Tag Archives: Isaac

How Esau Became Rome

In this week’s parasha, Toldot, we are introduced to the twin sons of Isaac: Jacob and Esau. The Torah tells us that the boys grew up and Esau became a “man of the field” while Jacob was “an innocent man sitting in tents” (Genesis 25:27). In rabbinic literature, Esau takes on a very negative aura. Although the Torah doesn’t really portray him as such a bad guy, extra-Biblical texts depict him as the worst kind of person.

A 1728 Illustration of Esau selling his birthright.

Take, for instance, the first interaction between Jacob and Esau that the Torah relates. Esau comes back from the field extremely tired. At that moment, Jacob is cooking a stew. Esau asks his brother for some food, and Jacob demands in exchange that Esau give up his birthright (ie. his status as firstborn, and the privileges that come with that). Esau agrees because “behold, I am going to die” (Genesis 25:32). The plain text of the Torah makes it seem like Jacob took advantage of Esau’s near-fatal weariness and tricked him into selling his birthright. This is later confirmed when Esau says that Jacob had deceived him (Genesis 27:36), implying that Esau never really wished to rid of it.

Yet, the Torah commentaries appear to flip the story upside down. When Esau comes back from the field exhausted, it isn’t because he just returned from a difficult hunt, but rather because, as Rashi comments, he had just come back from committing murder! When Esau says “I am going to die”, it isn’t because he was on the verge of death at that moment, but because he didn’t care about the birthright at all, choosing to live by the old adage of “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”. This is a very different perspective on the same narrative.

Another example is when, many years later, Jacob returns to the Holy Land and Esau comes to meet him. Jacob assumes Esau wants to kill him, and prepares for battle. Instead, Esau genuinely seems to have missed his brother, and runs towards him, “embracing him, falling upon his neck, and kissing him” (Genesis 33:4). Again, some of the commentaries turn these words upside down, saying that Esau didn’t really lovingly kiss his brother, but actually bit him! Rashi’s commentary on this verse cites both versions. He concludes by citing Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in stating that although Esau, as a rule, hates Jacob, at that moment he really did love his brother.

So, how bad was Esau really?

Seeing the Good in Esau

Occasionally, we read about Esau’s good qualities. The Midrash (Devarim Rabbah 1:15) famously states that no one honoured their parents better than Esau did. This is clear from a simple reading of the Torah, too, where Esau is always standing by to fulfil his parents’ wishes. For instance, as soon as he learns that his parents are unhappy with his choice of wives, he immediately goes off to marry someone they might approve of (Genesis 28:8-9).

We should be asking why his parents didn’t simply tell him from the start that his original wives were no good? Why did they allow him to marry them in the first place? If Esau really was the person who most honours his parents, he would have surely listened to them! We may learn from this that Esau’s parents didn’t put too much effort into him. It’s almost like Rebecca gave up on her son from the moment she heard the prophecy about the twins in her belly. The Torah says as much when it states, right after the birth of the twins, that “Isaac loved Esau because his game-meat was in his mouth, but Rebecca loved Jacob.” (Genesis 25:28) Rebecca showed affection to Jacob alone, while Isaac’s love for Esau was apparently conditional. Of course, children always feel their parents’ inner sentiments, and there is no doubt Esau felt his parents’ lack of concern for him. Is it any wonder he tried so hard to please them?

From this perspective, one starts to feel a great deal of pity for Esau. How can anyone read Esau’s heartfelt words after being tricked out of his blessing and not be filled with empathy?:

When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried out a great and bitter cry, and he said to his father, “Bless me, too, O my father! …Do you not have a blessing left for me?” (Genesis 27:34-36)

Esau was handed a bad deal right from the start. He was born different, not just in appearance, but with a serious life challenge. He was gifted (or cursed) with a particularly strong yetzer hara, from birth. His fate was already foretold, and his parents believed it. They invested little into him. And it seems all he ever wanted was to make them proud.

Incidentally, this is one of the major problems with fortune-telling, and why the Torah is so adamant about not consulting any kind of psychic. The psychic’s words, even if entirely wrong, will shape the person’s views. It is very much like the Talmud’s statement (Berakhot 55b) that a dream is fulfilled according to how it is interpreted. A person believes the interpreter, and inadvertently brings about that interpretation upon themselves. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Who knows what might have happened if Rebecca never bothered to consult a prophet about her pregnancy? After all, Jewish tradition is clear on the fact that negative prophecies do not have to come true. God relays such a prophecy in order to inspire people to change, and thus avert the negative decree. Such was precisely the case with Jonah and his prophecy regarding Nineveh. The people heard the warning, repented, and the prophecy was averted.

Perhaps this is what Isaac and Rebecca should have done. Instead of giving up on Esau, they should have worked extra hard to guide him in the right direction. (Isaac indirectly did the opposite, motivating his son’s hunting since he loved the “game-meat in his mouth”.) The Sages affirm that Esau was not a lost case, and state that had Jacob allowed his daughter Dinah to marry Esau, she would have reformed him (see, for example, Beresheet Rabbah 76:9).

At the end, Jacob returns to the Holy Land and, instead of the war with Esau that he was expecting, his brother welcomes him back with open arms. He weeps, and genuinely misses him. Esau has forgiven his brother, yet again, and buries the past. He hopes to live with his brother in peace henceforth, and invites him to live together in Seir. Esau offers to safely escort Jacob and his family. Jacob rejects the offer, and tells Esau to go along and he will join him later (Genesis 33:14). This never happens. Jacob has no intention to live with Esau, and as soon as his brother leaves, Jacob a completely different course. Esau is tricked one last time.

We only hear about Esau once more in the Torah. When Isaac dies, Esau is there to give his father a proper burial (Genesis 35:29). In fact, the Book of Jubilees, which doesn’t portray Esau too kindly either, nonetheless suggests that Esau had repented at the end of his life. There we read that it was his sons that turned evil, and even coerced him into wrongdoing (37:1-5). In Jubilees, Esau tells his parents that he has no interest in killing Jacob, and loves his brother wholeheartedly, more than anyone else (35:22). He admits that Jacob is the one that deserves the birthright, and a double portion as the assumed firstborn (36:12).

