Tag Archives: Berakhot (Tractate)

Do the Deaths of the Righteous Atone for the Sins of Others?

‘Nadav and Avihu consumed by fire’ by M de Brunhoff (1904)

In this week’s parasha, Shemini, we read of the sudden death of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron. The Torah states that they brought an incense offering that God “had not commanded them” (Leviticus 10:1) and as a result were consumed in a blaze of fire. The simple meaning here is that they had performed a priestly service that they were not supposed to, or were not worthy of performing, and this is why they were consumed. Rashi brings a number of other opinions as to why they perished: One is that they brazenly “rendered halachic decisions before Moses”. Another is that they had brought the offering while intoxicated, which is why just several verses later the Torah prohibits priests from being inebriated while serving in the Temple (Leviticus 10:9).

The Arizal, in Sha’ar HaGilgulim, brings a number of explanations, too. One is from an older Midrash that Nadav and Avihu refused to get married, believing that no women were worthy to marry them. Based on this, the Arizal states that Nadav reincarnated in Samson (ch. 36). Samson, too, didn’t marry any Jewish girls, and instead married Philistine women that brought him nothing but trouble. This may have been his punishment for refusing to marry a good Jewish girl in a past life. The Arizal adds that because Nadav had served while drunk, Samson was born a nazir, and was forbidden from consuming even a drop of alcohol his entire life. The proof that Samson was a reincarnation of Nadav comes from Scripture, where in one instance (I Samuel 12:11) Samson is actually referred to as “Badan” (בדן). This name is the reverse of Nadav (נדב), hinting to their spiritual connection.

Having said all that, the Arizal gives another reason for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, and in this case not because they were sinful. Instead, he explains that Nadav and Avihu correspond to the sefirot of Netzach and Hod, emerging from the highest level of Adam’s soul (ch. 33). They died to atone for the sins of the nation, and to remove the zuhama, the spiritual impurity that the Serpent (Nachash) in Eden injected into the world. (For a deeper analysis of exactly which sin Nadav and Avihu died for and why, see ‘The Holy Souls of Nadav and Avihu’ in Garments of Light.) This idea predates the Arizal, and is found in the Zohar (III, 56b), which compares Nadav and Avihu to the two goats sacrificed on Yom Kippur. The Zohar states that the two brothers were equal in greatness to the entire Sanhedrin of seventy elders, and their deaths atoned for the sins of Israel.

‘Joshua Burns the Town of Ai’ by Gustave Doré (1866)

The Zohar’s description brings to mind a similar one from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 44a), where the Sages discuss the deaths of 36 Israelites in the Battle of Ai (Joshua 7-8). Recall that Joshua led the Israelites into battle to conquer the Holy Land. The first battle, for the city of Jericho, was a flawless victory, with not a single Israelite casualty. The second battle, however, was initially a defeat, with 36 Israelites losing their lives. While this is certainly a small number in military terms, the fact that there was any casualty at all was a shock for the nation. The Sages state that, in reality, it wasn’t even 36 soldiers, for “surely it was said, ‘about thirty six men’ [Joshua 7:5] which refers to Yair, the son of Menashe, who was equal to the greater part of the Sanhedrin.”

The Sages state that actually just one person was killed in the Battle of Ai, and he was equal to 36 of the 70 wise and righteous elders of the Sanhedrin. They extract this from the words of the Tanakh itself, which states k’shloshim v’shisha ish, literally translated as “like 36 man”. In other words, the casualty of the Battle of Ai was one man likened to 36. The Sages use the same expression elsewhere, in describing Avishai, the nephew of King David (Berakhot 62b):

…“Satan stood up against Israel and stirred up David to number Israel.” [I Chronicles 21:1] And when he did number them, he took no ransom from them and it is written, “So God sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning even to the time appointed.” [I Chronicles 21:14]

… And He said to the Angel that destroyed the people: “It is enough” [I Chronicles 21:16] Rabbi Elazar explained: “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to the Angel: ‘Take a great man among them, through whose death many sins can be expiated for them.’ At that time died Avishai son of Zeruiah, who was equal in worth to the greater part of the Sanhedrin.”

The Torah forbids taking a census of the Jewish people. The only way it is permitted to count Jews is if each person gives some kind of “ransom”, such as a half-shekel coin, and the coins are counted, not the people. In an infamous episode from the Tanakh, Satan enticed David to sin by taking a census without collecting any ransom. As a result, a plague struck the nation, taking the lives of 70,000 people, shiv’im elef ish [I Chronicles 21:14].

Following this, God told the Angel of Destruction to stop by saying rav, “it is enough”. The Sages interpret rav to mean “rabbi”—that God actually told the angel to take the life of one righteous rabbi instead. Again, the Tanakh uses the word ish, as if a single person was killed; one man equal to 70,000. This is a beautiful teaching of the Sages, and transforms what one might read as God’s strict, merciless judgement, into God’s kindness and mercy. Although 70,000 may have deserved to die, God took the life of one righteous man instead to spare all the others.

The fact that such people—Yair, Avishai, Nadav, Avihu—are always compared to a greater part of the Sanhedrin, meaning 36 people, is not a coincidence. As we’ve written before with regards to Chanukah (when we light a total of 36 candles), the number 36 is of huge significance in Judaism.

Greater Than Thirty-Six Tzadikim

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 97b) states:

Abaye said: “The world must contain no less than thirty-six righteous men in each generation who are worthy to receive the Shekhinah, for it is written: ‘Blessed are all they that wait for him’ [Isaiah 30:18]; the numerical value of ‘for him’ [lo, לו] is thirty-six.”

But that is not so, for did not Rava say: “The row [of righteous men] before the Holy One, blessed be He, consists of eighteen thousand, for it is written, ‘It shall be eighteen thousand round about?’” [Ezekiel 48:35] That is no difficulty: the former number [thirty-six] refers to those who see Him through a bright speculum, the latter [eighteen thousand] to those who contemplate Him through a dim one.

In every generation, there must be 36 perfectly righteous people in the world. There are an additional 18,000 very righteous people in each generation. The former can behold the Shekhinah—God’s Divine Presence—clearly, while the latter only dimly. The idea of the 36 righteous people, lamed-vav tzadikim, plays an important role in Judaism, especially in Kabbalistic and Hasidic texts.

The number 36 corresponds to the 36 hours that the Divine Light shone uninterrupted at the start of Creation. It is through this Divine Light that the Tzadikim are able to behold the Shekhinah. And just as this Hidden Light continues to uphold all of Creation, so too are the 36 Tzadikim said to uphold the world, as it is written: “The tzaddik is the foundation of the world” (Proverbs 10:25).

Meanwhile, we know that the Torah, too, is the foundation of the world (see, for example, Avot 1:2). Indeed, we find that there are exactly 36 individual texts in the Tanakh: the Five Books of Moses, nineteen books of Prophets, and 12 Holy Writings. (The 36 texts are usually combined into “24 Books of the Tanakh” for the sake of convenience. So, for example, the “Twelve Minor Prophets” are combined into one book, Trei Asar.) Each of the 36 Tzadikim corresponds to one “hour” of Divine Light, and to one of the Holy Scriptures. As such, they are the 36 pillars of the world. (It just so happens that there are also 36 sins for which the Torah prescribes the death penalty, though we shall leave that discussion for another time.)

