Tag Archives: Gershom Scholem

Who is Metatron?

In this week’s parasha, Mishpatim, we read about a large set of laws that Moses received on Mt. Sinai following the Ten Commandments. While there, God tells Moses (Exodus 23:20-21):

Behold, I am sending an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Beware of him and obey him; do not defy him, for he will not forgive your transgression, for My Name is within him.

God sends an angel to guide the Israelites through the Wilderness to the Promised Land. This is a very special angel, for God says that He has placed His Name within the angel. The Torah does not identify the name of this angel, but the Talmud does (Sanhedrin 38b):

A certain heretic said to Rav Idit: “It is written: ‘And to Moses He said: Come up to God.’ [Exodus 24:1] The heretic raised a question: It should have stated: ‘Come up to Me.’” Rav Idit said to him: “This is Metatron, whose name is like that of his Master [God], as it is written: ‘…for My Name is within him.’”

‘Angel Appearing to Joshua’ by Gustave Doré. According to the Book of Zerubavel, this was Metatron, the same angel that led the Israelites through the Wilderness.

A heretic challenges Rav Idit by saying that God should have spoken to Moses in the first person, saying “come up to Me”, not “come up to God”. Rav Idit replied that the speaker was the angel Metatron, who was sent by God to be His representative, and has God’s Name within him, as the Torah clearly states.

How do we find God’s Name within the name “Metatron”? The Kabbalists pointed out that the gematria of Metatron (מטטרון) is 314, equal to the Name of God Shaddai (שדי). However, this is only on the surface level. In reality, God’s absolute Name is the Tetragrammaton, and we do not find these four letters (Yud, Hei, Vav, Hei) in Metatron.

Of course, we must remember that the names of angels were generally adapted from non-Jewish sources, as the Talmud affirms (Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashanah 56d). How could this be? The true names of the angels had to be concealed so that people would be unable to summon them. Metatron, therefore, is not the angel’s real name. This is pretty evident in itself because anyone who first hears the term “Metatron” would never guess it is a Hebrew word. It sounds foreign, perhaps Aramaic, or more likely Greek. Indeed, some scholars have suggested that “Metatron” comes from the Greek meta and thronos, meaning “near” or “after the throne”, ie. that Metatron is the angel that sits nearest to the Throne of God, or the one that has authority right after the Throne of God. This brings us to the second place in the Talmud where Metatron is mentioned, in one of the most perplexing and intriguing Talmudic passages.

Sitting in Heaven

The Talmud relates the famous story of the “Four Who Entered Pardes” (Chagigah 14b-15a):

The Sages taught: Four entered “the orchard” [pardes], and they are: Ben Azzai, and Ben Zoma, Acher, and Rabbi Akiva… Ben Azzai glimpsed and died, and with regard to him the verse states: “Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of His pious ones” [Psalms 116:15]. Ben Zoma glimpsed and was harmed, and with regard to him the verse states: “Have you found honey? Eat as much as is sufficient for you, lest you become full from it and vomit it” [Proverbs 25:16]. Acher cut the saplings. Rabbi Akiva came out safely.

…“Acher cut the saplings” [meaning, he became a heretic]. With regard to him, the verse states: “Do not let your mouth bring your flesh into guilt” [Ecclesiastes 5:5]. What was it [that led him to heresy?] He saw the angel Metatron, who was granted permission to sit and write the merits of Israel [some versions add: for one hour a day]. He said: “It is taught that in the world above there is no sitting, no competition, no turning one’s back to Him, no lethargy. Heaven forbid—there are two authorities!”

They removed Metatron from his place in Heaven and smote him with sixty lashes of fire, so that others would not make the mistake that Acher did…

In this esoteric narrative, four great mystics of the highest order are able to ascend to the Heavens. Ben Azzai died immediately, Ben Zoma lost his mind, and Elisha ben Avuya became a heretic, for which he was referred to as Acher, “the other”. Only Rabbi Akiva exited in peace. (For a deeper analysis of this enigmatic passage, see Secrets of the Last Waters.)

The Talmud relates what it was that turned Elisha ben Avuya into a heretic. He saw Metatron sitting in the Heavens, when it was taught to him that none but God sits in Heaven. He concluded that perhaps there is more than one god, and this led him to abandon the Torah. (We must remember that this was nearly two millennia ago, in a time when most of the world was still polytheistic.) Back in Heaven, Metatron was severely punished for not standing up when the Sages entered, causing Acher’s apostasy.

This narrative seems to support the Greek origins of the name Metatron. He was the angel that was permitted to sit in Heaven—like none other but God Himself—as if on a lesser throne, a throne next to God’s, meta-tron. So, what was his real name?

