Tag Archives: Elijah/Eliyahu

Is It Necessary to Have a Hebrew Name?

‘Elijah Taken Up to Heaven’

This week’s parasha is named after Pinchas, grandson of Aaron, who is commended for taking action during the sin with the Midianite women. Pinchas was blessed with an “eternal covenant”, and Jewish tradition holds that he never really died. Pinchas became Eliyahu, and as the Tanakh describes, Eliyahu was taken up to Heaven alive in a flaming chariot (II Kings 2). While we know what the name “Eliyahu” means, the name “Pinchas” is far more elusive. It doesn’t seem to have any meaning in Hebrew. Historical records show that there was a very similar name in ancient Egypt, “Pa-Nehasi”. Did Pinchas have a traditional Egyptian name?

When we look more closely, we find that multiple figures of the Exodus generation actually bore Egyptian names. For example, “Aaron” (or Aharon) doesn’t have a clear meaning in Hebrew, and appears to be adapted from the ancient Egyptian name “Aha-Rw”, meaning “warrior lion”. Even the origin of Moses’ name is not so clear.

Although the Torah tells us that Pharaoh’s daughter named him “Moshe” because she “drew him [meshitihu] from the water” (Exodus 2:10), it seems very unlikely that an Egyptian princess should know Hebrew so well and give her adopted child a Hebrew name. Our Sages noted this issue long ago, and grappled with the apparent problem. Chizkuni (Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoach, c. 1250-1310) writes that it was actually Moses’ own mother Yocheved that named him “Moshe”, and then informed Pharaoh’s daughter of the name. Yet, the Midrash affirms that Yocheved called her son “Tuviah”, or just “Tov” (based on Exodus 2:2), and Moshe was the name given by Pharaoh’s daughter. Meanwhile, Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra, 1089-1167) suggests that Pharaoh’s daughter called him “Munius”. Josephus takes an alternate approach entirely, saying that Pharaoh’s daughter (whose name was Thermuthis, before she became a righteous convert and was called Batya or Bitya in Jewish tradition) named him Moses because the Egyptian word for water is mo.

The most elegant solution might be that Pharaoh’s daughter called him “Mose” (spelled the same way, but pronounced with a sin instead of shin), which means “son” in Egyptian. This is most fitting, since Pharaoh’s daughter yearned for a child of her own, and finally had a “son”. In fact, we see this suffix (and its close variant mses, from which the English “Moses” comes) used frequently in Egyptian names of that time period, such as Ahmose, Thutmose, and Ramses. Thus, he would have been known as Mose (or Moses) during his upbringing, but later known to his nation as Moshe, with a more appropriate and meaningful Hebrew etymology, yet without having to change the spelling of the name (משה) at all.

All of this begs the question: is it important to have a Hebrew name? And is it okay to have a Hebrew name together with an English name, or a name in the local language of wherever a Jew may live?

Why Are So Many Sages Called “Shimon”?

When looking through the names of the many rabbis in Talmudic and Midrashic literature, we find something quite intriguing. Although we would expect the Sages to be named after great Biblical figures like Moses, David, or Abraham, in reality there are essentially no sages with such names! Instead, we find a multitude of names of lesser-known Biblical figures, and many names that have no Biblical or Hebrew origin at all.

One very common name is Yochanan: There’s Yochanan ben Zakkai and Yochanan haSandlar, Yochanan bar Nafcha, Yochanan ben Nuri, and Yochanan ben Beroka. Another popular name is Yehoshua. While we might not expect this name to be so popular (considering its association with Jesus), we still find Yehoshua ben Perachia, Yehoshua ben Levi, Yehoshua ben Chananiah, Yehoshua ben Korchah, and many others. There are also lots and lots of Yehudas like Yehuda haNasi (and his descendents, Yehuda II and Yehuda III), Yehuda ben Beteira, Yehuda bar Ilai, and Yehuda ben Tabbai. And there are tons of Elazars: Elazar ben Arach, Elazar ben Azariah, Elazar ben Pedat, and many more with the similar “Eliezer”.

Perhaps the most common name is “Shimon”. There is Shimon haTzadik and Shimon bar Yochai, Shimon bar Abba and Shimon ben Shetach, Shimon ben Gamaliel (both I and II), Shimon ben Lakish (“Reish Lakish”), and more. We would think this is a strange choice, considering that the Biblical Shimon was actually of somewhat poor character (at least compared to the remaining Twelve Sons of Jacob). In fact, on his deathbed, Jacob did not bless Shimon at all, and instead said he wanted nothing to do with his violent nature. Moses, meanwhile, completely omits Shimon in his last blessings! So why would so many of our Sages be called “Shimon”?

A Good-Sounding Name

What might explain the strange selection of names among our ancient Sages? While no clear reason stands out, there is one plausible answer. It appears that the choice of names above was heavily influenced by the contemporary Greek society. Just as today many Jewish parents seek Hebrew names that also sound good in English, it seems parents back then wanted names that sounded good in Greek (since most Jews lived in the Greek part of the Roman, and later “Byzantine”, Empire).

We find that Greek names tend to end with an “n”: Platon (“Plato” in Greek), Jason, and Solon, for example. Numerous others end with “s”: Aristotles (“Aristotle” in Greek), Pythagoras, Philippos. Indeed, many of our Sages actually have such Greek names directly: Yinon, Hyrcanus, Pappus, Symmachus, Teradyon, and Onkelos. There is no indication that these great rabbis had some other “Hebrew” name.

Those that did want to bear Hebrew names could choose names already ending with an “n” like Shimon and Yochanan. Or, they could choose names where adding an “s” to the end would be easy: Yehoshua in Greek is Yeosuos (later giving rise to Yesus, ie. Jesus), while Yehuda is Yudas (Judas). Such names would be easy to convert between Hebrew and Greek. We know from historical sources that several people named Chananiah were simultaneously called “Ananias” in Greek.

