Tag Archives: Or HaGanuz

The Origins and Meaning of Tashlich

‘Hasidic Jews Performing Tashlich on Rosh Hashanah’ by Aleksander Gierymski (1884)

On Rosh Hashanah, there is a widespread custom to go to a body of water and symbolically “shake off” one’s sins into the water. This little ritual is called Tashlich (more accurately, Tashlikh), a name that comes from Micah 7:19, where the prophet declares that God will “cast away”, tashlikh, all of the people’s sins into the depths of the sea. Where did this custom come from, and why are some people careful to avoid it?

A look through the sources reveals that no ancient text, mystical or otherwise, mentions Tashlich. It is not in the Zohar. It is not in the Shulchan Arukh either. It is discussed by the Rama, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (c. 1530-1572), who wrote the “tablecloth” to the Shulchan Arukh to incorporate Ashkenazi traditions. Tashlich did indeed originate as an Ashkenazi custom. The earliest source to mention it is the Maharil of Mainz (Rabbi Ya’akov Levi Moelin, c. 1365-1427). The Maharil explained that the reason for going to a body of water is to recall the famous Midrash about Abraham and Isaac on their way to the Akedah (which took place on Rosh Hashanah), when Satan drew up a large river before them to stop them from fulfilling God’s command. Undeterred, they went into the torrential waters anyway and continued on their journey.

The Rama adds more, and connects the practice with Creation itself. After all, Rosh Hashanah commemorates Creation, which began with the Spirit of God “hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:2). He also notes the Micah verse above, and that we are metaphorically casting away our sins into the sea (but not literally casting them away, of course—one still needs to genuinely repent!) The Rama was a contemporary of the Arizal (Rabbi Itzchak Luria, 1534-1572), and the two probably passed away in the very same year. The Arizal’s father was Ashkenazi, but he was raised by his Sephardi mother and uncle in Egypt. As such, the Arizal conducted his life entirely according to Sephardic norms, prayers, and customs—except for the High Holidays, when he followed the Ashkenazi rite. The Arizal was therefore quite familiar with Ashkenazi High Holiday customs, and it was through him that Tashlich spread to the Sephardic and Mizrachi world as well.

Not surprisingly, the Arizal is the first kabbalist to have spoken about Tashlich. In Sha’ar HaKavanot on Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Chaim Vital (who was Sephardi) records the Arizal’s teachings, and starts by reminding us “The meaning of the custom instituted by the Ashkenazim to go on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, after Minchah, a bit before sunset, to the sea or to a spring or to a well, which they call Tashlikh… and recite there three times the verses ‘Mi El kamocha…’” (Micah 7:18-20) The Arizal goes on to explain that the verses in Micah have 13 parts which parallel God’s 13 Attributes of Mercy, as follows:

מי אל כמוך א’. נושא עון ב’. ועובר על פשע ג’. לשארית נחלתו ד’. לא החזיק לעד אפו ה’. כי חפץ חסד הוא ו’. ישוב ירחמנו ז’. יכבוש עוונותינו ח’. ותשליך במצולות ים כל חטאתם ט’. תתן אמת ליעקב י’. חסד לאברהם י”א. אשר נשבעת לאבותינו י”ב. מימי קדם י”ג

The Arizal explains at length the deeper mystical meaning here, and how the 13 parallel the 13 parts of God’s “image” or “visage”, so to speak. (These correspond to the 13 “locks” of the beard, as explored in ‘Shaving and the Mystical Power of Beards’ in Garments of Light.)

The Arizal then explains that there is a powerful allusion in the words m’tzulot yam, “depths of the sea”. He points out that m’tzulot (מצלות) is an anagram of tzel mavet (צל מות), the “shadow of death” that King David mentions in Psalms. Last week, we saw how “Shadow of Death” is one of the seven realms of the underworld. The Arizal says that m’tzulot yam is another name for the Primordial Serpent and the forces of evil. The Arizal does not state that performing Tashlich will save one from these forces, rather it is the study of Torah that offers protection from m’tzulot yam. So, Tashlich is really only a symbolic ritual. For this reason, even many kabbalists avoided performing Tashlich.

