

Dimont goes on to credit the Zohar and subsequent Kabbalistic texts with having “a large share in the sudden efflorescence of science…” and “laying the intellectual foundations for the seventeenth-century rebirth of philosophy and the establishment of scientific methodology…” A multitude of scholars share his conclusions. At the end of the day, Kabbalah has had a tremendous (mostly positive) impact not only on Judaism, but on the whole world.

What can we conclude from all of this? At the very least, that Kabbalah should be studied carefully, with a grain of salt and an open mind. It is very important to temper the study of Zohar and other Kabbalistic texts with more rationalist sources like the Rambam. We shouldn’t confuse Kabbalah with halacha. We should keep in mind the many authoritative voices in Jewish history that cautioned against, if not outright rejected, the Zohar, and we should never forget those Four Who Entered Pardes.

Those who choose to enter, beware.

Space Travel in the World to Come?

Kohanim stoking flames upon the altar in the Temple (Courtesy: Temple Institute)

This week’s Torah portion is Tzav, which begins by describing the procedure of the olah, the “burnt-sacrifice”. The Zohar comments on the first verse of the parasha by saying that the word olah, literally “rising”, hints to various “evil thoughts” that may arise in a person’s head. Like the burnt-sacrifice, the Zohar teaches that such thoughts should immediately be burned away from one’s mind. Where the Torah says that the olah must be left burning upon the sacrificial altar all night long, the Zohar says that this hints to the cosmic nahar dinur, the River of Fire, which purifies souls of all evil.

The term nahar dinur appears in many places across Jewish texts, from the Tanakh to the Talmud and Midrash. What is this “River of Fire”? Where does it come from, and what is its real purpose?

Daniel’s Vision

Daniel’s “Vision of the Four Beasts” by Gustave Doré

The earliest mention of the River of Fire is in the Book of Daniel. While in Babylon (during the Jewish exile), Daniel describes his Heavenly vision, starting with the ascent of great beasts out of the sea, including a winged lion and a four-headed leopard. He then witnesses the Merkavah, God’s “Chariot”, with a Throne of “fiery flames, and wheels of burning fire” (Daniel 7:9). It is then that Daniel sees a nahar dinur: “A river of fire issued and came forth from before Him; with thousands upon thousands ministering unto Him, and ten thousand upon ten thousand standing before him.”

The Talmud (Chagigah 14a) explains that “Every day ministering angels are created from the fiery stream, and utter song, and cease to be.” The River of Fire gives birth to countless angels who praise God and are immediately extinguished after doing so. Earlier, the Talmud tells us that this river comes from the “sweat of the chayot” and pours forth upon “the heads of the wicked in Gehinnom”. The chayot are a higher class of angels, much greater than those myriad ministering angels that exist only momentarily to praise God. The chayot are the source of the River, which flows all the way down to Gehinnom.

Of course, the purpose of Gehinnom is to purify souls of the wickedness which they accumulate in this world. The Zohar (III, 27a) concludes that the River of Fire is the method of purification, burning away those evil impurities. Fittingly, it is the very sweat of the angels doing God’s holy work that generates the River and cleanses evil.

The Milky Way Galaxy

The Milky Way, as visible from the Earth

The Zohar connects the River of Fire with the olah offering which burned throughout the night. This is not coincidental. In another Talmudic passage (Berakhot 58b), we are told that the nahar dinur is visible in the night’s sky. Here, the rabbis are discussing various astronomical constellations, including Orion, Pleiades, and Ursa Major. We are then told that the “tail” of the constellation Scorpio is in the middle of nahar dinur!

This suggests that the “River of Fire” is actually the arm of the Milky Way galaxy which is visible in the night’s sky. The tail of Scorpio is indeed right in the middle of it. The Talmud says that were it not for this fact, no one would ever be able to survive the sting of a scorpion. We are then told that God brought about the Great Flood by using two stars from Pleiades, and He took away the Flood by using two stars from Ursa Major.

Close-Up of the Scorpio Constellation and the Milky Way

These are just a few examples highlighting the tremendous influence attributed to the stars and celestial objects. Often, these luminaries are described in the same terms as the angels themselves. This may be why Daniel described the River of Fire as being surrounded by countless angels, just as the Milky Way is filled with countless stars.

