Tag Archives: Isaiah

The Spiritual Significance of Israel Turning 70

This week we commemorate Yom Ha’Atzmaut, the State of Israel’s Independence Day, marking seventy years since its founding. Although the State is certainly far from perfect, its establishment and continued existence is without a doubt one of the greatest developments in Jewish history. Many have seen it as the first steps towards the final redemption, and even among Haredi rabbis (which are generally opposed to the secular State) there were those who bravely admitted Israel’s significance and validity. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (1910-1995), for example, considered the State as Malkhut Israel, a valid Jewish “kingdom”—at least for halakhic purposes—while the recently deceased Rav Shteinman unceasingly supported the Nachal Haredi religious IDF unit despite the great deal of controversy it brought him. Rav Ovadia Yosef permitted saying Hallel without a blessing on Yom Ha’Atzmaut, and some have even composed an Al HaNissim text to be recited. While we have already written in the past about the significance of the State’s founding (along with one perspective to bridge together the secular and the religious on this issue), there is something particularly special about Israel’s 70th birthday.

Al HaNissim for the Amidah and Birkat HaMazon provided by Rav David Bar-Hayim of Machon Shilo

The number 70 holds tremendous significance in Judaism. It is the number of root languages and root nations in the world (with Israel traditionally described as “a sheep among seventy wolves”). It is the number of Jacob’s family that descended to Egypt and from whom sprung up the entire nation. The number of elders that assisted Moses, and parallel to them the number of sages that sat on the Sanhedrin. Although Moses lived 120 years, he wrote in his psalm that 70 years is considered a complete lifespan (Psalms 90:10), and King David, who put the final edit on that psalm and incorporated it into his book, lived precisely 70 years. As is well-known, David was granted those 70 years by Adam, which is why the Torah says Adam lived 930 years instead of the expected 1000 years. (See here for how he may have been able to live so long.)

The Arizal taught that Adam (אדם) stands for Adam, David, and Mashiach, for the final redeemer is both a reflection of the first man, and the scion of David. More amazingly, as we wrote earlier this year it is said that David is literally the middle-point in history between Adam and Mashiach, and as such, if one counts the years elapsed between Adam and David then it is possible to find the start of the messianic era—which just happens to be our current year 5778. In this year, the State of Israel itself turns 70, and our Sages speak of “seventy cries of the soul during labour”, and parallel to these, “seventy cries of the birthpangs of Mashiach”. It is possible to interpret these seventy birthpangs preceding the arrival of the messiah as the seventy years leading up to the redemption. Thus, Israel’s seventy years potentially bear great significance.

Just as Psalms says that seventy years is one complete lifespan, for the State of Israel these past seventy years can be likened to the end of one “lifetime”, with Israel now standing at the cusp of a new era. Indeed, with all that has happened in the Middle East in recent years and months, Israel has undoubtedly emerged stronger and more secure than ever before. In this seventieth year, the world has begun to recognize Israel’s permanence, and affirm its unwavering right to Jerusalem the Eternal. We see more and more nations formally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s rightful capital, and the United States plans to open its new Jerusalem embassy on May 14, which is Yom Ha’Atzmaut according to the secular calendar.

These seemingly disparate points—David’s seventy years, the completion of Israel’s first seventy year lifespan, and the recognition of Jerusalem—are actually intricately connected, for it was King David who established the first official, unified, Jewish state in the Holy Land, with Jerusalem as its capital. In fact, David’s kingdom was the only fully independent, unified Jewish state until the modern State of Israel! (Other Jewish entities, including the Maccabean and Herodian, were essentially always vassals to some greater power like Greece or Rome.) It is therefore quite fitting that the State of Israel has the Star of David on its flag, and it is this Davidic symbol that has become emblematic of not just Israel itself but all of modern Judaism.*

Living Prophecy

Perhaps the most famous seventy in Scripture is the seventy year period of exile in Babylon, between the First and Second Temples. It is said that God decreed a seventy year exile in particular because Israel failed to keep seventy Sabbatical and Jubilee years between the settling of Israel under Joshua and the destruction of the First Temple. While the Exile was certainly a “punishment”, we know that God never truly “punishes” Israel, and out of each devastation (which is nothing more than a just measure-for-measure retribution) emerges something greater.

As we’ve written before, it is in Babylon that the vibrant Judaism that we know was born. Unable to journey to the Temple, the Sages reworked each holiday to become more than a pilgrimage; unable to offer sacrifices, the Sages established prayers instead, “paying the cows with our lips” (Hosea 14:3); unable to fulfil the many agricultural laws, the Sages taught that learning the laws was as good as observing them. The Judaism of study, prayer, and mysticism was born out of the difficulty of the seventy-year Babylonian Exile. These past seventy years for Israel—also of great difficulty, and coming on the heels of another great devastation—was similarly one where Judaism has evolved considerably, and instead of dying out as some feared, has actually flourished.

