Tag Archives: Pesachim (Tractate)

Kefitzat HaDerekh: Wormholes in the Torah

This week’s parasha, Vayetze, begins with Jacob setting forth towards his mother’s hometown in Haran. We read that on his way he suddenly “bumped into” a special place (Genesis 28:11) that turned out to be Beit El, the “House of God”. Jacob was surprised to find himself there (28:16), presumably the site of the future House of God, the Temple in Jerusalem. The Sages (Sanhedrin 95b) explain what happened:

“And Jacob went out from Be’er Sheva, and went to Haran…” is followed by “and he happened upon the place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set.” For when he reached Haran, he said: “Shall I have passed through the place in which my fathers prayed, without doing so likewise?!” He wished therefore to return, but no sooner had he thought of this than the earth instantly contracted and he “happened upon” that place.

Our Sages state that a miracle occurred after Jacob had reached Haran. He regretted not stopping by at the site of the future Temple Mount, where Abraham and Isaac had prayed, so the earth beneath his feet seemingly “contracted” and he was suddenly teleported to Jerusalem. In fact, the Sages state that such a miracle occurred for three people in the Tanakh: first was Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, then Jacob in this week’s parasha, and finally King David’s general Avishai. There is Scriptural proof for each one. For instance, when Eliezer had arrived in Haran he declared “I came today to the well” (Genesis 24:42), implying he had set out on his journey that same day. Eliezer was miraculously able to go from Be’er Sheva to Haran, a significantly long journey, in under a day.

This phenomenon would later become known as kefitzat haderekh, “jumping the path”, and would appear in Rabbinic narratives as well. Angels have a similar ability to seemingly teleport across vast distances. In one story, Rav Kahana was once selling some wares and a female customer tried to seduce him (Kiddushin 40a). He quickly fled in distress and ran to the nearest window and jumped! The angel-prophet Eliyahu appeared and caught him, complaining that he had to instantly travel a distance of “four hundred parasangs” to save him. A parasang, or parsa, is the average distance a person walks in 72 minutes—generally thought to be about 5 kilometres. So, Eliyahu flew some 2000 kilometres in a flash to catch the rabbi. Rav Kahana apologized and lamented that due to his poverty he had to resort to being a salesman. Eliyahu gave him a vessel full of money to free him from his job.

Meanwhile, the Zohar (I, 4b-5a) states that the malevolent angel Samael can traverse as much as 6000 parsas in a single moment. This number is not arbitrary, for the Talmud calculates that the Earth’s circumference is 6000 parsas (Pesachim 94a). This is an incredible piece of Talmudic science, considering how little of the globe was known then. Today, we know that Earth’s exact circumference is 40,075 km at the equator, a value close to that of our Sages. In fact, if making the correct assumption that the Sages must have been exact in their knowledge, we might be able to properly identify the length of a Talmudic parsa.

Although it is generally calculated in halakhah that a parsa is between 4 and 5 kilometres, by dividing 40,075 km by 6000 we can conclude that a parsa must be closer to 6.68 kilometres. This is also more in line with the notion that a parsa is a distance of 72 minutes: The average walking speed of humans is 5 km per hour (1.42 metres per second, according to the most precise measurements), so defining a parsa as 6.68 km is much closer to the scientific reality.

Jacob’s Ladder through Spacetime

The Talmud (Chullin 91b) calculates that the distance of the Heavenly Ladder that Jacob saw in his vision was a whopping 8000 parsas, which would be over 50,000 km. The word used by our Sages is rochav, meaning “width”. A superficial reading of the Talmud suggests that each angel is 2000 parsas wide (based on Daniel 10:6), and since Jacob saw four angels, the width of the Ladder must have been 8000 parsas. However, this does not make sense if taken literally, for why would an angel’s form be 2000 parsas wide? And if it was, how could Jacob even capture the sight of an angel in his limited field of view? The Talmud must be teaching something else. The big question here is why use the language of width as opposed to length or height, as might be expected?

