Tag Archives: Isaiah

The Origins and Meaning of ‘Lecha Dodi’

The Haftarah for this week’s parasha, Shoftim, has several phrases that are very familiar from our prayers, such as hit’oreri hit’oreri (התעוררי התעוררי), uri uri (עורי עורי), and hitna’ari m’afar kumi (התנערי מעפר קומי). We recognize these words, of course, from the Friday evening Kabbalat Shabbat song of ‘Lecha Dodi’—but they are originally adapted from the prophecies of Isaiah. The first letters of the eight main stanzas of ‘Lecha Dodi’ spell Shlomo haLevi (שלמה הלוי), alluding to the author of the song, Rabbi Shlomo haLevi Alkabetz (c. 1500-1576).

Rabbi Alkabetz was born in Salonica (present-day Thessaloniki, Greece) to a Sephardic family. He was a student of the great Rabbi Yosef Taitazak (1465-1546), who was among the Spanish Jewish exiles of 1492 and settled in Salonica. Rabbi Taitazak would become the “father” of the Tzfat Kabbalists, for many of his students (including Rabbi Yosef Karo, 1488-1575) were from, or settled in, Tzfat and transformed it into the capital of Jewish mysticism. Another one of Rabbi Taitazak’s students was Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (the “Ramak”, 1522-1570), who was the brother-in-law of Rabbi Alkabetz. Together, the Ramak and Rabbi Alkabetz famously popularized the ancient mystical practice of staying up all night to study Torah on Shavuot.

Tzfat in the 19th Century

Rabbi Alkabetz settled in Tzfat in 1535. One of the notable practices of the Tzfat Kabbalists was to go out into the fields on Friday evening to welcome the “Sabbath Queen”. This is based on the Talmud (Shabbat 119a), which says that Rabbi Chanina would do so, as did Rabbi Yannai, who would also call out bo’i kallah, bo’i kallah. In another place, the Talmud (Bava Kamma 32b) adds that some would say to go out likrat Shabbat, kallah, malkata, to welcome the Sabbath Bride and Queen. The Tzfat Kabbalists resurrected this ancient practice. Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), the preeminent student and scribe of the great Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572), records in his Pri Etz Chaim (Sha’ar Shabbat) the Arizal’s precise procedure for Kabbalat Shabbat:

He would go out into the fields and first recite Psalm 29 (‘Mizmor l’David’). Then he would say bo’i kallah three times, followed by Psalm 92 (‘Mizmor Shir l’Yom haShabbat’). That was it! The Arizal would then return home, and had another set of rituals around the meal table. One of these was to recite the words Zachor v’shamor b’dibbur echad ne’emru, to recall the mitzvah of Shabbat in the Ten Commandments. Recall that in the first passage of the Ten Commandments in the Book of Exodus, God says zachor et yom haShabbat, to “commemorate” the Sabbath day, while in the second passage of the Ten Commandments in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses recorded it as shamor et yom haShabbat, to “safeguard” the Sabbath day. Our Sages explained that God had said both words simultaneously—the people heard zachor v’shamor b’dibbur echad, to “commemorate” and “safeguard” in a single utterance.

The Arizal passed away in 1572, while Rabbi Alkabetz outlived him and passed away in 1576 (or 1580 according to alternate sources). We do not know for certain when Rabbi Alkabetz wrote ‘Lecha Dodi’, but it is quite possible that it was composed in his final years, as the Kabbalah of the Arizal was already spreading. A major clue is that Rabbi Alkabetz incorporated the Arizal’s practice of reciting Zachor v’shamor b’dibbur echad into his song (though it is possible that the Arizal had himself adopted the practice from earlier Tzfat Kabbalists). Rabbi Alkabetz also included the key words from the Talmud, and the phrases from this week’s Haftarah about the Final Redemption and rebuilding of Jerusalem, among other Biblical verses. Encrypted into the popular song are some fundamental and profound ideas. Let’s take a deeper look into what the verses of ‘Lecha Dodi’ really mean. Continue reading

10 New Things in the Messianic Age

For Jews in Israel, Pesach will end this Friday, and on Shabbat the Torah reading will be the next parasha, Acharei. For us in the diaspora, Pesach will extend an extra day to Shabbat, meaning we will be reading more holiday-related passages, and continue with Acharei the following Shabbat. It will take quite a while until the Torah readings in Israel and in the diaspora will re-synchronize (at parashat Massei)!