Many have pointed out another modern “Babylonian Exile”, too. This is the communist regime of the Soviet Union, where millions of Jews were trapped for some seventy years. (The officially accepted start and end dates for the USSR are December 30, 1922 to December 26, 1991.) The histories of Russia and Israel are tightly bound, for many of Israel’s founders came directly from the Russian Empire, including Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Golda Meir, and the Netanyahus. Some even argue that the severe persecution by the Russians—unrivaled until the Nazis—is what gave the greatest motivation for the founding of Israel. The Kishinev Pogrom of 1903 was the final straw for the Zionists. The description of that pogrom by Bialik (another Russian Jew, and later Israel’s national poet) aroused the masses to take up the call and make aliyah, and convinced many more of the necessity of an independent Jewish state.

Russia’s involvement is all the more significant when we consider the possibility of Moscow as the prophesied “Third Rome”. As explored in the past, the “Red Army” headquartered in Moscow’s Red Square brings to mind the villainous Edom. Just as Rabbi Yose ben Kisma taught long ago in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a-b) that Mashiach will come when Rome/Edom falls for the third time, and there will not be a fourth, the Russian monk Filofey of Pskov (1465-1542) wrote of Moscow that “Two Romes have fallen, the third stands, and there will be no fourth.” This is all the more interesting in light of what we see in the news today about the growing conflict between the West and the Russia-Syria-Iran axis. It is important to keep in mind that Iran (Paras or Persia) is explicitly mentioned in Ezekiel’s prophecy of the great wars of the End of Days, the wars referred to as Gog u’Magog. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni on Isaiah 60, siman 499) comments on this that

In the year that Mashiach will be revealed, all the kings of the nations of the world will provoke each other. The king of Persia will threaten the king of Arabia, and the king of Arabia will go to Aram for advice. The king of Persia will then destroy the world, and all the nations will tremble and fall upon their faces, and they will be grasped by birthpangs like the birthpangs of labour, and Israel, too, will tremble and falter, and they will ask: “Where will we go?” And [God] will answer: “My children, do not fear, for all that I have done, I have done for you… the time of your salvation has come.”

Those who follow geopolitics will immediately identify this midrashic passage with current events. The war in Syria is very much a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, just as is the war currently raging in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has joined the Western (Aram?) camp, and has even begun to speak positively of Israel in public. The prophet Jeremiah (49:27) further details that Syria will be the epicenter of the war, and the “end” will come when Damascus has fallen. Amazingly, Jeremiah calls the king of Damascus Ben Hadad (בן הדד), the gematria of which happens to equal Assad (אסד). And it also happens that the value of Gog u’Magog (גוג ומגוג) is 70.

Top right: Arab Coalition forces led by Saudi Arabia (and backed by the US, UK, and France) fighting in Yemen to defeat Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Bottom right: Today in the news we read about Saudi Arabia considering sending ground forces into Syria, where Iranian Revolutionary Guards are deeply entrenched. Some say Saudi Arabia secretly has forces in Syria already. It is highly likely that there are Russian and American paramilitary groups in Syria as well. Turkish and Israeli forces are heavily involved, too, and the US, UK, and France recently launched a missile strike on Syrian facilities.

Thus, Israel turning 70 carries remarkable symbolic meaning. The Midrash states that Israel has 70 names, and these correspond to the 70 names of the Torah (and the Torah’s 70 layers of meaning, to be revealed in full with Mashiach’s coming), as well as the 70 Names of God, and the 70 names for the holy city of Jerusalem. The last of these names, the Midrash says (based on Isaiah 62:2), is “a new name that God will reveal in the End of Days.” The struggle over Jerusalem and the Holy Land will soon end, with a new city and a new name to be reborn in its place.

May we merit to see it soon.

Courtesy: Temple Institute

*Judaism began with Abraham. In an amazing “coincidence” of numbers, Jewish tradition holds that Abraham was born in the Hebrew year 1948. The State of Israel was, of course, born in the secular year 1948. Jewish tradition also holds that Abraham was 70 years old at the “Covenant Between the Parts”, when God officially appointed Abraham as His chosen one. This means the Covenant took place in the Jewish year 2018, paralleling Israel’s 70th birthday in this secular year of 2018.

Should You Wear a Red String on Your Wrist?