The Torah never tells us what ends up happening to Esau. The Midrash states that he was still there when Jacob’s sons came to bury their father in the Cave of the Patriarchs. Esau tried to stop them, at which point Jacob’s deaf grandson Hushim decapitated him. (A slightly different version is found in the Talmud as well, Sotah 13a.) Esau’s head rolled down into the Cave of the Patriarchs, while the rest of his body was buried elsewhere. Perhaps what this is meant to teach us is that while Esau’s body was indeed mired in sin, his head was completely sound, and he certainly had the potential to be a righteous man—maybe even one of the forefathers, hence his partial burial in the Cave of the Patriarchs.

At the end of the day, Esau is not so much a villain as he is a tragically failed hero.

Why Did Esau Become so Evil?

Esau meets Jacob, by Charles Foster (1897)

As we’ve seen, the Torah itself doesn’t portray Esau as such a bad person. Conversely, one of the 613 mitzvot is “not to despise an Edomite, for he is your brother.” (Deuteronomy 23:8) The Torah reminds us that the children of Israel and the children of Esau (known as Edomites) are siblings, and should treat each other as such.

Nearly a millennium later, the prophet Malachi—generally considered the last prophet and, according to one tradition, identified with Ezra the Scribe—says (Malachi 1:2-3):

“I have loved you,” says Hashem, “Yet you say: ‘How have You loved us?’ Was not Esau a brother to Jacob?” says Hashem, “yet I loved Jacob, but Esau I hated…”

The text goes on to differentiate between Israel and Edom, stating that while Israel will be restored, Edom will be permanently extinguished. We have seen this prophecy fulfilled in history; Israel is still here, of course, while Edom has long disappeared from the historical record. Jacob’s descendants continue to thrive, while Esau’s are long gone.

By the times of the Talmud, there were no real Edomites left, so the Sages began to associate Edom with a new entity: the Roman Empire. The Sages certainly didn’t believe that the Romans were the direct genetic descendants of Esau, but rather that they were their spiritual heirs. Why did the Sages make this connection?

I believe the answers lies with King Herod the Great.

Recall that approximately two thousand years ago Herod ruled as the Roman-approved puppet king of Judea. He was a tremendous tyrant, and is vilified in both Jewish and Christian tradition. The Talmud (Bava Batra 3b-4a) relates how Herod slaughtered all the rabbis in his day, leaving only Bava ben Buta, whom he had blinded. Later, Herod had an exchange with Bava and realized how wise the rabbis were:

Herod then said: “I am Herod. Had I known that the Rabbis were so circumspect, I should not have killed them. Now tell me what amends I can make.”

Bava ben Buta replied: “As you have extinguished the light of the world, [for so the Torah Sages are called] as it is written, ‘For the commandment is a light and the Torah a lamp’ (Proverbs 6:23), go now and attend to the light of the world [which is the Temple] as it is written, ‘And all the nations become enlightened by it.’” (Isaiah 2:2)

A model of Herod’s version of the Second Temple in Jerusalem

Herod did just that, and renovated the Temple to be the most beautiful building of all time, according to the Talmud. It wouldn’t last long, as that same Temple would be destroyed by his Roman overlords within about a century.

What many forget is that Herod was not a native Jew, but an Idumean. And “Idumea” was simply the Roman name for Edom. Herod was a real, red-blooded Edomite. (Though it should be noted that the Idumeans had loosely, or perhaps forcibly, converted to Judaism in the time of the Hasmoneans.) Herod took over the Jewish monarchy, and began the horrible persecutions that the Roman Empire—of which he was a part—was all too happy to continue. It seems quite likely, therefore, that the association between Edom and Rome began at that point. The people resented that Roman-Edomite tyrant Herod that persecuted them so harshly.

Henceforth, it was easy for the Sages to spill their wrath upon Edom, and their progenitor Esau. Esau became a symbol of the Roman oppressor. “Esau” and “Edom” were code words, used for speaking disparagingly about Rome to avoid alarming the authorities. Indeed, when the Sages speak about the evils of Esau, they are often really referring to the evils of the Roman Empire. It is therefore not surprising that Esau becomes possibly the most reviled figure in the Torah—as the Romans were unquestionably the most reviled entity in Talmudic times.

Before Rome had collapsed, it had adopted Christianity as a state religion. The seat of Christianity would remain in Rome forever after. The Bishop of Rome, ie. the pope, would soon become Europe’s most powerful figure. Thus, when the Roman Empire itself collapsed, the Jews of the time saw the entire European-Christian world that arose in its place as Esau. 

There is a great deal of irony here: The mighty Roman Empire that so violently suppressed the Jews and their Torah soon adopted a quasi-Jewish cult as the state religion, and worshipped a Jewish man from Judea (Jesus) as their god! Christians would go on to push a “replacement theology”: that they are the new “Israel”, that God had abandoned the Jews in favour of Christians, and that the New Testament supersedes the “Old Testament”. In some ways, this is little more than Esau trying to take his old birthright back!

It is interesting to see that just as Esau teetered back and forth between loving Jacob wholeheartedly and wanting to exterminate him, Christian history displays much the same love-hate relationship with the Jews. There were times when the two happily coexisted side-by-side, and times that were the exact opposite. We see the same today, when there are Christian groups that are some of Israel’s biggest supporters and the staunchest opponents of anti-Semitism, and at the same time, other Christian groups that are some of Israel’s staunchest opponents and the biggest supporters of anti-Semitism. As a whole, Christians really do look like the spiritual descendants of Esau.

And “Is not Esau a brother to Jacob?” God asks (Malachi 1:2). From a religious perspective, Jacob and Esau are undeniably brothers, for Christianity emerged out of Judaism, and believes in the same ancient origins, texts, and traditions. So why does God “hate Esau” (Malachi 1:3)? Maybe He hates that Esau who is obsessed with converting Jews, or falsely accusing them of all sorts of horrible things, or constantly persecuting them; that Esau who simply won’t leave Jacob alone to “sit in his tents”.

