Tag Archives: Rambam

Is Kabbalah Kosher?

In this week’s parasha, Nitzavim, we read that “The hidden things are for Hashem, our God, and the revealed things are for us and our children forever, to fulfil the words of this Law.” (Deuteronomy 29:28) The verse is a significant one for a number of reasons, one of which is that it is used as Scriptural proof for the Jewish mystical tradition, commonly referred to as “Kabbalah”, those esoteric secrets—“hidden things”—of the Torah. The Torah cautions that these secrets are best to be kept for God, while the revealed parts of the Law are for us and our children.

And yet, Jewish mysticism has been a very popular area of study for millennia. We know of the existence of multiple “mystery schools” in the Second Temple era. Some of the earliest mystical texts were composed in this time period, and have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the centuries following the destruction of the Second Temple, a number of new mystical texts appeared, known as the Heikhalot, Heavenly “Palaces”.

The main protagonists of the Heikhalot are Rabbi Akiva and his contemporary, Rabbi Ishmael. We know from the Talmud that these two were great mystics. The Talmud (Chagigah 14b) famously records how Rabbi Akiva led three other rabbis to the Heavenly realms of Pardes. This is traditionally taken to mean that they plunged into the depths of Jewish esotericism, where “Pardes” is an acronym for pshat, remez, drash, sod, the four main levels of Torah study: the simple, surface meaning; the sub-textual allusions; the allegorical, metaphorical, and extra-Scriptural narratives; and the mystical secrets of Kabbalah.

‘Elijah Taken Up to Heaven’

The three rabbis that went along with Rabbi Akiva didn’t fare so well: Ben Azzai died, Ben Zoma apparently lost his mind, and Elisha ben Avuya became a heretic. Only Rabbi Akiva “exited in peace”. There were many other mystics in their day. The Talmud (Sukkah 28a) states that although Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai (whose students were the teachers of Rabbi Akiva) was the least knowledgeable of Hillel’s eighty disciples, even he was an expert in Ma’aseh Merkavah, “the Work of the Chariot”. Ma’aseh Merkavah refers to the opening account of the Book of Ezekiel, where the prophet describes God’s “Divine Chariot”. Similar holy visions were beheld by the other prophets, including Isaiah and Daniel, while Elijah was taken up to Heaven in such a fiery chariot (II Kings 2:11). Thus, Ma’aseh Merkavah is believed to be concerned with attaining prophecy, or with spiritual ascent to the Heavens. This is precisely how one might elevate to Pardes.

The other major area of mysticism in Second Temple and early Talmudic times was known as Ma’aseh Beresheet, “the Work of Creation” (Chagigah 11b). This refers to the opening account of Genesis, and the secrets of God’s formation of this universe. The study of Ma’aseh Beresheet would presumably allow one to attain certain divine creative powers. This is what the sages Rav Chanina and Rav Oshaia delved into every Friday afternoon, and were able to produce a lamb out of thin air—then barbecue it for lunch! (Sanhedrin 65b)

Such great power exists within the study of Maaseh Merkavah and Maaseh Beresheet that the Sages caution these subjects must not be taught publicly, and not to all those who wish to learn them: “Maaseh Beresheet must not be expounded upon before two, and Maaseh Merkavah even before one, unless he is a sage and understands of his own knowledge.” (Chagigah 2:1) Even to the understanding scholar, the Sages permit only the “chapter headings” to be revealed. The master points the student in the right direction, and nothing more. In this way, only the truly deserving wise one will come to understand the mysteries. Perhaps this is why the study was eventually called Kabbalah, from the root meaning “to receive”, for one could only receive it through divine inspiration from Above, and after having received the chapter headings from a master.

Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, the Vilna Gaon

Interestingly, the term Kabbalah in the Talmud refers not to mysticism but to the Tanakh, specifically to the books of Nevi’im and Ketuvim which follow the Five Books of Moses. This actually makes a lot of sense, since most of Kabbalah is built upon verses and passages in the Prophets and Writings. One who studies Kabbalistic texts will quickly recognize how most of the passages open with Scriptural verses, with concepts supported by Scriptural verses, especially from the Books of Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Shir haShirim, and of course, Ezekiel and Isaiah. Other texts of Tanakh are frequently cited, too. In fact, it is said that the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, 1720-1797), among the greatest of Kabbalists, studied nothing but Tanakh after a certain age, since he could derive everything directly from Scripture.

This may be one reason, among others, why study of Nevi’im and Ketuvim is so rare in the Orthodox yeshiva world today. Since Kabbalah is often seen as taboo, especially for young minds, it may be best to avoid study of Scriptural passages that may bring up uncomfortable or mystical questions. Indeed, it is the story of the Four Who Entered Pardes that is most commonly used as proof that the young, the uninitiated, or those that have not mastered every facet of Torah must not delve into Kabbalah. The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) codifies this as law.

The Sages of the early generations commanded that these matters should not be explained except to a single individual [at a time]. He should be a wise man, who can reach understanding with his own knowledge. In such an instance, he is given fundamental points, and an outline of the concepts is made known to him. He [is expected to continue to contemplate] until he reaches understanding with his powers of knowledge and knows the ultimate meaning and depth of the concept. (Yesodei HaTorah 2:12)

The Rambam is an interesting case, for he was no Kabbalist by any means. A strictly rationalist thinker, he rejected any notion of evil spirits and demons, thought superstitions to be silly at best, and made sure to expunge all sorts of mysticism-based rituals from his code of law. For the Rambam, Maaseh Merkavah simply refers to the various spiritual entities that God created, mainly the ten types of angels (Yesodei HaTorah, ch. 2). What the prophets saw were just “visions and parables”, not actual concrete things. Maaseh Beresheet, meanwhile, is essentially science and physics—the study of the elements and their properties, the various “spheres” of astronomy, the nature of the luminaries, stars and planets—these are the things he calls “Maaseh Beresheet” (Yesodei HaTorah, ch. 3-4). The Rambam believes this is what is meant by “Pardes” (4:3). For him, Kabbalah is not an exercise in amulets or magic, exorcism or demonology, astrology or fortune-telling—all of which he expressly rejects as irrational, unreal, and absurd.

Ironically, it was the Rambam’s own son, Rabbeinu Avraham (1186-1237), who became a great mystic and played a huge role in the development of modern Kabbalah.

The New Kabbalah

A 17th-century illustration of a Sufi meditating

Rabbeinu Avraham wrote a monumental 2500-page philosophical work called Kitab Kifayah al-Abidin (“A Guide for the Servants of God”). Scholars note how Rabbeinu Avraham integrated a great amount of material from Muslim Sufi mystics. Incredibly, Rabbeinu Avraham himself writes in his book that the ancient mystical tradition of the Hebrew Prophets was forgotten among Jews, “because of their iniquities”, and has been carried forward by the Sufis! He argues that the Sufis “imitate the Prophets [of Israel] and walk in their footsteps.”