Vestments of the kohen and kohen gadol

This week’s parasha, Tetzave, continues to outline the items necessary for the Mishkan, or Tabernacle, starting with the Menorah and going into a detailed description of the priestly vestments. One of the materials necessary for the holy garments is tola’at shani, commonly translated as “crimson wool”. This was a deep red fabric apparently derived from some kind of insect or worm (which is what the Hebrew “tola’at” means). The Torah speaks of this material in multiple places and in multiple contexts. Today, wearing a “tola’at shani”-like red string on the wrist has become very popular among those calling themselves “Kabbalists” and even by secular Jews and non-Jews. What is the significance of the red fibre, and is there any real spiritual meaning to the red string bracelet?

The First Red String

The earliest mention of a red string is in Genesis 38:27-30, where Tamar gives birth to her twin sons Peretz and Zerach:

And it came to pass in the time of her labour that, behold, twins were in her womb. And in her labour, one hand emerged, and the midwife took a red string [shani] and tied it to his hand saying, “This one came out first.” And he drew back his hand, and behold, his brother came out, and she said: “With what strength have you breached [paratz] yourself?” so his name was called Peretz. And afterward came out his brother that had the red string upon his hand, and his name was called Zerach.

Here, the red string is simply used to designate the firstborn. It didn’t work out as planned, for the other twin ended up coming first. The strong Peretz would go on to be the forefather of King David, and therefore Mashiach, who is sometimes called Ben Partzi. Clearly, wearing the red string wasn’t much of an effective charm for Zerach.

Temple Rituals

In addition to being used in the garments of the priests and various Temple vessels, tola’at shani was employed in a number of sacrificial rituals. In Leviticus 14 we read how someone who had healed from tzara’at, loosely translated as “leprosy”, would bring an offering of two birds which were dipped in a mixture containing the red dye. From this we see that tola’at shani (or shni tola’at, as it appears here) is not necessarily the string itself, but simply the red dye extracted from the insect. Similarly, the red dye was used in the preparation of the parah adumah, “Red Cow”, mixture (Numbers 19) which was used to purify the nation from the impurity of death.

The Talmud (Yoma 67a) describes how a red string was tied to the scapegoat on Yom Kippur. Recall that on Yom Kippur two goats were selected, one being slaughtered and the other being sent off into the wilderness, “to Azazel”. This “scapegoat” had a red string attached to it, and if the string turned white the people would know that their sins had been forgiven, as Isaiah 1:18 states: “…though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” Here, then, the red string represents the sin of the people, bound to the scapegoat going to Azazel. If it turned white, it was a good sign, whereas if the string remained red it meant God was unhappy with the nation. Indeed, the Talmud (Yoma 39b) states that in the last forty years before the Second Temple was destroyed, the red string never once turned white.

Red in Kabbalah

In mystical texts, red is typically the colour of Gevurah or Din, severity and judgement. It was therefore generally discouraged to wear red. The Kabbalists often wore garments of all white, and this is still the custom during the High Holidays, a time of particularly great judgement. It was only centuries later that the Chassidic rebbe known as Minchat Eliezer (Rabbi Chaim Elazar Spira of Munkacz, 1868-1937) wrote how having a red cloth may serve to ward off judgement and severity. Another Chassidic rebbe, the Be’er Moshe (Rabbi Moshe Stern of Debreczin, 1890-1971) wrote that he remembered seeing people wear red strings as a child, but did not know why. Still, this does not appear to have been a very popular practice then, nor is it much of a custom among Chassidim now.

1880 Illustration of Rachel’s Tomb

Rather, the red string today has been popularized by The Kabbalah Centre and similar “neo-Kabbalah” movements that cater as much to non-Jews as to secular Jews. The Kabbalah Centre explains that the bracelets are made by taking a long red thread and winding it around Rachel’s Tomb seven times. The thread is then cut into wrist-size lengths, and if worn on the “left wrist, we can receive a vital connection to the protective energies surrounding the tomb of Rachel.” It is not clear where The Kabbalah Centre took this practice from. They claim that the red string wards off the evil eye. While they cite certain passages from the Zohar regarding the evil eye, there doesn’t seem to be any connection to a red string specifically.

The Zohar (II, 139a) does state in one place that the blue tekhelet represents God’s Throne, as is well-known, which means judgement, whereas the red shani is what emerges from the Throne and overpowers the judgement, thus bringing protection upon Israel. The Zohar relates shani to Michael, the guardian angel of Israel, and uses the metaphor of a worm eating through everything to explain the tola’at shani as eating up negative judgement. This is why the famous song Eshet Chayil (Proverbs 31) states that a “woman of valour” has her whole house dressed in shanim (v. 21). She guards her household in this way. (It should be noted that in this passage the Zohar states it is gold which represents Gevurah, and silver represents Chessed. White and red, meanwhile, appear to be aspects within the sefirah of Yesod.)

So, perhaps there is something to wearing a red string.