Martin Buber once summarized the difference between Jews and Christians as such:

…to the Christian, the Jew is the incomprehensibly obdurate man who declines to see what has happened; and to the Jew, the Christian is the incomprehensibly daring man who affirms in an unredeemed world that its redemption has been accomplished. This is a gulf which no human power can bridge.

Hopefully the true Mashiach will soon come to bridge that gulf, and Esau and Jacob will finally reunite as old brothers.

The Guardian Angels of Israel

‘Abraham and the Three Angels’ by James Tissot

This week’s parasha, Vayera, begins with Abraham being visited by a trio of angels. Jewish tradition holds that these angels were Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, c. 1269-1343)—famous for his numerological commentary—points out that the words “And behold three…” (והנה שלשה), referring to the three angels, has the same gematria (701) as “these are Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael” (אלו מיכאל גבריאל ורפאל).

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Itzchak, 1040-1105) comments that each angel came for a specific mission: Michael to bless Abraham and Sarah with news of their impending child; Gabriel to destroy Sodom (which happens right after in the Torah); and Raphael to heal Abraham from his circumcision (which happened just before). The root of Gabriel is gevurah, “strength” or “restraint”, which is why Gabriel often appears in difficult situations, or acts of destruction. The root of Raphael is refuah, “healing”, so he appears whenever a recovery is required. Michael is the guardian angel of Israel, as we read explicitly in Daniel 12:1.

These three angels regularly appear together. They were originally depicted as the highest of the angels in the Heavens. Later mystical literature would place others above them (namely Metatron). Still, the trio of Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael remain the most well-known. What else do we know about them?

Michael: Priest and Saviour

In one mystical passage, the Talmud (Chagigah 12b) outlines the Seven Heavens. The first is called Vilon (“curtain”) and simply refers to the atmosphere stretching over the Earth like a curtain. This is the place of clouds and weather, serving no particular spiritual purpose. Then comes the Rakia, the vast realm beyond Earth’s atmosphere that includes the Sun, moon, and all the stars and planets, ie. outer space. The third Heaven is called Shechakim, which we learn from other sources is the interface between this physical universe and the spiritual realms beyond. The Sages sometimes metaphorically describe it as being composed of millstones, or slabs of pure marble. The Talmud says this is the source of the manna that the Israelites ate in the Wilderness.

The fifth, sixth, and seventh Heavens are called Ma’on, Machon, and Aravot, but it is the fourth Heaven that is of particular interest for the present discussion. Here one will find the illustrious Yerushalaim shel Ma’alah, the Heavenly Jerusalem, a spiritual version of the Jerusalem below. Mirroring the one on Earth, there is a Temple up there, too, and there it is Michael who serves as High Priest.

Michael also serves as “Prince of Israel” and our Heavenly Guardian. In this role, he stands opposite Samael, the Heavenly “Accuser” who seeks to harm Israel. Hence, Michael stands at the gates of Heaven, admitting the righteous and guiding their souls. Similarly, he was Israel’s guide during their forty years in the Wilderness, being identified with the “angel that will go before you” (Exodus 23:20, 32:34), as God has promised (Midrash haNe’elam, Beresheet 2).

Naturally, Michael is a great saviour for the Jews. It was he who saved Abraham from the fiery furnace (Beresheet Rabbah 44:16), and protected Sarah when she was abducted by Avimelech (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 26). In one intriguing Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Beresheet 134), we learn that Michael saved the baby that was born from Dinah’s rape by Shechem. Michael took the baby to Egypt, into the care of a wealthy childless couple. That wealthy man was Potiphar, and the adopted baby was Osnat, future wife of Joseph.

Gabriel and the Founding of Rome

When it comes to Joseph, it was Gabriel that helped him throughout his journey. According to the Talmud (Sotah 36b), Gabriel taught Joseph overnight (or perhaps “uploaded” into his brain) knowledge of the seventy languages, which allowed him to become viceroy of Egypt. Gabriel also taught Joseph all of the esoteric mystical wisdom of the Torah (while Raphael taught the same wisdom to Isaac; see Ravad on Sefer Yetzirah).

The Talmud credits Gabriel with setting the foundations of Ancient Rome (Shabbat 56b). This happened on the very same day that King Solomon married an Egyptian princess. Although Solomon’s intensions were certainly good, his many marriages spiralled out of control, and ultimately led to his downfall. In poetic fashion, King Solomon first builds Jerusalem’s Temple, and simultaneously sows the seeds of its destruction, for Rome would go on to destroy Jerusalem’s Temple for good, ushering in an endless exile which we are still in.

Interestingly, archaeologists have found coins bearing images depicting this version on Rome’s founding. The coins show a divine being of some sort planting reeds in the Tiber River to set the foundations of the “eternal city”, just as the Talmud describes. These coins were minted in the time of Emperor Antoninus Pius. This is most fitting, since the Talmud tells us that a Roman emperor named Antoninus was good friends with Rabbi Yehudah haNasi, and the two engaged in many philosophical discussions.

Coins minted by Emperor Antoninus depicting the founding of Rome.

Guardians and Healers

Gabriel, too, is a guardian angel. It was Gabriel that saved baby Moses when he floated down the Nile and was discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter (Sotah 12b). It was Gabriel that helped Mordechai and made sure the miraculously “coincidental” events of Purim took place (Megillah 16a). An alternate tradition has Gabriel saving Abraham from the fiery flames, not Michael (Pesachim 118a). And Gabriel will play a key role in the final events of the End of Days (Bava Batra 74b-75a).

Unlike Michael and Gabriel, we know very little about Raphael. While there are few traditional rabbinic sources, apocryphal texts shed a little more light: The Book of Jubilees (10:10-14) has Raphael teaching all the secrets of medicine and healing to Noah. Apparently, Noah wrote it all in a book, and passed it down to his beloved son Shem. (This may be the same “Book of Remedies” that was hidden away by King Hezekiah, as described in Pesachim 56a). The Book of Enoch (10:4-6) holds that Raphael was the one who defeated and bound the fallen angel Azazel.