From the words of our Sages, we can extract that in addition to these 36, there is one more, even greater individual who is equal to all 36 of them, to the “greater part of the Sanhedrin”. Between the two of them, Nadav and Avihu were greater than the Sanhedrin of seventy elders in their own day, as were Yair and Avishai. And it is such people that, ever so rarely, God chooses to take away to atone for the sins of many others.

The spiritual math is simple: if you have a thousand people, each with a “kilogram” of sin, and one person with 1000 “kilograms” of merit, the merit of the one can be “taken back” in order to neutralize the sins of a thousand. In this way, a great many lives can be spared. The idea makes sense in principle, and a person who is truly the most righteous of his generation would undoubtedly have no problem giving up his or her own life to save a multitude of others.

And yet, the idea is sometimes hard for modern Jews to digest because it has been hijacked, abused, and taken to an illogical extreme by Christians.

The Death of the Messiah

All of Christianity rests on the idea that Jesus, the supposed messiah, died for the sins of the world. We have already addressed the issues with Christianity on several occasions (see here, here, and here) so there is no need to do that again. What needs to be understood is where the idea comes from, and what it originally meant. The Talmud (Sukkah 52a) records the following:

What is the cause of the mourning [at the End of Days, as described in Zechariah 12:12]? Rabbi Dosa and the other Rabbis differ on the point. One explained: “The cause is the slaying of Mashiach ben Yosef” and the other explained: “The cause is the slaying of the Evil Inclination.” It is well according to him who explains that the cause is the slaying of Mashiach ben Yosef, since that agrees with the Scriptural verse, “And they shall look upon Me because they have thrust him through, and they shall mourn for him as one mourns for his only son” [Zechariah 12:10]. But according to him who explains the cause to be the slaying of the Evil Inclination, is this an occasion for mourning? Is it not rather an occasion for rejoicing? Why then should they weep?

Rav Yehudah explained: “In the time to come, the Holy One, blessed be He, will bring the Evil Inclination and slay it in the presence of the righteous and the wicked. To the righteous it will have the appearance of a towering hill, and to the wicked it will have the appearance of a hair thread. Both the former and the latter will weep; the righteous will weep saying, ‘How were we able to overcome such a towering hill!’ The wicked also will weep saying, ‘How is it that we were unable to conquer this hair thread!’ And the Holy One, blessed be He, will also marvel together with them, as it is said, ‘Thus says the Lord of Hosts: If it be marvellous in the eyes of the remnant of this people in those days, it shall also be marvellous in My eyes.’” [Zechariah 8:6]

First, we must remember that according to tradition there are two messiahs (or possibly one messiah in two phases): Mashiach ben Yosef, and then Mashiach ben David. The former dies amidst the great battles of the End of Days. For this, the people at that time will mourn. Zechariah describes a great mourning like no other, with all the families of Israel in tears. This is enough to debunk Jesus’ identification with Mashiach ben Yosef: Jesus did not die in battle, and was not mourned by all of Israel (quite the contrary). The fact that Jesus’ “father” was named Joseph means nothing, for Jesus supposedly did not have an earthly father anyway.

Now, the more important event that will happen at that same time, with the death of Mashiach ben Yosef, is the destruction of the Evil Inclination. This is, after all, the very purpose of having an “End of Days” to begin with: to destroy evil for good and usher in a perfect world. When Evil will be crushed, the people will weep. As our Sages explain, those who overcame evil and did good will weep because they will be amazed at how they were able to conquer the great temptations, while those who were evil will weep because they will realize how weak they were in falling to mere temptation. Again, Jesus’ death did not end Evil on Earth. On the contrary, one might argue that even more horrible evils were done since then, many of which were done, ironically, in the name of Jesus!

Finally, the Talmud goes on to say what will happen to Mashiach ben Yosef next:

Our Rabbis taught: The Holy One, blessed be He, will say to Mashiach ben David (may he reveal himself speedily in our days!), “Ask of me anything, and I will give it to you,” as it is said, “I will tell of the decree… this day have I begotten you, ask of me and I will give the nations for your inheritance.” [Psalms 2:7-8] But when he will see that Mashiach ben Yosef is slain, he will say to Him: “Master of the Universe, I ask of You only the gift of life.” He would answer him: “As to life, your father David has already prophesied this concerning you, as it is said, ‘He asked life from You, You gave it to him…’” [Psalms 21:5]

After his death, Mashiach ben David requests of God to bring Mashiach ben Yosef back to life. It is important to remember that this is followed by a Resurrection of the Dead of all righteous souls, not just the messiah’s. From the wording of the Talmud, we might conclude that there is indeed just one messiah: Mashiach ben Yosef dies and is resurrected as Mashiach ben David. (We can extract this from the fact that ben David seems to be asking for life for himself, and God replies that it had already been granted to you.)

In the case of Jesus, he was apparently resurrected, but then supposedly ascended to Heaven, and hasn’t been heard from in two millennia. This is not how prophecy describes the coming of Mashiach. He is supposed to come once, at the End of Days, and needs no “second coming”. He comes once, and then reigns on Earth as king of Israel. Nowhere does it state that he will come and disappear for any long duration of time. He comes once, fights great battles that engulf the whole world (as described in detail by Ezekiel and Zechariah, among other prophets), dies for the sins of Israel specifically, and to destroy Evil once and for all (similar to the way the Arizal describes the deaths of Nadav and Avihu served to remove the zuhama), is mourned by all of Israel, and is then resurrected, finishes the great wars, brings peace to the world, reigns as king of Israel, regathers the Jews to the Holy Land, rebuilds the Temple, facilitates a Resurrection of the Dead, and completes his task once a perfect world is re-established.

There is no more need for him after that. He is not a god, and is never described as such. He is not supposed to be prayed to, or worshipped. He is a man. And although Scripture describes him as a child of God (as in the Psalm above), it clearly describes all of Israel as children of God (as in Deuteronomy 14:1, for example).

To summarize, the concept of unique righteous people dying to atone for the sins of others is an ancient Jewish one, and a valid one. Christians adopted it, to an extreme (ie. not to a specific generation of Jews, but for all mankind for all time), to describe Jesus. This is not surprising, for as we’ve written before, the character of Jesus was carefully constructed from Jewish texts, both Scriptural and extra-Scriptural. This is how some Jews unfortunately succumb to Christian missionaries who bring “proof” from Jewish texts. These prove nothing but the eventual coming of the true messiah—may we merit to see him soon.

How the Priestly Garments Atoned for the People

Priests in the Temple (Courtesy: Temple Institute)

This week’s parasha, Pekudei, describes how the Mishkan and all of its vessels were created, together with the special priestly garments. The parasha ends with the formal initiation of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood through their ritual purification, anointment, and donning of the sacred vestments. Our Sages famously state (Zevachim 88b) that the vestments of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, atoned for the sins of the people:

The tunic atoned for bloodshed… the breeches atoned for lewdness… the turban made atonement for arrogance… the belt atoned for [impure] meditations of the heart… the breastplate atoned for neglect of civil laws… the apron atoned for idolatry… the cloak atoned for slander… and the crown, worn on the forehead, atoned for brazenness.

