Tag Archives: Moses

The Genius of Mishnah

This week’s parasha (outside of Israel) is Emor, which begins with God commanding Moses to speak to the kohanim and to teach them. This is one of the key verses having a clear reference to the Oral Torah. Moses relayed not just the five books of the Written Torah, but also many more oral teachings and explanations that were passed down over the millennia. Another source for the Oral Law is Exodus 34:27, where God tells Moses to write down the words of Torah, and then adds that al pi—literally meaning “orally” or “on the mouth”—of these words of Torah, God is making a covenant with us. The Sages point out that this is another major allusion to the Torah sh’b’al peh, the Oral Torah (see Gittin 60b).

The necessity of an Oral Torah is actually self-evident since Torah laws are very brief and usually come with no explanations or details. For instance, we are told numerous times to bind certain signs upon our arms and to tie fringes on our clothes, but there is no description of what these things should look like. Another classic example is Deuteronomy 12:21 where we are told to slaughter animals for consumption “as I have instructed you”, yet no instructions or slaughtering procedures are written anywhere in the Torah. The obvious implication is that Moses relayed many teachings and instructions that were not recorded.

Eventually, those teachings did come to be recorded in the Mishnah. The term Mishnah comes from the verb lishnot (לשנות), “to repeat”, since these laws and teachings were originally learned through constant repetition, to reinforce the knowledge and memorize it crystal clear. Less known is that, since the same exact verb is leshanot (לשנות), meaning “to change”, the Oral Law was not meant to be written down in order to keep it fluid and flexible.* Judaism is always evolving, and halakhah must change under varying circumstances and as new problems emerge. The central idea behind having an Oral Law was so that it would not come to be “set in stone” like the written law. The Torah thus remains fresh in every generation, and open to new ideas, applications, and chiddushim. This is really the beauty of the Oral Torah. (In fact, when the Arizal relates the different aspects of Torah to the mystical Sefirot, he points out that the Mishnah specifically is in Tiferet, “Beauty”, see Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh.)

On a more mystical level, Mishnah (משנה) has the same letters and numerical value as Neshamah (נשמה), “soul”, for while the Written Torah is the “body” of Judaism, the Oral Torah is its inner dimension and true essence. (This is also why it is customary to recite Mishnayot in honour of the dead, to elevate their souls.) It is important to clarify that while the Mishnah is certainly not the entire Oral Torah, it is the first text of the Oral Torah and the foundation for the rest. Continue reading

Four Levels of Human

In this week’s parasha, Tazria, we read about various skin ailments that could afflict a person in ancient times. The section begins with the words “A human [adam] upon whose skin will be…” (Leviticus 13:2) The Zohar (III, 48a) asks: why does the Torah specifically say adam, “human”? This is peculiar language, for we would more likely expect the Torah to use the far more common term ish, a “man” or a “person”. The Zohar notes how at the beginning of Vayikra, too, the Torah stated “A human [adam] among you who will bring a sacrifice…” (Leviticus 1:2) Why “human”?

Credit: Totemical.com

The Zohar answers that the Torah has four distinct words for human beings: adam, gever, enosh, and ish (אדם, גבר, אנוש, איש), and these correspond to the four types or four levels of being human. The term adam is reserved for the highest, most refined, and most spiritual level of a human being, for this is the original word used in the Torah, as God intended man to be, b’tzalmo, in His image (Genesis 1:27). This is why, when speaking of bringing an offering to God, the Torah specifically uses adam, for a person had to be on a very refined and pure level to properly offer a sacrifice.

The same is true for the mysterious skin ailments in this week’s parasha. As our Sages taught, these were not actually communicable diseases, but rather spiritual ailments sent upon a person for a very specific reason. They manifested solely on the skin because skin is the most external part of a person’s body, the outer shell. The person afflicted was really pure and holy inside, so the ailment could only cling to the most external surface. Only the greatest of people had these skin ailments, such as the prophetess Miriam as we read later in the Torah. (Our Sages described Mashiach as being similarly skin-afflicted, for evil is only able to cling to him externally).