The fusion of Jewish and Sufi mysticism continued strongly in Egypt for several generations. Rabbi Gavin Michal beautifully traces how these traditions made their way to Tzfat: Rabbeinu Avraham’s great-great-grandson, Rabbeinu David, the last official nagid of the illustrious Jewish community in Egypt, packed his bags and resettled in Aleppo, Syria in the early 1400s. He brought with him his massive Sufi-inspired Jewish mystical library. This library was a key source of literature for the early Tzfat Kabbalists, who lived a short trip away from Aleppo. Amazingly, historical sources suggest that one of these early Kabbalists was a Sufi convert to Judaism.

Hamsas: not a Jewish thing

It therefore isn’t surprising that Arab and Muslim mystical beliefs strongly influenced Jewish mysticism. In his Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem points out numerous examples of this. While most of these concepts are valuable, some are most unfortunate: Arab demonology and superstition, too, neatly made its way into Kabbalistic literature. This is most evident in the plethora of Arabic hamsas and “evil eye” amulets that have sadly infiltrated so many Jewish homes. (We have also written in the past how Muslim ritual inspired the “mystical” custom of upsherin.)

At the same time that this was happening in the Middle East, a parallel Jewish mystical movement was rapidly developing on the other side of the Mediterranean, in Spain. Their Kabbalah, too, was not immune to the beliefs and practices of the neighbouring Christians.

Rise of the Zohar

In the 11th and 12th centuries, mysticism was slowly spreading in the Sephardic Jewish communities of Spain. It wasn’t until the late 13th century that Kabbalah received an immense boost with the publication of Sefer HaZohar, aka. “The Midrash of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai”. The publication was spearheaded by Rabbi Moshe ben Shem Tov de Leon (1240-1305), a great Kabbalist in his own right. He claimed that this book was the unadulterated teachings of the Talmudic sage Shimon bar Yochai, or Rashbi, a disciple of Rabbi Akiva.

While the Zohar was undoubtedly full of profound wisdom and authentic mysticism, it immediately aroused a great deal of suspicion. After all, no one had ever seen, or even heard of, such a text before. One scholar who took up the mission of discovering the Zohar’s real roots was Rabbi Itzchak d’min Acco (“Isaac of Acre”, c. 13th-14th century). Rabbi Itzchak was possibly a student of the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270), who had made aliyah after his famous Disputation and settled in Acre, where Rabbi Itzchak was apparently born. Rabbi Itzchak studied among those pre-Tzfat era Kabbalists in Israel. The Crusades made life difficult, and Rabbi Itzchak fled to Spain in 1305.

There, he met Rabbi Moshe de Leon, and questioned him about the Zohar, pointing out that the Kabbalists of the Holy Land knew nothing of such a work. Rabbi Moshe swore that he possessed an original manuscript from Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, back in his hometown of Avila. He promised to fetch the text and show it to Rabbi Itzchak, but suddenly died. Perhaps this untimely death is itself proof enough that Rabbi Moshe de Leon swore falsely!

For Rabbi Itzchak, it was not enough, and he decided to continue his search in Avila. There, he met a rabbi who knew Moshe de Leon’s family, and the rabbi told him that de Leon’s wife admitted he had composed the Zohar by himself, attributing it to Rashbi so that it would be accepted as authentic (and sell more copies). Many later Kabbalists reject this narrative, and believe it is a legend meant to discredit the Zohar. The story appeared in the first edition of Sefer Yuchasin (by Rabbi Avraham Zacuto, 1452-1515), and was censored out of all subsequent editions for over 300 years.

Over those centuries, the Zohar became the primary Kabbalistic text, so much so that it essentially became synonymous with Kabbalah. More ancient and once prominent texts like Sefer Yetzirah and Sefer HaBahir fell far behind. The Zohar inspired a massive new wave of mysticism that made a permanent impact on Judaism. It was the Tzfat Kabbalists of the 16th and 17th centuries in particular that neatly analyzed, categorized, and made sense of the Zohar, producing a whole new worldview and publishing a vast array of novel mystical literature that took the Jewish world by storm.

While halacha was once clearly separated from mysticism, the distinction started to get blurry. We sometimes forget that the Shulkhan Aruch, still the most famous of Jewish law codes, was composed by Rabbi Yosef Karo, a noted Tzfat Kabbalist. As such, he couldn’t possibly omit Kabbalah entirely from his laws, and mystical rituals and beliefs seep in on multiple occasions. The trend would continue, and reach even greater heights under the later Hasidim.

By this point, the authorship of the Zohar was seldom disputed. Still, the belief that it was written by Rashbi himself is false. After all, the Zohar clearly states that Rashbi charged his disciple Rabbi Abba with composing his teachings (see Zohar III, 287b). The Italian Kabbalist Rabbi Mordechai Galante (d. 1560) held that the Zohar was compiled sometime in the Geonic period (c. 589-1038 CE) from these ancient manuscripts of Rabbi Abba. The fore-mentioned Sefer Yuchasin holds that the Zohar may have originated with Rashbi, but was reworked and expanded by future generations of Kabbalists. No one knows exactly where it came from.

Some said it was the Ramban who discovered the Zohar when he arrived in Israel, then shipped it back to Spain (to save it from the Crusader wars or to reveal it to the Sephardi Kabbalists). The ship capsized or went off course, and the text ended up in the hands of Moshe de Leon! Others still believed that the Zohar was discovered by an Arab king, or by Spanish conquistadors, and sent over to the Sephardi Kabbalists for translation.

The Problem with Kabbalah

Gershom Scholem notes a number of issues within the Zohar that make it impossible to have been composed by Rashbi, Rabbi Abba, or anyone else from that time period. In fact, it appears that the person who put together the Zohar was not even a very good Talmudist. For example, the Talmud (Shabbat 33b) says that Pinchas ben Yair was Rashbi’s son-in-law, whereas the Zohar inaccurately says he was his father-in-law. Similarly, the Zohar is pretty confused about its Talmudic history, and in listing Rashbi’s ten main disciples, mixes together Amoraim and Tannaim from different centuries. Scholem also points out that the Zohar improperly uses the Aramaic language, while clearly incorporating many words with Spanish origin (such as esnoga, “synagogue” or gardin, “guardian”).

