Tag Archives: Health

Are Tattoos Really Forbidden?

In this week’s parasha, Re’eh, we read: “You are children of Hashem, your God. You shall neither cut yourselves nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead.” Here, the Torah repeats the prohibition of extreme mourning for the dead, which includes making cuts in one’s flesh or tearing out one’s hair in grief. The parallel passage in Leviticus 19:28 states “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor imprint any marks upon you, I am Hashem.” The Mishnah (Makkot 3:6) elaborates on these verses that there are two forms of cutting: one is an incision alone, and the other is an incision with ink, ie. a tattoo.

The Torah’s prohibition in Re’eh makes it clear that it is forbidden to make any cuttings in the flesh for the dead. In Leviticus (parashat Kedoshim), however, cutting in the flesh is juxtaposed with tattooing (ketovet ka’aka’a). More accurately, Leviticus uses the term “scratches” (seret) instead of “cutting”, which implies making shallow incisions that don’t necessarily result in deep wounds or profuse bleeding. This is not referring to cutting one’s self in grief, but a slightly different case where a person might incise or scratch the name of the deceased into their flesh, resulting in a permanent scar that bear’s the deceased’s name. The Mishnah concludes by stating that “If he writes without imprinting, or he imprints without writing, he is not liable for lashes, until he writes and imprints with ink or pigment or anything that leaves an impression.” Thus, while cutting deep wounds for the dead is forbidden, a person who only scratches (literally “writes”) into their skin leaving a faint scar has not sinned, unless they scratched with ink to leave a very clear impression.

Conversely, a person who uses ink alone, without any scratches or incisions, has not sinned either. So, there is little to worry about if your children come home with those temporary sticker-like “tattoos” that are rubbed onto the skin with some water. Neither is there a problem with things like henna.

Having said that, the Mishnah does not end with the words quoted above. It continues to state a teaching in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: “He is not liable until he writes a name there, as it says: ‘… nor imprint any marks upon you, I am Hashem.’” The Talmud (Makkot 21a) asks what Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai meant by this: Did he mean it is forbidden to write a Name of God, since the verse says “I am Hashem”? Or, did he mean that it is forbidden to write the name of an idolatrous deity, and it says “I am Hashem” to remind us that there is only One God?

The Sages conclude that Rashbi meant it is forbidden only to write the name of an idol or false deity. Does that, then, imply it is permissible to tattoo God’s Name? Interestingly, it has been pointed out that Isaiah 44:5 might refer to such a tattoo: “One shall say: ‘I am to Hashem’, and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob, and another shall write his hand to Hashem…” What does this last phrase—yikhtov yado l’Hashem—mean? The verb used (likhtov) is the same as that in Leviticus and in the Mishnah’s discussion of tattoos. Does this suggest that in Isaiah’s time people did have “holy tattoos” on their arms?

Holy Tattoos

The suggestion that Jews may have had “kosher” tattoos seems quite unlikely. The verse in Isaiah makes no reference to a ka’aka’a or seret, or even gadad (the root used in parashat Re’eh). Perhaps a better interpretation is that it refers to tefillin, whose writings are bound upon the arm. Besides, Isaiah is not speaking of his own time at all, but prophesying to a distant future when the righteous shall “spring up among the grass” (44:4).

Whatever the case, the Mishnah holds that tattoos are only forbidden when bearing a name. It appears that tattooing for other reasons, including decorative ones, is not forbidden. Indeed, the Torah’s prohibition is only stated with regards to mourning the dead. This would forbid, for example, tattooing the name of one’s beloved that has passed away—something quite common today, and clearly in ancient times, too. If the tattoo is not associated with idolatry or mourning, there is technically no Scriptural or Talmudic basis for forbidding it.

The popular belief that a Jew who has a tattoo will not be buried in a Jewish cemetery is entirely untrue. Some say it began with one particular cemetery that refused people with tattoos to be buried there. Rabbi Gutman Locks proposed that it came from the need to identify dead bodies: if a corpse had a tattoo, it was assumed that the person wasn’t Jewish, so they were buried in a non-Jewish cemetery. Either way, it became a useful tool for fearful parents who tried to discourage their children from getting inked. The fear is justified, for Jewish tradition has always strongly frowned upon tattooing. Despite the fact that our ancient holy texts do not expressly forbid it, avoiding tattoos has become a firm Jewish custom accepted by all communities.

The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204), in his authoritative Mishneh Torah, records the prohibition as law (Hilkhot Avodat Kochavim 12:11). He argues that tattooing is a practice of idolaters, invented by idolaters, for idolaters, and tattoos generally symbolize a mark of submission to some false deity. Since the Torah is so adamant about staying away from anything that is even remotely connected to idolatry, tattoos should be completely forbidden—even if the tattoo bears a holy Name of God or a verse from the Torah.

Today, there aren’t a lack of people who sport such tattoos. While the faith of such people is commendable, using a tattoo to express that faith is ironically inappropriate since Jewish law forbids tattooing! If these people feel like Isaiah 44:5 is a Scriptural support for them, perhaps they should, instead, be more scrupulous with the mitzvah of tefillin, which may be a more fitting interpretation of that verse. After all, tefillin is a mark of devotion to Hashem, symbolizing a Jew’s dedication of mind, heart, and action towards the service of God. Just as the Rambam says a tattoo was meant to be a mark of devotion and submission to an idol, a Jew’s tefillin serves the same purpose with regards to Hashem. The only inked skin that a Jew needs is the dyed leather of tefillin.

