Tag Archives: Kohen

The Kabbalah of Fingers and Toes

The essay below is an excerpt from the newly-released third volume of Garments of Light, available here (and now on Amazon here). 

In parashat Tzav, we read about the many details of the sacrificial procedures. One of the strange practices described is that Moses took some of the blood of the sacrifices and smeared it on the right ear, the right thumb, and the right toe of the kohanim (Leviticus 8:23). This procedure was later replicated by the kohanim when purifying others (Leviticus 14). What is its significance? One beautiful explanation is given by Rabbeinu Bechaye (1255-1340).

He begins by saying that the universe God created has three domains: the “world of angels”, the “world of spheres”, and the “lower world” which we inhabit. The highest world is mostly spiritual, while our lower world is mostly physical. In between is the cosmos, the “world of spheres”, referring to all the stars and planets. Moses constructed the Mishkan to mirror the three parts of Creation. The inner-most Holy of Holies corresponded to the world of angels; then the Holy space around it to the world of spheres; and the courtyard within the Mishkan to the lower world.

Outlines of the Mishkan, with the inner “Holy of Holies” (Kodesh haKodashim), the antechamber known as “the Holy” (Kodesh), and the outer courtyard (chatzer) with the sacrificial altar.

Similarly, since man is an olam katan, a microcosm of the universe, the human body also has three parts: head, upper body, and lower body. The head corresponds to the highest worlds, and hence this is where divine speech emerges from—speech containing the very powers of Creation, just as God spoke the cosmos into existence. The upper body, containing the heart that gives life to the whole body, corresponds to the world of spheres. Just as the heart is intertwined with the entire body, and circulates blood and nutrients all around, so too is the world of spheres entirely intertwined, with spheres orbiting around other spheres along precise paths in a dance held together by gravity (and other forces). Finally, the lower body from the waist down corresponds to the earthly world, as expected. With this in mind, we can better understand the procedure of the ear, thumb, and toe.

Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that the blood on the ear of the head corresponds to (and rectifies) the world of angels, the blood on the thumb of the upper body corresponds to the world of spheres, and the blood on the toe of the lower body corresponds to the lower world. He also mentions how these correspond to the soul. Recall that there are three major levels to the soul, the lowest being the animalistic nefesh, above it the more spiritual ruach, and the highest being the intellectual neshamah. The nefesh corresponds to the lower body, the ruach to the upper body, and the neshamah is seated in the brain. Thus, the sacrifice is able to atone for the entire soul, and for the entire body, as well as rectifying every aspect of the universe and of God’s Creation.

Souls and Senses

Rabbeinu Bechaye continues further on in his commentary to explain how the fingers are connected to the senses. He states that, of course, every organ and body part has a specific purpose, and nothing in God’s design is superfluous. (Classic case: for decades it was thought that the appendix is useless and an unnecessary “vestigial organ” that can be removed without a second thought. Today we know that the appendix does, in fact, play an important role in the digestive system.) The sense of taste requires the mouth and Rabbeinu Bechaye points out that people typically clean their teeth and mouth with their thumbs or thumb-nails. The sense of smell is in the nose, and people typically clean their nose with their index finger. The sense of touch is associated mostly with our hands, and people tend to feel things and sense textures by using their middle finger (or rubbing something between the thumb and middle finger). The ring finger is commonly used to clean and rub one’s eyes. Finally, the small pinky finger is the right size to clean the ear. In this way, every finger is connected to one of the five senses, and every finger can be used to clean the organ of that particular sense!

