Tag Archives: Ramak

Shalom Aleichem: To Sing or Not to Sing?

This week’s parasha, Vayak’hel, begins with God’s command for Israel to observe the Sabbath. One of the most famous symbols and songs of Shabbat is undoubtedly Shalom Aleichem, traditionally sung before the evening Kiddush. The lyrics of Shalom Aleichem welcome the Sabbath angels into our homes, and for many, serve to set the atmosphere of Shabbat itself. Yet, some of our wise rabbis in the past have cautioned against singing this song!  Where did Shalom Aleichem come from, and who composed it? When did Jews start singing this song, and why?

A Mystery Song

Much of the beloved Kabbalat Shabbat service is of very recent origin. For example, Lecha Dodi, through which we welcome in the Sabbath, was composed by Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz (c. 1500-1576). In fact, the eight verses of Lecha Dodi form an acrostic, the initials spelling his name. Born in Greece, Rabbi Alkabetz later moved to Tzfat, the capital of Jewish mysticism. He studied with Rabbi Yosef Karo (c. 1488-1575), famed composer of the Shulchan Arukh, and was the brother-in-law of the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570), who led the Tzfat Kabbalists before the arrival of the Arizal (Rabbi Itzchak Luria, 1534-1572). Many practices and customs of Judaism as we know them today originated in this incredible circle of Jewish mystics in Tzfat. One of these is the Kabbalat Shabbat prayer service.

Although Rabbi Alkabetz certainly wrote Lecha Dodi, there is little evidence that the wider Kabbalistic circle of Tzfat recited it in his own day. Contrary to popular belief, the Arizal did not sing this song. We know the Arizal’s teachings and practices from the writings of his students, namely his primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital (1542-1620). In Pri Etz Chaim, Rabbi Vital makes it abundantly clear, and repeats multiple times, exactly how the Arizal would perform Kabbalat Shabbat (see, for example, Sha’ar Shabbat, ch. 6):

The Arizal would go out into the fields, and recite Psalm 20 (with the most important verse there being the tenth, which starts Hashem l’mabul yashav, the initials spelling a Name of God, יל״י). He would then say Bo’i Kalah, “come my Bride” three times (based on a teaching in the Talmud, Shabbat 119a). Following this, he would recite Psalm 92 (Mizmor shir l’yom haShabbat), which also contains hidden Names of God. That would be it for Kabbalat Shabbat. Rabbi Vital explains what happens next:

And when you come home from the synagogue after praying Arvit, stand at your place at the meal table, and say “This is the meal of the Holy Apple Orchard”… and after this, encircle the table around the right, silently. Then, take in your hands two bundles of hadas [myrtle branches], and join them together, and say the blessing [besamim] on them, and smell them. And afterwards, encircle the table a second time with the branches in hand, silently. Then say “Zachor v’shamor b’dibbur echad ne’emru”. Then say Kiddush.

After eating the meal, recite some passages from the tractate Shabbat, then birkat hamazon, then say again “Zachor v’shamor b’dibbur echad ne’emru”. Then say the blessing on the hadas a second time. In the morning, for the second Shabbat meal, do the same as you did the previous night [during the first meal], and do the same for the third meal [seudah shlishit].

‘Sabbath Queen’ by Abigail Sarah Bagraim

Thus, while we find some words that remind us of Lecha Dodi, such as “bo’i kalah” and “zachor v’shamor b’dibbur echad” (rearranged by Alkabetz in Lecha Dodi so that “shamor” comes first, to spell his name “Shlomo”), there is no mention of an entire Lecha Dodi. Nor is there any mention of singing Shalom Aleichem (or Eshet Chayil for that matter).

The Arizal did teach that one should say the words “shalom aleichem” three times at the end of Birkat Levanah, the blessing on a new moon recited once a month (Sha’ar Rosh Chodesh Chanukah v’Purim, ch. 3). This is still done today. The Arizal explained that saying shalom aleichem three times serves to remove any kitrug, spiritual “prosecution”. Based on this, some believe that whoever composed the song Shalom Aleichem incorporated this teaching of the Arizal. This is probably why some (especially Sephardis) have the custom to sing only the first three stanzas of Shalom Aleichem, thus saying the words “shalom aleichem” three times. Alternatively, this may be why many others (especially Ashkenazis) have the custom to recite each stanza of Shalom Aleichem three times.

