This week’s parasha, Chukat, begins with a description of the “Red Cow”, parah adumah, alone capable of removing the spiritual impurity of death. Some have described the Red Cow as Judaism’s “holy cow”, and have even compared it to the veneration of cows in Hinduism. The parallel is quite inappropriate, since the Red Cow in Judaism was not at all worshipped or honoured in any way, and it was slaughtered and burned to ashes—something that a Hindu would find reprehensible. Cow slaughter (and beef consumption) is prohibited in Hinduism. At least, this is the case today. In ancient times, Hindus actually did eat beef, and cow sacrifices were an important part of Hindu ritual, just as there are many bovine sacrifices in the Torah. In fact, there are an astounding number of parallels between Hinduism and Judaism.
After two parashas that span the first two millennia of civilization, the Torah shifts its focus to the origins of Israel and the Jewish people starting with, of course, Abraham. Abraham is probably most famous for something that he actually isn’t: being the first monotheist. Noah was a monotheist long before Abraham, as was Noah’s son Shem, who was already a priest of the one Supreme God (El Elyon, as in Genesis 14:18). In Jewish tradition, it is said that Shem established the first yeshiva, and the patriarchs studied there. Was Abraham the first monotheist? No, but he is described as being the first person to actively preach monotheism to the world. He took it upon himself to crusade against idolatry—and the immoral behaviours that went with it.
Some of our Sages also state that Abraham invented the concept of a positive mitzvah. This means drawing closer to God not by abstinence and asceticism but through acts of kindness and the performance of physical actions. For this reason, the gematria of “Abraham” (אברהם) is 248, equal to the number of positive commandments in the Torah. Not surprisingly, Abraham is well-known for his legendary hospitality, his great compassion, and his ceaseless efforts on behalf of his fellow man.
Jewish tradition describes Abraham’s house as having a front door on each side so that guests wouldn’t have to look for the entrance. Meals were always on the house, as long as the guest was willing to thank God for it. Of his compassion, we read in the Torah how Abraham questioned God before the destruction of Sodom, seeking to exonerate the people despite their cruelty (Genesis 18). In this week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, we read of all the “souls that they had made” (Genesis 12:5), the countless people that Abraham and Sarah inspired and brought closer to God. In fact, the Meshekh Chokhmah (of Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk) on Genesis 33:18 states that Abraham later migrated to Egypt specifically because it was the capital of idolatry and impurity at the time, and Abraham wished to bring some light to that dark place.
What else do we know about Abraham? Extra-Biblical texts reveal some intriguing details in the life of Judaism’s first patriarch.
There are three major opinions as to when Abraham came to know God. The Talmud (Nedarim 32a) holds that he first recognized his Creator when he was three years old. This is deduced from Genesis 26:5, where God says Abraham had “listened to My voice”, ekev asher shama Avraham b’koli. The term “ekev” (עקב) has a numerical value of 172, and since we know Abraham lived 175 years, we learn that Abraham had listened to God’s voice for 172 of them, starting at age 3.
The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204), meanwhile, writes in his Mishneh Torah that Abraham came to know God at age 40 (Hilkhot Avodat Kochavim 1:3). A more commonly-held view is that Abraham came to know God at age 52. This is based on the Talmudic statement that history is divided into three eras: the first 2000 years being the era of “chaos”, the next 2000 years being the era of Torah, and the final 2000 years being the era of Mashiach (Avodah Zarah 9a). Since we know that Abraham was born in the Hebrew year 1948, and the era of Torah started in the year 2000, Abraham must have been 52 when he came to know God.
One way to reconcile these three opinions is as follows: Abraham first realized there must be one God when he was three years old. By age 40, he was ready to begin his life’s work, and set forth in preaching his message. This got him into a lot of trouble, for which he was imprisoned, and ultimately sentenced to death. The Talmud (Bava Batra 91a) clarifies that he was imprisoned for 10 years. Then came the day of his execution. Abraham was thrown into the flames of Ur Kasdim when he was 52, and at this point God actually revealed Himself to Abraham for the first time, miraculously saving him from death. Therefore, there are those who say it wasn’t God who chose Abraham, but Abraham who chose God.