When it comes to understanding the cosmos, we always speak of a “fabric of spacetime”. Perhaps the greatest achievement of Albert Einstein is pioneering the science behind it, proving that the three dimensions of space and the dimension of time are not separate, but interwoven together. With this, he was able to explain gravity a lot more accurately, demonstrating that larger bodies make a bigger “dip” in the fabric, pulling objects towards them kind of like a penny rolling around a funnel. And because they are integrated, strong gravitational effects can warp both space and time. We typically visualize spacetime as a flat “fabric”, with celestial objects scattered all over it. In fact, today we know that the universe does indeed appear to be flat (with a margin of error of about 0.4%). This is of tremendous significance.

In the Torah, the term aretz can refer to both Earth proper, and the wider physical universe at large. When we read that in the beginning God created et shamayim v’et ha’aretz, we do not define it simply as the “sky” and the “earth”, for those were not created until Days Two and Three. Rather, God created the entire spiritual realm (shamayim) and the entire physical universe (aretz). Our Sages noted long ago that the root of aretz (ארץ) is the same as ratz (רץ), “running”, since everything in this universe is in perpetual motion. More incredibly, today we know that the universe is constantly expanding, and we see distant stars “running away” from us. As such, when the Tanakh uses an idiom like kanfot ha’aretz, the “corners” or “edges” of the universe, it may be read quite literally. For a long time, there were people who understood these Torah statements as implying a flat Earth, when in reality they could have been alluding to a deeper scientific understanding regarding the “flatness” of the entire universe.

And that brings us back to the precise Talmudic language of rochav, “width”, in a place where we might have expected height. Of course, we do have a dimension of height. However, when zooming out to a “flat” universe, we really only visualize it in terms of width, as if on a two-dimensional plane. Going further, Einstein later showed, together with another Jewish scientist named Nathan Rosen, that it would be theoretically possible to “bend” spacetime and connect two points that are vastly far apart. It would be like folding over the fabric and then poking a hole through both layers. Such an “Einstein-Rosen bridge”, better known as a wormhole, would allow travel across extremely vast distances in a very short period of time. In other words, it would be very much like kefitzat haderekh!  

A wormhole shortens the trip by bending spacetime and forming a bridge.

So, what our Sages may have been secretly implying in describing the width of Jacob’s Ladder is that this wormhole (of sorts) spanned 8000 parsas, or over 50,000 km. This is a distance even wider than the Earth and, scientifically, we would expect wormholes to be very large like this. Such a wormhole was accurately depicted in the film Interstellar, allowing the protagonists to instantly travel to a distant solar system to find a new home for mankind:

It is worth noting that when our Sages described the teleportation of Jacob, they said that kaftzah ha’aretz, again using that term aretz, and implying that it “jumped” or “contracted” for him. So, another term for this phenomenon, truer to the language of the Talmud, would be kefitzat ha’aretz, the warping of the spacetime fabric of this universe. Kefitzat haderekh is accurate, too, implying that one “jumped the path”, finding an alternate shortcut from one point in the universe to another. This appears to have happened at Sinai, as well. Our Sages likened Jacob’s Ladder to the Sinai Revelation, and the Zohar (I, 149a, Sitrei Torah) even notes that the numerical value of “ladder” (סלם) and “Sinai” (סיני) is the same—130. At Sinai, too, a “wormhole” opened up allowing 22,000 angelic “chariots” to descend upon the mountain (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:3).

Theoretical physics aside, can we actually create such wormholes? In 2017, scientists succeeded in producing tiny, microscopic wormholes for the first time. It is certainly possible that in the near future we will have the technology to open up larger wormholes, making rapid travel across God’s vast universe feasible. It appears that God’s angels already employ such a wormhole-style system of travel, traversing thousands of parsas instantaneously. It might help explain the Tower of Babel episode which, as we’ve mentioned in the past, was not simply a tower but meant to “lift off” and “conquer” the Heavens.

Our Sages long ago taught that the people who built the Tower knew the wisdom of the angels and were using angelic powers to accomplish their plans (see, for instance, Zohar I, 76a). God “came down” to confound them. He wiped their memories and jumbled their languages so that they wouldn’t be able to collaborate in such a megalomaniacal way. Today, we live in a world that is once more getting real close to being “of singular language and singular words” (Genesis 11:1), and once again we see science stepping into the dangerous territory of “playing God”. Hopefully this time humanity will get it right and use the astounding abilities that God made possible in His universe only for the good.