Rabbi Leon Yehudah Aryeh da Modena

These issues were already noted by earlier Jewish scholars. Rabbi Eliyahu del Medigo (c. 1458-1493), another great Italian sage, was part of a Kabbalistic circle before growing distant from the mystics. He noted how the Zohar has names of rabbis that lived long after Rashbi. A fellow Italian, Rabbi Leon da Modena (1571-1648) wrote an entire treatise, Ari Nohem, debunking the Zohar. He concludes that it must be only a few centuries old, and its Chokhmat haKabbalah is neither Chokhmah (wisdom) nor is it authentic Kabbalah! Rabbi Yakov Emden (1697-1776) was most vocal in his attack on the Zohar, and stated it was a complete forgery. The Yemenite sage Rabbi Yichya Kapach (1850-1931) believed the same thing.

Others have staunchly defended the Zohar, of course. Those Spanish-looking words may be there because they come from earlier Latin words, which would have been familiar to Rashbi. The names of sages from different time periods may be mixed together in one passage, but we often find the same thing in the Talmud. Truly, one who studies the Zohar will find it hard to believe that it could have all been composed by one Kabbalist, whether Moshe de Leon or someone else. In fact, the Zohar isn’t a monolithic text at all, and is composed of various distinct parts (Raya Mehemna, Midrash haNe’elam, etc.) It probably was pieced together from earlier genuine manuscripts, and was probably edited by a circle of Sephardi Kabbalists in the 13th century, who firmly believed the teachings dated back to Rashbi in some way.

It should be mentioned that Rabbi Itzchak d’min Acco’s account does not end with Moshe de Leon’s family. He continued his search, and met at least two other rabbis that swore on the Zohar’s authenticity. Even Gershom Scholem held that Moshe de Leon was an honest scholar, and certainly no faker who was out to dupe others or make money. (Scholem nonetheless believed that de Leon and his circle were the Zohar’s originators.)

Rav Dessler

Today, the Zohar has seemingly become accepted by all Orthodox communities, and some claim that denying the authenticity of the Zohar is heresy. This is not true. Rav Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1953) held that there is nothing wrong with believing the Zohar was composed by someone in the 13th century. Meanwhile, Rav Ovadia Yosef (1920-2013) said that the Yemenite communities that do not accept the Zohar should not be considered heretics. After all, these communities existed long before the Zohar’s publication, and were never exposed to it. He even conceded that some of their arguments may have substance. (See Ma’ayan Omer, Perek 7, Siman 93.)

Illustrations of Sefirot in von Rosenroth’s ‘Kabbala Denudata’

One of their arguments is that the Zohar was influenced by Christian belief. Gersom Scholem illustrates multiple instances of this in his Kabbalah, especially when it comes to Christian demonology. Aside from that, some of the Zohar’s teachings may be seen as inadvertently supporting Christian theology. In fact, Christian scholars (like Picco della Mirandola, Johann Reuchlin, Christian Knorr von Rosenroth, and even Newton and Leibnitz) actually took up the study of the Zohar themselves, and believed that this text would result in Jews finally converting to Christianity willingly. History shows that while some Jews may have done so, many more Jews instead started to believe in Christian ideas like man becoming god (or god becoming man), and that a messiah can die without completing his task, to return in a future “second coming”. This was a huge issue in the heresy of Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676), and continues to be a significant problem with certain Hasidim today.

One specific example of how Christianity influenced post-Zoharic Kabbalah is particularly relevant now, on the cusp of Rosh Hashanah. It is customary to recite Tefillat HaParnasah, a prayer for sustenance, at the end of each prayer service during the High Holidays. In many Sephardic siddurim, a supposed “name of God” is invoked (though not recited aloud) during this prayer. The “name” is Dikarnosa (דיקרנוסא), which apparently comes from Malachi 3:10, though it is difficult to see how other than the appearance of the word די in the verse.

In reality, Dikarnosa means absolutely nothing in Hebrew or Aramaic. However, it has a clear Spanish (or Latin) root: dei (“god”) and karne (“meat” or “flesh”). Some believe karnosa is a combination of karne and sanguis, “blood”. Whatever the case, the meaning is pretty clear: either the name is invoking a “god of meat” or speaking of a “god of flesh and blood”. Dikarnosa may be the name of an old pagan Spanish deity of abundance (hence the association with parnasah) or, according to one Catholic priest, potentially rooted in an old appellation for Jesus who, according to Christianity, is God literally incarnated in “flesh and blood”.

While Dikarnosa is not explicitly mentioned in the Zohar, it emerged in post-Zoharic Kabbalah circles, and was already firmly accepted in the times of the Arizal. His primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), wrote about it in Pri Etz Chaim (Sha’ar HaAmidah, ch. 19). It isn’t surprising then that the Dor De’a of Yemen claimed that modern Kabbalah is contaminated with paganism.

Such are the possible dangers of studying the Zohar, and the Kabbalah that emerged from it. Some become imprisoned in demonic fears, others become extremists, or adopt all sorts of bizarre rituals, while others still are drawn to real heresy. This is one reason why the Noda b’Yehudah (Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, 1713-1793) went so far as to ban (unsuccessfully) the study of Zohar and Kabbalah. There are so many mystical texts out there that it isn’t clear which are genuine and which are not, which have been influenced by Christianity or Shabbateanism (or other heretical movements) and which have not. It is easy to be led astray.

That brings us back to the story of the Four Who Entered Pardes. We learn from that story that maybe one in four who delve into Kabbalah will emerge unscathed. The remaining three are in danger of being lead to heresy, mental issues or extreme asceticism, or worse, an untimely death.

In Search of Authentic Kabbalah

Having said all that, we mustn’t forget that there absolutely is an authentic Jewish mysticism out there. As already stated, the Tanakh itself is full of genuine mysticism, as is the Talmud. The schools of Ma’aseh Merkavah and Ma’aseh Beresheet are real, and existed. There were mystical texts that predated the Zohar, as did the central concept of Ten Sefirot. There is no doubt that much of this authentic mysticism made its way into the Zohar and subsequent works, which is why it became so popular, spread so quickly, and was accepted by so many.

Certainly, there are countless kernels of truth within the Zohar, which were further refined and polished by later Kabbalists like the Ramak and the Arizal. It is a repository of tremendous wisdom (and we have, of course, cited it frequently in this forum). It played a key role in preserving Judaism in the face of attractive Christian and Muslim mysticism in the first half of the last millennium, and in the face of enticing secular “Enlightenment” in the second half. (Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, 1728-1790, famously said that “the Zohar has kept me Jewish.”)