The same is true for Elazar or Eliezer. Many Greek names transliterated into English and other languages simple lose their “s” and end with an “r”: Antipatros becomes Antipater, while Alexandros becomes Alexander. In reverse fashion, Elazar could easily become Elazaros (or Lazarus)—very palatable in the Greek-speaking world which our early Sages inhabited.

On that note, what do we make of “Alexander”? A great number of Jews both modern and ancient (there is Alexander Yannai and Rabbi Alexandri in the Talmud) have this name. Some cite a famous Midrashic account of Alexander the Great’s arrival in Jerusalem as being proof that while Alexander is not a Hebrew name, it is something of an “honorary” Jewish name. This requires a more careful analysis.

Is Alexander a Jewish name?

The Talmud (Yoma 69a) describes Alexander the Great’s conquest of Judea. As he is marching towards Jerusalem, intent on destroying the Temple, Shimon HaTzadik goes out to meet him in his priestly garments (he was the kohen gadol at the time). When Alexander sees him, he halts, gets off his horse, and bows down to the priest. Alexander’s shocked generals ask why he would do such a thing, to which Alexander responds that he would see the face of Shimon before each successful battle. Alexander proceeds to treat the Jews kindly, and leaves the Temple intact. The Talmud stops there, though it does mention that this event took place on the 25th of Tevet, which was instituted as a minor holiday on which mourning was forbidden. (The story is also attested to by Josephus, though with a different high priest—see here for more.)

‘Alexander the Great and Jaddus the High Priest of Jerusalem’ by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669)

According to one tradition, the priests at the time wanted to honour Alexander for his kindness, and named all the boys born that year “Alexander”. In another version, Alexander was given a tour of the Holy Temple and, naturally, wished to place a statue of himself inside. Since this was impossible (but they couldn’t refuse the emperor), Shimon haTzadik convinced him that it would be a greater honour for all the children born to be named “Alexander”. Either way, some like to say that “Alexander” has become a Jewish name ever since.

In truth, this suggestion looks more like a modern way of explaining why so many Jews were named Alexander. In reality, the Midrash clearly states that a Jew should not name his child Alexander. We read in Vayikra Rabbah 32:5:

In the merit of four things was Israel redeemed from Egypt: they did not change their names*, nor their language, they did not speak lashon hara, and not one among them committed sexually immoral sins… They did not call Yehuda “Rufus”, and not Reuben “Lullianus”, and not Yosef “Listus”, and not Benjamin “Alexander”…

Apparently, when Midrash Rabbah was composed—just like today—it was common for Jews to have a non-Jewish name that they would use regularly, together with a Hebrew name that they would use only in Jewish circles. The Hebrew name “Benjamin” was often paired with “Alexander”.

We see from the Midrash above that it is important to have a Hebrew or Jewish name. But what exactly counts as a “Jewish” name?

Non-Jewish “Jewish” Names

Although today most Jews insist on having Hebrew or Biblical names (and rightly so), it seems that our Sages weren’t so strict in this regard. Indeed, many of them bore Greek, Latin, or Aramaic names with no second Hebrew name. Akiva, Avtalyon, Nechunia, Mani, Nittai, Nehorai, Adda, Papa, Simlai, Tanhum, Tarfon, Ulla, and countless others are cited in rabbinic literature. As we saw earlier, those that did have Hebrew names naturally chose names that would be palatable to the surrounding Greeks, much like many Jews today choose names that have easy English homonyms.

This trend continued for centuries, all the way up to modern times. The result is that many seemingly “Jewish” names are actually adaptations of very non-Jewish names. For example, one popular name among Ashkenazi Jews in the past was Feivel or Feibush. This name, meaning “bright”, comes from Phoebus, one of the appellations for the Greco-Roman god of light, Apollo. With this in mind, there may actually be a big halachic problem of bearing this name, since it is forbidden to recite the names of idols. (Some say the name was only meant to substitute the Biblical name Shimshon, the root of which is “sun”, thus having a similar meaning to Phoebus.)

Another appellation for Apollo was Lycegenes or Lukegenes, “born of a wolf” (possibly the source of the name “Luke”), which would be “Wolf” in Germanic countries, where the wolf was an important symbol in European mythology. Wolf also became very popular among Ashkenazis, who usually added the Hebrew translation Ze’ev to the name. The same is true for the classic German/Norse name Baer (“Bear”), to which Ashkenazis added Dov, its Hebrew translation. None of these names are Biblical or Talmudic, nor is their origin truly Hebrew.

Having said that, many have linked these names to Biblical characters. For example, Benjamin is described in the Torah as a wolf (Genesis 49:27), so some carried the name “Binyamin Wolf”, where the former was their actual Jewish name while the latter was their social name. The same goes for “Yehuda Leib”, where Leib means “lion”, like Aryeh, the symbol of the Biblical Yehuda. It has even become common to combine all three to form “Yehuda Aryeh Leib”. Similarly, there’s “Naftali Tzvi Hirsch”, since the Biblical Naftali is described as a deer, ayalah or tzvi, and “Hirsch” is German for “deer”.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the “Alter Rebbe” (1745-1812)

“Schneur”, too, is of non-Jewish origin, and comes from the Spanish name Senor (and is sometimes a German equivalent for Seymour). Chassidim have since reinterpreted it in the Hebrew as Shnei Or, “two lights”. It probably didn’t have this meaning when it was given to Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder and first rebbe of Chabad. In his case, “Schneur” was likely meant to be his social name while “Zalman” (Solomon, or “Shlomo) was his traditional Jewish or Hebrew name.

