Tag Archives: Mitochondria

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!

Israel and the Iron Age

In this week’s parasha, Ekev, Moses describes the rich land of Israel and says it is “a good land, a land with brooks of water, fountains and depths, that emerge in valleys and mountains, a land of wheat and barley, vines and figs and pomegranates, a land of oil producing olives and honey…” This first part of the description is well-known, and the source for the Seven Species of Israel. These are the seven plants that are particularly praiseworthy, and are native to the Holy Land: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates (which were used to make the honey that Moses is speaking of). The Zohar explains that all other species of plants have various angels appointed over them, but God alone oversees the growth and flourishing of the Seven Species (see Zohar Chadash on Ruth, 106a).

What we often overlook is the next part of Moses description: “a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, you will lack nothing in it, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose mountains you will hew copper.” Moses promises the Israelites a land full of iron and copper. This statement is actually just as significant as the Seven Species! What is so special about iron and copper that it was so enticing for Israel? Continue reading

Mysteries of Fire

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

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

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

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

Three Mystical Substances

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

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

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

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

Six Types of Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Colours of a Flame

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

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

Composition of the Universe (Courtesy: NASA)

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

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


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