Today, Kabbalah has become inseparable from Judaism, and has engrained itself into every aspect of our faith—without most Jews even being aware of it. Simple things like doing netilat yadayim in the morning to rid of an impure spirit (something completely omitted in the law code of the rational Rambam), staying up all night on Shavuot, or just commemorating Hoshana Rabba are all based on mystical teachings. Any discussion of reincarnation, cosmogony, eschatology, or even a classic Torah-versus-science debate is impossible without Kabbalah. There is little doubt that the mystical tradition has immensely enriched Judaism.

But what do we make of those foreign influences? Some have argued that foreign influence is actually a good thing. After all, the Rambam himself had stated that we should “accept the truth from whomever speaks it”. There is an old mystical idea that the Torah, too, is in exile among the nations, and we must rediscover these true concepts from the nations, refine them, and restore them to their holy source. When looking from this perspective, we recognize that even the Talmud had adopted (or rediscovered) countless ideas from neighbouring Greeks, Romans, and Persians. And ancient Kabbalah, too, long before the Zohar, drew from other mystical traditions.

Like the critics of today, Rabbi Leon da Modena recognized way back in the 16th century that Kabbalah was essentially Greek Neoplatonism in Jewish clothing. Meanwhile, in his Jews, God, and History, historian Max I. Dimont argues that from the very beginning, Kabbalah “fed on noncanonized prophecy, Zoroastrian resurrection mythology, Greek science, numerology, gnostic heresies.” He concludes that “This was the material Jewish saints and scholars worked on for centuries, distilling it, shaping it, blowing life into it.” There is still much work left to be done in distilling, shaping, and refining Kabbalah. There are some ideas that are best to be buried and forgotten, and some truly profound ideas that should be disseminated further.

Dimont goes on to credit the Zohar and subsequent Kabbalistic texts with having “a large share in the sudden efflorescence of science…” and “laying the intellectual foundations for the seventeenth-century rebirth of philosophy and the establishment of scientific methodology…” A multitude of scholars share his conclusions. At the end of the day, Kabbalah has had a tremendous (mostly positive) impact not only on Judaism, but on the whole world.

What can we conclude from all of this? At the very least, that Kabbalah should be studied carefully, with a grain of salt and an open mind. It is very important to temper the study of Zohar and other Kabbalistic texts with more rationalist sources like the Rambam. We shouldn’t confuse Kabbalah with halacha. We should keep in mind the many authoritative voices in Jewish history that cautioned against, if not outright rejected, the Zohar, and we should never forget those Four Who Entered Pardes.

Those who choose to enter, beware.

Are Tattoos Really Forbidden?

In this week’s parasha, Re’eh, we read: “You are children of Hashem, your God. You shall neither cut yourselves nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead.” Here, the Torah repeats the prohibition of extreme mourning for the dead, which includes making cuts in one’s flesh or tearing out one’s hair in grief. The parallel passage in Leviticus 19:28 states “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor imprint any marks upon you, I am Hashem.” The Mishnah (Makkot 3:6) elaborates on these verses that there are two forms of cutting: one is an incision alone, and the other is an incision with ink, ie. a tattoo.

The Torah’s prohibition in Re’eh makes it clear that it is forbidden to make any cuttings in the flesh for the dead. In Leviticus (parashat Kedoshim), however, cutting in the flesh is juxtaposed with tattooing (ketovet ka’aka’a). More accurately, Leviticus uses the term “scratches” (seret) instead of “cutting”, which implies making shallow incisions that don’t necessarily result in deep wounds or profuse bleeding. This is not referring to cutting one’s self in grief, but a slightly different case where a person might incise or scratch the name of the deceased into their flesh, resulting in a permanent scar that bear’s the deceased’s name. The Mishnah concludes by stating that “If he writes without imprinting, or he imprints without writing, he is not liable for lashes, until he writes and imprints with ink or pigment or anything that leaves an impression.” Thus, while cutting deep wounds for the dead is forbidden, a person who only scratches (literally “writes”) into their skin leaving a faint scar has not sinned, unless they scratched with ink to leave a very clear impression.

Conversely, a person who uses ink alone, without any scratches or incisions, has not sinned either. So, there is little to worry about if your children come home with those temporary sticker-like “tattoos” that are rubbed onto the skin with some water. Neither is there a problem with things like henna.

Having said that, the Mishnah does not end with the words quoted above. It continues to state a teaching in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: “He is not liable until he writes a name there, as it says: ‘… nor imprint any marks upon you, I am Hashem.’” The Talmud (Makkot 21a) asks what Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai meant by this: Did he mean it is forbidden to write a Name of God, since the verse says “I am Hashem”? Or, did he mean that it is forbidden to write the name of an idolatrous deity, and it says “I am Hashem” to remind us that there is only One God?

The Sages conclude that Rashbi meant it is forbidden only to write the name of an idol or false deity. Does that, then, imply it is permissible to tattoo God’s Name? Interestingly, it has been pointed out that Isaiah 44:5 might refer to such a tattoo: “One shall say: ‘I am to Hashem’, and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob, and another shall write his hand to Hashem…” What does this last phrase—yikhtov yado l’Hashem—mean? The verb used (likhtov) is the same as that in Leviticus and in the Mishnah’s discussion of tattoos. Does this suggest that in Isaiah’s time people did have “holy tattoos” on their arms?

Holy Tattoos

The suggestion that Jews may have had “kosher” tattoos seems quite unlikely. The verse in Isaiah makes no reference to a ka’aka’a or seret, or even gadad (the root used in parashat Re’eh). Perhaps a better interpretation is that it refers to tefillin, whose writings are bound upon the arm. Besides, Isaiah is not speaking of his own time at all, but prophesying to a distant future when the righteous shall “spring up among the grass” (44:4).

Whatever the case, the Mishnah holds that tattoos are only forbidden when bearing a name. It appears that tattooing for other reasons, including decorative ones, is not forbidden. Indeed, the Torah’s prohibition is only stated with regards to mourning the dead. This would forbid, for example, tattooing the name of one’s beloved that has passed away—something quite common today, and clearly in ancient times, too. If the tattoo is not associated with idolatry or mourning, there is technically no Scriptural or Talmudic basis for forbidding it.

The popular belief that a Jew who has a tattoo will not be buried in a Jewish cemetery is entirely untrue. Some say it began with one particular cemetery that refused people with tattoos to be buried there. Rabbi Gutman Locks proposed that it came from the need to identify dead bodies: if a corpse had a tattoo, it was assumed that the person wasn’t Jewish, so they were buried in a non-Jewish cemetery. Either way, it became a useful tool for fearful parents who tried to discourage their children from getting inked. The fear is justified, for Jewish tradition has always strongly frowned upon tattooing. Despite the fact that our ancient holy texts do not expressly forbid it, avoiding tattoos has become a firm Jewish custom accepted by all communities.