And there are a handful of other good reasons to avoid tattoos, too.

“Jewish Tattoos” (Credit: tattoo-journal.com)

Physical and Spiritual Health

Firstly, tattoos are a health issue. Other than the pain of the procedure itself, injecting pigments can cause allergic reactions and itchy rashes. For some people, the itchiness can persist for years. Infections are relatively common, too, with hepatitis B and C being a particular issue, as well as less serious bacterial infections. Studies show that as many as 6% of people get an infection following tattooing. Tattoos can also be problematic if a person needs an MRI in the future. The strong magnets can shift the metals in the ink and cause pain or swelling. They sometimes distort the MRI image, too. Finally, tattoo inks can be toxic, and have been linked to cancer.

To be fair, some people do experience a positive mental or emotional boost from getting a tattoo. These “mental health tattoos” can be a good thing, and even bring a person out of a depressive state. However, there are undoubtedly much better ways to treat depression and mental health issues than getting a tattoo.

On a spiritual level, tattoos are an even bigger issue. As we saw above, tattooing was associated with idolatry. It was also associated with slavery, where a master would brand his servant with a mark of ownership. This is still happening today, especially in prostitution rings, where pimps often have their logos tattooed on their “property”. Cattle and other animals are also generally branded with tattoos. Of course, no one could forget the Jews that were tattooed with a number in the Holocaust. This alone should make a Jew cringe and stay away from ink. (It should be noted here that a person who is tattooed against their will is not culpable in any way, and bearing the tattoo is certainly not a sin—as the Rambam makes explicitly clear in the same passage cited above.)

Then there’s the issue of modesty. Jews are expected to uphold the highest standards of modesty, and there are few places on the body where a tattoo would even be visible to the public. Tattoos tend to be placed in areas that shouldn’t be exposed to begin with—which, in many cases, goes to show the real motivation for getting one. Tattoos are often just a means of attracting attention. Other people, meanwhile, have so many tattoos that the reasoning could be the exact opposite: It has been said that in a world where people are less and less covered by clothes, they subconsciously seek other means to hide their skin. In a strange inversion of modesty, there are those who hide behind their tattoos.

But for many people, a tattoo is done on a whim, or in one’s youth, or without too much forethought. The result is that about a third of people who get a tattoo end up regretting it, and about half of those seek expensive tattoo removal procedures. It is therefore better to stay away from tattoos entirely.

And lastly, it is important to keep in mind that the Mishnah states it isn’t just forbidden to get a tattoo, but also to tattoo “the flesh of one’s fellow”. The act of tattooing itself is problematic, and therefore, “tattoo artist” is not a kosher profession for any Jew.

Pig Gelatin and Synthetic Pork: Kosher?

This week’s Torah reading (in the diaspora) is Shemini, famous for its list of kashrut laws. One of the things explicitly prohibited is, of course, pork meat (Leviticus 11:7). In recent times, a number of articles have circulated making a variety of different claims, such as that lab-grown pork might be kosher, or that pig gelatin is kosher, or even that all pork meat is actually kosher! Is there any validity to these claims? And why is pork forbidden to begin with?

Did the Torah Mean to Forbid Pork for Everyone?

Last year, an article made headlines arguing that the prohibition of consuming pork was only meant for Israelite priests, not the general public. This is based on the old idea that the entire Book of Leviticus was meant only for Levites. The argument is silly, for although Leviticus does have many laws intended only for priests, it also has a great many laws that obviously apply to all of Israel, including the well-known “love your fellow as yourself”. One simply has to look at how the laws are introduced to know whether they apply solely to priests or to the whole nation. When it comes to kashrut, the Torah states: “And Hashem spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them: Speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘These are the creatures that you may eat among all the animals on earth…’” (Leviticus 11:2) Clearly, God commanded all of Israel when it comes to dietary laws.

Coffin Texts from the Middle Kingdom Period

Besides, abstaining from pork was actually common in other places across the Middle East. The Greek scholar Strabo (c. 63 BCE – 24 CE) noted that the ancient Phoenicians also abstained from pork, as did those who dwelled in the Arabian Peninsula, and their Muslim descendants to this day. Some believe this is because raising pigs requires a lot of water compared to raising other livestock—a precious commodity in the dry Middle East. Even the ancient Egyptians appear to have avoided pork meat at times. Perhaps the oldest reference is in the Coffin Texts that date as far back as the First Intermediate Period (2181-2055 BCE). Here, the evil god Set takes the form of a black pig, and is ultimately slain by the god Horus, to whom “the pig is an abomination”. Whatever the case, it is well-known that archaeologists working in Israel can easily differentiate an ancient Israelite site from a Philistine one by the conspicuous absence of pig bones in the former compared to the latter. There is no doubt that all ancient Israelites abstained from pork.