Abraham was already preaching long before he received any kind of prophecy or communication from Hashem. He logically deduced there must be one Creator to this world, and recognized the folly of idolatry on his own. He then took it upon himself to teach this truth, despite never having “heard” anything from God, or being summoned to do so. God chose him precisely because of this incredible initiative. We learn this explicitly from Genesis 18:19, where God says:
For I have known him, that he commands his children and his household after him, that they should keep the way of God, to do righteousness and justice; therefore God brings upon Abraham that which He has spoken of him.
God chose Abraham because he was already teaching others to be more Godly! At age 52, the God that Abraham had been preaching about for so long finally revealed Himself, in miraculous fashion. This sets off a new 2000-year era, that of Torah and prophecy, spanning from Abraham until the times of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, who compiled the Mishnah, thus putting the Oral Torah in writing for the first time.
Abraham the Kabbalist
The Talmud (Bava Batra 91a) states that Abraham was world-famous for being an unparalleled astrologer and healer. According to tradition, he was also a great mystic. It is believed that he authored, or in some other way originated, Sefer Yetzirah, the “Book of Formation”, one of the most ancient Kabbalistic text. The book explains how God fashioned the universe through the Hebrew letters. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 67a) suggests that mastery of this text would allow the mystic to create ex nihilo, out of nothing, and such was done by Rav Oshaya and Rav Chanina every Friday afternoon. These two rabbis would create a chunk of veal, and make a barbecue!
It appears the same was done by Abraham. We read in Genesis 18:7 that when the angels visited him, Abraham hastened to “make” a calf, v’imaher la’asot oto. The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush Wisser, 1809-1879) comments on the Torah’s strange choice of verb by stating that Abraham literally created a calf through the wisdom of Sefer Yetzirah. This is why, he explains, the next verse has Abraham serving butter and milk. It is unthinkable that Abraham would serve veal with dairy—an explicit Torah prohibition—unless the veal was of his own creation, and was therefore not real meat that once had a soul. Abraham may have been the first person to serve vegan burgers.
Where did Abraham get this wisdom? According to one tradition, the angel Raziel (literally “God’s secret”) taught these mysteries to Adam. Adam passed it down to his son Seth, and onward it went down to Noah, then to his son Shem. Midrashic texts have Shem teaching Abraham, circumcising Abraham (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 29), and even ordaining Abraham as a priest (Midrash Aggadah, Genesis 14:19).
Alternatively, Abraham received mystical knowledge on his own. Kabbalah implies something “received”, and is often seen as being conferred directly by the Heavens to those who are worthy. In his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, the Ravad (Rabbi Avraham ben David, c. 1125-1198) lists the names of the angels that taught our patriarchs this mystical wisdom:
The master of Shem was Yofiel. The master of Abraham was Tzadkiel. The master of Isaac was Raphael. The master of Yakov was Peliel. The master of Yosef was Gabriel. The master of Moshe Rabbeinu was Metatron. The master of Elijah was U’maltiel. Each of these angels passed down Kabbalah to his disciple, whether through a book or orally, in order to enlighten him, and to inform him of future events.
According to the Book of Jubilees (12:25), Abraham was also taught Hebrew directly from Heaven. It had been lost following the Great Dispersion of the Tower of Babel. Now, the Holy Tongue was restored. Of course, it wouldn’t have been possible for Abraham to learn Kabbalah and the mysticism of Sefer Yetzirah without knowledge of Hebrew, upon which it is all based. Interestingly, the Book of Jubilees (11:6) also paints Abraham as a great engineer. He first became famous for inventing a seed-scattering device attached directly to a plow, as well as a method for keeping birds from eating the seeds of farmers.