The Origin of Shalom Aleichem

So where and when did Shalom Aleichem first appear? It seems the earliest source is Seder Tikkunei Shabbat, a work first published in Prague in 1641. I found a 1650 Krakow edition, and its Kabbalat Shabbat service and meal table ritual is nearly identical to what is generally practiced today. There are the six Psalms before Lecha Dodi, then Lecha Dodi itself, followed by two more Psalms. Then there is Shalom Aleichem, with all four stanzas—each to be read three times—followed by a prayer called Ribbon Kol HaOlamim, and then Eshet Chayil.

Cover of Tikkunei Shabbat

The cover page of the text says it is based on the teachings of the Arizal. It isn’t clear who exactly put the book together, though it appears to mention a “Rabbi Isaiah Nasi”. That may be Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (Shelah HaKadosh, 1555-1630), a renowned Kabbalist who was born in Prague and lived for a time in Krakow. He got hold of the teachings of the Arizal, and towards the end of his life travelled to Tzfat in hopes of learning directly from the Arizal’s disciples. Considering that Seder Tikkunei Shabbat was first published twenty years after the Shelah left Europe, and eleven years after he died, it may have been put together by someone else, based on his teachings, which were in turn based on the Arizal.

Still, we do not know who it was that composed Shalom Aleichem. Whatever the case, within a century it had become popular enough that there were those who opposed singing it. One of these opponents was Rabbi Yakov Emden (1697-1776). He published his own siddur, where Shalom Aleichem is missing. He pointed out several issues with the song, including the absurd request for angels (and not God Himself) to bless us (although earlier Jewish works don’t necessarily have a problem with this), and the strange wording of the song, especially the word “mimelekh”. Amazingly, modern versions of Rabbi Emden’s Beit Yakov siddur do include Shalom Aleichem! The earliest Beit Yakov siddur I could find was from 1881, which has Shalom Aleichem in full, though without that problematic word mimelekh.

Shalom Aleichem, with commentary, in an 1881 Beit Yakov siddur

The commentary in this version of Beit Yakov explains that the custom of singing Shalom Aleichem is based on the Talmudic statement (Shabbat 119b) that when one comes home from the synagogue on Friday evening he is followed by two angels:

Rav Chisda said in the name of Mar Ukva: “One who prays on Shabbat evening and recites Vaykhulu, the two ministering angels who accompany the person at all times place their hands on his head and say to him: ‘And your iniquity has passed, and your sin has been atoned.’” [Isaiah 6:7] It was taught [in a Baraita]: Rabbi Yose bar Yehuda says: “Two ministering angels accompany a person on Shabbat evening from the synagogue to his home, one good angel and one bad angel. And when he reaches his home and finds a candle burning and a table set and his bed made, the good angel says: ‘May it be Your will that it shall be like this for another Shabbat.’ And the bad angel answers against his will: ‘Amen.’ And if the person’s home is not prepared for Shabbat in that manner, the bad angel says: ‘May it be Your will that it shall be so for another Shabbat,’ and the good angel answers against his will: ‘Amen.’”

It is these angels that Shalom Aleichem is apparently referring to. The angels are welcomed into the home, asked to give us their blessing, and to head back out. We see above that one of the angels is a kategor, a “prosecutor”. As we learned from the Arizal, saying shalom aleichem three times eliminates kitrug, “prosecution”, thus neutralizing that “bad” angel.

As for the argument that the song is requesting blessings from angels, I believe the second argument regarding the strange wording of mimelekh actually serves to neutralize the first argument. This line is meant to remind the singer and the audience that, of course, we are really just request a blessing from God Himself—through His messenger angels (something that happens many times in the Torah)—hence the words “From the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He” (מִמֶּלֶךְ מַלְכֵי הַמְּלָכִים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא). We are welcoming the angels that are coming are way mimelekh, “from the King”, and who are blessing us mimelekh, “from the King”.

To summarize, Shalom Aleichem did not emerge among the early Tzfat Kabbalists, nor was it recited by the Arizal as some believe. It had only become widely popular by the middle of the 18th century. The identity of the author remains unknown.