The Spiritual Purpose of Jewish Exile and Wandering

‘The Flight of the Prisoners’ by James Tissot, depicting the Jewish people’s exile after the destruction of the First Temple.

This week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, has a most unique line when reading it in a proper Torah scroll. We read of a future time where “… Hashem removed them from upon their soil, with anger, with wrath, and with great fury, and He cast them out [וישלכם] to another land, as this very day.” (Deuteronomy 29:27) The Torah prophecies that a time will come when Israel will be exiled out of their land. The word וישלכם, “cast them out” is written with an enlarged letter lamed (ל). As is known, there are instances in the Torah where certain letters are written larger or smaller than normal. What is the significance of this enlarged lamed?

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Wasting Seed: Minor Taboo or Grave Sin?

In this week’s parasha, Vayeshev, we read about the incident of Yehuda and Tamar. Yehuda’s eldest son, Er, marries a beautiful woman named Tamar. Unfortunately, Er “was evil in the eyes of God, and God put him to death.” (Genesis 38:7) As was customary in those days, since Er died without a son, it was expected that his brother, Onan, would perform levirate marriage and take Tamar as his wife. As the Torah describes, the purpose of this is to essentially provide a sort of heir for his childless brother. Onan was happy to marry Tamar, but

knew that the progeny would not be his, and it came about, when he came to his brother’s wife, he wasted [his semen] on the ground, in order not to give seed to his brother. And what he did was evil in the eyes of God, and He put him to death also. (Genesis 38:9-10)

As we know, Yehuda would end up being with Tamar himself, and out of that union would come Peretz, the ancestor of King David.

‘Judah and Tamar’

The big question is: what was it that Er and Onan did that was so despicable to God? The classic answer is that they wasted their seed (as the Torah states above), which is why they were punished so severely. This narrative is then used as proof from the Torah that wasting seed is among the gravest of prohibitions.

And yet, the Torah itself does not actually prohibit wasting seed anywhere, at least not explicitly. Considering how strictly the Sages spoke about not wasting seed, we might be surprised to find that it is not one of the 613 commandments. So, what is the true extent of this prohibition? Where did it come from? And what was really going on with Er and Onan?

A Closer Look at Er and Onan

While the Torah tells us that Er was evil in God’s eyes, it does not explain why. Many commentators (including Rashi and Rabbeinu Bechaye) assume that he must have been evil for the same reason his brother Onan was: for wasting seed. Rabbeinu Bechaye (1255-1340) clarifies that the sin was not the act of wasting seed itself, but rather for an ulterior motive. Er did not want to impregnate Tamar so that her beauty would not be ruined. He wanted her solely for physical pleasure. This is what was despicable to God.

Similarly, a careful look at the Torah makes it clear that Onan’s sin was not wasting seed either. What the Torah says is that Onan did not want to fulfil the mitzvah of levirate marriage. He avoided impregnating Tamar because he “knew the progeny would not be his”, and the reason he spilled his seed on the ground was “in order not to give seed to his brother”. The sin here was not the act of wasting seed, but rather disrespecting his own brother, and refusing to fulfil the mitzvah of levirate marriage.

Such is the opinion of Tzror haMor (Rabbi Abraham Saba, 1440-1508), and we see similar comments by Sforno (Rabbi Ovadiah ben Yakov, 1475-1550). Chizkuni (Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoach, c. 1250-1310) goes even further, saying that Onan was really out to increase his share of land, for if he would have fulfilled the mitzvah, the child would receive Er’s portion of land, and if not, then Onan would be the inheritor. From these commentaries, and the Torah’s own simple reading, we can definitively conclude that the sin was not the wasting of seed itself but the evil ulterior motives behind it, especially the disrespect for a brother.

All of this is right in line with the Torah’s persistent theme of brothers failing to love each other, starting with Cain and Abel and continuing through Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and Yehuda’s sons. The Torah takes every possible opportunity to remind us to love each other wholeheartedly (as we are all brothers), and that tragedies always befall the Jewish people when we lack brotherly love—as our Sages explicitly state countless times.

