Tag Archives: Re’eh

Why is Chicken Forbidden with Dairy?

In this week’s parasha, Re’eh, we find one of three instances in the Torah prohibiting to “cook a kid in its mother’s milk.” (Deuteronomy 14:21) The most literal understanding of this prohibition is not to cook a baby goat specifically in its own mother’s milk. Certain sources suggest this refers to an ancient pagan practice where idolaters did exactly that. The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1138-1204) writes in his Moreh Nevuchim (III, 48):

Meat boiled in milk is undoubtedly gross food, and makes overfull; but I think that most probably it is also prohibited because it is somehow connected with idolatry, forming perhaps part of the service, or being used on some festival of the heathen. I find a support for this view in the circumstance that the Law mentions the prohibition twice after the commandment given concerning the festivals…

Since twice the Torah juxtaposes this prohibition with celebrating festivals, the Rambam reasons that it must have been something done by pagans on their festivals. Archaeologists have indeed found evidence of a possible ancient Canaanite fertility ritual where they would cook a kid in its mother’s milk, then sprinkle the soup on their farms. Idolatry aside, this ritual is undoubtedly cruel, too. Way back in the 1st century CE, Philo Judaeus wrote in his On Virtues how anyone who does such a thing “is exhibiting a terrible perversity of disposition” (XXVI, 144).

Intriguingly, Philo also explains the meat-dairy prohibition as having more of a mystical reason: There is something spiritually incompatible in mixing meat and dairy, for “it is a very terrible thing for the nourishment of the living to be the seasoning and sauce of the dead…” (143) In other words, milk is that nourishing substance that represents new life, whereas meat requires slaughter and represents death. It is important to remember that God originally prohibited mankind from eating any meat whatsoever. Adam and Eve were vegetarians. Meat was later permitted by God after the Flood, though in a very limited capacity, and mainly for a spiritual reason (as explained in the past here). And spiritually, meat and dairy are simply incompatible.

Now, everyone agrees, as did Philo, that the Torah’s prohibition is not just specifically for goats, but for any domesticated herd flesh such as sheep and cows. Undomesticated animals are a different story, since they are not milked, so it wouldn’t be possible (or it would be extremely difficult) to cook them in their mother’s milk. Birds, of course, are not mammals and have no milk at all. Hence, Rabbi Akiva teaches in the Mishnah (Chullin 8:4) that “an undomesticated animal or bird in milk is not prohibited by Torah law.” Rabbi Akiva also adds non-kosher animals, meaning that a Jew who, say, works as a cook in a non-kosher restaurant would be allowed to mix pork and dairy for the non-Jewish diners. According to Rabbi Akiva, this is why the Torah mentions the meat-dairy prohibition three separate times, to teach that three categories of animals are excluded: undomesticated, birds, and non-kosher.

The Talmud then discusses this Mishnah in more depth. The implication of Rabbi Akiva’s statement is that while those three categories are not prohibited by Torah law, they are prohibited by Rabbinic law (Chullin 116a). However, Rabbi Yose haGelili held that consuming birds with dairy is not prohibited at all, not even by Rabbinic law, and that in his hometown it was normal for Jews to eat fowl and dairy regularly! Then, in a story about the sage Levi, the Talmud presents the possibility that the hometown of Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira may have permitted fowl and dairy, as well. Earlier in the Talmud (Chullin 104b), Agra teaches that fowl and cheese are permitted to be eaten together, though his statement is later qualified to mean that he meant they can be consumed one after another, not actually together.

There is no doubt that by the close of the Talmudic period, consuming fowl and dairy was prohibited just as any other meat. And everyone agrees that this is a Rabbinic fence. The big question is: why? The Talmud does not give a reason for the expansion of the prohibition to include fowl. One cannot argue that the Sages simply extended the prohibition to include all animal flesh with dairy, for they did not extend the prohibition to fish and the kosher locusts, which remain pareve. Only fowl became forbidden.

For many years, I searched for a satisfying answer to the problem. Surprisingly, there is a serious scarcity of discussion on the matter. The most oft-repeated reason is that fowl may be easily confused with red meat, so the Sages worried that people might unintentionally break a Torah law, hence the need for a fowl fence. Yet, there doesn’t appear to actually be an ancient source for this answer, nor does it make much sense upon closer examination. If we are worried about appearances, some fish might also be confused with meat (they call tuna the “chicken of the sea” after all), but fish and dairy was not prohibited. Eating a hamburger with artificial pareve cheese, or eating a vegan cheeseburger, have not been prohibited either, and those situations are far more visually confusing. Besides, people are generally careful to know what they are eating—especially Jews who have many dietary restrictions.