The Zohar comments on this week’s parasha that Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael correspond to the mystical Sefirot of Chessed (“Kindness”), Gevurah (“Restraint”), and Tiferet (“Beauty”), respectively. Elsewhere (on parashat Ekev), the Zohar tells us that Israel has three guardian angels: Michael, Gabriel, and Nuriel. The acronym for these three angelic names is magen (מגן), “shield”. This is the secret meaning behind the word magen, which we often invoke in our prayers.

The Sefirot of mochin above (in blue) and the Sefirot of the middot below (in red) on the mystical “Tree of Life”.

The earlier Sefer HaBahir (ch. 108), one of the most ancient of Kabbalistic texts, states that God has three major camps of angels. The one on the right is led by Michael, the one of the left by Gabriel, and the one in the middle by, not Raphael or Nuriel, but Uriel. Here on Earth, however, God had appointed four angels to watch over the four Israelite camps in the Wilderness: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:10). The Arizal has the last word, bringing together a variety of sources to describe seven major angels, corresponding to the seven lower Sefirot, or Middot: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel, Nuriel, Akatriel, and Metatron (see, for example, Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 39). All of these serve as Heavenly princes and guardians of Israel.

Understanding Yourself Through the Letters of Your Name

Much of this week’s Torah portion, Nasso, describes the gifts that each of the Twelve Tribes brought for the inauguration of the Mishkan. Although each tribe brought the exact same set of gifts, the Torah nonetheless repeats the gifts each and every time. Some say this is because God held dear what every single tribe brought and wanted to properly acknowledge each one—even though it was all the same. Others say that while each tribe brought the same thing, the way they brought it was different, with each tribe displaying their own unique qualities.

The Midrash famously parallels the Twelve Tribes with the twelve astrological signs of the zodiac. In Yalkut Shimoni (Shemot 418), for example, we are told that

The tribe of Yehudah was in the East, together with Issachar and Zevulun, and corresponding to them above are Aries, Taurus, and Gemini… The flag of Reuben was in the South, together with Shimon and Gad, and corresponding to them above are Cancer, Leo, and Virgo… The flag of Ephraim was in the West, together with Menashe and Benjamin, and corresponding to them Libra, Scorpio, and Sagittarius. The flag of Dan was in the North, together with Asher and Naftali… corresponding to them are Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces…

Another version puts the tribes in order of birth as opposed to their encampments in the wilderness. Thus, Reuben is Aries, Shimon is Taurus, and so on. A third version (noted by Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz) also follows the order of birth, but starting from Rosh Hashanah, so Reuben is Libra and Shimon is Scorpio, etc. Nonetheless, the Midrashic version above is the most common, and the one most frequently adopted in Kabbalistic texts. It was the system used by the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, 1720-1797), and appears as early as Sefer Yetzirah, generally considered the oldest known Kabbalistic text.

As we’ve written before, Sefer Yetzirah goes through the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and explains how God fashioned the universe through them (together with the Ten Sefirot). It divides the alphabet into three major groupings: the “mothers”, the “doubles”, and the “elementals”. The mothers are the three letters aleph, mem, shin, corresponding to air (avir), water (mayim), and fire (esh). The doubles are the seven letters that have two sounds in Hebrew: beit (and veit), gimel (and jimel), dalet (and dhalet, like the English “that”), kaf (and khaf), pei (and fei), reish (and the hard ‘reish), tav (and thav, like the English “three”). Most modern speakers have dropped the jimel, dhalet, and ‘reish from use, while Ashkenazis pronounce the thav as “sav” (much like all Eastern Europeans with an accent, when speaking English, would say “sree” instead of “three”). The remaining single-sounding letters make up the twelve elementals.

On the mystical Tree of Life, the three mothers are the three horizontal lines, the seven doubles are the seven vertical lines, and the twelve elementals are the twelve horizontal lines, as follows:

Sefer Yetzirah gives us further details, paralleling each letter to a cosmic force or entity. As already mentioned, the mothers are the three primordial elements of Creation: fire, water, and air. The seven doubles correspond to the seven major celestial bodies that are visible to the naked eye: the sun and moon, plus Mercury (kochav), Venus (nogah), Mars (madim), Jupiter (tzedek), and Saturn (shabbatai). They also correspond to the seven days of the week. This is why, in most cultures, the days of the week are named after these seven bodies: Saturday for Saturn, Sunday for the sun, Monday for the moon, and so on. In his Discourse on Rosh Hashanah, the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270) comments that these seven bodies “rule” over the days of the week, and provides a siman, or mnemonic, to remember them: KaNTzaSh ChaLaM (כנצ״ש חל״ם). The Ramban concludes that Jews, unlike the pagans, name our days of the week in memory of Creation and Shabbat (ie. yom rishon, “first day”; yom sheni, “second day”; yom shelishi, “third day”, etc.)

Finally, the twelve elemental letters correspond to the twelve astrological signs of the zodiac, and the twelve months of the year. To these, we can add the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The result is the following:

Letters and Biblical Figures

If the Twelve Tribes correspond to the twelve elemental letters, which Biblical figures correspond to the mothers and doubles? Sefer Yetzirah (3:2) does suggest that from the three mothers come the “fathers” (avot). However, it does not explicitly say that the fathers are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Generally, the seven doubles are paralleled with the seven lower sefirot, and the seven lower sefirot correspond to the Seven Shepherds of Israel, among whom the patriarchs are already included. So, the three mothers must parallel some other figures. Indeed, we see three major figures in the Torah before Abraham. These are Adam, Noah, and Enoch.

Adam is, of course, the first civilized human, the first to be created, and originally a towering figure whose body shone with blinding light. Noah is at the other end of the pre-Abraham period, and was the righteous one in his generation that merited to recreate a new world. In between is Enoch, of whom the Torah curiously states that he “walked with God and was no more, for God had taken him” (Genesis 5:22).