The tunic (kutonet) was a simple white garment worn over the body which all of the priests (not only the High Priest) wore. The Talmud says it atoned for bloodshed, and proves it through a gzerah shavah, a form of interpretation where the exact same word (or root of a word) appears in two different contexts, thus allowing a connection between the two to be made. In Genesis 37:31 we read how, following the sale of Joseph, his brothers slaughtered a goat and dipped Joseph’s special robe in the goat’s blood. They used the bloodied robe as proof to show their father Jacob that Joseph had been murdered or devoured by an animal. The word used for Joseph’s robe is kutonet, too, that same word used for the Kohen’s garment. From this we can learn that the kutonet atoned for bloodshed.

The breeches (michnasei bad) were white pants worn to cover up the lower half of the body, and atoned for sexual immorality. The Talmud proves it from an explicit verse in the Torah (Exodus 28:42) where God commanded that the pants be made “to cover up the flesh of their nakedness”. The Hebrew term here is precisely the one used to denote sexual indecency (‘ervah, or gilui arayot).

The white turban (mitznefet) atones for arrogance. Rabbi Hanina explains here that the turban was worn on the head at the very top of the body, and thus atoned for people who similarly put themselves “at the head” above other people.

The last of the four garments worn by the regular priest is the avnet, a sash or belt. Made of red, blue, and purple wool, it was the only multi-coloured garment worn by the regular priest. It atoned for impure thoughts, and the Talmud says we know this from the fact that the sash was worn tied around the heart. Contrary to what we may expect, this was not a belt to hold up the pants, but rather an independent garment wrapped around the upper body.

In Jewish thought, the heart is the seat of the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, which tries to make a person sin by throwing improper thoughts into their head. The heart is also the seat of the yetzer hatov, the good inclination. These two opposing forces both reside in one’s heart. Because of this, the term for “heart” used in the daily Shema is levavecha, and not the more grammatically consistent libecha. The former has an extra letter beit, the doubled language alluding to the two inclinations in the heart.

Our Sages teach that one should always keep their mind above their heart, in full control of their inclinations. The brain should dominate the heart, and the heart should dominate the liver. The Hebrew word for liver, kaved (כבד), is directly related to kavod (כבוד), “honour”. Thus, the liver is the source of pride and arrogance. These organs are arranged physiologically in the body the way they are to teach us a lesson: the brain (or intellect) should be on top, then the emotions of the heart below it, and the ego at the very bottom.

If one accomplishes this, with their brain, moach (מוח) in Hebrew, being above their heart, lev (לב), and their heart being above their liver, kaved (כבד)—then they become a melekh (מלך), “king”. If the letters are reversed, where one’s honour trumps their emotions, which in turn overrule their reasoning, then they are klum (כלם), “nothing”.

The Four Garments of the High Priest

Garments of the regular priest and the high priest (Courtesy: Temple Institute)

The High Priest wore an additional four unique garments. On his forehead was the golden plate known as the tzitz, which atoned for brazenness. This is proven by another gzerah shavah between Exodus 28:38, which commands the priest to wear the plate upon his metzach, “forehead”, and Jeremiah 3:3 which speaks of the brazen “forehead” (again metzach) of a licentious woman.

On top of the regular white tunic, the High Priest wore a meil, a “coat” made entirely of fine blue (tekhelet) wool. The coat atoned for lashon hara, evil speech. Since the Torah states that the coat had bells along its bottom, which jingled as the Kohen walked, Rabbi Hanina explains: “Let an article of sound come and atone for an offence of sound.”

Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh points out that the term for bell, pa’amon (פעמן) refers to something that resonates, and the same root is used, for example, in describing how the Spirit of God resonated within—l’fa’amo (לפעמו)—the Biblical judge Samson (Judges 13:25). Rav Ginsburgh beautifully notes how the gematria of “Spirit of God” (רוח ה׳) is 240, equal to that of pa’amon (פעמן). It is also equal to meil ha’ephod (מעיל האפד), the full title of the garment, as in Exodus 29:5 or 39:22. He concludes that if one wishes to have the Spirit of God rest upon them, the key is to refrain from any evil speech.

The ephod, or apron, atoned for idolatry. This is derived from Hosea 3:4: “For the children of Israel shall sit solitary many days without king, and without prince, and without sacrifice, and without pillar, and without ephod or teraphim.” The verse is taken to mean that where there is no ephod, there will be teraphim—various implements of idol worship. The word “teraphim” appears multiple times in the Tanakh (as in Genesis 31:19 and Judges 17:5), nearly always in relation to idolatry.

Upon the ephod was the famous choshen, the breastplate that, according to tradition, allowed for communication with the Heavens. The breastplate atoned for violations of dinin, civil law. We know this from the fact that the Torah calls the breastplate choshen mishpat (Exodus 28:15), literally “breastplate of judgement”, with the term mishpat typically referring to court cases and civil law (whereas chukim and edot refer to religious-based, historical, or ritual laws).

In this way, even the very clothes of the Kohen helped him fulfill his main duty of bringing atonement for the people. Yet, in the past two thousand years, there has been no Temple and no priestly service. Might there be something in its stead?

Every Jew is a Priest

When the Temple was destroyed, our Sages instituted a number of practices in place of those Temple rituals. They declared that “as long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel, but now a man’s table atones for him” (Berakhot 55a). Just as the priests would wash their hands in a special basin before starting their services (and before eating terumah), the Rabbis instituted netilat yadayim, the ritual washing of the hands before starting a meal. Just as the sacrificial meat was required to be brought with salt, it became customary to dip the bread in salt before eating it. In place of the Temple menorah we have the Chanukah menorah, and in place of the Temple showbread we have two challahs, each traditionally braided with six strands to represent the twelve loaves once displayed in the Temple.

In many ways, the Talmudic sages and rabbis saw themselves filling the role once held by the ancient priests. More importantly, they taught that every righteous Jew should see himself as a priest. After all, God intended for all of Israel to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). In fact, many commentaries agree that it is only because of the Golden Calf incident that the tribe of Levi was appointed to take over the priesthood. Were it not for that tragedy, every firstborn male would be a priest, and any other Jewish male could voluntarily enter the priesthood. To this effect, the Talmud (Bava Kamma 38a) goes so far as to state that “even a non-Jew who occupies himself with Torah is comparable to the High Priest.” A person who lives in Torah and refines himself to the highest degree is likened to the greatest of priests, at least in a spiritual sense.

In a wonderful affirmation of this, we see that every Torah-observing Jewish man is wearing “holy garments” that parallel the priestly vestments. Everyone generally wears a shirt and pants with a belt, along with their head-covering, corresponding to the four vestments of the regular priest (kutonet, michnasei bad, avnet, mitznefet). And there are four additional special items that a Jew wears that parallel those unique garments of the High Priest:

The “bells” along the hem of the tallit.