The Zohar does not say much about the other levels of human. Based on the discussion that follows though, we can deduce that the next level after adam is ish. Both adam and ish are high-level humans, so much so that even God is metaphorically described with these titles in various places in Tanakh. For instance, the Zohar points out how Ezekiel 1:26 describes God k’mareh adam, “resembling adam”, and in the Song of the Sea we find that God is called ish milchamah, a “man of war” (Exodus 15:3). Moses, the greatest of prophets, is called an “ish” in multiple places, such as Exodus 32:1 and Numbers 12:3. Lastly, we saw above that a person who got a skin affliction was described as an adam, but later in the chapter the Torah also calls such a person ish o ishah, “man or woman” (Leviticus 13:29). This actually helps us understand the difference in levels between adam and ish.

When it comes to adam, this is a complete human being entirely in God’s image. That means adam has both male and female halves, as the Torah says that God created Adam “male and female” (Genesis 1:27, 5:2). On this, our Sages (Yevamot 63a) taught that a person who is not married is not called “adam” since they are missing their other half! A real adam is one who is righteous and refined, and is also eternally bonded to their soulmate who is righteous and refined. This is the complete human, on the highest possible level. Below that is ish o ishah, where there is a clear distinction between “man” and “woman”, referring to a refined righteous person, though unmarried or not successfully married. This can help us further explain the Zohar’s pointing out that Moses is often called an “ish”, but not an “adam”, since Moses had stopped being intimate with his wife. (Unlike Moses, Mashiach will not separate from his wife, see Zohar I, 82a [Idra Zuta], 137a [Midrash HaNe’elam], and 145b.)

The next level after ish is gever, a term difficult to translate. The root literally means “strength” or “restraint”, and could also refer to a “hero”, “warrior”, or “great one”. It implies physical strength or greatness, but not necessarily much spiritual elevation. A gever might be one who is successful in other areas of life, but not in the spiritual realm. It may explain why Jeremiah famously said “Blessed is [or will be] the gever who trusts in God…” (17:7) The great person will truly be great only when they learn to trust in God.

The lowest level of human is enosh, literally “mortal”. This is a person who is simply alive, but otherwise contributing little to the world. This is why King David asked: “What is enosh that You should even remember him…?” (Psalms 8:5) Further proof comes from the man actually named “Enosh”, the grandson of Adam, the first to go “off the derekh” and away from the true spiritual path (Genesis 5:26). It is also why the generic word for “people” in Hebrew is anashim, deriving from this same root.

Finally, the Zohar states that there is a level that is even lower than all of the above, when a person is “sub-human” and behaving like an animal. This is the level of behemah, “beast”. The Zohar says this is the hidden meaning of Psalms 36:7 which states that “Your righteousness is like the highest mountains, Your justice is like the great depths, You save adam u’behemah, O Hashem!” God saves both the highest human, adam, and the lowest, behemah.

Souls and Universes

One might notice that the four (five) types of human above neatly parallel the five levels of soul, as well as the four (five) mystical olamot, or “universes”. The lowest type of human is the animalistic behemah, corresponding to the lowest level of soul, the nefesh. When the Torah speaks of the nefesh, it is usually in relation to animals and their blood. In fact, in later mystical texts the term nefesh behemit, “animal soul”, is used frequently. This lowest level corresponds to the bottom, physical universe, Asiyah.

Above that is the ruach level of soul, corresponding to the enosh level of human, and to the Yetzirah universe. Then we have the great and “largest” neshamah paralleling the great gever human, and the realm of Beriah. Higher still is the chayah soul to go along with the ish and ishah, and the lofty realm of Atzilut. Recall that chaya is typically associated with one’s “aura”, and recall as well that Moses was the quintessential “ish”. With this in mind, we can deeply understand the Torah telling us that Moses had a brightly-glowing aura! Better still, Atzilut is often described as God’s infinitely glowing “emanation”.

At the very top is the yechidah soul-level, corresponding to adam, and fittingly corresponding to the highest “universe” of Adam Kadmon, a reality in which the human is entirely one with the cosmos. This is a place of total unity, just as adam refers to a husband-wife pair with their souls united wholly as one.

Finally, the Torah amazingly alludes to all of this in cryptic fashion in the account of Creation. First, in Genesis 1:25 we read that God vaya’as (ויעש) “made” all the land animals and the behemah. The verb used is the same as that of Asiyah (עשיה), the lowest realm. In the following verse, we are told that God vayomer (ויאמר) “spoke” to bring forth adam in His image, and this human would dominate the universe, alluding to the highest level of human, the Adam Kadmon, with speech being his greatest power. Next, in verse 27, we are told that God “created” the human male and female, referring to the ish and ishah level. Then, in verse 28, God “blessed” the humans to conquer the Earth, alluding to the physically domineering gever. Finally, Genesis 2:7 tells us that God vayitzer (וייצר) “formed” the human from the dust, hinting that “to the dust he shall return”, and alluding to the low level of the earthly and mortal enosh, fittingly corresponding to the realm of Yetzirah (יצירה).

To summarize:


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Practical Jewish Meditation

An illustrated section from Gustav Doré’s “Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law”

In this week’s parasha, Ki Tisa, we read how Moses goes up Mount Sinai on three separate occasions. His first ascent concludes with receiving the Two Tablets, only to come down and see the horror of the Golden Calf. Following this, the Torah tells us that “Moses returned to God”, back up the mountain, to address the Calf fiasco and its aftermath (Exodus 32:31). Moses then came back down to pitch a “Tent of Meeting” (33:7) where he could more regularly communicate with God without having to ascend the Mountain, and for when the Israelites would leave Sinai to head to Israel. Moses asked to see God’s Presence directly, and God replied that no mortal can see God and live, though He would show Moses His “back”. To do this, God asked Moses to come up Sinai one last time (34:2), where a new set of tablets would be created to replace the shattered ones.

When Moses descended from Sinai for the last time to present the new Tablets, the Torah tells us that “He was there with God for forty days and forty nights; he ate no bread and drank no water…” (34:28) Moses had gone up Sinai three times, each for forty days, making 120 days total. Indeed, if one counts the days of the Jewish calendar between Shavuot and Yom Kippur, one would find 120 days, since Shavuot is the date of the initial Sinai Revelation while Yom Kippur is when God forgave the Israelites for the Golden Calf and Moses returned with the new Tablets. At the end of Moses’ three sessions of intense meditation with God, his face glowed and the people could no longer look at him directly (34:29-30). Moses would henceforth wear a mask.

The Torah motif of going up a mountain to spend time in prayer and divine meditation spread all over the world, and we find very similar descriptions in other faiths that emerged after Judaism. Buddha, for instance, spent 40 days (or 49 days) up on a mountain meditating under a bodhi tree to attain enlightenment, and also abstained from food and water during that time. Jesus is said to have spent forty days in the wilderness without food and water, and Mohammad purportedly received his first revelation while meditating and fasting for days on Mount Hira at the age of 40. Despite the fact that Moses was undoubtedly the first, meditation today is associated more with Eastern faiths, and strangely not with Judaism.

The truth is that meditation has always been central to Judaism since ancient times. In fact, it is highly likely that it was Jewish exiles who introduced meditative practices around the world after their expulsion from Israel in the 6th century BCE at the hands of the Babylonians. It is intriguing to point out that many world religions began in the century following Israel’s exile, including Buddhism and Confucianism, as well as the Pythagorean and Orphic religions in Greece. Even ancient Zoroastrianism and Hinduism were heavily influenced by spreading Torah ideas in the middle of the first millennium BCE.

Today, science has uncovered the vast benefits of regular meditation—everything from reducing stress and improving sleep, to boosting the immune system and accelerating healing, even positively impacting the expression of our genes! So, what does the Torah tradition have to teach us about meditation, and what are some specific Jewish meditative techniques we can put into practice daily to enhance our lives? Continue reading