A better answer I came across looks at the question more practically. For most of history, red meat was prohibitively expensive.* Cows, sheep, and goats are a lot more valuable alive than dead. One could get years’ worth of nutrition—milk, butter, cheese—not to mention other goods like wool and lanolin, as long as the animal remains living. Also, there is too much meat on these animals for a single family to consume in one sitting, and there were no freezers to keep the leftovers. Thus, red meat was typically only consumed on special occasions and big events. The most common meat was chicken, which was easy and quick to raise and slaughter, not expensive at all, and small enough that there was little waste. Practically speaking, for most people in the past, “meat” meant chicken, and had more day-to-day significance than rare red meat. Thus, it wasn’t much of a leap to include chicken (and thereby other fowl) in the prohibition.

Having said that, another answer might seem totally the opposite. The Mishnah (Bava Kamma 7:7) states that it was forbidden to raise chickens in Jerusalem during Temple times, and kohanim were not allowed to raise chickens at all, anywhere in Israel. This is because chickens are scavengers that will eat anything, including garbage, and might pick up bones and move them from place to place, spreading tumah impurity. One of the peculiar archaeological findings in Qumran—famous for the Dead Sea Scrolls—is that while many bones of cows, sheep, and goats have been dug up, there are absolutely none of chickens! Those Essenes who likely inhabited Qumran were very strictly-observant Jews, so it makes sense that they kept the same purity laws as would be kept in Jerusalem. Considering how much the Essenes influenced Rabbinic Judaism (or reflected an element of that era’s Rabbinic Judaism), it is quite possible that many of the early Sages avoided chicken as well. The Torah itself never mentions chickens at all, the Midrash describes them as “the most brazen of birds” (Shemot Rabbah 42:9), while the Talmud (Berakhot 6a) associates chicken feet with demons.

So, it is quite possible that Jews in those days actually ate little chicken. In fact, we know that the main fowl that was consumed in Israel was pigeon and dove. Perhaps chicken was designated “meat” (for dairy-mixing purposes) because it was uncommon and unfamiliar. Once chicken was prohibited, other birds slowly followed suit. Indeed, the episode in Chullin mentioned above describes how Levi was presented with a peacock and dairy dish, and did not object. Perhaps the fence started with chicken, and over time expanded to include other birds.

A study highlighting one issue of eating meat and dairy together.

Whatever the case, what we find is that during the Second Temple era, consuming fowl with dairy was not prohibited, and shortly afterwards was prohibited Rabbinically. It took several centuries for the prohibition to be cemented and universal. Intriguingly, the Ethiopian Jewish community knew of no prohibition for fowl and dairy, and only accepted it upon themselves when they began settling in Israel in recent decades. (This may be a valuable point of evidence suggesting the Ethiopian Jewish community branched off in the very early years of the exile after the Temple’s destruction, or even earlier). I believe that here, in this chronology, lies one more possible answer as to why fowl and dairy was forbidden. And this answer is a mystical one.

Elevating Birds

Illustration of a kohen washing his hands in the Temple’s copper laver.

From the information above, we can deduce that the critical moment in the birth of the fowl-dairy prohibition was the destruction of the Temple. A great many things changed with that seismic event. Our Sages stated that since we no longer have a Temple altar, the meal table now takes its place (Berakhot 55a, Chagigah 27a). As such, the Sages instituted a number of meal-time rituals to parallel the Temple services. First is netilat yadayim, which parallels the priestly washing in the Temple’s copper laver before service (as well as the washing before their consumption of terumah). Second is dipping bread in salt after hamotzi, since all sacrifices in the Temple had to be salted. Then there’s the final washing, mayim achronim, as explored in depth in Secrets of the Last Waters. Such practices were meant to commemorate, reinforce, and facilitate that what was spiritually accomplished in the Temple before could now be spiritually accomplished at the meal table. So, what is it that we seek to accomplish spiritually here?

