Tag Archives: Genesis

A New Theory of Shabbat HaGadol

This Saturday is Shabbat HaGadol, the “Great Sabbath” before Pesach. One of the big mysteries surrounding the holiday is the origin of this term. Why is the Shabbat preceding Pesach described as being gadol? Why aren’t the Sabbaths before other big holidays described the same way? What makes this Shabbat so special? Over the centuries, many different explanations have been given.

Perhaps the most famous explanation is that on the Shabbat before the Exodus, the Egyptians got word of the impending Tenth Plague and Death of the Firstborn so, naturally, all the Egyptian firstborn rose up in protest. They revolted against Pharaoh and pressured him to free the Israelites so that their lives would be spared. A civil war ensued and many Egyptians were struck down. This is why we read in Psalms (136:10) that God “struck down the Egyptians through their firstborn”. The verse can be read to mean that God struck down the Egyptian firstborn, or that He struck down the Egyptians at the hands of their own firstborn! This great civil war (a mini-plague in its own right) gave Shabbat HaGadol its name.

Khnum

Another explanation is that on (or just prior to) the Sabbath before the Exodus the Israelites had been commanded to prepare the sheep for the paschal sacrifice. Since this was in the month of Nisan, the astrological sign for which is a sheep or ram, the Egyptians were in the midst of worshipping their ram-headed sheep god Khnum. To the Egyptians, the sacrifice of a sheep at that time would have been appalling and sacrilegious. Yet, in great dread of the Israelites and their God, the Egyptians stayed silent and did not protest what they knew was about to happen. This was a mini-miracle and yet another display of God’s greatness, hence Shabbat HaGadol.

A more pragmatic explanation for Shabbat HaGadol is that, since it is the Sabbath before Pesach, rabbis in all synagogues give an extra-long sermon in preparation for the holiday. There are a lot of halakhot to go over, and there is also a need for some words of inspiration. Because of the long speeches, it became known as Shabbat HaGadol. Finally, some hold that the name comes from the Haftarah typically read on the Shabbat before Pesach (Malachi 3), and its concluding prophesy about the return of Eliyahu before the “Great [Gadol] and Awesome Day of Hashem”. After all, we had finished last year’s seder by praying and hoping that next year we will be redeemed and in Jerusalem. So, the Shabbat right before the upcoming Pesach is our final wish that the Great Day of God will come now so that this year’s seder can be in Jerusalem as we hoped.

All of the above are wonderful explanations. I believe there might also be one more coming out of an oft-forgotten historical detail from the end of the Second Temple era.

The Great Calendar Debate

As is well-known, at the end of the Second Temple era Jewish life in the Holy Land was dominated by two major groups: the Perushim (“Pharisees”) and the Tzdukim (“Sadducees”). The latter held only to the strict observance of the Written Torah, with no particular reverence for oral tradition or oral law. For this reason, the Sadducees famously did not believe in an afterlife, since the Torah never explicitly mentions it, nor did they allow any use of an existing flame on Shabbat, based on their straight-forward reading of Exodus 35:3.

Another major debate between the Sadducees and Pharisees was regarding Sefirat haOmer. The Torah states that we must start counting the Omer from the day after the Sabbath (Leviticus 23:11, 15). The Sadducees took this literally, and began the Omer count from the day after the Shabbat of Pesach. This meant that they always began counting on Sunday and always celebrated Shavuot on Sunday. The Pharisees, meanwhile, based on oral tradition, held that the count must begin from the day after the first yom tov of Pesach, since the Torah often refers to holidays themselves as “Shabbats”, too. The count would always begin on the 16th of Nisan, making Shavuot always land around the 6th or 7th of Sivan (depending on lunar month lengths). The Pharisees insisted this was the correct way going back to Sinai, as taught by Moses.