The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204), in his authoritative Mishneh Torah, records the prohibition as law (Hilkhot Avodat Kochavim 12:11). He argues that tattooing is a practice of idolaters, invented by idolaters, for idolaters, and tattoos generally symbolize a mark of submission to some false deity. Since the Torah is so adamant about staying away from anything that is even remotely connected to idolatry, tattoos should be completely forbidden—even if the tattoo bears a holy Name of God or a verse from the Torah.

Today, there aren’t a lack of people who sport such tattoos. While the faith of such people is commendable, using a tattoo to express that faith is ironically inappropriate since Jewish law forbids tattooing! If these people feel like Isaiah 44:5 is a Scriptural support for them, perhaps they should, instead, be more scrupulous with the mitzvah of tefillin, which may be a more fitting interpretation of that verse. After all, tefillin is a mark of devotion to Hashem, symbolizing a Jew’s dedication of mind, heart, and action towards the service of God. Just as the Rambam says a tattoo was meant to be a mark of devotion and submission to an idol, a Jew’s tefillin serves the same purpose with regards to Hashem. The only inked skin that a Jew needs is the dyed leather of tefillin.

And there are a handful of other good reasons to avoid tattoos, too.

“Jewish Tattoos” (Credit: tattoo-journal.com)

Physical and Spiritual Health

Firstly, tattoos are a health issue. Other than the pain of the procedure itself, injecting pigments can cause allergic reactions and itchy rashes. For some people, the itchiness can persist for years. Infections are relatively common, too, with hepatitis B and C being a particular issue, as well as less serious bacterial infections. Studies show that as many as 6% of people get an infection following tattooing. Tattoos can also be problematic if a person needs an MRI in the future. The strong magnets can shift the metals in the ink and cause pain or swelling. They sometimes distort the MRI image, too. Finally, tattoo inks can be toxic, and have been linked to cancer.

To be fair, some people do experience a positive mental or emotional boost from getting a tattoo. These “mental health tattoos” can be a good thing, and even bring a person out of a depressive state. However, there are undoubtedly much better ways to treat depression and mental health issues than getting a tattoo.

On a spiritual level, tattoos are an even bigger issue. As we saw above, tattooing was associated with idolatry. It was also associated with slavery, where a master would brand his servant with a mark of ownership. This is still happening today, especially in prostitution rings, where pimps often have their logos tattooed on their “property”. Cattle and other animals are also generally branded with tattoos. Of course, no one could forget the Jews that were tattooed with a number in the Holocaust. This alone should make a Jew cringe and stay away from ink. (It should be noted here that a person who is tattooed against their will is not culpable in any way, and bearing the tattoo is certainly not a sin—as the Rambam makes explicitly clear in the same passage cited above.)

Then there’s the issue of modesty. Jews are expected to uphold the highest standards of modesty, and there are few places on the body where a tattoo would even be visible to the public. Tattoos tend to be placed in areas that shouldn’t be exposed to begin with—which, in many cases, goes to show the real motivation for getting one. Tattoos are often just a means of attracting attention. Other people, meanwhile, have so many tattoos that the reasoning could be the exact opposite: It has been said that in a world where people are less and less covered by clothes, they subconsciously seek other means to hide their skin. In a strange inversion of modesty, there are those who hide behind their tattoos.

But for many people, a tattoo is done on a whim, or in one’s youth, or without too much forethought. The result is that about a third of people who get a tattoo end up regretting it, and about half of those seek expensive tattoo removal procedures. It is therefore better to stay away from tattoos entirely.

And lastly, it is important to keep in mind that the Mishnah states it isn’t just forbidden to get a tattoo, but also to tattoo “the flesh of one’s fellow”. The act of tattooing itself is problematic, and therefore, “tattoo artist” is not a kosher profession for any Jew.

What Does God Ask Of You?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upholding Creation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garment for the Soul

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

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

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

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

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

Yirat Hashem

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

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

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

Why is Judaism Matrilineal?

In this week’s parasha, Va’etchanan, God cautions His people about intermarriage (Deuteronomy 7:3-4). Although the Torah is speaking specifically about intermarrying with the Canaanite nations, the verses have always been understood as prohibiting intermarriage with any and all other nations. This is especially true because the Torah goes on to say that intermarrying will lead to the children being led astray and being turned to idolatrous ways. In those days, the Canaanites were not the only idolaters, of course—just about everyone was an idol-worshipper—so all intermarriage was forbidden. The Torah phrases the prohibition in an interesting way:

You shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughter to his son, and you shall not take his daughter for your son, for they will turn away your son from following Me, and they will worship the gods of others…

While the Torah makes it clear that one must not marry their son to a gentile woman, or their daughter to a gentile man, it goes on to only mention that the son will be turned away from God, not the daughter. The Sages explain that women tend to be of greater faith than me, and as the primary builders of the home, it is the women who set the spiritual tone of the family. A faithful Jewish man who marries a non-Jewish woman will, sooner or later, be led astray. Such was the case with a great many Jewish men following the Babylonian Exile, and when they finally returned to Israel, they admitted (Ezra 10:2-3):

We have broken faith with our God, and have married foreign women of the peoples of the land; yet now there is hope for Israel concerning this thing. Now therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives, and such as are born of them, according to the counsel of Hashem, and of those that tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law.

“Ezra reading the Law in the hearing of the people” by Gustave Doré

From all of the above, the Sages conclude that Judaism passes on maternally. Scripture makes it clear that only the non-Jewish mother will turn a Jewish man astray, and as we learn from Ezra, only those born to “foreign women” are not part of the Covenant. Aside from this, there are a number of other practical and spiritual reasons why Judaism must be matrilineal.

Since the mother is the one actually giving birth to the child, it is pretty much clear every single time who the child’s mother is. The same cannot be said of the father. Throughout history, when raping and pillaging was unfortunately very common, and there were no paternity tests, only the mother’s status as parent was evident. This may be why the ancient Greeks and Romans tended to be matrilineal as well.

Shaye J.D. Cohen points out (see chapter 9 of The Beginnings of Jewishness) that in Athens, only the offspring of an Athenian man and an Athenian woman could have Athenian citizenship, a law introduced by Pericles around 451 BCE. If an Athenian man married a foreign woman, the children would not be Athenians. Later, the Romans similarly held that only two Roman citizens can have a child who was a Roman citizen, and if a Roman married a foreigner or someone of a lower social class, the status or identity of the child would be that of the mother.