Rabbeinu Bechaye stops here, but there is more to be said. Although we typically speak of three main souls (nefesh, ruach, and neshamah), there are two more levels to the soul (sometimes described as the “neshamahs of the neshamah”) called chayah and yechidah. This complete array of five soul-levels further corresponds to the five fingers, and to the five senses. The short thumb is the lowest nefesh. As the lowliest “animal” soul, it sits separately from the other fingers. The nefesh is the one that always remains with the body, while the other parts are able to migrate. We learn, for instance, that when one is asleep the four higher souls can wander, while the nefesh always remains in the body (otherwise the body will not survive). Moreover, the Torah always says the nefesh is contained within the blood, and this is why meat must be drained of all blood before being consumed. We can now better understand why the blood of the sacrifice had to go specifically on the thumb of the person, and not any other finger.

The ruach part of the soul is the most “active”, and is the one that animates a person. Fittingly, it corresponds to the index finger, which is the most active and most-used of the digits. The biggest and longest of the fingers naturally corresponds to the biggest part of the soul, the neshamah. The ring and pinky fingers are the least-used, just as the chayah and yechidah are the loftiest and least accessible. The chayah is associated with one’s aura, the only part of the soul that might be perceived visually, so it neatly fits with the ring finger that is associated with eyes and vision. (The chayah plays an important, albeit subtle, role in the relationships and interactions between people so it is also appropriate that wedding rings are typically worn on this finger!)

The highest level of soul corresponds to the pinky finger and to the sense of hearing. That might explain why Moses’ final song to his people, the climax of his prophecy right before his passing, was Ha’azinu, literally charging the people “to listen”. And it might explain why the most powerful dictum in all of Judaism, the Shema, similarly commands the nation “to hear”. And it might further explain why the Talmud often introduces a new teaching with the words ta shma, “come and hear”. To summarize:

Left and Right

In Jewish thought, the right side is always associated with positivity and Chessed, kindness, while the left side is associated with Din and Gevurah, judgement and restraint. In mystical terms, the right side represents the realm of goodness and holiness, while the left side is commonly referred to as the Sitra Achra, the “other side”, the realm of impurity and evil. Indeed, we find that in many languages and cultures, the right side is associated with goodness and correctness (like being “right” in English) while the left is associated with evil. In Latin, for instance, the word for “left” is sinister! In Hebrew, there is a similar connection between the word “left”, smol, and the wicked angel that embodies evil, Samael. In Russian, something described as being “left” is a fake or a knock-off. Throughout history, being left-handed was perceived as somehow inappropriate, and left-handed people were often forced to use their right hands instead.

This is certainly unnecessary and, needless to say, there is nothing wrong with being left-handed! All humans were endowed with two hands, left and right, and on a mystical level they are simply meant to represent the two sides within Creation. This ties back to the gift of free will, with the hands standing as symbols of our ability to choose. The ultimate choice is whether to believe or not; whether to serve God and fulfil His commands, or not. Our Sages famously declare that “all is in the hands of Heaven [hakol b’yadei shamayim], except the fear of Heaven” (Berakhot 33b), while King Solomon taught that “death and life are in the hand of the tongue”, mavet v’chayim b’yad lashon (Proverbs 18:21). Over and over again, we see the hands used as symbols of choice between good and evil, between right and left, holiness and unholiness. Just as we have the power to use our hands, we have the power to subdue evil and act with goodness and kindness.

Thus, altogether the ten fingers of both hands embody all aspects of Creation. The ancient Sefer haBahir explains that the ten fingers correspond to the Ten Sefirot, as well as the Ten Utterances of Creation (see #124 and 138). Moreover, the Bahir says this is why kohanim have to arrange all ten fingers in that particular shape when blessing the congregation, thereby channeling all Ten Sefirot and activating all aspects of Creation. In later Kabbalistic texts, we are taught that the right thumb and index finger are Keter and Chokhmah, while the left thumb is Binah. The right middle finger is Chessed, the left index finger is Gevurah, the right ring finger is Tiferet, the left middle finger is Hod. The right pinky is Netzach, the left ring finger is Yesod, and the left pinky is Malkhut. The five Sefirot of Keter, Chokhmah, Chessed, Tiferet, and Netzach veer to the right, while the five Sefirot of Binah, Gevurah, Hod, Yesod, and Malkhut veer to the left. (We might learn from this yet another good reason for the common practice of wearing a wedding ring on the left ring finger, since it corresponds to Yesod, the domain of intimacy and reproduction.)

