Tag Archives: Rambam

Do Men Have More Mitzvot than Women?

This week’s parasha, Tazria, begins by describing the rituals that a mother must perform upon giving birth to a new child. If the child is male, the mother is considered “impure” for seven days following her delivery, and then spends an additional 33 days in purification. For a female child, the durations are doubled, with the mother “impure” for 14 days, and purifying for another 66 days. Why is the duration of purification for a female doubly longer than a male?

‘Garden of Eden’, by Thomas Cole

The apocryphal Book of Jubilees (3:8) suggests an interesting idea: Adam was made on the Sixth Day of Creation but, apparently, Eve wasn’t made until a whole week after. This is why a mother of a male child is impure for a week, but a mother of a female child for two weeks! Jubilees also holds that Adam was only brought into Eden forty days after being created, while Eve was brought in after eighty days. This is why a mother of a male child needs a total of forty days to purify, and a mother of a female child needs eighty days. Of course, Rabbinic tradition rejects the Book of Jubilees, and it is accepted that Adam and Eve were both created on the Sixth Day, and were in Eden from the beginning.

Commenting on this week’s parasha, the Zohar (III, 43b) states that it takes a soul 33 days to settle in the body. This is primarily referring to the new soul that enters a newborn baby, as it takes time for the ethereal soul to get used to its descent into a physical world. The Zohar doesn’t add too much more on this, but we might assume that, based on the words of the Torah, it takes a male soul 33 days to settle, and a female soul 66 days to settle. At the same time, the Zohar may be referring to the soul of the mother, too, as she is the one that spends 33 or 66 days in purification. As we’ve explained in the past, the severing of the mother’s direct connection to her child distresses her soul for 33 or 66 days following childbirth.

Whatever the case, the implication is that a female soul is somehow greater than a male soul. It has more spiritual power, taking longer to settle. The notion that female souls are greater is found throughout Jewish texts, especially mystical ones. Sefer HaBahir, one of the most ancient Kabbalistic texts, states that the female soul is the most beautiful of all, and an aspect of the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence (chs. 173-175). It explicitly makes clear that life on Earth would be impossible without the life-giving mother, who in this regard is much closer to God.

On that note, it has been said that God created the world sequentially from simple to complex, starting with the basic elements: light, air, water, earth; progressing to plants, then simple animals, then mammals, then man, and finally woman. The woman is the last of God’s creation, and therefore the most intricate and the most refined. It may be because of this that the Arizal taught that while male souls typically reincarnate to rectify themselves, female souls rarely if ever reincarnate at all (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 9).

It is important to mention here that we are speaking of female souls, not necessary to all women. The Arizal (as well as the Zohar cited above) speak of the possibility of female souls in male bodies, or male souls in female bodies. And it should also be mentioned that this does not necessarily affect the body’s sexuality. A “female” soul in a male body can still very much be a heterosexual male, and vice versa. (For more on this, see Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh’s lecture here on the female soul of the forefather Isaac, as well as the prophets Samuel, Jonah, and Habakkuk.)

There are a number of consequences to the greater souls of females. For one, it gives them binah yeterah, an “extra understanding” sometimes referred to as “women’s intuition” (Niddah 45b). This is one reason why the women of the Exodus generation, for example, did not participate in the sin of the Golden Calf, nor the sin of the Spies. In fact, the Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, 1550-1619, on Numbers 13:2) states that, had Moses sent female spies, there would have been no problem at all!

On the other hand, a more elevated soul and an extra depth of understanding means a greater sensitivity to the world, which makes women generally less prone to violence and drug abuse, but significantly more prone to depression and anxiety. The greater female soul has the amazing potential to bring life, yet simultaneously (to balance the equation) the potential for severe destruction, “more bitter than death”, to borrow from King Solomon in Kohelet 7:26. This is symbolically reflected in the menstrual cycle, where a lack of conception of life necessarily results in the shedding of blood, a “minor death” that is then rectified in the living waters of the mikveh.