In his Guide for the Perplexed, where he sought to give logical explanation for the mitzvot, the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204 CE) notes that one of the reasons pork is forbidden is because it is unhealthy (III, 48). Indeed, pork meat is the most likely to be contaminated with trichinosis and other parasites. Pigs are, by their very nature, quite unclean. They are omnivores and scavengers, and will eat absolutely anything, including dead animals (the consumption of which is prohibited by the Torah as well). Some also claim that pork meat has more toxins because pigs digest food extremely quickly and absorb just about everything into their bloodstream. Moreover, they have very few sweat glands, meaning they are less likely to clear those toxins from their system. While the idea of sweating as detoxification is controversial and often rejected by science, studies show that sweat does excrete a small amount of toxic waste, including heavy metals and compounds like BPA. Either way, the 13th century Sefer HaChinukh (on Mitzvah 73) already grappled with this issue and concluded that although secular society may argue pork meat is perfectly fine from a health perspective, “the true Healer that warns us against them is smarter than us, and smarter than the doctors.”

Meanwhile, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Itzchak, 1040-1105 CE) holds that the prohibition of pork is a chok, a divine law with no human rationale, just like the laws of the Red Cow or the prohibition of shaatnez, the wearing of wool and linen together in one garment (see his commentary on Leviticus 18:4). There are spiritual things at play that we simply cannot understand. More mystical texts do try to explain those spiritual mechanics: for one, it is said that a person absorbs the qualities of the animals they eat. This is why we do not eat predators or filthy animals, as we do not want to take on their aggressive or impure qualities. The kosher animals are essentially all herbivorous and docile, and it is those peaceful and calm traits that we want.

The Arizal (Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Ekev) further explains that kosher animals are those whose souls we are able to elevate. The act of slaughtering the animal in a kosher manner, reciting a proper blessing before eating it, and ingesting it into a holy human vessel allows those special spiritual sparks trapped within the animal to ascend to Heaven. The emphasis here is on holy human vessel, for if a person is unrefined and not righteous, with no connection to Heaven, they are unable to elevate any sparks at all. This is why, the Arizal explains, the Talmud states that an ‘am ha’aretz (an unlearned person or one who does not keep the mitzvot) shouldn’t eat any meat whatsoever! The Arizal notes that even a righteous, Torah-observant Jew should only eat meat on Shabbat and holidays, when a Jew is said to receive an additional soul. Without this extra spiritual power, it is nearly impossible to “rectify” the meat.

Is Pig Gelatin Kosher?

While it is clear that consuming pork is absolutely forbidden, what about pork by-products like gelatin? Gelatin is made by boiling and processing the bones, skins, and sinews of pigs (or cows, or fish) to produce the jelly substance used widely in the food industry. It is typically reduced to a powder that can be mixed with water. The powder itself gives no indication that it came from a pig, and certainly no longer has any taste of pork flesh. Is it still not kosher?

In Jewish law, a food that has been processed so thoroughly that it becomes tasteless (or inedibly bitter) is not considered to be “food” anymore. If one cannot enjoy from the flavour of the substance at all, then it is permitted, even if derived from a non-kosher animal (see Mishneh Torah, Yesodei haTorah 5:8). Such a substance is treated like an artificial chemical as opposed to an actual food. Similarly, something that is so putrid that even a dog would not eat it is no longer considered food.

In the case of pig gelatin, it is tasteless, and it is unlikely that a dog would consume raw gelatin powder. Even when mixed with water, many forms of raw gelatin have a horrible taste. This puts gelatin in the category of a chemical, rather than a food. Thus, using it as an additive would be permitted. Many authorities have ruled this way, including Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (1863-1940) and Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank (1873-1960). Still, some modern authorities forbid pig gelatin, which is understandable considering the great aversion to all things pig in Jewish culture. Today, when there are alternatives like fish gelatin, or even carrageenan (derived from seaweed), there is no great necessity to consume products with pig gelatin.

Some medications are encased in gelatin capsules, and are fine for use.

Insulin that is derived from pigs falls under the same category. It would unarguably be permitted since it has a life-saving necessity for diabetics. Having said that, today most insulin is actually derived from genetically-modified bacteria, and recently scientists have even developed genetically-modified plants that grow human insulin!

Lab-Grown Pork in the Garden of Eden

In recent years, artificially lab-grown meat has become a reality. This type of meat is cultured in a lab from the stem cells of an animal. The meat is produced synthetically, without any need for raising or slaughtering animals. The potential benefits are tremendous, since lab-grown meat allows for only the very best tissues to be grown, and tweaked to have a perfect combination of nutrients. It prevents the need for large ranches and slaughterhouses, for the great amount of farmland used to raise food for the livestock, and all of the pollution that this entails. (Altogether, animal agriculture accounts for about half of all greenhouse gas emissions, and countless tons of sewage and toxic waste.) Scientists have successfully created lab-grown hamburgers, and an Israeli company (SuperMeat) is close to bringing cultured chicken to the market. Their chicken is healthier, uses 99% less farmland, 90% less water, and releases 96% less pollution. It appears that lab-grown meat is poised to take over in the coming decades. Is it kosher?