Bringing Back Shani

The Zohar does not speak of any red string at all, and instead explains the mystical power of the red dye called shani. It is the dye itself that has power, as we see from the Temple rituals noted above. It is well-known that the blue tekhelet dye comes from a certain mollusc or sea snail called chilazon. From where does shani come?

A female and male cochineal bug.

Professor Zohar Amar of Bar Ilan University researched the subject in depth and concluded that tola’at shani is similar to the cochineal insect, famous for producing the red dye carmine (E120) which is extensively used in the food industry. After a round-the-world search, it turned out that a cochineal-like insect is found in Israel as well, and grows on oak trees.

While the cochineal insect is native to South America (where most of the carmine is still produced), its Mediterranean cousin is the oak-dwelling kermes insect. Indeed, kermes was used across the Mediterranean world for millennia, being particularly prized in Greek, Roman, and medieval society. It is best known for its ability to dye wool extremely well. Jerusalem’s Temple Institute was convinced of the professor’s findings, and has begun harvesting the bugs and their red dye in order to produce authentic priestly vestments, as outlined in the Torah.

In light of this, a genuine red string “kabbalah” bracelet—with the protective powers mentioned in the Zohar—would undoubtedly have to be made of wool dyed with kermes red. And according to the Zohar, it probably shouldn’t be worn on the left wrist at all, but instead on the right leg, the body part which the Zohar (II, 148a) states that shani corresponds to.

Imitating Pagans

Judaism is very sensitive about not imitating the ways of the pagans, or darkei Emori. One example of this, as we wrote in the past, is kapparot, which the Ramban (among others) called an idolatrous practice. The Tosefta (Shabbat, ch. 7) has a list of practices that are considered darkei Emori, and one of them is “tying a red string on one’s finger”. So, already two millennia ago it seems there were Jews tying red strings on their body, and the Tosefta (which is essentially equivalent to the Mishnah) forbids it.

The Hindu kalava looks suspiciously similar to the “kabbalah” red string.

In fact, Hinduism has a custom to wear a red string called kalava around one’s wrist in order to ward off evil. This is precisely what The Kabbalah Centre claims their red string accomplishes. Based on this alone it would be best to avoid wearing such a red string. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was one of the recent authorities who stated that the red string should not be worn due to darkei Emori. Factoring in that the red string has no basis in the Zohar or any traditional Jewish mystical text is all the more reason to stay away from this practice.

Mashiach and the Mysterious 13th Zodiac Sign

This week’s parasha is Vayechi, where Jacob blesses his children before his passing. He begins by telling his sons that he wishes to reveal to them what will happen b’acharit hayamim, “in the End of Days”. Yet, the text we read does not appear to say anything about the End of Days! The Talmud (Pesachim 56a) states that the Shekhinah withdrew from Jacob at that moment so he was unable to reveal those secrets. If that’s the case, how was he able to properly bless his children?

The Talmud states that when the Shekhinah left him, Jacob worried one of his children was unworthy to hear those secrets. His sons then recited the Shema in unison and said, “just as there is only One in your heart, so is there in our heart only One.” Jacob was comforted to know they are all indeed righteous, and it seems the Shekhinah returned to him at this point, allowing him to bless his children in holiness. Nonetheless, Jacob reasoned that to reveal the secret of the End in explicit fashion would be unwise, so he encoded these mysteries within the blessings he recited. In fact, Jacob not only encrypted what will happen in the End, but summarized the breadth of Jewish history (see ‘How Jacob Prophesied All of Jewish History’ in Garments of Light).

One place where Jacob appears to make an explicit reference to the End is in blessing Dan, when he says, “I hope for Your salvation, Hashem” (Genesis 49:18). Jacob says Dan will be the one to judge his people—alluding to the great Judgement Day—and wage the final battles like a “snake upon the road… who bites the horse’s heel so that its rider falls backwards”. Jacob is speaking of Mashiach. Although Mashiach is a descendent of David and from the tribe of Judah, the Midrash states that this is only through his father, while through his mother’s lineage Mashiach hails from the tribe of Dan.

Why does Jacob compare Mashiach to a snake?

Snakes of Divination

Pythia at the Oracle of Delphi

In cultures around the world, there is a peculiar connection between snakes and prophecy. In ancient Greece, for example, the Oracle went into a prophetic trance when supposedly breathing in the fumes (or spirit) of the dead python upon which the Temple in Delphi was built. According to myth, this great python (a word which has a Hebrew equivalent in the Tanakh, פתן) was slain by Apollo. The Temple was built upon its carcass. For this reason, the Greek prophetess was known as Pythia.

