Tag Archives: Primordial Serpent

Mashiach’s Ancestry

In this week’s parasha, Vayechi, we read how Jacob gives a final blessing to his children before his passing. In concluding Dan’s blessing, Jacob says that he is eagerly awaiting God’s salvation, liyeshuatkha kiviti Hashem (Genesis 49:18). What is this referring to? We would think that the salvation will come through Judah, progenitor of David and Mashiach, not through Dan! Indeed, when Jacob blesses Judah (49:10), he says that the royal scepter will remain in his hands all the way until the coming of Shiloh, traditionally interpreted as a name for Mashiach.

On Dan’s blessing, Rashi comments that Jacob foresaw the rise of Samson—from the tribe of Dan—and was praying that Samson would be successful. In fact, as we’ve discussed before, Samson was the potential Mashiach of his generation. (This is first brought down in the Midrash, Beresheet Rabbah 98:14.) Upon closer examination, there is actually a profound connection between the tribes of Judah and Dan.

Our Sages taught that Judah was the most illustrious of the tribes, while Dan was the lowliest. In the Wilderness, the tribe of Judah led the way, while Dan was at the back of the camp. Dan was tasked with being the “lost and found”, and picking up all the things left behind by the other tribes ahead of them. This brought them tremendous merit. On a mystical level, Dan’s role is really symbolic of our mission in “finding” and restoring the lost sparks of Creation to rectify the cosmos. Although people saw Judah as the greatest and Dan as the lowliest, God saw them both as equal, and declared that He will bring representatives from the two together to build His house (Shemot Rabbah 40:4).

As such, God chose Betzalel from the tribe of Judah, and Oholiav from the tribe of Dan to build the Mishkan. The same happened with the Temple in Jerusalem, built by King Solomon from the tribe of Judah, by using resources and labour from King Hiram, whose mother was from the tribe of Dan! (Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Tisa 13) And finally, in the same vein, Mashiach will come from the tribe of Judah paternally, but from the tribe of Dan through his maternal line. (Interestingly, it is possible that King David himself had this lineage, since some hold that his mother, Nitzevet bat Ada’el, was from the tribe of Dan, too.) The root of Yehudah is lehodot, to “thank” and be “grateful”, which is partly an aspect of Chessed, the right pole of “kindness”. The root of Dan is din, “judgement”, representing Gevurah, the left side of “severity”. It is fitting that we need both aspects, right and left, in balance to bring about rectification in the universe. Mashiach is an embodiment of that balance.

Jerusalem’s Coat of Arms

Another Midrash ties this to the reason why both Judah and Dan are described in the Torah as gur aryeh, a “lion cub”, the lion being the symbol of David and of Jerusalem. In Jacob’s finally blessing in this week’s parasha, it is Judah who is called gur aryeh, but in Moses’ final blessing (Deuteronomy 33), it is Dan who is the gur aryeh. The Midrash concludes that Mashiach will come from these two tribes, “his father from Judah and his mother from Dan” (Yalkut Shimoni I, 160). There is also an allusion to it in last week’s parasha, where we read the names of the 70 members of Jacob’s family that came down to Egypt. The only progeny of Dan is Chushim (חשים), an exact anagram of “Mashiach” (משיח)! According to a well-known tradition, it was Chushim who finally put an end to Esau, and so too will Mashiach put an end to the oppression of Edom.

While Dan is called a “lion” by Moses, in this week’s parasha he is called a “snake” by Jacob. This is because the lion was the symbol of the Davidic dynasty, but more specifically, the symbol of Mashiach himself is a snake (as explored in depth here). The famous gematria of “snake” (נחש) is equal to “Mashiach” (משיח), both being 358. This really goes all the way back to Eden, where the Serpent caused man’s downfall, and so it will be the “serpentine” Mashiach who reverses that event. In Kabbalistic sources, this is the meaning of Isaiah’s description of the great final battle between the nachash bariach and the nachash ‘akalaton, the “straight serpent” and the “twisted serpent” (Isaiah 27:1). The former is Mashiach, and the latter is the embodiment of evil that will be destroyed at the End of Days.

Mashiach’s Complex Lineage

When it comes to the specific lineage of Mashiach, we know that he is a direct descendant of King David, but do we have more exact information about his lineage? The pre-Davidic lineage is somewhat clear. It begins with Abraham, from whom there are 14 generations up to David (alluded to by the value of “David”, דוד, being 14!) The key figures in between are Judah, Peretz, and Boaz. Meanwhile, Abraham’s nephew Lot plays a big role, too. Following the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot ended up being seduced by his own daughters—who assumed the whole world was destroyed and they had to repopulate the planet—giving birth to Moab and Ben-Ammi, the progenitors of the Moabite and Ammonite nations. From Moab came forth the princess Ruth, wife of Boaz and great-grandmother of King David. From Ammon came Na’amah, wife of King Solomon and mother of Rehoboam, who continued the Davidic dynasty in its third generation.