Sephardic Jews are just as culpable. Many have Arabic names like “Massoud” (which means “lucky”) or “Abdullah”. In fact, Rav Ovadia Yosef’s birth name was Yusuf Abdullah, and it was only when the family made aliyah to Israel that “Abdullah” was replaced with its Hebrew translation “Ovadia” (which is a Biblical name). At one point, a popular female Sephardic name was “Mercedes”. This one is highly problematic, as it happens to be a Spanish appellation for the Virgin Mary! (The automobile brand Mercedes is named after a Jewish girl of that name, the daughter of the company’s founder Emil Jellinek and his French-Sephardi wife.) A similar problem lies with the very popular “Natalie”, which literally means “Christmas” in Latin.

Is it okay to bear such names? A distinction must be made between those that clearly have an idolatrous origin versus those that were simply adapted from non-Jewish names but still carry a good meaning. The latter are certainly permissible, since many of our great Sages had such foreign names. Over time, many of these evolved a deeper, Jewish meaning. For instance, Adele was a classic German name (meaning “noble”) and yet the Baal Shem Tov chose it for his daughter. He explained to his chassidim that he received this name through divine inspiration, and that it is an acronym (אדל) for the important words in the Torah אש דת למו—that God gave His people “a fiery Torah” (Deuteronomy 33:2). The Torah, like fire, purifies all things. The Baal Shem Tov’s daughter went on to become a holy chassid of her own, imbued with so much Ruach haKodesh that she was nicknamed Adele HaNeviah, “Adele the Prophetess”.

Jewish “Non-Jewish” Names

The opposite case exists as well: names that appear to be non-Jewish but actually have a clear Jewish origin. Take “Elizabeth”, for example. While it may sound like a classic European name, it is actually the transliteration of “Elisheva” (אלישבע), the righteous wife of Aaron (Exodus 6:23). Some Jewish name sources incorrectly write that John is a non-Jewish name, associating it with the “New Testament” John. Yet, even that John was originally a Jewish man living in Israel, and “John” is simply a transliteration of the Hebrew name “Yochanan”. (It sounds closer in Germany and Eastern Europe, where “John” is “Johan”, or “Yohan”.)

There are numerous other examples. Susanna is Shoshana (שושנה), and Abigail is Avigayil (אביגיל). In the Tanakh, the latter makes an important comment about names, pointing out that because her first husband’s name was Naval (“abomination”) he acted abominably (I Samuel 25:25). She later married King David and is considered a prophetess in her own right.

Many are surprised to discover that “Jessica” comes from the Torah. It is an English adaptation of Iscah (יסכה), mentioned in Genesis 11:29 and, according to our Sages, the birth name of Sarah. Rashi comments:

Iscah. This is Sarah, because she would see [סוֹכָה] through divine inspiration, and because all gazed [סוֹכִין] at her beauty. Alternatively, יִסְכָּה is an expression denoting princedom [נְסִיכוּת], just as Sarah is an expression of dominion [שְׂרָרָה].

Interestingly, it appears that the earliest recorded use of the transliteration “Jessica” comes from Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. Here, Jessica is the Jewish daughter of the play’s Jewish villain, Shylock. Although many see The Merchant of Venice as an anti-Semitic work, others actually see it as Shakespeare’s cunning manipulation of that era’s rampant anti-Semitism and his own “plea for tolerance”. After all, Shylock’s most famous speech (Act III, Scene 1) reads:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

Shylock argues that his own villainy is nothing but a reflection of the villainy of the Christian world. Shakespeare recognized the cruelty that Jews had suffered, and tells his anti-Semitic audience that Jews are human, too.

Is It Necessary to Have a Hebrew Name?

Ultimately, it is certainly beneficial to have a Hebrew name of some sort, whether Biblical, Talmudic, adapted, or modern. After all, Hebrew is a holy language, and each of its letters carry profound meaning. The Hebrew term for “name” is shem (שם), which is a root of neshamah (נשמה), “soul”, and spelled the same as sham (שם), “there”, for it is there within a person’s name that his or her essence is found. For this reason, the Talmud (Yoma 83b) tells us that Rabbi Meir used to carefully analyze people’s name to determine their character. (This Talmudic passage was explored at length in Secrets of the Last Waters.)

The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b) also notes that changing one’s name is one of five things a person can do to change their fate. Indeed, we see this multiple times in Scripture. Abraham and Sarah have their names changed (from Abram and Sarai) to allow them to finally have a child. Jacob becomes Israel, while Hoshea becomes Yehoshua (Joshua). At some point, Pinchas becomes Eliyahu, and even Yosef (Joseph) becomes Yehosef (Psalms 81:6). On that last name change, the Midrash explains that it was only because Yosef had an extra hei added to his name that he was able to ascend to Egyptian hegemony.

Thus, having a name with a deep meaning, in Hebrew letters, and one that is actually used regularly (as opposed to a secondary Hebrew name that no one calls you by) is of utmost significance. If you don’t yet have such a name, it isn’t too late to get one!


*This Midrash presents a possible contradiction: how can it say that the Israelites did not adopt Egyptian names when we see that some clearly did? Maybe most of the Israelites did not adopt Egyptian names, though some did. Thankfully, another Midrash (Pesikta Zutrati on parashat Ki Tavo) steps in to offer an alternate reason. Here, Israel was redeemed in the merit of three things: not changing their clothing, their food, and their language. Changing their names is conspicuously absent.

Secrets of the Pesach Seder Plate

This Friday evening marks the start of Passover. At the Passover seder, it is customary to have a plate upon which all the symbolic Passover foods are placed. According to one arrangement, on the top right we place the zeroa bone; parallel to it on the left is an egg; then the maror (bitter herb) in the centre; the sweet charoset on the bottom right, opposite the karpas vegetable; and in the bottom centre the chazeret, horseradish or another serving of maror (which is used in the korech “sandwich”). In addition, we have three matzahs and the cup of wine, to be filled four times. What is the significance of these Pesach elements?

