In this week’s parasha, Va’etchanan, we read the famous words: v’nishmartem me’od l’nafshotechem, “Guard your souls very much…” (Deuteronomy 4:15). The plain meaning of the passage within which these words are found is to be careful not to descend into idolatry, nor to make any sculptures or images of any figures that might be idolatrous. However, since ancient times the phrase to “guard your souls very much” has also been used to mean that it is our obligation to stay healthy and in good physical shape. If the body is not healthy and dies, then the soul will depart it. Having a healthy soul therefore requires maintaining a healthy body, and a pure soul requires a pure bodily vessel.
Interestingly, it was the great Hillel who first pointed out the connection between the prohibition of idolatry and the mitzvah of taking care of one’s body. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 34:3) recounts how Hillel once took leave of his students and they asked him where he was going, to which he replied: “To do a mitzvah!” They asked which mitzvah, and he replied that he was going to the bathhouse. The puzzled students questioned him: is taking a bath a mitzvah? Hillel replied affirmatively, and explained: if all the statues and icons erected in public places needed to be constantly washed, and they are nothing but man-made objects depicting flesh-and-blood kings and nonsensical idols, how much more so must we keep our bodies clean since we were made in the image of God? And this is the deeper meaning behind King Solomon’s words gomel nafsho ish chassed (Proverbs 11:17), that a kindly or pious man makes sure to take care of his soul.
Our Sages had much to say about maintaining good health. For instance, in Gittin 70a, we are taught that there are 8 things that are healthy in small quantities, but harmful in excess. These eight are: travel, sexual intercourse, wealth, labour, wine, sleep, baths, and bloodletting. When it comes to the latter, in those days bloodletting was a popular therapy and it was thought that draining out some “old” blood will stimulate the production of new, healthier blood. There may be something to this, with recent research showing that bloodletting may indeed have been beneficial, and was possibly even effective against bacterial infections. Today, bloodletting is no longer done, but there may be a way to reap the same benefits (and do a double-mitzvah) by going to donate blood. Continue reading →
This week’s parasha, Vayak’hel, begins with the command to keep Shabbat, “six days shall you work, and on the seventh day will be for you a holy day of complete rest…” (Exodus 35:2) While Shabbat is mentioned numerous times in the Torah, it is this particular instance which served as the basis for our Sages to extrapolate the specific laws of Shabbat. Here, the Torah explicitly mentions only the prohibitions of working and lighting a fire. However, the Sages derived a list of 39 categories of prohibitions from the fact that God commanded the Sabbath, and right after juxtaposed it with the command to build the Mishkan. The Mishkan was not constructed on Shabbat, so all those actions that were required for the construction and operation of the Mishkan were forbidden on Shabbat.
There is a linguistic proof for this in the parasha because the type of work forbidden on Shabbat is specifically called melakhah, loosely translated as “creative labour”. The Sages note that this same term is used when speaking of the work required in building the Mishkan. In fact, they enumerate that this word is used 39 times in relation to the Mishkan (Shabbat 49b), hence 39 forms of labour. The Yerushalmi Talmud (Shabbat 44a) adds to this that the Shabbat mitzvah is introduced with the words eleh hadevarim, “these are the things”, implying there are multiple things that are forbidden on Shabbat. How many? The word eleh (אלה) has a numerical value of 36, while hadevarim (הדברים) implies three more things, since the plural devarim is a minimum of 2, and the definite hei at the start of the word suggests one more. Altogether, hadevarim is 3, and adding to eleh we get a total of 39 prohibitions! So, we rest on Shabbat from 39 major categories of activity.
A “Periodic Table” of the 39 Melakhot, by Anshie Kagan
Another big question that is often overlooked is this: why is Shabbat specifically the seventh day? Why did God create a week of 7 days to begin with? Why not 5 days, or 10 days? Why must we rest on the seventh day and not any other? What’s amazing is that there is no actual astronomical basis for keeping a week of 7 days. A year is a year because that’s how long it takes the Earth to orbit the sun, and a month is a month originally based on the amount of time it takes the moon to orbit the Earth. A week, however, is not related to any orbits or astronomical phenomena. This is why ancient cultures from around the world had weeks of varying lengths—and some had no concept of a “week” at all.