Similarly, the Romans had their sacred hill on the Vatican (later adopted as the centre of Christianity). The second-century Latin author Aulus Gellius explained that the root of the word Vatican is vates, Latin for “prophet”. Others elaborate that vatican refers more specifically to a “divining serpent”. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world the Aztecs had Quetzalcoatl and the Mayans had Kukulkan, the “feathered serpent” god of wisdom and learning. And such mystical dragons appear just about everywhere else, from Scandinavia to China.

Incredibly, the Torah makes the same connection, where Joseph is described as a diviner who uses a special goblet to nachesh inachesh (Genesis 44:5). This term for divination is identical to nachash, “snake”. In Modern Hebrew, too, the term for guessing or predicting is lenachesh.

Why is the snake associated with otherworldly wisdom and prophecy?

Primordial Serpent

Back in the Garden of Eden, it was the Nachash that encouraged Eve to consume of the Forbidden Fruit. This was the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. The Serpent is the one who unlocked the minds of Adam and Eve to higher wisdom so that they could “be like God”. Jewish tradition maintains that Adam and Eve were eventually supposed to eat of the Tree of Knowledge (for otherwise why would God put it there to begin with?) but they simply rushed to do so when they were not yet ready. They transgressed God’s command, and knew not what to do with all of this tremendous information, resulting in the shameful descent of man into sin. The one who instigated it all was the Nachash.

It appears that ever since then, the snake has been a symbol of forbidden wisdom. Such divination and mysticism can be quite dangerous, and most are unable to either grasp or properly use this knowledge. The Talmud cautions as such in its famous story of the four sages who entered “Pardes” (Chagigah 14b). Pardes is an acronym for the depths of Jewish wisdom, from the simple (peshat) and sub-textual (remez) to the metaphorical (drash) and esoteric (sod). The result of entering the mystical dimensions was that Ben Azzai died, Ben Zoma detached from this world, and Elisha ben Avuya became a heretic. Only Rabbi Akiva was able to “enter in peace and depart in peace.” It is important to remember that Rabbi Akiva was the teacher of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the originator of the Zohar. (Still, the Zohar, like most mystical texts, does not speak explicitly of esoteric matters, but cloaks them in layers of garments and complex language which only the most astute can ever unravel.)

Long before, Joseph was a master of this wisdom, surprising even the Pharaoh and his best mystics, who proclaimed: “Can there be such a man in whom the spirit of God rests?” (Genesis 41:38). Joseph, of course, is a prototype of Mashiach. The sages state that Mashiach is a great prophet and sage in his own right, but can he really surpass the unparalleled prophecy of Moses or the wisdom of Solomon? The Alter Rebbe (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, 1745-1812) solved the issue thus:

After the resurrection all will rise… the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, Moses and Aaron, all the righteous ones and the prophets, tens of thousands beyond number. Is it possible that Mashiach will teach them the same Torah that is revealed to us today? …Will all who knew the whole Torah be required to learn new laws from Mashiach? We must therefore say that Mashiach will instruct them in the “good of discernment and knowledge of the secrets of the esoteric teachings of Torah” that the “eyes will not have seen”—Moses and the Patriarchs not having been privileged to that knowledge, for only to Mashiach will it be revealed as it is written of him [Isaiah 52:13] “and he shall be very high.” (Likkutei Torah, Tzav)

Mashiach is the greatest of mystics, the holder of forbidden knowledge which will soon no longer be forbidden. The time will come when, as God originally intended, man will eat from the Tree of Knowledge and be “like God”. That first requires a return of mankind to the Garden of Eden, which is the very task of Mashiach. Beautifully, the gematria of Mashiach (משיח)—the one who brings us back into Eden—is 358, the same as Nachash (נחש)—the one who forced us out to begin with. And so, as Jacob envisions, the snake symbolizes Mashiach himself.

While Mashiach is likened to a serpent, he must also defeat the Primordial Serpent which embodies all evil. Indeed, the Sages speak of two serpents (based on Isaiah 27:1): the “straight” serpent (nachash bariach) and the “twisted” serpent (nachash ‘akalaton). Mashiach is the straight serpent that devours the twisted one. This was all alluded to in Moses’ staff-turned-serpent consuming the Pharaoh’s staff-turned-serpent. In fact, another serpent staff, the nachash nechoshet, is later used by Moses to heal the nation. This healing staff found its way into Greek myth as well, where it was wielded by the healer god Asclepius, and eventually into the modern internationally-recognized medical symbol.

And that brings us back to the End of Days.

The 13th Zodiac

In recent years, there have been whispers of a necessity to change the current 12-sign horoscope to include a 13th zodiac sign. This was featured in the media on a number of occasions, with flashy headlines suggesting that some people’s astrological sign may now have changed. This is based on the fact that there is a “precession of the equinoxes”: the earth’s axis changes very slowly over time, meaning that the constellations which are visible in the night sky change, too.