Finally, a greater soul means that women require slightly less mitzvot than men. After all, the “mitzvot were given only in order that human beings might be purified by them… their purpose is to refine…” (Beresheet Rabbah 44:1) A more refined female soul does not need the same mitzvot that a male soul does. Unfortunately, this has sometimes been a point of contention in modern times. Yet, upon closer examination, we see that the differences in mitzvot between men and women are actually minimal and, contrary to the general belief, there is a perfect balance between those mitzvot done exclusively by men and those done exclusively by women.

“Time-Bound” Mitzvot?

The general rule is that, at least in principle, women are exempt from any mitzvah that can only be done at a particular time. This includes mitzvot like prayer, tefillin, and tzitzit. However, in practical terms we see that this “rule” isn’t really a thing, and there are many time-bound mitzvot that women are obligated in. For example, women are obligated in eating matzah on Pesach, and fasting on Yom Kippur, even though they are time-bound mitzvot.

The Mishnah (Berakhot 3:3) states that women are exempt from reciting Shema, yet it is quite normal for women today to say Shema twice daily just as men do. The same Mishnah exempts women from tefillin, but the Talmud (Eruvin 96a) states that a certain woman named Michal (presumably the daughter of King Saul and wife of King David) did wear tefillin and no one made a big deal out of it. Elsewhere, the Talmud (Kiddushin 34a) states that women are exempt from tefillin for the same reason that they are exempt from Torah study. Today, of course, it has become normal for women to study Torah, too. In fact, women always studied at least some Torah throughout history, and the Shulchan Arukh requires women to recite the blessing on Torah study just as men do, implying that they are obligated in Torah study as well (Orach Chaim 47:14).

Interestingly, there was one opinion in ancient times that while women are exempt from sitting in a sukkah, shaking the lulav, and donning tefillin, they are not exempt from tzitzit (Tosefta Kiddushin 1:8). This may be why the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) codifies as law that while women are not obligated to wear tzitzit, they may do so if they wish (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tzitzit 3:9). In the same place, the Rambam actually permits women to do any other mitzvot that they are not obligated in if they want to, but without reciting a blessing.

Another such mitzvah is hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, which women were traditionally exempt from. By the time of the Shulkhan Aruch, though, we see it state that it is proper for women to hear the shofar, and even for a man who has already fulfilled the mitzvah to blow the shofar again for a woman who hasn’t yet fulfilled the mitzvah (Orach Chaim 589:6). In a bit of irony, today it is normal to see traditional Jewish women hear the shofar and shake the lulav, but not wear tzitzit or tefillin, even though our ancient sources suggest that it once may have been the opposite!

The Connection Between Tefillin and Mezuza

There is an intriguing connection between tefillin and mezuza, a mitzvah which women are obligated in (Berakhot 3:3). Both involve parchments in boxes, and the Torah twice commands the mitzvah of tefillin and mezuza together (as we read in the first two paragraphs of Shema). It was believed then, as it is now, that mezuza and tefillin both confer spiritual protection on their users. Some hold that the letter shin customarily written on the mezuza box, and the letters shin, dalet, and yud written on the mezuza scroll stand for shomer delatot Israel, God “guards the doors of Israel”. Similarly, the head-tefillin box has a shin written on it, too, and offers spiritual protection for its wearer. (The Lubavitcher Rebbe famously launched his “tefillin campaign” shortly before the Six-Day War in an effort to strengthen Israel.)

We know that in ancient times men wore their tefillin all day long, and not just for morning prayers as we do today. The reason was that men needed that spiritual protection throughout the day as they were going about their business. In light of this, it has been said that women, who were generally at home, did not need to wear tefillin since they were protected by the mezuzas of the house!

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan teaches something similar in his book, Tefillin. He points out that the tefillin boxes are called batim, literally “houses”. The tefillin is like a mini-house for a man. They are a man’s spiritual home. The woman, meanwhile, is naturally more concerned with the physical home. We might add that tefillin was once a “piece” of the home that a man could take with him wherever he went, to extend that protection in his journeys.

