Tag Archives: Pirkei Avot

What Does God Ask Of You?

In this week’s parasha, Ekev, we read: “And now, Israel, what does Hashem, your God, ask of you? Only to fear Hashem, your God, to walk in all of His ways, and to love Him, and to serve Hashem, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deuteronomy 10:12) Moses instructs his people that they should sincerely love, fear, and serve God. We have written in the past how the Sages say that loving God and serving God is often best done by loving and serving His creations. The Midrash compares this to a servant who takes care of the king’s son. Surely, the king will love such a servant and wish to bestow goodness upon him, for the servant cares for the king’s beloved child. As the Torah calls us all children of Hashem, the King, it goes without saying that those who take care of God’s children are naturally beloved by God.

This is the quality that made Aaron so special, and, according to some, earned him the merit of being chosen the progenitor of the priestly lineage. Pirkei Avot (1:12) famously instructs us to be, above all else, like Aaron (and his disciples): “loving peace and pursuing peace, loving all people, and bringing them closer to Torah.” Elsewhere in Avot (3:10), we are told that “One with whom his fellows are pleased with, God is pleased with.” The Kabbalists beautifully point out that the gematria of the command to love God (ואהבת את יי אלהיך) is 907, the same as the command to love your fellow (ואהבת לרעך כמוך אני יי), for one is impossible without the other.

‘Micah Extorting the Israelites to Repentance’, by Gustave Doré

This is what the prophet Michah concluded when he, too, asked the same question as Moses did: “… And what does Hashem request of you? Only to act justly, and to love kindness, and to walk modestly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) Be just and treat everyone fairly; be kind and genuinely love to help others—and do it all humbly and modestly.

The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) takes a more literal approach, with Rava stating that God will ask each person six specific questions upon their death:

When man is led in for Judgment, he is asked: Did you deal faithfully? Did you fix times for learning? Did you engage in procreation? Did you hope for salvation? Did you engage in the dialectics of wisdom? Did you understand one thing from another?

The first question implies dealing honestly in business or in financial matters. Judaism has always taught the necessity of being scrupulously honest when it comes to money. The Kabbalists state that a person will be forced to reincarnate into this world if they so much as owe a single penny. They discuss how the value of shekel (שקל) is 430, equal to nefesh (נפש), “soul”, for each person’s material wealth is intricately tied to their spiritual nature. (This is why, as explained previously, giving money to charity can actually alter a person’s fate.)

Meanwhile, the Talmud holds that even though the Torah allows Jews to loan with interest to non-Jews, one shouldn’t charge interest from anyone, and a usurer might not even be a kosher witness in court (Sanhedrin 24b-25b). The same is true for someone who owes a lot of money. A person should not get themselves into great debt, and should ensure as much as possible that they will be able to repay a loan. This is why Rabbi Shimon, one of the five great students of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, held that the worst possible trait is that of a person who takes on debt and fails to repay (Avot 2:10). He bases himself on the words of King David: “The wicked man borrows and does not repay, but the righteous one is benevolent and gives.” (Psalms 37:21)

The wording of the Talmud is that a person will be asked if they took care of their finances b’emunah, “in faith”. Unfortunately, there are plenty of people who seem faithful, but engage in all kinds of financial tricks under the table. A person cannot be of great emunah if, at the same time, they cheat in financial matters, or are even a little bit dishonest with money. This includes gambling, stock market speculation, and all sorts of tax deceptions which have become so commonplace in our time.

Upholding Creation

The second question asked in the afterlife is whether a person set aside regular times to learn Torah. The Sages state that learning Torah is the most important mitzvah. Indeed, without learning Torah a person won’t know the right way to fulfil any mitzvah. The Torah is a “Tree of life for those who grasp it” (Proverbs 3:18), and the Sages quoted God stating: “I created the evil inclination, and I created the Torah as its antidote.” (Sifre Devarim 45) One who learns Torah is upholding the Covenant between God and Israel—since the Torah is the very text of that Covenant—and hence God states “If not for My covenant day and night, I would not have set the ordinances of Heaven and Earth.” (Jeremiah 33:25) God declares that He would not have created this universe were it not for His Torah—and His people upholding it day and night. (Some have therefore said that the world has time zones so that at any given moment, a Jew somewhere in the world is learning Torah.)

Similarly, the third question refers to procreation, for without it, too, humanity would cease to exist. More specifically, without Jewish procreation, there would be no Jews, and therefore no one to uphold that Covenant. The schools of Hillel and Shammai debated what it takes to fulfil the mitzvah of procreation (Yevamot 62a). According to Hillel, a person must have one boy and one girl, while according to Shammai, a person must have two boys and two girls. The reasoning of the latter is that Eve initially had four children: Cain, Abel, and the sisters each was born with. The first instance of pru u’rvu in the Torah resulted in two boys and two girls, so this is the standard for fulfilling the mitzvah.

However, the Talmud goes on to note another opinion that it was Shammai that taught one must have at least one boy and one girl, whereas Hillel taught that a person must simply have at least one child, whether boy or girl. The most lenient opinion, therefore, is that a person fulfils the mitzvah by having a single child, while the praiseworthy has at least two of each. A person who adopts a child or “raises an orphan” fulfils the mitzvah as well (Megillah 13a).

Of course, it isn’t enough just to have the kids. Parents need to invest their time and energy to ensure the children will be both righteous and successful. The Talmud (Kiddushin 29a) reminds us that, among other things, a parent is obligated to teach their child Torah, and also some kind of craft or career to ensure an honest livelihood. After all, “If there is no Torah, there is no flour; if there is no flour, there is no Torah.” (Avot 3:17) To raise children solely with Torah and assume a livelihood will come on its own, or to rely on the charity of others, is a gross sin. The Rambam (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:10) is particularly vocal about it:

Anyone who comes to the conclusion that he should involve himself in Torah study without doing work and derive his livelihood from charity, desecrates God’s Name, dishonors the Torah, extinguishes the light of faith, brings evil upon himself, and forfeits the life of the World to Come, for it is forbidden to derive benefit from the words of Torah in this world.

Our Sages declared: “Whoever benefits from the words of Torah forfeits his life in the world.” Also, they commanded and declared: “Do not make them a crown to magnify oneself, nor an axe to chop with.” Also, they commanded and declared: “Love work and despise rabbinic positions.” All Torah that is not accompanied by work will eventually be negated and lead to sin. Ultimately, such a person will steal from others.

Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, the Rambam, aka. Maimonides, 1135-1204

Although the Rambam makes it clear that Torah study is of absolute importance, and should take precedence over one’s worldly occupation, he nonetheless reminds us that “the greatest sages of Israel were lumberjacks and water-drawers…” (ibid., 1:9) To be fair, there are other rabbinic authorities that allow for full-time Torah scholars who make learning their occupation, but this must only be for a minority of distinguished thinkers. It is certainly not a standard for everyone, for that would be completely unsustainable.

To get back to the third question, the Sages state that having children “hastens the Redemption”. There are a certain number of souls (in a Heavenly repository called “guf”) that must be born, and only when all of these souls have been born can Mashiach come. Thus, having children accelerates the time of Redemption.

