Tag Archives: Idra Zuta

When Rashbi Threatened Rabbi Akiva

This Monday evening is Lag b’Omer, the 33rd day in the Omer count and traditionally commemorated as the yahrzeit of the 2nd-century CE sage and mystic Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Aside from being one of the most-cited voices in the Mishnah and Talmud, Rabbi Shimon (“Rashbi”) is even more famous for being the protagonist of the Zohar, the “textbook” of Jewish mysticism. Although he himself did not write it, the Zohar is based on his life and teachings, and is drawn from a collection of manuscripts initially produced by his disciples.

The timing of Lag b’Omer is even more significant because it is also the date when the “plague” upon the students of Rabbi Akiva ceased. After the deaths of some 24,000, only five of his students survived to rebuild Judaism—Rashbi being one of them. We must remember that Rabbi Akiva himself was jailed during this time, and eventually executed. It is during Rabbi Akiva’s time imprisoned that the Talmud (Pesachim 112a) relates an incredible story of when his student Rashbi came for a visit:

Rabbi Shimon approached his teacher behind bars and said lamdeni Torah, “teach me Torah!” Rabbi Akiva refused, since the Romans had banned Torah study—that was the reason Rabbi Akiva was imprisoned in the first place—and he did not want to get Rashbi in trouble, too. Incredibly, Rashbi responded by threatening Rabbi Akiva: “If you will not teach me, I will tell Yochai my father, and he will deliver you to the government!” This is puzzling, since Rabbi Akiva was already in jail at this point, so it seems like Rashbi was threatening to have Rabbi Akiva executed! We learn from this (among other places) that Rashbi’s father Yochai was a wealthy and influential figure in the Roman government, and could make such an order. This actually helps to explain why Rashbi later had to go into hiding from the Romans and spent over a dozen years in a cave, simply for criticizing the Roman regime. Certainly, many simple Jews (and gentiles) at the time would have criticized the Roman authorities without having to fear for their lives. Rashbi probably needed to go into hiding for what he said because his father was involved with the Roman government. He was well-connected and potentially a political threat to the authorities.

Rabbi Akiva told Rashbi: “My son, more than the calf wishes to suck, the cow wants to suckle!” In other words, Rabbi Akiva really did want to teach Torah, of course, even more than Rashbi wanted to learn, but he did not want to put his student in danger. Rashbi countered by arguing: “But who is the one in danger? The calf!” It is the baby that is in a fragile state, and needs the mother more than the mother needs the child. Rashbi was saying he needed Torah like a calf needs milk, otherwise he is (spiritually) in trouble anyway. Rabbi Akiva relented and relayed five final teachings, though they were terse and cryptic.

The first, appropriately, was “If you wish to hang yourself, do so on a big tree.” Since what Rashbi was asking of Rabbi Akiva potentially carried a death sentence, Rabbi Akiva gave him a teaching directly related to that. The simple meaning is that if Rashbi is going to be executed al kiddush Hashem, as a martyr sanctifying God’s Name, he should do so on a “big tree”, meaning to make it public so that the Kiddush Hashem is that much greater and inspires others to strengthen their resolve. Of course, Rabbi Akiva himself would soon be executed in such a way, with a huge Kiddush Hashem of his own.

[It should be noted that Rashi (not Rashbi) interpreted this first teaching metaphorically to mean that if you cite a Torah teaching, do so by citing it in the name of a great earlier sage, the “big tree”. The Ben Ish Chai, meanwhile, comments mystically that the “big tree”, ilan gadol, is the mystical Tree of Life, the ilan hakadosh, of the Sefirot. More specifically, ilan (אילן) has a value of 91, which is a clear allusion to the special Octagrammaton, explained here.]