Intriguingly, there was a third up-and-coming group of Jews at the time, the mysterious Essenes. They were originally a small break-away sect of Sadducees that also had beliefs similar to the Pharisees and did maintain certain binding oral traditions. The Essenes would have a large impact on the development of Rabbinic Judaism as we know it (which came mostly out of Pharisee Judaism) following the destruction of the Second Temple. Unlike the Pharisees and Sadducees, which held by a lunisolar calendar that used lunar months but aligned with solar years (as we still do today), the Essenes believed such a calendar was inaccurate and too flexible. They did not like it one bit that the lunar months were proclaimed by the Sanhedrin based on eyewitnesses who might be mistaken. Instead, the Essenes held only to a finely-tuned solar calendar which they thought was perfect.

The Essene calendar (as described in the apocryphal but hugely important Book of Jubilees, ch. 6, among other sources) went as follows: There were 52 weeks divided up into 4 seasons, each with exactly 13 weeks totalling 91 days. The result was that holidays would always fall on the exact same weekday all the time. Shavuot was always celebrated on a Sunday, the 15th of Sivan. (They argued that Shavuot should be on a 15th just like the other regalim, Pesach and Sukkot.) The Essenes interpreted that verse in Leviticus to mean that the Omer count must start from the day after Shabbat after Pesach is over. So, the Essenes always celebrated Shavuot a week after the Sadducees! (Depending on when Pesach would fall in a given year, the Sadducees and Pharisees might celebrate Shavuot on the same day, or a day or two apart. In a year like this year, when Pesach falls on Shabbat, the Pharisees and Sadducees would have begun counting the Omer on the same Sunday and celebrated Shavuot on the same day.) The problem with the Essene calendar is that it had a year of 364 days, and it isn’t clear how they intercalated to stay aligned with the solar year of 365.24 days.

After the Temple was destroyed, Sadducee and Essene Judaism both disappeared (along with numerous other, smaller sects). Pharisee Judaism continued and evolved into “Rabbinic” Judaism. It was precisely the richness and fluidity of the oral tradition that allowed Judaism to survive and flourish. And we still have many remnants of our ancient Sages instituting practices partly to counter the mistaken Sadducee claims. Lighting Shabbat candles and eating warm chamin (like cholent) was a direct assault on Sadducee Judaism which kept the lights out and ate cold food to avoid making use of a flame. With this in mind, I believe we can posit another hypothesis for the origin of Shabbat HaGadol:

Unlike the Sadducees (and Essenes), our Sages held that the Omer count must start from the second day of Pesach since the first day of Pesach is itself like Shabbat. When the Torah says to count from the day after “Shabbat”, it means the day after the first yom tov of Pesach. In that case, if we insist on calling the first day of Pesach a Shabbat, what does that make the actual Shabbat preceding it? It’s like we have two Shabbats in a single week! So, perhaps it became customary to refer to the actual Shabbat as Shabbat haGadol, both to distinguish it from the Pesach mini-Shabbat and to emphasize the wrongness of the Sadducees and Essenes.

This leads us to an even bigger question: why did our Sages insist that Pesach is the Shabbat in question? Isn’t the Torah quite clear that the count should start from the Sabbath after Pesach? What is so important about tying Pesach to Shabbat?

Purpose of Creation

Rashi begins his commentary on the Torah by pointing out that Beresheet means that God created “for resheet”, and what is resheet? Proverbs 8:22 calls the Torah resheet darko, “the first of His way”, while Jeremiah 2:3 calls Israel resheet tevuato, “the first of His grain”. Therefore, God created the cosmos with the intention to eventually forge Israel and give His Torah. If not for this, He would have never created to begin with, as we read in Jeremiah 33:25-26 that “If not for My covenant day and night, I would have never established the laws of Heaven and Earth, so I will never reject the offspring of Jacob…”

The ‘Pillars of Creation’ in the Eagle Nebula (Courtesy: NASA)