The first cultured hamburger by Dr. Mark Post of Maastricht University (August 2013)

While the halachic issues are complex and remain to be settled by halachic authorities, some have already stated there shouldn’t be any problem with lab-grown meat. In fact, since it does not come from an animal, and requires no slaughter, it wouldn’t even be considered “meat” to begin with, and would likely be parve. This has been suggested by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, the rosh yeshiva of Ateret Yerushalayim, as well as Rabbi Menachem Genack of the Orthodox Union. Thus, kosher cheeseburgers may yet be on the way.

More recently, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow (of Israel’s Tzohar Rabbinical Organization) stated that even lab-grown pork should be kosher. Once again, this is not an actual pig, but simply flesh cultured from a few pig stem cells. Such pork meat would never contain any blood, which the Torah states is what holds the animal’s nefesh (Leviticus 17:11), nor would it come from a living animal at all. From a Kabbalistic perspective, then, there would be no spiritual sparks to elevate. It seems lab-grown pork should be kosher.

Amazingly, Jewish texts long ago stated that a day will come when pork will be kosher. For example, the Ritba (Rabbi Yom Tov of Seville, c. 1260-1320 CE) writes in his commentary (on Kiddushin 49b) that the pig is called chazir in Hebrew because in the future God will hachziro, “return” it to Israel! While we have discussed in the past that certain Torah mitzvot will be abrogated in the Messianic Era, it seems unthinkable that pork should become kosher.

More problematic still, if the Messianic Era is a return to the Garden of Eden—as prophesied—than how can there be consumption of any meat at all? There was no death of any kind in the Garden of Eden, and consumption of meat was forbidden. It was only ten generations later that God permitted Noah to eat animal flesh. It should seem that the Messianic Era would be an entirely vegetarian one, like in Eden. At the same time, though, Eden is said to have contained all the pleasures of the world—so how can it miss the pleasure associated with eating meat? (Scientific studies confirm that eating meat boosts mood and happiness, and vegetarianism has been linked with higher rates of depression.) The World to Come should certainly be entirely pleasurable!

Perhaps lab-grown meat is the answer, for it beautifully solves all of the above issues. Lab-grown meat requires no animals to die, and allows everyone to consume every kind of taste—with the added bonus of being healthier for both body and planet. We can safely return to Eden without worrying about killing animals, without worrying about destroying the environment, and without worrying about giving up the foods we delight in.

Mashiach and the Mysterious 13th Zodiac Sign

This week’s parasha is Vayechi, where Jacob blesses his children before his passing. He begins by telling his sons that he wishes to reveal to them what will happen b’acharit hayamim, “in the End of Days”. Yet, the text we read does not appear to say anything about the End of Days! The Talmud (Pesachim 56a) states that the Shekhinah withdrew from Jacob at that moment so he was unable to reveal those secrets. If that’s the case, how was he able to properly bless his children?

The Talmud states that when the Shekhinah left him, Jacob worried one of his children was unworthy to hear those secrets. His sons then recited the Shema in unison and said, “just as there is only One in your heart, so is there in our heart only One.” Jacob was comforted to know they are all indeed righteous, and it seems the Shekhinah returned to him at this point, allowing him to bless his children in holiness. Nonetheless, Jacob reasoned that to reveal the secret of the End in explicit fashion would be unwise, so he encoded these mysteries within the blessings he recited. In fact, Jacob not only encrypted what will happen in the End, but summarized the breadth of Jewish history (see ‘How Jacob Prophesied All of Jewish History’ in Garments of Light).

One place where Jacob appears to make an explicit reference to the End is in blessing Dan, when he says, “I hope for Your salvation, Hashem” (Genesis 49:18). Jacob says Dan will be the one to judge his people—alluding to the great Judgement Day—and wage the final battles like a “snake upon the road… who bites the horse’s heel so that its rider falls backwards”. Jacob is speaking of Mashiach. Although Mashiach is a descendent of David and from the tribe of Judah, the Midrash states that this is only through his father, while through his mother’s lineage Mashiach hails from the tribe of Dan.

Why does Jacob compare Mashiach to a snake?

Snakes of Divination

Pythia at the Oracle of Delphi

In cultures around the world, there is a peculiar connection between snakes and prophecy. In ancient Greece, for example, the Oracle went into a prophetic trance when supposedly breathing in the fumes (or spirit) of the dead python upon which the Temple in Delphi was built. According to myth, this great python (a word which has a Hebrew equivalent in the Tanakh, פתן) was slain by Apollo. The Temple was built upon its carcass. For this reason, the Greek prophetess was known as Pythia.

Similarly, the Romans had their sacred hill on the Vatican (later adopted as the centre of Christianity). The second-century Latin author Aulus Gellius explained that the root of the word Vatican is vates, Latin for “prophet”. Others elaborate that vatican refers more specifically to a “divining serpent”. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world the Aztecs had Quetzalcoatl and the Mayans had Kukulkan, the “feathered serpent” god of wisdom and learning. And such mystical dragons appear just about everywhere else, from Scandinavia to China.

Incredibly, the Torah makes the same connection, where Joseph is described as a diviner who uses a special goblet to nachesh inachesh (Genesis 44:5). This term for divination is identical to nachash, “snake”. In Modern Hebrew, too, the term for guessing or predicting is lenachesh.

Why is the snake associated with otherworldly wisdom and prophecy?