Going back to the subject at hand, nowhere else in the Torah is wasting seed an issue. The Torah does state that a man who has an “emission” is impure for purposes of going to the Temple. What he must do is bathe in water, and wait until the evening for the impurity to go away (Leviticus 15:16). No other punishment is prescribed, irrespective of why the man might have the emission.

Spilling Seed, or Spilling Blood?

It is in the Talmud where wasting seed takes on its grave overtones. The Sages compare one who wastes seed to a murderer, an idolater, and an adulterer (Niddah 13a-b). This is quite shocking, considering that murder, idolatry, and adultery are the three “cardinal sins” of Judaism. These are the things one must give up their life for in order to avoid, even if coerced. The Sages are equating wasting seed with the worst possible sins.

In the same pages, we read how Rav Yochanan holds that one who wastes seed “deserves death”. Interestingly, he bases himself on the verses in the Torah concerning the deaths of Er and Onan! Yet, as we’ve seen, their sin was not the act of wasting seed, but their evil ulterior motives. In reality, the Sages are hard-pressed to find a good source for the prohibition. They resort to various colourful interpretations of Scriptural verses in an attempt to illustrate the evils of wasting seed. For example, Isaiah 1:15 says “And when you spread forth your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; when you make many prayers, I will not hear, [because] your hands are full of blood.” Rabbi Elazar says that “hands are full of blood” is referring to those who masturbate, since spilling seed is like spilling blood! This is far from the plain meaning of the verse, which is obviously talking about actual bloodshed.

We should keep in mind that in these Talmudic pages, the Sages are not just prohibiting masturbation or wasting seed, but even for a man to simply touch their “member”—even to urinate! “Rabbi Eliezer said: Whoever holds his member when he urinates is as though he had brought a flood on the world.” Rabbi Tarfon later adds that his hand should be cut off! It goes without saying that the Sages were exceedingly careful to avoid any sexual transgressions, and raised many “fences” to ensure that no one should even come close to sinning so gravely. We must remember that the Talmud often uses hyperbole to get a point across and it isn’t always wise to take statements literally. The Sages themselves question Rabbi Eliezer, and say that not holding one’s member would be very impractical, for “would not the spray splatter on his feet…?”

The point, rather, is to teach us that “such is the art of the evil inclination: Today it incites man to do one wrong thing, and tomorrow it incites him to worship idols and he proceeds to worship them.” (Niddah 13b) The Sages are specifically referring to one who fantasizes to “give himself an erection”, and that such a person “should be expelled”. After all, the yetzer hara works in such a way that it gets a person to make a tiny sin, and slowly leads them to greater transgressions. It might start with a small thought, grow into a consuming fantasy, and eventually leads one to grossly misbehave. In short, the fear is that a person will get accustomed to bad habits, and it will end up leading to more severe transgressions.

Halacha & Kabbalah of Spilling Seed

The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) codifies as law the prohibition of wasting seed, whether with one’s partner or on their own (Mishneh Torah, Issurei Biah 21:18):

It is forbidden to release semen wastefully. Therefore a person should not enter his wife and release outside of her… Those who release semen with their hands, beyond the fact that they commit a great transgression, a person who does this will abide under a ban of ostracism. Concerning them, it is said: “Your hands are filled with blood.” It is as if they killed a person.

The Rambam makes a distinction between a situation of husband and wife versus a man doing it on his own, which is far worse and likened to murder. Having said that, many other great authorities in Jewish law were more lenient when it comes to wasting seed, especially when the intention is not evil. The Rambam’s contemporary, Rabbi Yehuda haHasid (1150-1217), wrote in his Sefer Hasidim that while masturbation is forbidden, and requires a great deal of penance to repair, it is occasionally permitted if it will prevent a person from a more serious sin. On that note, the Rambam himself wrote elsewhere (Commentary on the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 7:4) that wasting seed is not an explicit Torah prohibition, and carries no actual punishment of any kind. However, he writes in the same place that although many things are permitted when done consensually between husband and wife, it is nonetheless important to be exceedingly modest when it comes to sexuality.