The astrological signs are based on the 12 major constellations (out of 88 constellations total) that align with the sun and “rule” for about a month’s time every year (each making up 30º of the total 360º). The argument is that due to the precession of the equinoxes, a 13th sign has crept in which we can no longer ignore. The majority of astrologers have rejected this argument, mainly because astrology isn’t really based on the stars but fixed to the vernal equinox. While some in the East (namely Hindus) use “sidereal astrology”, which is based on shifting star positions, the system used in the West (“tropical astrology”) has 12 signs roughly corresponding to the 12 months.*

Either way, whether the horoscope requires modification or not is irrelevant to Judaism, which denies any astrological effect on Israel (a topic we’ve explored in the past). Besides, unlike astrologers, astronomers both ancient and modern have always been aware of this thirteenth constellation. To the ancient Babylonians it was the snake-like Nirah, while to the ancient Greeks it was known as Ophiuchus, the “serpent-bearer”. This constellation is in the shape of a man firmly grasping a twisted snake (the interlinked constellation Serpens). This is, of course, the very symbol of Mashiach, that serpentine saviour who defeats the primordial snake and all of its evil. After being an astrological footnote for a very long time, Ophiuchus has entered the spotlight, as if the cosmos itself is reminding us of Mashiach’s impending arrival.

Ophiuchus (or Serpentarius) grasping Serpens, with Libra and Scorpio on the bottom right, and the bow-wielding Sagittarius on the bottom left.

* The same is true in traditional Jewish thought, where each sign corresponds to a month on the Hebrew calendar, as well as to one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Having said that, including a 13th month for the Jewish system is not a problem at all. In fact, it is actually a solution, since the Jewish calendar has a 13th month in a leap year! Similarly, although we always speak of twelve tribes of Israel, there are really thirteen since, as we read in this week’s parasha, Jacob made Joseph count as two separate tribes: Ephraim and Menashe.

What’s The Deal With Not Shaving?

This week’s parasha is Behaalotcha, which starts with God’s command to light the Temple menorah, followed by a description of the Levite initiation ritual. This ritual required the Levites to have their entire bodies shaved with a razor (Numbers 8:7). Yet, it is well-known that Jewish law forbids shaving the face with a razor. Where did this law come from?

The nobility in many Mesopotamian cultures sported square beards. Is this what the Torah means when it says not to “round” the beard’s corners?

The Torah source is found in Leviticus 19:27, where God commands that “you shall not round the corners of your head, nor shall you destroy the corners of your beard.” The wording here is ambiguous and perplexing. What does it mean to not “round” the head’s “corners”, or not to destroy the beard’s “corners”? The verse does not say anything about shaving with a razor either. Moreover, the context of this verse is amidst a set of things not to do while mourning the dead. This is precisely how the Mishnah (in the tractate Makkot) understands it:

If a man makes a baldness on his head, or rounds the corner of his head, or destroys the corner of his beard, or makes a cutting in his flesh for the dead, he is liable [to flogging], whether he makes one cutting for five dead, or five cuttings for one, he is liable for each.

Shaving is included among a set of things not to do when mourning the dead, such as making a bald spot on the head, which comes from a related verse in Leviticus 21:5: “They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corners of their beard, nor make any cuttings in their flesh.” Here again we see a prohibition against shaving the beard’s corners. This one, however, is in a set of laws directed only at kohanim. The Talmud (Makkot 20a) explains how even though this verse applies only to priests, other Torah verses expand the prohibition to all of Israel. Nonetheless, all of this only applies when mourning the dead.

Historians have indeed found that shaving was a common mourning ritual in the ancient Near East. Tearing out hair in grief (thus making a “bald spot” for the dead), or shaving hair as an offering to the dead were frequent sights. The Torah prohibits this type of extreme mourning.

The Mishnah cited above continues by saying that one is only liable for punishment if they used a razor to shave their hair. However, another opinion is that any hair removal – even if plucking out each hair one by one – is forbidden. The first opinion is the one that is followed, and thus, shaving hair with a razor in connection to a mourning ritual is forbidden.

If that’s the case, why is shaving with a razor for hygienic or aesthetic purposes forbidden?

Reinterpreting Verses

The Rambam takes an alternate approach in explaining the prohibition of shaving. He writes (in Moreh Nevuchim, Part III, Ch. 37) that shaving was the practice of idolatrous priests, who were clean-shaven in those days. Therefore, maintaining a beard was a way to distinguish Jews from idolaters. This idea appears to be supported by verses in the Book of Jeremiah. For example, Jeremiah 9:24-25 states:

Behold, days are coming, says Hashem, that I will punish all of them that are uncircumcised: Egypt, and Judah, and Edom, and the children of Ammon, and Moab, and all ketzutzei pe’ah, that dwell in the wilderness; for all the nations are uncircumcised, but all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in the heart.