Becoming an Angel

The renowned scholar of Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, researched the origins of the angel and presented his findings in an essay, “Metatron”. He found that in the most ancient texts which mention the figure (such as the Apocalypse of Abraham) he is called Yeho-El (יהואל). This is precisely what we’d expect, for angel names generally have the suffix El, and Metatron is the one who carries God’s Name, the Tetragrammaton. His real name, then, is simply the Name of God with the angelic El appended to it. In some texts, he is even referred to as the “Lesser God” (יהוה קטן). Not surprisingly, these texts didn’t make it (for the most part) to the official corpus of Rabbinic literature. They did find their way into Gnostic and Mandean texts. (On that note, it should be mentioned that Christians revere Metatron, too, as do Muslims, who refer to him as Mitatrush.)

Scholem also presents alternative possibilities to the name Metatron. It may be rooted in matara, “keeper of the watch”, or metator, “a guide” (after all, Exodus says God designated him to guide the Israelites in the Wilderness). In some ancient texts, Metatron is an angel that preceded Creation and assisted God in bringing about the physical universe. Again, this is a dangerous idea that may lead to a belief in dualism or heresy, and is a problem for a monotheistic Judaism. Instead, Jewish texts generally present the origins of Metatron in a different way.

Cover for the popular 2011 video game ‘El Shaddai – Ascension of the Metatron’, released for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Gamers play as Enoch in defending the world, and are supported by angels like Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael. The game developers clearly did their research!

The Zohar draws from the apocryphal Book of Enoch in teaching that “Enoch is Metatron” (see, for example, Zohar III, 189a). Recall that Enoch was a descendant of Adam (seven generations down) of whom the Torah states “And all the days of Enoch were three hundred sixty and five years. And Enoch walked with God, and he was not; for God took him.” (Genesis 5:23-24) Thus, Enoch never died, but was taken up to Heaven by God, where he was transformed into the angel Metatron. He is the angel that “walks with God”. The one that God sent to Earth to lead the Israelites. This is a fitting role for Metatron, for he was once a man of the Earth, too.

In Jewish tradition, there are two men who became angels, and two angels who descended into this world and became like men. The latter are Shemhazai and Azazel, while the former are Enoch and Elijah. Perhaps we can say that Enoch and Elijah filled the missing spaces of Shemhazai and Azazel. Enoch became the angel referred to as Metatron, while Elijah became the angel referred to as Sandalfon. Interestingly, if Metatron’s real name is Yeho-El, then we find that the names of the two angel-men share the same letters: יהואל and אליהו. In fact, the names are just reversed, and mean the same thing!

It should be mentioned that there were those in the past who rejected the notion that Enoch became an angel. For example, Onkelos translates Genesis 5:24 to say that Enoch was “no more” because God killed Enoch! This would fit with the alternate view that Metatron has nothing to do with Enoch and was already an angel before Creation. In more recent centuries, some Kabbalists even believed there must be two Metatrons, each with a slight variation of the name (מטטרון and מיטטרון). It is also possible that the two became one: an angel called Metatron existed before Creation, and when Enoch went up to God his soul was fused with that angel.

The notion of a fusion of different souls is supported by the teachings of the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572). In one place, he describes how Enoch took the highest and purest soul of Adam, called zihara ila’ah, and fused together with it in becoming Metatron (Sha’ar HaPesukim on Beresheet). Elsewhere, the Arizal writes that any person who refines themselves to the highest degree, and fulfils all of their rectifications, is called a malakh, “angel” (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 39). The Arizal says this was the case with Elijah, as well as Yehudah, Hezekiah, and Metatron, too.

Scribing and Teaching

What is the angelic role of Metatron? We saw above from the Talmud that Metatron is the Heavenly Scribe, writing down the merits of Israel. Gershom Scholem argues that he is one and the same as the Sar HaOlam, the “prince of the world” mentioned in Rabbinic literature, appointed to watch over our Earth. The Talmud (Yevamot 16b) says that he is the subject of the verse: “I have been young, and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread.” (Psalms 37:25) This makes sense, for Metatron began his life as the earthly Enoch; born a baby, grew to adulthood, and was then transformed into an angel with everlasting life.

The Arizal agrees, teaching that Metatron is the “prince of the seventy nations”, the angel above all the lesser angels appointed to watch over each of the seventy root nations on Earth (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 31). In the same place, the Arizal confirms that Metatron is Enoch, who never died. He also reveals that he was the angel that came to Joseph and taught him all seventy languages in one night so that Joseph could present himself before Pharaoh.