So, should we recite Shalom Aleichem, or not? For those who have reservations (like Rabbi Emden, and apparently also the Vilna Gaon) and feel strongly that it should be skipped (or wish to mirror the early Tzfat Kabbalists as closely as possible), they have on whom to rely. However, it is difficult to avoid such a deeply-rooted and widely-accepted custom. Ultimately, the song is based on a Talmudic passage, speaks only of positive things, and affirms God is the “King of Kings”. It is a mystical, albeit mysterious song, and a beautiful, peaceful way to start the Sabbath festivities.

Chanukah & the Light of Creation

Tonight we light the second candle of Chanukah. As is well-known, Jewish law forbids using the light of the Chanukah candles for mundane purposes. At first thought, this is strange since all other holiday candles which we light may be used for mundane purposes. One can read a book by the light of their Shabbat candles, or have a candle-lit dinner with the Shabbat candles on the table, yet the same cannot be done with Chanukah candles. This is actually why we light an additional (“ninth”) candle called the shamash, whose job is to “protect” the light of the Chanukah candles so that we do not inadvertently make use of them. Why is it that the Chanukah lights must not be used? To answer this question one must go all the way back, long before the Maccabees, to the very beginnings of the universe.

(Credit: Oren Rozen)

The Light of Creation

When we open the Torah we read how God’s first act of Creation within an empty universe was light. God said “Let there be light”, and so it was. A few paragraphs later, we read that on the fourth day God created various luminaries to “give light”, including the sun, moon, and stars. If the things that naturally give off light were only created on the fourth day, what was the light of the first day? The Sages (Chagigah 12a) grappled with this apparent contradiction:

But was the light created on the first day? …This is [to be explained] according to Rabbi Elazar, for Rabbi Elazar said: “The light which the Holy One, blessed be He, created on the first day, one could see thereby from one end of the universe to the other; but as soon as the Holy One, blessed be He, beheld the generation of the Flood and the generation of the Dispersion, and saw that their actions were corrupt, He arose and hid it from them…”

Now the Tannaim [differ on the point]: “The light which the Holy One, blessed be He, created on the first day one could see and look thereby from one end of the universe to the other,” this is the view of Rabbi Yaakov. But the Sages say: It is identical with the luminaries; for they were created on the first day, but they were not “hung up” until the fourth day.

On the simple level, the Sages agreed that the light of the first and fourth days were really the same thing: while God created the luminaries on the first day, He only set them in their specific locations and orbits on the fourth day. This is in line with another opinion that God really created everything in one instant, on the first day, and on the subsequent “days” He simply put everything in its place. [For an explanation of this, see the Ramak’s (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570) Pardes Rimonim 13:5.]

On a deeper level, as expounded by Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Yaakov, the light of the first day was an entirely different entity. Unlike the familiar, physical light of the fourth day, the light of the first day was a special, mystical light which contained the power for one to see across the universe, through all of time and space. According to the Zohar, this is the special radiance of Creation, from which all things were fashioned (as we’ve written in the past). This idea is already noted in the Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 12:6) which adds that “the light with which God created the universe [was given] to Adam, and with it he stood and gazed from one end of the universe to the other.”

Adam and Eve were given this Divine Light as a gift. However, once they consumed the Forbidden Fruit, that light disappeared. In fact, the Kabbalists explain that initially Adam and Eve saw the world entirely through this Divine Light, and themselves glowed with this light, and when they looked upon each other, they saw only each other’s light, which is why they were unashamed. After consuming the Fruit, that light disappeared, and when they looked upon each other they saw frail skin, and all of its lustful trappings. This is why they were suddenly ashamed and wanted to hide.

The Kabbalists explain that this is the mystical meaning of the interplay between the words for “light”, or (אור), and “skin”, ‘or (עור), words that sound the same and are written which just one substitution: The singular, holy aleph replaced with the ‘ayin, which literally means “eye” and represents this illusory physical world. Before the Fruit, Adam and Eve saw light; afterwards they saw only skin. (See Beresheet Rabbah 20:12, Zohar I, 22b, and Pardes Rimonim 13:3)

This is the deeper meaning behind God’s first word to Adam and Eve after their fall: “Ayeka?” The term literally means “Where are you?” referring to the fact that Adam and Eve were hiding because they were ashamed. Of course, God knew exactly where they were. So what did He mean by Ayeka?