The zeroa represents the fact that God took us out of Egypt “with an outstretched arm” (b’zeroa netuya), as the Torah states. It also represents the korban pesach, the Pesach offering that would be brought and consumed in the days of the Temple. For this reason, it is best to have a zeroa from a lamb shank, since the Pesach offering was a lamb. The lamb itself was in commemoration of the fact that the Israelites smeared the blood of the lamb on their doorposts on the eve of their Exodus, to protect their homes from the tenth and final plague. It was a lamb in particular because the astrological sign for the month of Nisan is Aries, a ram or sheep. This is tied to Egyptian idolatry, where a number of Egyptian gods were depicted as ram-headed, or with the horns of a ram, including Khnum and Osiris. The slaughter of a lamb was thus symbolic of destroying the idols of Egypt, like the Ten Plagues themselves (see ‘The Ten Plagues: Destroying the Idols of Egypt’ in Garments of Light).

The egg symbolizes another offering brought on Passover: the chagigah, or holiday offering. This was the standard offering brought on all festivals in the days of the Temple. The reason that it is specifically an egg is because a whole egg is one of the foods traditionally consumed by mourners. (The round egg represents the cycle of life.) In this case, the egg is a symbol of mourning for the destruction of the Temple. Intriguingly, Rav Sherira Gaon (d. 1006) wrote how it is customary to eat meat, fish, and egg at the Pesach seder to represent the foods that will be eaten in the End of Days at the Feast of Mashiach. According to the Midrash, in that time the righteous will eat the fishy flesh of Leviathan, that great sea-dragon that Mashiach will slay; as well as the meat of the beast called Behemoth; and the egg of the mythical bird Ziz. So, eating an egg at the Pesach meal is symbolic of that future messianic feast.

‘Destruction of Leviathan’ by Gustav Doré

The maror famously represents the bitter oppression of the Jews, just as the Torah states that the Egyptians “embittered” (v’imareru) the lives of the Jews with mortar and brick, and hard labour (Exodus 1:14). The need to eat maror actually comes explicitly from the Torah, which commands that Jews should eat the Pesach offering together with matzah and bitter herbs (Exodus 12:8). The Mishnah (Pesachim 2:6) lists five possible maror herbs, though their identity is not entirely clear. The only one that appears to be undisputed is lettuce, and hence it is lettuce that is used for maror in Sephardic communities. Another possibility is that maror is horseradish—not the mustard-like sauce but an actual horseradish root (since maror must be a raw vegetable, as the Shulchan Arukh states in Orach Chaim 473:5). There are other traditions for maror’s identity as well.

Interestingly, the Midrash states that the consumption of maror on Pesach is one of the few things King Solomon did not understand! In Proverbs 30:18, Solomon wrote that “Three things are wondrous to me and four I do not know.” Although the passage continues to state what it is that Solomon wondered about, the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 30:14) has an alternate explanation: The three things wondrous to Solomon were the Pesach offering, matzah, and maror; and the four he didn’t know were the mysteries behind the four species of Sukkot!

The Mystery of Karpas and Charoset

The maror is dipped into the sweet charoset. This paste is meant to resemble the clay mortar that the Israelites used, or the mud that was baked into clay bricks. The word charoset comes from cheres, “clay”. There are vastly different traditions as to the ingredients of charoset. One tradition is to use the fruits mentioned in Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, among them: apples (2:3), figs (2:13), nuts (6:11), dates (7:7), wine (1:2), and cinnamon (4:14). The romantic lyrics of the Song are interpreted as an allegorical “love story” between God and Israel, and the fruits are used throughout the text in metaphorical fashion to describe that passionate love. It is particularly appropriate to use the Song of Songs recipe since it is customary to read the Song of Songs on the holiday of Pesach. (There are five megillot, “scrolls”, in the Tanakh, and each is read on a particular holiday: Shir HaShirim on Passover, Ruth on Shavuot, Eichah on Tisha b’Av, Kohelet on Sukkot, and Esther on Purim.)

Some have pointed out that charoset may have a Greek origin, as it was common to eat fruit and nut mixtures in the Greek symposia, which the Pesach seder might be loosely modelled on. Similarly, karpas has a Greek etymology (as does afikoman) and means “vegetable”. This vegetable can be celery, parsley, water cress, green onion, or even boiled potato. It is commonly said that the karpas symbolizes, once again, the difficult labour of the Jews. In the word karpas (כרפס) appear the letters פ-ר-כ, as in the Torah’s statement that the Egyptians worked the Israelites בפרך, b’farekh (Exodus 1:13), exceedingly hard. It is customary to dip the karpas in salt water, which represents the tears of the Israelites.

Having said that, there may be a better explanation for the karpas, and its secret lies in an alternate custom to dip it not in salt water, but in wine vinegar. The Hebrew word karpas (כרפס) actually appears in one place in the Tanakh. This is in Esther 1:6, amidst a description of the feast of King Ahashverosh, where his palace was draped with chur karpas u’tekhelet (חור כרפס ותכלת), “white linen and blue thread”. So, while the Greek karpos means “vegetable”, the Hebrew karpas means “linen” or “fabric”. Dipping the karpas in wine vinegar is therefore like dipping clothing in blood, symbolizing the tunic of Joseph which his brothers dipped in blood and presented to their father Jacob. It was that act which sparked the sequence of events leading to the Israelites descent to Egypt, and their ultimate enslavement.

The sixth spot on the seder plate is sometimes missing altogether, and other times holds horseradish (sometimes the creamy kind), salt water (for dipping karpas), or another serving of maror which is used in the korech, the “sandwich” made up of matzah, charoset, and maror. As the Haggadah states, this was the custom of the great Hillel, who used to make such a sandwich to literally fulfil the word of the Torah to eat the Pesach offering together with matzah and bitter herbs.