The most famous of these kabbalists is the Vilna Gaon, who was one of the great expositors of the Arizal’s Kabbalah. Nonetheless, and despite being Ashkenazi himself, the Vilna Gaon did not perform Tashlich (see Ma’aseh Rav #209). Others cautioned against Tashlich for halakhic reasons, since it is forbidden to feed wild animals on Shabbat or Yom Tov, and those that empty out their pockets into the water may inadvertently provide crumbs for fish. (Some people intentionally throw bread crumbs into the water, which is definitely forbidden, and the Maharil himself mentions this.) Although the custom spread by way of the Arizal to the Sephardi world, there are still numerous Sephardi and Mizrachi communities that do not do Tashlich either. Those that do should only symbolically shake the corners of their clothes or tzitzit. Truly, even this is not necessary, as the Arizal did not mention it, and only describes the prayers and mystical meditations to have while by a body of water.

A final note on the connection between Tashlich and tzitzit. On a mystical level, tzitzit connects to the great “electric” mystical force known as chashmal (חשמל), which can be split into ח׳ שמל, a garment with a fringe of eight strings (this was explored in depth in ‘The Secret Power of Tzitzit’ in Garments of Light, Volume Two). Wearing tzitzit serves as a sort of “force field” against the forces of evil. Such a garment also protects from m’tzulot yam, especially if the tzitzit are dyed blue with tekhelet, as the Torah intends. Our Sages state that the blue is for the colour of the sea, which reflects the sky, which is symbolic of God’s blue sapphire throne. Hidden away within the Throne is the Or haGanuz, the divine light of Creation which, as mentioned in multiple sources (such as in Yalkut Shimoni here, for instance), is destined to destroy all the forces of evil in the time to come.

Shana Tova u’Metuka!

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.

We can 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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Ten Sefirot: A Brief History

The Sefirot of mochin above (in blue) and the Sefirot of the middot below (in red) on the mystical “Tree of Life”.

This week, in parashat Yitro, we read the Ten Commandments. As with all other things that are ten in the Torah, the Ten Commandments correspond neatly to the Ten Sefirot. Just as the first three of the Sefirot are on a higher plane, referred as the mochin, the first three of the Commandments are also distinct and relate directly to God (to know there is a God, to have no other gods or idols, and not to take God’s Name in vain). We saw a similar division of ten into groups of three and seven in the Ten Plagues, where the first seven are read in parashat Va’era, and the final three in parashat Bo. Likewise, we find a division of ten into three and seven in the very first case of ten: the Ten Utterances of Creation.

As our Sages famously teach, God created the entire universe through Ten Utterances (Avot 5:1). When we look in the first chapter of Genesis at the account of Creation, we find the expression “And God said” exactly 10 times. It was through these Ten Utterances that God brought the entire cosmos into existence. It is important to note that the last instance of “And God said” (1:29) is really just a continuation of the ninth instance (1:28). The actual remaining Utterance is the first word of the Torah: Beresheet. This word itself was the First Utterance, and was the initial burst of energy that brought a dark universe into existence. The Second Utterance was “Let there be light”, and the Third was “Let there be a firmament”. While the first three clearly involve grand cosmic developments, the remaining seven Utterances all relate specifically to Earth.

Of course, all of the above tens correspond to the Ten Sefirot, the first emanations that emerged out of God’s Infinite Ein Sof. The Ten Sefirot permeate all of existence, which is why we find so many patterns of ten in the Torah and all around us in Creation. The notion of Ten Sefirot is a foundational and inseparable part of Judaism, yet few are aware of where all the information about the Sefirot came from! It is commonly thought that the Sefirot were first revealed by the Zohar, but this is highly inaccurate. Discussion of the Sefirot dates back centuries before the first publication of the Zohar. So, let’s take a brief trip back in time to explore the historical revelation of the Sefirot. Continue reading