Ayeka

The Sages explain that the original Divine Light, called Or HaGanuz, the “hidden light”, only shone for 36 hours. There are two opinions as to how one reaches this number. The first (as in Beresheet Rabbah cited above) is that the Light shone for the entire 24 hours of the first Shabbat, as well as the 12 hours preceding that Shabbat, from the moment that Adam and Eve were created on the sixth day. The light disappeared at Shabbat’s conclusion, which is one reason why we perform Havdallah at the end of Shabbat, symbolizing our hope for the restoration of that Light. Alternatively, the Light shone for the first three days of Creation, before those physical luminaries were created on the fourth day. Since each day had 12 hours of light and 12 hours of dark, that means each of the three days had 12 hours of this Divine Light, totalling up to 36.

In reality, both opinions are correct. The Divine Light initially shone for those first three days—36 hours—and was then concealed by the new physical luminaries. On the sixth day, when God created Adam and Eve, He entrusted them with that Light, and they possessed it for 36 hours until the conclusion of the first Sabbath, neatly mirroring those 36 hours of the first three days. When Adam and Eve consumed the Fruit, the Light disappeared from them, and was taken back up to Heaven, stored beneath God’s Throne (Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah 499). This brings us back to Ayeka. The gematria of that word (איכה) happens to be 36. When God called out to Adam and Eve and said Ayeka, what He meant was not “where are you?” but “where is the Light?”

‘Garden of Eden’, by Thomas Cole

Restoring the Light

While the Or HaGanuz has been hidden for now, it reveals itself in this world through several channels. We find that same number 36 in a number of important places. Most notably, when we look at the actual number of texts in our Holy Scriptures, we find that there are 36: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hoshea, Yoel, Amos, Ovadiah, Yonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Tzephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles. While we generally group these texts into 24 “books” of the Tanakh for convenience, there are exactly 36 independent works. This reminds us that the Holy Scriptures contain within them the Divine Light, and through the study of these texts we can receive a glimpse of it.

Similarly, the Bnei Issachar (Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Shapiro, c. 1783-1841) points out that there are 36 tractates to the Talmud. Study of Torah—whether Written (Tanakh) or Oral (Talmud)—serves to restore that Divine Light little by little. Naturally, this parallels the idea of the 36 Perfect Tzaddikim. The Sages state that in every generation there are exactly 36 perfectly righteous people alive, and the world only continues to exist in their merit (Sanhedrin 97b). They contain a spark of that Divine Light within them. And on the calendar, too, there is a month in which finding the Or HaGanuz is particularly auspicious. This is the month of Kislev which, the Bnei Issachar points out, is a contraction of kis (כס) and lev (לו), the former meaning “hidden” and the latter having the value of 36.

That brings us right back to Chanukah, which begins on the 25th of Kislev. We light one candle on the first day, two on the second, and so on. The total number of candles lit over the course of eight days just happens to be 36. The Chanukah lights are symbolic of that special holy light of Creation. One should not for a moment think that these are just mundane, physical lights. And this is the mystical reason for why Jewish law forbids using the Chanukah lights for any purpose. One should constantly meditate on the fact that the light of the Menorah represents the Or HaGanuz, the light of Creation, the holy light with which Adam and Eve “saw from one end of the universe to the other.”

Jewish law also requires one to place their Menorah in a widely visible spot. We must “publicise the miracle” as much as possible, hence the many public Menorah-lighting ceremonies that take place around the world, and the many electronic chanukiahs found outside synagogues, in shopping malls, and on the roofs of cars. We are not just commemorating the Chanukah miracle, but the Jewish mission to bring light into the world (as Isaiah 42:6 famously states).

From a mystical perspective, we light 36 candles to remind ourselves that our mission is to rectify the cosmos and reveal the primordial holy light of God. We remind ourselves that we should strive to return to being like the original Adam and Eve, who glowed with this light, and who looked past the deceptive skin to see the pure light within each other. When we learn to recognize each other’s inner glow, then we will merit a return to the luminous Garden of Eden.

Chag Sameach!

Who is Samael?

In this week’s parasha, Vayishlach, we read of Jacob’s famed battle with the angel. According to many sources, Jacob battled Esau’s guardian angel. While the identity of the angel is concealed in the plain text of the Torah, Jewish tradition associates this angel with Samael. That name is one of the most famous—or infamous—of all angelic entities, not just in Judaism, but also in Christianity, Gnosticism, and other Near Eastern traditions. Who is Samael?