In addition to the plate, we have three matzahs. These symbolize the three patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—as well as the three divisions of the Jewish nation—Kohen, Levi, and Israel. (We have explored in the past why it is the middle matzah, corresponding to Isaac, that is broken in half.) They can also be said to symbolize the three siblings who led the Exodus: Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

The Four Cups

The four cups of wine symbolize the four expressions of salvation that the Torah uses (Exodus 6:6-8) in describing the Exodus:

I am Hashem, and I will [1] bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and [2] I will deliver you from their bondage, and [3] I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments; and [4] I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God; and you shall know that I am Hashem your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you to the land, concerning which I lifted up My hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it you for a heritage: I am Hashem.

We see a fifth expression here, too—“and I will bring you to the land…” This is why we do pour a fifth cup, but we do not drink it. It is left for the prophet-turned-angel Eliyahu. In the Talmud, it is common for the rabbis to leave an unsettled debate “for Eliyahu”, who will come in the Messianic days and finally resolve all the Talmudic disputes. Since there is a debate whether to drink four or five cups of wine on Pesach (based on a variant text in Pesachim 118a), we drink four and leave a fifth “for Eliyahu”. The deeper meaning behind the debate here is whether our salvation is complete or not. Although we were taken out of Egypt, Jews have continued to experience oppression for centuries ever since. We will not be totally redeemed until the coming of Mashiach. Our presence in the Holy Land will not be secured until then either. This is why the fifth cup is for Eliyahu, who is the harbinger of Mashiach.

It has also been pointed out that in Genesis 40:11-13, Pharaoh’s cupbearer mentions a cup four times in his dream. Joseph interpreted the cupbearer’s dream in the positive, and prophesied that he shall return to his position, while the Pharaoh’s baker would be put to death. Joseph asked the cupbearer that he remember Joseph and help to get him out of his imprisonment. Although the cupbearer forget all about Joseph, he later remembered the young dream interpreter when the Pharaoh’s own dream was inexplicable. This led to Joseph’s release from prison, his ascent to Egyptian royalty, and the eventual settlement of his family in Egypt, leading to their enslavement. So, the dream of the “four cups” sets in motion the events that lead to Israel’s descent to Egypt.

Likewise, when Joseph tests his siblings and places his special goblet in the bag of Benjamin (Genesis 44), the word “goblet” is mentioned four times. Better yet, the numerical value of “goblet” (גביע) is equal to the value of “cup” (כוס) when including the kollel. And the value of “cup” (כוס) itself is 86, which is the number of years that Israel was enslaved. (Israel was in Egypt a total of 210 years, of which the first 94 were peaceful. Then came 30 years of persecution, followed by 86 years of hard slavery. For a detailed analysis see ‘How Long Were the Israelites Actually in Egypt?’)

Some say the four cups parallel the four types of kelipah, the impure “husks” in Creation. Kabbalistic texts often speak of Pharaoh as the ultimate force of kelipah. It just so happens that the Torah speaks of four pharaohs altogether: the first Pharaoh was the one Abraham encountered upon his descent to Egypt; the second was the one that took Joseph out of prison and appointed him viceroy; the third was the wicked one who enslaved Israel and later decreed the drowning of the Israelite babies; and the fourth is the pharaoh at the time of the Exodus.

Yet another explanation is that the four cups correspond to the four exiles of Israel: the Babylonian, the Persian, the Greek, and the Roman. Just as we were redeemed from the oppression of Egypt, we were redeemed from the future exiles (awaiting the final redemption). Appropriately, the Arizal taught that Egypt was the root of all future exiles (Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Re’eh). Similarly, the Talmud and Midrash state (based on Exodus 14:13-14) that the Jews split into four groups when trapped between the Red Sea on one side and the approaching Egyptians on the other. There were those that lost all hope and wanted to surrender, and those that wanted to kill themselves rather than surrender; those that wished to arm themselves and fight the Egyptians, and those that simply prayed to God for salvation. Regardless of their faith or faithlessness, God saved all four groups of Jews, and we drink four cups in commemoration.

Lastly, if the three matzahs parallel the three patriarchs of Israel, then the four cups can be said to parallel the four matriarchs: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. After all, the Talmud (Sotah 11b) states that “As the reward for the righteous women who lived in that generation were the Israelites delivered from Egypt.”

Sefirot of the Seder Plate

Etz Chaim, the Kabbalistic “Tree of Life”

The Arizal arranged his seder plate according to the mystical Tree of Life that depicts the Ten Sefirot. The zeroa is in the top right because this is the position of Chessed, kindness, as it represents God’s compassion in taking us out of Egypt. The egg is in the position of Gevurah, or Din, strict judgement and restraint, since it represents mourning the Temple’s destruction. (Another symbolic explanation for the egg is that it represents the Jewish people: just as an egg gets harder the more it is boiled so, too, does the Jewish nation only grow stronger the more we are “boiled” and oppressed.) The all-important maror is in the central sefirah of Tiferet, balance and truth.

The sefirot of Netzach and Hod (paralleling the legs) are charoset and karpas, symbolizing our difficult labour. The salt water, chazeret, or additional maror below is for Yesod. Finally, the plate itself is Malkhut, since Malkhut is the receptacle for all the sefirot above, just as the plate holds all the foods. Alternatively, Malkhut may correspond to the cup of wine.

Finally, at the top are the three matzot, corresponding to the upper three mochin of Chokhmah, Binah, and Da’at (or Keter). This reveals a deeper secret as to why we break the middle matzah into two halves. The middle matzah is the middle sefirah of Binah, which actually has two aspects: Binah and Tevunah. While “Binah” is simply understanding a matter, “Tevunah” is internalizing that information more deeply. Tevunah is engraving that understanding into one’s mind, and it leads to being able to apply that knowledge in real world situations. Thus, we end the seder with the consumption of the afikoman—the Tevunah half—as we wish to not only understand what was discussed at the seder, but to internalize it on the deepest of levels.

Chag Sameach!

Is Mount Sinai Really a Mountain?

This week we read another double portion, Behar and Bechukotai, which begins by telling us that God “spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai” (Leviticus 25:1). Why does the Torah constantly reiterate that God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai? Why does Mount Sinai matter so much?

