Tag Archives: Hebrew

The Mystical Significance of Bones

In this week’s parashah, Beshalach, the Israelites finally leave Egypt. We read how Moses made sure to take with him ‘atzamot Yosef, the “bones of Joseph” (Exodus 13:19). It is interesting that a bone is called an ‘etzem (עצם), which literally means an “essence”. As an adjective, ‘atzum (עצום) means “strong”, as well as “shut” or “closed up”. This is fitting since bones are the strongest components of the body, and “closed up” within muscles and other tissues. (For those who like numbers, the gematria of עצום is 206, which is the total number of bones in the human body!) There is something especially significant about bones. God made Eve from Adam’s bone, and Adam later declared that Eve is “bone of my bone” (‘etzem mi’atzamai), implying that her essence is like his essence, and now he would finally be happy and no longer feel alone. What is so special about bones that they hold the very essence of a person?

One of the amazing wonders of biology is that each and every cell of our bodies contains our entire genome (except, of course, the reproductive cells). So, the DNA inside the nucleus of eye cells contains the genes that also program toenails, and the toes have the DNA of the retinal proteins in our eyes! It remains one of the great mysteries of biology how cells are able to control exactly which genes are turned “on” or “off” in every cell, and how they make sure that eyes don’t have nails, and nails don’t grow eyes. In our adult bodies, most cells have already been differentiated into something specific (like eyes or toes), but there is one place where cells remain undifferentiated, and could become anything. These are called stem cells, and they exist mainly within our bones. Here in the bone marrow, we do indeed find our ‘etzem, the core essence of who we are, still undifferentiated and full of potential to become anything.

This explains why God made Eve from Adam’s bone specifically, as if He took some of Adam’s undifferentiated stem cells to create Eve! This is precisely how a modern-day scientist experimenting with genetic engineering or organ printing would do it. Better yet, when scientists and surgeons need to extract bone marrow for stem cell transplants today, the rib bone is actually a great place to get them, since they are near the surface and easily accessible, with little meat around them. (I know that some people will quote a different opinion from our Sages, as in Berakhot 61a, that Eve was “split” from a two-faced Adam, or that she was made from his “tail”, but the rib opinion makes a great deal of sense from a scientific perspective.) In any case, when we remember that our bones contain our undifferentiated cells and our untampered DNA, we appreciate the beauty of divine Hebrew in calling a bone an “essence”.

Scientifically speaking, the human body has four main types of tissues: bones are a type of connective tissue, and then there is muscle tissue, nervous tissue, and epithelial tissue. The Torah, too, speaks of four types of tissues: bones, plus bassar (meat), gidim (nerves), and ‘or (skin), neatly paralleling the four biological categories. We know that all fours in the Torah—such as the four mystical universes, the four Pardes aspects of Torah study, and the four letters of God’s Ineffable Name—match up and correspond to each other. We can link these up yet again with the four tissue types, to see once more the divine anatomy with which we were created:

Skin represents the surface level of Torah study, pshat (פשט), corresponding to the lowest realm, the physical and superficial Asiyah (as well as the lowest level of soul, the nefesh). Interestingly, the word in Hebrew to undress, ie. to remove one’s surface garments and reveal the skin, is lehitpashet (להתפשט)!

Beneath the skin is muscle, the bulkiest and heaviest part of the body, representing the sub-surface level of Torah study, remez, and the angelic realm of Yetzirah, as well as the next level of soul, ruach. The ruach is typically associated with the heart, also a muscle. With this we can understand why bassar (בשר), “flesh” or “meat”, shares a root with revealing news, levasser (לבשר)—for what is levasser but to reveal something currently hidden and as yet unknown? Levasser is to give more information beyond the obvious surface pshat that is already known! Moreover, we can now better understand why the Torah specifically uses the term yetzirah to describe the creation of Adam’s body (Genesis 2:7), and the command later for him to specifically become one bassar with his wife (2:24).

Going onwards, the muscles are innervated and controlled by nerves, paralleling drash, the metaphorical and allegorical level of Torah study, and the higher realm of Beriah, along with the neshamah level of soul. The neshamah is seated in the brain, the largest bundle of nerves in our body.

