Tag Archives: Jewish Mysticism

The Intersection of Science and Mysticism

Dear Friends,

Back in February I was invited to speak with Eli Nash on his In Search of More podcast. We discussed everything from Torah and science to Kabbalah, kashrut, conversion, and major issues currently plaguing the Jewish world. See the full interview here: 

Understanding Chabad and 770

770 Eastern Parkway, global headquarters of Chabad

At the start of this week’s parasha, Vayetze, Jacob sees a vision of a Heavenly Ladder and receives a blessing from God. He is told: “you shall break out [u’faratzta] westward and eastward and northward and southward; and through you shall be blessed all the families of the Earth and through your seed.” (Genesis 28:14) The term u’faratzta, translated as “break out” or “gain strength” or “spread out”, is something of a slogan and rallying cry among Chabad Hasidim, who’ve made it their mission to bring Judaism to every corner of the globe, “westward, eastward, northward, southward”. It has further significance for Chabad because the verb faratzta (פרצת) has a numerical value of 770, as if alluding to Chabad headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. It was the seventh and last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), who transformed Chabad from a small Hasidic group into an international phenomenon. What was his vision? Why did he want to put a “Chabad House” within reach of every Jew around the globe? And what does it really have to do with bringing Mashiach and the Final Redemption?

The sixth and seventh Lubavitcher Rebbes.

In 1940, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (1880-1950) arrived in New York City, having fled Warsaw following the Nazi invasion. As the Rebbe was in a wheelchair, he needed an accessible home. A former medical office at 770 Eastern Parkway was the perfect choice, and was purchased for him to live in and to serve as the Chabad main office. His son-in-law (who would become the next Rebbe in 1951) arrived the following year, was put in charge of Chabad’s educational arm, Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, and got some office space on the first floor, too. He would take over the movement in those critical years following the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel. While his predecessors were officially “anti-Zionist”, the new Lubavitcher Rebbe took a different approach, engaging closely with the State and advising its leaders regularly. While he never visited Israel, he actually never left New York at all from the time he became Rebbe. The groundbreaking events that took place in the years before he took on Chabad leadership had an indelible impact on his vision and philosophy. He was convinced that the time for Redemption had arrived, and he made it clear in his very first discourse, Basi l’Gani.

The Rebbe explained that the seventh generation of Chabad had begun, as he was the seventh rebbe since the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), the founder of Chabad. This was comparable to Moses, the seventh generation from Abraham. It was that seventh generation of Moses, the “First Redeemer”, that merited the divine revelation at Mount Sinai. So, too, the Rebbe said, this seventh generation of Chabad would live to see the final divine revelation with Mashiach, the “Final Redeemer”. In his first discourse, the Rebbe made clear that “The spiritual task of the seventh generation is to draw down the Shekhinah truly below…” The Divine Presence must be made manifest in this material world. How is this to be done? The Rebbe said we must remember that “the quality of the seventh of a series is merely that he is seventh to the first” so we must look to the initial mission of the first generation, and finish the job now in the seventh. We must be like the first generation, “like Abraham: arriving in places where nothing was known of Godliness, nothing was known of Judaism, nothing was even known of the alef beit, and while there setting oneself completely aside [to call in God’s Name, as Abraham did].” Torah, mitzvot, and knowledge of God has to be spread as far and wide as possible, u’faratzta!

The Rebbe saw the events of the previous years as being a fulfilment of ancient prophecies about the End of Days, and thus the time was ripe for Redemption. He concluded his discourse like this: “Since we have already experienced all these things, everything now depends only on us—the seventh generation.” Henceforth, his entire mission was centered around bringing that Redemption. A decade later, however, no Redemption had arrived. The Rebbe understood that we must not be doing enough, and need to double down our efforts. In a discourse on Lag b’Omer 1962, the Rebbe explained that we all must be like Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (“Rashbi”, whose mystical teachings we celebrate on Lag b’Omer):