Primordial Serpent

Back in the Garden of Eden, it was the Nachash that encouraged Eve to consume of the Forbidden Fruit. This was the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. The Serpent is the one who unlocked the minds of Adam and Eve to higher wisdom so that they could “be like God”. Jewish tradition maintains that Adam and Eve were eventually supposed to eat of the Tree of Knowledge (for otherwise why would God put it there to begin with?) but they simply rushed to do so when they were not yet ready. They transgressed God’s command, and knew not what to do with all of this tremendous information, resulting in the shameful descent of man into sin. The one who instigated it all was the Nachash.

It appears that ever since then, the snake has been a symbol of forbidden wisdom. Such divination and mysticism can be quite dangerous, and most are unable to either grasp or properly use this knowledge. The Talmud cautions as such in its famous story of the four sages who entered “Pardes” (Chagigah 14b). Pardes is an acronym for the depths of Jewish wisdom, from the simple (peshat) and sub-textual (remez) to the metaphorical (drash) and esoteric (sod). The result of entering the mystical dimensions was that Ben Azzai died, Ben Zoma detached from this world, and Elisha ben Avuya became a heretic. Only Rabbi Akiva was able to “enter in peace and depart in peace.” It is important to remember that Rabbi Akiva was the teacher of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the originator of the Zohar. (Still, the Zohar, like most mystical texts, does not speak explicitly of esoteric matters, but cloaks them in layers of garments and complex language which only the most astute can ever unravel.)

Long before, Joseph was a master of this wisdom, surprising even the Pharaoh and his best mystics, who proclaimed: “Can there be such a man in whom the spirit of God rests?” (Genesis 41:38). Joseph, of course, is a prototype of Mashiach. The sages state that Mashiach is a great prophet and sage in his own right, but can he really surpass the unparalleled prophecy of Moses or the wisdom of Solomon? The Alter Rebbe (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, 1745-1812) solved the issue thus:

After the resurrection all will rise… the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, Moses and Aaron, all the righteous ones and the prophets, tens of thousands beyond number. Is it possible that Mashiach will teach them the same Torah that is revealed to us today? …Will all who knew the whole Torah be required to learn new laws from Mashiach? We must therefore say that Mashiach will instruct them in the “good of discernment and knowledge of the secrets of the esoteric teachings of Torah” that the “eyes will not have seen”—Moses and the Patriarchs not having been privileged to that knowledge, for only to Mashiach will it be revealed as it is written of him [Isaiah 52:13] “and he shall be very high.” (Likkutei Torah, Tzav)

Mashiach is the greatest of mystics, the holder of forbidden knowledge which will soon no longer be forbidden. The time will come when, as God originally intended, man will eat from the Tree of Knowledge and be “like God”. That first requires a return of mankind to the Garden of Eden, which is the very task of Mashiach. Beautifully, the gematria of Mashiach (משיח)—the one who brings us back into Eden—is 358, the same as Nachash (נחש)—the one who forced us out to begin with. And so, as Jacob envisions, the snake symbolizes Mashiach himself.

While Mashiach is likened to a serpent, he must also defeat the Primordial Serpent which embodies all evil. Indeed, the Sages speak of two serpents (based on Isaiah 27:1): the “straight” serpent (nachash bariach) and the “twisted” serpent (nachash ‘akalaton). Mashiach is the straight serpent that devours the twisted one. This was all alluded to in Moses’ staff-turned-serpent consuming the Pharaoh’s staff-turned-serpent. In fact, another serpent staff, the nachash nechoshet, is later used by Moses to heal the nation. This healing staff found its way into Greek myth as well, where it was wielded by the healer god Asclepius, and eventually into the modern internationally-recognized medical symbol.

And that brings us back to the End of Days.

The 13th Zodiac

In recent years, there have been whispers of a necessity to change the current 12-sign horoscope to include a 13th zodiac sign. This was featured in the media on a number of occasions, with flashy headlines suggesting that some people’s astrological sign may now have changed. This is based on the fact that there is a “precession of the equinoxes”: the earth’s axis changes very slowly over time, meaning that the constellations which are visible in the night sky change, too.

The astrological signs are based on the 12 major constellations (out of 88 constellations total) that align with the sun and “rule” for about a month’s time every year (each making up 30º of the total 360º). The argument is that due to the precession of the equinoxes, a 13th sign has crept in which we can no longer ignore. The majority of astrologers have rejected this argument, mainly because astrology isn’t really based on the stars but fixed to the vernal equinox. While some in the East (namely Hindus) use “sidereal astrology”, which is based on shifting star positions, the system used in the West (“tropical astrology”) has 12 signs roughly corresponding to the 12 months.*

Either way, whether the horoscope requires modification or not is irrelevant to Judaism, which denies any astrological effect on Israel (a topic we’ve explored in the past). Besides, unlike astrologers, astronomers both ancient and modern have always been aware of this thirteenth constellation. To the ancient Babylonians it was the snake-like Nirah, while to the ancient Greeks it was known as Ophiuchus, the “serpent-bearer”. This constellation is in the shape of a man firmly grasping a twisted snake (the interlinked constellation Serpens). This is, of course, the very symbol of Mashiach, that serpentine saviour who defeats the primordial snake and all of its evil. After being an astrological footnote for a very long time, Ophiuchus has entered the spotlight, as if the cosmos itself is reminding us of Mashiach’s impending arrival.