‘Jacob Wrestling with an Angel’ by Charles Foster

The Primordial Serpent

One of the most ancient Jewish mystical works is Sefer HaBahir. At the very end of the text (ch. 200), we are told that Samael was the angel that came down to the Garden of Eden in the form of a serpent. We read here that one of his punishments was to become the guardian angel of the wicked Esau. The Bahir explains that Samael was jealous of man, and disagreed with the fact that God gave man dominion over the earth. He came down with the mission of corrupting mankind.

The Midrash (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 14) seems to agree, describing how God “cast down Samael and his troop from their holy place in Heaven.” In the previous chapter of the same Midrash, we read how Samael is unique in that, while other angels have six wings, Samael has twelve, and “commands a whole army of demons”. The Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572) adds that Samael is in charge of all the “male” demons, called Mazikim, while his “wife” Lilith is in charge of all the “female” demons, called Shedim (Sha’ar HaPesukim on Tehilim). He further associates Lilith with the sword of the “Angel of Death”.

A little-known apocryphal text called the Ascension [or Testament] of Moses (dating back at least to the early 1st century CE) states that Samael is the one “who takes the soul away from man”, directly identifying him with the Angel of Death. This ties neatly into his name, since Samael (סמאל) literally means “poison of God”. Indeed, the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 20b) states that the Angel of Death takes a person away by standing over them with his sword, before a drop of poison falls from the tip of the sword into the victim’s mouth. Elsewhere, the Talmud (Bava Batra 16a) tells us that the Angel of Death is the same entity as Satan, and as the source of the yetzer hara (the Evil Inclination).

In his Kabbalah (pg. 385), Gershom Scholem brings a number of sources that state Satan and Samael are one and the same, together with another figure called Beliar, or Belial. There are those who say that while Satan simply means “prosecutor”, and is only a title, Samael is actually his proper name. The Zohar (on parashat Shoftim) appears to agree, stating that the two main persecuting forces in Heaven are Samael and the Serpent. Some sources depict Samael as actually riding upon the Serpent!

Belial, meanwhile, is a term that appears many times in the Tanakh. It is first found in Deuteronomy 13:14, in a warning that certain bnei Belial will come out to tempt Israel into idolatry. While the simple meaning (and the way it is generally translated) is “base” or “wicked men”, the Kabbalistic take is that it refers to impure spirits that come to lure Israel to sin. Note that the Torah says these bnei Belial will emerge from among our own people.

Not surprisingly, the Zohar (Raya Mehemna on Ki Tetze) says that there are a very small group of “Jewish” imposters who actually worship Samael. These are the ones that give all Jews a bad name, and aim to reverse all the good that Jews do in the world. We have written much of this small group of imposters before, as they are more commonly referred to as the Erev Rav. The Zohar states that Samael and Lilith were once good angels before their “fall”, and began to be worshipped as deities in their own right in the pre-Flood generation. The people in those days worshipped them in order to manipulate them to do their bidding. The Erev Rav aims to do the same today. Thankfully, God will destroy them all in the End of Days, and this is the deeper meaning of Zechariah 13:2:

“And it shall come to pass in that day,” says the Lord of Hosts, “that I will cut off the names of the idols out of the land, and they shall no more be remembered; and also I will cause the prophets and the unclean spirit to pass out of the land.”

Which prophets is God referring to? Those leaders of the Erev Rav that attempt to convince the masses that they are “prophets”, only to lead the people astray.

With this in mind, Jacob’s battle with Samael takes on a whole new meaning. It reminds us that the job of each Jew is to fight Samael and all his evil minions—the bnei Belial, the Erev Rav—tooth and nail, unceasingly, all through the dark night, as Jacob did. We must always stand on the side of light and truth, holiness and Godliness. This makes us Israel, as Jacob was renamed, the ones who fight alongside God. The Jewish people are meant to be God’s holy warriors in this world.

Battling 365 Days of the Year

Commenting on this week’s parasha, the Zohar states that there are 365 angels ruling over each of the 365 days of the solar year. These further correspond to the 365 gidim (“sinews”, or more accurately, major nerves) of the human body, as Jewish tradition maintains. In Jacob’s battle, Samael struck him in the thigh, on his gid hanashe, the sciatic nerve. For this reason, the Torah tells us, the Jewish people do not eat the sciatic nerve “until this day” (Genesis 32:33). Removing this sinew is a key part of koshering meat. In most places, since removing it is so difficult, they simply do not include the back half of the cow or sheep in the kosher meat process.

