Does the first chapter of Genesis secretly allude to the major events in the history of mankind? How do the Six Days of Creation parallel the past six thousand years of human civilization? Find out in this class where we review the key developments of history through the lens of Torah, Talmud, and Kabbalah, and take a peek into what’s to come in the long-awaited seventh millennium. Also: does AI have anything to do with the forthcoming Messianic Age?
In this week’s parasha, Yitro, we read the Ten Commandments. The Fifth Commandment is to honour one’s parents which, while certainly important, might seem like it doesn’t really belong in the “Top 10” biggest mitzvot. Can we really place honouring parents in the same category as the prohibitions of murder and adultery? Why is it so high up there?
One good explanation emerges when we consider honouring parents in relation to the Second Commandment: to have no other gods before Hashem, and not make any images or statues of idols. In ancient times, idolatry often went together with ancestor worship. In fact, there is evidence that the Canaanites used to worship their ancestors, alongside a pantheon of gods. So, perhaps the Torah meant to say: you must not have any gods before Hashem, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t honour your parents! Parents certainly shouldn’t be worshipped, but they should be treated with dignity and given an extra measure of respect.
Another explanation comes from a teaching of our Sages that there are three partners in the creation of a human being: father, mother, and God. The child-parent relationship is a mini-metaphor for the human-God relationship. If one cannot properly honour their parents, will they be able to properly honour God? And if one isn’t grateful for their parents bringing them into this world, they probably won’t be too grateful that God did, either.
Of course, some child-parent relationships are very strenuous, making it difficult for children to honour their parents in these cases. While there are definitely exceptions, the same can be said for the human-God relationship, which goes through rocky periods, too, resulting in people getting angry or upset at God for various trials and tribulations He sends their way. In short, developing our ability to appreciate our parents—even in conditions that are less than ideal—is good practice for developing the same approach to God, no matter what He throws our way. (It’s worth recalling Isaac Newton’s words that “Trials are medicines which our gracious and wise Physician gives because we need them; and the proportions, the frequency, and weight of them, to what the case requires. Let us trust His skill and thank Him for the prescription.”)
Going back to the Second Commandment, we are told not to make engravings or images of what “is in the Heavens above, or on the Earth below, or in the waters of the Earth.” (Exodus 20:4) This means it is prohibited to make images of any beings, whether celestial or biological (as animals were often worshipped in pagan religions). In fact, there’s been an issue of depicting lions upon the curtain covering the aron in the synagogue going back centuries. Some Ashkenazi authorities were lenient on this, especially if the image was a lion in profile, but most Sephardic authorities were stringent and forbid such images. This is especially the case in synagogues, since we don’t want it to appear as if people are praying towards these images. That said, we do know that several of the flags of the Twelve Tribes had animals depicted on them (such as the lion on Judah’s flag, the deer on Naftali’s flag, and the snake on Dan’s flag). So, outside of synagogues there isn’t necessarily an issue of having such images.
The biggest problem is depictions of human-like faces. The Ba’al haTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343) comments on the same Exodus verse above that the word temunah (תמונה), “image” has the exact numerical value (501) as partzuf adam (פרצוף אדם), “the face of a human”. Rabbi Ovadia of Sforno (c. 1470-1550) adds that you cannot make such an image “even if you do not mean to use it as an object of worship”! Ultimately, the Shulchan Arukh rules that it is forbidden to make human-like depictions only if the faces protrude, like in statues or embossed engravings (Yoreh De’ah 141). A flat image, like a painting or mural, is okay. The same should apply to photographs today.
Nonetheless, the problem with such likenesses is that they may indeed end up being used for idolatrous purposes, even though they were not produced with that intention. And unfortunately, this is precisely what has happened in some ultra-Orthodox circles today with regards to portraits of rabbis.
Pictures of Rabbis
Having a portrait of a great rabbi on the wall is undoubtedly a nice way to stay inspired and keep the valuable teachings of that rabbi in mind. That said, it is vital to remember that these are just photographs, and nothing else. Some in the ultra-Orthodox world seem to have forgotten this. My wife recently spoke to a woman who told her she doesn’t take off her wig at home because the rabbis hanging on the walls shouldn’t “see” her immodestly. While modesty is commendable, believing that images on a wall have some kind of awareness is not. Such a view is not only irrational, it may well be a complete transgression of the Second Commandment. (I haven’t forgotten the Talmud’s story of Kimchit, who declared that the walls of her house never saw her hair—but that was obviously a metaphorical expression, and not a literal belief in walls being conscious and having a sense of sight.)
Nowadays, one can get a portrait of the so-called “mouser rebbe” (at right), whose image can supposedly drive away mice infestations. The portrait is actually of the Hasidic rebbe Yeshaya “Shayale” Steiner of Kerestir, Hungary (1851-1925). The mouser rebbe “segulah” is really just avodah zarah, believing that a human image has some kind of spiritual or magical power. Besides, I highly doubt that Rabbi Steiner would have appreciated his face being used for pest control.