Ophiuchus (or Serpentarius) grasping Serpens, with Libra and Scorpio on the bottom right, and the bow-wielding Sagittarius on the bottom left.

* The same is true in traditional Jewish thought, where each sign corresponds to a month on the Hebrew calendar, as well as to one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Having said that, including a 13th month for the Jewish system is not a problem at all. In fact, it is actually a solution, since the Jewish calendar has a 13th month in a leap year! Similarly, although we always speak of twelve tribes of Israel, there are really thirteen since, as we read in this week’s parasha, Jacob made Joseph count as two separate tribes: Ephraim and Menashe.

Tzom Gedaliah and Mystical Secrets of Fasting

Clay Bulla of Gemaryahu ben Shaphan, dated to 586 BCE.

Today is the Fast of Gedaliah, one of the “minor fasts” of the Jewish calendar. This fast commemorates the assassination of Gedaliah ben Achikam, the governor of Judah, some 2500 years ago. After the Babylonians destroyed the Temple and sent the majority of Jews into exile, they left a small number of Jewish farmers in their newly-created province of Judah, under the leadership of the righteous Gedaliah. Gedaliah was the grandson of Shaphan, one of the court scribes of Judean royalty who likely played a role in the composition of the Biblical Book of Kings, among others. (Incredibly, Jeremiah 36:10 describes how Shaphan had a son named Gemaryahu, and recently Israeli archaeologist Yigal Shiloh discovered a bulla in Jerusalem inscribed with the words: “belonging to Gemaryahu ben Shaphan”.)

The Books of Jeremiah (ch. 41) and II Kings (ch. 25) describe how a certain Ishmael killed Gedaliah “in the seventh month”, during what appears to be a feast day, which our Sages stated was Rosh Hashanah. The reason for the assassination is not explicitly given. It seems Ishmael believed that if anyone should govern in Israel, it should be him since he was a member of the Judean royal family and a descendant of King David. Ishmael didn’t think the whole thing through very well. Assassinating Gedaliah immediately raised fears that the Babylonians would return to punish the Jews for smiting their appointed governor. The fearful Jewish populace thus fled to Egypt, while Ishmael himself escaped to Ammon.

The tragedy was a great one not only because of the grotesque assassination of a righteous Jew by his fellow (Ishmael also slaughtered a handful of other Jews, as well as innocent pilgrims on their way to worship in Jerusalem.) Perhaps more significantly, the fleeing of the last Jews of Judea meant that the Holy Land was essentially devoid of its people for the first time in nearly a millennium. While Jews from Babylon would later come back to rebuild, they would be faced with new settlers that had since filled the vacuum in Israel: the Samaritans. This people would be a thorn at the side of the Jews for centuries to come. Worst of all, the assassination of Gedaliah is yet another example of sinat chinam, baseless hatred and Jewish in-fighting, which seems to always be the root of all Jewish problems.

The Sages instituted a fast to commemorate all of these things. And the fast’s timing is particularly auspicious, as it comes during the Ten Days of Repentance when we should be focusing on kindness, prayer, and atonement. Now is the time to repair relationships and form new bonds, for families and communities to come together. For many, it also something of a “practice run” for the more famous fast that comes just days later: Yom Kippur. This brings up an important question. What exactly does fasting have to do with atonement, spiritual growth, and self-development?

The Power of Fasting

Offerings on the Altar (Courtesy: Temple Institute)

Aside from its well-documented health benefits, fasting brings a great deal of spiritual benefits, too. In the fast day prayers, we read how fasting is symbolic of sacrificial offerings. In the days of the Temple, people would atone by bringing an offering, shedding its blood, and watching its fat burn on the altar. In Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh (Kavanot haTaanit), Rabbi Chaim Vital, the Arizal’s foremost disciple, explains that the sight of the animal being slaughtered would immediately inspire the person to repent. They would feel both a great deal of regret for their sin, and compassion for the animal, and would recognize that it should have been them slaughtered upon the altar. In lieu of a Temple, we fast to burn our own bodily fat, and “thin” our blood. The Arizal taught that the penitent faster is thus likened to a korban.

Rabbi Vital then reminds us that the food we eat contain spiritual sparks, and even the souls of reincarnated people. While we hope that our blessings and proper intentions when eating frees these sparks and elevates them to Heaven, we are not always successful in this regard—especially when we lose sense of the meal and eat purely for physical reasons. These sparks remain with us, and can even affect our thoughts and emotions. The Arizal explains that a fast day is an opportunity to free those sparks trapped within. We avoid eating anything new, resulting in the body shedding its fat and blood, and just as these things “burn up” physically, the sparks lodged within them “burn up” and ascend as well with the help of our prayers and pure thoughts and intentions. Moreover, the difficulty of fasting breaks apart the kelipot, the spiritual “husks” that trap those holy sparks.

(Interestingly, this passage in Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh shows an incredibly detailed and accurate knowledge of the digestive system. Rabbi Vital explains how the stomach and intestines break down the food, absorb it into the bloodstream, where it goes to the liver for further processing, and then to the heart which delivers the nutrients to the rest of the body, particularly the brain, the seat of the neshamah.)