In mystical traditions, Enoch was taken up by God’s blazing divine chariot (much like Elijah would be far in the future), and was transformed into an angel, usually identified with Metatron. Although the Torah gives us essentially no information on Enoch, the Book of Jubilees (4:17-20) explains that Enoch was the first true sage in history. He was a scribe and an astrologer, created history’s first calendar, and taught people how to accurately count months and years. He was a great prophet in his own right, seeing all of the past and all of the future. So holy was he that he never died, and was transfigured into an angel.

These three figures in Genesis neatly parallel the three mother letters of Creation: Adam being aleph, the first man, made in God’s image (which the letter aleph represents); Noah being mem, alluding to the flood waters; and Enoch being shin, alluding to the flaming chariot that took him to Heaven, and his transformation into a fiery archangel (joining the seraphim, literally the “blazing ones”).

The seven doubles, meanwhile, are the Seven Shepherds. On the Tree of Life, the letter beit leads to Chessed, personified by Abraham; the letter gimel to Gevurah, personified by Isaac; the letter dalet to Tiferet, personified by Jacob; kaf to Netzach, which is Moses; pei to Hod, Aaron; reish to Yesod, Joseph; and tav to Malkhut, David.

To summarize the above:

On a practical note, one can use this information to explore their name (or any Hebrew word for that matter) based on the meaning of its letters. If one understands the qualities associated with each letter, they may derive deeper meaning from their name, and how it may affect their own qualities, strengths, weaknesses, or even their destiny.

It is important to note that although Sefer Yetzirah has Saturn for Friday (and Joseph), and Jupiter for Saturday (and David), there are other traditions. Jupiter (Tzedek) is more fitting for Joseph, called Yosef haTzadik, while Saturn (Shabbatai) is more fitting for Shabbat and King David. Yet another tradition has the moon for King David. On the level of Sefirot, this makes most sense, since the moon is a reflection of the sun much like Malkhut is often said to be a reflection of Tiferet.

For example, Moses (משה) was famously thrown into the waters (מ) of the Nile as a newborn, led the Israelites through the waters of the Red Sea, and later had his fatal error by striking the rock for water. Meanwhile, he first encountered God at the burning bush (ש) and as a child burned his mouth with a smoldering coal (according to the Midrashic explanation for his later being “heavy of tongue”). In fact, the Arizal taught (Sha’ar HaPesukim on Ki Tisa) that Moses was a reincarnation of Noah, while other mystical texts compare him to an earthly Metatron. Finally, the hei in his name corresponds to Aries and the month of Nisan, symbolizing the pesach offering and the Exodus which happened in that month, under that sign. Thus, we see in the letters of Moses an allusion to essentially every major event of his life, and even his past life.

Thankfully, Sefer Yetzirah provides us with the exact qualities associated with each letter. The seven doubles have both positive and negative aspects clearly stated (4:2-3). The twelve elementals, meanwhile, have a certain “foundation” (5:1), which may be used for good or for evil. The three mothers are described (3:7-9) based on the qualities of their element, fire being “hot” and water being “cold”, etc. They are also paralleled to a body part. While the qualities given in Sefer Yetzirah are not always so clear, there are many commentaries which help to extract the proper meaning. These are elucidated in detail in Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s monumental Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation, In Theory and Practice.

Putting it all together, we have:

One can use the chart above to explore the features associated with each letter of their name, as well as the qualities associated with their astrological birth sign, birth month, birth day of the week, and even birth time of day. The positive qualities are potential traits that one has within and should work to express to the fullest, while the negatives are traits that one should be aware of and particularly focused on to repair. 

The Mysterious Custom of Upsherin

In this week’s double Torah portion (Acharei-Kedoshim) we read that “when you will have planted all manner of trees for food, its fruit shall be forbidden; three years shall it be forbidden to you, it shall not be eaten.” (Leviticus 19:23) This refers to the mitzvah of orlah, where a newly-planted tree must be left unharvested for its first three years. Seemingly based on this, a custom has developed to leave the hair of newborn boys uncut until age three. On or around the boy’s third birthday, a special celebration is held (called upsherin or halakeh), often with family and friends taking turns to cut a bit of the boy’s hair. Henceforth, the boy is encouraged to wear a kippah and tzitzit, and his formal Jewish education will begin. It is said that just as a tree needs the first three years to establish itself firmly in the ground before it can flourish and its fruit be used in divine service, so too does a child.

Lag B’Omer 1970 in Meron. Photo from Israel’s National Photo Collection

Indeed, the Torah makes a comparison between trees and humans in other places. Most famously, Deuteronomy 20:19 states that fruit trees should not be harmed during battle, “for is the tree of the field a man?” The tree is not an enemy combatant, so it should be left alone. Although the plain meaning of the verse is that the tree is not a man, an alternate way of reading it is that “man is a tree of the field”. Elsewhere, God compares the righteous man to a tree firmly rooted in the ground (Jeremiah 17:8), and in another place compares the entire Jewish nation to a tree (Isaiah 65:22).

Having said that, the custom of upsherin is essentially unknown in ancient Jewish sources. It is not mentioned anywhere in the Talmud, nor in any early halachic codes, including the authoritative Shulchan Arukh of the 16th century. Where did this very recent practice originate?

Lag b’Omer and the Arizal

The first Jews to take up this custom were those living in Israel and surrounding lands under Arab Muslim dominion in the Middle Ages. We see that Sephardic Jews in Spain and Morocco did not have such a custom, nor did the Yemenite Jews. In fact, Rav David Bar-Hayim points out that Yemenite Jews did not even have a custom to abstain from haircuts during Sefirat HaOmer at all. This is particularly relevant because the upsherin ceremony is often connected with the Sefirat HaOmer period, with many waiting until Lag b’Omer for their child’s first haircut, and taking the boy to the grave of Rashbi (Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai) in Meron for the special ceremony.