All of this can help us further appreciate the power of netilat yadayim and mayim achronim. The fingers link up to all aspects of our bodies, our senses, our souls, and even the cosmos at large. Thus, when we purify them correctly with life-giving waters, the unseen cosmic effects of these rituals are truly monumental.

What about the feet and toes?

Upper and Lower Worlds

The prophet Isaiah tells us that God created the upper worlds with His hands as He “measured the waters with a hand’s hollow, and established the Heavens with a little finger [zeret].” (Isaiah 40:12) The Earth, meanwhile, is described as God’s “footstool” (Isaiah 66:1). Thus, the hands and the “upper fingers” of the body represent the upper spiritual worlds, while the feet and the “lower fingers” of the body represent the lower material world. Indeed, the Zohar (I, 20b-21a) tells us that when we look at the reflection of the flame on our fingernails during Havdallah, we should meditate upon the higher spiritual worlds that the fingers of the hands represent. (More specifically, just as God told Moses that he could only see God’s “back”, but not His face, so too do we look only at the “backs” of the fingers, the fingernails!)

Interestingly, with this information we may be able to understand—from a mystical perspective—the difference in arrangement of fingers between the hands and the feet. On the hands, the biggest finger is the middle one, corresponding to the neshamah, while on the feet, the biggest finger is the toe, corresponding to nefesh. This further reinforces the notion that in this lower world (represented by the feet), the lower animalistic nefesh dominates. In the upper worlds (represented by the hands), it is the spiritual and lofty neshamah that is supreme. Unlike with the hands, the big digit on the feet is not separated from the rest of the toes—the nefesh seems to enjoy equal status with the other souls! On the hands, though, there is a clear distinction, mirroring the realities of the upper worlds.

Finally, the feet are grounded in the impurities of this lowly world. They are the coarsest parts of the body, and often the filthiest. The generation of Mashiach is compared to the feet, and the time before Mashiach is referred to as ikvot haMashiach, literally the “heels of the Messiah”. Like the feet, the people of this generation tend to be coarse and lowly, materialistic, lacking true spirituality. At the same time, however, the feet are among the strongest parts of the body, and can withstand tremendous weights and pressures. The feet can bear the greatest burdens, and only the feet can move us steadily onwards towards the final destination, the Messianic Age. Most beautifully, in the divine anatomy of the human body each foot contains exactly 26 bones, reminding us that God Himself is carrying us forward, as 26 is the exact numerical value of His Ineffable Name.

Korach and Daniel: What’s the Connection?

This week’s parasha (in the diaspora) is Korach. In a traditional Chumash, at the end of each parasha there is a “Masoretic note” that provides a mnemonic to remember how many verses are in the parasha. This mnemonic is not random, and has a deep significance of its own. The mnemonic for parashat Korach, which has 95 verses, is “Daniel” (דניאל), which has a numerical value of 95. What hidden connection were the Masoretes concealing in this note? What does Korach have to do with Daniel?

“Death of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram” by Gustave Doré

At the heart of Korach’s rebellion was the argument that “all of Israel is holy” (Numbers 16:3). He accused Moses of nepotism and elitism, saying that Moses and his family took over the top positions and placed themselves above the commoners. Rashi comments (on 16:6) that Moses actually agreed with Korach to some extent, and said he also wished that everyone could be on the same spiritual plane. This is why he told Korach and his followers to take their own incense pans and attempt to make an offering like a High Priest. Moses’ defence was that, of course, he was only fulfilling God’s will.