Jeremiah prophesies that a day will come when God will punish all the uncircumcised idolaters (as well as Jews who may be circumcised physically, but are not circumcised “spiritually”). A list of nations follows, and then appears the term ketzutzei pe’ah. This phrase (which also appears in Jeremiah 25:23 and 49:32) can be translated as “trimming the corner”. Thus, some took it to mean that God will punish all those nations that trim the corners of their beards.

However, reading the verse in context shows that it is unlikely to be speaking about trimming beards. Ketzutzei pe’ah is more likely referring to those who live in the distant corners of the world. God is saying he will punish Egypt, Judah, Edom, Ammon, Moab, the nations of the wilderness, and all the uncircumcised in the farthest corners of the Earth, wherever they might be. This is made even clearer in the second passage (Jeremiah 25:23) where the term appears:

… and all the kings of the land of Uz, and all the kings of the land of the Philistines, and Ashkelon, and Gaza, and Ekron, and the remnant of Ashdod; Edom, and Moab, and the children of Ammon; and all the kings of Tyre, and all the kings of Zidon, and the kings of the isle which is beyond the sea; Dedan, and Tema, and Buz, and all ketzutzei pe’ah; and all the kings of Arabia, and all the kings of the mingled people that dwell in the wilderness; and all the kings of Zimri, and all the kings of Elam, and all the kings of the Medes; and all the kings of the north, far and near, one with another; and all the kingdoms of the world, which are upon the face of the earth…

Assyrian priest and king, with beards

Looking at the historical record, we see that while certain nations’ priests were clean-shaven, most were not. Babylonian, Assyrian, and Persian priests had nice long beards. These were the Israelites’ primary neighbours and adversaries for most of ancient history, and none were clean-shaven. Therefore, the argument of not shaving because of idolatry is of little substance. Besides, the Torah’s prohibition applies only to cases of mourning, and this is a major reason why halakha forbids a Jew from shaving for thirty days following the death of a family member.

To be fair, Kabbalistic texts do explain why shaving is forbidden from a mystical perspective. The Tanakh itself, though, is mute on this point. In fact, when speaking of a razor specifically, the Torah seems to be quite positive about it. In this week’s parasha, shaving with a razor is part of a cleansing purification, as it is for someone who was afflicted with tzaraat, or someone who had been a nazir (Numbers 6:9). Most tellingly, Isaiah prophesies that a day will come when God Himself will purify us all by shaving us with a razor:

In that day, Hashem will shave with a razor… the head and the hair of the feet; and it shall also sweep away the beard. And it shall come to pass in that day, that a man shall rear a young cow, and two sheep; and from the abundance of milk that they shall give, he shall eat butter; for butter and honey shall every one eat that is left in the midst of the land…

This verse explicitly mentions shaving the beard with a razor as part of mankind’s final purification. The verse is found in a long passage (Isaiah 7-9) that weaves in prophesies about the coming of Mashiach and the return to an idyllic world, where “… endless peace will be upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it through justice and through righteousness, from henceforth and forever…”

May we merit to see it soon.

The One Commandment of the Torah

The Revelation at Sinai

This week’s Torah reading is Yitro, famous for its account of the Divine Revelation at Mt. Sinai. For the first time, the Jewish people heard the Ten Commandments, directly from God. Commenting on these verses, Rabbeinu Behaye (1255-1340) describes how God actually revealed the Torah gradually, starting with Adam.

To Adam, God revealed the very first six commandments: (1) not to deny God’s existence, (2) not to blaspheme God, (3) not to murder, (4) not to engage in immoral sexual relations, (5) not to steal, and (6) to establish just legal systems and courts. These may sound familiar, as they are part of the Seven Noahide Laws. Yet, Rabbeinu Behaye writes that Adam and Eve were given these commandments before Noah. These six are the basic laws of humanity so, naturally, they must have been given to the first humans.

To Noah, God added a seventh commandment. Originally, God instructed man to consume only fruits and vegetables (Genesis 1:29-30). In God’s original perfect world, nothing at all had to die. (Thus, the third commandment of “not to murder” likely applied to all living things at the time!) Yet, ten generations after Adam, we read that God permitted the consumption of meat, albeit in a limited way. There are deeply profound reasons for this, which we have addressed in the past.

From the time of Noah onwards, man was permitted to consume meat, so God added a seventh commandment: “do not eat the limb of a live animal”. The basic meaning of this law is that an animal should be carefully slaughtered (and as painlessly as possible) before its meat is consumed. However, the commandment takes on much broader implications, and is regarded as a general prohibition of not being cruel to animals.