It appears that the earliest textual reference to upsherin is from Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), the primary disciple of the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572). Because of this, many believe that upsherin is a proper Kabbalistic custom that was instituted by, or at least sanctioned by, the great Arizal. In reality, the text in question says no such thing. The passage (Sha’ar HaKavanot, Inyan HaPesach, Derush 12) states the following:

ענין מנהג שנהגו ישראל ללכת ביום ל”ג לעומר על קברי רשב”י ור”א בנו אשר קבורים בעיר מירון כנודע ואוכלים ושותי’ ושמחים שם אני ראיתי למוז”ל שהלך לשם פ”א ביום ל”ג לעומר הוא וכל אנשי ביתו וישב שם שלשה ימים ראשו’ של השבוע ההו’ וזה היה פעם הא’ שבא ממצרים אבל אין אני יודע אם אז היה בקי ויודע בחכמה הזו הנפלאה שהשיג אח”כ. והה”ר יונתן שאגי”ש העיד לי שבשנה הא’ קודם שהלכתי אני אצלו ללמוד עם מוז”ל שהוליך את בנו הקטן שם עם כל אנשי ביתו ושם גילחו את ראשו כמנהג הידוע ועשה שם יום משתה ושמחה

On the custom of Israel going on Lag b’Omer to the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Elazar his son (who are buried in the town of Meron as is known) and to eat and drink and rejoice there—I saw that my teacher, of blessed memory [the Arizal], that he went there once on Lag b’Omer with his whole family and remained there for three days, until the start of the sixth week [of the Omer]. And this was that one time, when he came from Egypt, but I do not know if he was then knowledgeable in this wisdom that he would later attain. And Rav Yonatan Sagis related to me that in the first year before I went to him to learn with my teacher of blessed memory, he took his small son with his whole family and there they cut his hair according to the known custom, and he held a feast and celebration there.

First, what we see in this passage is that the Arizal apparently only visited Meron on Lag b’Omer once, when he just made aliyah from Egypt, and before he had become the pre-eminent Kabbalist in Tzfat. (Some say this was actually before he made aliyah, and was simply on a trip to Israel.) Lag b’Omer is the 5th day of the 5th week of the Omer, and the Arizal stayed there for the remainder of the fifth week. Rav Chaim Vital wonders whether the Arizal was already an expert mystic at the time or not. Once he became the leader of the Tzfat Kabbalists, the Arizal apparently never made it a point to pilgrimage to Meron on Lag b’Omer. Rabbi Vital notes just that one time in the past, and it almost seems like once the Arizal was a master mystic, he understood there was nothing particularly mystical about it. In any case, nothing is said here of cutting hair.

The next part of the passage is more problematic. To start, it is unclear whether Rabbi Vital means that he and the Arizal went to study with Rav Yonatan Sagis, or that he and Rav Sagis went to study with the Arizal. We know that Rabbis Sagis and Vital were later both students of the Ari. However, when the Ari first came to Tzfat he was essentially unknown, and was briefly a disciple of other Kabbalists, namely the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570). In fact, the Arizal only spent a couple of years in Tzfat before suddenly passing away at a very young age. Whatever the case, it is unclear from the passage whether it was the Arizal or Rav Sagis who was the one to take his son for a haircut on Lag b’Omer. Based on the context, it would appear that it was Rav Sagis who did so, not the Arizal, since we already learned that the Arizal did not make it a point to pilgrimage to Meron.

The nail on the coffin may come from an earlier passage in the same section of Sha’ar HaKavanot, where we read:

ענין הגילוח במ”ט ימים אלו לא היה מוז”ל מגלח ראשו אלא בערב פסח ובערב חג השבועות ולא היה מגלח לא ביום ר”ח אייר ולא ביום ל”ג לעומר בשום אופן

On the matter of shaving during these forty-nine days [of the Omer], my teacher of blessed memory did not shave his head [hair], except for the evening of Passover and the evening of Shavuot, and would not shave his hair at all [in between], not on Rosh Chodesh Iyar, and not on Lag b’Omer.

According to the Arizal, one should not shave at all during the entire Omer period, including Lag b’Omer! If that’s the case, then the Ari certainly wouldn’t take his child to Meron for a haircutting on Lag b’Omer. It must be that the previous passage is referring to Rav Sagis. Nowhere else in the vast teachings of the Arizal is the custom of waiting until a boy’s third birthday (whether on Lag b’Omer or not) mentioned. Thus, the Arizal was not the custom’s originator, did not expound upon it, and most likely did not even observe it.

So where did it come from?

A Far-Eastern Custom

While no ancient Jewish mystical or halachic text before the 17th century appears to mention upsherin, a similar custom is discussed in much older non-Jewish sources. The Kalpa Sutras of the ancient Hindu Vedic schools speak of a ceremony called Chudakarana or Mundana, literally “haircutting”. It is supposed to be done before a child turns three, usually at a Hindu temple. It is explained that the hair a child is born with it connected to their past life, and all the negative things which that may entail. Removing this hair is symbolic of leaving the past life behind and starting anew. Interestingly, a small lock of hair is usually left behind, called a sikha, “flame” or “ray of light”, as a sign of devotion to the divine. This is surprisingly similar to the Chassidic custom of leaving behind the long peyos at the upsherin.

Hindu Sikha and Chassidic Peyos

From India, the custom seemingly moved across Asia to Arabia. One Muslim tradition called Aqiqah requires shaving the head of a newborn. Of this practice, Muhammad had apparently stated that “sacrifice is made for him on the seventh day, his head is shaved, and a name is given him.” An alternate practice had Muslims take their boys to the graves of various holy people for their first haircut. The Arabic for “haircut” is halaqah, which is precisely what the Sephardic Jews of Israel called upsherin. Thus, it appears that Jews in Muslim lands adopted the custom from their neighbours. However, many of them waited not until the child is three, but five, which is when the Mishnah (Avot 5:22) says a child must start learning Torah. (In this case, the practice has nothing to do with the mitzvah of orlah or any connection to a sapling.)