While these rules make sense from a logical perspective, they also recognize the profound connection that a child and mother have—far superior to that of child and father. And this ties into the deeper biological, and spiritual, reasons for why Judaism is matrilineal.

The Genetics of Motherhood

When it comes to the genes and traits of children, people tend to think that they are a 50-50 mix of mother and father. We learn in school how 23 chromosomes from the father (carried by sperm cells) meet 23 chromosomes from the mother (in the egg cell) to produce a new child. We are made to believe that even if the child may look more like one parent, they are nonetheless perfectly half-half. This is completely untrue.

A karyotype showing 23 pairs of chromosomes. (Credit: National Human Genome Research Institute)

First of all, when it comes to boys, the Y chromosome of the father is far smaller and carries significantly less genes than the mother’s X chromosome. Girls do have half of their father’s and half of their mother’s genes (receiving an X from each, along with the other 22 chromosomes). However, this only refers to nuclear DNA. The cell has other forms of heritable genetic material, too, most notably in mitochondria.

The mitochondrion is one of the most vital components of any cell, and provides the bulk of a cell’s energy. The main reason that you breathe is to provide oxygen for mitochondria. They are involved in countless processes, including calcium storage, cell signalling and communication, metabolism, hormone production, the breakdown of wastes (such as toxic ammonia in the liver), and apoptosis, or cellular death. A single cell could have over a thousand mitochondria.

Mitochondria under a microscope.

These mitochondria have their very own DNA, carrying hundreds of additional genes. This DNA, called mtDNA, is passed down strictly from mother to child. A father’s mitochondria play no role. In fact, because of this, geneticists are able to trace a person’s maternal lineage fairly accurately thousands of years into the past by analyzing mtDNA. (My own mtDNA—haplogroup U6a—dates back to a woman who lived in North Africa about 1000 generations ago!)

There are multiple other cellular components that are passed down almost entirely from mother to child. Because the sperm essentially donates only its nucleus (with its chromosomes) to the egg, it is the egg cell itself that begins to divide in producing an embryo. Thus, the bulk of a person’s cellular structure comes from their mother, too. Back in university, I had one biology professor who estimated that inheritance is not 50-50, but more like 80-20. From a scientific perspective, we are far, far more like our mothers.

This is one reason why mothers have such a deep and profound connection to their child. Amazingly, scientists have recently discovered that when a woman is pregnant, DNA (and whole cells) from the child actually goes into the bloodstream and ends up in the mother’s brain! Fetal cells have also been found in lungs, muscles, and heart tissue of mothers. A mother will literally carry the DNA of her children in her body for the rest of her life.

Just as children are physically more connected with their mothers so, too, are they more spiritually connected to their mothers. (After all, one of Judaism’s central principles is that the dynamics of this physical world are only a reflection of the spiritual realms.) And this is yet another key reason why Judaism is, and must be, matrilineal.

What About Conversion?

The genetics perspective brings up an important question: what about converts? A person who converts to Judaism is, of course, a full-fledged Jew. But their DNA hasn’t changed! It goes without saying that Judaism is not genetic, and the discussion of genetics above is meant to only be an analogy for spiritual processes.

Having said that, we have an opportunity here to bust another common myth: that a person’s DNA is unchanging. People are often taught that whatever DNA they are born with, they are stuck with. If they have a defective gene for a particular condition, then they will definitely develop that condition. Today we know that this, too, is not entirely correct.

As discussed before in detail, our body has epigenetic machinery which allows gene expression to be controlled. Just because a person has a certain gene does not mean that the gene will be operational. It can certainly be “shut off”. While it was once thought that our lifestyle choices have no impact on our genes or epigenetics, new research continues to show that the choices we make have a tremendous effect on our genes. We’ve known for a long time that things like diet and physical activity impact gene expression, and now we even have evidence that prayer and meditation affects our genes.

Therefore, a person who sincerely converts to Judaism, and begins to live a Jewish lifestyle, eat like a Jew, think like a Jew, and pray like a Jew, will very likely experience changes on the genetic (or epigenetic) level as well. And these epigenetic changes are hereditary.

This is yet another reason why it is so important to convert to Judaism properly. Converting means not only converting in name, but becoming Torah-observant and living a Jewish life. Otherwise, what’s the point of the conversion? This is precisely why Orthodox conversions tends to be so difficult and time-consuming. The rabbis want to ensure (as much as possible) that the person is serious about becoming a Jew, and will actually live as one.

The process is far from perfect, and sometimes they do make it too difficult and tedious. We have addressed this in the past as well. Some point out that it was never so difficult to convert in past centuries. This is true, as the Talmud (Yevamot 47b) explains the procedure thus:

Once healed [from circumcision], we immerse him immediately; and two scholars stand above him, and teach him a few easy commandments and a few difficult commandments. Once he has immersed and come up from immersion, he is part of Israel for all matters. If the convert is a woman, women sit her in the water up to her neck and two scholars stand outside, and teach her a few easy commandments and a few difficult commandments.

That’s all it took back in those days. A person was just taught a few introductory mitzvot while already immersed part way in a mikveh. They would pick up the rest when going on to live as Jews and marry into Jewish families. Even in the time of the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) hundreds of years later, he codifies this exact procedure as law (Mishneh Torah, Issurei Biah 14:6). Yet, in those days just about everyone was religious (whether Jewish or not). This isn’t the case in today’s secular society. A person who converts to Judaism wouldn’t necessarily learn how to be a Jew by simply marrying into a Jewish family. It is necessary to carefully teach them everything beforehand.

It is just as necessary to determine their real intentions, and affirm their absolute sincerity. In a world where people change their identities faster than they change their socks, it isn’t surprising that Orthodox rabbis take conversion very seriously and are extremely stringent about it. It is important to keep this in mind as we continue to hear about intermarriage and the “who is a Jew?” debate in the mainstream media.

The Right Way to Observe the “Three Weeks”

‘The Flight of the Prisoners’ by James Tissot, depicting the Jewish people’s exile after the destruction of the First Temple.

This Sunday marks the start of the “Three Weeks” between the fast days of the seventeenth of Tamuz and the ninth of Av. The Talmud describes five tragedies that happened on each of these fast days, culminating with the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem on Tisha b’Av. Over the centuries, many customs have emerged with regards to this time bein hameitzarim, “between the straits”. Today, it has essentially become a three-week mourning period—even though the Talmud and other early texts say nothing about it. Furthermore, many have come to believe that this is an “unlucky” or “dangerous” time for the Jewish people, and thus abstain from various activities. What is the origin of these customs and how should they be followed?