In the absolute sense, Korach’s argument was not wrong, it was just not l’shem shamayim (as our Sages state in Avot 5:17). He was not rebelling for Heaven’s sake, or to truly elevate the people, but for his own glory and ulterior motives. This is why he failed. Truthfully, though, God did intend for all of Israel to be on the same plane—eventually. The Wilderness generation was not yet ready for it, but in time God would lead Israel towards oneness and equality. And when did this happen? Precisely in the time of Daniel!

After the First Temple was destroyed, Israel was exiled to the melting pot that was Babylon. Outside the Holy Land and without a Temple, the kohen had no role, and being a priest became mostly irrelevant. Instead, Babylon saw the rise of the chakham, the Jewish sage. The educated scholars knew how to adapt and what to do, and how to lead the community in exile. Of course, being a chakham was not based on birthright or genealogy, it was entirely based on merit and scholarship. Anyone could be a chakham!

Meanwhile, in a few short generations, the old Israelite tribal affiliations were forgotten. In Babylon, everyone became a Yehudi, simply a Judahite or “Jew”. We read in Megillat Esther that Mordechai was a Benjaminite, yet he is first called an Ish Yehudi before the text mentions that he is an Ish Yemini. His primary identity was that he was a Jew, not a Benjaminite! Mordechai knew his Benjaminite lineage because he was one of the elders and original exiles, but the younger generations that followed quickly forgot their detailed backgrounds. In short, everyone became a Jew (even the priestly Levites!) and everyone now had the potential to be a great chakham and leader, like Mordechai himself.

Mordechai’s contemporary was Daniel, another great sage who made sure to keep Jewish law despite serving the Babylonian government (as we read in the first chapter of the Book of Daniel), and worked tirelessly to ensure Judaism would not be forgotten in exile. In fact, Daniel plays a hidden role in the Megillah, as our Sages identified him with the character called Hatakh (Esther 4:5), palace attendant of Queen Esther (Megillah 15a). Hatakh is the hidden hero in the story, delivering the secret communications between Esther and Mordechai, and helping her confront Haman. There is a beautiful gematria here, too, because Haman (המן) is 95, as is Daniel (דניאל), suggesting numerically that Daniel “neutralized” Haman.

So, it was in the era of Daniel that Korach’s case for an equal Israel was realized. This is the deeper meaning for why parashat Korach has exactly 95 verses, and this is why the Masoretic note reminds us about Daniel at the end of Korach’s parasha.

Shabbat Shalom!

Secrets of the Priestly Blessing

This week’s parasha (in the diaspora) is Nasso, the longest in the Torah. In it, we read how God commanded Moses to instruct Aaron and his priestly descendants to bless the people with the following formula:

יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ. יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ. יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם

Loosely translated: “God bless you and protect you; God shine His Face upon you, and be gracious to you; God lift His Face upon you, and place peace upon you.” (Numbers 6:25-27) This unique, enigmatic phrase carries tremendous meaning, and an interesting history, too. In fact, the oldest Hebrew inscription of a Torah verse ever found is this blessing!

In 1979, archaeologists in Ketef Hinnom near the Old City of Jerusalem discovered two small silver scrolls. After painstakingly unravelling the fragile scrolls (a feat that took three years), they discovered that they were inscribed with Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing, along with a few introductory lines. The scrolls have been dated back to the 7th century BCE, and are considered among the greatest finds in the history of Biblical archaeology.

What secrets are buried within the words of Birkat Kohanim?

Silver scroll with priestly blessing, discovered near Jerusalem in 1979

Restoring Divine Light

In introducing the Priestly Blessing, the Torah commands koh tevarkhu, (כֹּ֥ה תְבָרְכ֖וּ), “thus shall you bless…” The Zohar (III, 146a) reminds us that koh is an allusion to the divine light of Creation. The value of koh (כה) is 25, hinting to the 25th word of the Torah, “light”. When Adam and Eve consumed the Fruit, that original divine light of Creation was concealed. This is the secret behind God calling to Adam: ayekah (איכה), usually translated simply as “where are you?” but really meaning ayeh koh, “where is the divine light?” Indeed, the very purpose of the kohen is to help restore some of that hidden divine light. This is why he is called a kohen!