In the early 19th century, Rabbi Yehudah Leibush Horenstein made aliyah to Israel and first encountered this practice of “the Sephardim in Jerusalem… something unknown to the Jews in Europe.” He was a Chassid, and in that time period many more Chassidim were migrating to Israel—a trend instigated by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk (c. 1730-1788), the foremost student of the Maggid of Mezeritch (Rabbi Dov Ber, d. 1772), who in turn was the foremost student of the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, 1698-1760) the founder of Chassidism. These Chassidim in Israel adopted the practice from the local Sephardim, and spread it to the rest of the Chassidic world over the past century and a half.

While it has become more popular in recent decades, and has been adopted by other streams within Orthodoxy, and even many secular Israelis and Jews, upsherin is far from universally accepted. The Steipler (Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, 1899-1985) was particularly upset about this practice (see Orchos Rabbeinu, Vol. I, pg. 233). When a child was brought before Rav Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik of Brisk (1886-1959) for an upsherin, he frustratingly replied: “I am not a barber.” Other than the fact that it is not an established or widespread Jewish custom, there is a serious issue of it being in the category of darkei Emori, referring to various non-Jewish (and potentially idolatrous) practices.

Not So Fast

While there is no mention of the upsherin that we know today in ancient Jewish mystical or halachic texts, there is mention of something very much related. In one of his responsa, the great Radbaz (Rabbi David ibn Zimra, c. 1479-1573) speaks of a practice where some people take upon themselves a “vow to shave their son in the resting place of Samuel the Prophet” (see She’elot v’Teshuvot haRadbaz, siman 608).

Recall that Samuel was born after the heartfelt prayer of his mother Hannah who was barren for many years. She came to the Holy Tabernacle in Shiloh and vowed that if God gave her a son, she would dedicate him to divine service from his very birth, and he would be a nazir his entire life (I Samuel 1:11). This means that he would never be allowed to shave or trim the hair of his head, just as the Torah instructs for anyone taking on a nazirite vow. There is something particularly holy about this, and we see earlier in Scripture how an angel comes to declare the birth of the judge Samson and instructs the parents to ensure he would be a nazirite for life, and that no blade ever come upon his head (Judges 13:5).

The Tanakh goes on to state that once Samuel was weaned, Hannah took him to the Tabernacle and left him in the care of the holy priests so that he could serve God his entire life. How old was he when he was weaned? While it doesn’t say so here, there is an earlier case where the Torah speaks of a child being weaned. This is in Genesis 21:8, where we read how Abraham through a great feast upon the weaning of his son Isaac. Rashi comments here (drawing from the Midrash and Talmud) that Isaac was two years old at the time. For this reason, many Chassidic groups actually perform the upsherin at age two, not three.

Back to the Radbaz, he was born in Spain but was exiled with his family in the Expulsion of 1492. The family settled in Tzfat, where the Radbaz was tutored by Rabbi Yosef Saragossi, the holy “White Saint” credited with transforming Tzfat from a small town of 300 unlearned Jews to a holy Jewish metropolis and the capital of Kabbalistic learning. In adulthood, the Radbaz settled in Fes, Egypt and his fame as a tremendous scholar and posek spread quickly. In 1517, he moved to Cairo and was appointed Hakham Bashi, the Chief Rabbi of Egypt. There, he founded a world-class yeshiva that attracted many scholars. Coming full circle, it was here in the yeshiva of the Radbaz that the Arizal began his scholarly career. In the last years of his life, the Radbaz wished to return to the Holy Land, and made his way back to Tzfat. It is possible that the Arizal left Egypt for Tzfat in the footsteps of his former rosh yeshiva. Ironically, the Radbaz (who lived to age 94, or even 110 according to some sources) would outlive the Arizal (who died at just 38 years of age).

While neither the Arizal nor his old teacher the Radbaz discuss cutting a three-year-old’s hair in particular (or doing it at the tomb of Rashbi), the Radbaz does speak of a personal vow that one may take to cut their child’s hair at the tomb of Samuel the Prophet. This practice comes from emulating Hannah, who took a vow with regards to her son Samuel. Samuel went on to be compared in Scripture to Moses and Aaron (and the Sages say Moses and Aaron combined!) Of course, Hannah never cut her child’s hair at all, but perhaps there is something spiritual in treating the child like a nazirite until the child is “weaned”.

In any case, the question that the Radbaz was addressing is what one must do if they took up such a haircutting vow but are unable to fulfil it because the authorities prohibit Jews from going to the grave sites of their ancestors. From here, some scholars conclude that the Ottoman authorities at the time really must have prohibited Jews from going to the grave of Samuel, near Jerusalem. Thus, it is possible that those Jerusalem Jews who had a custom of going to Samuel’s grave decided to journey to another famous grave instead. Perhaps it was in these years of the early 16th century that the custom to go to Rashbi in Meron (instead of Shmuel near Jerusalem) evolved.

So, there may be something to the upsherin custom after all. Of course, we still don’t know when the practice of going to Samuel’s grave emerged. That appears to have been a local custom (or possibly not a custom at all, but a personal vow) of Jerusalem’s medieval Jewish community. It, too, may have been influenced by neighbouring Muslims who went to the graves of their saints to cut their children’s hair.

Whatever the case, we see that foundations of upsherin are not so clear-cut. Contrary to popular belief, it is neither a universally accepted Jewish custom, nor a mandatory halachic requirement. It did not originate with the Arizal either, although we do see some basis for it in the writings of the Radbaz. For those who wish to uphold this custom, they have upon whom to rely, and should meditate foremost upon the holy figures of Hannah and Samuel, who appear to be the spiritual originators of this mysterious practice.

The First Pesach: Did the Patriarchs Celebrate Passover?