Therefore, there is a deep, intrinsic connection between Creation and Pesach: Without a Genesis, there would be no Exodus, and without an Exodus God would have never bothered with a Genesis! This is why, when reciting Kiddush every Friday evening to welcome Shabbat, we say zekher l’yetziat Mitzrayim, “in memory of the Exodus from Egypt”. And it is why, when the Torah gives the Ten Commandments twice (in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5), the first time it says Shabbat is in order to commemorate Genesis, while the second time it says Shabbat is in order to commemorate the Exodus! In the former, we are told to keep Shabbat because God rested on the Seventh Day of Creation, while in the latter we are told to keep Shabbat because we were once slaves working around the clock and we are no longer slaves so we should celebrate our freedom with a day of rest and divine service.

In short, Pesach and Shabbat are inseparable and represent two sides of the same coin. Our Sages insisted on commemorating Pesach itself as a Shabbat, for it cannot be any other way. Pesach is a Shabbat, the very reason for the existence not only of the Jewish people, but of the whole universe. And before the Pesach-Shabbat of Exodus comes the Great Shabbat of Genesis.

Shabbat Shalom!

Four Levels of Human

In this week’s parasha, Tazria, we read about various skin ailments that could afflict a person in ancient times. The section begins with the words “A human [adam] upon whose skin will be…” (Leviticus 13:2) The Zohar (III, 48a) asks: why does the Torah specifically say adam, “human”? This is peculiar language, for we would more likely expect the Torah to use the far more common term ish, a “man” or a “person”. The Zohar notes how at the beginning of Vayikra, too, the Torah stated “A human [adam] among you who will bring a sacrifice…” (Leviticus 1:2) Why “human”?

Credit: Totemical.com

The Zohar answers that the Torah has four distinct words for human beings: adam, gever, enosh, and ish (אדם, גבר, אנוש, איש), and these correspond to the four types or four levels of being human. The term adam is reserved for the highest, most refined, and most spiritual level of a human being, for this is the original word used in the Torah, as God intended man to be, b’tzalmo, in His image (Genesis 1:27). This is why, when speaking of bringing an offering to God, the Torah specifically uses adam, for a person had to be on a very refined and pure level to properly offer a sacrifice.

The same is true for the mysterious skin ailments in this week’s parasha. As our Sages taught, these were not actually communicable diseases, but rather spiritual ailments sent upon a person for a very specific reason. They manifested solely on the skin because skin is the most external part of a person’s body, the outer shell. The person afflicted was really pure and holy inside, so the ailment could only cling to the most external surface. Only the greatest of people had these skin ailments, such as the prophetess Miriam as we read later in the Torah. (Our Sages described Mashiach as being similarly skin-afflicted, for evil is only able to cling to him externally).

The Zohar does not say much about the other levels of human. Based on the discussion that follows though, we can deduce that the next level after adam is ish. Both adam and ish are high-level humans, so much so that even God is metaphorically described with these titles in various places in Tanakh. For instance, the Zohar points out how Ezekiel 1:26 describes God k’mareh adam, “resembling adam”, and in the Song of the Sea we find that God is called ish milchamah, a “man of war” (Exodus 15:3). Moses, the greatest of prophets, is called an “ish” in multiple places, such as Exodus 32:1 and Numbers 12:3. Lastly, we saw above that a person who got a skin affliction was described as an adam, but later in the chapter the Torah also calls such a person ish o ishah, “man or woman” (Leviticus 13:29). This actually helps us understand the difference in levels between adam and ish.

When it comes to adam, this is a complete human being entirely in God’s image. That means adam has both male and female halves, as the Torah says that God created Adam “male and female” (Genesis 1:27, 5:2). On this, our Sages (Yevamot 63a) taught that a person who is not married is not called “adam” since they are missing their other half! A real adam is one who is righteous and refined, and is also eternally bonded to their soulmate who is righteous and refined. This is the complete human, on the highest possible level. Below that is ish o ishah, where there is a clear distinction between “man” and “woman”, referring to a refined righteous person, though unmarried or not successfully married. This can help us further explain the Zohar’s pointing out that Moses is often called an “ish”, but not an “adam”, since Moses had stopped being intimate with his wife. (Unlike Moses, Mashiach will not separate from his wife, see Zohar I, 82a [Idra Zuta], 137a [Midrash HaNe’elam], and 145b.)