This ties into the fourth question a person is asked: did they look forward to the Redemption? The wording is not if they waited for the Redemption, or hoped for it. Instead, whether they looked forward to it, suggesting a more active form. It isn’t enough to passively wait for the Redemption. Each person must do what they can to hasten it. This includes things like doing more acts of kindness and showing ahavat chinam, expressing baseless, non-judgemental love for all fellow Jews (Yoma 9b); engaging in kiruv; and, of course, repenting wholeheartedly (Sanhedrin 97b). Each person has to continue working on themselves to be ever-more righteous. Increasing one’s charitable donations hastens the Redemption, too (Isaiah 1:27 and Bava Batra 10a).

Garment for the Soul

The final two questions deal with one’s knowledge and understanding. It isn’t enough to engage in light learning here and there. A person must be steeped in dialectics (pilpul) and understand the depths of one thing from another (davar mitokh davar). The Arizal taught that a person must learn Torah on all four of its levels; pshat (simple), remez (sub-textual), drash (metaphorical), and sod (secret). These levels are collectively known by the acronym pardes, “orchard”—a word that is also the origin of the English “paradise”. One who doesn’t learn Torah on all four levels has not fulfilled the mitzvah of Torah study and will return in a reincarnation to do so (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, 16).

The Arizal also taught that Torah study not only strengthens a person spiritually, but literally creates a “garment” for the soul to be worn in the World to Come (Sha’ar HaPesukim, Tehillim). This is the meaning of the verse “The Torah of Hashem is perfect, it restores the soul” (Psalms 19:8). Meanwhile, the power of Torah study is so great that it creates angels, and these angels could eventually communicate with the student and bestow Ruach HaKodesh, divine inspiration, upon them (Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh, 1).

The Talmud specifies that one should spend a third of their time studying Tanakh, then a third studying Mishnah, and a third studying Gemara (Kiddushin 30a). This was at a time when no other texts were available, so one should probably make another “third” for the many other areas of Jewish study we have today, including halachic and midrashic literature, mussar, hashkafa, various responsas and commentaries, as well as Kabbalah. The Arizal divided up his Torah study routine as follows (Sha’ar HaMitzvot, Va’etchanan):

First, he would read the weekly Torah portion. On Sunday, he would focus on the first six verses. On Monday, the next four. On Tuesday, the next five, and on Wednesday the next six. Another five on Thursday, making a total of 26 verses, and then the whole parasha on Friday. This was done in the traditional manner, shnaim mikra v’echad targum—reading each verse twice in Hebrew, and once in Aramaic.

Next, he would study a portion of Nevi’im, the Prophets, followed by Ketuvim, the other Holy Writings that make up the Tanakh. This, too, was done with shnaim mikra and a targum. The Arizal then studied the Mishnah, followed by Gemara, together with the various commentaries. Finally, he engaged in Kabbalah.

Yirat Hashem

Rava derived the six questions above from Isaiah 33:6, where the prophet declares, “And there shall be faith in your times; strength, salvation, wisdom and knowledge…” Faith refers to the first question regarding faithful business, times refers to the second question of setting times for Torah-learning, strength to procreation, salvation to the Redemption, wisdom and knowledge to the last two questions.

The Isaiah verse concludes with “… the fear of Hashem is His treasure.” One’s rewards (treasure) in the afterlife are contingent upon these six questions. Yet, what unifies them all is yirat Hashem, “fear” or “awe” of God.

One who is truly God-fearing will undoubtedly be scrupulously honest with financial matters, and strive to hasten the Redemption. It is doubtful that a Jew can be truly God-fearing without constantly meditating upon Torah and understanding its depths. Thus, complete yirat Hashem encompasses all of these things. Conversely, a person who does not live these ideals is probably not as God-fearing or faithful as they might believe themselves to be.

The Stages of Life According to the Sefirot

This week we begin reading the Book of Numbers (Bamidbar), named after the many demographic statistics found within it. The text opens with God’s command to take a count of the Israelites. We read that only those over the age of 20 were included in the census, as this was the age of eligibility for military service (Numbers 1:3). This may explains why there was a need for a census to begin with. After all, we see in other places in Scripture, and in Jewish law, that taking a count of Jewish people is highly frowned upon. If so, why take a census? By telling us that God instructed to number only those eligible for military service, the Torah suggests this was a necessity for the purposes of military organization and planning. The Israelites had to reconquer their Holy Land, and as we go on to read throughout the Tanakh, face off against many foes. Therefore, as with any army to this day, it would have been absolutely vital to know exactly how many soldiers there were.

‘The Numbering of the Israelites’ by Philippoteaux

The bigger question here is why are only men over the age of 20 eligible for military service? In a related note, Rashi explains (on Numbers 16:27, based on Sanhedrin 89b) that a person is only judged in Heaven for sins committed after the age of 20. It is only at this point that a person is considered a full-fledged adult, and entirely responsible for their actions. The Heavens are well aware of those hormonal, experimental, rebellious teenage years, and do not hold a person responsible for their actions until they are 20. The Zohar (I, 118b) suggests that the young person will, of course, suffer the consequences of their own poor choices in this world, but will not be judged for it eternally.

The Mishnah (Avot 5:22) further confirms that 20 is the age of adulthood, saying that this is the age “to pursue” a livelihood. This Mishnah states that until 20, a young person should be wholly focused on Torah study and mitzvot: at 5, to start learning Scripture; at 10 to start learning Mishnah, and all the laws that this entails; at 13 to start observing the commandments; at 15 to start learning Gemara, and delving further into Judaism; at 18, to get married. At 20, they are ready to enter the real world. The Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 14:7) wonderfully ties it all together by stating that God created Adam and Eve as 20 year olds. Based on this, it may be reasoned that in the World of Resurrection—like in Eden—people will inhabit their 20 year old bodies, at the peak of their beauty and vitality.

The Arizal provides a deeper, mystical perspective (see, for instance, the introduction to Sha’ar HaGilgulim). While we often think of the soul as a singular entity, it is actually composed of several parts. The lowest is called nefesh, the basic life force, common to all living things (at least those with blood, as the Torah states in Leviticus 17:11). The next level is ruach, “spirit”, which encompasses one’s good and evil inclinations, along with their drives and desires. The third and, for most people, highest level of soul is neshamah. This is associated with the mind.

A newborn baby is imbued with nefesh, and little else. As it grows, it attains more and more of its ruach, and hopefully has achieved it in full by bar or bat mitzvah age. By this point, a child has learned right from wrong, and understands their good and evil inclinations. It is only at age 20 that a person can access their full neshamah. This is when their mental faculties have developed, and when they can truly overcome their evil inclination. This is why 20 is the minimum age of judgement in Heaven. It is also why 20 is the age of adulthood, and the age at which priests (and soldiers) can begin their service.

The Arizal often notes how, unfortunately, most people never really access their entire neshamah. Many are trapped at the level of ruach for much of their lives—constantly dominated by their evil inclination, with their mental faculties never properly developed. These people have never truly delved into their soul, and might end their life never having realized its purpose. Some are not even at this level, and spend their whole life in the realm of nefesh alone, no different than animals (and newborn babies)—entirely selfish, and mostly just instinctual. Such a person has extremely limited mental-spiritual abilities, regardless of their apparent knowledge or how many PhDs they may have defended. This is called mochin d’katnut, which is all a person has until age 13. From then on, they can develop their higher mental faculties, mochin d’gadlut. Only at age 20 can a person access all levels of their intellect (see Sha’ar HaKavanot, Inyan shel Pesach, derush 2).