Male vs. Female Mitzvot

In Temple times, women were also exempt from making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year during the holidays, but were required to appear every seven years during Hak’hel. A woman would bring a sacrifice just as a man would, but the Sages state she would not do semicha, where the person bringing the sacrifice lays their hands, or leans, on the animal.

So far, all that’s been discussed is positive commandments, of which there are a total of 248. When it comes to the 365 negative commandments, the Sages state that women are obligated in all but two: shaving, and for daughters of priests to be near dead bodies. (For a deeper look as to the connection between not shaving and the dead, see ‘Shaving and the Mystical Power of Beards’ in Garments of Light.)

In his Sefer HaMitzvot, the Rambam lists the mitzvot that women are obligated in, even though they are time-bound mitzvot: Kiddush on Shabbat, fasting on Yom Kippur, and eating matzah (along with the Rabbinic mitzvot of drinking four cups of wine and singing Hallel on Pesach), observing the holidays, Hak’hel, korban Pesach, Chanukah candles, and hearing the Purim Megillah. The Rambam also lists the 14 mitzvot that women today (or at least, in his day) are exempt from: Shema, head tefillin and arm tefillin (which are technically counted as two separate mitzvahs), tzitzit, Sefirat haOmer, sukkah, lulav, shofar, studying Torah, writing a Torah scroll, reciting the priestly blessing, having children, brit milah, and the mitzvah of a man gladdening his wife following their wedding and staying with her for an entire year uninterrupted.

As we have already seen, reciting Shema, sitting in a sukkah, shaking lulav, hearing the shofar, and studying Torah have all become women’s mitzvot, too. Writing a Torah scroll is not something any average Jew does today, whether man or woman, and reciting the priestly blessing is only relevant to a minority of kohanim. The others that the Rambam lists are actually subject to rabbinic debate. Some say women are obligated in having children, and even though the Torah phrases the mitzvah of marriage as being incumbent specifically upon men, women are obligated in marriage, too. This was, for example, the opinion of the Ran (Rabbi Nissim of Gerona, 1320-1376, on Kiddushin 16b). Besides, it is impossible for a man to marry or have children without a woman, so the mitzvah can only be fulfilled with them together as a couple. Sefirat HaOmer is debatable, too, with some saying women are obligated, including the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, on Kiddushin 34a).

With regards to brit milah, a woman obviously cannot have this mitzvah done. There is no need to because women are considered already “circumcised”, at least in a spiritual sense, straight from birth! (Avodah Zarah 27a) Now, the mitzvah is really incumbent upon a father to have his son circumcised, though a mother can certainly step in if necessary, just as we saw with Moses and Tzipporah (Exodus 4:25-26).

At the end, we are essentially left with just two mitzvot that today are considered strictly for men: tefillin and tzitzit. On the other hand, there are two mitzvot which are today associated most with Jewish women: lighting Shabbat candles, and immersion in a mikveh. If we look a little closer, we’ll find that the two “male” mitzvot and the two “female” mitzvot are intricately related.

Embracing God

The major purpose of wearing tefillin is, as the Torah clearly states, to serve as a sign (ot in Hebrew) of our Covenant with God, and as a symbol of our devotion to Him. Shabbat is similarly described as an ot, a sign between Hashem and us. In this way, tefillin and Shabbat are highly related. The Sages explain that this is why wearing tefillin on Shabbat is unnecessary: Shabbat already serves as the ot of the day, so there is no need for another ot. Tefillin is strictly a weekday sign.