Secrets of Fasting

Etz Chaim, “Tree of Life”. Note the sefirot of Gevurah and Hod on the left column.

The Arizal mentions how it is good to fast not only on the six established fast days of the Jewish calendar (Gedaliah, Kippur, 10 Tevet, Esther, 17 Tamuz, and 9 Av), but on every Monday and Thursday. This is, in fact, an ancient Jewish custom that is attested to in numerous historical documents. (One of these is the Didache, an early Christian text of the 1st century CE that tells its adherents not to fast on Mondays and Thursdays because that is when the Jews fast!) The Arizal explains that Monday and Thursday, the second and fifth days of the week, correspond to the second and fifth sefirot of Gevurah and Hod. Gevurah and Hod are on the left column of the mystical “Tree of Life”, and the left is associated with judgement and severity. By fasting on these days, one can break any harsh judgments decreed upon them.

The Arizal also taught that one who fasts two days in a row—48 hours straight—is likened to having fasted twenty-seven day fasts, and one who can fast three days straight has fasted the equivalent of forty day fasts. This is important because one of the most powerful fasts in Jewish tradition, which will completely purify the greatest of sins, particularly sexual ones, requires 84 day-fasts. (The number 84 comes from the fact that Jacob was 84 years old when he was first intimate, with Leah, and conceived Reuben.) Usually, this was done by fasting 40 days straight (eating only at night), followed by another 44 days (or vice versa). A person can thus accomplish the same purification by fasting both day and night for a whole week straight, from the end of one Shabbat to the onset of the following Shabbat.

As this would be a personal fast, it may be permissible to consume salt and water, as the Talmud (Berakhot 35b) does not consider these to be “food”, and permits them on personal fasts only. The Arizal actually gives a tip for one who feels thirsty during a fast: they should meditate on the words Ruach Elohim (רוח אלהים). Recall that Genesis begins by telling us that God’s Divine Spirit, Ruach Elohim, “hovered over the waters”. And so, one who meditates upon this should see his thirst quickly dissipate. Ultimately, the Arizal says that Torah study is the best way to repent and expiate sins, much more so than any fast. So, a person who is not up to the task of intermittent fasting may substitute with diligent Torah study.

Soon enough, there will be no need to fast at all, as the prophet (Zechariah 8:19) states: “So says Hashem, God of Hosts: The fast of the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth days shall be for the house of Judah for gladness, joy, and good times; for love of truth and peace.” With each passing moment, we near the time when all of these fast days—the fourth (ie. the 17th of Tammuz, in the fourth month), the fifth (9 Av, in the fifth month), the seventh (Tzom Gedaliah), and tenth (10th of Tevet) shall turn into joyous feast days. May we merit to see this day soon.

Gmar Chatima Tova!   

Jacob’s Sheep: Genetics and Epigenetics in the Torah

geneticsThis week’s parasha is Vayetze, where we read of Jacob’s arrival in Charan and the details of his twenty-year sojourn there. During this time, Jacob married (twice), had a dozen children, and toiled for his cruel father-in-law Laban. Laban recognized that he had been blessed exceedingly on account of Jacob’s presence, and offered him a new wage for his labour. By this point, Jacob knew not to trust the sly Laban, and asked simply for ownership of all the speckled and spotted sheep. Since these imperfect-looking sheep were few in number, Laban readily agreed. It appears that both Laban and Jacob were well aware of the basic principles of genetics. Today, we know that sheep have 17 or so different colour alleles, and white colour is the dominant one.

For those who have forgotten high school biology: An allele is a variation of a gene. So, for example, all humans have a gene for eye colour, but have different alleles that code for the varying colours: some have alleles for blue eyes, while others have brown eyes, etc. Each person has two alleles for every gene – one from their mother, and one from their father. Certain alleles are “dominant”, while others are “recessive”. Dominant alleles are far more likely to be expressed. In humans, brown eye colour is dominant to blue eye colour, which is why some 55% of people have brown eyes, while only about 8% have blue eyes.

Basic "Punnet squares" showing the probabilities of eye colour for the children of fully brown-eyed and blue-eyed parents, and a brown-eyed parent who carries a blue allele.

Basic “Punnet squares” showing the probabilities of eye colour for the children of fully brown-eyed and blue-eyed parents, and a brown-eyed parent who carries a blue allele. (Courtesy: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

White is the dominant allele for sheep colour, so Laban assumed he was getting a terrific deal from Jacob, who was apparently ignorant of sheep genetics. In reality, Jacob knew sheep genetics quite well, and had something else up his sleeve. He only offered Laban this deal because he knew the greedy Laban would readily agree to it. So, how would Jacob outwit his father-in-law?

A Brief Introduction to Epigenetics

Jacob was evidently a far more knowledgeable geneticist than Laban, as he was aware of a concept that has only come to light in recent decades, called epigenetics. Epigenetics refers to various layers of heritability and genetic effects which are above, or outside of (hence the Greek prefix epi), the actual genetic code. In 2008, scientists defined an epigenetic trait as “stably heritable phenotype resulting from changes in a chromosome without alterations in the DNA sequence.” In simple terms: the chromosome that contains the genes is altered in some way without affecting the DNA sequence (the genetic code) itself. That alteration is heritable, too, and passed down from one generation to the next.