In his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, the Ravad (Rabbi Avraham ben David, c. 1125-1198) says that Metatron was the angel that taught Moses. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 3b) states that Metatron teaches Torah to little schoolchildren. Not much else is known of him.

In the past, various critics of Judaism have used the notion of Metatron to suggest that Jews have strayed from monotheism. This is a false claim. From its first pages, the Torah speaks of angels that serve as God’s emissaries and assistants. Metatron is just another angel, albeit one imbued with more powers than others.

This brings us back to the first Talmudic passage cited above (Sanhedrin 38b), which continues with the heretic questioning Rav Idit: “If so, we should worship [Metatron] as we worship God!” Rav Idit replied: “It is written: ‘Do not defy [tammer] him,’ meaning ‘Do not replace Me [temireni] with him.’” In a classic play on words, Rav Idit explains that when God said not to rebel against His appointed angel, He also meant not to start worshipping him in place of God.

We mustn’t forget that there is only one God whom we pray to and turn to. The Jewish people have no intercessors or intermediaries. We are Israel (ישראל), or yashar-El (ישר-אל), “direct to God”. And Rav Idit concludes in the Talmudic passage that the ancient Israelites ultimately rejected Metatron as their guide, and requested that God Himself lead them, as it is written (Exodus 33:15): “If Your Presence go not with me, raise us not up from here.”

Who is Samael?

In this week’s parasha, Vayishlach, we read of Jacob’s famed battle with the angel. According to many sources, Jacob battled Esau’s guardian angel. While the identity of the angel is concealed in the plain text of the Torah, Jewish tradition associates this angel with Samael. That name is one of the most famous—or infamous—of all angelic entities, not just in Judaism, but also in Christianity, Gnosticism, and other Near Eastern traditions. Who is Samael?

‘Jacob Wrestling with an Angel’ by Charles Foster

The Primordial Serpent

One of the most ancient Jewish mystical works is Sefer HaBahir. At the very end of the text (ch. 200), we are told that Samael was the angel that came down to the Garden of Eden in the form of a serpent. We read here that one of his punishments was to become the guardian angel of the wicked Esau. The Bahir explains that Samael was jealous of man, and disagreed with the fact that God gave man dominion over the earth. He came down with the mission of corrupting mankind.

The Midrash (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 14) seems to agree, describing how God “cast down Samael and his troop from their holy place in Heaven.” In the previous chapter of the same Midrash, we read how Samael is unique in that, while other angels have six wings, Samael has twelve, and “commands a whole army of demons”. The Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572) adds that Samael is in charge of all the “male” demons, called Mazikim, while his “wife” Lilith is in charge of all the “female” demons, called Shedim (Sha’ar HaPesukim on Tehilim). He further associates Lilith with the sword of the “Angel of Death”.

A little-known apocryphal text called the Ascension [or Testament] of Moses (dating back at least to the early 1st century CE) states that Samael is the one “who takes the soul away from man”, directly identifying him with the Angel of Death. This ties neatly into his name, since Samael (סמאל) literally means “poison of God”. Indeed, the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 20b) states that the Angel of Death takes a person away by standing over them with his sword, before a drop of poison falls from the tip of the sword into the victim’s mouth. Elsewhere, the Talmud (Bava Batra 16a) tells us that the Angel of Death is the same entity as Satan, and as the source of the yetzer hara (the Evil Inclination).

In his Kabbalah (pg. 385), Gershom Scholem brings a number of sources that state Satan and Samael are one and the same, together with another figure called Beliar, or Belial. There are those who say that while Satan simply means “prosecutor”, and is only a title, Samael is actually his proper name. The Zohar (on parashat Shoftim) appears to agree, stating that the two main persecuting forces in Heaven are Samael and the Serpent. Some sources depict Samael as actually riding upon the Serpent!

Belial, meanwhile, is a term that appears many times in the Tanakh. It is first found in Deuteronomy 13:14, in a warning that certain bnei Belial will come out to tempt Israel into idolatry. While the simple meaning (and the way it is generally translated) is “base” or “wicked men”, the Kabbalistic take is that it refers to impure spirits that come to lure Israel to sin. Note that the Torah says these bnei Belial will emerge from among our own people.

Not surprisingly, the Zohar (Raya Mehemna on Ki Tetze) says that there are a very small group of “Jewish” imposters who actually worship Samael. These are the ones that give all Jews a bad name, and aim to reverse all the good that Jews do in the world. We have written much of this small group of imposters before, as they are more commonly referred to as the Erev Rav. The Zohar states that Samael and Lilith were once good angels before their “fall”, and began to be worshipped as deities in their own right in the pre-Flood generation. The people in those days worshipped them in order to manipulate them to do their bidding. The Erev Rav aims to do the same today. Thankfully, God will destroy them all in the End of Days, and this is the deeper meaning of Zechariah 13:2:

“And it shall come to pass in that day,” says the Lord of Hosts, “that I will cut off the names of the idols out of the land, and they shall no more be remembered; and also I will cause the prophets and the unclean spirit to pass out of the land.”