Those who have delved into their neshamah and have attained these higher states of mind are capable of going even further. The fourth level of soul opens up to them, called chayah, sometimes associated with the aura. The fifth and highest level is the yechidah, a sort of divine umbilicus that connects a person directly to God and the Heavens. Indeed, the name “Israel” (ישראל) can be split into yashar-El (ישר-אל), “straight to God”. Every Jew has the potential to tap into their inner yechidah, together with the untold spiritual powers it brings along. A person on this level has access to Heavenly secrets, can receive Ruach haKodesh, a “Holy Spirit” or “divine inspiration”, or even attain true prophecy.

Sefirot of Life

In most years (like this year), parashat Bamidbar is read right around the holiday of Shavuot. This holiday commemorates the divine revelation at Mt. Sinai, an event traditionally compared to a “wedding” between God and Israel. The Torah does not specify a date for this holiday, instead saying that one should count 50 days from Passover. In fact, the Sages call Shavuot “Atzeret”, as if it is the conclusion of Passover, just as the holiday of Shemini Atzeret is the conclusion of Sukkot (yet still a standalone holiday in its own right).

The mochin above (in blue) and the middot below (in red) on the Tree of Life

While Shavuot is likened to a marriage, Passover is described as a new birth. The Sages see the Israelites emerging out of the split Red Sea like a newborn baby coming out of the waters of the womb. There are exactly seven weeks between the first day of Passover and Shavuot, and each week corresponds to one of the seven middot, the seven “lower” sefirot of the mystical Tree of Life. By putting these ideas together, we can conclude that the transition from the first sefirah to the seventh—from Passover to Shavuot—represents the development from birth to marriage. Fittingly, one can draw a very close parallel between the qualities of these sefirot and the major stages of life.

The first sefirah is Chessed, kindness, and is always associated with water. Chessed represents the time in the life-giving waters of the mother’s womb. This is a stage of life that is entirely chessed, requiring no effort on the part of the person at all. They are completely sustained by their mother. Just as the Israelites emerged out of the Red Sea at the end of Passover—at the end of the Chessed week—the embryonic phase ends with birth.

This thrusts the person into Gevurah: severity, restraint, difficulty, the very opposite of Chessed. The newborn phase is the most difficult. The baby is unable to express itself, and has no power to do anything on its own. It spends much of its time in pain and discomfort, crying and misunderstood. Every little ache is literally the worst pain it ever felt in its short life. But that phase soon ends and opens the door to a much better world.

Early childhood is the easiest time of life. A child has all of its needs taken care of, and spends most of his or her time in play. There is no need to work, study, or struggle. A child is showered with constant affection and attention. They are full of energy, curiosity, and innocence. The third sefirah, Tiferet, is also associated with this kind of youthful innocence. (The forefather Jacob, who embodied Tiferet, is described in the Torah as tam, “innocent”.) Tiferet is “beauty” and it is also known as Emet, “truth”, apt descriptions for childhood.

Then comes Netzach: persistence, competitiveness, ambition. This sefirah corresponds neatly to the pre-teen and early teen years, the first half of puberty. The negative quality of Netzach is, naturally, laziness and a lack of motivation—especially common in this age group. But there is also a great deal of competitiveness and a need to win (having not yet learned to lose gracefully). Most of all, there is a sense of immortality (netzach literally means “eternity”), and the carelessness and poor choices that come with that attitude.

The second half of the teen years, up until age 20, is when the young person finally starts to mature. The worst part of puberty is behind them, and the beauty and splendour of youth emerges. This is Hod, “majesty” or “splendour”, the fifth sefirah. Hod is associated with humility and gratitude (lehodot is “to thank”). In these years, the youth start to develop some inner modesty, and begin to understand a little bit about how the world works. Because of that, they are full of ideas, and full of idealism. Being social is very important, and the first real feelings of love for others is here. Fittingly, the fifth sefirah is embodied by Aaron, whom the Mishnah describes above all as a most loving person (Avot 1:12).

At 20, one enters adulthood. This is the sefirah of Yesod, “foundation”. It contains the most difficult qualities to rectify, namely sexuality. Yesod is where most fail, and the Sages describe the final (and most difficult) era before Mashiach’s coming as the one where Yesod is a particular problem, as we see all around us today. There is heavy judgement in this sefirah, too, just as one begins to be judged in Heaven at age 20. Yesod is the last step before the concluding sefirah of Malkhut, “Kingdom”, where everything comes together. Yesod is therefore quite literally the last and greatest test. Most of us spend much of our lives struggling in Yesod more than in any other sefirah. Our entire generation is struggling with this sefirah in particular more than any other. Only with the proper rectification of Yesod—in a holy, wholesome, unified marriage; a true reunion of soulmates—can one enter the Kingdom.

And it is only following all of this that one can ascend ever higher in the sefirot, for they do not end with these lower seven. There are three more “higher” sefirot: the mochin. First comes the pair of Binah, also called Ima, “mother”, and Chokhmah, also called Aba, “father”. On the simplest of levels, being parents is essential to achieving these rectifications. In fact, the Arizal teaches that Aba has an even deeper face (and phase) called Israel Saba, the “grandfather”. At the very end, we reach Keter, the “crown”, the highest sefirah. It corresponds to the highest soul, yechidah, and to the highest universe, Atzilut. This is the face that Daniel described as Atik Yomin, “Ancient of Days”. A holy, ancient human being whose hair is like “pure wool” (Daniel 7:9). This is a completely rectified person, a transcendent being. Such a person is like a projection of pure Godliness in this world. This is the stage of life we should all yearn to one day experience.

‘The order of the Israelite camp in the Wilderness’ by Jan Luyken c. 1700


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The Mysterious Custom of Upsherin

In this week’s double Torah portion (Acharei-Kedoshim) we read that “when you will have planted all manner of trees for food, its fruit shall be forbidden; three years shall it be forbidden to you, it shall not be eaten.” (Leviticus 19:23) This refers to the mitzvah of orlah, where a newly-planted tree must be left unharvested for its first three years. Seemingly based on this, a custom has developed to leave the hair of newborn boys uncut until age three. On or around the boy’s third birthday, a special celebration is held (called upsherin or halakeh), often with family and friends taking turns to cut a bit of the boy’s hair. Henceforth, the boy is encouraged to wear a kippah and tzitzit, and his formal Jewish education will begin. It is said that just as a tree needs the first three years to establish itself firmly in the ground before it can flourish and its fruit be used in divine service, so too does a child.

Lag B’Omer 1970 in Meron. Photo from Israel’s National Photo Collection

Indeed, the Torah makes a comparison between trees and humans in other places. Most famously, Deuteronomy 20:19 states that fruit trees should not be harmed during battle, “for is the tree of the field a man?” The tree is not an enemy combatant, so it should be left alone. Although the plain meaning of the verse is that the tree is not a man, an alternate way of reading it is that “man is a tree of the field”. Elsewhere, God compares the righteous man to a tree firmly rooted in the ground (Jeremiah 17:8), and in another place compares the entire Jewish nation to a tree (Isaiah 65:22).