Surprises in the Talmud

Throughout the Three Weeks period it is customary to abstain from shaving and haircuts, as well as listening to music. Generally, weddings are not held (with minor exceptions), and saying the blessing of shehecheyanu (on new clothes, fruits, or other) is discouraged. The mourning intensifies once the month of Av begins. Henceforth, the consumption of meat and wine is restricted, as is bathing for pleasure, doing laundry, or purchasing valuable new things. The source for most of these prohibitions is in the Talmud (Ta’anit 26b-30a), where we read:

With the beginning of [the month of] Av, rejoicing is curtailed. During the week in which the ninth of Av falls, it is forbidden to cut hair and to wash clothes, but on Thursday it is permissible in honour of the Sabbath. On the eve of the ninth of Av, one may not partake of a meal of two courses, nor eat meat, nor drink wine.

The Mishnaic statement above simply states that once the month of Av begins, one must lessen their joy. This would presumably include going to parties and weddings, and listening to music (which, in those days, could only be enjoyed live). Still, it is only speaking of the first days of Av, not of a three week period from the seventeenth of Tamuz. The Mishnah then states that in the actual week in which Tisha b’Av falls, one should abstain from haircuts and laundry (of course, this is permissible if preparing for Shabbat, the honour of which is greater than any mourning custom). The Talmud then debates this Mishnah:

…it is forbidden to cut the hair and to wash clothes from the beginning of the month until after the fast—this is the opinion of Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Yehudah says: It is forbidden the whole month. Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel says: It is forbidden only on that particular week. … Rava said: The halachah is according to Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel. And Rava further said: The halachah is according to Rabbi Meir. And both decisions are in favour of the more lenient practice, and both are needed [to be stated]. For had it only been stated that the halachah is according to Rabbi Meir, I might have said that the restriction is in force from the beginning of the month, therefore it is also clearly stated that the halachah is according to Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel. And had it only been stated that the halachah is according to Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel, I would have said that the restriction continues even on the days after [Tisha b’Av], therefore it is clearly stated that the halachah is according to Rabbi Meir.

There were three schools of thought in those days: Rabbi Meir held that we mourn from the start of Av until the fast; Rabban Shimon that we only mourn during the week of Tisha b’Av itself; and Rabbi Yehudah was the most stringent, holding that the entire month of Av is mournful. The halacha originally favoured Rabban Shimon, however this presented an ambiguity: If we are meant to mourn in the week of Tisha b’Av, does that mean we must continue to mourn for the remainder of the week after the fast is over? To clarify, Rava combines the view of Rabban Shimon and Rabbi Meir, and concludes that we mourn until the fast, and not after. For this reason, today’s custom is to intensify the mourning practices in the week of Tisha b’Av itself.

Finally, the Mishnah states that in the very last meal one eats before the fast begins, they should avoid meat and wine. The Talmud once more elaborates:

Rav Yehudah said: This restriction applies to any time after midday, but not to any time before midday. Rav Yehudah further said: It applies only to the concluding meal [before the fast] but not to any other meal… One who has a meal on the eve of Tisha b’Av with the intention to have another meal [later], he may eat meat and drink wine; but if not, he may not eat meat nor drink wine.

The Talmud makes it clear that one need only abstain from meat and wine in the very last meal before the fast begins. There is no Talmudic basis for avoiding meat and wine from Rosh Chodesh Av. In fact, the Talmud goes on to state that while Rabbi Meir said one should avoid meat and wine in that final meal, the rest of the Sages said one should only lessen his consumption of meat and wine:

How should one restrict? If he was in the habit of eating one pound of meat he should eat one half only; if it is his usual practice to drink one log of wine he should drink one half log only…

The Talmud later clarifies that salted meat and new wine is always permitted. It is only fresh meat and the finer, aged wine that shouldn’t be consumed! Despite this, many Jewish communities became more and more stringent over the centuries, and took upon themselves to avoid all meat and wine from the start of the month. Rav Ovadia Yosef held that since it is already an ancient custom, it should be continued. Interestingly, the Yemenite Jews had no such custom, and only abstained from meat and wine in that final meal before the fast, as the Talmud requires. Nonetheless, Rav Ovadia encouraged them to take on the more stringent custom, especially because now they were living in Israel where destruction of the Temple is felt more pressingly.

The Talmud also mentions the custom of bathing:

At the meal intended to be the concluding one before Tisha b’Av, it is forbidden to eat meat or to drink wine, or to bathe after the meal. At the meal which is not intended to be a concluding meal prior to Tisha b’Av, it is permissible to eat meat and to drink wine, but not to bathe. Rabbi Ishmael bar Yose said in the name of his father: So long as it is permissible to eat meat it is also permissible to bathe.

The Talmud at first suggests that bathing may be one of those things one shouldn’t do the week of Tisha b’Av. Rabbi Ishmael comes to conclude that as long as eating meat is allowed, so is bathing. Thus, from a Talmudic perspective alone, bathing is permitted right up until the final meal of Tisha b’Av.

Laying Down the Law

The Rambam, aka. Maimonides

In the 12th century, the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) produced his monumental Mishneh Torah, the first complete, comprehensive, and conclusive Jewish book of laws. While many more law books have been laid out since then, the Mishneh Torah is often seen as the gold standard. Some hold that it is the greatest law code in Judaism (with the Rambam regularly compared to Moses himself), and many today consider themselves “Rambamists” that strictly follow the dictates of the Mishneh Torah.

There are many reasons why the Mishneh Torah is so great. For one, the Rambam wrote it succinctly, clearly, with no grey areas, and covering every aspect of Judaism. (In fact, he himself writes that one need only read Scripture and his Mishneh Torah to know essentially everything about Judaism!) Secondly, the Rambam did not include any customs of non-Jewish origin or of an irrational nature, of which there are unfortunately quite a great deal today. He was perfectly logical and practical in his halacha. On a related note, the Rambam completely avoided anything Kabbalistic, mystical, or magical. He utterly rejected the belief in evil spirits and demons that would later become so popular (mainly due to Christian and Muslim influence). Thus, the Rambam’s law code may be described as a pure, unadulterated compendium of authentic Judaism. (For more on the Mishneh Torah’s supremacy, see here.)

With that in mind, this is what the Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Ta’aniot, 5:6-8) says about the Three Weeks:

When the month of Av enters, we reduce our joy. During the week of Tisha b’Av, it is forbidden to cut one’s hair, to do laundry, or to wear a pressed garment—even one of linen—until after the fast.

It has already been accepted as a Jewish custom not to eat meat or enter a bathhouse during this week until after the fast… One should not eat meat or drink wine at the meal before the fast. One may, however, drink grape juice that has not been left [to ferment] for three days. One may eat salted meat that was slaughtered more than three days previously. One should not eat two cooked dishes.