[Rabbi Shimon] did not wait until he saw a problem, and then set out to correct it. Instead, he sought out problems to correct, asking others: “Is there anything that I could rectify?” And when he was told that there was a place which priests avoided because of a question of ritual impurity, he set out to correct the difficulty. Although the question involved impurity contracted from a human corpse—the most serious form of ritual impurity—Rabbi Shimon was able to make the place suitable even for priests. (Likkutei Sichos, Vol. VIII, pg. 131)

The Rebbe explained that Rashbi was not afraid to go to places of great impurity in order to affect spiritual rectifications. Moreover, the Rebbe continued:

Our Sages also quote Rabbi Shimon as saying: “I can acquit every Jew from the attribute of judgement.” Although there are people who have committed undesirable acts, Rabbi Shimon was able to find grounds for their defense… Rabbi Shimon was willing and able to descend to such a low level because he was among “the superior men who are few in number.”

In other words, Rashbi was one of the first “kiruv rabbis” who went out of his way to reach out to wayward and unobservant Jews. He would see every Jew in a positive light, and find a redeeming quality within them. He would find sinners and help them get back on the right path. He could descend even to the lowest places on Earth without fear of being sullied by the impure surroundings. This has become a fundamental of Chabad philosophy, with Chabad emissaries showing unparalleled ahavat Israel and being widely beloved for their non-judgemental attitude and open arms, along with a willingness to connect with all kinds of Jews on every street corner. Finally, the Rebbe concluded:

… the stories about Rabbi Shimon’s conduct serve as a directive for every Jew in later generations. This has been particularly true ever since the teachings of Pnimiyus haTorah [inner mystical dimensions of Torah], the wisdom of Rabbi Shimon, were revealed. Following Rabbi Shimon’s example, it is necessary for us to “spread the wellsprings outward” to join the two ends of the spiritual spectrum… and spread the “water” to the most extreme peripheries. This will prepare the world for the coming of Mashiach, who will likewise join two extremes… the Redemption will come when the outlook of Rabbi Shimon—who stood above the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash—is spread throughout the world. Rabbi Shimon’s teachings must be spread everywhere, even in places which need correction, even in places which are ritually impure…

The Rebbe here was alluding to a well-known story about the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760, founder of Hasidism), who described in a letter how he ascended to Heaven and met Mashiach. When the Baal Shem Tov asked Mashiach when he would come, Mashiach replied that he would come when the Baal Shem Tov’s “wellsprings”, his mystical teachings, would spread worldwide. In this discourse, the Rebbe took things a step further in saying that the wellsprings must spread not only to established Jewish communities around the world or to other receptive audiences, but everywhere, “to the most extreme peripheries”, to the most impure of places.

While the Rebbe had sent emissaries (“shluchim”) to various communities from the very start of his tenure, now he was going to send them even to places of impurity, immorality, and secularism. In 1965, he sent Rabbi Shlomo Cunin to Los Angeles to work specifically with university students, plunging him into the heart of the liberal world at the height of the hippie movement. Four years later, Rabbi Cunin established the first official “Chabad House” at UCLA. In 1972, on his 70th birthday, the Rebbe famously requested a gift from his Hasidim: to open up another 71 Chabad Houses before his 71st birthday! That same year, Rabbi Cunin expanded to UC Berkeley and UC San Diego. The model was quickly replicated around the world, and the rest is history. Today, there are over 5000 Chabad Houses and Chabad institutions in over 100 countries.

While each Chabad institution is really stand-alone and is expected to raise its own funds and manage its own activities, the overall movement is still centrally-run and guided from 770 Eastern Parkway. The headquarters has become something of a shrine and temple of its own. Replicas of the building have been built in other parts of the world, including Jerusalem and Australia. Of course, many within Chabad believe the Rebbe to have been Mashiach (a question we addressed before here), and find proof within the fact that 770 is the value of “Mashiach’s House” (בית משיח), and more support in that the house is in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighbourhood. Some within Chabad believe that when Mashiach comes, 770 will be miraculously transported to Jerusalem. A minority fringe has even associated it with the Third Temple itself!