Having said that, the custom of upsherin is essentially unknown in ancient Jewish sources. It is not mentioned anywhere in the Talmud, nor in any early halachic codes, including the authoritative Shulchan Arukh of the 16th century. Where did this very recent practice originate?

Lag b’Omer and the Arizal

The first Jews to take up this custom were those living in Israel and surrounding lands under Arab Muslim dominion in the Middle Ages. We see that Sephardic Jews in Spain and Morocco did not have such a custom, nor did the Yemenite Jews. In fact, Rav David Bar-Hayim points out that Yemenite Jews did not even have a custom to abstain from haircuts during Sefirat HaOmer at all. This is particularly relevant because the upsherin ceremony is often connected with the Sefirat HaOmer period, with many waiting until Lag b’Omer for their child’s first haircut, and taking the boy to the grave of Rashbi (Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai) in Meron for the special ceremony.

It appears that the earliest textual reference to upsherin is from Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), the primary disciple of the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572). Because of this, many believe that upsherin is a proper Kabbalistic custom that was instituted by, or at least sanctioned by, the great Arizal. In reality, the text in question says no such thing. The passage (Sha’ar HaKavanot, Inyan HaPesach, Derush 12) states the following:

ענין מנהג שנהגו ישראל ללכת ביום ל”ג לעומר על קברי רשב”י ור”א בנו אשר קבורים בעיר מירון כנודע ואוכלים ושותי’ ושמחים שם אני ראיתי למוז”ל שהלך לשם פ”א ביום ל”ג לעומר הוא וכל אנשי ביתו וישב שם שלשה ימים ראשו’ של השבוע ההו’ וזה היה פעם הא’ שבא ממצרים אבל אין אני יודע אם אז היה בקי ויודע בחכמה הזו הנפלאה שהשיג אח”כ. והה”ר יונתן שאגי”ש העיד לי שבשנה הא’ קודם שהלכתי אני אצלו ללמוד עם מוז”ל שהוליך את בנו הקטן שם עם כל אנשי ביתו ושם גילחו את ראשו כמנהג הידוע ועשה שם יום משתה ושמחה

On the custom of Israel going on Lag b’Omer to the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Elazar his son (who are buried in the town of Meron as is known) and to eat and drink and rejoice there—I saw that my teacher, of blessed memory [the Arizal], that he went there once on Lag b’Omer with his whole family and remained there for three days, until the start of the sixth week [of the Omer]. And this was that one time, when he came from Egypt, but I do not know if he was then knowledgeable in this wisdom that he would later attain. And Rav Yonatan Sagis related to me that in the first year before I went to him to learn with my teacher of blessed memory, he took his small son with his whole family and there they cut his hair according to the known custom, and he held a feast and celebration there.

First, what we see in this passage is that the Arizal apparently only visited Meron on Lag b’Omer once, when he just made aliyah from Egypt, and before he had become the pre-eminent Kabbalist in Tzfat. (Some say this was actually before he made aliyah, and was simply on a trip to Israel.) Lag b’Omer is the 5th day of the 5th week of the Omer, and the Arizal stayed there for the remainder of the fifth week. Rav Chaim Vital wonders whether the Arizal was already an expert mystic at the time or not. Once he became the leader of the Tzfat Kabbalists, the Arizal apparently never made it a point to pilgrimage to Meron on Lag b’Omer. Rabbi Vital notes just that one time in the past, and it almost seems like once the Arizal was a master mystic, he understood there was nothing particularly mystical about it. In any case, nothing is said here of cutting hair.

The next part of the passage is more problematic. To start, it is unclear whether Rabbi Vital means that he and the Arizal went to study with Rav Yonatan Sagis, or that he and Rav Sagis went to study with the Arizal. We know that Rabbis Sagis and Vital were later both students of the Ari. However, when the Ari first came to Tzfat he was essentially unknown, and was briefly a disciple of other Kabbalists, namely the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570). In fact, the Arizal only spent a couple of years in Tzfat before suddenly passing away at a very young age. Whatever the case, it is unclear from the passage whether it was the Arizal or Rav Sagis who was the one to take his son for a haircut on Lag b’Omer. Based on the context, it would appear that it was Rav Sagis who did so, not the Arizal, since we already learned that the Arizal did not make it a point to pilgrimage to Meron.

The nail on the coffin may come from an earlier passage in the same section of Sha’ar HaKavanot, where we read:

ענין הגילוח במ”ט ימים אלו לא היה מוז”ל מגלח ראשו אלא בערב פסח ובערב חג השבועות ולא היה מגלח לא ביום ר”ח אייר ולא ביום ל”ג לעומר בשום אופן

On the matter of shaving during these forty-nine days [of the Omer], my teacher of blessed memory did not shave his head [hair], except for the evening of Passover and the evening of Shavuot, and would not shave his hair at all [in between], not on Rosh Chodesh Iyar, and not on Lag b’Omer.

According to the Arizal, one should not shave at all during the entire Omer period, including Lag b’Omer! If that’s the case, then the Ari certainly wouldn’t take his child to Meron for a haircutting on Lag b’Omer. It must be that the previous passage is referring to Rav Sagis. Nowhere else in the vast teachings of the Arizal is the custom of waiting until a boy’s third birthday (whether on Lag b’Omer or not) mentioned. Thus, the Arizal was not the custom’s originator, did not expound upon it, and most likely did not even observe it.

So where did it come from?

A Far-Eastern Custom

While no ancient Jewish mystical or halachic text before the 17th century appears to mention upsherin, a similar custom is discussed in much older non-Jewish sources. The Kalpa Sutras of the ancient Hindu Vedic schools speak of a ceremony called Chudakarana or Mundana, literally “haircutting”. It is supposed to be done before a child turns three, usually at a Hindu temple. It is explained that the hair a child is born with it connected to their past life, and all the negative things which that may entail. Removing this hair is symbolic of leaving the past life behind and starting anew. Interestingly, a small lock of hair is usually left behind, called a sikha, “flame” or “ray of light”, as a sign of devotion to the divine. This is surprisingly similar to the Chassidic custom of leaving behind the long peyos at the upsherin.

Hindu Sikha and Chassidic Peyos

From India, the custom seemingly moved across Asia to Arabia. One Muslim tradition called Aqiqah requires shaving the head of a newborn. Of this practice, Muhammad had apparently stated that “sacrifice is made for him on the seventh day, his head is shaved, and a name is given him.” An alternate practice had Muslims take their boys to the graves of various holy people for their first haircut. The Arabic for “haircut” is halaqah, which is precisely what the Sephardic Jews of Israel called upsherin. Thus, it appears that Jews in Muslim lands adopted the custom from their neighbours. However, many of them waited not until the child is three, but five, which is when the Mishnah (Avot 5:22) says a child must start learning Torah. (In this case, the practice has nothing to do with the mitzvah of orlah or any connection to a sapling.)