Ancient Rome once had an 8-day week, and ancient China followed a 10-day week. Today, the entire planet keeps a week of 7 days only because the Torah said so! Jews kept it first, of course, and then Christians and Muslims got the idea from the Torah, spreading it around the world. In fact, in their attempts to expunge religion for good, the Soviet Union introduced a 5-day week in 1929. Needless to say, it didn’t work. They probably got the idea from anti-religious French revolutionaries who introduced the “Republican calendar” in 1793 with a 10-day week. That one didn’t last long either.
The Meaning of 7
What is special about seven? We live in a universe that is 3 dimensional, resulting in six axes or directions (up, down, left, right, forward, backward), meaning that everything will inevitably have six outer faces. Six is therefore the number that represents the external and superficial. Seven is what is inside, representing the inner and the spiritual. In fact, the Hebrew word “seven”, sheva (שבע), is spelled the same way as sova or savea, to be “fulfilled”. All things spiritual or “internal” tend to be associated with the number seven. Light, when split to reveal its inner components, gives seven visible colours. Music is composed of a scale of seven distinct notes. The Heavens have seven levels (Chagigah 12b). The holiest month of the Hebrew calendar (and, somewhat paradoxically, the first of the new year) is the seventh month, Tishrei. For the same reasons, Shabbat is the seventh day of the week, being a day devoted to spirituality and holiness. The first six days of the week represent the physical realm, and we are required to work and be materially productive. Shabbat, the seventh day, is for the soul.
The three axes (x, y, z) of our three-dimensional reality, and the six faces (or six directions) that they produce.
Shabbat is the day when God’s Divine Presence, the Shekhinah, is most revealed and accessible. The Shekhinah itself is associated with the seventh of the lower Sefirot, called Malkhut. On that note, the seven days of the week actually correspond to the seven lower Sefirot (see Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Behar). Sunday is Chessed, Monday is Gevurah, Tuesday is Tiferet, and so on. These also correspond to the seven visible luminaries in the sky above us: sun and moon, and the five planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn (the other planets are not visible to the naked eye and were only discovered after the invention of the telescope). In his Discourse on Rosh HaShanah, the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270) explains that pagans named their days of the week after these luminaries (and their corresponding deities). In English: Saturday after Saturn, Sunday after the sun, Monday after the moon, and Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday after the Norse gods Tiw, Odin, Thor, and Frigga. In French: Lundi for Luna (the moon), Mardi for Mars, Mercredi for Mercury, Jeudi for Jupiter, Vendredi for Venus. Contrary to them, the Ramban points out that Jews call the days of the week numerically in relation to the holy Shabbat: yom rishon, yom sheni, etc.
The Sages do admit that the luminaries have a spiritual influence on the events and people of this planet (Shabbat 156a). However, Israel is able to break free from this astrological influence and determine their own fate. (For more, see ‘Astrology and Astronomy in Judaism’.) The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343) interestingly notes how in olden days the Jewish court would convene on Thursdays because the Torah says b’tzedek tishpot (Leviticus 19:15), “you shall rule justly”, and tzedek also happens to be the Hebrew name of the planet Jupiter, which “rules” over Thursday! (The beit din would also convene on Mondays which, Kabbalistically, is the day of Gevurah and Din, “judgement”.) Saturn, with its beautiful rings and record-number of moons, is associated with Shabbat, and in fact it is called Shabbatai in Hebrew. Historically, the pagans always held Saturn as the greatest of their “gods”, while in Judaism it simply corresponds to the greatest day of the week.
Finally, the Arizal notes (in Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh) that on each day of the week a different one of the four mystical olamot, parallel “worlds” or “universes”, is revealed and made more accessible. We inhabit and see all around us the world of Asiyah, which has its greatest expression on Tuesday and Wednesday. Above that is the world of Yetzirah, more accessible and visible on Monday and Thursday (the days when the Torah is read publicly in the synagogue). Higher still is Beriah, revealed on Sunday and Friday, the days immediately before and after the Sabbath, into which some of the Shabbat holiness “spills” over. It is only on Shabbat that we can more easily access the highest of the worlds, Atzilut, and get a true sense of God’s infinite emanation.