Interestingly, Shabbat is always described in feminine terms: it is a “queen” and a “bride”. While the six days of the week have masculine energy, the Sabbath is entirely feminine energy. The Kabbalists relate them to the seven lower Sefirot, the first six being the masculine ones (called dchura, or duchra, “male” in Aramaic), and the seventh, Malkhut, being the feminine, nukva. It is therefore fitting that it is specifically women that light Shabbat candles to usher in the spirit of the day. The Shabbat candles themselves serve as a physical sign of the spiritual Sabbath. In this way, they perfectly parallel tefillin. Men tie two tefillin boxes during the six “masculine” days of the week as a sign, and then women light two candles as the same sign for the seventh “feminine” day of the week. Together, the couple maintains that symbolic and spiritual relationship with Hashem, each on the days that are more spiritually fitting for their souls.

The same is true for the parallel mitzvot of tzitzit and mikveh. When men wrap themselves in a tallit, the idea is to feel the “embrace” of God, so to speak. We affirm this very notion when putting the tallit on, as it is customary to say the verse: “How precious is Your lovingkindness, God! And people take refuge in the shadow of Your wings.” (Psalms 36:8) The tallit is compared to God’s “wings”, and we take shelter in His loving embrace.

The mikveh is the same, a mitzvah in which a woman can completely immerse in, and be “bathed” in Godliness. In several places in the Tanakh, God is actually called “Mikveh Israel”, as the Prophet said: “Hashem is Mikveh Israel; all that forsake You shall be ashamed; they that depart from You shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken God, the fountain of living waters.” (Jeremiah 17:13) God Himself is the fountain of living waters, mekor mayim chayim, in an explicit Scriptural reference to the living waters of the mikveh. In this way, women “embrace” God in the waters of the mikveh, similar to the way (and in a much more powerful way) that men “embrace” God wrapped in a tallit.

To conclude, while there are certainly numerous details of halacha that pertain specifically to men or women alone, when it comes to God’s mitzvot in particular there is a wonderful balance in what is commanded to women and men. Ultimately, the Sages teach that any person is only half of a human being (Yevamot 63a), for it is only when man and woman unite that their soul is complete, and only as one can they properly fulfill all the mitzvot, and merit to have the greatest Godly presence in their lives.

Wasting Seed: Minor Taboo or Grave Sin?

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

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

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

‘Judah and Tamar’

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

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

A Closer Look at Er and Onan

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

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

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

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

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

Spilling Seed, or Spilling Blood?

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

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

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

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

Halacha & Kabbalah of Spilling Seed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Origins and Kabbalah of Kaddish

This week’s parasha begins with the passing of Sarah, the first Matriarch. We read how Abraham “eulogized Sarah and bewailed her” (Genesis 23:2). Today, the ritual most associated with Jewish death and mourning is undoubtedly the recitation of Kaddish. This has become one of those quintessentially Jewish things that all Jews—regardless of background, denomination, or religious level—tend to be very careful about. It is quite common to see people who otherwise never come to the synagogue to show up regularly when a parent or spouse dies, only to never be seen again as soon as the mourning period is over. Kaddish has become so prevalent that it has gone mainstream, featured in film and on TV (as in Rocky III and in the popular Rugrats cartoon), on stage (in Angels in America and Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony no. 3), and in literature (with bestselling novels like Kaddish in Dublin, and Kaddish For an Unborn Child).

 

Sylvester Stallone, as Rocky Balboa, recites Kaddish for his beloved coach and mentor. 

And yet, the origins of Kaddish are entirely clouded in mystery. It isn’t mentioned in the Tanakh, nor is there any discussion of reciting Kaddish for the dead in the Mishnah or Talmud. Even in the Rambam’s monumental Jewish legal code, the Mishneh Torah—just over 800 years old—there is no discussion of a Mourner’s Kaddish. Where did it come from?

Praying for Redemption

The Talmud refers to Kaddish in a number of places (such as Berakhot 3a, for example), though not in association with mourning the dead. Around the same time, we see a prayer very similar to Kaddish in the New Testament (Matthew 6:9-13), which has since become known as the “Lord’s Prayer” among Christians. This suggests that Kaddish existed before the schism between Judaism and Christianity, and this is one reason scholars date the composition of Kaddish to the late Second Temple era.