In the early 19th century, Rabbi Yehudah Leibush Horenstein made aliyah to Israel and first encountered this practice of “the Sephardim in Jerusalem… something unknown to the Jews in Europe.” He was a Chassid, and in that time period many more Chassidim were migrating to Israel—a trend instigated by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk (c. 1730-1788), the foremost student of the Maggid of Mezeritch (Rabbi Dov Ber, d. 1772), who in turn was the foremost student of the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, 1698-1760) the founder of Chassidism. These Chassidim in Israel adopted the practice from the local Sephardim, and spread it to the rest of the Chassidic world over the past century and a half.

While it has become more popular in recent decades, and has been adopted by other streams within Orthodoxy, and even many secular Israelis and Jews, upsherin is far from universally accepted. The Steipler (Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, 1899-1985) was particularly upset about this practice (see Orchos Rabbeinu, Vol. I, pg. 233). When a child was brought before Rav Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik of Brisk (1886-1959) for an upsherin, he frustratingly replied: “I am not a barber.” Other than the fact that it is not an established or widespread Jewish custom, there is a serious issue of it being in the category of darkei Emori, referring to various non-Jewish (and potentially idolatrous) practices.

Not So Fast

While there is no mention of the upsherin that we know today in ancient Jewish mystical or halachic texts, there is mention of something very much related. In one of his responsa, the great Radbaz (Rabbi David ibn Zimra, c. 1479-1573) speaks of a practice where some people take upon themselves a “vow to shave their son in the resting place of Samuel the Prophet” (see She’elot v’Teshuvot haRadbaz, siman 608).

Recall that Samuel was born after the heartfelt prayer of his mother Hannah who was barren for many years. She came to the Holy Tabernacle in Shiloh and vowed that if God gave her a son, she would dedicate him to divine service from his very birth, and he would be a nazir his entire life (I Samuel 1:11). This means that he would never be allowed to shave or trim the hair of his head, just as the Torah instructs for anyone taking on a nazirite vow. There is something particularly holy about this, and we see earlier in Scripture how an angel comes to declare the birth of the judge Samson and instructs the parents to ensure he would be a nazirite for life, and that no blade ever come upon his head (Judges 13:5).

The Tanakh goes on to state that once Samuel was weaned, Hannah took him to the Tabernacle and left him in the care of the holy priests so that he could serve God his entire life. How old was he when he was weaned? While it doesn’t say so here, there is an earlier case where the Torah speaks of a child being weaned. This is in Genesis 21:8, where we read how Abraham through a great feast upon the weaning of his son Isaac. Rashi comments here (drawing from the Midrash and Talmud) that Isaac was two years old at the time. For this reason, many Chassidic groups actually perform the upsherin at age two, not three.

Back to the Radbaz, he was born in Spain but was exiled with his family in the Expulsion of 1492. The family settled in Tzfat, where the Radbaz was tutored by Rabbi Yosef Saragossi, the holy “White Saint” credited with transforming Tzfat from a small town of 300 unlearned Jews to a holy Jewish metropolis and the capital of Kabbalistic learning. In adulthood, the Radbaz settled in Fes, Egypt and his fame as a tremendous scholar and posek spread quickly. In 1517, he moved to Cairo and was appointed Hakham Bashi, the Chief Rabbi of Egypt. There, he founded a world-class yeshiva that attracted many scholars. Coming full circle, it was here in the yeshiva of the Radbaz that the Arizal began his scholarly career. In the last years of his life, the Radbaz wished to return to the Holy Land, and made his way back to Tzfat. It is possible that the Arizal left Egypt for Tzfat in the footsteps of his former rosh yeshiva. Ironically, the Radbaz (who lived to age 94, or even 110 according to some sources) would outlive the Arizal (who died at just 38 years of age).

While neither the Arizal nor his old teacher the Radbaz discuss cutting a three-year-old’s hair in particular (or doing it at the tomb of Rashbi), the Radbaz does speak of a personal vow that one may take to cut their child’s hair at the tomb of Samuel the Prophet. This practice comes from emulating Hannah, who took a vow with regards to her son Samuel. Samuel went on to be compared in Scripture to Moses and Aaron (and the Sages say Moses and Aaron combined!) Of course, Hannah never cut her child’s hair at all, but perhaps there is something spiritual in treating the child like a nazirite until the child is “weaned”.

In any case, the question that the Radbaz was addressing is what one must do if they took up such a haircutting vow but are unable to fulfil it because the authorities prohibit Jews from going to the grave sites of their ancestors. From here, some scholars conclude that the Ottoman authorities at the time really must have prohibited Jews from going to the grave of Samuel, near Jerusalem. Thus, it is possible that those Jerusalem Jews who had a custom of going to Samuel’s grave decided to journey to another famous grave instead. Perhaps it was in these years of the early 16th century that the custom to go to Rashbi in Meron (instead of Shmuel near Jerusalem) evolved.

So, there may be something to the upsherin custom after all. Of course, we still don’t know when the practice of going to Samuel’s grave emerged. That appears to have been a local custom (or possibly not a custom at all, but a personal vow) of Jerusalem’s medieval Jewish community. It, too, may have been influenced by neighbouring Muslims who went to the graves of their saints to cut their children’s hair.

Whatever the case, we see that foundations of upsherin are not so clear-cut. Contrary to popular belief, it is neither a universally accepted Jewish custom, nor a mandatory halachic requirement. It did not originate with the Arizal either, although we do see some basis for it in the writings of the Radbaz. For those who wish to uphold this custom, they have upon whom to rely, and should meditate foremost upon the holy figures of Hannah and Samuel, who appear to be the spiritual originators of this mysterious practice.

Are “Torah Codes” Legit?

This week’s Torah portion, Tzav, has a total of 96 verses. It just so happens that the numerical value of the world “Tzav” (צו) is also 96. This is a good example of a classic gematria, the Jewish numerology technique which the Mishnah describes as a “condiment to wisdom” (Avot 3:18). Over the centuries, gematria has become more and more common, and is now an inseparable part of Judaism. Rabbi Aaron Kornfeld (1795-1881) even elucidated 300 laws using the gematrias of their corresponding Torah verses (see his Tziunim l’Divrei HaKabbalah). Indeed, the ancient Baraita of Rabbi Eliezer lists gematria as one of the 32 valid principles of Torah interpretation. The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343), who uses gematria extensively in his commentary on the Torah, points out on the verse כִּי לֹא-דָבָר רֵק הוּא מִכֶּם, “it is not an empty thing for you” (Deuteronomy 32:47), that it equals the value of גימטריות, “gematrias”. In other words, gematria is not an empty or meaningless practice! Gematriot are the original “Torah codes” dating back to millennia-old teachings.

Meanwhile, in recent decades a new phenomenon has emerged and usurped the title of “Torah codes”. Today, when people think of “Torah codes” they are referring to the so-called “equidistant letter sequences” (ELS) method, often called in Hebrew (perhaps erroneously, as we shall see below) dilug, “skipping”. This method involves searching the Torah text for words that appear spaced out across large intervals. Here is one “Torah code”, courtesy of www.torahcodes.net:

Codes found in Moby Dick. Click here for more Moby Dick “codes”.

