Tag Archives: Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi

The Genius of Mishnah

This week’s parasha (outside of Israel) is Emor, which begins with God commanding Moses to speak to the kohanim and to teach them. This is one of the key verses having a clear reference to the Oral Torah. Moses relayed not just the five books of the Written Torah, but also many more oral teachings and explanations that were passed down over the millennia. Another source for the Oral Law is Exodus 34:27, where God tells Moses to write down the words of Torah, and then adds that al pi—literally meaning “orally” or “on the mouth”—of these words of Torah, God is making a covenant with us. The Sages point out that this is another major allusion to the Torah sh’b’al peh, the Oral Torah (see Gittin 60b).

The necessity of an Oral Torah is actually self-evident since Torah laws are very brief and usually come with no explanations or details. For instance, we are told numerous times to bind certain signs upon our arms and to tie fringes on our clothes, but there is no description of what these things should look like. Another classic example is Deuteronomy 12:21 where we are told to slaughter animals for consumption “as I have instructed you”, yet no instructions or slaughtering procedures are written anywhere in the Torah. The obvious implication is that Moses relayed many teachings and instructions that were not recorded.

Eventually, those teachings did come to be recorded in the Mishnah. The term Mishnah comes from the verb lishnot (לשנות), “to repeat”, since these laws and teachings were originally learned through constant repetition, to reinforce the knowledge and memorize it crystal clear. Less known is that, since the same exact verb is leshanot (לשנות), meaning “to change”, the Oral Law was not meant to be written down in order to keep it fluid and flexible.* Judaism is always evolving, and halakhah must change under varying circumstances and as new problems emerge. The central idea behind having an Oral Law was so that it would not come to be “set in stone” like the written law. The Torah thus remains fresh in every generation, and open to new ideas, applications, and chiddushim. This is really the beauty of the Oral Torah. (In fact, when the Arizal relates the different aspects of Torah to the mystical Sefirot, he points out that the Mishnah specifically is in Tiferet, “Beauty”, see Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh.)

On a more mystical level, Mishnah (משנה) has the same letters and numerical value as Neshamah (נשמה), “soul”, for while the Written Torah is the “body” of Judaism, the Oral Torah is its inner dimension and true essence. (This is also why it is customary to recite Mishnayot in honour of the dead, to elevate their souls.) It is important to clarify that while the Mishnah is certainly not the entire Oral Torah, it is the first text of the Oral Torah and the foundation for the rest. Continue reading

Understanding the Soul-Body Relationship (With Helpful Graphs)

One of the surprising things about the Torah is that it actually does not say much about spiritual matters, at least not on the superficial level. Adam is given a soul (Genesis 2:7) and all human beings subsequently have one, but there is no exposition on what a soul actually is. There is no discussion of the afterlife, either. In this week’s parasha, Va’etchanan, we are cautioned to “carefully guard our souls” (Deuteronomy 4:15). How exactly does one do so? We know that to keep the soul healthy, we need to fulfil mitzvot, yet mitzvot are mostly actions performed with the body. How does this connection between body and soul actually work? Moreover, our Sages use the above phrase in teaching that one is responsible for the health of their body as well. What is the difference between a healthy body and a healthy soul? Continue reading

The Great Disputation: Mochin vs. Trinity

This week’s parasha concludes the Ten Plagues of Egypt by describing the final three plagues, as alluded to in the name of the parasha, Bo (בא), which has a numerical value of three. One would think that the parashas would be divided in such a way that all the plagues appear in one portion. Yet, we see the first seven in one, and the final three in another. The mystical reason for this is to mirror the Sefirot, which are divided into the seven lower middot, and the three higher mochin, “mental” or “intellectual” faculties.

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

The mochin are the three Sefirot of Keter (or Ratzon, God’s “Will”); Chokhmah, “Wisdom”; and Binah, “Understanding”. They are on a higher level than the lower seven Sefirot. In fact, in this physical world we find most things mirror the seven, including the seven discernible colours of the rainbow, the seven notes of the musical scale, the seven visible “luminaries” in the sky, and the seven days of the week. The mochin, meanwhile, represent the upper worlds, and correspond to more ethereal things like the three primordial elements of Creation (air, water, and fire, as per Sefer Yetzirah) and the three realms of space, time, and soul (in mystical texts referred to by the acronym ‘ashan, עשן, standing for olam, shanah, nefesh). (For a detailed explanation of this, see here.)

Recall that the Sefirot represent the ten major aspects of God, and are primarily meant to help us relate to, and understand, the Infinite One. As such, the mochin represent the highest aspects of God. That there are specifically three of them is significant. The number three is central to Judaism, and God has a particular affinity for this number, as the Talmud (Shabbat 88a) tells us:

Blessed is the All-Merciful One, Who gave the three-fold Torah [ie. the Tanakh, composed of Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim] to the three-fold nation [Kohen, Levi, Israel] by means of a third-born [Moses] on the third day, in the third month [Sivan].

While this teaching is well-known, what isn’t so well known is in whose name it is brought down. The Talmud introduces it as a teaching “of that Galilean”. Who is this anonymous Galilean? Why does the Talmud use a seemingly-derogatory term for him, avoiding his name? Continue reading