Finally, the inner-most part of the body is the bone, representing sod, the deepest part of Torah and its very essence. This is the level of soul called chayah, fitting because our Sages taught that Eve (made from Adam’s bone) was originally called Chayah, and only after the consumption of the Fruit did she become Chavah (see Kli Yakar on Genesis 3:20). The bone-sod level corresponds to the highest realm of God’s pure emanation, Atzilut. (The pure white colour of bone symbolically adds to this, along with the alliteration between Atzilut and ‘atzamot!) Atzilut is the place of pure, unadulterated light. Light is אור, with a value of 206, again like the total number of bones in the human body. We see a beautiful phonetic relationship between the surface level of skin, ‘or, spelled עור, and the deepest-most level of bone, corresponding to secret light, or, אור. (A word for an even more profound secret is raz, רז, with a value of 207, going one step further.) Without bones, the body would fall apart into a shapeless mass, just as would Torah without sod. (The Chida, Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai [1724-1806] pointed out that if you take the sod out of Pardes [פרדס], you are left with pered [פרד], a mule!)

And what of the hidden-most “fifth” part—the “crown” atop the Yud of God’s Name and the yechidah soul, paralleling the most mysterious and mystical Adam Kadmon? Perhaps it’s the DNA itself, the very code that gives rise to all four tissue types of our bodies.

To summarize:

A final thought: Damage to the skin often heals back to the way it was before. Muscle and nerve damage is much harder to reverse, and sometimes irreparable. Bones, however, tend to heal back even stronger than they were. There is a wonderful lesson here for each of us, both individually and collectively as a nation: If something hurts us deeply and damages our very essence, we should bounce right back and recover, growing even stronger than we were before, so that our inner essence shines brighter than ever.

Shavua Tov and Happy Tu b’Shevat!

For more on ‘The Divine Anatomy of the Human Body’, see here.

The Kabbalah of Solar

This Friday evening, we usher in the new year 5784 of the Hebrew lunisolar calendar. Our calendar follows lunar months, but is synchronized to the sun over the course of a 19-year cycle. Since a lunar month is 29.5 days, each month on the Hebrew calendar is either 29 or 30 days, resulting in a year that is typically just 354 days long. The solar year is a bit over 365 days long, meaning that a strictly lunar calendar will fall behind 11 days each year. To avoid this problem, we add an entire leap month, a second Adar, seven times in 19 years. This ensures that we stay in synch with both moon and sun. The upcoming year will be such a leap year, with 13 months instead of 12.

Although our calendar is lunisolar, and Jewish holidays, rituals, and halakhot generally follow this calendar, there are exceptions to the rule. In fact, there are a handful of Jewish laws and principles that follow not the lunisolar calendar, but the solar calendar of 365 days! We will explore some of the major ones below, and then look at the Zohar’s incredible revelations about the secrets of the solar calendar. Continue reading

The Real Meaning of Tikkun Olam

A get from the 19th-century (Credit: Israel Museum)

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetze, sets the record for most mitzvot in one parasha with a whopping 74 of them. One of these mitzvot is that of divorce: “When a man takes a woman and becomes her husband, and finds her displeasing because he finds something obnoxious about her, he shall write her a bill of divorce, hand it to her, and send her away from his house.” (Deuteronomy 24:1) The bill of divorce, called here a sefer kritut, would come to be more simply known as a get. In fact, there is an entire Talmudic tractate, Gittin, that explores all aspects of divorce and bills of divorce.

One of the questions discussed in this tractate is what does the Torah mean when it says the husband discovers something “obnoxious” about his wife? It is actually one of the more famous arguments between the ancient Jewish schools of Hillel and Shammai two thousand years ago. The more stringent Shammai believed that divorce was only permitted if the woman committed adultery or did something promiscuous (Gittin 9:10). Hillel believed divorce was allowed under any circumstances, for whatever reason the relationship was not working out. (Rabbi Akiva went even further and said a man could divorce even if he simply found another woman who is more attractive!)