The Zohar says that since there are 365 days corresponding to 365 sinews, the gid hanashe corresponds to a specific day of the year, too, of course. Which day is that? Tisha b’Av, the most tragic day in Jewish history. The Zohar concludes that Samael is the angel that rules over this day, which is why it is so “unlucky” and sad. At the same time, it suggests that Jacob fought Samael on that same day, so even when Samael is at his strongest, each Jew has the power to defeat him.

Interestingly, the Talmud has a different approach. There we read that Satan rules 364 days of the year! (Nedarim 32b) This is why the gematria of HaSatan (השטן, the way it appears in the Tanakh) is 364. According to the Talmud, the one day a year that Satan “rests” is Yom Kippur. Thus, Yom Kippur is a particularly favourable day to repent and to have God accept our prayers. The Midrash (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 46) takes it one step further and states that not only does Satan rest on Yom Kippur, but he actually crosses the floor in the Heavenly Court and joins the defense!

How do we reconcile the seeming contradiction between the Talmud and the Zohar? Perhaps Samael, before his “fall”, was originally appointed to rule over Tisha b’Av. After his rebellion, he sought to dominate as much of the year as possible, and remains at large 364 days of the calendar, being particularly strong on Tisha b’Av. Only on Yom Kippur does God make sure that Satan has no dominion at all.

This should remind us that, at the end of the day, God is infinite and omnipotent, and there is none that can stand before Him. Satan or Samael can be winked out of existence instantaneously if God so willed it. Alas, the impure spirits still have a role to play in history. They will soon meet their end:

Kabbalistic texts state that Satan will lead one last battle in the End of Days, against Mashiach. He will come as the dreaded Armilus. In Sefer Zerubavel, Armilus is identified with Satan himself in bodily form, while in Nistarot d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, he is the son of Satan. He will seek to kill Mashiach, and he may succeed in killing Mashiach ben Yosef, before being in turn extinguished by Mashiach ben David. This is why the Arizal instituted a custom to insert a short prayer for Mashiach ben Yosef, that he should survive, in the blessing for Jerusalem in the Amidah. We have written elsewhere, though, why Mashiach ben Yosef must die to accomplish an important tikkun (see ‘Secrets of the Akedah’ in Garments of Light).

Until then, how do we keep Samael away? The Arizal (Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Shemot) taught not to pronounce his name out loud, for this attracts him. In Jewish tradition, we instead say the letters ס״ם, “samekh-mem”. The Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570) stated that eating too much red meat during the week gives power to Samael. It is generally best to leave red meat consumption for Shabbat and holidays if possible. It goes without saying that one should eat kosher meat to avoid the gid hanashe. Meanwhile, the Talmud (Shabbat 30b) famously recounts how David kept the Angel of Death at bay by constantly being immersed in Torah study. We should be focused on study of holy texts, prayer, repentance, doing mitzvot and good deeds. Finally, we must do everything we can to defeat our own inner evil inclinations, struggling as long as it takes, unrelenting, as Jacob did in his battle. In the same passage where the Talmud speaks of the death of Mashiach ben Yosef (Sukkah 52a), it tells us:

In the time to come, the Holy One, blessed be He, will bring the Evil Inclination and slay it in the presence of the righteous and the wicked. To the righteous it will have the appearance of a towering hill, and to the wicked it will have the appearance of a hair thread. Both the former and the latter will weep: the righteous will weep saying, “How were we able to overcome such a towering hill?!” The wicked also will weep saying, “How is it that we were unable to conquer this hair thread?!” And the Holy One, blessed be He, will also marvel together with them, as it is said, “Thus says the Lord of Hosts, ‘If it be marvellous in the eyes of the remnant of this people in those days, it shall also be marvellous in My eyes…’” [Zechariah 8:6]

The Mystical Purpose of the Omer

“Bringing the Omer to the Kohen” by Ahuva Klein

In this week’s parasha, Emor, we read of the commandment to count the Omer. Each of the forty-nine days between the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot must be enumerated. In Temple times, this went along with a special “wave-offering” consisting of sheaves (omer in Hebrew) of barley. The Torah doesn’t clearly spell out why this must be done. However, a big clue is given from the conspicuous interplay between the words Emor (the name of the parasha) and Omer (the mitzvah commanded in this parasha).