A much more popular image is that of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, which is plastered just about everywhere nowadays. The Rebbe has become, by far, the most recognizable rabbinic face on the planet. When my wife was pregnant with our first child, a Lubavitcher friend gave her a keychain with the Rebbe’s photo on it, promising that it would help with an easy delivery. What is for some just a keychain has become for others a full-blown amulet! Indeed, for many within Chabad, images of the Rebbe have taken on a life of their own, and are deeply intertwined with promoting Chabad messianism (as explored in an interesting paper here).
Some have a picture of who they believe to be Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on their walls. First of all, Rashbi lived nearly two millennia ago and there are, of course, no authentic representations of his face. (Some cite an absurd legend that because he was wanted by the Romans, they had a “mugshot” of him.) Second of all, Rashbi’s own Zohar says he was especially careful not to make any depictions whatsoever, in light of the Second Commandment (see, for instance, Tikkunei Zohar 121a). Even if the image is seemingly innocent and has no connection to idolatry, Rashbi warned it may eventually lead to idolatry anyway and cause people to falter and sin. Rashbi would certainly not be happy with the supposed “portraits” of him currently hanging on people’s walls.
The Zohar (I, 192a) does suggest that if one wants to better understand the teachings of their master, they can imagine their master’s face in their mind. It could just be that the Zohar is giving a tip or memory aid to help a person recall the teachings of their rabbi. Whatever the case, it has nothing to do with actually making physical depictions of the master’s face, which the Zohar would frown upon. The Zohar here uses Joseph as an example, saying that he would always imagine his father Jacob’s face, and this would inspire and motivate him to excel and succeed. Rabbi portraits should be just that: inspirational and motivational.
The fact that the Zohar connects the notion of “father” with the notion of “rabbi” is not coincidental. After all, the honour accorded to one’s rabbi is often compared to the honour accorded to one’s parent, and there is much discussion in Jewish law regarding who takes priority when it comes to the honour of one over the other. In some cases, like Joseph, a person’s father is their rabbi, too! Either way, we once again see a link between the Second Commandment and the Fifth Commandment.
Fake Portraits of Rabbis
Rashbi’s face is not alone in the fake portrait department; there are numerous other “portraits” of rabbis which are not actually their portraits. The supposed picture of the Baal Shem Tov is actually the Baal Shem of London, Chaim Shmuel Yaakov Falk (1708-1782). He was also known as “Doctor Falckon” and was nearly burned at the stake for sorcery in Germany before fleeing to London! Worse still, the great Rabbi Yakov Emden accused him of being a Shabbatean! The Falk portrait was sketched by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), a Christian artist famous for his portraits of various priests and dignitaries. Somehow, it became confused with the founder of Hasidism, probably because of the “Baal Shem” title.
Meanwhile, the well-known “portrait” of the Alter Rebbe (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, 1745-1812, founder of Chabad) was produced by Boris Schatz (1866-1932), who was only born some five decades after the Alter Rebbe passed away. Schatz was a friend of the Schneersohns. He claimed to have seen a true portrait of the Rebbe in the collection of a Polish count (called Tyszkiewicz in some sources). According to legend, the portrait was drawn by a soldier guarding the Alter Rebbe while he was imprisoned in 1798 (or 1796). Historians seriously doubt the credibility of any of these claims, though Chabad insists that the portrait is authentic. Schatz was primarily a sculptor (which is technically forbidden based on the Second Commandment), and served as the official court sculptor for Prince Ferdinand I of Bulgaria. He later become a prominent Zionist leader, and proposed the creation of a Jewish arts school at the Fifth Zionist Congress in 1905. The following year, he founded the Bezalel Academy of Arts in Jerusalem, still one of Israel’s preeminent art schools today. Schatz’s colleagues from Bezalel later said that Schatz had admitted the Alter Rebbe portrait was a forgery.
And what many people believe to be the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1138-1204) was not the Rambam. For one, the man in the picture has his peyot shaved! (To fix the problem, modern renditions of the portrait add some artificial peyot, of course.) The current image is from the 1800s, based on an earlier work thought to be from the 15th century (see here). Supposedly, that image was based on an authentic engraving of the Rambam, but that’s unlikely considering the Rambam ruled such embossed engravings are forbidden (Mishneh Torah, Avodah Zarah 3:10-11), and the Rambam would not have had his peyot shaved. Some have proposed that the portrait of the Rambam is actually derived from an image of an Arab or Turkic scholar!
In short, to have images of rabbis for inspiration, motivation, or commemoration is totally fine. Anything more than that risks being idolatrous, and may well be a transgression of the Second Commandment. And, please, make sure the rabbi portraits you have are actually portraits of those rabbis!
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?
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!
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.