More intriguingly, it is here in the tractate about divorce where we first come across the now-ubiquitous term tikkun olam, literally “repairing the world”. Today, many believe tikkun olam is a Hebrew term for social justice, but this is not accurate. What does “tikkun olam” actually mean? And why does it come from a tractate about, of all things, divorce?

Maintaining Order

In the fourth chapter of Gittin, the Mishnah and Talmud give many examples of things the Sages instituted mipnei tikkun ha’olam, “for the betterment of the world”. One of the first such things is that originally divorce documents needed to include essentially any name that the husband and wife went by. Rabban Gamliel, one of the last presidents of Israel before the Temple was destroyed in the 1st century CE, instituted that a get should list all names by which the husband and wife are commonly known. This was done mipnei tikkun ha’olam, and would ensure that the divorce is properly recognized in all places and by all people, even where the husband and wife might be known by other names.

Another example of tikkun olam is the prozbul, instituted by Rabban Gamliel’s grandfather, Hillel himself (Gittin 4:3). Recall that the Torah commands that all loans be paid back during Shemittah, the Sabbatical year, or otherwise be forgiven. A problem arose in that people were hesitant to lend money as the seventh year approached, since it was more likely that the borrowers would be unable to pay back the debt, putting the lender at an unfair loss. The reduction in available credit harmed the Judean economy. So, Hillel creatively came up with a prozbul that would sidestep the issue and allow the repayment of loans passed the Sabbatical year. The Talmud (Gittin 36b-37a) explains that “prozbul” came from a Greek term, meaning this decree was pro for both the bulei and the butei, the rich and the poor, benefitting all members of society.

We can now begin to understand the original meaning of the term “tikkun olam”. It was about adjusting Jewish law where necessary, within the framework of halakhah, for the betterment of society and to maintain peace and order. With time, tikkun olam took on a more mystical, cosmic meaning, too.

Rectifying the World

Ancient Jewish mystical texts described our world as one that is broken and in need of repair. God initially created a perfect world, but that world collapsed right at the beginning, in a process called shevirat hakelim, the “Shattering of the Vessels”. Adam and Eve had a chance to repair it, but only made the situation worse when they consumed the Forbidden Fruit. Since then, our mystical purpose is to reverse the damage and restore the wholesome primordial world, putting the pieces of those spiritual vessels back in place.

This process of repair and rectification, tikkun, is accomplished through the observance and fulfilment of mitzvot. This is the deeper purpose behind the Torah’s many laws—God gave them to us as tools to rectify the cosmos. Of all the mitzvot, the recitation of prayers and blessings in particular serve to elevate the world around us. All the small sparks of holiness, the nitzotzot, that came from the shattered vessels are trapped within the impure “husks”, kelipot, of the material world. The divine words of the prayers and blessings (in the original lashon hakodesh, the holy Hebrew tongue of Creation) are like spiritual formulas for freeing the sparks and restoring them to the Heavens. For instance, when one recites the boreh pri ha’etz blessing before consuming an apple, they unlock whatever sparks of holiness might be present inside. In this way, little by little, the entire cosmos is rectified.

The greatest proponent and expounder of this process was undoubtedly the Arizal (Rabbi Itzhak Luria, 1534-1572). It was he who put together the earlier Kabbalistic works into one complete mystical system, revealed only in the last two years of his short life in Tzfat, the “capital” of Jewish mysticism. The Arizal explained that this is the real reason why Jews were exiled to the farthest corners of the planet. On the surface level, it was a punishment and an exile, but God does not truly punish or exile. God is all-good, after all. The deeper reason for Jewish exile was so that Jews could reach every part of the planet and elevate all those lost sparks of holiness. Only when that process is complete will the Final Redemption be ushered in and the Messianic Age will officially begin.

Long before the Arizal, the Zohar already outlined the four aspects of tikkun. Recall that the Zohar is the central “textbook” of Kabbalah, first revealed to the public in the 13th century but originally dating back to the teachings of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his 2nd-century CE mystical circle. The Zohar (II, 215b) states that the first level of tikkun is rectification of the self. This is the process of personal development and self-refinement, the life-long journey of becoming a better, more Godly person. Each of us has many internal rectifications to achieve (both spiritual and physical).