Here outside of Israel, we get to read a special Haftarah for the eighth day of Pesach which centres on Isaiah 11. Fittingly, it is all about the coming Final Redemption and end of the exile, which we in the diaspora are particularly eager for. We read about the miraculous Messianic Age, when “the wolf will dwell with the lamb… the cow and the bear shall graze, with their young lying down together…” Some of our Sages understood this verse metaphorically, symbolizing a time of great peace, and a return to an ecological balance. Others took it literally, that even carnivorous animals will become vegan, and there shall be no death of any kind anymore. One Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 15:21) takes the latter approach, and enumerates this miracle as one of ten “new” things that God will do in the Messianic Age. This comes as a response to Kohelet who had stated that there is currently “nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

The first of the ten is that the world will be newly illuminated, as it is written: “No longer shall you need the sun for light by day, nor the shining of the moon for radiance [by night]; for God shall be your light everlasting, your God shall be your glory.” (Isaiah 60:19) It is interesting to note that if we take this verse literally, it has already come true that we no longer need the sun and moon for light, thanks to electricity! Of course, the verse is primarily metaphorical, saying that God will be our light. The Midrash asks how this is possible, since we know man is incapable of gazing at God. It answers based on Isaiah 30:26, that “The light of the moon will be like the light of the sun, while the light of the sun will be sevenfold, like the light of the seven days [of Creation].” The verse continues to suggest that this special light will have healing properties. The Midrash adds a quote from Malachi (3:20) that “for you who revere My name a sun of victory shall rise to bring healing…”

Intriguingly, the Midrash says that this new light will shine with 49 parts (based on the seven-by-seven wording of the Isaiah verse). That number always alludes to the 49 aspects of the lower Sefirot, particularly relevant to us now during Sefirat HaOmer when we count the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot. As is well-known (and recorded in most siddurim), each day corresponds to a particular quality tied to the Sefirot. In turn, these relate to the Nun Sha’arei Binah, the “Fifty Gates of Understanding”. The 50th gate is far too lofty, and even Moses was unable to attain it, though he did grasp all the remaining 49, as we hope to do, too (see Rosh Hashanah 21b). Perhaps the Midrash is teaching us in that in the Messianic Age we will finally be able to grasp the 49 levels, and make full use of light’s mysteries to repair the world.

We might see something of an analogy to this in the fact that the world is turning to more and more solar power for our energy needs, which has the potential to significantly improve the health of our planet. While water- and wind-powered machines have been around for centuries (in various mills, for instance), solar power really is a new phenomenon. The sun bathes us with essentially unlimited energy, and can easily satisfy all of the world’s energy needs many times over. The clunky and rudimentary stuff we have today is only just the beginning. There are some truly incredible solar-based and light-based technologies in the works, including artificial photosynthesis and lightning-fast, radiation-free “Li-Fi” internet. And who knows what other secrets are contained within light, of which we still have quite a minimal understanding.

The second new development in the Messianic Age is that healing waters shall go forth from Jerusalem, as prophesied in places like Zechariah 14:8. The Midrash specifically cites Ezekiel: “Every living creature that swarms will be able to go to the streams and be revived…” (47:9) These waters will heal all illnesses. A few verses later, Ezekiel says that “All kinds of trees for food will grow on both banks of the stream… they will yield new fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the Temple. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.” This is the third miracle of the Messianic Age: special Jerusalem trees that will perpetually give healing produce every month. (On another related scientific note, researchers have already been able to genetically engineer certain medicines directly into fruits and plants!)

Canada-based SemBioSys developed a safflower plant that can produce human insulin for diabetics, while back in 1996 scientists had already begun work on a banana carrying an edible Hepatitis B vaccine. These technologies never broke into the commercial market and it remains to be seen whether they are even safe or effective. However, they might provide a model or analogy as to how plant produce might directly treat human illness.

The fourth development of the Messianic Age is the rebuilding of all the ruined cities in Israel, and perhaps elsewhere around the world. As prophesied by Ezekiel (16:55), even Sodom and Gomorrah will be restored! Again, we are already living in a reality where this prophesy has been partly realized, as many ancient towns have now been rebuilt in modern Israel, including Modi’in (of Chanukah fame), Caesarea, Be’er Sheva, Rehovot (not at the same site as the Biblical one), numerous settlements in Judea and Samaria, as well as Jerusalem itself. This leads to the next miracle of the Messianic Age, which is that Jerusalem will be overlain with sapphire stones and other precious gems, and will “shine like the sun” (based on Isaiah 54:11-2).