The Torah tells us that at the end of his life, Abraham gave over his entire inheritance to Isaac, his rightful heir, but left various matanot, “gifts”, for his other children (Genesis 25:6). He then sent those other children eastward, to live outside the borders of Israel, so that it would be clear that the Holy Land belongs solely to Isaac and his descendants. What were these gifts? The Sages state that these were kernels of mystical wisdom to take with them. Some say this was white magic, and others black magic. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 91a) associates it with impure wisdom of some sort. Many see in these gifts the mystical wisdom that would give rise to the ancient religions of the Far East. So perhaps there is a connection after all between the Hindu concept of Brahman—and the Hindu priestly caste of Brahmins—with the name Abraham.
While Abraham is generally seen as a forefather—whether biological or spiritual—of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, he is also a forefather of many other nations through his many other children that we often forget about (see Genesis 25). Our Sages say he is called “Avraham” because he is av hamon goyim, the father of a multitude of nations. He might very well be the father of all the world’s major religions, too.
This week’s parasha, Tetzave, continues to outline the items necessary for the Mishkan, or Tabernacle, starting with the Menorah and going into a detailed description of the priestly vestments. One of the materials necessary for the holy garments is tola’at shani, commonly translated as “crimson wool”. This was a deep red fabric apparently derived from some kind of insect or worm (which is what the Hebrew “tola’at” means). The Torah speaks of this material in multiple places and in multiple contexts. Today, wearing a “tola’at shani”-like red string on the wrist has become very popular among those calling themselves “Kabbalists” and even by secular Jews and non-Jews. What is the significance of the red fibre, and is there any real spiritual meaning to the red string bracelet?
The First Red String
The earliest mention of a red string is in Genesis 38:27-30, where Tamar gives birth to her twin sons Peretz and Zerach:
And it came to pass in the time of her labour that, behold, twins were in her womb. And in her labour, one hand emerged, and the midwife took a red string [shani] and tied it to his hand saying, “This one came out first.” And he drew back his hand, and behold, his brother came out, and she said: “With what strength have you breached [paratz] yourself?” so his name was called Peretz. And afterward came out his brother that had the red string upon his hand, and his name was called Zerach.
Here, the red string is simply used to designate the firstborn. It didn’t work out as planned, for the other twin ended up coming first. The strong Peretz would go on to be the forefather of King David, and therefore Mashiach, who is sometimes called Ben Partzi. Clearly, wearing the red string wasn’t much of an effective charm for Zerach.
In addition to being used in the garments of the priests and various Temple vessels, tola’at shani was employed in a number of sacrificial rituals. In Leviticus 14 we read how someone who had healed from tzara’at, loosely translated as “leprosy”, would bring an offering of two birds which were dipped in a mixture containing the red dye. From this we see that tola’at shani (or shni tola’at, as it appears here) is not necessarily the string itself, but simply the red dye extracted from the insect. Similarly, the red dye was used in the preparation of the parah adumah, “Red Cow”, mixture (Numbers 19) which was used to purify the nation from the impurity of death.
The Talmud (Yoma 67a) describes how a red string was tied to the scapegoat on Yom Kippur. Recall that on Yom Kippur two goats were selected, one being slaughtered and the other being sent off into the wilderness, “to Azazel”. This “scapegoat” had a red string attached to it, and if the string turned white the people would know that their sins had been forgiven, as Isaiah 1:18 states: “…though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” Here, then, the red string represents the sin of the people, bound to the scapegoat going to Azazel. If it turned white, it was a good sign, whereas if the string remained red it meant God was unhappy with the nation. Indeed, the Talmud (Yoma 39b) states that in the last forty years before the Second Temple was destroyed, the red string never once turned white.
Red in Kabbalah
In mystical texts, red is typically the colour of Gevurah or Din, severity and judgement. It was therefore generally discouraged to wear red. The Kabbalists often wore garments of all white, and this is still the custom during the High Holidays, a time of particularly great judgement. It was only centuries later that the Chassidic rebbe known as Minchat Eliezer (Rabbi Chaim Elazar Spira of Munkacz, 1868-1937) wrote how having a red cloth may serve to ward off judgement and severity. Another Chassidic rebbe, the Be’er Moshe (Rabbi Moshe Stern of Debreczin, 1890-1971) wrote that he remembered seeing people wear red strings as a child, but did not know why. Still, this does not appear to have been a very popular practice then, nor is it much of a custom among Chassidim now.
