Tag Archives: Olamot

The Mystical Significance of Bones

In this week’s parashah, Beshalach, the Israelites finally leave Egypt. We read how Moses made sure to take with him ‘atzamot Yosef, the “bones of Joseph” (Exodus 13:19). It is interesting that a bone is called an ‘etzem (עצם), which literally means an “essence”. As an adjective, ‘atzum (עצום) means “strong”, as well as “shut” or “closed up”. This is fitting since bones are the strongest components of the body, and “closed up” within muscles and other tissues. (For those who like numbers, the gematria of עצום is 206, which is the total number of bones in the human body!) There is something especially significant about bones. God made Eve from Adam’s bone, and Adam later declared that Eve is “bone of my bone” (‘etzem mi’atzamai), implying that her essence is like his essence, and now he would finally be happy and no longer feel alone. What is so special about bones that they hold the very essence of a person?

One of the amazing wonders of biology is that each and every cell of our bodies contains our entire genome (except, of course, the reproductive cells). So, the DNA inside the nucleus of eye cells contains the genes that also program toenails, and the toes have the DNA of the retinal proteins in our eyes! It remains one of the great mysteries of biology how cells are able to control exactly which genes are turned “on” or “off” in every cell, and how they make sure that eyes don’t have nails, and nails don’t grow eyes. In our adult bodies, most cells have already been differentiated into something specific (like eyes or toes), but there is one place where cells remain undifferentiated, and could become anything. These are called stem cells, and they exist mainly within our bones. Here in the bone marrow, we do indeed find our ‘etzem, the core essence of who we are, still undifferentiated and full of potential to become anything.

This explains why God made Eve from Adam’s bone specifically, as if He took some of Adam’s undifferentiated stem cells to create Eve! This is precisely how a modern-day scientist experimenting with genetic engineering or organ printing would do it. Better yet, when scientists and surgeons need to extract bone marrow for stem cell transplants today, the rib bone is actually a great place to get them, since they are near the surface and easily accessible, with little meat around them. (I know that some people will quote a different opinion from our Sages, as in Berakhot 61a, that Eve was “split” from a two-faced Adam, or that she was made from his “tail”, but the rib opinion makes a great deal of sense from a scientific perspective.) In any case, when we remember that our bones contain our undifferentiated cells and our untampered DNA, we appreciate the beauty of divine Hebrew in calling a bone an “essence”.

Scientifically speaking, the human body has four main types of tissues: bones are a type of connective tissue, and then there is muscle tissue, nervous tissue, and epithelial tissue. The Torah, too, speaks of four types of tissues: bones, plus bassar (meat), gidim (nerves), and ‘or (skin), neatly paralleling the four biological categories. We know that all fours in the Torah—such as the four mystical universes, the four Pardes aspects of Torah study, and the four letters of God’s Ineffable Name—match up and correspond to each other. We can link these up yet again with the four tissue types, to see once more the divine anatomy with which we were created:

Skin represents the surface level of Torah study, pshat (פשט), corresponding to the lowest realm, the physical and superficial Asiyah (as well as the lowest level of soul, the nefesh). Interestingly, the word in Hebrew to undress, ie. to remove one’s surface garments and reveal the skin, is lehitpashet (להתפשט)!

Beneath the skin is muscle, the bulkiest and heaviest part of the body, representing the sub-surface level of Torah study, remez, and the angelic realm of Yetzirah, as well as the next level of soul, ruach. The ruach is typically associated with the heart, also a muscle. With this we can understand why bassar (בשר), “flesh” or “meat”, shares a root with revealing news, levasser (לבשר)—for what is levasser but to reveal something currently hidden and as yet unknown? Levasser is to give more information beyond the obvious surface pshat that is already known! Moreover, we can now better understand why the Torah specifically uses the term yetzirah to describe the creation of Adam’s body (Genesis 2:7), and the command later for him to specifically become one bassar with his wife (2:24).

Going onwards, the muscles are innervated and controlled by nerves, paralleling drash, the metaphorical and allegorical level of Torah study, and the higher realm of Beriah, along with the neshamah level of soul. The neshamah is seated in the brain, the largest bundle of nerves in our body.

Finally, the inner-most part of the body is the bone, representing sod, the deepest part of Torah and its very essence. This is the level of soul called chayah, fitting because our Sages taught that Eve (made from Adam’s bone) was originally called Chayah, and only after the consumption of the Fruit did she become Chavah (see Kli Yakar on Genesis 3:20). The bone-sod level corresponds to the highest realm of God’s pure emanation, Atzilut. (The pure white colour of bone symbolically adds to this, along with the alliteration between Atzilut and ‘atzamot!) Atzilut is the place of pure, unadulterated light. Light is אור, with a value of 206, again like the total number of bones in the human body. We see a beautiful phonetic relationship between the surface level of skin, ‘or, spelled עור, and the deepest-most level of bone, corresponding to secret light, or, אור. (A word for an even more profound secret is raz, רז, with a value of 207, going one step further.) Without bones, the body would fall apart into a shapeless mass, just as would Torah without sod. (The Chida, Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai [1724-1806] pointed out that if you take the sod out of Pardes [פרדס], you are left with pered [פרד], a mule!)

And what of the hidden-most “fifth” part—the “crown” atop the Yud of God’s Name and the yechidah soul, paralleling the most mysterious and mystical Adam Kadmon? Perhaps it’s the DNA itself, the very code that gives rise to all four tissue types of our bodies.

To summarize:

A final thought: Damage to the skin often heals back to the way it was before. Muscle and nerve damage is much harder to reverse, and sometimes irreparable. Bones, however, tend to heal back even stronger than they were. There is a wonderful lesson here for each of us, both individually and collectively as a nation: If something hurts us deeply and damages our very essence, we should bounce right back and recover, growing even stronger than we were before, so that our inner essence shines brighter than ever.

Shavua Tov and Happy Tu b’Shevat!


For more on ‘The Divine Anatomy of the Human Body’, see here.

Lights of Adam Kadmon

‘Jacob Keeping Laban’s Flocks’ by Gustav Doré

In this week’s parasha, Vayetze, we read about the intrigues of Jacob and Laban’s business dealings. Jacob asked for his wages to be all the sheep and goats that had strange skin patterns. He then used his knowledge of epigenetics (as explored in the past here) to produce flocks that were ‘akudim, nekudim, and telu’im, “ringed”, “spotted”, and “striped”. Years later, when he relates his struggles with Laban to his wives (Genesis 31:10), he describes the flocks as ‘akudim, nekudim, and vrudim, using a different term for “striped”. While this might seem trivial on the surface, Jewish mystical texts derive a tremendous amount of meaning from these descriptions. In fact, here in these verses the Torah is revealing to us some of the deepest secrets of Creation. Continue reading

Abraham’s Stardust Children

In this week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, God forges a covenant with Abraham and promises Abraham that his offspring will be as numerous as the dust of the earth (Genesis 13:17) and the stars of heaven (15:5). The Midrash (Lekach Tov) comments on this by stating that “So, too, are [Abraham’s] children: When they rise, they rise as high as the heavens; when they fall, they fall as low as the dust.” Israel is compared to both stars and dust simultaneously. Peering a little further, there is actually a much more profound, scientific connection hiding in this statement.

According to modern scientific understanding, the dust of the earth and the stars of the cosmos are intricately linked. Where did the dust of the earth come from? For that matter, where did all elements of Earth, and its entire mass of material, come from? The scientific answer may at first sound blasphemous, but actually fits neatly with the Torah and the ancient teachings of our Sages. Scientists believe that Earth (and the entire Solar System) formed about 4.5 billion years ago (on the issue of the age of the universe, see here), probably from the remnants of a previous star that exploded in a massive supernova. The supernova resulted in a nebula of dust and gas, that then reformed into new worlds.

Going back to the very beginning, the first element to form in the universe was simple hydrogen, with just one proton and one electron. It remains the most abundant element in the cosmos. In our sun, hydrogen atoms fuse together under immense pressure to form helium, the second element (with two protons and two neutrons). Eventually, as hydrogen will start to run out, even helium atoms will start participating in fusion. This will give birth to the first and lightest metal, lithium (three protons), and then beryllium (four protons), and so on. This process generally keeps going until iron (26 protons), the most stable atom and most abundant metal in the universe. When a star explodes, or when neutron stars merge, even heavier elements may be generated, including gold and silver.

As such, it is believed that planet Earth condensed from the minerals spewed out of an exploding star long ago. The lithium and iron we mine from the ground were once part of a star! In fact, the very atoms that make up our bodies were once part of the stars, too! The Torah tells us that the body of Adam was made from the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7), yet the dust of the earth itself was forged in the stars. With that in mind, we can have quite a literal understanding of God’s statement to Abraham that his children are both dust of the earth and stars of heaven. It also allows us to appreciate the ancient mystical teaching that man is an olam katan, a “mini-universe” or microcosm of the universe (see, for instance, Zohar III, 33b, Ra’aya Mehemna) while the universe is, in turn, an adam kadmon, a “primordial man”.

The big question is: what do we make of these scientific statements? Might they be true? Could Earth have formed from the destruction of previous worlds? Amazingly, our Sages taught exactly that!

Disorder to Order

The Torah states that before God created our world, space was tohu v’vohu and a tehom, a chaotic and unformed abyss. What does this really mean? King Solomon stated in Ecclesiastes 3:11 that God “made everything precisely at its time; even the world…” [gam et ha’olam] In the Midrash, Rabbi Tanchuma explains that this means even the Earth had a specific time when it could be created (Kohelet Rabbah 3:11). Rabbi Abahu then teaches: “We learn from this that the Holy One, blessed be He, would create worlds and destroy them, create worlds and destroy them…” until He finally made a world that “pleased” Him. Rabbi Elazar concludes by suggesting this is alluded to by the great tehom before Earth’s formation, and says this is why God ultimately stated that everything He made was “very good”. God was finally satisfied!

Thus, long ago our Sages already taught what modern science has recently come to realize: our Earth itself was made from the remnants of previous worlds that God had destroyed! It is amazing to think that the wedding ring on your finger—meant to symbolize an eternal bond—is made from gold atoms made by God billions of years ago in a massive cosmic blast, or that the iron coursing through your veins was forged by God in the furnace of an old star. It gives such things immensely more meaning.

On that note, it is important to remember that God programmed the universe with certain unyielding natural laws (as stated, for instance, in Jeremiah 33:25). And God generally follows His own rules, working through derekh hateva, “natural ways”, as our Sages taught. It therefore isn’t surprising that He also generated all the many worlds of the universe through natural means.

A “star factory” nebula in the constellation Aquila

Intriguingly, the last Mishnah in the tractate Uktzin famously states that God made 310 worlds for each tzadik, to be enjoyed in the World to Come. This is based on Proverbs 8:21 where God promises He will reward those who love Him with yesh (יש), “substance”, the value of which is 310. It is also God’s “gift” to the righteous, since the value of “gift”, shai (שי) is 310. Going back to the Midrash above, our Sages imply that God made a multitude of worlds that pleased Him, not just the one which we inhabit now. This is probably referring to all the wonderful worlds He made—through derekh hateva, the laws of nature—for the righteous, 310 each, to inhabit in the future. And for those who like gematria, it is fitting that the value of derekh hateva (דרך הטבע) itself is 310!

A final thought: what can we learn from the notion that Abraham’s offspring are both dust of the earth and stars of heaven? Or, in other words, as the old saying goes, that “we are stardust”? We can learn from this that even if we see ourselves as minute and insignificant, a fleck of dust in the vastness of space, God nonetheless always sees us as His precious, glowing stars.

Shabbat Shalom!