The next level after ish is gever, a term difficult to translate. The root literally means “strength” or “restraint”, and could also refer to a “hero”, “warrior”, or “great one”. It implies physical strength or greatness, but not necessarily much spiritual elevation. A gever might be one who is successful in other areas of life, but not in the spiritual realm. It may explain why Jeremiah famously said “Blessed is [or will be] the gever who trusts in God…” (17:7) The great person will truly be great only when they learn to trust in God.

The lowest level of human is enosh, literally “mortal”. This is a person who is simply alive, but otherwise contributing little to the world. This is why King David asked: “What is enosh that You should even remember him…?” (Psalms 8:5) Further proof comes from the man actually named “Enosh”, the grandson of Adam, the first to go “off the derekh” and away from the true spiritual path (Genesis 5:26). It is also why the generic word for “people” in Hebrew is anashim, deriving from this same root.

Finally, the Zohar states that there is a level that is even lower than all of the above, when a person is “sub-human” and behaving like an animal. This is the level of behemah, “beast”. The Zohar says this is the hidden meaning of Psalms 36:7 which states that “Your righteousness is like the highest mountains, Your justice is like the great depths, You save adam u’behemah, O Hashem!” God saves both the highest human, adam, and the lowest, behemah.

Souls and Universes

One might notice that the four (five) types of human above neatly parallel the five levels of soul, as well as the four (five) mystical olamot, or “universes”. The lowest type of human is the animalistic behemah, corresponding to the lowest level of soul, the nefesh. When the Torah speaks of the nefesh, it is usually in relation to animals and their blood. In fact, in later mystical texts the term nefesh behemit, “animal soul”, is used frequently. This lowest level corresponds to the bottom, physical universe, Asiyah.

Above that is the ruach level of soul, corresponding to the enosh level of human, and to the Yetzirah universe. Then we have the great and “largest” neshamah paralleling the great gever human, and the realm of Beriah. Higher still is the chayah soul to go along with the ish and ishah, and the lofty realm of Atzilut. Recall that chaya is typically associated with one’s “aura”, and recall as well that Moses was the quintessential “ish”. With this in mind, we can deeply understand the Torah telling us that Moses had a brightly-glowing aura! Better still, Atzilut is often described as God’s infinitely glowing “emanation”.

At the very top is the yechidah soul-level, corresponding to adam, and fittingly corresponding to the highest “universe” of Adam Kadmon, a reality in which the human is entirely one with the cosmos. This is a place of total unity, just as adam refers to a husband-wife pair with their souls united wholly as one.

Finally, the Torah amazingly alludes to all of this in cryptic fashion in the account of Creation. First, in Genesis 1:25 we read that God vaya’as (ויעש) “made” all the land animals and the behemah. The verb used is the same as that of Asiyah (עשיה), the lowest realm. In the following verse, we are told that God vayomer (ויאמר) “spoke” to bring forth adam in His image, and this human would dominate the universe, alluding to the highest level of human, the Adam Kadmon, with speech being his greatest power. Next, in verse 27, we are told that God “created” the human male and female, referring to the ish and ishah level. Then, in verse 28, God “blessed” the humans to conquer the Earth, alluding to the physically domineering gever. Finally, Genesis 2:7 tells us that God vayitzer (וייצר) “formed” the human from the dust, hinting that “to the dust he shall return”, and alluding to the low level of the earthly and mortal enosh, fittingly corresponding to the realm of Yetzirah (יצירה).