Rather, the red string today has been popularized by The Kabbalah Centre and similar “neo-Kabbalah” movements that cater as much to non-Jews as to secular Jews. The Kabbalah Centre explains that the bracelets are made by taking a long red thread and winding it around Rachel’s Tomb seven times. The thread is then cut into wrist-size lengths, and if worn on the “left wrist, we can receive a vital connection to the protective energies surrounding the tomb of Rachel.” It is not clear where The Kabbalah Centre took this practice from. They claim that the red string wards off the evil eye. While they cite certain passages from the Zohar regarding the evil eye, there doesn’t seem to be any connection to a red string specifically.
The Zohar (II, 139a) does state in one place that the blue tekhelet represents God’s Throne, as is well-known, which means judgement, whereas the red shani is what emerges from the Throne and overpowers the judgement, thus bringing protection upon Israel. The Zohar relates shani to Michael, the guardian angel of Israel, and uses the metaphor of a worm eating through everything to explain the tola’at shani as eating up negative judgement. This is why the famous song Eshet Chayil (Proverbs 31) states that a “woman of valour” has her whole house dressed in shanim (v. 21). She guards her household in this way. (It should be noted that in this passage the Zohar states it is gold which represents Gevurah, and silver represents Chessed. White and red, meanwhile, appear to be aspects within the sefirah of Yesod.)
So, perhaps there is something to wearing a red string.
Bringing Back Shani
The Zohar does not speak of any red string at all, and instead explains the mystical power of the red dye called shani. It is the dye itself that has power, as we see from the Temple rituals noted above. It is well-known that the blue tekhelet dye comes from a certain mollusc or sea snail called chilazon. From where does shani come?
Professor Zohar Amar of Bar Ilan University researched the subject in depth and concluded that tola’at shani is similar to the cochineal insect, famous for producing the red dye carmine (E120) which is extensively used in the food industry. After a round-the-world search, it turned out that a cochineal-like insect is found in Israel as well, and grows on oak trees.
While the cochineal insect is native to South America (where most of the carmine is still produced), its Mediterranean cousin is the oak-dwelling kermes insect. Indeed, kermes was used across the Mediterranean world for millennia, being particularly prized in Greek, Roman, and medieval society. It is best known for its ability to dye wool extremely well. Jerusalem’s Temple Institute was convinced of the professor’s findings, and has begun harvesting the bugs and their red dye in order to produce authentic priestly vestments, as outlined in the Torah.
In light of this, a genuine red string “kabbalah” bracelet—with the protective powers mentioned in the Zohar—would undoubtedly have to be made of wool dyed with kermes red. And according to the Zohar, it probably shouldn’t be worn on the left wrist at all, but instead on the right leg, the body part which the Zohar (II, 148a) states that shani corresponds to.
Judaism is very sensitive about not imitating the ways of the pagans, or darkei Emori. One example of this, as we wrote in the past, is kapparot, which the Ramban (among others) called an idolatrous practice. The Tosefta (Shabbat, ch. 7) has a list of practices that are considered darkei Emori, and one of them is “tying a red string on one’s finger”. So, already two millennia ago it seems there were Jews tying red strings on their body, and the Tosefta (which is essentially equivalent to the Mishnah) forbids it.
In fact, Hinduism has a custom to wear a red string called kalava around one’s wrist in order to ward off evil. This is precisely what The Kabbalah Centre claims their red string accomplishes. Based on this alone it would be best to avoid wearing such a red string. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was one of the recent authorities who stated that the red string should not be worn due to darkei Emori. Factoring in that the red string has no basis in the Zohar or any traditional Jewish mystical text is all the more reason to stay away from this practice.