The holiday of Passover commemorates the Exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt over three thousand years ago. The Torah tells us that because of their hasty departure, the dough of the Israelites did not have time to rise, hence the consumption of matzah. Yet, the term matzah appears in the Torah long before the Exodus! We read in Genesis 19:3 that Lot welcomed the angels into his home and “made them a feast, and baked matzot, and they ate.” Since the angels came to Lot immediately after visiting Abraham and Sarah to announce the birth of Isaac at that time next year (Genesis 18:10), the Sages learn from this that Isaac was born on Passover. Of course, the Exodus only took place four hundred years after Isaac’s birth! How is it that the patriarchs are already eating matzah?

An Eternal Torah

Although the Torah was given to the Israelites following the Exodus, Jewish tradition affirms that the Torah is eternal, and even predates existence. A famous verse in the Zohar (II, 161a) states that “God looked into the Torah and created the universe.” Adam knew the whole Torah, and was taught its deepest secrets by the angel Raziel. Many of these teachings were passed on by Adam to future generations, down to Noah, then his son Shem, and eventually to the Patriarchs who, according to tradition, studied at Shem’s academy. So, while the Torah tradition officially dates back to Sinai, in some ways it dates back all the way to Creation! It’s also important to keep in mind that the Patriarchs were prophets, which means that even though they did not have a physical, written Torah, there is no reason why they could not have received the Torah’s wisdom directly from God.

As such, it is said that the Patriarchs kept the entire Torah and fulfilled all the mitzvot. When Jacob sends a message to Esau after his sojourn in Charan he tells him “I have lived [garti] with Laban” (Genesis 32:5). On this, Rashi says that garti (גרתי) is an anagram of taryag (תרי״ג), the 613 commandments, meaning that despite living under the oppressive Laban for twenty years, Jacob still observed all 613 commandments. Yet, this is impossible since Jacob married two sisters—a clear Torah prohibition! Similarly, when Abraham meets Melchizedek (ie. Shem) following his victory over the Mesopotamian kings, he tells him that he will not take any reward whatsoever, not even “a thread or strap” (Genesis 14:23). For this, the Sages say, Abraham’s descendants merited the mitzvah of tzitzit (the threads) and tefillin (the straps). In that case, Abraham himself did not wear tefillin or tzitzit. From such instances we see that the patriarchs did not keep the Torah completely, at least not the Torah as we know it.

Emanations of Torah

While Kabbalistic texts often point out that the Torah is eternal and served as the very blueprint of Creation, they also go into more detail to explain that this primordial Torah was not quite the same as the Torah we have today. Each of the four mystical universes (Asiyah, Yetzirah, Beriah, Atzilut) has an ever-more refined level of Torah, with the highest being the Torah of Atzilut. Our Torah is the one of Asiyah, and is full of mitzvot only due to Adam’s sin and the corruption of mankind. In Olam HaBa, the Torah of Atzilut will finally be revealed, which is why Jewish tradition holds that many mitzvot will no longer apply in that future time. This is said to be the meaning of Isaiah 51:4 where God proclaims that in the messianic times “a Torah will go forth from Me”; and of Jeremiah 31:30 where God says He will forge a brit chadashah, a “new covenant”, with Israel. (This latter term was usurped by Christians for their “New Testament”.)

An even more intriguing idea is that the “New Torah” will be composed of the exact same letters as the current one we possess, just rearranged to form new words! Yet another is based on the well-known principle that the Heavenly Torah is composed of “black fire on white fire”. This is often used to explain the fact that the Torah actually has 304,805 letters, even though it is always described as having 600,000 letters (one for each Israelite at Mt. Sinai)—there are 304,805 letters of “black fire” and the rest are the invisible letters of “white fire”. Gershom Scholem cites a number of Kabbalistic and Hasidic texts suggesting that these currently-invisible “white fire” letters are the true eternal Torah! (See Scholem’s Kabbalah, pgs. 171-174, for a complete analysis of these concepts.)

It is this primordial Torah that was originally taught to Adam, and was passed down through his descendants to the Patriarchs, who carefully observed it. As such, it appears that eating matzah is an eternal mitzvah that already appeared in the primordial Torah before the Exodus and the revelation of the current Torah of Asiyah. What was the meaning behind that consumption of matzah?

Bread of Faith

Matzah is called the “bread of faith”. It symbolizes our faithfulness to God, who took us out of Egypt to be His people: “Let My people go so that they may serve Me” (Exodus 7:16, 26). Further emphasizing this point, the word matzot is spelled exactly like mitzvot. This simple, “humble” bread symbolizes our subservience to God’s commands. We are His faithful servants, just as the Patriarchs were His faithful servants. So they, too, ate matzah as a sign of their faith. They ate matzah because God had liberated them, too, from various hardships.

The very first Patriarch, Abraham, was miraculously saved from Nimrod’s furnace. He also dwelled in Egypt for a time before God miraculously brought him out of there with great wealth, just as his descendants would do centuries later. And then came his greatest test of faith: the Akedah. Amazingly, the apocryphal Book of Jubilees connects this event with the future Passover holiday. In chapter 18, it suggests that God commanded the Akedah to Abraham on the 15th of Nisan. As the Torah states, Abraham journeyed for three days before the Akedah happened and then, naturally, it took him three days to return home. Thus, the whole ordeal spanned seven days, and when Abraham returned, he established a seven-day “festival to Hashem” from the 15th of Nisan. The future seven-day Passover holiday would happen on those same days in that same month.

“Abraham’s Sacrifice”, a 15th century piece of Timurid-Mongolian art

While the Sages do debate whether some of the Torah’s major events (including Creation itself) happened in the month of Tishrei or Nisan, the accepted Jewish tradition is that the Akedah happened in Tishrei. Nonetheless, it is quite fitting that the Binding of Isaac should happen on Passover, when Isaac was born. In this case, the ram that Abraham ultimately offered in place of Isaac would serve as a proto-Pesach offering. After all, the ram is nothing but a male sheep, and it is the ram that is the astrological sign of Nisan, and it was those ram-headed gods that the Egyptians worshipped that needed to be slaughtered by the Israelites (as discussed last week). Whatever the case, the Book of Jubilees offers an intriguing possibility for the spiritual origins of Passover, and for why the Patriarchs themselves ate matzot long before the Exodus.