The tzitz headplate worn on the top of the forehead is like the head tefillin worn “between the eyes”, while the choshen breastplate worn over the heart is like the arm tefillin which is supposed to be worn in line with the heart. The ephod that was worn over the shoulders and stretched down below the waist is like the tzitzit katan garment worn over the shoulders with its fringes hanging down below the waist. The woolen tallit with which we wrap ourselves, with its customary blue stripes to remember tekhelet, is like the special blue meil that was made of fine tekhelet wool. And just as the meil had pa’amonim bells along its hem, the tallit, too, customarily has bell-like knots along its hem.

In this way, every Jew has the ability to elevate to a priest-like status, especially in lieu of a Temple, and in light of the Torah’s statement that all of Israel is a “nation of priests” (Exodus 19:6). Each Jew can bring about atonement, not only for himself but for his people as a whole, and each Jew can spread evermore divine light into the world.

How Esau Became Rome

In this week’s parasha, Toldot, we are introduced to the twin sons of Isaac: Jacob and Esau. The Torah tells us that the boys grew up and Esau became a “man of the field” while Jacob was “an innocent man sitting in tents” (Genesis 25:27). In rabbinic literature, Esau takes on a very negative aura. Although the Torah doesn’t really portray him as such a bad guy, extra-Biblical texts depict him as the worst kind of person.

A 1728 Illustration of Esau selling his birthright.

Take, for instance, the first interaction between Jacob and Esau that the Torah relates. Esau comes back from the field extremely tired. At that moment, Jacob is cooking a stew. Esau asks his brother for some food, and Jacob demands in exchange that Esau give up his birthright (ie. his status as firstborn, and the privileges that come with that). Esau agrees because “behold, I am going to die” (Genesis 25:32). The plain text of the Torah makes it seem like Jacob took advantage of Esau’s near-fatal weariness and tricked him into selling his birthright. This is later confirmed when Esau says that Jacob had deceived him (Genesis 27:36), implying that Esau never really wished to rid of it.

Yet, the Torah commentaries appear to flip the story upside down. When Esau comes back from the field exhausted, it isn’t because he just returned from a difficult hunt, but rather because, as Rashi comments, he had just come back from committing murder! When Esau says “I am going to die”, it isn’t because he was on the verge of death at that moment, but because he didn’t care about the birthright at all, choosing to live by the old adage of “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”. This is a very different perspective on the same narrative.

Another example is when, many years later, Jacob returns to the Holy Land and Esau comes to meet him. Jacob assumes Esau wants to kill him, and prepares for battle. Instead, Esau genuinely seems to have missed his brother, and runs towards him, “embracing him, falling upon his neck, and kissing him” (Genesis 33:4). Again, some of the commentaries turn these words upside down, saying that Esau didn’t really lovingly kiss his brother, but actually bit him! Rashi’s commentary on this verse cites both versions. He concludes by citing Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in stating that although Esau, as a rule, hates Jacob, at that moment he really did love his brother.

So, how bad was Esau really?

Seeing the Good in Esau

Occasionally, we read about Esau’s good qualities. The Midrash (Devarim Rabbah 1:15) famously states that no one honoured their parents better than Esau did. This is clear from a simple reading of the Torah, too, where Esau is always standing by to fulfil his parents’ wishes. For instance, as soon as he learns that his parents are unhappy with his choice of wives, he immediately goes off to marry someone they might approve of (Genesis 28:8-9).

We should be asking why his parents didn’t simply tell him from the start that his original wives were no good? Why did they allow him to marry them in the first place? If Esau really was the person who most honours his parents, he would have surely listened to them! We may learn from this that Esau’s parents didn’t put too much effort into him. It’s almost like Rebecca gave up on her son from the moment she heard the prophecy about the twins in her belly. The Torah says as much when it states, right after the birth of the twins, that “Isaac loved Esau because his game-meat was in his mouth, but Rebecca loved Jacob.” (Genesis 25:28) Rebecca showed affection to Jacob alone, while Isaac’s love for Esau was apparently conditional. Of course, children always feel their parents’ inner sentiments, and there is no doubt Esau felt his parents’ lack of concern for him. Is it any wonder he tried so hard to please them?

From this perspective, one starts to feel a great deal of pity for Esau. How can anyone read Esau’s heartfelt words after being tricked out of his blessing and not be filled with empathy?:

When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried out a great and bitter cry, and he said to his father, “Bless me, too, O my father! …Do you not have a blessing left for me?” (Genesis 27:34-36)

Esau was handed a bad deal right from the start. He was born different, not just in appearance, but with a serious life challenge. He was gifted (or cursed) with a particularly strong yetzer hara, from birth. His fate was already foretold, and his parents believed it. They invested little into him. And it seems all he ever wanted was to make them proud.

Incidentally, this is one of the major problems with fortune-telling, and why the Torah is so adamant about not consulting any kind of psychic. The psychic’s words, even if entirely wrong, will shape the person’s views. It is very much like the Talmud’s statement (Berakhot 55b) that a dream is fulfilled according to how it is interpreted. A person believes the interpreter, and inadvertently brings about that interpretation upon themselves. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Who knows what might have happened if Rebecca never bothered to consult a prophet about her pregnancy? After all, Jewish tradition is clear on the fact that negative prophecies do not have to come true. God relays such a prophecy in order to inspire people to change, and thus avert the negative decree. Such was precisely the case with Jonah and his prophecy regarding Nineveh. The people heard the warning, repented, and the prophecy was averted.

Perhaps this is what Isaac and Rebecca should have done. Instead of giving up on Esau, they should have worked extra hard to guide him in the right direction. (Isaac indirectly did the opposite, motivating his son’s hunting since he loved the “game-meat in his mouth”.) The Sages affirm that Esau was not a lost case, and state that had Jacob allowed his daughter Dinah to marry Esau, she would have reformed him (see, for example, Beresheet Rabbah 76:9).

At the end, Jacob returns to the Holy Land and, instead of the war with Esau that he was expecting, his brother welcomes him back with open arms. He weeps, and genuinely misses him. Esau has forgiven his brother, yet again, and buries the past. He hopes to live with his brother in peace henceforth, and invites him to live together in Seir. Esau offers to safely escort Jacob and his family. Jacob rejects the offer, and tells Esau to go along and he will join him later (Genesis 33:14). This never happens. Jacob has no intention to live with Esau, and as soon as his brother leaves, Jacob a completely different course. Esau is tricked one last time.

We only hear about Esau once more in the Torah. When Isaac dies, Esau is there to give his father a proper burial (Genesis 35:29). In fact, the Book of Jubilees, which doesn’t portray Esau too kindly either, nonetheless suggests that Esau had repented at the end of his life. There we read that it was his sons that turned evil, and even coerced him into wrongdoing (37:1-5). In Jubilees, Esau tells his parents that he has no interest in killing Jacob, and loves his brother wholeheartedly, more than anyone else (35:22). He admits that Jacob is the one that deserves the birthright, and a double portion as the assumed firstborn (36:12).