Pirkei Avot opens by stating that Moses received the Torah not “at Sinai” (b’Sinai), but “from Sinai” (miSinai), as if the mountain itself revealed the Torah. More perplexing still, it is said that Sinai was so unique it descended down into this world just for the Torah’s revelation—and can no longer be found today! What do we really know about this enigmatic “mountain”?

A Mountain of Many Names

The Talmud (Megillah 29a, Shabbat 89a) records that Mount Sinai had multiple names, including Horev, Tzin, Kadesh, Kedomot, Paran, Har HaElohim, Har Bashan, and Har Gavnunim. The latter name comes from the root meaning “hunched” (giben) or short. Mount Sinai was a lowly and humble mountain, which is why God picked it in the first place. This name is also a reason why it is customary to eat dairy foods on the holiday of Shavuot—which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai—since gavnunim is related to gevinah, cheese.

The term gavnunim comes from Psalms 68:17, where we read how other mountains were jealous of Sinai. The same verse is cited by Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (ch. 19) in stating that God created seven special mountains, and chose Sinai for the greatest of His revelations. We are told that the name Sinai comes from s’neh, the burning bush that appeared to Moses on this mountain. Delving deeper, however, we see that Moses didn’t just stumble upon the place and, in fact, Sinai was far more than just a mountain.

Mountain, or Vehicle?

In commenting on the first chapters of Exodus, Yalkut Reuveni tells us that Mount Sinai actually uprooted itself and flew towards Moses while he was shepherding his flocks. Meanwhile, the Talmud (Shabbat 88a) famously states that the Israelites stood not at the foot of Sinai, but underneath Sinai, with the mountain hovering over their heads. Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (ch. 41) gives us even more fascinating details:

On the sixth of Sivan, the Holy One, blessed be He, was revealed to Israel on Sinai, and from His place was He revealed on Mount Sinai and the Heavens were opened, and the summit of the mountain entered into the Heavens. Thick darkness covered the mountain, and the Holy One, blessed be He, sat upon His throne, and His feet stood on the thick darkness, as it is said, “He bowed the heavens also, and came down; and thick darkness was under His feet.” (II Samuel 22:10)

Despite being a lowly mountain, Sinai’s summit ascended up to the Heavens. Then God Himself descended upon it, with His “feet” amidst the cloud of thick darkness (‘araphel) surrounding the mountain. The passage continues:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karchah said: The feet of Moses stood on the mount, and all his body was in the Heavens… beholding and seeing everything that is in the Heavens. The Holy One, blessed be He, was speaking with him like a man who is conversing with his companion, as it is said, “And Hashem spoke unto Moses face to face.” (Exodus 33:11)

Moses’s feet were “on the mount”, yet his entire body was in Heaven! This brings to mind the vision of Ezekiel, where the prophet sees the Merkavah, God’s “Chariot”, descending from Heaven before “… a spirit lifted me up, and I heard behind me the sound of a great rushing… also the noise of the wings of the Chayot as they touched one another, and the noise of the wheels beside them, the noise of a great rushing.” (Ezekiel 3:12-13)

A Sci-Fi Version of Ezekiel’s Vision

Like Elijah and Enoch before him, Ezekiel was taken up to Heaven upon a mysterious vehicle, complete with wings and spinning wheels that generated a deafening noise. (With regards to Elijah, we read in II Kings 2:11 that “there appeared a chariot of fire… and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind up to Heaven.”) Similarly, Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer suggests that there were 22,000 such chariots at Sinai! This is based on Psalms 68:18, which says “The chariots of God are myriads, thousands upon thousands; Adonai is among them, as at Sinai, in holiness.”

A Vehicle of Prophecy

The similarities between Ezekiel’s Vision and the Revelation at Sinai don’t end there. Ezekiel (1:4, 13, 24) writes:

… A stormy wind came out of the north, a great cloud, with a fire flashing up… and out of the fire went forth lightning… a tumultuous noise like a great military camp…

Exodus 19:16-18 describes the scene this way:

… There were noises and lightning bolts, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the sound of a horn exceedingly loud… And Mount Sinai was covered in smoke, because Hashem descended upon it in fire…

Both passages speak of fire and lightning, thick clouds and ear-splitting noises. The semblance is undoubtedly the reason for Ezekiel’s Vision being read as the haftarah for the holiday of Shavuot. The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 43:8) even writes that the inspiration for the Golden Calf at Sinai was the face of the bull upon God’s Chariot, as described by Ezekiel (1:10).

These midrashic descriptions suggest that Sinai—far from being simply a mountain—is a vehicle of prophecy and revelation, much like the Merkavah. It is therefore not surprising to see Sinai implicated in various other prophetic visions, including Elijah’s conversation with God (I Kings 19), and Jacob’s vision of the ladder (where “ladder”, סלם, also has the same gematria as “Sinai”, סיני). It explains why Pirkei Avot states that Moses received the Torah from Sinai, and why the Torah constantly connects Moses’ prophecy to it.

Ultimately, prophecy and divine revelation will return with the coming of Mashiach and the rebuilding of the Temple. So, it is fitting to end with one more midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah 391), which states that God will bring back Sinai in the future; it will descend upon Jerusalem, and the Holy Temple will be rebuilt right on top of it.


Make your Shavuot night-learning meaningful with the Arizal’s ‘Tikkun Leil Shavuot’, a mystical Torah-study guide, now in English and Hebrew, with commentary.

What Do Your Dreams Mean?

Joseph's Dream, by Susan Govatos

Joseph’s Dream, by Susan Govatos

This week’s parasha is Miketz, which begins by describing Pharaoh’s strange dreams. None of Pharaoh’s wise men are able to give a satisfying interpretation, so Joseph is summoned to decipher the cryptic visions. In the previous parasha we read of Joseph’s own dreams, and his accurate analysis of the dreams of Pharaoh’s attendants. All of these people happen to be experiencing prophetic dreams.