From 8 to 613

Another ten generations after Noah came the eighth commandment, given to Abraham. It was Abraham who was first instructed to circumcise himself and the males of his household. God declared that henceforth, every newborn male should be circumcised on the eighth day of life. Appropriately, this was the eighth commandment.

“Jacob wrestling with the angel” by Eugène Delacroix (1861)

Jacob received the ninth commandment: not to consume the gid hanashe, the sciatic nerve. This stems from Jacob’s famous wrestling match with the angel, where he was struck in the thigh, and “Therefore, the children of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh until this day…” (Genesis 32:33).

Finally, it was Moses’ generation – the twenty-sixth generation from Adam – that received the entire set of Ten Commandments. Of course, these Ten are quite different than the previous nine. However, the Ten Commandments are only the first of the entire set of 613 mitzvot in the Torah, which do encapsulate the previous nine as well. Jewish tradition holds that these Ten, in fact, allude to all 613. It is often pointed out that the text of the Ten Commandments in the Torah contains exactly 620 letters, corresponding to the 613 Torah mitzvot, plus the additional 7 mitzvot instituted by the Sages.

Going in Reverse

Rabbeinu Behaye teaches us that the Torah was revealed step-by-step, progressing from six in Adam’s time, to seven in Noah’s, eight in Abraham’s, nine in Jacob’s, ten in Moses’, followed by all 613. Interestingly, there is a passage in the Talmud (Makkot 23b-24a) that appears to neatly continue the Torah’s evolution, but this time in reverse!

The passage begins by reminding us that “…six hundred and thirteen precepts were given to Moses” before stating that “David came and reduced them to eleven.” King David was able to condense the entire Torah to eleven central principles, which he recorded in Psalm 15:

A Psalm of David. Hashem, who shall sojourn in Your tabernacle? Who shall dwell upon Your holy mountain? One who (1) walks uprightly, and (2) acts righteously, (3) speaks truth in his heart; (4) Has no slander upon his tongue, (5) nor does evil to his fellow, (6) nor takes up a reproach against his neighbour; (7) In whose eyes a vile person is despised, and (8) one who honours those that fear Hashem; (9) one who swears to his own detriment, but does not renege; (10) One that does not lend his money on interest, (11) nor takes a bribe against the innocent. The doer of these will never falter for eternity.

“Isaiah” by Gustav Doré

David saw that all of the Torah boils down to these 11 principles. But the Talmud doesn’t stop there. The prophet Isaiah “came and reduced them to six.” He taught that it all came down to:

One that (1) walks righteously, and (2) speaks uprightly; one that (3) despises the gain of oppressions, that (4) shakes his hands from holding of bribes, that (5) stops his ears from hearing of blood, and (6) shuts his eyes from looking upon evil. He shall dwell on high… (Isaiah 33:15-16)

From 6 to 1

Along came Isaiah’s contemporary, the prophet Micah, and further reduced the commandments to three! “What does Hashem require of you? Only to act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God…” Apparently, upon hearing this, “Isaiah came again and reduced them to two, as it is written: ‘Thus said Hashem: preserve justice, and do righteousness’” (Isaiah 56:1).

“Amos” by Gustav Doré

Sometime later, the prophet Amos came and was able to reduce the entire Torah to one single principle: “Seek Me and live” (Amos 5:4). The Talmud questions the meaning of this, suggesting that perhaps “seeking God” simply means fulfilling the 613 precepts of His Torah – in which case, we are back to where we started!

The Talmud concludes by telling us that the prophet Habakkuk came along and solved the problem, teaching that the one principle that the entire Torah boils down to is this: tzaddik b’emunato yichyeh, “The righteous shall live by his faith”. It all comes down to knowing without a doubt that there is a God in this universe, and having faith in Him every step of the way. When we fully understand God’s constant, absolute presence in our lives, we will surely live righteously – for how can one ever act unrighteously when they are gripped by God’s perpetual presence?

The Sages teach us that no person sins unless a spirit of folly – a temporary lapse in faith – rests upon him. Of course, if one constantly lacks faith, they will forever succumb to sin. Those who do not know God are doomed to fail. And knowing God is not so simple. The Kotzker Rebbe once beautifully taught that “One who does not see God everywhere, does not see Him anywhere.”

The righteous person is the one who does indeed see God everywhere, who “lives by his faith”, or to translate more accurately, “who lives in his faith”. And what is the purpose of the Torah but to cultivate a deeper understanding of God, and a closer connection to Him? The 613 mitzvot are there to guide us through this journey; to bring us closer to God. And so, the entire Torah can be reduced to this one principle. May we all merit to actualize it.