Many believe that it was composed in response to Roman persecution. The text of the Kaddish makes it clear from the very beginning that it is a request for God to speedily bring about His great salvation. It certainly makes sense that such a prayer would be composed in those difficult Roman times. In fact, the first words of Kaddish are based on Ezekiel 38:23, in the midst of the Prophet’s description of the End of Days (the famous “Gog u’Magog”), where God says v’itgadalti v’itkadashti. The Sages hoped the travails they were struggling through were the last “birth pangs” of the End Times.

In Why We Pray What We Pray, Barry Freundel argues that Kaddish was originally recited at the end of a lecture or a Torah learning session—as continues to be done today. It likely came at a time when public Torah learning or preaching was forbidden, as we know was the case in the time of Rabbi Akiva. So, the Sages ended their secret learning sessions with a prayer hoping that the Redemption would soon come, and they would once more be able to safely preach in public.

If that’s the case, how did Kaddish become associated with mourning the dead?

The Mourner’s Kaddish

Freundel points out that the earliest connection between Kaddish and the souls of the dead is from the Heikhalot texts. These are the most ancient works of Jewish mystical literature, going as far back as the early post-Second Temple era. (Scholars date the earliest texts to the 3rd century CE). One of these texts reads:

In the future, the Holy One, blessed be He, will reveal the depths of Torah to Israel… and David will recite a song before God, and the righteous will respond after him: “Amen, yehe sheme rabba mevorach l’olam u’l’olmei olmaya itbarach” from the midst of the Garden of Eden. And the sinners of Israel will answer “Amen” from Gehinnom.

Immediately, God says to the angels: “Who are these that answer ‘Amen’ from Gehinnom?” [The angels] say before Him: “Master of the Universe, these are the sinners of Israel who, even though they are in great distress, they strengthen themselves and say ‘Amen’ before You.” Immediately, God says to the angels: “Open for them the gates of the Garden of Eden, so that they can come and sing before Me…”

The Heikhalot connect Kaddish (specifically its central verse, “May His great Name be blessed forever and for all eternity…”) to a Heavenly prayer that will be recited at the End of Days, when the souls in Gehinnom will finally have reprieve. We can already start to see how this might relate to mourning, or spiritually assisting, the recently deceased.

This is related to another well-known story that is by far the most-oft used as the origin of Kaddish. In this narrative, a certain great sage—usually Rabbi Akiva, but sometimes Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai—sees a person covered in ash and struggling with piles of lumber. The poor person explains that he is actually dead, and his eternal punishment (reminiscent of popular Greek mythology) is to forever gather wood, only to be burned in the flames of that wood, and to repeat it all over again. The Sage asks if there is anything he could do to help, to which the dead man replies that if only his son would say a particular prayer, he would be relieved of his eternal torment.

The nature of that prayer varies from one story to the next. In some, it is the Shema, in others it is Barchu, and in others it is a reading of the Haftarah (see, for example, Kallah Rabbati 2, Machzor Vitry 144, Zohar Hadash on Acharei Mot, and Tanna d’Vei Eliyahu Zuta 17). It is only in later versions of the story that the prayer the son must say is Kaddish. Whatever the case, between the Heikhalot texts, and these Midrashic accounts, we now have a firm connection linking Kaddish with the deceased.

I believe there is one more significant (yet overlooked) source to point out:

The most important part of the Kaddish is undoubtedly the verse yehe sheme rabba mevorach l’olam u’l’olmei olmaya. As we saw in the Heikhalot above, this is the part that especially arouses God’s mercy. The Talmud (Berakhot 3a) agrees when it says essentially the same thing about the entire congregation reciting aloud “yehe sheme hagadol mevorach”. These special words are based on several Scriptural verses, such as Psalm 113:2 and Daniel 2:20. It also appears in Job 1:21.

Here, Job suffers the death of all of his children. Upon hearing the tragic news, he famously says: “…naked I came out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” In Hebrew it reads: Adonai natan, v’Adonai lakach, yehi shem Adonai mevorach. The parallel is striking. The first person in history to recite the great “yehe sheme rabba” upon the death of a family member is none other than Job. In some way, Job may be the originator of the Mourner’s Kaddish.