Which prophets is God referring to? Those leaders of the Erev Rav that attempt to convince the masses that they are “prophets”, only to lead the people astray.

With this in mind, Jacob’s battle with Samael takes on a whole new meaning. It reminds us that the job of each Jew is to fight Samael and all his evil minions—the bnei Belial, the Erev Rav—tooth and nail, unceasingly, all through the dark night, as Jacob did. We must always stand on the side of light and truth, holiness and Godliness. This makes us Israel, as Jacob was renamed, the ones who fight alongside God. The Jewish people are meant to be God’s holy warriors in this world.

Battling 365 Days of the Year

Commenting on this week’s parasha, the Zohar states that there are 365 angels ruling over each of the 365 days of the solar year. These further correspond to the 365 gidim (“sinews”, or more accurately, major nerves) of the human body, as Jewish tradition maintains. In Jacob’s battle, Samael struck him in the thigh, on his gid hanashe, the sciatic nerve. For this reason, the Torah tells us, the Jewish people do not eat the sciatic nerve “until this day” (Genesis 32:33). Removing this sinew is a key part of koshering meat. In most places, since removing it is so difficult, they simply do not include the back half of the cow or sheep in the kosher meat process.

The Zohar says that since there are 365 days corresponding to 365 sinews, the gid hanashe corresponds to a specific day of the year, too, of course. Which day is that? Tisha b’Av, the most tragic day in Jewish history. The Zohar concludes that Samael is the angel that rules over this day, which is why it is so “unlucky” and sad. At the same time, it suggests that Jacob fought Samael on that same day, so even when Samael is at his strongest, each Jew has the power to defeat him.

Interestingly, the Talmud has a different approach. There we read that Satan rules 364 days of the year! (Nedarim 32b) This is why the gematria of HaSatan (השטן, the way it appears in the Tanakh) is 364. According to the Talmud, the one day a year that Satan “rests” is Yom Kippur. Thus, Yom Kippur is a particularly favourable day to repent and to have God accept our prayers. The Midrash (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 46) takes it one step further and states that not only does Satan rest on Yom Kippur, but he actually crosses the floor in the Heavenly Court and joins the defense!

How do we reconcile the seeming contradiction between the Talmud and the Zohar? Perhaps Samael, before his “fall”, was originally appointed to rule over Tisha b’Av. After his rebellion, he sought to dominate as much of the year as possible, and remains at large 364 days of the calendar, being particularly strong on Tisha b’Av. Only on Yom Kippur does God make sure that Satan has no dominion at all.

This should remind us that, at the end of the day, God is infinite and omnipotent, and there is none that can stand before Him. Satan or Samael can be winked out of existence instantaneously if God so willed it. Alas, the impure spirits still have a role to play in history. They will soon meet their end:

Kabbalistic texts state that Satan will lead one last battle in the End of Days, against Mashiach. He will come as the dreaded Armilus. In Sefer Zerubavel, Armilus is identified with Satan himself in bodily form, while in Nistarot d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, he is the son of Satan. He will seek to kill Mashiach, and he may succeed in killing Mashiach ben Yosef, before being in turn extinguished by Mashiach ben David. This is why the Arizal instituted a custom to insert a short prayer for Mashiach ben Yosef, that he should survive, in the blessing for Jerusalem in the Amidah. We have written elsewhere, though, why Mashiach ben Yosef must die to accomplish an important tikkun (see ‘Secrets of the Akedah’ in Garments of Light).

Until then, how do we keep Samael away? The Arizal (Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Shemot) taught not to pronounce his name out loud, for this attracts him. In Jewish tradition, we instead say the letters ס״ם, “samekh-mem”. The Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570) stated that eating too much red meat during the week gives power to Samael. It is generally best to leave red meat consumption for Shabbat and holidays if possible. It goes without saying that one should eat kosher meat to avoid the gid hanashe. Meanwhile, the Talmud (Shabbat 30b) famously recounts how David kept the Angel of Death at bay by constantly being immersed in Torah study. We should be focused on study of holy texts, prayer, repentance, doing mitzvot and good deeds. Finally, we must do everything we can to defeat our own inner evil inclinations, struggling as long as it takes, unrelenting, as Jacob did in his battle. In the same passage where the Talmud speaks of the death of Mashiach ben Yosef (Sukkah 52a), it tells us:

In the time to come, the Holy One, blessed be He, will bring the Evil Inclination and slay it in the presence of the righteous and the wicked. To the righteous it will have the appearance of a towering hill, and to the wicked it will have the appearance of a hair thread. Both the former and the latter will weep: the righteous will weep saying, “How were we able to overcome such a towering hill?!” The wicked also will weep saying, “How is it that we were unable to conquer this hair thread?!” And the Holy One, blessed be He, will also marvel together with them, as it is said, “Thus says the Lord of Hosts, ‘If it be marvellous in the eyes of the remnant of this people in those days, it shall also be marvellous in My eyes…’” [Zechariah 8:6]

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 may have 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 machzorim, a supposed “name of God” is invoked—though not recited aloud—during this prayer (it is also found in the parnasah insert during the Amidah of many Sephardic weekday siddurim). That “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. Others link it to a fusion of Malachi 3:10 and the word nasah in Psalms 4:7, נסה עלינו אור פניך ה׳.

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.

The First Pesach: Did the Patriarchs Celebrate Passover?

The holiday of Passover commemorates the Exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt over three thousand years ago. The Torah tells us that because of their hasty departure, the dough of the Israelites did not have time to rise, hence the consumption of matzah. Yet, the term matzah appears in the Torah long before the Exodus! We read in Genesis 19:3 that Lot welcomed the angels into his home and “made them a feast, and baked matzot, and they ate.” Since the angels came to Lot immediately after visiting Abraham and Sarah to announce the birth of Isaac at that time next year (Genesis 18:10), the Sages learn from this that Isaac was born on Passover. Of course, the Exodus only took place four hundred years after Isaac’s birth! How is it that the patriarchs are already eating matzah?

An Eternal Torah

Although the Torah was given to the Israelites following the Exodus, Jewish tradition affirms that the Torah is eternal, and even predates existence. A famous verse in the Zohar (II, 161a) states that “God looked into the Torah and created the universe.” Adam knew the whole Torah, and was taught its deepest secrets by the angel Raziel. Many of these teachings were passed on by Adam to future generations, down to Noah, then his son Shem, and eventually to the Patriarchs who, according to tradition, studied at Shem’s academy. So, while the Torah tradition officially dates back to Sinai, in some ways it dates back all the way to Creation! It’s also important to keep in mind that the Patriarchs were prophets, which means that even though they did not have a physical, written Torah, there is no reason why they could not have received the Torah’s wisdom directly from God.

As such, it is said that the Patriarchs kept the entire Torah and fulfilled all the mitzvot. When Jacob sends a message to Esau after his sojourn in Charan he tells him “I have lived [garti] with Laban” (Genesis 32:5). On this, Rashi says that garti (גרתי) is an anagram of taryag (תרי״ג), the 613 commandments, meaning that despite living under the oppressive Laban for twenty years, Jacob still observed all 613 commandments. Yet, this is impossible since Jacob married two sisters—a clear Torah prohibition! Similarly, when Abraham meets Melchizedek (ie. Shem) following his victory over the Mesopotamian kings, he tells him that he will not take any reward whatsoever, not even “a thread or strap” (Genesis 14:23). For this, the Sages say, Abraham’s descendants merited the mitzvah of tzitzit (the threads) and tefillin (the straps). In that case, Abraham himself did not wear tefillin or tzitzit. From such instances we see that the patriarchs did not keep the Torah completely, at least not the Torah as we know it.

Emanations of Torah

While Kabbalistic texts often point out that the Torah is eternal and served as the very blueprint of Creation, they also go into more detail to explain that this primordial Torah was not quite the same as the Torah we have today. Each of the four mystical universes (Asiyah, Yetzirah, Beriah, Atzilut) has an ever-more refined level of Torah, with the highest being the Torah of Atzilut. Our Torah is the one of Asiyah, and is full of mitzvot only due to Adam’s sin and the corruption of mankind. In Olam HaBa, the Torah of Atzilut will finally be revealed, which is why Jewish tradition holds that many mitzvot will no longer apply in that future time. This is said to be the meaning of Isaiah 51:4 where God proclaims that in the messianic times “a Torah will go forth from Me”; and of Jeremiah 31:30 where God says He will forge a brit chadashah, a “new covenant”, with Israel. (This latter term was usurped by Christians for their “New Testament”.)