While we would assume that Mashiach is a direct descendant of David through his son Solomon, there is actually another opinion. The Zohar (III, 173b), for instance, notes that Mashiach might actually come not from Solomon, but from David and Batsheva’s third son, Nathan. (It appears that the Christians wanted to satisfy both rabbinic opinions when providing two different, contradictory genealogies for Jesus in the New Testament: one going through Solomon and one going through Nathan! The irony, of course, is that Christians think Jesus is the literal son of God, so what use is a human lineage anyway?) The dilemma gets more puzzling:

The Zohar says Nathan’s wife was called Heftzibah, and their son was Menachem ben Amiel, an epithet for Mashiach. The problem is that we also know King Hezekiah’s wife was named Heftzibah. Hezekiah was the most righteous king since his forefather David, and is certainly a progenitor in the line of Mashiach. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 98b) states that Hezekiah himself should have been Mashiach, and despite being totally righteous, had one missing quality (for more, see ‘Who is Mashiach?’). The son of Hezekiah and Heftzibah was Menashe, Judah’s longest-serving monarch. Menashe had the potential to be Mashiach, too (and did merit the longest royal reign) but fell to idolatry and wickedness. King Menashe was yet another failed messiah. Some have argued that Menachem ben Amiel and Menashe must be referring to the same person (at least spiritually). Yet Menashe comes from Solomon, and Menachem is supposed to come from Nathan. How do we solve this dilemma?

Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer comes in and, at first glance, complicates the problem further. It states (in Ch. 19) that Menachem ben Amiel is a descendant of Joseph, so he is more likely Mashiach ben Yosef, not Mashiach ben David. We might therefore conclude two things: That both Mashiach ben David and Mashiach ben Yosef are actually descendants of King David, the former through Solomon and the latter through Nathan. And, perhaps, just as the former is maternally descended from the tribe of Dan, the latter is maternally descended from the tribe of Joseph. (Maybe Heftzibah the wife of Nathan was a descendant of Joseph?)

The reality is that a person can be a direct descendant of multiple figures, especially after so many generations and so many marriages in between. Today, all Jews are Yehudim, and by default “Judeans”—even Kohanim and Levi’im are Yehudim! So, there is no reason why Mashiach ben Yosef cannot be a descendant both of Joseph and of David. He would undoubtedly be a Yehudi after all! Intriguingly, even David is called an Efrati, apparently with Ephraimite lineage in his past (see I Samuel 17:12, which begins וְדָוִד בֶּן־אִישׁ אֶפְרָתִי).

As it stands today, all the tribes have long thoroughly intermixed, and the exact lineage is no longer of significance (nor is it even traceable). What’s important are the key qualities that Mashiach must possess, and the ability for inspiring leadership and for dignified kingship, as well as, most significantly, to accomplish the tasks set out in the Tanakh (and as codified by the Rambam in Hilkhot Melakhim).

When Mashiach does come, he will merit to wield the serpentine Staff of Moses—that special tool fashioned by God at the twilight of the Sixth Day of Creation (Avot 5:6). And who will provide him with that staff? None other than the returning Heftzibah, the Mevaseret Tzion, and a fierce warrior in her own right who has the power to “slay kings”, as described in the little-known ancient Sefer Zerubavel:

“…the staff of Aaron and Moses and David king of Israel, the staff which flowered in the Tent of Meeting, and brought forth blossoms and produced almonds. And Eliyahu son of Elazar hid it in Raqat [in the territory of Naftali], which is Tiberias, and there was hidden Mashiach ben Ephraim.”

And Zerubavel ben She’altiel said to Michael [the angel]: “If it please my Lord, when will come the light of Israel? And what will be after all this?” And he said to me: “Mashiach ben Yosef will come five years after Heftzibah, and will gather all Israel as one man, and then the king of Persia will come up against Israel and there will be great distress in Israel. And Heftzibah the wife of the prophet Nathan will go out with the staff which the Lord will give her, and the Lord will make a spirit of confusion enter them, and they will slay one another, and there the wicked will die…”

Liyeshuatkha kiviti Hashem!

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!

The Letter of Creation

The following is an excerpt from Garments of Light, Volume Two. Get the book here


Vayigash elav Yehudah, “And Judah approached him…” The Zohar begins its commentary on this week’s parasha by briefly citing a well-known Midrash about how the letters of the Hebrew alphabet approached God seeking to be the letter through which God creates the universe. The account is presented in full in an ancient text called Otiot d’Rabbi Akiva, and is also referenced to in multiple places, including the first chapters of Beresheet Rabbah and Yalkut Shimoni. The Zohar itself provides a detailed account in its first pages (I, 2b-3b):

…when the Holy One, blessed be He, desired to create the world, the letters of the alphabet appeared before Him (in reverse order). First came Tav and said: “Master of the Universe, may it be Your will that You create the universe with me, for I am Your seal of Truth [emet], and You are called Truth. It would therefore be fitting for the King to start His Creation with the letter of Truth.”

The Holy One, blessed be He, replied: “You are right and worthy, but I shall not create the universe with you, for you will be the mark upon the foreheads of the faithful, who fulfil the Torah from Aleph to Tav. With your mark, they shall die, for you are the seal of death [mavet].”

Being the last letter of the alphabet, Tav is the “seal” of God, and God’s seal is Truth. Tav argued it should be the letter of Creation—and the first letter of the Torah—because it represents Truth. God responded that Tav also represents death. The Talmud (Shabbat 55a) states that when a person is “marked” for death, the mark is a letter Tav on their forehead. And so, the universe cannot be created with a Tav. Next came the letter Shin: Continue reading