Psalms 147:4 tells us that God “counts the number of stars, and gives them all names.” Meanwhile, the Talmud (Chagigah 14a) teaches that from “every utterance that goes forth from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, an angel is created.” Incredibly, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan points out that the maximum number of possible “utterances” in Hebrew (ie. permutations of the Hebrew alphabet) is 1021, equal to the estimated number of stars in the universe!

Location of our sun in the spiral Milky Way galaxy

Rewards for the Righteous

Last week, we wrote about the various camps of angels, and how they are likened to military divisions. The stars, too, are described in the same fashion (Berakhot 32b):

… twelve [major] constellations have I created in the firmament, and for each constellation I have created thirty hosts, and for each host I have created thirty legions, and for each legion I have created thirty cohorts, and for each cohort I have created thirty maniples, and for each maniple I have created thirty camps, and to each camp I have attached three hundred and sixty-five thousands of ten-thousands of stars, corresponding to the days of the solar year, and all of them I have created only for your sake.

Multiplying these values again produces 1021 stars (or 1018, depending on how the last sentence is read). This passage ends with God affirming that He created this vast universe just for us. If we take the stars to symbolize angels, this means that all the angels were created for us, to better our lives in some way. We can also take the words more literally:

Why would God create such a mind-bogglingly immense universe? (As far as we can tell, the universe is 93 billion light years wide. This means that if one were to fly at the speed of light—that’s 300,000 kilometres per second—it would take 93 billion years to go from one end of the universe to the other!) What need is there for so much space? What need is there for so many stars—most of which we cannot even see from Earth—not to mention all the countless planets orbiting those distant stars, along with comets, asteroids, and other objects? This vastness makes Earth, and all the living things upon it, seem totally insignificant.

Yet, God reminds us that He created it all for us. The last Mishnah in the tractate Uktzin states that each righteous person in the World to Come will receive 310 worlds as a reward. Traditionally, these were seen as spiritual worlds. Today, however, with space travel technology developing at an ever-faster pace, it isn’t hard to envision how each tzaddik might enjoy 310 planets of his own somewhere in the great, wondrous vastness of outer space. With 1021 stars in the universe, there is certainly no shortage of worlds out there.

Olam HaBa?

Sefer Yetzirah and the 32 Paths of Creation

This week we begin reading the Torah anew, starting from the very first portion, Beresheet. The first chapter famously recounts God’s creation of the universe. Although the account in Genesis is itself quite brief, the Jewish sages had much to say about the events of creation. This was a topic of particular interest to the Kabbalists. In fact, Kabbalistic teachings are usually divided between two main headings: Ma’ase Beresheet, “the Work (or Narrative) of creation”, and Ma’ase Merkavah, “the Work (or Narrative) of the Chariot”. The former explores the genesis and nature of the universe, along with many metaphysical concepts, while the latter is primarily focused on various aspects of God, and vehicles of prophecy.

One of the earliest known Kabbalistic texts is Sefer Yetzirah, the ‘Book of Formation’. This book outlines how God created the universe, mainly focusing on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Since we see in the Torah that God created the world through speech (“God said ‘Let there be light’…”), it is concluded that the building blocks of the universe must be the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Everything that exists was fashioned out of unique combinations of these special letters.

Along with the 22 letters were the 10 sefirot, divine energies that imbue everything within creation. These 10 sefirot correspond to the 10 digits, from 0 to 9 (and hence, the root of sefirah is the same as that of the Hebrew for number, mispar). Just as modern physicists might argue that the entire universe can be reduced to mathematical equations, Sefer Yetzirah reduces all of creation down to the base numbers and letters. And so, Sefer Yetzirah begins by stating that God created the universe through lamed-bet netivot, “thirty-two paths” of creation.

The Power of Sefer Yetzirah

Sefer Yetzirah is first explicitly mentioned over 1500 years ago in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 65b), where Rabbi Chanina and Rabbi Oshaia studied it together on Friday afternoons. Using the secrets described in the text, the two rabbis learned how to create ex nihilo, like God. Each Friday, they would team up to create a calf from thin air, and eat it!