The Octagrammaton, the eight-letter Name of God that fuses Hashem with Adonai

Rabbi Akiva’s second teaching was: “When you teach your son, teach him from a corrected scroll.” This teaching was also highly prescient, since Rashbi would soon have to go into hiding with his son, Rabbi Elazar. The two spent all of their time in the cave learning. From elsewhere in the Talmud (Ketubot 19b) we learn that a “corrected scroll”, sefer mugah, is any scroll or book of Tanakh that has been carefully proofread to make sure there are no errors. If an error is found, one has up to thirty days to correct it. Based on this, the Talmud explains the meaning of Rabbi Akiva’s second teaching is that a child should be taught properly from the beginning, because if they learn something erroneous in childhood, it will be hard to correct later.

The third teaching of Rabbi Akiva was: “Do not cook in your fellow’s pot.” The Talmud explains that this means a person should preferably not marry a divorcee whose husband is still alive, for she will likely still be thinking of her first love (whether positively or negatively). The Talmud cites a parallel teaching that when two divorced people marry each other, there are “four minds in their bed”. Each one brings the baggage of their previous relationship!

We’ll skip ahead to the fifth teaching as it is related to the third one: Rabbi Akiva teaches that a man should get married (and stay married!) and this is a mitzvah v’guf tahor, both a great mitzvah in itself, and also makes a man’s body pure, since he will not be drawn to sexual sins (having a wife to take care of those urges), and will have children to keep him busy and make him more responsible. It’s no coincidence that Rabbi Akiva saves this for his final teaching, since he himself was lucky to marry the right woman, who encouraged and supported him, and whom he later credited for all of his Torah learning and success.

These two short teachings on marriage actually carry a great deal of hidden mystical meaning (as, for instance, the Ben Ish Chai comments and explains in his Ben Yehoyada). Rashbi would go on to teach the fundamentals of Jewish mysticism in the Zohar, where marital intimacy is the central theme and metaphor that runs throughout the text. In fact, much of Kabbalah in general is based on the dynamics of a marriage as a metaphor for greater cosmic spiritual realities.

Finally, the fourth teaching of Rabbi Akiva is regarding a case where a person rents out a field to their fellow, who will work the land. Instead of taking monetary payment, the renter takes a portion of the produce of the field. This is both a mitzvah to help your fellow, who gets land to work and does not have to pay rent (just a portion of his yields), and is good for the renter’s own wellbeing, since he will eat fresh fruits and be healthy. Thus, it is a mitzvah v’guf gadol—both a big mitzvah and gives one a great, healthy body. Like the other teachings, this one was relevant to Rashbi since, as we’ve seen, Rashbi came from a powerful and wealthy family. He had the means to rent out fields to less privileged people.

As an important aside, there is a famous Talmudic debate between Rashbi and Rabbi Ishmael regarding whether a man should spend all of his time learning Torah, or get a job and make his own living, while also making time to learn Torah (Berakhot 35b). Rabbi Ishmael argued that, although the Tanakh tells us to meditate upon the Torah day and night, and that “it should not depart from your mouth” (Joshua 1:8), we also recite every day in the Shema that “you shall gather in your grain…” (Deuteronomy 11:14), meaning a person needs to work, too! Rashbi countered that if a person works, they will not have enough time to study Torah, as they will always be busy with something; plowing, sowing, harvesting, threshing, and so on. Rashbi argued that if a person fulfils God’s will, then God will bless them with riches, allowing them to outsource the work to others. He therefore concluded that ideally a person should learn all day, and leave the physical work for others. Of course, it was easy for Rashbi to say this since he came from a super-wealthy family, and was able to hire people to do that work!

Ultimately, the debate in the Talmud is settled by Abaye who said: “Many have acted in accordance with Rabbi Ishmael and were successful [in their Torah study. And many] have acted in accordance with Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai and were not successful!” Oftentimes, it is those who balance Torah with labour that become the greatest scholars, while those who are full-time learners fail to achieve Torah greatness. Note as well that Abaye specifically referred to Rashbi as, not just “Rabbi Shimon” (as he did Rabbi Ishmael, without a patronym), but “Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai”, emphasizing that he was the son of the wealthy Yochai, and most people are not so privileged like him.

Today, Rashbi’s position is still taken as support for certain kollels and for those who “make Torah-learning their profession”. However, it is important to clarify here that Rashbi never supported learning Torah at someone else’s expense. Rashbi was very wealthy himself, and could afford to hire others to do his work, while he learned all day. He certainly would not have supported the idea of making a living through learning Torah, for the Talmud clearly states in many places (including several times in Pirkei Avot 1:13, 2:2, 4:5) that this is unacceptable. The Torah should not be used as a “shovel to dig with”, to derive personal or material benefit. And when Rashbi had to go into hiding and did not have his father’s wealth and estate to support him, he lived meagrely on nothing but carobs and water. In either case, he never relied on the funds of others to make a living.

Going back to Rabbi Akiva, it appears that this encounter with Rashbi was his last, and he was soon executed. His final five teachings were concise, but deeply meaningful, especially for Rashbi himself. Rashbi would go on to be one of the five who rebuilt Judaism. His own final discourse, the Idra Zuta, contained deeply profound teachings as well. For an exploration of the last passage in the Idra Zuta, see the following short class:

Happy Lag b’Omer!

Mysteries of Fire

The most recognizable symbol of Lag b’Omer is undoubtedly the bonfire. What is the meaning behind it? The simplest and most-oft heard answer is to commemorate the passing of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and the fiery description of his last moments in the Idra Zuta, his concluding mystical discourse, as recorded in the Zohar (on parashat Ha’azinu). The last verse that Rashbi cited was Psalm 133:3 (note the 33s!) which states that Zion is the place where “God commanded blessing, everlasting life.” As he recited the word “life”, chaim, his last breath left him and his soul ascended Heavenward.

Such was the testimony of Rashbi’s scribe, Rabbi Abba, who writes how he frantically took notes as Rashbi spoke (these writings would later form the core of the Zohar). Rabbi Abba couldn’t look at Rashbi for his light was blindingly strong. After Rashbi passed on, “the fire did not cease from the house and no one reached him for they could not because of the light and fire that encircled him.” When the fires finally subsided, the students saw Rashbi “lying on his right side with a smiling face.” They prepared a bed for him and carried him out towards the caves outside Meron. The villagers of nearby Tzippori (Sepphoris) rushed after them wishing to have his holy body buried in Tzippori. The bed rose into the air and blazed with fire. Rabbi Abba and Rashbi’s son Rabbi Elazar ultimately brought the bed to the cave in Meron, and heard a Heavenly voice resonate: “This is the man who caused the earth to tremble…”

Since it is believed that Lag b’Omer is the day Rashi passed away and this fiery event took place, it is customary to light bonfires and gather around them to share words of Torah. Having said that, there aren’t actually any ancient sources suggesting that Rashbi passed away on Lag b’Omer. Some say it is instead the day when Rabbi Akiva began to teach Rashbi, or when Rashbi and his son left the cave after 13 years in hiding and study, or when Rashbi first started to reveal the Torah’s deepest secrets. What we know is that it is the day the students of Rabbi Akiva ceased dying, and Rashbi was one of the few survivors who went on to revive Judaism. The almighty Roman Empire was unable to extinguish the Jewish flame, which continues to burn brightly today.

Historical reasons and customs aside, there is tremendous spiritual meaning to fire. Let’s uncover a little bit of that mystery.

Three Mystical Substances

One of the most ancient mystical texts is Hilkhot HaKise, “Laws of the Throne”, dating back to the time of Rashbi himself. This short work is almost entirely unknown today. It can be found in a compilation of ancient texts called Merkavah Shlemah, the “Complete Chariot”, compiled by one of my ancestors, Rabbi Shlomo Moussaieff, who was a collector of antiques and precious manuscripts. In Hilkhot HaKise, we read how God has a set of 73 names that are related to Creation. This number is the gematria of chokhmah (חכמה), “wisdom”, with which God created the cosmos. God then took three of these names and from them formed the primordial elements of fire, water, and light—the most mysterious of substances.

Amazingly, as scientifically advanced as we are today, we are still quite clueless about the nature of fire, water, and light! Quantum physicists have spent much time studying light, and are still baffled by its wave-particle duality, its unfathomable speed, and its ability to defy time (it seems that time literally stops at the speed of light!) Chemists are still puzzled by the incredible properties of water, which simply do not fit into the natural pattern. I think it was best described by renowned scientist Oliver Sacks in his book about his “chemical boyhood”, Uncle Tungsten, where he wrote:

…the hydrides of sulfur (H2S), selenium (H2Se), and tellurium (H2Te), all Group VI elements, all dangerous and vile-smelling gases. The hydride of oxygen, the first Group VI element, one might predict by analogy, would be a foul-smelling, poisonous, inflammable gas, too, condensing to a nasty liquid around -100℃. And instead it was water, H2O – stable, potable, odorless, benign, and with a host of special, indeed unique properties (its expansion when frozen, its great heat capacity, its capacity as an ionizing solvent, etc.) which made it indispensable to our watery planet, indispensable to life itself…

Based on the natural laws of the universe, water should be a poisonous and foul gas like the other compounds in its group, yet instead it is a potable, life-giving liquid. It’s special molecular shape and teeny-tiny size, coupled with unusually strong intermolecular forces, make water unlike anything else in existence. And that’s not to mention its controversial (some might say pseudo-scientific) ability to hold information and store “memories” (a notion that even made its way into the Frozen 2 children’s film). Like light, water is an absolute mystery. (For more, see: ‘Shehakol: the Mystical Chemistry of Water’.) And like light and water, fire is also a puzzle.

Six Types of Fire

What is fire? It is hot, and the result of a combustion reaction—we know that much. But what is it exactly? It seems to be gaseous, yet typically contains solid soot particles within, too, all while the flame itself cannot actually be “grasped” or contained like regular matter. It can come in many mesmerizing colours, is affected by gravity, and is able to emit a wide variety of radiation besides visible light, including infrared and UV. It is an energy of some sort, but very difficult to accurately describe or define. Our Sages spoke of six types of fire (Yoma 21b):

There is fire (1) that “eats” but does not “drink”; and (2) there is fire that “drinks” but does not “eat”; and (3) there is fire that “eats” and “drinks”; and (4) there is fire that consumes wet objects like dry objects; and (5) there is fire that repels fire; and (6) there is fire that consumes fire.

Fire that “eats” but does not “drink”—this is regular fire. Fire that “drinks” but does not “eat”—this is [the fever] of the sick. Fire that “eats” and “drinks” is the fire of Eliyahu, as it is written: “…and it licked up the water that was in the trench.” [I Kings 18:38] Fire that consumes wet objects like dry objects is the fire of the wooden pyre [in the Temple]. Fire that repels fire is that of [the angel] Gabriel. Fire that consumes fire is that of the Shekhinah, as the Master said: “He extended His finger and burned them…”

The first type of fire is regular fire which burns solids but does not burn water. The second type consumes water, too, and this refers to a bodily fever. The fever dehydrates the body and “consumes” its water, but does not consume the body itself. While a simple reading might seem like a fever is not a literal fire but only a metaphorical one, the truth is that the human body produces energy through cellular respiration, which actually has essentially the exact same chemical equation as regular combustion! Just as a flame needs oxygen to be sustained, the human body breathes in oxygen to keep the mitochondria in our cells producing energy. On a chemical level, both cellular respiration and combustion are simply oxidation reactions, with oxygen serving as an “electron acceptor”.

The fire of Eliyahu refers to the famous incident at Mount Carmel when Eliyahu miraculously drew down a flame from Heaven that burned through a soaking-wet pyre. The fourth type of fire is the miraculous fire of the Holy Temple, where both dry and moist wood would easily burn on the pyre. The fire of Gabriel refers to the incident in the Book of Daniel when Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were miraculously rescued from the fiery furnace. Gabriel is one of the Seraphim, literally the “burning” angels. His fire was able to push off the physical fire to save the Jewish captives.

The last type of flame is that of the Shekhinah. The Talmud is referring to another place (Sanhedrin 38b) where God is described as burning away His fiery angels at will. This is the loftiest and most powerful type of fire. Just as an earthly fire can purify metals and other substances, the divine flame can purify souls and angels. This is the fire of Gehinnom, too, which is not a place of eternal damnation, but rather a purgatory to rectify contaminated souls. It ties into a statement of our Sages that “fire is one-sixtieth of Gehinnom” (Berakhot 57b), and also helps to explain the statement that Torah scholars are entirely immune to the fires of Gehinnom (Chagigah 27a). Since God’s Word is fire (as stated in Jeremiah 23:29), those who study it intensely become encased in a fiery shield. Finally, the connection between fire and Gehinnom is suggested again in the same passage of Hilkhot haKise cited above:

After creating the primordial mystical elements of fire, water, and light out of His own holy names, God further made three things from each. He took three “drops” of primordial fire and created His divine Throne, the angels, and Gehinnom. He then took three “drops” of water and created the Heavens, the clouds and moisture of the atmosphere, and the oceans and hydrosphere (for lots more on the Heavens being composed of water, see Secrets of the Last Waters). Lastly, He took three “drops” of light and hid one away as the Or HaGanuz for the righteous in the World to Come, another was hidden away for the future restored light of the moon (which currently only reflects sunlight), and the last drop is for the physical light of this cosmos.

Three Colours of a Flame

The Zohar (III, 33a, Ra’aya Mehemna—note the 33s again!) explains the meaning of the three colours within a flame. A typical flame will mainly have white (or yellow) light, with a black region at its base, around which is a blue flame. The white, black, and blue correspond to the three parts of Scripture: Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim; as well as to the three parts of the Jewish people: Kohen, Levi, and Israel. The Zohar says that the most special flame is the blue flame, which is tekhelet, and represents the Shekhinah. Scientifically, the blue flame is a “complete” flame, meaning it receives plenty of oxygen, whereas a yellow flame is “incomplete” and lacking oxygen.

We can parallel these three flame colours to the three “drops” of fire mentioned in Hilkhot haKise above. The first drop which was used to make the Throne is the blue flame representing the Shekhinah. Multiple other sources speak of God’s Throne as being of a sapphire blue colour. The white flame alludes to the white glow of the angels, who were fashioned from the second drop; while the black flame alludes to the darkness of Gehinnom.

Composition of the Universe (Courtesy: NASA)

Elsewhere, the Zohar (I, 16a) speaks of four types of mystical fire that are black, red, green, and white. One might quickly notice that these correspond to the traditional four humours of the human body (black humour being the “melancholy” of the kidneys and spleen, red being blood, green being bile, and white being phlegm). This passage in the Zohar is commenting on the process of Creation and is deeply esoteric. It is describing grander cosmic entities with fiery metaphors. For instance, it states that the “black fire” is the most powerful in the universe, and it is the “darkness” (חֹשֶׁךְ) mentioned in Genesis 1:2. It is an invisible dark force that permeates the entire cosmos. This may very well be a reference to dark energy, a mysterious substance that scientists have yet to understand, but is estimated to make up some 70% of our universe!

These are just some of the profound mysteries within the realm of fire, and things to ponder while you gaze at your Lag b’Omer bonfire. Chag sameach!

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The Hidden Connection Between Lag b’Omer and Yom Yerushalayim

Rabbi Shlomo Goren blows the shofar by the Western Wall during the 1967 liberation of Jerusalem.

This Thursday evening, the 18th of Iyar, we mark the mystical holiday of Lag b’Omer. Ten days later, on the 28th of Iyar, we commemorate Yom Yerushalayim, when Jerusalem was liberated and reunified in 1967 during the miraculous Six-Day War. At first glance, these two events may seem completely unrelated. However, upon deeper examination, there is actually a profound and fascinating connection between the two. To get to the bottom of it, we must first clarify what actually happened on these dates in history to uncover their true spiritual significance. Continue reading