The Talmud (Berakhot 57b) famously states that dreams are “one-sixtieth of prophecy”. The Arizal notes that dreams are one of five types of divine communication in lieu of true prophecy – which disappeared when the Second Temple was destroyed. The other four are Ruach HaKodesh, a “holy spirit”; messages from the souls of departed Tzadikim; communication with angels called Maggidim; and with Eliyahu HaNavi. Of the five types, only dreams are accessible to everyone, since the other four require a great deal of spiritual refinement to attain. Therefore, dreams are potentially of very great significance, and may hold important information.

joseph-dreamThe Talmud devotes several pages to dream analysis in the tractate Berakhot. It starts by stating that there are three things a person should always pray for: a good king, a good year, and a good dream. Nonetheless, we are then told that a bad dream is better than a good dream! Rabbi Yochanan teaches in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai that “just as wheat cannot be without straw, so too there cannot be a dream without nonsense.” It is concluded – based on Joseph’s dreams – that no dream is ever totally fulfilled, but only parts of the dream are. We also learn from Joseph that a person should wait as long as 22 years for the fulfilment of a dream, since this is the amount of time that elapsed between Joseph’s dreams and when the dreams were finally realized.

Rabbi Yochanan tells us that three types of dreams are fulfilled: an early morning dream, a dream that a friend has about you, and a dream interpreted within the dream. Others add, based on this week’s parasha, a dream that one sees multiple times. Having said that, we are then given an opinion that dreams are simply a product of one’s own thoughts.

A couple of pages later, we are told that seeing a well, river, bird, or pot is a sign of peace. If one sees a reed, it is a sign of wisdom, and several reeds is a sign of understanding. Pumpkins, palm hearts, and waxes are all good signs. We are then given five interpretations with regards to seeing oxen doing various things in a dream.

mashiach-on-donkey-by-elhanan-ben-avraham

Mashiach on his donkey, by Elhanan ben Avraham

Seeing a donkey is a sign of salvation, since Mashiach is said to come on a donkey. A cat can be a positive sign, or a sign of a bad change coming. White grapes are always a good sign, while black grapes are only a good sign when in season. Similarly, a white horse is always a good sign, while a red horse is only good if walking gently, not galloping. If one sees Ishmael in their dream, it means their prayers will be answered. The Talmud clarifies that it must be Ishmael himself, and not any other Arab. If one sees Pinchas, a miracle is coming their way. If one sees an elephant, they will experience a wonder, and if many elephants, many wonders! Others say seeing elephants or monkeys is a bad sign.

If one sees a funeral eulogy, it is a sign of mercy. If one dreams that they are reciting Shema, they are worthy of the Shekhinah to rest upon them, while one dreaming of donning tefillin will find greatness. Dreaming of praying is a good sign, too. We are then presented with a number of sexual dreams (“if one dreams they have intercourse with…”) which, surprisingly, are all really good signs! These bring wisdom, understanding, Torah knowledge, and even a share in the World to Come!

We are then given a list of agricultural symbols. Among them, pomegranates are a sign for more business, while split pomegranates mean one will be a great Torah scholar. Olives are good for business, too, while an olive tree means many children. Barley or palm trees mean “one’s iniquities will come to an end.”

Michelangelo's Jeremiah

Michelangelo’s Jeremiah

Goats are a great sign, and one who sees an etrog is honoured by God. Geese bring wisdom and a coming promotion, while a rooster will bring a son, and many roosters bring many sons. We are later told that, generally, seeing animals is a good thing (except for apes). A snake means life, and if one is bitten by a snake it is even better. All birds are good except owls and bats, all vegetables except turnips, and all colours except blue. Seeing various kings, rabbis, and books of Tanakh is usually a sign of piety and wisdom – except if it is King Ahab or the prophet Jeremiah, the apostate Rabbi Elisha ben Avuyah, or the Books of Job and Lamentations, all of which bring punishment.

The Talmud gives a number of other details and signs. Ultimately, it affirms that “all dreams follow the mouth”, meaning that all dreams are fulfilled according to how they are interpreted. Rabbi Bana’ah once went to 24 different dream-interpreters in Jerusalem, and the dream was fulfilled according to each of the 24 interpretations! Thus, the Sages suggest that a person should relate their dreams to a good person they trust, who will surely give them a positive interpretation.

And if one does not remember their dreams:

…let him stand before the priests at the time when they spread out their hands [to bless the congregation] and say as follows: “Master of the Universe, I am Yours and my dreams are Yours. I have dreamt a dream and I do not know what it is. Whether I have dreamt about myself or my companions have dreamt about me, or I have dreamt about others, if they are good dreams, confirm them and reinforce them like the dreams of Joseph, and if they require a remedy, heal them, as the waters of Marah were healed by Moses, our teacher, and as Miriam was healed of her leprosy and Hezekiah of his sickness, and the waters of Jericho by Elisha. As You did turn the curse of the wicked Balaam into a blessing, so turn all my dreams into something good for me.”

Chag sameach!

Secrets of the Akedah

akedah-stampThis week’s parasha is Vayera, most famous for describing the Akedah, or “binding of Isaac”. As is well known, God seemingly commands Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son, with no clear reason why He wants this. Later, the text suggests that it was a test of Abraham’s devotion to God: how much was Abraham willing to give up in his service of the Divine? The test seems quite cruel. How could God command a person to do something as abhorrent as sacrificing a child? Of course, child sacrifice is itself totally forbidden by Torah law, and God never intended for Abraham to hurt Isaac. In that case, why command such a thing in the first place?

Many interesting answers have been presented to deal with this. A careful analysis of the text shows that God never actually commanded Abraham to kill Isaac. Rather, he said to take him to Mt. Moriah and, literally, “elevate him as an elevation”. It is assumed that the word “elevation” (olah) is a “burnt-sacrifice”, since this is how the term would be used many times later in the Torah. However, this is not necessarily the case. In fact, this is pointed out by the Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 56:8), which records the following conversation between God and Abraham:

Abraham said to [God]: I will set my words before you. Yesterday you said to me: “In Isaac will be called your seed” (Genesis 21:12). Then you went back and said, “Take your son” (Genesis 22:1). Now you say to me, “Do not send forth your hand against the boy” (Genesis 22:12).

The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him: “I will not profane my covenant and the utterance of my lips will not change” (Psalms 89:35). When I said to you, “take”… I did not say “slaughter him” but rather “bring him up.” You brought him up, now bring him down!

High Priest in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur

High Priest in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur

Rabbi Isaiah Horovitz (c. 1565-1630), better known as the Shelah HaKadosh, points out that Abraham was explicitly commanded to go to Mt. Moriah, which gets its name from mor, the fragrant myrrh, which was the first ingredient of the ketoret, the incense offering in the Temple. The ketoret was the most powerful and most precious of all offerings, and was the incense that the High Priest brought into the Holy of Holies – the innermost chamber of the Temple – on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. The Shelah HaKadosh explains that Abraham was meant to play the role of High Priest and bring Isaac to the Holy of Holies, where his son would be elevated spiritually. No death was necessary at all!

It seems like Abraham, living in a time where child sacrifice was so common, misunderstood God’s command. God had to intervene and stop Abraham at the last moment, teaching him that there is no place for child sacrifice in a just world. He blessed Abraham nonetheless for his boundless devotion. Still, we no longer see God communicating with Abraham, and the story then shifts to Isaac. Perhaps Abraham didn’t exactly pass the test as God had hoped.

Meanwhile, Isaac was indeed elevated. The text ends without mentioning Isaac. It says that Abraham returned to the youths that accompanied him to the mountain, and they all returned to Be’er Sheva. Isaac is nowhere to be seen! The next time he is discussed is three years later. Based on this discrepancy, the Midrash comments that Isaac was brought into the Heavenly Garden of Eden for three years following the Akedah! This midrashic explanation alludes to a far greater secret within the Akedah.

Repairing Death and Returning to Eden

The Arizal taught that the Akedah was a tikkun, a spiritual rectification, for a monumental event that happened centuries earlier. Following man’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the first sons Cain and Abel got into a scuffle and Cain ended up killing his brother. This was the first act of murder, and ushered in all future killings. Of course, such a tremendous sin requires a tikkun.

According to Biblical chronology, Isaac was 37 years old at the Akedah. The Arizal says that this hints to the above tikkun, as 37 is the gematria of “Abel” (הבל). Also, when Isaac asked his father what they will sacrifice, Abraham answered that “God will see for Himself the lamb for the offering, my son” (Genesis 22:7). The phrase can also be read in this way: “the lamb for the offering is my son” (ha’seh l’olah bni). Rashi comments here that at this point Isaac understood that he would be sacrificed, and did not protest. The Arizal sees in the phrase ha’seh l’olah bni (השה לעלה בני) the initials of Abel, once more hinting at the tikkun at hand.

Had Abraham actually sacrificed Isaac, the Arizal suggests that the tikkun for all murder, killing, and even death itself would have been affected. All of the spiritual vessels of the world would have been repaired, and the Messianic age would have been ushered in immediately, with the resurrection of the dead along with it. Isaac would have been resurrected himself right away, making his death last only a fleeting instant, just enough time for him to enter Eden and bring it back down to Earth.

Alas, this was not the case. Isaac certainly did ascend to Eden, but ended up staying there for a while longer. The world was not yet ready for the Messianic age. While it didn’t happen at that point, it will happen in the future. In fact, Isaac will return to the world to fulfil his destiny, and the Arizal sees in his name (יצחק) an anagram of ketz chai (קץ חי), “the one who will live [again] at the end”. Who, exactly, will this “End-Times” Isaac be?

The First Three and the Last Three

The mystical Sefer Yetzirah states a famous principle: “the end is wedged in the beginning”. The whole process of tikkun will end very similarly to how it all began. In the same way that it began with our three forefathers, it will end with another set of three figures. When describing the events of Mashiach’s coming, Jewish texts usually refer to three individuals: Eliyahu, Mashiach ben Yosef, and Mashiach ben David. Eliyahu is first, who comes to announce the coming Redemption. Mashiach ben Yosef is next, whose job is to fight the necessary battles to prepare the world. Finally, Mashiach ben David comes to usher the world into a new era.

The Talmud (Sukkah 52a-b) records how Mashiach ben Yosef will have to die. The Arizal instituted a kavanah (intention or meditation) within the Amidah (during the blessing for rebuilding Jerusalem) for one to pray that ben Yosef will not have to die. However, it seems that the death of Mashiach ben Yosef is nothing more than the fulfilment of the Akedah, and in his monumental Sefer Asarah Ma’amrot, Rabbi Menachem Azariah de Fano writes explicitly that Mashiach ben Yosef will die and be resurrected shortly after, having fulfilled his task. He even implies that Mashiach ben Yosef is none other than Isaac! (We discussed this identification in more detail in a previous post here.)

It is quite easy to see how the three Messianic figures parallel the three patriarchs. Abraham was the first “to call in God’s name” and made it his life’s mission to teach people about monotheism and inspire repentance. Similarly, Eliyahu’s mission is to make a grand announcement – calling in God’s name – and to inspire people to repent (see Malachi 3:23-24). Jacob was the last patriarch, the one who became Israel and fathered the Twelve Tribes. Likewise, Mashiach ben David will restore the nation to Israel and re-establish the Twelve Tribes. Mashiach ben Yosef, like Isaac (whose gematria, 208, actually equals “ben Yosef”!) has the most difficult task. Several millennia ago, the world was not yet ready for it, but it is certainly ripe now. May we merit to see its fulfilment soon.