The sixth miracle is the one with which we started: the restoration of an ecological equilibrium, where all living organisms will be at peace. Related to this is the following development, that all people, animals, and living things on the planet will form a new covenant with God, as it is written: “In that day, I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground…” (Hoshea 2:20) The verse continues to say how there will be no more wars, with Earth entirely at peace, idolatry will be eliminated, and all will know God. This is the true, divine “new world order” which we await.

With this new order come the final three developments, all based on verses in Isaiah (65:19, 25:8, 35:10). The first is that there will be no more sadness or wailing. The second, that there will be no more death. Some take this to mean not that people will live eternally, but simply that people will live very long lives (as Isaiah says in 65:20 that the youngest shall die at 100). Perhaps it means there will be no more tragic, untimely deaths, and that all people will live to a ripe old age and die of natural causes. Whatever the case, the final new development in the Messianic Age is that there will be no more sorrow, but only real joy for all humanity.

Chag sameach!


From the Archives: ‘Did the Patriarchs Celebrate Passover?’

Mystery of the Shamir

This week’s parasha, Terumah, describes the construction of the mobile sanctuary, the Mishkan. While the Mishkan was designed to accompany the Israelites in their travels, the Haftarah for this week’s parasha describes how King Solomon finally built the permanent holy sanctuary in Jerusalem, the Beit haMikdash. The Haftarah tells us that the Temple “was built of stone finished at the quarry, and there was neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron heard in the house, while it was in building.” (I Kings 6:7) God did not permit the use of iron tools in constructing the Temple, for iron is an implement of war, and the Temple was a house of peace. So, how were the builders able to cut the stones without any iron tools?

The simplest explanation is that the stones were cut “at the quarry”, as the verse above states, and iron tools were only forbidden “in the house” itself. When God commanded not to use “hewn stones” for the altar (Exodus 20:23), it only meant not to cut the stones or bring iron tools directly onto the holy Temple Mount. The stones could, however, be cut elsewhere and brought to the Temple Mount. This suggestion is further supported by I Kings 5:31, where we read that “The king [Solomon] ordered huge blocks of choice stone to be quarried, so that the foundations of the house might be laid with hewn stones.”

Having said that, Jewish tradition holds that the stones for the Temple were cut entirely without the use of iron implements. Instead, our Sages teach that King Solomon had a unique tool called a Shamir, described as some kind of “worm” or “stone” that was able to penetrate even the toughest materials with laser-like precision. What, exactly, was the Shamir, and what might modern science reveal about this mysterious object?

Shamir in Tanakh and Talmud

The earliest source to mention the Shamir is the prophet Isaiah. In foretelling the destruction of Jerusalem, he said how the city “will be a desolation, it will not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with shamir and thistles…” (Isaiah 5:6) This suggests that the Shamir is something organic and can grow. The notion is confirmed by the next source that discusses it, Jeremiah, who proclaimed that “The sin of Judah is inscribed with an iron stylus, engraved with tzipporen shamir…” (Jeremiah 17:1) Here we see the Shamir described as a tzipporen, loosely translated as a “fingernail” or “talon”. Again, it implies something organic, as opposed to the iron stylus it is juxtaposed with in the same verse.

We next see the Shamir in God’s message to the prophet Ezekiel, when He tells Ezekiel that He will make him like the Shamir, “harder than flint” (k’shamir chazak mitzor). Here we learn the Shamir is a substance of incredible strength. Rashi comments on this verse that the Shamir is a worm that splits rocks, or perhaps a type of hard flintstone, or even a particularly strong alloy of iron. The final direct mention of Shamir in the Tanakh is in Zechariah 7:12, where the nation is said to have hardened their hearts like the Shamir.*

Modern Rendition of the Choshen, the High Priest’s Breastplate

Next, we learn in the Mishnah that God created ten special, mystical things on the eve of the first Sabbath, at the very end of Creation (Avot 5:6). In this list is included the miracle-working staff of Moses, the Two Tablets of Law, and the Shamir. Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura (c. 1445-1515) comments here that the builders would draw a line on a stone, and the Shamir worm would crawl along the line and split the stone. He also points out that it was with the Shamir that Moses created the choshen and ephod, the Priestly Breastplate, and engraved the names of the Tribes of Israel into the precious stones on that breastplate. The source for this is the Talmud:

In Gittin 68a, we learn that Solomon was unsure of how to build the Temple without iron tools, and consulted with the Sanhedrin at the time. They told him: “There is a Shamir that Moses used to cut the stones for the ephod.” Solomon then asked the Sages where to find the Shamir, and this leads to a lengthy story about how he acquired it. (In fact, this is the longest story in the whole Talmud!) The puzzling narrative requires an in-depth analysis of its own, and is beyond the scope of the present discussion. Suffice it to say that it involves the great warrior Benayahu ben Yehoyada, a confrontation with Ashmedai, the “prince of demons”, and the angelic “Prince of the Sea”.