An even more intriguing idea is that the “New Torah” will be composed of the exact same letters as the current one we possess, just rearranged to form new words! Yet another is based on the well-known principle that the Heavenly Torah is composed of “black fire on white fire”. This is often used to explain the fact that the Torah actually has 304,805 letters, even though it is always described as having 600,000 letters (one for each Israelite at Mt. Sinai)—there are 304,805 letters of “black fire” and the rest are the invisible letters of “white fire”. Gershom Scholem cites a number of Kabbalistic and Hasidic texts suggesting that these currently-invisible “white fire” letters are the true eternal Torah! (See Scholem’s Kabbalah, pgs. 171-174, for a complete analysis of these concepts.)

It is this primordial Torah that was originally taught to Adam, and was passed down through his descendants to the Patriarchs, who carefully observed it. As such, it appears that eating matzah is an eternal mitzvah that already appeared in the primordial Torah before the Exodus and the revelation of the current Torah of Asiyah. What was the meaning behind that consumption of matzah?

Bread of Faith

Matzah is called the “bread of faith”. It symbolizes our faithfulness to God, who took us out of Egypt to be His people: “Let My people go so that they may serve Me” (Exodus 7:16, 26). Further emphasizing this point, the word matzot is spelled exactly like mitzvot. This simple, “humble” bread symbolizes our subservience to God’s commands. We are His faithful servants, just as the Patriarchs were His faithful servants. So they, too, ate matzah as a sign of their faith. They ate matzah because God had liberated them, too, from various hardships.

The very first Patriarch, Abraham, was miraculously saved from Nimrod’s furnace. He also dwelled in Egypt for a time before God miraculously brought him out of there with great wealth, just as his descendants would do centuries later. And then came his greatest test of faith: the Akedah. Amazingly, the apocryphal Book of Jubilees connects this event with the future Passover holiday. In chapter 18, it suggests that God commanded the Akedah to Abraham on the 15th of Nisan. As the Torah states, Abraham journeyed for three days before the Akedah happened and then, naturally, it took him three days to return home. Thus, the whole ordeal spanned seven days, and when Abraham returned, he established a seven-day “festival to Hashem” from the 15th of Nisan. The future seven-day Passover holiday would happen on those same days in that same month.

“Abraham’s Sacrifice”, a 15th century piece of Timurid-Mongolian art

While the Sages do debate whether some of the Torah’s major events (including Creation itself) happened in the month of Tishrei or Nisan, the accepted Jewish tradition is that the Akedah happened in Tishrei. Nonetheless, it is quite fitting that the Binding of Isaac should happen on Passover, when Isaac was born. In this case, the ram that Abraham ultimately offered in place of Isaac would serve as a proto-Pesach offering. After all, the ram is nothing but a male sheep, and it is the ram that is the astrological sign of Nisan, and it was those ram-headed gods that the Egyptians worshipped that needed to be slaughtered by the Israelites (as discussed last week). Whatever the case, the Book of Jubilees offers an intriguing possibility for the spiritual origins of Passover, and for why the Patriarchs themselves ate matzot long before the Exodus.

Secrets of the Star of David

Star of David on the 1000-year old Leningrad Codex (1008 CE).

This week’s double parasha is Vayak’hel-Pekudei, which speaks of the Sabbath, the construction of the Tabernacle, and the formal establishment of the priesthood. One of the things described is the creation of the Menorah. This seven-branched candelabrum is perhaps the oldest symbol of Judaism. We discussed in the past how King David had the Menorah emblazoned on his shield (with the words of Psalm 67), and this was the famous magen David, “shield of David”. Yet, strangely, the term magen David today is associated not with the Menorah symbol but with the so-called “star of David”. Stranger still, this hexagram was historically known not as the “star of David” but rather as the “seal of Solomon”! Where did this symbol come from, what is its significance, and how did it become associated with the Jewish people?

Alchemy and Mysticism

Star of David in the Capernaum synagogue

The hexagram is a relatively simple shape and is found in art and architecture across Europe and Asia. While few ancient synagogues bear the star, many churches do. The most famous synagogue to have the star is the one discovered in 1866 in Capernaum (Kfar Nachum), a village on the Galilee initially founded by the Hashmoneans following their Chanukah victories. This synagogue is actually more popular among Christians, since the gospels of Luke and Mark describe how Jesus preached there. Archaeologists have also found the symbol on the seal of one Yehoshuah ben Asayahu in the remains of the ancient city of Sidon. The seal is dated all the way back to the seventh century BCE.

The great scholar Gershom Scholem (see his Kabbalah, pgs. 362-368) pointed out that the hexagram was used by alchemists to represent the fusion of fire (the up-triangle) and water (the down-triangle). This may have a connection to a Jewish teaching on the meaning of the term oseh shalom bimromav, which describes God as making peace in the Heavenly realms. One explanation is that here in the lower world, water and fire are unable to co-exist, while up in the Heavens God is able to unify these opposing forces. This divine power was demonstrated with the seventh plague in Egypt, which was “hail with fire” intertwined (Exodus 9:24). The fact that it was the seventh plague in particular may be noteworthy, since the Star of David has seven parts: the six points of the star and the inner hexagon.

The three axes (x, y, z) of our three-dimensional reality, and the six faces (or six directions) that they produce.

That seven-based arrangement has a great deal of significance in Judaism. It represents Creation, with the six days of the week and the special Sabbath. This itself is a reflection of the fact that all physical things in this universe exist in three dimensions, ie. within a “cube” of six faces, while the seventh represents the inner, spiritual dimension. The same arrangement is found in the mystical Tree of Life, where the lower sefirot are arranged as six “male” qualities and the seventh, “female” quality (Malkhut). Because of this, the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572) arranged his Passover seder plate in a hexagonal style, with each of the components corresponding to one of the lower sefirot, while the three matzahs correspond to the higher sefirot (Chokhmah, Binah, Da’at), and the plate itself (or the cup of wine) paralleling the seventh and final Malkhut. 

The Pesach Seder Plate. There is a debate whether the Arizal intended the items to be placed in a star shape, or with two triangles one atop the other. The latter is likely as it more closely resembles the Tree of Life diagram.

This arrangement of seven (or more specifically, of three-three-one) is found within the Menorah, too, that most ancient of Jewish symbols. For this reason, some argue that the opinion of the Shield of David having the Menorah and the opinion of it having the hexagram are really one and the same. They both reflect a divine geometry of 3-3-1. The sefirot are arranged in the same 3-3-1 manner, and corresponding to them are the seven shepherds of Israel: Chessed, Gevurah, and Tiferet parallel the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Netzach, Hod, Yesod parallel the next three great leaders of Moses, Aaron, and Joseph; and Malkhut (“Kingdom”) naturally stands for David. David is at the centre of the star, so it is fitting that the star is named after him.

The first row of three (called by the acronym CHaGa”T), is followed by the second row of three (called NeHe”Y), and then the singular, “feminine” Malkhut (or Nukva), which receives from all the others.

Yet, it isn’t clear when and why the symbol became known as the “Star of David”. Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman points out that it may come from the fact that in Ancient Hebrew script the letter dalet has a triangular shape (much like the Greek delta), thus making “David” (דוד) appear as two triangles. Whatever the case, the symbol is already described as magen David, the “Shield of David”, in 14th century Kabbalistic texts, as Scholem points out. However, in those days it more commonly went by another name: the Seal of Solomon.

Ancient Hebrew Script. The letter dalet is a triangle.

The Seal of Solomon

In medieval texts, the hexagram is most commonly referred to as the “seal of Solomon”. The earliest texts that mention it are actually Islamic texts, not Jewish ones. They speak of a special ring that King Solomon had which allowed him to interact with jinn spirits (the root of “genie”) both good and bad. Although the texts are Arabic, they are clearly based on more ancient Jewish teachings. In fact, the earliest reference to a special ring possessed by Solomon which allowed him to defend from evil spirits is in the Talmud.

In what is likely the longest story related in the Talmud (Gittin 68a-b), we are told of how Solomon sought to find the special shamir “worm” which would allow him to cut the stones for the Temple without using iron tools. He found the shamir’s whereabouts from the prince of demons, Ashmedai, whom he was able to subdue thanks to his special ring. In an incredible twist, Ashmedai gets a hold of Solomon’s ring and banishes the king from his own kingdom, turning him into a pauper, while Ashmedai himself took the throne impersonating Solomon! Thankfully, this “new” Solomon’s strange behaviour was soon noticed, and the real Solomon eventually made his way back to the palace to reclaim his throne, and his ring.

The Talmud does not state that the ring had a hexagram on it, but rather that it had God’s Name engraved upon it. It is Arabic texts that first connect the ring to the hexagram. Some attempt to distinguish between the “Star of David” and the “Seal of Solomon” by suggesting that the hexagram of the former is made up of overlapping triangles while the hexagram of the latter is intertwined:

This argument seems to be without any foundation; the two symbols are one and the same, with the Star of David often depicted intertwined and the Seal of Solomon depicted overlapping (sometimes within a circle).

“Seal of Solomon” on a 19th-century Moroccan coin.