To summarize:


Click here for an eye-opening recording of our recent class on
“Russia, Ukraine, and the Coming of Mashiach”

Science and the Great Flood

In this week’s parasha, Noach, we read about the Great Flood, when “all the fountains of the great deep split apart, and the floodgates of the skies opened” (Genesis 7:11). While it is easy to understand the rain that fell upon the Earth “for forty days and forty nights”, what is the Torah referring to when it speaks of the waters of the deep? Why does it say that the “great deep” had to be “split apart” (נִבְקְעוּ֙) to bring forth these waters? And the biggest mystery of all: how was there even enough water to cover the entire Earth with water anyway, up to the tallest mountains? Upon closer examination, we find that these mysterious waters of the deep actually hold the key to solving the entire mystery of the Flood.

Kola Superdeep Borehole

In May of 1970, Soviet scientists began drilling into the Earth’s crust in the far north of the Kola Peninsula between Norway and Russia. Their goal was to dig the deepest hole ever, and uncover what is really happening in the Earth’s innards. Nine years later, they broke the world record for depth, reaching almost 10 kilometres underground. They hit the deepest point in 1989, reaching 12,262 metres. Beyond this, they could no longer continue, for the temperature was much higher than expected (over 180ºC) and the rock became far too porous.

Along the way, the scientists found some bizarre things. One was small fossilized lifeforms more than 6 kilometres down, where lifeforms should not—and should never—have existed! Another shocking discovery was that the porous rock deep below was completely saturated with water. More recently, scientists from Northwestern University examined rocks from the mantle (which emerged from volcanoes) and found that they were composed of 1.5% water. After further research, they concluded that there is three times more water beneath the Earth’s crust than there are in all of the world’s oceans! The temperature down there is very high, but so is the pressure, keeping the water liquid and squeezing it out of the porous rocks. With this in mind, we can solve a number of great mysteries.

First, we now have a scientific source for where much of the water for the Flood came from. Rain clouds alone would not have been enough. Note how the Torah mentions the waters of the great deep first, before mentioning the rain, implying that the former was the more significant source of water. Second, we can better understand the Torah’s precise language, since it says the depths had to be “split apart” for the floodwaters to emerge. This splitting apart would certainly be required for all that water in the mantle beneath to emerge. Third, we can actually solve a scientific mystery for the baffled scientists at Kola who found fossilized ancient lifeforms deep below: Perhaps those lifeforms ended up there when the floodwaters returned underground and the surface closed back up, sealing lifeforms from above down beneath in a place where they otherwise could never have gotten.

There is one more wonderful confirmation of all this when we look at the way our Sages described the Flood: the Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b) states that the floodwaters that came from below, “between their legs”, was boiling hot! This was measure for measure justice from God, since the people “sinned with heat, so they were punished with heat”. Heat here is a euphemism for sexual sin, and since the pre-Flood generation abused their nether regions, “between their legs”, God made sure that those floodwaters that came from below were boiling hot. Recall that the scientists at Kola were surprised that the temperature below was much hotter than they expected (yet the water remained in liquid form). They had to stop drilling because the rock was too mushy and “like plastic”. It is worth adding that the same page of Talmud says the water from below was not only hot, but also thick.

“Setting the Earth Upon the Waters”

There is one more fascinating mystery that can be solved with the scientific discovery of the Earth’s inner waters. Each morning, in Birkot HaShachar, we thank God for “setting the earth upon the waters” (רוקַע הָאָרֶץ עַל הַמָּיִם). This blessing troubled me for years. What does it mean that the earth is set upon the waters? Earth’s crust is set upon the rocky mantle, lying above the molten core—and the waters are resting upon the crust! It all seemed backwards. Yet, now we can see, as is often the case, that the Sages phrased it correctly all along: the crust is resting upon a mantle that is full of water, three times more water than in all the oceans! With that, we can appreciate this berakhah much more deeply, and recite it with ever-more kavanah.