Across Jewish mystical texts (particularly the Arizal), it is made clear that the purpose of the Temple was to elevate the holy sparks of Creation trapped in this lower physical world. The soul of an animal that was sacrificed in the Temple was able to break free of the kelipot, and return Above. Any lost holy sparks (nitzotzot) trapped within the animal were restored to their true place in the cosmos. The same goes for eating, which serves to elevate the spiritual matter within the food, thereby rectifying Creation. (See, for instance, Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 22; Sha’ar haMitzvot on Ekev; and the Zohar on Ekev.)

In Temple times, a person was able to elevate sparks on things like fruits, vegetables, and fish through eating and reciting an after-blessing. Fowl and herd animals were more difficult to elevate, and generally required sacrifice in the Temple. Once the Temple was destroyed, the spiritual potential within each Jew declined. Now, an additional pre-blessing was necessary to properly elevate the sparks, which is the mystical reason for the Sages having instituted the berakhah rishonah. This works for low-level sparks and kelipot like those in produce or fish, but what about the more difficult fowl and herd animals, which were offered in the Temple? For those, we have the meal table, and thus the necessity of the additional rituals instituted by the Sages, mirroring those in the Temple.

The kelipot within fowl and herd animals are particularly strong, and their souls are greater than other animals. (This has a biological aspect, too, in that birds and mammals are the only two categories of animals that are warm-blooded.) To accomplish their elevation in a spiritually-weaker reality devoid of a Temple, the Sages had to introduce a number of spiritual supports. For instance, there was the directive to preferably leave meat consumption only for Shabbat, when a Jew has an additional soul and more spiritual power. Another suggestion was that only a tzadik should eat meat since the average ‘am aretz is not spiritually refined enough to process it (see Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Ekev).

I believe that it is for this mystical reason that the prohibition on mixing fowl and dairy emerged. Without a Temple, it became more difficult to spiritually process fowl meat. In the same way that it is biologically harder to digest meat and dairy mixtures, and effectively absorb their nutrients (see here, for example), it is more difficult to spiritually “digest” them together, too. This would also explain why the meat-dairy prohibition did not extend to other animals like fish and kosher locusts, since those animals were never brought as offerings in the Temple anyway. Finally, it would explain why the fowl-dairy prohibition was not instituted by a decree of the Sanhedrin, and was not universal for several centuries, since it would have been taught specifically by the mystics, and the general rule is that we don’t impose mystical stringencies and rituals upon the general public. Of course, due to their power and allure, mystical practices spread widely over time anyway, and become normative halakhah. That could very well be what happened with fowl and dairy.

A study highlighting one issue of eating meat and dairy together.

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov!


*My parents often relate how lucky we are to have so much meat today, and so cheaply. In Soviet Uzbekistan where they lived, a kilo of beef cost 5 rubles. To put that in perspective, the average monthly salary then, as mandated by the government, was about 85 rubles. So, a single kilo of beef was worth roughly 6% of one’s monthly income. To compare, average monthly income in the US today is $3000, so it would be like paying $180 for a kilo of beef—and that’s not even kosher beef! A whole live chicken, meanwhile, would go for as little as 4 rubles. My mother says how, when she was a child, her mother would ask her to walk down the street to the shochet, and he would do a kosher chicken slaughter for just 5 kopeks! (My mom always put the chicken in a closed box because she didn’t want anyone to see!)

The Greatest Proof for the Torah’s Divinity

In this week’s parasha, Re’eh, we read about some of the Torah’s outstanding ethics dealing with finance, charity, and social welfare. The Torah was way ahead of its time in this regard. For instance, every seventh year (the shemittah, or Sabbatical), outstanding loans were cancelled, and every 50th year (the yovel, or Jubilee) rural lands would transfer back to their original ancestral owners. Loans were given out freely, without interest. Every farmer had to leave a corner of his fields unharvested for the poor and needy. There were a series of tithes to support the priesthood, the Holy Temple, and pilgrimages, as well as for the poor, orphaned, and widowed. On top of that, the Torah commands each person to be charitable and to contribute even more whenever the need arises. We read in this week’s parasha:

If there be among you a needy man, one of your brethren, within any of your gates, in your land which the Lord, your God, gives you, you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your needy brother; but you shall surely open your hand to him… (Deuteronomy 15:7-8)

We find that, of all the mitzvot in the Torah, it is these that deal with charity that Jews have been especially careful with throughout history. Regardless of level of observance or denomination, Jews across the spectrum of time and place have opened their hands generously to help their fellows, both Jewish and gentile. Today, of the world’s top 20 philanthropists, seven are Jews (Michael Dell, James Simons, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Bloomberg, George Kaiser, Eli Broad, and—gasp—George Soros). Jews make up more than a third of this list, despite Jews making up just 0.2% of the world’s population.