A Symbol for Israel

Hexagram on ‘Seder Tefillot’, the first siddur printed in Central Europe. (From Scholem’s ‘Kabbalah’, pg. 365)

Gershom Scholem argues that Jews in the 18th and 19th centuries were looking for a unifying symbol to represent themselves, something like the cross of the Christians or the crescent moon of the Muslims. In the city of Prague, the hexagram had been associated with Jews since the 14th century. It was back in 1354 that King Charles IV of Bohemia granted the Jewish community its own flag, with the hexagram upon a red banner. It soon started to appear on the synagogues of Prague. In 1512, the first modern siddur was printed in Prague and, not surprisingly, had the hexagram on its cover. After the Jews’ vital assistance to the city’s defences in 1648, the community was granted another royal flag, now with a yellow star on a red banner. This flag has been used by the community ever since.

The timing couldn’t be better (or worse). Just a few years later, the Shabbatean heresy would begin, and Prague was soon one of the movement’s strongholds. It appears that the Shabbateans adopted the symbol and used it in secret to identify each other. Scholem points out that use of the star was one of the reasons Rabbi Yakov Emden accused Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz of being a closet Shabbatean (a controversy we have discussed previously).

Star from 5th century CE Byzantine Church uncovered at Khirbet Sufa in the Negev

Interestingly, among the Shabbateans the symbol was known as Magen ben David, the Shield of the Son of David, ie. the Shield of the Messiah. This makes sense considering they believed that Shabbatai Tzvi was Mashiach. This isn’t too different from that star-bearing Capernaum synagogue where Jesus supposedly preached. Not too far away from Capernaum in Israel, a 5th century Byzantine church was uncovered, also with the hexagram symbol. Another ancient church in Tiberias displays the star. Perhaps early Christians believed the hexagram was a symbol of their purported Ben David, too! Indeed, to this day one of the Pope’s mitres (the ceremonial hat) has the hexagram prominently displayed upon it.

Pope Benedict XVI with a star of David mitre

Scholem suggests that the symbol is referred to as Magen ben David in older Kabbalistic texts that predate the Shabbateans (which is where they would have gotten it). Since Kabbalistic teachings date back to at least the Second Temple period, it is possible that even in the time of Jesus there was a tradition of the hexagram being a messianic symbol. In truth, calling it the Shield of David is problematic, since the accepted tradition is that David’s shield had the Menorah upon it. It was Solomon that apparently used the hexagram to shield from demons. And Solomon is literally a ben David, the son of King David, the very first potential Mashiach ben David in history.

Mashiach’s role is to reunite all of the Jews in Israel, and to restore the original Twelve Tribes. The twelve vertices of the hexagram are said to refer to the Twelve Tribes of Israel, all reunited as one. Meanwhile, the land of Israel itself is often described in sevens: the seven Canaanite nations, and the seven shepherds to whom it was promised; the “seven species” through which the land is praised, and the seventy names that the land is known by (see Midrash HaGadol on Genesis 46:8). It is therefore most appropriate that the Zionist movement which sought to restore the Jews to their ancestral land chose the hexagram as its symbol.

While the secular Theodor Herzl drew up a flag that had seven golden stars on a white banner, it was the Orthodox-born and raised David Wolffsohn that came up with the modern flag of Israel, basing the design on the tallit. Wolffsohn responded to Herzl’s call to create a flag for the Jews by stating: “We have a flag—and it is blue and white. The tallit with which we wrap ourselves when we pray: that is our symbol. Let us take this tallit from its bag and unroll it before the eyes of Israel and the eyes of all nations.”

By this point in history, the Star of David was used by Jewish communities and synagogues across Europe and beyond, so it was natural for it to be emblazoned upon the blue and white tallit-flag. Around the same time, the Orthodox Jewish scholar Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) wrote The Star of Redemption, where he used the hexagram to explain the relationship between God and man. Previously, Rosenzweig had resolved to convert to Christianity, then decided to spend one more day as a Jew on Yom Kippur. That day, in a small Orthodox shul in Berlin, Rosenzweig experienced a mystical revelation and an awakening. He became a pious baal teshuva, and a passionate champion for traditional Judaism. His popular “star of redemption” added further meaning to Israel’s new flag.

Rosenzweig’s ‘Star of Redemption’

There is one last irony in all of this: the same hexagram was used by the Nazis to degrade the Jews in their attempt to eradicate the nation (likely based on the use of a yellow badge forced upon Jews in some medieval-era towns centuries earlier). To proudly fly the Star of David today is to demonstrate that we are still here, stronger than ever, and we are not going anywhere. We took those stars off of our beaten and bloodied robes and put them on our tanks and jets. And now we await Mashiach ben David, Magen ben David, to come and take command of them. It is, after all, his symbol.