Birth of a Custom

Officially, the earliest known mention of reciting Kaddish for the dead is Sefer HaRokeach, by Rabbi Elazar of Worms (c. 1176-1238). Shortly after, his student Rabbi Itzchak of Vienna (1200-1270) writes in his Ohr Zarua that Ashkenazim have a custom to recite Kaddish upon the dead. He explicitly states that Tzarfati Jews (and as an extension, Sephardic Jews) do not have such a custom.

That much is already clear from the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204), the greatest of Sephardic sages in his day, who makes no mention of a Mourner’s Kaddish anywhere in his comprehensive Mishneh Torah. (The Rambam does speak about the regular Kaddish, unrelated to the dead, which is recited throughout the daily prayers.) We see that in his time, Kaddish was still a strictly Ashkenazi practice. Why is it that Ashkenazi Jews in particular began to say Kaddish for the dead?

Most scholars believe the answer lies within the Crusades. The First Crusade (1095-1099) was a massive disaster for Europe’s Ashkenazi Jews. While the Crusades were meant to free the Holy Land from Muslim domination, many local Christians argued that there was no need to fight the heathen all the way in the Holy Land when there were so many local Jewish “heathens” among them. The result is what is referred to as “the Rhineland massacres”, described by some as “the First Holocaust”. Countless Jews were slaughtered.

‘Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099’ by Émile Signol

Like in the times of Roman persecution a millennium earlier, the Ashkenazi Sages sought comfort in the words of Kaddish, beseeching the coming of God’s Final Redemption, and at the same time seeking to honour the poor souls of the murdered. It therefore isn’t surprising that Rabbi Elazar of Worms is the first to speak of Kaddish for the dead, as his hometown of Worms (along with the town of Speyer) was among the first to be attacked, in May of 1096.

It is important to remember that Rabbi Elazar was a member of the Hasidei Ashkenaz, the “German Pietist” movement known for its mysticism and asceticism (not to be confused with the much later Hasidic movement). The Hasidei Ashkenaz would have been particularly well-versed in Heikhalot and Midrashim. Everything points to this group as being the true originators of reciting Kaddish for the dead.

The practice spread from there. Indeed, there was a great deal of Jewish migration in those turbulent times. For example, one of the greatest Ashkenazi sages, Rabbeinu Asher (c. 1250-1327), was born in Cologne, Germany, but fled persecution and settled in Toledo, Spain. His renowned sons, Rabbi Yakov ben Asher (Ba’al HaTurim, c. 1269-1343), and Rabbi Yehudah ben Asher (c. 1270-1349) continued to lead the Sephardic Jewish community of Toledo. And it was there in Toledo that was born one of the greatest of Sephardi sages, Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575), author of the Shulchan Arukh, still the primary code of Jewish law.

In the Shulchan Arukh we read how reciting Kaddish at a funeral is a must (Yoreh De’ah 376:4). We are then told that there is a custom based on the Midrash to continue reciting Kaddish for twelve months, though only for a parent, and possibly only for a father. The reasoning for the latter is entirely different: since it is a father’s obligation to teach his son Torah, by reciting Kaddish the son demonstrates that the father had fulfilled the mitzvah, and left behind a proper Jewish legacy.

It is quite amazing to see that as late as 500 years ago, Mourner’s Kaddish was still defined in very narrow terms, and described as more of a custom based on Midrash than an absolute halachic necessity. How did it transform into a supreme Jewish prayer?

Enter the Arizal

As with many other Jewish practices we find so common today, it looks like it was the influence of the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572), history’s foremost Kabbalist, that made the Mourner’s Kaddish so universal, and so essential. Fittingly, he was the perfect candidate for the job, being the product of an Ashkenazi father and a Sephardi mother, and ending his life as the leader of the Sephardi sages of Tzfat.