Apparently, the Torah encoded within it the terrible events of September 11, 2001. Such “codes” have been found for just about everything. Indeed, those who use the method claim that this just proves that the Torah really does literally encode all of human history within it, as per tradition. The reality, though, is that you can find everything in Torah codes because the method is inherently flawed, and when you have a text with so many letters, you will naturally be able to find just about anything you look for. Similar “prophecies” have been found in Moby Dick, and in English translations of the Bible. Worse yet, the code has been used to “prove” that Jesus is the messiah:

Professor A.M. Hasofer has pointed out that the word “Yeshua” appears hundreds of times when using ELS, and twice appears overlapped with “navi sheker”, or “false prophet”! (See Hasofer’s article in B’Or Ha’Torah #11, “Torah Code Abuse”, for a thorough analysis and debunking of Torah codes.)

This alone should be enough to debunk Torah codes for good. (See here for why Jesus is not the messiah.) Yet, such codes are still widely spread and taught by well-meaning people. Just weeks ago on Purim I received one that claims skipping 12,196 letters from the mem in the term מור דרור (which our Sages say hints to Mordechai) will spell out מרדכי, “Mordechai”; and skipping the same 12,196 letters from the aleph in the term אסתיר פני (which our Sages say hints to Esther), will spell out אסתר, “Esther”. The kicker at the end is that supposedly Megillat Esther has exactly 12,196 letters. Immediately I went on the computer to check if this is true. Opening up a “Torah code” program, I found that if one skips 12,196 letters from either of the above, they will not get the claimed words. As I did more research, I found that the Megillah may not even have 12,196 letters. I found a similar claim that says the Megillah actually has 12,110 letters, and that the codes are from different words entirely. This one, too, did not work out in the search program! Finally, an article on Chabad.org explained the origin of the claim, dating it back to Rabbi Chaim Michoel Dov Weissmandl, “the Father of Torah Codes”, who is equally famous for his heroic efforts to save Jews in the Holocaust. According to the anecdote here, Rabbi Weissmandel taught that one gets “Esther” if they count from the Torah’s first aleph, and “Mordechai” from מור דרור. Funny enough, in a footnote at the very end, Chabad.org admits that they were

not able to duplicate the above results from the same starting places, but they did find “Esther” and “Mordechai” at the cited interval in different locations. Also, some “codes” programs yield a different number of letters for Megilat Esther, such as 13,408 and 12,110. “Esther” and “Mordechai” can be found at these intervals too.

In other words, the code is completely bogus. (Why Chabad.org—otherwise a terrific resource—would publish a story and admit at the end that it is based on something false eludes me.)

True Torah Codes

In his Pardes Rimonim, the great Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570) does mention a practice called dilug, along with similar practices like gematria, roshei and sofei tevot, and letter permutations. Of course, he is not at all speaking about the ELS method, which is essentially impossible without a computer, and would have been unknown to the Ramak. The dilug he speaks of is where a word emerges from letter skipping within a verse or short passage—not hundreds of letters apart, or across different chapters, parashas, or even books, as is common in ELS.

For example, there is the old story of the apostate Avner, a former student of the Ramban (which we’ve discussed before). The story ends with the Ramban showing that Avner’s name is embedded within a verse in parashat Ha’azinu; a verse that speaks specifically of God destroying the memory of those who oppose Him, like Avner.* Such small codes—with short skips in verses that actually relate to the topic at hand—may certainly be valid. Still, the Ramban himself points out (in the first gate of Sefer haGeulah) that these kinds of practices must be based on a proper tradition going back to Sinai; a person should not conjure their own gematrias and codes, for in such a way a person will be able to “prove” just about anything.

When Barack Obama was elected, many pointed out that his name appears when skipping to every seventh letter from the aleph in the word “nasi” or “president” in the famous apocalyptic passage of Gog u’Magog (Ezekiel 38:2-3). Apparently, Obama did not fulfil his “prophesied” role of bringing the apocalypse.

“Bible Codes” abound on YouTube. This video has a code suggesting Mashiach would come during Chanukah of 5778 (ie. December 2017). The same YouTube channel still has videos going back to at least 5774 with codes proving each year to be an auspicious time for Mashiach to come!

Having debunked one supposed “Purim code”, let’s conclude with a better-known Purim code. This one actually does work quite well and would be valid in the time of the Ramak, too (since it appears within one small passage, requires no computers, and is in context). It was Rabbi Weissmandl who once again first pointed it out. At the end of Megillat Esther, we read how Haman’s ten sons were hanged. The scroll shifts to a unique appearance here in listing the names of the ten sons. Traditionally, three letters in this list are written smaller than normal. Such smaller or larger letters always carry great significance wherever they appear in Scripture. The three here make up תש״ז, as if alluding to the year 5707, corresponding to the year 1946-47.

Amazingly, it was right at that time that the Nuremberg Trials concluded with the hanging of ten of the Nazi elite. In the Scroll itself we read how Esther was asked what to do with the hanged sons of Haman, and she responded: “If it please the king, let it be granted to the Jews that are in Shushan to do tomorrow also according to this day’s decree, and let Haman’s ten sons be hanged upon the gallows.” (9:13) Esther perplexingly asks for the ten sons to be hanged again!

Centuries later, ten of Hitler’s “sons”—some of his closest confidantes and co-conspirators—were hanged on the gallows, forbidden to go by firing squad as would be normal for military men.** And it’s almost as if they were aware of it all: it was reported that among the last words of the despicable Julius Streicher were: “Purimfest 1946”.

The cover of the October 28, 1946 edition of Newsweek. In its coverage of the Nuremberg executions, it states: “Only Julius Streicher went without dignity. He had to be pushed across the floor, wild-eyed and screaming: ‘Heil Hitler!’ Mounting the steps he cried out: ‘And now I go to God.’ He stared at the witnesses facing the gallows and shouted” ‘Purimfest, 1946.’ (Purim is a Jewish feast) … A groan came from inside the scaffold. Critics suggested afterward that Streicher was clumsily hanged and that the rope may have strangled him instead of breaking his neck.”


*The Avner code is actually not an ELS at all. Rather, the Ramban said that the third letter of each word spells “Avner”. These letters are not equidistant.

**The Talmud (Megillah 16a) states that Haman also had a daughter who committed suicide. In 1946, Hermann Göring was sentenced to death as well, but committed suicide the night before. Interestingly, Göring was known to be a cross-dresser. The hangings took place on October 16, 1946, just days after Rosh Hashanah 5707 (תש״ז) and fittingly, on the holiday of Hoshana Rabbah, the “Great Salvation”.

Why Do We Pray and What Should We Pray For?

This week’s parasha, Terumah, begins with God’s command to the people to bring their voluntary contributions in support of the construction of the Mishkan, the Holy Tabernacle. One of the oldest Jewish mystical texts, Sefer haBahir, explains that this voluntary “offering of the heart” (as the Torah calls it) refers to prayer, and prayer is how we can fulfil that mitzvah nowadays. Indeed, the root of the term terumah literally means “elevation”, just as we elevate our prayers heavenward.

‘Jew Praying’ by Ilya Repin (1875)

Judaism is known for its abundance of prayer. While Muslims pray five times a day, each of those prayers lasts only a few minutes. Jews may “only” have three daily prayers, yet the morning prayer alone usually takes an hour or so. Besides this, Jews recite berakhot—blessings and words of gratitude to God—on everything they eat, both before and after; on every mitzvah they perform; and even after going to the bathroom. Jewish law encourages a Jew to say a minimum of one hundred blessings a day. This is derived from Deuteronomy 10:12: “And now Israel, what does God ask of you?” The Sages (Menachot 43b) play on these words and say not to read what (מה) does God ask of you, but one hundred (מאה) God asks of you—one hundred blessings a day! The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 18:17) further adds that in the time of King David a plague was sweeping through Israel and one hundred people were dying each day. It was then that David and his Sanhedrin instituted the recital of one hundred daily blessings, and the plague quickly ceased.