It is said that the patriarch Abraham was capable of the same feat. The 18th chapter of Genesis describes the well-known story of the three angels that visited Abraham. It then says that Abraham “took butter and milk, and the calf which he had made, and set it before them…” (Genesis 18:8). Many have asked: how is it possible that the forefather of the Jewish people gave his guests a mixture of dairy and meat products? The simple answer is that, of course, Abraham preceded the giving of the Torah, and at that time there was still no prohibition on consuming dairy and meat together. However, Jewish tradition maintains that although the forefathers lived before the giving of the Torah, they still fulfilled its precepts through an oral tradition, and from the prophecies they received from God. So, how did Abraham put both dairy and meat before his guests?

The Malbim’s commentary on the verse quotes earlier mystical teachings that say Abraham knew the secrets of Sefer Yetzirah and fashioned the calf from scratch. This is why the verse clearly says “…and the calf which he had made [asher asah]”. Since Abraham made the calf, it was only a hunk of flesh, with no divine soul (which only God can infuse), and was therefore pareve, considered neither dairy nor meat.

Jewish tradition holds that Abraham was actually the author of Sefer Yetzirah. Others believe it was written by Rabbi Akiva, based on teachings that were initially revealed by Abraham. Either way, today Sefer Yetzirah has been made available through an excellent translation by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. Rabbi Kaplan carefully translated several versions of the text, and included rich commentary and explanations in the book. Anyone interested in a deeper understanding of the foundations of the Hebrew alphabet, the nature of creation and the elements, as well as a Jewish take on meditation, astrology and cosmology, should definitely undertake a careful study of this important book.

A Brief Overview of the 32 Paths

Where exactly are the 32 Paths of Creation derived from? A careful analysis of the Genesis text shows that God (Elohim) is mentioned 32 times in the account of creation. Each of these 32 parallels the 32 paths. There are ten cases where the Torah says Vayomer Elohim, “And God said…” These 10 correspond to the 10 sefirot. The remaining 22 mentions of God correspond to the 22 letters in the following way:

Sefer Yetzirah breaks down the Hebrew alphabet into three groups: the “mothers”, the “doubles”, and the “elementals”. There are three mother letters: aleph (א), mem (מ), and shin (ש). These are the mothers because each is associated with one of the three primordial elements of creation: aleph is the root of air (avir, אויר), mem is the root of water (mayim, מים), and shin is the root of fire (esh, אש). These three correspond to the three times that the Torah says “God created” (Genesis 1:1, 21, and 27).

There are then 7 double letters, those that have two sounds in Hebrew: beit (ב), gimel (ג), dalet (ד), kaf (כ), pei (פ), reish (ר), and tav (ת). (It should be noted that unfortunately, modern-day Hebrew has lost the double sounds of the gimel and reish.) These seven correspond to the seven times that the Torah says “God saw” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). The remaining 12 letters are known as the “elementals”, and correspond to the remaining 12 times that God is mentioned.

So, the 32 paths derive from the 32 times that God is mentioned in Genesis, and further broken down into their groupings of 10, 3, 7, and 12 based on the specific type of verb used in relation to God.

Etz Chaim, "Tree of Life"

Etz Chaim, “Tree of Life”

Finally, all of these are embedded into the Etz Chaim, the “Tree of Life”, the most famous of Kabbalistic diagrams, and one we have discussed on several occasions in the past. The 10 blue circles on the diagram correspond to the 10 sefirot. The sefirot are interconnected by 22 lines, corresponding to the 22 letters. There are three horizontal lines, corresponding to the three mother letters; seven vertical lines, corresponding to the seven double letters; and twelve diagonal lines, corresponding to the twelve elemental letters.

This simple diagram amazingly captures a great deal of information, and is therefore a key foundation of Kabbalistic thought – as well as the first step towards creating your very own calf!

The Guardian Angels and Hybrid Beasts Known as Cherubs

This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, relates God’s instructions to the Israelites for constructing the Mishkan, the Holy Tabernacle. The most important part of this elaborate structure was undoubtedly the Aron HaKodesh, the Ark of the Covenant. Throughout the centuries, this gold-plated Ark has often been depicted in art, history, and even film (perhaps most notably with Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark). However, what the Ark actually looked like is hard to discern. The Ark disappeared two and a half thousand years ago when the First Temple was destroyed. Since then, many different versions and interpretations for its appearance have been proposed, both by Jewish Sages and secular scholars.