When does the above apply? When one ate in the afternoon on the day preceding Tisha b’Av. If, however, one eats a meal before noon, although this is the last meal one eats before the fast, one may eat all that one desires.

When the day before Tisha b’Av falls on the Sabbath, one may eat and drink to the full extent of one’s needs, and one may serve even a meal resembling Solomon’s feasts at one’s table. Similarly, when Tisha b’Av falls on the Sabbath, one need not withhold anything at all.

We see from the Rambam that all of the prohibitions really only kick in the week of Tisha b’Av itself. He rules that one is only forbidden from partaking meat and wine in the afternoon of the day preceding Tisha b’Av, though there is an established custom to avoid meat the entire week. And if Tisha b’Av falls on Shabbat (as it does this year), then there is essentially no mourning at all. This last statement likely reflects the position of Rabbi Yehudah haNasi (the redactor of the Mishnah), who said that the fast of Tisha b’Av should be entirely cancelled if it falls on Shabbat. (Others say he wanted to abolish the fast entirely!)

If that’s the case, how did we go from minimal mourning in the time of the Talmud—and even in the time of the Rambam just 800 years ago—to today’s extensive three week period?

The Influence of Midrash and Kabbalah

On Tisha b’Av it is customary to read Megillat Eichah, the Book of Lamentations. This is the prophet Jeremiah’s gruesome account of Jerusalem’s destruction. Jeremiah writes: “Judah went into exile because of affliction and great servitude; she settled among the nations, [and] found no rest; all her pursuers overtook her bein hameitzarim [between the straits].” (Lamentations 1:3) Rashi cites two meanings for the term “between the straits” or “between the boundaries”. The simple meaning is that it refers to the borders of the Jewish people’s former farms and vineyards which have been destroyed. He then cites the Midrash by stating that “between the straits” also refers to the three week period between the seventeenth of Tamuz and Tisha b’Av.

An artist’s rendition of the hairy and ocular “Ketev Meriri”

Going directly to the source, the Midrash (Eichah Rabbah 1:29) suggests that “her pursuers overtook her bein hameitzarim” means that there is an evil spirit that is particularly strong during the Three Weeks, and has the power to pursue and hurt the Jewish people. The Midrash calls this evil spirit Ketev Meriri (קֶטֶב מְרִירִי), which is mentioned just a single time in the Torah (Deuteronomy 32:24), in parashat Ha’azinu: “The wasting of hunger, and the devouring of the fiery bolt, and Ketev Meriri; and the teeth of beasts will I send upon them, with the venom of crawling things of the dust.” Although usually translated as “bitter destruction”, or a “plague”, or “bad vapour”, some hold that Ketev Meriri is some kind of evil entity or demon out to hurt the Jewish people.

The Midrash in question says it is a demon entirely covered with eyes and hair, and anyone who looks upon it immediately dies. While it is allowed to roam free during the Three Weeks, it is only active “between the end of the fourth hour and the start of the ninth hour of the day, and it goes neither in the sun nor in the shade, but right along the border between a sunny and shaded area.” So, this Ketev Meriri is only found for several hours in the day during the Three Weeks, and can only cause damage if a person is standing or walking, alone, right between a sunny and shaded area! This sounds like silly superstition, which is precisely why the Rambam rejects it outright.

Maran Yosef Karo, aka. the “Mechaber”

Nonetheless, it is mentioned in the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim, 551:18), which warns to beware of Ketev Meriri during the Three Weeks, between the fourth and ninth hour of the day. It is important to remember that the Shulchan Arukh was composed by Rabbi Yosef Karo (“Maran”, 1488-1575), one of the great Tzfat Kabbalists. Although some believe that he, too, sought to keep his updated law code free of Kabbalah, one who reads the Shulchan Arukh will undoubtedly see how thoroughly mystical concepts and practices permeate it. This is one key difference between the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah and Maran’s Shulchan Arukh. Of course, the latter went on to become the authoritative law code of Judaism.

It therefore isn’t surprising that a great deal of (superstitious) fear developed among Jews, worrying that something horrible will happen. Over time, it became customary to avoid going swimming, partaking in any kind of “risky” activity, or even flying in an airplane. Under such conditions, it is only natural that the entire Three Week period became one of pretty intense mourning.

Yet, even the Shulchan Arukh does not speak of such intense mourning. It, too, begins by speaking of mourning from the start of Av. And it is only in the week in which Tisha b’Av itself falls that haircuts and laundry are prohibited (Orach Chaim, 551:3). The same is true for consuming meat and wine, although Maran mentions other customs to abstain from meat and wine from Rosh Chodesh, or even from the seventeenth of Tamuz. He concludes that one who eats meat when his community does not is a sinner and will be—to borrow a Talmudic term—“bitten by a snake” (if he wasn’t already scared enough from Ketev Meriri).

The Shulchan Arukh also lists two different customs for bathing: some abstain from Rosh Chodesh, and others only in the week of Tisha b’Av. And then we are told that some fast every single day during the Three Weeks! (551:16) We see how unlike the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, which is clear as to precisely how a Jew should act, the Shulchan Arukh lists numerous customs without a clear indication which is best. This is another critical difference between the two law codes.

Summarizing the Law

To conclude, if one wants to observe the mourning period strictly as mandated by the Talmud, Mishneh Torah, and even the Shulchan Arukh, one need only abstain from music and festivities from the start of Av, and abstain from bathing, cutting hair, and laundering in the week of Tisha b’Av itself. With regards to meat and wine, although the letter of the law is only to abstain in the last meal before the fast, there is support for abstaining the entire week of Tisha b’Av, and the Shulchan Arukh holds that a person should not deviate from whatever is their local custom.

On the note of bathing and cutting hair or shaving, it is important to remember how great the honour of Shabbat is: While mourning may be an important custom, looking presentable and dignified on Shabbat is actually an halachic requirement. The Talmud makes it clear that one must bathe and cut their hair for Shabbat—even on a Thursday immediately preceding a Tisha b’Av which falls on a Friday. (This is technically not possible in our fixed calendar, but was possible in those days). The Sephardic custom reflects this halachic necessity, while the Ashkenazi custom strangely does not. Rav David Bar-Hayim, despite being of Ashkenazi background himself, holds that the Ashkenazi custom of abstaining from haircuts for the entire Three Weeks—which he traces to about 600 years ago—is plainly wrong and contrary to halacha.

Finally, there is no need to fear of calamities during the Three Weeks, unless one conducts themselves according to Kabbalah, in which case they may need to beware of Ketev Meriri between the fourth and ninth hour of the day, especially if walking alone between sunny and shaded areas.