The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni II, 182) has a slightly different account: Solomon knew how to speak to animals (I Kings 5:13), and he asked them where the Shamir might be found, at which point an eagle flew to the Garden of Eden and brought it to him! He then asked the Sages how to use the Shamir, and they directed him to Ashmedai. The Midrash also notes that the Shamir was so powerful it had to be wrapped in wool and kept in a special lead box filled with barley. The same teaching is found in the Talmud (Sotah 48b), too, where we also learn that the Shamir was the size of a barley grain, and that it ceased to exist following the destruction of the First Temple.

The big mystery is how the tiny Shamir, whether a “worm” or a “stone”, was able to penetrate hard substances and cut them with laser-like precision. While one could simply relegate this to a miracle, we generally hold that even God works through derekh hateva, natural ways, in most cases. Could there be a scientific explanation for the Shamir? Thankfully, our Sages left us a major clue that might help solve the mystery.

Shamir in Science

Our Sages taught that the Shamir had to be kept specifically in a box of lead to avoid danger. We have all probably received an x-ray exam at some point in our lives, and the technician always makes sure to put a lead jacket on the parts of the body not being scanned. This is because lead is an excellent blocker of dangerous radiation. This little detail strongly suggests that the Shamir was likely radioactive. Perhaps it used some kind of high-energy radiation to cut through stone. In fact, today we have nuclear-pumped lasers which use radioactive uranium fragments to create ultra-powerful light rays. Though such lasers are not commercially available at the moment, they have been proposed for use in manufacturing for precision deep-cutting and welding!

(Interestingly, renowned Jewish physicist Edward Teller, often called the “father of the hydrogen bomb”, proposed using such nuclear-pumped lasers in a space defense system that would shoot down enemy nuclear missiles. His “Project Excalibur” was soon scrapped and never realized.)

And then there’s the lithoredo. In 2019, scientists in the Philippines discovered a new species of shipworm, named Lithoredo abatanica. Unlike other shipworms which eat and bore into wood, the lithoredo eats and bores into limestone! They have special tiny teeth to grind away rock. Here is a worm that is actually able to eat through stone, and quite precisely, too. Could the Shamir have been a special version of the lithoredo, or a related species that is now extinct?

There is another tiny organism on the planet that is bizarrely able to withstand incredible conditions, including deadly radiation, dehydration, and even the freezing vacuum of outer space. This organism is the tardigrade, also known as a “water bear”. The hardiest creature on the planet, it can suspend its metabolism and literally go decades without any food or water at all. Uniquely, the DNA of tardigrades is protected by a special protein that blocks radiation, allowing them to survive levels of radiation hundreds of times greater than what would be lethal for humans. Could the Shamir have been some kind of special hybrid organism with qualities of both the tardigrade, capable of living many decades and withstanding immense radiation; and of the lithoredo, able to eat, digest, and cut through stone? Did the Shamir contain radioactive material in its body, or generate something laser-like? It is certainly within the realm of the scientifically-possible.

A real microscopic image (colour-enhanced) of a tardigrade. (Credit: Eye of Science)

Ultimately, we may never know the true nature of the Shamir, for there are those who hold the future Third Temple will not require the Shamir in its construction. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, for instance, taught that since in the messianic era “swords will be beaten into plowshares” (Isaiah 2:4), iron will no longer be considered an implement of war and will therefore be allowed in the building of the Third Temple. Others hold that the Third Temple will not require building at all, and will descend fully-formed from the Heavens (see Rashi at the end of Sukkah 41a). Whatever the case might be, may we merit to see it speedily and in our days!

Courtesy: Temple Institute


*For Marvel comics fans: the word shamir was translated into Greek as adamas, and then to Latin as adamans, and to English as “adamant”, the origin of “adamantium”, that super-hard element injected into Wolverine’s skeleton, and that made up the body of Ultron. (For more on Judaism and comic books, see here.) The Shamir was also the inspiration for the adopted last name of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir.