Tag Archives: Mishneh Torah

Medicinal Properties of Arba’at HaMinim

‘Sukkot in the Synagogue’ by Leopold Pilichowski (c. 1894)

As we continue to celebrate Sukkot this week and “shake” our arba’at haminim, it is worth exploring the properties of these unique four species. One of the intriguing things about them is that they all happen to be prominent players in medicine. Perhaps most well-known is the bark and leaves of the willow tree (the aravot of the four species), which is the original source for what is today aspirin. The active ingredient in aspirin is acetylsalicylic acid, a synthetic variant of salicylic acid found in high quantities in willow trees. Incredibly, archaeologists have found that teas made from willow were used medicinally as far back as ancient Sumeria (birthplace of Abraham) and ancient Egypt. The ancient Greeks used it to bring down fevers, and it was a staple medicine among Native American tribes.

It was in 1853 that French chemist Charles Frédéric Gerhardt first synthesized acetylsalicylic acid in the lab. The problem was that these types of medicines were very hard on the stomach. In 1897, a Jewish chemist named Arthur Eichengrün, working for Bayer, invented a new process for producing and purifying acetylsalicylic acid. This one was much easier on the stomach and worked extremely well. Thus, aspirin as we know it was born, and is today the most widely-used drug in the world. Things didn’t turn out so well for Eichengrün, though. When the Nazis came to power, they could not tolerate a Jewish inventor for aspirin, so they wiped his name from the history books and instead made sure to credit German scientist Felix Hoffman with the invention. Eichengrün was arrested and sent to a concentration camp. Thankfully, he survived the Holocaust. Altogether, Eichengrün held 47 patents, and also invented Protargol, which was the standard treatment for gonorrhea for over 50 years.

The way that acetylsalicylic acid actually works in the body was only discovered in 1971. It’s main mode of action is by blocking a family of enzymes called cyclooxygenases (COX), key players in the inflammatory pathway. By inactivating these enzymes, aspirin is able to reduce pain and inflammation. It also helps to block the formation of blood clots. More recently, acetylsalicylic acid has been shown to help improve the function of mitochondria—those tiny organelles within each of our cells that powers our bodies.

One of the main uses of aspirin today is to help treat and prevent heart attacks and heart disease, which is the world’s number-one killer. The main cause of heart disease is poor diet, particularly high cholesterol and saturated fats, as well as high sodium which increases blood pressure. Another major cause is smoking. Fittingly, our Sages taught that the aravot parallel the mouth, and resemble the shape of the lips. The purpose of the aravot is to both spiritually rectify the sins of the mouth, as well as to remind us to control what goes in (and out) of our mouths. We ask every morning in birkot haTorah that God should make words of Torah “pleasant-tasting” in our mouths (וְהַעֲרֶב נָא יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ אֶת־דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָתְךָ בְּפִֽינוּ) and this ties directly to the mouth-like aravot (ערבות). We should increase the use of our mouths for words of Torah, and decrease its use for the oral vices that end up harming people.

Myrtle Leaves

The other leaves in the four species, myrtle or hadassim, also happen to contain high amounts of salicylic acid. Additionally, they are rich in various antioxidants. Those mitochondria mentioned above use the oxygen we breathe in the production of energy. More specifically, producing the energy molecule ATP requires the movement of hydrogen ions. To keep those hydrogen ions moving in the right direction, oxygen comes in to bond with them, and pick up a pair of electrons, too, generating water. This is the main reason for why we need to breathe! The primary role of oxygen in the human body is to be an “electron acceptor”, picking up some electrons and some hydrogens so that energy production can continue.

The Electron Transport Chain within the mitochondria in our cells produces most of our energy. Water is generated at Complex IV, where oxygen comes in to serve as the final electron acceptor. Energy (in the form of ATP) is produced at the Synthase pump, driven by the movement of hydrogen ions. 

In this process, however, sometimes the oxygen molecules don’t bond properly, and form dangerous “reactive oxygen species”, or “oxidants”. These free radical oxidants can attack other structures within the cells, causing cellular damage and “oxidative stress”, strongly linked to aging and cancer. Thus, we need anti-oxidants to neutralize these troublesome free radicals. This is why you might see “antioxidants” advertised on the labels of health foods, cosmetics, and other commercial products. The leaves of hadassim naturally contain very high levels of antioxidants.

Throughout history, myrtle leaves have been used medicinally. Today, they have two main uses: One, the essential oil of myrtle is used in aromatherapy and to treat lung illnesses. Myrtle helps to open up the airway and reduce inflammation in the lungs. Second, it is used to treat and help prevent the spread of HPV, a sexually-transmitted disease. It is interesting to point out that our Sages paralleled the hadassim to the eyes. As we read in the Shema, God warns us not to follow after the lustful desires of the heart, which follow the eyes that are easily enticed by inappropriate sights and images. The Torah specifically uses the word zonim, implying sexual immorality, which begins with inappropriate sight. Thus, the use of myrtle leaves in treating sexually transmitted diseases is all the more appropriate!

Date Palms

The kapot tamarim, or lulav, is the “spine” of the date palm, and our Sages paralleled it to the spinal cord of the human. Both the fruit of the tree, and the “hearts of palm” of the lulav are highly nutritious. Their high fibre content was historically used to treat constipation. Recall that the Rambam held constipation to be a major root of poor health, writing in the Mishneh Torah that “Whoever sits comfortably and takes no exercise, holds his waste or has ‘hard’ innards, even if he eats all the best foods and follows the top medicine, all his days will be full of pain and his strength will decline.” (Hilkhot De’ot 4:14-15)

Mitochondria under a microscope.

In ancient Israel, the date palm was the source of honey. As is well-known, when the Torah speaks of Israel being a land flowing with “milk and honey”, it is referring to date honey, not bee honey. Honey is about 80% sugar, our body’s main energy source. In fact, those electrons in the mitochondria mentioned above, which drive the “electron transport chain” to produce our ATP energy, are extracted from sugar! We now see how the main ingredients in aravot, hadassim, and lulav all play a big role within our mitochondria, driving our biological life force.

Dates are also very rich in potassium—50% more than in bananas! Potassium ions play the most important role in the transmission of nerve signals. Every nerve conduction requires an exchange of sodium and potassium. So, it is appropriate that the lulav is compared to the spinal cord, the most important bundle of nerves in the body. Sefer haBahir, one of the most ancient mystical texts, states that not only does the lulav parallel the spinal cord, it also parallels the letter nun sofit (ן), which resembles a spinal cord. The value of the nun is 50, alluding to the 50 Sha’arei Binah, “Gates of Understanding”.

Etrog

Finally, we have the citrus etrog. As expected, it has a very high vitamin C content, typically considered the most important vitamin in the body. The greatest champion of vitamin C was Nobel Prize-winner Linus Pauling. (Pauling is actually one of just four people to win two Nobel Prizes!) He was also ranked the 16th greatest scientist of all time. It was Pauling who first proposed that vitamin C can combat cold and flu infections. He later took it further and suggested vitamin C as a cure for all kinds of ailments, including cancer. His main work was in using vitamin C to treat heart disease and angina. Today, this method is still referred to as Pauling Therapy, though it remains controversial. Nonetheless, it is quite fitting since, of course, our Sages stated that the etrog parallels the heart!

The other known medicinal use of the etrog (or “citron”, in English) is as an antibiotic. Specifically, it is the rind of the etrog which is thought to contain strong antibiotic properties. This would help to explain why the Torah calls the etrog a pri etz hadar, one of the classic explanations of which is that it is a “long-lasting” fruit that doesn’t spoil quickly. Spoilage is caused by a number of factors, one of which is the proliferation of bacteria. By containing an antibiotic in its rind, the etrog stays fresh much longer than other fruits.

Related to this is that the etrog has an insecticide property. The ancient Greek scholar Theophrastus (c. 371-287 BCE) wrote that it was common to keep etrogim around clothes to repel moths and bugs. Similarly, Pliny the Elder (c. 23-79 CE) wrote in his Natural History that the etrog “is very useful in repelling the attacks of noxious insects.” (A useful tip for those of us who have to deal with wasps and mosquitos in the sukkah!) This is yet another reason for the etrog remaining fresh and long-lasting. Both Theophrastus and Pliny note how the etrog bears fruit all year round, which ties to the final reason for why the etrog is identified as the Torah’s enduring pri etz hadar. Lastly, Pliny mentions that pregnant women would chew on etrog seeds to prevent morning sickness and nausea, fitting neatly with the notion that the etrog is a potent segulah for fertility.

In short, just as the four species are physically healing, they are even more so spiritually healing. As the Zohar famously states, this lower material world is only a reflection of the higher spiritual worlds. Thus, if the four species have potent medicinal and chemical properties in this lower world, their root in the spiritual realms must be all the more powerful and effective. Something to keep in mind as we fulfil each day of Sukkot the mitzvah of netilat lulav.

Chag Sameach!

Ascending the Temple Mount

In this week’s parasha, Re’eh, we are told that a time would come when God would choose to rest His Divine Presence in one particular city in the Holy Land (Deuteronomy 12:5). This city is, of course, Jerusalem. The Torah says that it is only there that sacrifices could be brought, and this is the place to which Jews should pilgrimage thrice a year on the holidays. The pilgrimage mitzvah is referred to as re’iyah (רְאִיָּיה), “appearing” or “being seen” before God in Jerusalem. This name has a deep connection, and shares a linguistic root, with the name of this week’s parasha.

The re’iyah is the subject of the first Mishnah in the tractate Chagigah. It begins by stating that all Jews are obligated to appear in Jerusalem on the festivals, with twelve exceptions. One of these exceptions is a minor. The Mishnah then asks who is considered a “minor”? Beit Shammai held that a minor is any child who is unable to make the trip riding on his father’s shoulders as he ascends up to the Temple Mount. Beit Hillel held a more lenient opinion that a minor is any child who cannot make the trip up to the Temple Mount while holding his father’s hand. Beit Hillel reason that since the pilgrimage holidays are called regalim, literally “legs”, a person must be able to use their own legs to ascend to the Temple Mount.

Today, we have yet to rebuild the Temple, but we do have the Temple Mount, and many Jews wish to ascend it. This has generated much controversy in recent decades, with many rabbis in opposition, and others strongly in favour of Jews making their presence felt on the Temple Mount. It is worth carefully exploring the issues at hand and come to a clear conclusion regarding whether or not ascending the Temple Mount is permissible and advisable.

Where Was the Temple?

In ancient times, entering the Temple itself required one to be on the highest level of spiritual purity. Among other things, anyone who had come in contact with a corpse had to first be purified using the special mixture that contains the ashes of the red heifer. However, a person did not have to be pure to enter the Temple Mount, only the Temple proper. The Rambam rules clearly in his Mishneh Torah that “a corpse may be brought into the Temple Mount, and one who has contracted ritual impurity from a corpse may definitely enter there.” (Sefer Avodah, Hilkhot Beit haBechirah 7:15)

For the past two millennia, we have not had the red heifer mixture, so everyone is considered to carry the impurity of death by default. This means that while we cannot enter the Temple, we are still allowed to enter the Temple Mount. Now, since we do not have a Temple, there shouldn’t be any issue here at all. Nonetheless, many rabbis affirm that even though there is no Temple, a person who is impure cannot walk where the Temple once stood, since the Divine Presence has not left the area. A few big questions emerge here: Where exactly was the Temple located? And is the Divine Presence still in that area?

The Dome of the Rock overlooking the Western Wall plaza

The majority of opinions hold that the Temple stood directly where the Dome of the Rock stands today, though a minority holds otherwise. We know that the Temple was built over the Even haShetiya, the “Foundation Stone”, and our Sages state that in the Second Temple, the kohen gadol would rest the incense in the Holy of Holies atop this large rock, which protruded out of the ground (Yoma 53b). There is only one such large stone on the Temple Mount, and it currently lies beneath the Dome of the Rock.

The Muslims built the Dome of the Rock in the 7th century specifically over the site of what they believed to be Solomon’s Temple. In fact, an ancient Midrash prophesied that this would happen. Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (dating back to the 1st century Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, teacher of Rabbi Akiva) predicted that the Ishmaelites would one day conquer the Holy Land, and would do 15 major things there. One of these things is building a shrine atop the site of the Temple (see ch. 30). This is further supported by Nistarot d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (an ancient text we explored in depth here), which clearly states that Ishmael “will build for himself there a place for prayer upon the site of the Foundation Stone, as Scripture says: ‘And set your nest on the rock…’” (Numbers 24:21) All of this makes it pretty much certain that the Beit HaMikdash really did sit where the Dome of the Rock is today, and not elsewhere on the Temple Mount.

Based on this, the argument of some poskim that we should not ascend the entire Temple Mount since we do not know where exactly the Temple stood doesn’t hold much water. Even if it did, we have to answer the other big question: does the Divine Presence remain where the Temple once stood? Such a position would strongly contradict a fundamental Midrash, and much more.

It is taught that when the Temple was destroyed, the Shekhinah moved on and took rest in the Kotel, the Western Wall. The Midrash prophesies that, therefore, the Western Wall would never be destroyed (see Eichah Rabbah 1:31, as well as Shemot Rabbah 2:2). This is another incredible prophecy that has come true: Jerusalem has been conquered and reconquered more than any other city in the world over the past two thousand years, and despite all the wars and changing regimes, the Western Wall remains. In fact, this is why Jews are so attached to the Western Wall, since this is where the Shekhinah currently lies, awaiting the return of the Temple.

As such, the Shekhinah probably does not remain where the Temple once stood. This is further supported by the fact that few would dare argue that the Shekhinah lies within the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine. While there is no doubt that the ground retains its sanctity, it is safe to say there is no greater spiritual presence within the Dome of the Rock area—certainly no more than around the Western Wall, for which we have a clear source saying the Shekhinah rests there! Therefore, one can strongly argue that not only should Jews be allowed to enter the Temple Mount, we should even be allowed to enter the Dome of the Rock. It is worth mentioning here the position of the Raavad (Rabbi Avraham ben David, c. 1125-1198) who held that there is no longer any karet prohibition to go anywhere on the Temple Mount. Which brings us to the last big question:

Why have many gedolim today ruled against ascending the Temple Mount when the sources are quite clear that it should be permissible?

The Solution to Fear and Politics

In 1967, the Israeli army liberated Jerusalem during the Six-Day War. The commander of the Golani Brigade, Motta Gur, is the person who led the way. Gur believed that it was his life’s purpose and mission to liberate Jerusalem. In fact, he predicted he would do so all the way back in 1961, in a conversation with Rabbi Shlomo Goren. Gur thought that the reason God put him on this planet was to return the Temple Mount to the Jewish people. His vision was realized in 1967, and it was Gur who loudly declared “Har HaBayit beYadeinu!” The recording of his voice was broadcast to jubilant Jews around the world. And that’s not all.

Rabbi Shlomo Goren blows the shofar by the Western Wall during the 1967 liberation of Jerusalem.

When the Temple Mount was secured, Gur immediately ordered one of his soldiers to put an Israeli flag atop the Dome of the Rock. He wanted to make clear that Jews have regained complete sovereignty over their holiest site. Unfortunately, as soon as General Moshe Dayan saw the Israeli flag atop the Dome with his binoculars, he ordered it removed immediately. “Do you want to set the Middle East on fire?!” Dayan shouted into his radio. Dayan, like most of the Israeli government at the time, feared taking control of the Temple Mount. The fear was both of the Muslim reaction, as well as of the religious Jewish reaction. Rabbi Shlomo Goren, IDF chief rabbi, was also on-hand during the capture, and immediately began working on establishing a synagogue on the Temple Mount. (In fact, we know from historical sources that there used to be synagogues on the Temple Mount at various times during the Arab and Ottoman periods.) In response to this, Dayan instituted a ban on Jews establishing synagogues, or even just praying, on the Temple Mount.

Nonetheless, with the Temple Mount in our hands, countless Jews would undoubtedly want to ascend. Not only that, but religious Jews may want to start fulfilling other major laws. For instance, the korban pesach can be fulfilled on the Temple Mount, and does not require a Temple (and is permitted to be done even with tumat met, under certain conditions). On that note, it is vital to point out that the korban pesach is one of two positive mitzvot that results in karet if not fulfilled (the other is circumcision, see Keritot 1:3). So, while many rabbis are quick to point out that ascending the Temple Mount may result in a karet due to impurity, few mention that we are already in a de-facto state of karet since we cannot bring a korban pesach!

In short, the Israeli authorities feared what would happen if Jews were in charge of the Temple Mount: Packed synagogues? Numerous public mikvehs like in ancient times? Sheep sacrifices? Rebuilding the Temple? The ultra-secular government would never allow such a thing. They also didn’t want to stand up to the Muslim threats nor deal with any possible Muslim violence, though there really was no way of knowing how the Muslim world would actually respond. So, the government quickly gave up sovereignty back to the Muslim Waqf.

The ‘Mikveh Trail’ of the Jerusalem Archaeological Park. Over 50 different mikvehs have been uncovered around the Temple Mount, including this one most recently. (Photo Credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Unfortunately, many of the rabbinic authorities at the time agreed with the secular Israeli authorities, and wished to maintain the status quo. I imagine some of them thought it best to just leave it to Mashiach to deal with, whenever he would arrive. Soon, the Chief Rabbinate put up a sign warning Jews not to ascend the Temple Mount. It seems the ban had more to do with fear and politics than it did with genuine halakhah. The result was that the Muslims then (and now) took it as a sign that the Jews do not truly want this holy place, and it only bolstered the Muslim claim to the site. In reality, the Muslims have no legitimate claim to the site whatsoever, and even Muslim scholars agree that Mohammad’s “al-Quds” was nowhere near Jerusalem, and the Dome of the Rock holds no actual sanctity for Muslims. (Here’s one, for example.)