It is also why it is customary not to look directly at the kohanim when they relay the blessing. The hidden light may be far too intense, and might cause the observer’s eyes to dim (Chagigah 16a). The ancient mystical text Sefer haBahir (#124) adds that the kohanim put together their ten fingers in that unique arrangement in order to channel the energy of all Ten Sefirot. Elsewhere, we learn that the hands of the kohanim come together to roughly form an inner samekh, the only circular letter in the Hebrew alphabet, representing infinite cycles and endless blessings. Sefer haTemunah teaches that the proper shape of a samekh is a combination of a kaf and a vav. (The sum of the values of kaf and vav is 26, equal to the Tetragrammaton, God’s Ineffable Name.) Kaf literally means the “palm” of the hand, and the linear vav represents a shining ray of light.  These are the hidden rays of light, the light of koh, emerging through the hands of the kohanim as they bless.

In his commentary on the Torah, the Ba’al haTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1340) states that koh reminds us also of the Akedah, when Abraham told his attendants that he and Isaac would go ‘ad koh, “until there”. The deeper meaning is that Abraham saw the divine light emanating from the top of Mt. Moriah, the future site of the Holy of Holies. This is how he knew exactly where to bind Isaac. Previously, God had already blessed Abraham with the words כה יהיה זרעך, that his offspring would be luminous (and numerous) like the stars (Genesis 15:5). The Ba’al haTurim adds that the Shema has 25 letters for the same reasons and, amazingly, the term “blessing” is mentioned 25 times in the Torah, as is the word “peace”!

The first line of Birkat Kohanim has three words and fifteen letters, the Ba’al haTurim points out, alluding to the three Patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—whose lives overlapped for 15 years. Recall that Abraham had Isaac when he was 100 years old, and Isaac had Jacob at 60 years old, ie. when Abraham was 160. Since we know Abraham passed away at the age of 175, there were 15 years when all three Avot lived together.

More specifically, the first line of the blessing is for Abraham, the second is for Isaac, and the third is for Jacob. This is why the second line speaks of illumination since, as is well-known, Isaac saw the intensely bright divine light unfiltered at the Akedah, and this is the reason he later became (physically) blind. The Sforno (Rabbi Ovadia ben Yakov Sforno, 1475-1550) adds that within the second line of the blessing is a request for God to give light to our eyes so that we could see God within all things, in all the wonders of the world, and in all the wealth (material and otherwise) that God has blessed us with.

The Ba’al haTurim continues that the third line of Birkat Kohanim is for Jacob, which is why it begins with the word yisa (יִשָּׂ֨א), reminding us of Genesis 29:1 when Jacob fled (וישא יעקב רגליו). It has seven words to indicate the subsequent births of the Twelve Tribes, who were (except for Benjamin) born to Jacob over a span of 7 years. The last line again has 25 letters to remind us of koh, and further alludes to the Sinai Revelation—another burst of divine light—when God said (Exodus 19:3) “thus [koh] you shall speak to the House of Jacob” (כה תאמר לבית יעקב). The Ba’al haTurim concludes that the final word of the blessing, shalom, has the same numerical value as Esau (376) to teach us that one should spread peace among all people, gentiles included, and even Esau!

Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra, 1089-1167) says that “peace” means complete peace, with not even a little stone or a wild animal to bother a person. Meanwhile, the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270) says that “peace” here refers to shalom malkhut beit David, peace upon the kingdom of David and his dynasty. We may infer from this that it refers as well to geopolitical peace in Israel, and a request to hasten the coming of Mashiach. This is related to the Sforno’s interpretation, as he says the verse refers specifically to the World to Come in which, as described in the Talmud (Berakhot 17a), the righteous will bask peacefully in God’s glory.

May we merit to see it soon!

The above essay is an excerpt from Garments of Light, Volume Three.
Get the book here!