Next is the tikkun of this lower physical world, primarily referring to that process of freeing the sparks trapped in the kelipot of the material around us. This is followed by the tikkun of the higher spiritual realms. For instance, reciting Kaddish for the departed serves to elevate their souls in the afterlife. Many of the mitzvot and rituals we perform similarly serve to affect great changes in the upper worlds. Finally, there is the tikkun of “God’s Name” which means a number of things, including bringing more Godliness down to Earth. Drawing more souls to recognize God, spreading Torah wisdom, and inspiring observance of mitzvot is a part of this process, too. The ultimate goal is, as the prophet Zechariah said, to bring about the day “When God will reign over the whole world; on that day God will be one and His name one.” (Zechariah 14:9)

These are the four aspects of genuine tikkun ha’olam: improving one’s self, fixing the spiritual fabric of the cosmos above and below, and infusing more Godliness into the world. So, how did some come to believe that tikkun olam is simply synonymous with “social justice”?

Tikkun as Social Justice

Real tikkun olam is clearly rooted in observance of Torah law and halakhah. With the rise of Reform Judaism in the 1800s, and their subsequent move away from halakhah, ancient ideas had to be rebranded. Tikkun olam was one of those ideas. Since Reform made halakhah essentially optional (at best), there was no way to root tikkun olam in the Law. Thus, rectifying the world was no longer a spiritual process requiring punctilious observance of mitzvot, prayers, and blessings, but rather a generic physical task of “making the world a better place”.

Now, there is certainly an element of “social justice” and making the world a better place within the larger umbrella of tikkun olam. It is true that God gave the Jewish people a mandate to improve the world, make it a more ethical and moral place, root out idolatry, spread monotheism, make life better for all, and be a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). This is what the Jewish people were “chosen” for. Indeed, Jews have lived up to the challenge, and have been hugely instrumental (in disproportionate fashion) in advancing science and technology, medicine, civil law, democratic government, economics, arts, and yes, social justice, too. Some of the original “social justice warriors” of the past were Jews, including giants like Samuel Gompers and Louis Brandeis.

That said, tikkun olam must be rooted in the Torah. Commenting on the famous adage of Shimon haTzadik (in Pirkei Avot 1:2) that the world is established on “Torah, service, and acts of kindness”, the great codifier Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1138-1204) writes that true tikkun olam requires all three: Torah study, service of God, and kindness to others. Therefore, if some idea or movement is obviously contradictory to what the Torah stands for, it cannot in any way be “tikkun olam”. Today, some misuse the “tikkun olam” label and think it includes embracing all kinds of philosophies that are completely at odds with God and His Torah, which openly and proudly transgress Torah law.

For instance, while we should certainly care about the living conditions of all human beings around the world, there is no tikkun in marching alongside people who support terrorists that murder innocent Israelis. While we should certainly reach out to all Jews—regardless of their background, identification, or orientation—to inspire them to come closer to God and be more Torah observant, there is no tikkun in waving a rainbow flag nor in supporting “drag” shows. Nor is there any tikkun olam in going against the Torah’s gender roles, or in dismantling the traditional family unit, or in denying basic biological facts. Tikkun olam should not be confused with “spreading love” to anyone and everyone, or to embrace all peoples and philosophies and lifestyles. Tikkun olam cannot come before Torah law—it is supposed to enhance Torah law, not transgress it. Which brings us right back to our first question:

Why is tikkun olam introduced, of all places, in a tractate devoted to exploring divorce? I believe the subtle message is that we shouldn’t ever lose sight of what tikkun olam is truly about and that, sometimes, tikkun olam is not about embrace, but about divorce. There are things that must be opposed, and there are things that must be fought, and there is a line that cannot be crossed. We should never forget the true meaning of tikkun olam, that it is a spiritual process first and foremost, about bringing more Godliness and morality into the world (not Godlessness and immorality), about understanding the deeper cosmic purpose of Jewish laws and rituals, and about actually fulfilling those laws in order to bring about the Final Redemption, when true social justice (and not a distorted social justice) will reign.

May we merit to see that day very soon.