A map of the Temple Mount, and the rough position of the original Temple Mount area (“Har HaBayis”). The Temple would have stood inside of the “Raised Platform”, which pre-dates the Dome of the Rock. Credit: Gedalia Meyer and Henoch Messner. Read their excellent in-depth analysis of the Temple Mount issue here.

As such, Jews have to come together and make it clear that this is our holy site, and no one else’s. We have to take back complete sovereignty; we have to show that this site matters to us, and that we will make use of it to its full extent. Jews have to ascend the Temple Mount as much as possible, and do as many mitzvot there as we can. If you are concerned about Temple sanctity and issues of purity, then ascend and stay on the periphery—but do ascend! (The Mishnah, Middot 2:1, tells us that the original Temple Mount was 500 by 500 amot, which is less than half the size of the current Temple Mount area, so there is little chance of accidentally stepping on holy ground if you stay on the periphery, for those who are concerned.)

If we continue to avoid the Temple Mount, we will never live to see the restoration of the Temple—which we all pray for daily. The words of our prayers are empty without action. Recall that God did not split the Sea until Nachshon dove into it. The people prayed and prayed to no avail. “Then God said to Moses: ‘Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward!’” (Exodus 14:15) It is time to boldly go forward.

Our Sages had a principle, based on Psalms 119:26, et la’asot la’Hashem, heferu Toratecha! “It is a time to act for God, for they have violated your Torah!” The simple meaning of this verse is that since the Torah has been violated, it is a time to act. Our Sages interpreted this verse another way: at certain critical times, a revolutionary action is needed—one that might even violate the Torah! Rashi gives examples in his commentary on this verse. For instance, we see how Eliyahu brought a sacrifice on Mt. Carmel—which is forbidden based on the law given in this week’s parasha that sacrifices could only be brought at the Temple in Jerusalem. He did so because it was a critical time to act, and so a small violation was necessary for the greater good of Israel.

Now is another such time to act. Everyone agrees, including all gedolim, that we are in the Ikvot haMashiach. Everyone also agrees that the world is spiritually at a tremendous low point, and Israel isn’t doing so well either. We are at a moment that is very much like that of Eliyahu’s time, and like that of the Exodus. It is an unmistakable et la’asot la’Hashem, a time to act for God.

‘Going Up To The Third Temple’ by Ofer Yom Tov

Is Playing Sports a Mitzvah?

In this week’s parasha, Va’etchanan, we read the famous words: v’nishmartem me’od l’nafshotechem, “Guard your souls very much…” (Deuteronomy 4:15). The plain meaning of the passage within which these words are found is to be careful not to descend into idolatry, nor to make any sculptures or images of any figures that might be idolatrous. However, since ancient times the phrase to “guard your souls very much” has also been used to mean that it is our obligation to stay healthy and in good physical shape. If the body is not healthy and dies, then the soul will depart it. Having a healthy soul therefore requires maintaining a healthy body, and a pure soul requires a pure bodily vessel.

Interestingly, it was the great Hillel who first pointed out the connection between the prohibition of idolatry and the mitzvah of taking care of one’s body. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 34:3) recounts how Hillel once took leave of his students and they asked him where he was going, to which he replied: “To do a mitzvah!” They asked which mitzvah, and he replied that he was going to the bathhouse. The puzzled students questioned him: is taking a bath a mitzvah? Hillel replied affirmatively, and explained: if all the statues and icons erected in public places needed to be constantly washed, and they are nothing but man-made objects depicting flesh-and-blood kings and nonsensical idols, how much more so must we keep our bodies clean since we were made in the image of God? And this is the deeper meaning behind King Solomon’s words gomel nafsho ish chassed (Proverbs 11:17), that a kindly or pious man makes sure to take care of his soul.

Our Sages had much to say about maintaining good health. For instance, in Gittin 70a, we are taught that there are 8 things that are healthy in small quantities, but harmful in excess. These eight are: travel, sexual intercourse, wealth, labour, wine, sleep, baths, and bloodletting. When it comes to the latter, in those days bloodletting was a popular therapy and it was thought that draining out some “old” blood will stimulate the production of new, healthier blood. There may be something to this, with recent research showing that bloodletting may indeed have been beneficial, and was possibly even effective against bacterial infections. Today, bloodletting is no longer done, but there may be a way to reap the same benefits (and do a double-mitzvah) by going to donate blood. Continue reading