This week’s parasha, Vayetze, begins with Jacob setting forth towards his mother’s hometown in Haran. We read that on his way he suddenly “bumped into” a special place (Genesis 28:11) that turned out to be Beit El, the “House of God”. Jacob was surprised to find himself there (28:16), presumably the site of the future House of God, the Temple in Jerusalem. The Sages (Sanhedrin 95b) explain what happened:
“And Jacob went out from Be’er Sheva, and went to Haran…” is followed by “and he happened upon the place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set.” For when he reached Haran, he said: “Shall I have passed through the place in which my fathers prayed, without doing so likewise?!” He wished therefore to return, but no sooner had he thought of this than the earth instantly contracted and he “happened upon” that place.
Our Sages state that a miracle occurred after Jacob had reached Haran. He regretted not stopping by at the site of the future Temple Mount, where Abraham and Isaac had prayed, so the earth beneath his feet seemingly “contracted” and he was suddenly teleported to Jerusalem. In fact, the Sages state that such a miracle occurred for three people in the Tanakh: first was Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, then Jacob in this week’s parasha, and finally King David’s general Avishai. There is Scriptural proof for each one. For instance, when Eliezer had arrived in Haran he declared “I came today to the well” (Genesis 24:42), implying he had set out on his journey that same day. Eliezer was miraculously able to go from Be’er Sheva to Haran, a significantly long journey, in under a day.
This phenomenon would later become known as kefitzat haderekh, “jumping the path”, and would appear in Rabbinic narratives as well. Angels have a similar ability to seemingly teleport across vast distances. In one story, Rav Kahana was once selling some wares and a female customer tried to seduce him (Kiddushin 40a). He quickly fled in distress and ran to the nearest window and jumped! The angel-prophet Eliyahu appeared and caught him, complaining that he had to instantly travel a distance of “four hundred parasangs” to save him. A parasang, or parsa, is the average distance a person walks in 72 minutes—generally thought to be about 5 kilometres. So, Eliyahu flew some 2000 kilometres in a flash to catch the rabbi. Rav Kahana apologized and lamented that due to his poverty he had to resort to being a salesman. Eliyahu gave him a vessel full of money to free him from his job.
Meanwhile, the Zohar (I, 4b-5a) states that the malevolent angel Samael can traverse as much as 6000 parsas in a single moment. This number is not arbitrary, for the Talmud calculates that the Earth’s circumference is 6000 parsas (Pesachim 94a). This is an incredible piece of Talmudic science, considering how little of the globe was known then. Today, we know that Earth’s exact circumference is 40,075 km at the equator, a value close to that of our Sages. In fact, if making the correct assumption that the Sages must have been exact in their knowledge, we might be able to properly identify the length of a Talmudic parsa.
Although it is generally calculated in halakhah that a parsa is between 4 and 5 kilometres, by dividing 40,075 km by 6000 we can conclude that a parsa must be closer to 6.68 kilometres. This is also more in line with the notion that a parsa is a distance of 72 minutes: The average walking speed of humans is 5 km per hour (1.42 metres per second, according to the most precise measurements), so defining a parsa as 6.68 km is much closer to the scientific reality.
Jacob’s Ladder through Spacetime
The Talmud (Chullin 91b) calculates that the distance of the Heavenly Ladder that Jacob saw in his vision was a whopping 8000 parsas, which would be over 50,000 km. The word used by our Sages is rochav, meaning “width”. A superficial reading of the Talmud suggests that each angel is 2000 parsas wide (based on Daniel 10:6), and since Jacob saw four angels, the width of the Ladder must have been 8000 parsas. However, this does not make sense if taken literally, for why would an angel’s form be 2000 parsas wide? And if it was, how could Jacob even capture the sight of an angel in his limited field of view? The Talmud must be teaching something else. The big question here is why use the language of width as opposed to length or height, as might be expected?