The later Kabbalists understood that the Torah carries no explicit punishment for wasting seed, but found an allusion to a more mystical punishment. They taught that wasting seed produces banim shovavim, literally “wayward children” (a term that comes from Jeremiah 3:14 and 3:22). These impure spirits—potential souls that are brought into this world without a body—attach to a man’s neck and cause him great damage, and can harm his children, too. There is no doubt that the Rambam, being a strict rationalist and staying away from anything “Kabbalistic”, would disagree with this approach. The Rambam did not believe in demons or evil spirits, and refused to accept the validity of many (if not all) Kabbalistic ideas and practices.

The Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572), perhaps the greatest of Kabbalists, was a major proponent of the banim shovavim notion. Since his time, it has become customary in some communities to focus on purifying from sexual sins and from wasted seed during the weeks when we read the consecutive parashas of Shemot, Va’era, Bo, Beshalach, Yitro, and Mishpatim. Since the initials of these parashas spell “shovavim”, it is thought to be an auspicious time for such repentance. Yet even the Arizal taught that wasting seed is primarily a problem when a person does so on their own, for selfish, lustful reasons. If one is married, and there is genuine loving intimacy between husband and wife, the prohibition is no longer so clear cut. (See, for example, Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Noach).

Indeed, many authorities were lenient with regards to wasting seed in the context of a husband and wife being together—as long as they are not like Er or Onan. If the intention is pure, and the couple has fulfilled the mitzvah of procreation (so they are obviously not trying to avoid having children), then occasionally wasting seed is permissible. Among those that held this opinion include the tosafist Rabbi Isaac ben Shmuel (c. 1115-1184, in his comments to Yevamot 34b) and the Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, 1555-1631, in his comments on Nedarim 20a).

In fact, even the Arizal taught that, in certain special cases, wasted seed can serve a positive purpose. In Sha’ar HaGilgulim (ch. 26), we read how the ten drops of wasted seed that unintentionally emerged out of Joseph (as per the famous Midrash) resulted in levushim, protective “garments” for the soul. The seed wasted indirectly by tzaddikim may similarly produce such protective garments, especially when it happens during proper, loving, holy zivug (union) between husband and wife. Such union, while not fruitful in this world, corresponds to “heavenly unions” that are spiritually fruitful. It is important to repeat that this entails being an actual tzaddik—being righteous, just, observant, modest, humble, selfless—and being intimate in a holy, loving, kosher, monogamous union.

On that note, it is worth mentioning that a couple that is childless, or already pregnant, is absolutely allowed to continue to be intimate, and this is not at all considered “wasting seed”. (The Talmud adds that intimacy during the third trimester is particularly healthy for both mother and baby, see Niddah 31a.) At the very start of Sha’ar HaMitzvot, the Arizal explains that such unions might not produce physical children, but they produce many spiritual children. This is one meaning for the verse in the Torah that says Abraham and Sarah “made souls” in Charan (Genesis 12:5)—although they were physically childless, they had produced many souls in Heaven, and these souls later came down into human form. In fact, there are those who say these souls are given to converts, who receive a Jewish soul upon their successful conversion. The souls that Abraham and Sarah made all those years come down into the bodies of converts, which is the deeper reason why all converts are referred to as “ben Avraham” and “bat Sarah”.

To summarize and conclude, the issue of spilled seed is indeed a serious one, and should not be taken lightly. There is room to be lenient in certain situations, such as a righteous married couple who already has multiple children, or a young, unmarried gentleman, whose frustration might reach a point where he is led to worse sins. The Sages recognized how incredibly difficult the latter case can be, and stated that a young bachelor who lives in the city and can still hold himself back from sexual sins is so praiseworthy that God personally calls out his name in Heaven every day (Pesachim 113a). Rabbi Chiya, meanwhile, said that it is best to stay married no matter what, and to always treat one’s wife exceedingly well—even if she is the worst possible wife—because wives “save us from sin” (Yevamot 63a). It is fitting to end with another famous adage from the Talmud (Sukkah 52b): אבר קטן יש לו לאדם מרעיבו שבע משביעו רעב “There is a small organ in a man’s body—if he starves it, he is satisfied; if he satisfies it, he starves.”