The Arizal discussed the mysteries of Kaddish at great length. Like most of his teachings, they were put to paper by his primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620). The latter devotes a dozen dense pages to Kaddish in Sha’ar HaKavanot. He first explains the various forms of Kaddish recited during the regular prayer services. In brief, we find that Kaddish is recited between the major prayer sections because each part of the prayer is associated with a different mystical universe, and a different Heavenly Palace, and Kaddish facilitates the migration from one world to the next.

Recall that Kabbalah describes Creation in four universes or dimensions: Asiyah, Yetzirah, Beriah, and Atzilut. The four sections of prayer correspond to the four ascending universes: the morning blessings and the first prayers up until Hodu correspond to Asiyah; the Pesukei d’Zimrah corresponds to Yetzirah; the Shema and its blessings parallel Beriah; and the climax of the prayer, the Amidah, is Atzilut, the level of pure Divine Emanation. For this reason, the Amidah is recited in complete silence and stillness, for at the level of Atzilut, one is entirely unified with God.

The Arizal delves in depth into the individual letters and gematrias of Kaddish, its words and phrases, and how they correspond to various names of God and Heavenly Palaces. He relays the proper meditations to have in mind when reciting the different types of Kaddish, at different stages of prayer. To simplify, the Arizal teaches that Kaddish helps us move ever higher from one world to the next, and more cosmically, serves to elevate the entire universe into higher dimensions. We can already see how this would be related to assisting the dead, spiritually escorting the soul of the deceased higher and higher through the Heavenly realms.

More intriguingly, Rabbi Vital writes that Kaddish is meant to prepare the soul for the Resurrection of the Dead. He goes on to cite his master in saying that Kaddish should be recited every single day, including Shabbat and holidays, for an entire year following the passing of a parent. He says that Kaddish not only helps to free a soul from Gehinnom, but more importantly to help it attain Gan Eden. It elevates all souls, even righteous ones. This is why one should say Kaddish for a righteous person just as much as for a wicked person, and this is why it should be said even on Shabbat (when souls in Gehinnom are given rest). Rabbi Vital then says how the Arizal would also say Kaddish every year on the anniversary of his father’s death, which is now the norm as well.

Ironically, while Kaddish began as an Ashkenazi custom, Rabbi Vital writes that the Arizal made sure to recite Kaddish according to the Sephardi text!

Repairing the World

Another interesting point that Rabbi Vital explains is why Kaddish is in Aramaic, and not Hebrew like the rest of the prayers. He reminds us the words of the Zohar that both Hebrew and Aramaic are written with the exact same letters because these are the Divine Letters of Creation, but Hebrew comes from the side of purity and holiness, while Aramaic is from the “other side” of impurity and darkness. Hebrew is the language of the angels, while Aramaic is the language of the impure spirits. The angels speak Hebrew, but do not understand Aramaic, while their antagonists speak Aramaic, and do not understand Hebrew. When we learn Torah and Mishnah, in Hebrew, we please the angels who take our words up to Heaven. When we learn Talmud and Zohar, in Aramaic, we destroy those dark spirits who cannot stand the fact that a person is using their tongue for words of light and holiness.

The same applies to our prayers. The bulk of our prayers are in holy Hebrew, the language of angels. Kaddish is in Aramaic because it is meant to elevate us, and the universe around us, into higher dimensions. In this vital task, we cannot risk elevating the impure spirits along with us, contaminating the upper worlds. Thus, by saying it in Aramaic, we push away the impure spirits who are unable to withstand us using their language in purity. Those evil forces are driven away, and we can ascend and rectify in complete purity.

This, in brief, is the tremendous power of Kaddish. This is why we recite it so many times over the course of the day. And this is why every Jew is so mysteriously drawn to this prayer and ritual, possibly above all others. Deep inside the soul of every Jew—regardless of background, denomination, or religious level—is a yearning to repair the world, to destroy the impure, to uplift the universe, and to recite loudly: “May His great Name be blessed forever and for all eternity…”