The Torah never tells us what ends up happening to Esau. The Midrash states that he was still there when Jacob’s sons came to bury their father in the Cave of the Patriarchs. Esau tried to stop them, at which point Jacob’s deaf grandson Hushim decapitated him. (A slightly different version is found in the Talmud as well, Sotah 13a.) Esau’s head rolled down into the Cave of the Patriarchs, while the rest of his body was buried elsewhere. Perhaps what this is meant to teach us is that while Esau’s body was indeed mired in sin, his head was completely sound, and he certainly had the potential to be a righteous man—maybe even one of the forefathers, hence his partial burial in the Cave of the Patriarchs.

At the end of the day, Esau is not so much a villain as he is a tragically failed hero.

Why Did Esau Become so Evil?

Esau meets Jacob, by Charles Foster (1897)

As we’ve seen, the Torah itself doesn’t portray Esau as such a bad person. Conversely, one of the 613 mitzvot is “not to despise an Edomite, for he is your brother.” (Deuteronomy 23:8) The Torah reminds us that the children of Israel and the children of Esau (known as Edomites) are siblings, and should treat each other as such.

Nearly a millennium later, the prophet Malachi—generally considered the last prophet and, according to one tradition, identified with Ezra the Scribe—says (Malachi 1:2-3):

“I have loved you,” says Hashem, “Yet you say: ‘How have You loved us?’ Was not Esau a brother to Jacob?” says Hashem, “yet I loved Jacob, but Esau I hated…”

The text goes on to differentiate between Israel and Edom, stating that while Israel will be restored, Edom will be permanently extinguished. We have seen this prophecy fulfilled in history; Israel is still here, of course, while Edom has long disappeared from the historical record. Jacob’s descendants continue to thrive, while Esau’s are long gone.

By the times of the Talmud, there were no real Edomites left, so the Sages began to associate Edom with a new entity: the Roman Empire. The Sages certainly didn’t believe that the Romans were the direct genetic descendants of Esau, but rather that they were their spiritual heirs. Why did the Sages make this connection?

I believe the answers lies with King Herod the Great.

Recall that approximately two thousand years ago Herod ruled as the Roman-approved puppet king of Judea. He was a tremendous tyrant, and is vilified in both Jewish and Christian tradition. The Talmud (Bava Batra 3b-4a) relates how Herod slaughtered all the rabbis in his day, leaving only Bava ben Buta, whom he had blinded. Later, Herod had an exchange with Bava and realized how wise the rabbis were:

Herod then said: “I am Herod. Had I known that the Rabbis were so circumspect, I should not have killed them. Now tell me what amends I can make.”

Bava ben Buta replied: “As you have extinguished the light of the world, [for so the Torah Sages are called] as it is written, ‘For the commandment is a light and the Torah a lamp’ (Proverbs 6:23), go now and attend to the light of the world [which is the Temple] as it is written, ‘And all the nations become enlightened by it.’” (Isaiah 2:2)

A model of Herod’s version of the Second Temple in Jerusalem

Herod did just that, and renovated the Temple to be the most beautiful building of all time, according to the Talmud. It wouldn’t last long, as that same Temple would be destroyed by his Roman overlords within about a century.

What many forget is that Herod was not a native Jew, but an Idumean. And “Idumea” was simply the Roman name for Edom. Herod was a real, red-blooded Edomite. (Though it should be noted that the Idumeans had loosely, or perhaps forcibly, converted to Judaism in the time of the Hasmoneans.) Herod took over the Jewish monarchy, and began the horrible persecutions that the Roman Empire—of which he was a part—was all too happy to continue. It seems quite likely, therefore, that the association between Edom and Rome began at that point. The people resented that Roman-Edomite tyrant Herod that persecuted them so harshly.

Henceforth, it was easy for the Sages to spill their wrath upon Edom, and their progenitor Esau. Esau became a symbol of the Roman oppressor. “Esau” and “Edom” were code words, used for speaking disparagingly about Rome to avoid alarming the authorities. Indeed, when the Sages speak about the evils of Esau, they are often really referring to the evils of the Roman Empire. It is therefore not surprising that Esau becomes possibly the most reviled figure in the Torah—as the Romans were unquestionably the most reviled entity in Talmudic times.

Before Rome had collapsed, it had adopted Christianity as a state religion. The seat of Christianity would remain in Rome forever after. The Bishop of Rome, ie. the pope, would soon become Europe’s most powerful figure. Thus, when the Roman Empire itself collapsed, the Jews of the time saw the entire European-Christian world that arose in its place as Esau. 

There is a great deal of irony here: The mighty Roman Empire that so violently suppressed the Jews and their Torah soon adopted a quasi-Jewish cult as the state religion, and worshipped a Jewish man from Judea (Jesus) as their god! Christians would go on to push a “replacement theology”: that they are the new “Israel”, that God had abandoned the Jews in favour of Christians, and that the New Testament supersedes the “Old Testament”. In some ways, this is little more than Esau trying to take his old birthright back!

It is interesting to see that just as Esau teetered back and forth between loving Jacob wholeheartedly and wanting to exterminate him, Christian history displays much the same love-hate relationship with the Jews. There were times when the two happily coexisted side-by-side, and times that were the exact opposite. We see the same today, when there are Christian groups that are some of Israel’s biggest supporters and the staunchest opponents of anti-Semitism, and at the same time, other Christian groups that are some of Israel’s staunchest opponents and the biggest supporters of anti-Semitism. As a whole, Christians really do look like the spiritual descendants of Esau.

And “Is not Esau a brother to Jacob?” God asks (Malachi 1:2). From a religious perspective, Jacob and Esau are undeniably brothers, for Christianity emerged out of Judaism, and believes in the same ancient origins, texts, and traditions. So why does God “hate Esau” (Malachi 1:3)? Maybe He hates that Esau who is obsessed with converting Jews, or falsely accusing them of all sorts of horrible things, or constantly persecuting them; that Esau who simply won’t leave Jacob alone to “sit in his tents”.

Martin Buber once summarized the difference between Jews and Christians as such:

…to the Christian, the Jew is the incomprehensibly obdurate man who declines to see what has happened; and to the Jew, the Christian is the incomprehensibly daring man who affirms in an unredeemed world that its redemption has been accomplished. This is a gulf which no human power can bridge.

Hopefully the true Mashiach will soon come to bridge that gulf, and Esau and Jacob will finally reunite as old brothers.

The Origins and Kabbalah of Kaddish

This week’s parasha begins with the passing of Sarah, the first Matriarch. We read how Abraham “eulogized Sarah and bewailed her” (Genesis 23:2). Today, the ritual most associated with Jewish death and mourning is undoubtedly the recitation of Kaddish. This has become one of those quintessentially Jewish things that all Jews—regardless of background, denomination, or religious level—tend to be very careful about. It is quite common to see people who otherwise never come to the synagogue to show up regularly when a parent or spouse dies, only to never be seen again as soon as the mourning period is over. Kaddish has become so prevalent that it has gone mainstream, featured in film and on TV (as in Rocky III and in the popular Rugrats cartoon), on stage (in Angels in America and Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony no. 3), and in literature (with bestselling novels like Kaddish in Dublin, and Kaddish For an Unborn Child).

 

Sylvester Stallone, as Rocky Balboa, recites Kaddish for his beloved coach and mentor. 

And yet, the origins of Kaddish are entirely clouded in mystery. It isn’t mentioned in the Tanakh, nor is there any discussion of reciting Kaddish for the dead in the Mishnah or Talmud. Even in the Rambam’s monumental Jewish legal code, the Mishneh Torah—just over 800 years old—there is no discussion of a Mourner’s Kaddish. Where did it come from?

Praying for Redemption

The Talmud refers to Kaddish in a number of places (such as Berakhot 3a, for example), though not in association with mourning the dead. Around the same time, we see a prayer very similar to Kaddish in the New Testament (Matthew 6:9-13), which has since become known as the “Lord’s Prayer” among Christians. This suggests that Kaddish existed before the schism between Judaism and Christianity, and this is one reason scholars date the composition of Kaddish to the late Second Temple era.

Many believe that it was composed in response to Roman persecution. The text of the Kaddish makes it clear from the very beginning that it is a request for God to speedily bring about His great salvation. It certainly makes sense that such a prayer would be composed in those difficult Roman times. In fact, the first words of Kaddish are based on Ezekiel 38:23, in the midst of the Prophet’s description of the End of Days (the famous “Gog u’Magog”), where God says v’itgadalti v’itkadashti. The Sages hoped the travails they were struggling through were the last “birth pangs” of the End Times.

In Why We Pray What We Pray, Barry Freundel argues that Kaddish was originally recited at the end of a lecture or a Torah learning session—as continues to be done today. It likely came at a time when public Torah learning or preaching was forbidden, as we know was the case in the time of Rabbi Akiva. So, the Sages ended their secret learning sessions with a prayer hoping that the Redemption would soon come, and they would once more be able to safely preach in public.

If that’s the case, how did Kaddish become associated with mourning the dead?

The Mourner’s Kaddish

Freundel points out that the earliest connection between Kaddish and the souls of the dead is from the Heikhalot texts. These are the most ancient works of Jewish mystical literature, going as far back as the early post-Second Temple era. (Scholars date the earliest texts to the 3rd century CE). One of these texts reads:

In the future, the Holy One, blessed be He, will reveal the depths of Torah to Israel… and David will recite a song before God, and the righteous will respond after him: “Amen, yehe sheme rabba mevorach l’olam u’l’olmei olmaya itbarach” from the midst of the Garden of Eden. And the sinners of Israel will answer “Amen” from Gehinnom.

Immediately, God says to the angels: “Who are these that answer ‘Amen’ from Gehinnom?” [The angels] say before Him: “Master of the Universe, these are the sinners of Israel who, even though they are in great distress, they strengthen themselves and say ‘Amen’ before You.” Immediately, God says to the angels: “Open for them the gates of the Garden of Eden, so that they can come and sing before Me…”

The Heikhalot connect Kaddish (specifically its central verse, “May His great Name be blessed forever and for all eternity…”) to a Heavenly prayer that will be recited at the End of Days, when the souls in Gehinnom will finally have reprieve. We can already start to see how this might relate to mourning, or spiritually assisting, the recently deceased.

This is related to another well-known story that is by far the most-oft used as the origin of Kaddish. In this narrative, a certain great sage—usually Rabbi Akiva, but sometimes Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai—sees a person covered in ash and struggling with piles of lumber. The poor person explains that he is actually dead, and his eternal punishment (reminiscent of popular Greek mythology) is to forever gather wood, only to be burned in the flames of that wood, and to repeat it all over again. The Sage asks if there is anything he could do to help, to which the dead man replies that if only his son would say a particular prayer, he would be relieved of his eternal torment.

The nature of that prayer varies from one story to the next. In some, it is the Shema, in others it is Barchu, and in others it is a reading of the Haftarah (see, for example, Kallah Rabbati 2, Machzor Vitry 144, Zohar Hadash on Acharei Mot, and Tanna d’Vei Eliyahu Zuta 17). It is only in later versions of the story that the prayer the son must say is Kaddish. Whatever the case, between the Heikhalot texts, and these Midrashic accounts, we now have a firm connection linking Kaddish with the deceased.

I believe there is one more significant (yet overlooked) source to point out:

The most important part of the Kaddish is undoubtedly the verse yehe sheme rabba mevorach l’olam u’l’olmei olmaya. As we saw in the Heikhalot above, this is the part that especially arouses God’s mercy. The Talmud (Berakhot 3a) agrees when it says essentially the same thing about the entire congregation reciting aloud “yehe sheme hagadol mevorach”. These special words are based on several Scriptural verses, such as Psalm 113:2 and Daniel 2:20. It also appears in Job 1:21.

Here, Job suffers the death of all of his children. Upon hearing the tragic news, he famously says: “…naked I came out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” In Hebrew it reads: Adonai natan, v’Adonai lakach, yehi shem Adonai mevorach. The parallel is striking. The first person in history to recite the great “yehe sheme rabba” upon the death of a family member is none other than Job. In some way, Job may be the originator of the Mourner’s Kaddish.

Birth of a Custom

Officially, the earliest known mention of reciting Kaddish for the dead is Sefer HaRokeach, by Rabbi Elazar of Worms (c. 1176-1238). Shortly after, his student Rabbi Itzchak of Vienna (1200-1270) writes in his Ohr Zarua that Ashkenazim have a custom to recite Kaddish upon the dead. He explicitly states that Tzarfati Jews (and as an extension, Sephardic Jews) do not have such a custom.

That much is already clear from the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204), the greatest of Sephardic sages in his day, who makes no mention of a Mourner’s Kaddish anywhere in his comprehensive Mishneh Torah. (The Rambam does speak about the regular Kaddish, unrelated to the dead, which is recited throughout the daily prayers.) We see that in his time, Kaddish was still a strictly Ashkenazi practice. Why is it that Ashkenazi Jews in particular began to say Kaddish for the dead?

Most scholars believe the answer lies within the Crusades. The First Crusade (1095-1099) was a massive disaster for Europe’s Ashkenazi Jews. While the Crusades were meant to free the Holy Land from Muslim domination, many local Christians argued that there was no need to fight the heathen all the way in the Holy Land when there were so many local Jewish “heathens” among them. The result is what is referred to as “the Rhineland massacres”, described by some as “the First Holocaust”. Countless Jews were slaughtered.

‘Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099’ by Émile Signol

Like in the times of Roman persecution a millennium earlier, the Ashkenazi Sages sought comfort in the words of Kaddish, beseeching the coming of God’s Final Redemption, and at the same time seeking to honour the poor souls of the murdered. It therefore isn’t surprising that Rabbi Elazar of Worms is the first to speak of Kaddish for the dead, as his hometown of Worms (along with the town of Speyer) was among the first to be attacked, in May of 1096.

It is important to remember that Rabbi Elazar was a member of the Hasidei Ashkenaz, the “German Pietist” movement known for its mysticism and asceticism (not to be confused with the much later Hasidic movement). The Hasidei Ashkenaz would have been particularly well-versed in Heikhalot and Midrashim. Everything points to this group as being the true originators of reciting Kaddish for the dead.

The practice spread from there. Indeed, there was a great deal of Jewish migration in those turbulent times. For example, one of the greatest Ashkenazi sages, Rabbeinu Asher (c. 1250-1327), was born in Cologne, Germany, but fled persecution and settled in Toledo, Spain. His renowned sons, Rabbi Yakov ben Asher (Ba’al HaTurim, c. 1269-1343), and Rabbi Yehudah ben Asher (c. 1270-1349) continued to lead the Sephardic Jewish community of Toledo. And it was there in Toledo that was born one of the greatest of Sephardi sages, Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575), author of the Shulchan Arukh, still the primary code of Jewish law.

In the Shulchan Arukh we read how reciting Kaddish at a funeral is a must (Yoreh De’ah 376:4). We are then told that there is a custom based on the Midrash to continue reciting Kaddish for twelve months, though only for a parent, and possibly only for a father. The reasoning for the latter is entirely different: since it is a father’s obligation to teach his son Torah, by reciting Kaddish the son demonstrates that the father had fulfilled the mitzvah, and left behind a proper Jewish legacy.

It is quite amazing to see that as late as 500 years ago, Mourner’s Kaddish was still defined in very narrow terms, and described as more of a custom based on Midrash than an absolute halachic necessity. How did it transform into a supreme Jewish prayer?

Enter the Arizal

As with many other Jewish practices we find so common today, it looks like it was the influence of the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572), history’s foremost Kabbalist, that made the Mourner’s Kaddish so universal, and so essential. Fittingly, he was the perfect candidate for the job, being the product of an Ashkenazi father and a Sephardi mother, and ending his life as the leader of the Sephardi sages of Tzfat.

The Arizal discussed the mysteries of Kaddish at great length. Like most of his teachings, they were put to paper by his primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620). The latter devotes a dozen dense pages to Kaddish in Sha’ar HaKavanot. He first explains the various forms of Kaddish recited during the regular prayer services. In brief, we find that Kaddish is recited between the major prayer sections because each part of the prayer is associated with a different mystical universe, and a different Heavenly Palace, and Kaddish facilitates the migration from one world to the next.

Recall that Kabbalah describes Creation in four universes or dimensions: Asiyah, Yetzirah, Beriah, and Atzilut. The four sections of prayer correspond to the four ascending universes: the morning blessings and the first prayers up until Hodu correspond to Asiyah; the Pesukei d’Zimrah corresponds to Yetzirah; the Shema and its blessings parallel Beriah; and the climax of the prayer, the Amidah, is Atzilut, the level of pure Divine Emanation. For this reason, the Amidah is recited in complete silence and stillness, for at the level of Atzilut, one is entirely unified with God.

The Arizal delves in depth into the individual letters and gematrias of Kaddish, its words and phrases, and how they correspond to various names of God and Heavenly Palaces. He relays the proper meditations to have in mind when reciting the different types of Kaddish, at different stages of prayer. To simplify, the Arizal teaches that Kaddish helps us move ever higher from one world to the next, and more cosmically, serves to elevate the entire universe into higher dimensions. We can already see how this would be related to assisting the dead, spiritually escorting the soul of the deceased higher and higher through the Heavenly realms.

More intriguingly, Rabbi Vital writes that Kaddish is meant to prepare the soul for the Resurrection of the Dead. He goes on to cite his master in saying that Kaddish should be recited every single day, including Shabbat and holidays, for an entire year following the passing of a parent. He says that Kaddish not only helps to free a soul from Gehinnom, but more importantly to help it attain Gan Eden. It elevates all souls, even righteous ones. This is why one should say Kaddish for a righteous person just as much as for a wicked person, and this is why it should be said even on Shabbat (when souls in Gehinnom are given rest). Rabbi Vital then says how the Arizal would also say Kaddish every year on the anniversary of his father’s death, which is now the norm as well.

Ironically, while Kaddish began as an Ashkenazi custom, Rabbi Vital writes that the Arizal made sure to recite Kaddish according to the Sephardi text!

Repairing the World

Another interesting point that Rabbi Vital explains is why Kaddish is in Aramaic, and not Hebrew like the rest of the prayers. He reminds us the words of the Zohar that both Hebrew and Aramaic are written with the exact same letters because these are the Divine Letters of Creation, but Hebrew comes from the side of purity and holiness, while Aramaic is from the “other side” of impurity and darkness. Hebrew is the language of the angels, while Aramaic is the language of the impure spirits. The angels speak Hebrew, but do not understand Aramaic, while their antagonists speak Aramaic, and do not understand Hebrew. When we learn Torah and Mishnah, in Hebrew, we please the angels who take our words up to Heaven. When we learn Talmud and Zohar, in Aramaic, we destroy those dark spirits who cannot stand the fact that a person is using their tongue for words of light and holiness.

The same applies to our prayers. The bulk of our prayers are in holy Hebrew, the language of angels. Kaddish is in Aramaic because it is meant to elevate us, and the universe around us, into higher dimensions. In this vital task, we cannot risk elevating the impure spirits along with us, contaminating the upper worlds. Thus, by saying it in Aramaic, we push away the impure spirits who are unable to withstand us using their language in purity. Those evil forces are driven away, and we can ascend and rectify in complete purity.

This, in brief, is the tremendous power of Kaddish. This is why we recite it so many times over the course of the day. And this is why every Jew is so mysteriously drawn to this prayer and ritual, possibly above all others. Deep inside the soul of every Jew—regardless of background, denomination, or religious level—is a yearning to repair the world, to destroy the impure, to uplift the universe, and to recite loudly: “May His great Name be blessed forever and for all eternity…”

What Was the Forbidden Fruit?

This week we begin a new cycle of Torah readings with Beresheet, undoubtedly the most mysterious parasha of the Torah. We read of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and how they were forbidden from consuming the fruit of the Etz HaDa’at Tov v’Ra, “Tree of Knowledge of God and Evil”. What was this tree? What was its fruit? And why were Adam and Eve barred from eating of it?

In Western artwork, the Forbidden Fruit is usually depicted as an apple. This has no origin in Jewish thought, and instead comes from the interplay of the nearly identical Latin words mălum¸“evil” (as in the English “malevolent”), and mālum, “apple” (also the root of English “melon”). Having said that, Jewish texts do describe the Garden of Eden as having the smell of an apple orchard (see Rashi on Genesis 27:27). Maybe this is why the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was associated with an apple tree—and why the Latin words for “evil” and “apple” are so similar!

In the Talmud, the Sages give three possibilities for the identity of the Forbidden Fruit (Sanhedrin 70a, Berakhot 40a). The first is that it was grapes. Apparently, Adam and Eve became drunk from wine, and this led to their sin. The Sages here admonish Noah for having planted a vineyard after the Flood (Genesis 9:20), for he should’ve known from Adam and Eve that this was a bad idea! The second opinion is that the Tree of Knowledge was a variety of wheat. This is based on the relatedness of the words chitah (חטה), “wheat”, and chet (חטא), “sin”. The third opinion is that it was a fig tree, since we read how Adam and Eve covered themselves up with fig leaves right after consuming the fruit (Genesis 3:7). Rabbi Nehemiah holds that, in poetic fashion, just as they sinned with the fig, they were covered up with the fig.