Of course, God does not need our blessings at all (as we’ve explained before). By reciting so many blessings, we are constantly practicing our gratitude and recognizing how much goodness we truly receive. This puts us in a positive mental state throughout the day. The Zohar (I, 76b, Sitrei Torah) gives a further mystical reason for these blessings: when a person goes to sleep, his soul ascends to Heaven. Upon returning in the morning, the soul is told “lech lecha—go forth for yourself” (the command God initially gave to Abraham) and it is given one hundred blessings to carry it through the day. There is a beautiful gematria here, for the value of lech lecha (לך לך) is 100. Thus, a person who recites one hundred blessings a day is only realizing the blessings he was already given from Heaven, and extracting them out of their potential into actual benefit.

Not surprisingly then, a Jew starts his day with a whole host of blessings. The morning prayer (Shacharit) itself contains some 47 blessings. Within a couple of hours of rising, one has already fulfilled nearly half of their daily quota, and is off to a great start for a terrific day.

(Courtesy: Aish.com) If one prays all three daily prayers, they will already have recited some 90 blessings. As such, it becomes really easy to reach 100 blessings in the course of a day, especially when adding blessings on food and others.

Having said that, is it absolutely necessary to pray three times a day? Why do we pray at all, and what is the origin of Jewish prayer? And perhaps most importantly, what should we be praying for?

Where Does Prayer Come From?

The word tefilah (“prayer”) appears at least twenty times in the Tanakh. We see our forefathers praying to God on various occasions. Yet, there is no explicit mitzvah in the Torah to pray. The Sages derive the mitzvah of prayer from Exodus 23:25: “And you shall serve [v’avad’tem] Hashem, your God, and I will bless your food and your drink, and I will remove illness from your midst.” The term avad’tem (“worship”, “work”, or “service”) is said to refer to the “service of the heart”, ie. prayer. This verse fits neatly with what was said earlier: that prayer is not about serving God, who truly requires no service, but really about receiving blessing, as God says He will bless us and heal us when we “serve” Him.

So, we have the mitzvah of prayer, but why three times a day? The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) clearly explains the development of prayer in his Mishneh Torah (Chapter 1 of Hilkhot Tefillah and Birkat Kohanim in Sefer Ahava):

It is a positive Torah commandment to pray every day, as [Exodus 23:25] states: “You shall serve Hashem, your God…” Tradition teaches us that this service is prayer, as [Deuteronomy 11:13] states: “And serve Him with all your heart”, and our Sages said: “Which is the service of the heart? This is prayer.” The number of prayers is not prescribed in the Torah, nor does it prescribe a specific formula for prayer. Also, according to Torah law, there are no fixed times for prayers.

… this commandment obligates each person to offer supplication and prayer every day and utter praises of the Holy One, blessed be He; then petition for all his needs with requests and supplications; and finally, give praise and thanks to God for the goodness that He has bestowed upon him; each one according to his own ability.

A person who was eloquent would offer many prayers and requests. [Conversely,] a person who was inarticulate would speak as well as he could and whenever he desired. Similarly, the number of prayers was dependent on each person’s ability. Some would pray once daily; others, several times. Everyone would pray facing the Holy Temple, wherever he might be. This was the ongoing practice from [the time of] Moshe Rabbeinu until Ezra.

The Rambam explains that the mitzvah to pray from the Torah means praising God, asking Him to fulfil one’s wishes, and thanking Him. No specific text is needed, and once a day suffices. This is the basic obligation of a Jew, if one wants simply to fulfil the direct command from the Torah. The Rambam goes on to explain why things changed at the time of Ezra (at the start of the Second Temple era):

When Israel was exiled in the time of the wicked Nebuchadnezzar, they became interspersed in Persia and Greece and other nations. Children were born to them in these foreign countries and those children’s language was confused. The speech of each and every one was a concoction of many tongues. No one was able to express himself coherently in any one language, but rather in a mixture [of languages], as [Nehemiah 13:24] states: “And their children spoke half in Ashdodit and did not know how to speak the Jewish language. Rather, [they would speak] according to the language of various other peoples.”

Consequently, when someone would pray, he would be limited in his ability to request his needs or to praise the Holy One, blessed be He, in Hebrew, unless other languages were mixed in with it. When Ezra and his court saw this, they established eighteen blessings in sequence [the Amidah].

The first three [blessings] are praises of God and the last three are thanksgiving. The intermediate [blessings] contain requests for all those things that serve as general categories for the desires of each and every person and the needs of the whole community.

Thus, the prayers could be set in the mouths of everyone. They could learn them quickly and the prayers of those unable to express themselves would be as complete as the prayers of the most eloquent. It was because of this matter that they established all the blessings and prayers so that they would be ordered in the mouths of all Israel, so that each blessing would be set in the mouth of each person unable to express himself.

‘Prayer of the Killed’ by Bronisław Linke

The generation of Ezra and the Great Assembly approximately two and a half millennia ago composed the fixed Amidah (or Shemoneh Esrei) prayer of eighteen blessings. This standardized prayer, and ensured that people were praying for the right things, with the right words. (Of course, one is allowed to add any additional praises and supplications they wish, and in any language.)

Reciting the Amidah alone technically fulfils the mitzvah of prayer, whereas the additional passages that we read (mostly Psalms) were instituted by later Sages in order to bring one to the right state of mind for prayer. (Note that the recitation of the Shema is a totally independent mitzvah, although it is found within the text of prayer. The only other Torah-mandated prayer mitzvah is reciting birkat hamazon, the grace after meals.) The Rambam continues to explain why three daily prayers were necessary:

They also decreed that the number of prayers correspond to the number of sacrifices, i.e. two prayers every day, corresponding to the two daily sacrifices. On any day that an additional sacrifice [was offered], they instituted a third prayer, corresponding to the additional offering.

The prayer that corresponds to the daily morning sacrifice is called the Shacharit prayer. The prayer that corresponds to the daily sacrifice offered in the afternoon is called the Minchah prayer and the prayer corresponding to the additional offerings is called the Musaf prayer.

They also instituted a prayer to be recited at night, since the limbs of the daily afternoon offering could be burnt the whole night, as [Leviticus 6:2] states: “The burnt offering [shall remain on the altar hearth all night until morning].” In this vein, [Psalms 55:18] states: “In the evening, morning, and afternoon I will speak and cry aloud, and He will hear my voice.”

The Arvit [evening prayer] is not obligatory like Shacharit and Minchah. Nevertheless, the Jewish people in all the places that they have settled are accustomed to recite the evening prayer and have accepted it upon themselves as an obligatory prayer.