The difference between Emor (אמר) and Omer (עמר) is just a single letter: an aleph replaced with an ayin. Our Sages point out that when two words differ in such a way, there is a special connection between them. The letter aleph is the first in the alphabet, with a value of one, representing the One God. (In fact, an aleph is composed of two yuds joined by a vav, the sum of which is 26, equal to God’s Ineffable Name, Yud-Hei-Vav-Hei). Each Hebrew letter is also a word with its own meaning. “Aleph” means “master” or “chief”, once more hinting to God being the Master of the Universe. Ayin, meanwhile, means “eye”. The eyes are the tools with which we see this physical world. Because of this, the eyes mislead us, distracting us from the truth that everything is truly One. Indeed, the Shema that we recite twice daily cautions not to follow “after your eyes”. The aleph therefore represents spirituality, while the ayin represents physicality.

The Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570) suggests that Israel represents the unique, spiritual nation among the seventy root nations of the world that are trapped in physicality, the value of ayin being 70. Here (Pardes Rimonim 13:3), he gives the most famous example of the interplay between aleph and ayin: The Sages state that Adam and Eve were initially created as beings of light (אור). Only after consuming the Forbidden Fruit did their light disappear, replaced with fragile skin (עור). Other examples of such parallel terms described in mystical texts include “me” (אני) and “poor” (עני), “nothingness” (אין) and “eye” (עין), and the words in question: “emor” (אמר) and “omer” (עמר).

“Emor” means to speak. It is one of three major roots for “speaking” in Hebrew. The Zohar (I, 234b) explains that ledaber (לדבר) refers to simple, day-to-day speech; le’emor (לאמר) is to speak from the heart; and lehagid (להגיד) is to speak from the soul. For more practical examples, a simple, everyday Torah insight is called a dvar (דבר), while a long and in-depth discourse is a ma’amar (מאמר), and on Pesach we have a particularly special text that comes straight from the soul called the haggadah (הגדה). The form of speech we are interested in here is emor—speech of the heart.

What is the connection between this type of speech and the Omer?

32 Paths of Wisdom

Sefer Yetzirah, perhaps the oldest Jewish mystical text, explains how God brought about the universe. It begins by stating that God created through 32 Paths of Wisdom. These 32 paths are the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the 10 Sefirot (as explained here). Sefer Yetzirah tells us that the first letters God forged were aleph, mem, and shin, which brought about the three primordial elements: air (avir or ruach), water (mayim), and fire (esh). These central letters therefore stand at the three horizontal axes of the Kabbalistic “Tree of Life”. The Arizal elaborates (Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh, drush 2) that God then brought about the substances of the first day of Creation: light, water, and space, ie. or (אור), mayim (מים), and rakia (רקיע). As we read in the Torah, these were the only things in existence at the end of Day One.

The three horizontal lines of the Tree of Life correspond to the paths of the letters Aleph, Mem, and Shin.

You may have already noticed that the initials of these three things make aleph-mem-reish (אמר), “emor”. Amazingly, it is exclusively this verb of speech that the Torah uses in describing God’s creation: v’yomer, God spoke (ויאמר), and everything came to be. It is this form of speech that contains within it the very power of Creation.

Even more amazingly, the Zohar we saw above states that this is speech from the heart. The heart is a special organ for, unlike any other organ, it literally intertwines with every single living cell in the human body, ensuring that the tiniest bodily component receives oxygen and nutrients. So, too, does God permeate the entire universe, and is intertwined with even the tiniest bit of matter, ensuring its continual existence. In Hebrew, “heart” is lev (לב), which has a value of 32, once more alluding to those 32 paths of Creation.

Better yet, the 32 paths correspond to the 32 times that God (Elohim) is mentioned in the account of Creation. It is only after the account of Creation ends, at the 33rd instance, that the Torah introduces us to God’s Ineffable Name. So, too, during the Sefirat haOmer period, we have 32 days before we reach the climax of the whole Omer period, the 33rd day, the holiday of Lag b’Omer. Of course, man is a microcosm of the universe, so it is only fitting that the human body has a spinal cord with 31 pairs of nerves emerging out of it, sitting beneath the all-important 33rd component, the brain.