A number of epigenetic mechanisms have been discovered. The most common are methylations and acetylations, where small molecules are attached or removed from the DNA strand, causing it to coil either more tightly or less tightly. When the DNA coils more tightly, the gene is rendered inaccessible, and cannot be expressed. If uncoiled, the gene is exposed, and can be translated into the protein it codes for, thus expressing the trait.

Coiling of DNA and gene expression. (Courtesy: National Institutes of Health)

Coiling of DNA and gene expression. (Courtesy: National Institutes of Health)

While epigenetics is quite complicated, its implications are tremendous. What it means in practical terms is that even though a person has a certain gene, that gene does not necessarily have to be expressed, as it can be silenced through epigenetic mechanisms. For example, a person who has a gene that predisposes them to cancer, God forbid, could potentially have that gene suppressed, thus eliminating their increased cancer risk. (Though they don’t work in this precise fashion, epigenetic cancer drugs are now available.) This also applies to people who might be genetically predisposed to obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or theoretically, any trait at all. A person who has both brown and blue alleles does not necessarily have to have brown eyes (which is what we would expect based on principles of classical, or Mendelian, genetics). The brown eye allele can be silenced, allowing the blue allele to be expressed fully.

The same is true for Jacob’s sheep. While the alleles for speckled and spotted sheep are recessive, the dominant white allele can be suppressed, resulting in more speckled and spotted sheep. In the Torah, we read how Jacob took tree branches and stripped away some of their bark to expose the inner white layers so that their pattern resembled that of the speckled and spotted sheep. He then placed these branches in front of the white sheep that were mating, and this resulted in the white sheep producing more speckled and spotted offspring. In this way, Jacob was quickly able to multiply the number of irregular-looking sheep in the flocks, increasing his own wealth, and leaving Laban in utter surprise.

What does science have to say about this? Is it really possible for the white sheep to produce speckled and spotted offspring just by looking at speckled and spotted tree branches? Which factors actually affect epigenetics?

The Epigenetics Revolution

In northern Sweden lies a small, isolated town called Överkalix. This town kept detailed historical records, including births, illnesses, and deaths, as well as harvests and food prices. Researchers started poring over this data and noted a number of emerging patterns. Surprisingly, those who grew up in times of relative abundance tended to live shorter and sicker lives, while those who grew up in times of relative famine were healthier and lived longer! Even more shocking was that these traits passed on to their children and grandchildren. The grandsons of those who grew up in times of abundance lived roughly six years less than grandsons of those who grew up in times of famine!

The Överkalix study opened the door to much more research on the subject, and today we know that not only does food impact our epigenetics, but so does smoking, alcohol, exercise, and just about every lifestyle choice we make. Moreover, recent studies find that not only do our actions impact our epigenetics, but even our thoughts do! In 2013, scientists discovered that meditation affects epigenetic mechanisms and results in, among other things, less inflammation in the body, better stress responses, and faster mental processes.

TIME Magazine Feature on Epigenetics

TIME Magazine Feature on Epigenetics

Epigenetics has brought about a revolution in biology, and a new realization that we are not slaves to our genome. We are very much in control of how our genes operate, and seemingly every choice we make affects our health and wellbeing, as well as the health and wellbeing of our children and grandchildren, since these epigenetic patterns are heritable. This is one of the most enlightening and liberating scientific findings, putting each person in the driver’s seat of their biological fate. It should also motivate us to make healthy lifestyle choices because, even if we might not care so much about our own health, the health of our offspring is directly impacted by our choices.

The Return of Jacob’s Sheep

If meditation plays a role in how our genes are expressed, there is no reason why other mental processes cannot do the same. By visually exposing his sheep to speckled and spotted images, Jacob may very well have triggered an epigenetic change resulting in suppression of white alleles. Neurologists have long known that there is essentially no difference in brain patterns when a person is literally seeing something versus when they are simply visualizing the same thing. If mental visualizations like meditation can affect the epigenome, then why not actual visual displays? Armed with this knowledge, Jacob outwitted his father-in-law and became an exceedingly wealthy man.

Of course, one cannot deny God’s role in the process, as Jacob himself explained to his wives (Genesis 31:7-9):

…your father mocked me and changed my wages ten times, but God did not permit him to harm me. If he would say, “Speckled ones shall be your wages,” all the animals would bear speckled ones, and if he would say, “Ringed ones shall be your wages,” all the animals would bear ringed ones. Thus, God separated your father’s livestock and gave it to me…

Changing one’s epigenetics is not so simple! As with everything else, a little help from Above is always needed. Jacob put in his effort by exposing the animals to stimulating sights, and God took care of the rest.

Jacob's sheep are unique not only in their colour, but also in that the rams have extra horns.

Jacob’s sheep are unique not only in their colour, but also in that the rams have extra horns.

Interestingly, this week saw the arrival of 119 “Jacob’s sheep” to Israel. This ancient breed of sheep originated in the Middle East approximately 5000 years ago. They were extirpated from the land of Israel long ago, but thankfully some survived and were brought across North Africa to Europe and finally America. The rare speckled and spotted sheep are in the Holy Land once more, perhaps a sign of the forthcoming return of all of Jacob’s children to their ancestral home.