When it comes to understanding the cosmos, we always speak of a “fabric of spacetime”. Perhaps the greatest achievement of Albert Einstein is pioneering the science behind it, proving that the three dimensions of space and the dimension of time are not separate, but interwoven together. With this, he was able to explain gravity a lot more accurately, demonstrating that larger bodies make a bigger “dip” in the fabric, pulling objects towards them kind of like a penny rolling around a funnel. And because they are integrated, strong gravitational effects can warp both space and time. We typically visualize spacetime as a flat “fabric”, with celestial objects scattered all over it. In fact, today we know that the universe does indeed appear to be flat (with a margin of error of about 0.4%). This is of tremendous significance.
In the Torah, the term aretz can refer to both Earth proper, and the wider physical universe at large. When we read that in the beginning God created et shamayim v’et ha’aretz, we do not define it simply as the “sky” and the “earth”, for those were not created until Days Two and Three. Rather, God created the entire spiritual realm (shamayim) and the entire physical universe (aretz). Our Sages noted long ago that the root of aretz (ארץ) is the same as ratz (רץ), “running”, since everything in this universe is in perpetual motion. More incredibly, today we know that the universe is constantly expanding, and we see distant stars “running away” from us. As such, when the Tanakh uses an idiom like kanfot ha’aretz, the “corners” or “edges” of the universe, it may be read quite literally. For a long time, there were people who understood these Torah statements as implying a flat Earth, when in reality they could have been alluding to a deeper scientific understanding regarding the “flatness” of the entire universe.
And that brings us back to the precise Talmudic language of rochav, “width”, in a place where we might have expected height. Of course, we do have a dimension of height. However, when zooming out to a “flat” universe, we really only visualize it in terms of width, as if on a two-dimensional plane. Going further, Einstein later showed, together with another Jewish scientist named Nathan Rosen, that it would be theoretically possible to “bend” spacetime and connect two points that are vastly far apart. It would be like folding over the fabric and then poking a hole through both layers. Such an “Einstein-Rosen bridge”, better known as a wormhole, would allow travel across extremely vast distances in a very short period of time. In other words, it would be very much like kefitzat haderekh!
A wormhole shortens the trip by bending spacetime and forming a bridge.
So, what our Sages may have been secretly implying in describing the width of Jacob’s Ladder is that this wormhole (of sorts) spanned 8000 parsas, or over 50,000 km. This is a distance even wider than the Earth and, scientifically, we would expect wormholes to be very large like this. Such a wormhole was accurately depicted in the film Interstellar, allowing the protagonists to instantly travel to a distant solar system to find a new home for mankind:
It is worth noting that when our Sages described the teleportation of Jacob, they said that kaftzah ha’aretz, again using that term aretz, and implying that it “jumped” or “contracted” for him. So, another term for this phenomenon, truer to the language of the Talmud, would be kefitzat ha’aretz, the warping of the spacetime fabric of this universe. Kefitzat haderekh is accurate, too, implying that one “jumped the path”, finding an alternate shortcut from one point in the universe to another. This appears to have happened at Sinai, as well. Our Sages likened Jacob’s Ladder to the Sinai Revelation, and the Zohar (I, 149a, Sitrei Torah) even notes that the numerical value of “ladder” (סלם) and “Sinai” (סיני) is the same—130. At Sinai, too, a “wormhole” opened up allowing 22,000 angelic “chariots” to descend upon the mountain (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:3).
Theoretical physics aside, can we actually create such wormholes? In 2017, scientists succeeded in producing tiny, microscopic wormholes for the first time. It is certainly possible that in the near future we will have the technology to open up larger wormholes, making rapid travel across God’s vast universe feasible. It appears that God’s angels already employ such a wormhole-style system of travel, traversing thousands of parsas instantaneously. It might help explain the Tower of Babel episode which, as we’ve mentioned in the past, was not simply a tower but meant to “lift off” and “conquer” the Heavens.
Our Sages long ago taught that the people who built the Tower knew the wisdom of the angels and were using angelic powers to accomplish their plans (see, for instance, Zohar I, 76a). God “came down” to confound them. He wiped their memories and jumbled their languages so that they wouldn’t be able to collaborate in such a megalomaniacal way. Today, we live in a world that is once more getting real close to being “of singular language and singular words” (Genesis 11:1), and once again we see science stepping into the dangerous territory of “playing God”. Hopefully this time humanity will get it right and use the astounding abilities that God made possible in His universe only for the good.