Common Depiction of the Ark

Common Depiction of the Ark

The issue is not so much with the Ark itself, since the Torah is pretty clear on its description: a box two and a half cubits long, one and a half cubits wide, and one and a half cubits high, made of wood and plated with gold from the inside and out. (A cubit is somewhere in the area of two feet long.) What’s not so clear is the part that follows: the Ark’s cover, with its two golden Cherubs.

What is a Cherub (kruv, in Hebrew)? The only descriptor the Torah gives is that the Cherubs had wings. Rashi, drawing from the Talmud, comments on verse 25:18 that they had the face of a child. The Torah describes the two as being set on the cover ish el echav, literally “a man facing his brother”. This suggests a human form to the Cherubs, along with their child-like face and wings. Indeed, this is how the Cherubs are generally depicted. The reality may be quite different, though. A look at the historical and Biblical evidence may shed some more light as to the true identity of the Cherubs.

Raphael's Cherubs, from his 'Sistine Madonna'

Raphael’s Cherubs, from his ‘Sistine Madonna’

The Evidence

A similar word for the Hebrew term kruv is found across the languages of the Ancient Near East: kuribu in Akkadian, karabu or kirubu in Babylonian and Assyrian. These refer to very large statues placed at entrances to important venues which served as guardians. They had the body of a bull or lion, with wings, and a human head. At times, they were worshipped as guardian deities.

Assyrian Karibu, now housed at the University of Chicago

Assyrian Kirubu, now housed at the University of Chicago

Karibu at the Louvre

Kirubu at the Louvre

This parallels the Torah’s original description of Cherubs. The very first time Cherubs appear is in Genesis 3:24. Following Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden, God placed Cherubs to guard the entrance to Eden so that man could not return. Like the Mesopotamian kuribu, the Cherubs are guarding an entrance.

This could be why the Cherubs were placed atop the Ark, again as guardians of the holy vessel. When the Tanakh describes how King Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem (I Kings, chapter 6), it states that Solomon had two massive ten-cubit high Cherubs placed at the entrance to the Holy of Holies (the room in which the Ark of the Covenant was kept). The following chapter describes them as kruvim arayot, “Cherub-Lions” (7:36). Not only do we once again see the Cherubs as guarding an entrance, but we now have some evidence that the Cherubs had a lion-like appearance, just as the Mesopotamian kuribu often had.

All of this appears to hint to a famous passage in the Bible: Ezekiel’s Vision of the Chariot.

Ezekiel’s Chariot

In the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, we are given a detailed description of the Merkavah, the Divine Chariot:

“And I looked, and, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, a great cloud, with a fire flashing up, a brightness was all around it; and from within the appearance of electrum, out of the midst of the fire. And from within it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had the likeness of a man. And every one had four faces, and every one of them had four wings. And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot… As for the likeness of their faces, they had the face of a man; and all four had the face of a lion on the right side; and all four had the face of an ox on the left side; all four had also the face of an eagle.” (1:4-10)

Ezekiel describes his angelic vision, with winged figures that have attributes of a lion, an ox, an eagle, and the appearance of a man. The figures are leading the way for the Divine Chariot, again serving as sentries or guardians.

This description allows us to potentially synthesize the Torah’s description of Cherubs with the historical and Biblical evidence: human-like winged creatures with aspects of a lion and a bull or ox. Although Cherubs are not explicitly mentioned in Ezekiel’s account, the Merkava, or Chariot, is explicitly mentioned, and it shares the same root letters (k-r-v or r-k-v) as Cherubs, kruvim.

We can draw further proof from the Book of Psalms, which states that God “rode upon a Cherub, and flew, and swooped down upon the wings of the wind,” (18:11) as well as from II Samuel, which says God “rode upon a Cherub, and flew, and was seen upon the wings of the wind,” (22:11). Clearly, the Cherubs are associated with the Divine Chariot, so it isn’t hard to relate them to Ezekiel’s vision.

So, are the Cherubs innocent child-like, winged angels, as depicted in art, or are they powerful Heavenly guardians with the hybrid qualities of various majestic beasts?

Ultimately, we may never know the true appearance of the Cherubs. Perhaps they are not even concrete entities, but rather metaphorical devices or prophetic visions, like the Divine Chariot is often interpreted to be. Whatever the case, we may just have to rethink the way we commonly draw the Ark of the Covenant and its Cherubs.