Since customs that are well-established and accepted by all Jewish communities become binding, a Jew should ideally pray three times daily. The Rambam goes on to state that one may pray more times if they so desire, but not less. We see a proof-text from Psalms 55:18, where King David clearly states that he prays “evening, morning, and afternoon”. Similarly, we read of the prophet Daniel that

he went into his house—with his windows open in his upper chamber toward Jerusalem—and he kneeled upon his knees three times a day, and prayed, and gave thanks before his God, as he had always done. (Daniel 11:6)

The Tanakh also explains why prayer was instituted in the place of sacrifices. The prophet Hoshea (14:3) stated that, especially in lieu of the Temple, “we pay the cows with our lips”. King David, too, expressed this sentiment (Psalms 51:17-18): “My Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall declare Your praise. For You have no delight in sacrifice, else I would give it; You have no pleasure in burnt-offerings.” This verse is one of many that shows God does not need animal sacrifices at all, and the Torah’s commands to do so were only temporary, as discussed in the past. It was always God’s intention for us to “serve” Him not through sacrifices, but through prayers. (See also Psalms 69:31-32, 141:2, and Jeremiah 7:21-23.)

The Mystical Meaning of Prayer

While the Sages instruct us to pray at regular times of the day, they also caution that one should not make their prayers “fixed” or routine (Avot 2:13). This apparent contradiction really means that one’s prayer should be heartfelt, genuine, and not recited mechanically by rote. One should have full kavanah, meaning the right mindset and complete concentration. The Arizal (and other Kabbalists) laid down many kavanot for prayer, with specific things to have in mind—often complex formulas of God’s Names or arrangements of Hebrew letters, and sometimes simple ideas to think of while reciting certain words.

The Arizal explained (in the introduction to Sha’ar HaMitzvot) that one should not pray only because they need something from God. Rather, prayer is meant to remind us that God is the source of all blessing and goodness (as discussed above) and reminds us that only the Infinite God can provide us with everything we need. By asking things of God, we ultimately to draw closer to Him, like a child to a parent. There is also a much deeper, more mystical reason for prayer. Praying serves to elevate sparks of holiness—and possibly even whole souls—that are trapped within kelipot, spiritual “husks” (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 39). Prayer is part of the long and difficult process of tikkun, rectifying Creation and returning it to its perfect primordial state.

The Zohar (II, 215b) further states that there are four tikkunim in prayer: tikkun of the self, tikkun of the lower or physical world, tikkun of the higher spiritual worlds, and the tikkun of God’s Name. Elsewhere (I, 182b), the Zohar explains that man is judged by the Heavens three times daily, corresponding to the three prayer times. This fits well with the famous Talmudic statement (Rosh Hashanah 16b) that prayer is one of five things that can change a person’s fate, and annul any negative decrees that may be upon them. (The other four are charity, repentance, changing one’s name, or moving to a new home.)

I once heard a beautiful teaching in the name of the Belzer Rebbe that ties up much of what has been discussed so far:

According to tradition, Abraham was first to pray Shacharit, as we learn from the fact that he arose early in the morning for the Akedah (Genesis 22:3, also 19:27, 21:14). Isaac instituted Minchah, as we read how he went “to meditate in the field before evening” (Genesis 24:63). Jacob instituted the evening prayer, as we learn from his nighttime vision at Beit El (Genesis 28).

Each of these prayers was part of a cosmic tikkun, the rebuilding of the Heavenly Palace (or alternatively, the building of Yeshiva shel Ma’alah, the Heavenly Study Hall). God Himself began the process, and raised the first “wall” in Heaven with his camp of angels. This is the “camp of God” (מחנה) that Jacob saw (Genesis 32:3). Abraham came next and built the second “wall” in Heaven through his morning prayer on the holy mountain (הר) of Moriah (Genesis 22:14). Then came Isaac and built the third Heavenly wall when he “meditated in the field” (שדה). Jacob erected the last wall and finally saw a “House of God” (בית). Finally, Moses completed the structure by putting up a roof when he prayed Va’etchanan (ואתחנן). These terms follow an amazing numerical pattern: מחנה is 103, הר is 206 (with the extra kollel)*, שדה is 309, בית is 412, and ואתחנן is 515. Each prayer (and “wall”) of the forefathers is a progressive multiple of 103 (God’s wall).

We can learn a great deal from this. First, that prayer helps to build our “spiritual home” in Heaven. Second, that prayer both maintains the “walls” of God’s Palace in Heaven, and broadens His revealed presence on this Earth. And finally, that prayers are much more than praises and requests, they are part of a great cosmic process of rectification.

What Should We Pray For?

Aside from the things we request in the Amidah and other prayers, and aside from the all mystical kavanot we should have in mind, what else should we ask for in our personal prayers? A person can ask God of anything that they wish, of course. However, if they want their prayers answered, our Sages teach that it is better to prayer not for one’s self, but for the needs of others. We learn this from the incident of Abraham and Avimelech (Genesis 20). Here, God explicitly tells Avimelech that when Abraham prays for him, he will be healed. After the Torah tells us that Abraham prayed for Avimelech and his household was indeed healed, the very next verse is that “God remembered Sarah” and continues with the narrative of Isaac’s birth. Thus, we see how as soon as Abraham prayed for Avimelech’s household to be able to give birth to children, Abraham himself finally had a long-awaited child with Sarah.

Speaking of children, the Talmud advices what a person should pray for during pregnancy (Berakhot 60a). In the first three days after intercourse, one should pray for conception. In the first forty days of pregnancy, one can pray for which gender they would like the child to be, while another opinion (54a) holds that one shouldn’t pray for this and leave it up to God. (Amazingly, although gender is determined by chromosomes upon conception, we know today that gender development actually begins around day 42 of gestation. So, just as the Talmud states, there really is no point in hoping for a miraculous change in gender past day 40.) Henceforth in the first trimester, one should pray that there shouldn’t be a miscarriage. In the second trimester, one should pray that the child should not be stillborn, God forbid. In the final trimester, one should pray for an easy delivery.

Lastly, in addition to common things that everyone prays for (peace, prosperity, health, etc.) the Talmud states that there are three more things to pray for: a good king, a good year, and a good dream (Berakhot 55a). The simple meaning here is to pray that the government won’t oppress us, that only good things will happen in the coming year, and that we will be able to sleep well without stresses and worries. Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh points out that a good king (מלך) starts with the letter mem; a good year with shin (שנה); and good dream (חלום) with chet. This spells the root of Mashiach, for it is only when Mashiach comes that we will finally have a really good king, a really good year, and have the most peaceful sleep, as if we are living in a good dream.

Courtesy: Temple Institute


*Occasionally, gematria allows the use of a kollel, adding one to the total. There are several reasons for doing this, and the validity of the practice is based on Genesis 48:5. Here, Jacob says that Ephraim and Menashe will be equal to Reuben and Shimon. The gematria of “Ephraim and Menashe” (אפרים ומנשה) is 732, while the gematria of “Reuben and Shimon” (ראובן ושמעון) is 731. Since Jacob himself said they are equal, that means we can equate gematriot that are one number away from each other!

For those who don’t like kollels and want exact numbers (as I do), we can present another solution: Abraham’s prayer is the only one not exactly a multiple of God’s original “wall” of 103. The reason that one wall is “incomplete”, so to speak, is because every house needs an opening—Abraham’s wall is the one with the door, so his wall is a tiny bit smaller!