With this in mind, we can understand the connection between Emor and Omer.

Rectifying Speech

The Sefirat haOmer period is meant to be one of rectification and purification. Upon the Exodus, the Israelites spent these 49 days preparing to receive the Torah at Sinai. We relive this experience each year, and likewise work on ourselves in these seven weeks. When we count the Omer each night, we quote from the verse in this week’s parasha: “And you shall count for yourselves from the morrow after the day of rest, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the waving [omer hatenufah]; seven weeks shall there be complete; until the morrow after the seventh week shall you count fifty days…” (Leviticus 23:15-16) and then we add, in many versions of the prayer, “in order to purify the souls of Your people Israel from their impurity.” The very purpose of the Omer is personal development and purification. How do we purify ourselves?

The greatest sin that needs to be atoned for is improper speech. The Talmud (Yoma 44a) states that it was for this sin in particular that the Kohen Gadol entered the Holy of Holies just once a year, on Yom Kippur. Conversely, as we saw above, proper speech has the power to create worlds. Impure speech can be immensely destructive while pure speech can rectify anything. King Solomon similarly wrote that “death and life are in the hand of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). It is through the mouth that we speak, and the tongue is its primary organ. Beautifully, the mouth, too, contains 32 teeth to parallel the 32 paths of Creation, with the central 33rd component being the tongue.

More than anything else, the purpose of the Omer (עמר) is to allow us to rectify our speech (אמר). The Torah itself hints to this in the verse above, calling the special offering of these 49 days the omer hatenufah, where the latter word can be split (תנו פה) to mean “give mouth”, or “teach the mouth”. Each of the seven weeks that the Torah prescribes correspond to one of the seven mystical middot of the Tree of Life. In the Omer period, we are meant to rectify these seven “lower” Sefirot (hinted in the term Sefirat HaOmer). We do not mention the three “higher” sefirot above. We can understand why this is so, for the Sages say the upper sefirot are the mochin of the mind, while the lower seven are the middot of the heart—and as we saw above, it is the speech of the heart that we are particularly focusing on. The final Sefirah is called Malkhut, “Kingdom”, which Patach Eliyahu (Tikkunei Zohar 17a) says is פה, the mouth. The very culmination of the Sefirat HaOmer period is the purification of speech.

The mochin above (in blue) and the middot below (in red).

Rabbi Akiva’s Students

The Sefirat HaOmer period overlaps with the tragic deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students. As is well-known, the students died because they lacked respect for one another. How exactly did they disrespect each other? Although we have discussed in the past that they were probably killed by the Romans during the Bar Kochva Revolt, the Talmud (Yevamot 62b) cryptically states that they died of a disease called croup. Elsewhere, the Talmud (Sotah 35a) suggests that croup is the standard Heavenly punishment for a person who commits slander. We may learn from this that Rabbi Akiva’s students spoke negatively about each other, and thus deserved their cruel death penalty.

Rabbi Akiva’s students ceased to die on the 33rd of the Omer, as if God was hinting at their misuse of the tremendous powers of speech. One of Rabbi Akiva’s surviving students, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, himself had to hide from the Romans for 13 years because he spoke negatively about the authorities. It was he who ultimately fixed the 33rd of the Omer as a holiday. Although this was the day of his death, it was also the day he revealed the depths of Kabbalah, and the teachings that would eventually be compiled into the Zohar. Lag b’Omer is a celebration of this mystical wisdom, much of which is focused on the powers of divine speech.

To bring it all together, we find that the term “lag” (לג) actually appears in the Torah. It is found only in one passage, Leviticus 14, where it refers to a measure of oil, log hashamen. This was a special oil used in the purification procedure for a metzora, loosely translated as a “leper”. The Sages teach that a person would be afflicted with this illness if they spoke negatively about another, motzi shem ra, hence the term “metzora”. Like the Omer, the log hashamen was also a “wave-offering”, a tenufah. Afterwards, the oil was sprinkled and poured upon the leper in order to purify them. If “log” (לג) hints to the oil used to purify improper speech, and Omer (עומר) is the inverse of emor, itself alluding to impure speech, then Lag b’Omer (לג בעומר) takes on an entirely new meaning.

Chag sameach!

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.