Replicas of 770 in Melbourne, Australia; and in Kfar Chabad and Jerusalem, Israel

Now, there is no doubt that the Lubavitcher Rebbe was a complete tzadik and did more for kiruv in absolute terms than anyone else in history. Nor is there any doubt that no one has done more to bring the Redemption than he did. It is pretty safe to say that while he was alive, he was probably the “presumptive messiah” of the generation, and it is clear from his own teachings that he hoped himself to be as well. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. The Rebbe delivered a difficult speech in April 1991 where he seemingly “gave up”, and left his Hasidim totally confounded. Elderly and frail, just months before suffering a debilitating stroke that left him unable to speak and partially paralyzed, the tearful Rebbe said:

How is it that the Redemption has not yet been attained? That despite all that has transpired and all that has been done, Mashiach has still not come? What more can I do? I have done all I can to bring the world to truly demand and clamour for the Redemption…The only thing that remains for me to do is to give over the matter to you. Do all that is in your power to achieve this thing—a most sublime and transcendent light that needs to be brought down into our world… I have done all I can. I give it over to you. Do all that you can to bring the righteous redeemer, immediately! I have done my part. From this point on, all is in your hands…

Sadly, the Rebbe passed away three years later. Nonetheless, within Chabad there are still those who believe the Rebbe is somehow Mashiach, despite the fact that he has been gone for nearly three decades. Some go even further and hold him to have some kind of divine status. No one is quite sure how prevalent these beliefs are within Chabad, and whether they are subsiding or actually growing stronger. Some say it is only a vocal tiny minority that continues to believe, while others argue there is definitely a silent majority. This puts Chabad in a precarious position:

On the one hand, Chabad is the most successful Jewish organization of all time, with massive resources and many adherents, with branches all over the world touching just about every Jewish community. (A 2005 survey found that over a million Jews attend a Chabad service at least once a year.) Chabad is an absolute success, and has the potential to become the dominant form of Judaism worldwide.

On the other hand, if the messianic fervour does not dissipate, or if it gets stronger, Chabad risks following in the footsteps of other Jewish messianic sects that ended up splitting into their own religions over time, forever waiting for the “second coming” of their messiah. Much depends on Chabad leadership, and what will happen as the older generation passes on and is replaced by younger idealists. It remains to be seen which of the two possibilities materialize in the coming decades: will Chabad save Judaism, or will it fracture it? As someone who had his bar mitzvah at a Chabad synagogue, was married by a Chabad rabbi (alongside a Bukharian one), prayed with a Chabad minyan for many years, and still occasionally participates in Chabad services, I very much hope that it will be the former.

Mysteries of Fire

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

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

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

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

Three Mystical Substances

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

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

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

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

Six Types of Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Colours of a Flame

The Zohar (III, 33a, Ra’aya Mehemna—note the 33s again!) explains the meaning of the three colours within a flame. A typical flame will mainly have white (or yellow) light, with a black region at its base, around which is a blue flame. The white, black, and blue correspond to the three parts of Scripture: Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim; as well as to the three parts of the Jewish people: Kohen, Levi, and Israel. The Zohar says that the most special flame is the blue flame, which is tekhelet, and represents the Shekhinah. Scientifically, the blue flame is a “complete” flame, meaning it receives plenty of oxygen, whereas a yellow flame is “incomplete” and lacking oxygen. In another place (I, 83b) the Zohar says the three colours of the flame correspond to the three major levels of the soul: the black flame nearest the wick is the lowly nefesh; the white light above is the ruach; and the thin sliver of blue—the most “concealed” of the lights—is the great neshamah. This helps us better understand the verse in Mishlei that “the candle of God is the soul of man” (Proverbs 20:27).

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

Composition of the Universe (Courtesy: NASA)

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

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


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