Of course, all three of these possibilities are problematic. Neither grape nor wheat is a “tree” in the traditional sense. And it is hard to imagine that the common fig would have once been the Forbidden Fruit. Conversely, the fig is generally portrayed in very positive terms in the Tanakh (see, for example, Deuteronomy 8:7 and Micah 4:4).

The simplest explanation is that the Tree of Knowledge was a completely unique tree, unlike any other in the world. Perhaps the Sages were trying to describe some of the qualities of the Fruit, and that it had elements of wheat, grape, and fig. Wheat can be turned into flour and made into bread, whose ability to rise is seen as a metaphor for an inflated ego (hence the deeper reason of removing chametz during Pesach). Grape can be turned into wine, the most common way for people to go under the influence and be drawn to sin. Figs are often associated with sexuality in mythology. Maybe the Forbidden Fruit symbolized pride, debauchery, lust—wheat, grape, fig. Interestingly, the initials of these three species in Hebrew can spell da’at (דעת), the Tree of “Knowledge”: Another name for wheat, or grain, in the Tanakh is dagan (דגן); grapes are ‘anavim (ענבים); and fig is te’enah (תאנה).

Blessing Bread and Returning to Eden

The Midrash expands on the Talmudic passage above (Beresheet Rabbah 15:7). It gives a further reason for why the Forbidden Fruit might be wheat. On the surface, the Midrash brings an old figure of speech that a person who lacks knowledge would be described as having never eaten bread. The deeper implication of this Midrash is that, unlike everything else, bread is a quintessentially human food. Animals also eat fruits, vegetables, meat, and milk, but only humans eat bread. Processing hard wheat into edible bread requires divine knowledge. This is symbolic of the divine knowledge found within the Tree of Knowledge.

Bread represents something very powerful: man’s ability to manipulate his environment for his own benefit. Animals do not have this ability; they are victims of whatever nature throws at them. Man alone is able to change nature. This could be as simple as baking bread, or as complex as seeding the clouds to make rain and manipulate the weather. The Tree of Knowledge represents this divine ability, and maybe this is why the Torah says that once man consumes of it, they will be like gods (Genesis 3:22).

Intriguingly, the Midrash goes on to a discussion of the hamotzi blessing recited on bread. Reading between the lines, the Midrash reveals that reciting hamotzi might very well be, from a Kabbalistic perspective, fulfilling a cosmic tikkun for the sin of Eden. God cursed the land following Adam and Eve’s sin, and when we recite birkat hamazon after eating a meal, we bless the good land that God gave us. This serves to “sweeten” (or reverse, or temper) that curse of Eden.

The Etrog as Forbidden Fruit

The same Midrash above also speaks at length about the possibility that the Fruit was a grape or fig. It adds that it could have been a fruit called berat sheva or a different variety called berat ali, the identities of which are no longer clear. Some comment that these are types of figs. Interestingly, Rabbi Abba of Acco says the Fruit was an etrog, the special citron we use on the holiday of Sukkot. He proves it by pointing out how the Torah states Eve saw the Tree of Knowledge was “good for food” (Genesis 3:6), as if the tree itself, and not just its fruit, was edible. Rabbi Abba says that, apparently, no wood is edible except for that of the etrog tree, so the Tree of Knowledge must have been an etrog!

The mitzvah of taking an etrog comes from the Torah’s statement that we should take a pri etz hadar, the fruit of a “precious”, “unique”, or “enduring” tree (Leviticus 23:40). For the Sages, only the etrog fit that description. The same description works for the Tree of Knowledge—certainly a one-of-a-kind and “enduring” species. We can take another mystical plunge into the Midrash and extract that the mitzvah of acquiring an etrog and performing netilat lulav on Sukkot is a spiritual rectification, or tikkun, for the primordial sin of Eden. It has been pointed out that we shake the lulav and etrog a total of 18 times (three times in each of the six directions), with 18 being the gematria of chai (חי), “life”. When Adam and Eve consumed the Forbidden Fruit, they brought death into the world. In turn, we take the etrog and bring life into the world. Fittingly, at no point in the holiday do we actually consume the etrog!

A Tree of Unification

The Midrash cited above concludes by saying all of the opinions are inaccurate, and that the Tree of Knowledge was, of course, its very own species. God “did not, and will not, reveal to man” the identity of this tree. Others hold that it wasn’t a tree at all, and the whole narrative is an allegory. The Tree of Knowledge is symbolic for something else.

The most popular explanation is that the Tree is symbolic of sexual union. The Arizal explains that da’at means sexual intimacy, which is why the Torah describes the union of husband and wife as “knowledge” (as in Genesis 4:1, 4:17, or 4:25). He states that sexual arousal begins in the mind, as does the process of generating seed, hence the relationship to “knowledge” (see Sha’ar HaPesukim on Beresheet). Indeed, today we know from a scientific perspective that the hormones governing the reproductive system and the production of sex cells emerge from the hypothalamus and pituitary in the brain.

From this perspective, Adam and Eve’s “fruitful” encounter is a metaphor for sexual intimacy. This seems to be the plain meaning of the text, which says how Adam and Eve recognized that they were naked, and goes on to state how they produced children. In his Creation Legends of the Ancient Near East (pg. 134), S.G.F Brandon (1907-1971) suggests that this is precisely why the central “punishment” of consuming the Forbidden Fruit was bringing death into the world. Until then, Adam and Eve were alone on a finite planet. Once they learned to procreate, Earth would get more and more populated until there would be no resources left. Death is, therefore, the most natural and fitting consequence. People must die to make way for new people, or else the world would quickly be at its limits. At the same time, when God says consuming the Fruit would make man godly, it means that it would give man the divine ability to create more humans!

Why Must Evil Exist?

If we read the Torah literally, what does it mean that Fruit was of a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? The simplest explanation is that Adam and Eve did not originally have a concept of good or bad. While Eden was entirely good, and full of every possible delight and pleasure, Adam and Eve had no way of appreciating it, for they had never known any suffering. All of us today appreciate pleasure because we have experienced pain. For Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden was just bland.

In a strange kind of way, the world needs evil to exist, at least for a temporary period of time. God wanted a world that was entirely good and pleasurable, but paradoxically, such a world first needs to go through a period of evil and pain. Only afterwards can we truly appreciate the good, and fully revel in the delights of Eden. This is why God tells us that “I form light and create darkness, make peace and create evil, I am Hashem, who makes all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7) We therefore find ourselves in this temporary phase of (unfortunately) very great aches and challenges. In the grand scheme of things, these millennia are just a blip in the cosmic passage of time. Soon enough, this difficult—though necessary—phase will be over, and we shall return to a true Garden of Eden.

Future Utopia (Credit: Kitbash3d.com)