Arch of Titus depicting Jerusalem’s Temple treasures carried back to Rome

In ancient times, Jews from all over the world regularly sent money for the upkeep of Jerusalem and the Temple. The Romans knew this and it was a key reason that they destroyed the Temple when they did. The Romans had just come out of an expensive civil war that ended in 69 CE, and they badly needed funds. The Jerusalem Temple was the place to get them. Jews often overlook the role of economics in this tragedy. The Arch of Titus still standing in Rome today famously commemorates how the Romans took the Temple riches. A lot of those funds (not to mention enslaved Jews) were used to construct the Coliseum!

This didn’t stop Jews sending money to Israel. Throughout history, money was collected and sent to support the Yishuv, the Jewish community in the Holy Land. Jews in exile recognized that their brethren living under foreign rule in the Holy Land were making a huge sacrifice and fulfilling a major mitzvah (perhaps the major mitzvah). By supporting those communities, they would be able to participate in the mitzvah of settling the Holy Land as well.

These charities were eventually organized into a special fund called the halukka, which made sure to distribute the money fairly. One third went to the widows, orphans, and impoverished; one third went to Torah scholars and yeshiva students; and the final third was for other communal needs and building expenses. Special envoys, called meshulachim, were sent out to travel throughout the diaspora and collect for the halukka fund. In the 18th century, they invented the now-famous “tzedakah box”, allowing diaspora Jews to throw in their coins over the course of the year so that the meshulach would have something to take home when he arrives.

There was actually a very interesting halakhic debate regarding where diaspora Jews should contribute funds first: their own diaspora communities, or for the community in Israel. The debate is based on the verse in this week’s parasha, quoted above, that says we should open our hands to the needy “within any of your gates, in your land which the Lord, your God, gives you.” Some rabbinic authorities say this means you should first give charity to those within your gates, in your own community. Others point to the words that follow in the verse saying the charity should go to those in the land that God gave us—meaning Israel. Rav Yosef Karo (1488-1575) ruled with the latter in the Shulchan Arukh, though it should be noted that he lived in Tzfat among the Old Yishuv.

Of course, Jews always made sure the members of their own community were provided for, wherever they lived. The gmach (a contraction of gemilut chassadim, “acts of kindness”) was a key institution for this. The gmach was originally an interest-free loan fund. Such funds still exist in pretty much every major Jewish community in the world (there are over 500 in the USA alone). Over time, gmachs developed for other things as well, including clothes (especially wedding dresses), books, baby needs, and furniture.

Such innovations are a major reason why Jewish communities have always thrived. Despite the external pressures and persecutions, Jews survived and prospered. Whereas other communities were (and still are) plagued by internecine violence, Jews tended to work together—especially when it came to helping the needy. While Jewish views have always been diverse and debate was at the heart of each community, when it came to taking care of each other, Jews did that exceptionally well.

I recall my grandmother telling me how when she was a little girl, her mother would wake her up before dawn every Friday morning to start baking challahs for all the needy in their community (in Kokand, Uzbekistan). They then distributed the loaves and made sure every family had bread for Shabbat. On the other side of my family is Rabbi Shlomo Moussaieff, who co-founded and built much of Jerusalem’s Bukharian Quarter. When he made aliyah and settled in Jerusalem in 1888, he didn’t just build a home for himself, but also for 25 poor families. He went on to construct four synagogues, a mikveh, and even a museum. Today, the Moussaieff Synagogue is still among the most famous in Jerusalem, with eight different minyanim serving 3000 regulars.

Such stories can be heard in every Jewish family. And it is because of this charitable behaviour specifically that God has blessed the Jewish people, as we read multiple times in our parasha (Deuteronomy 14:29, 15:10). We are also told that:

the Lord, your God, will bless you, as He promised you; and you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow; and you shall rule over many nations, but they shall not rule over you. (Deuteronomy 15:6)

The Torah prophesied that Jews would, among other things, be highly successful bankers who lend to many nations. And Jews would become influential in politics as well, holding positions of power. Unfortunately, many gentiles have seen within this development some kind of evil conspiracy, God forbid. In reality, this is simply the fulfilment of ancient prophecy and the realization of God’s blessing. Those wealthy and influential Jews have, for the most part, sought only good for the world. This is particularly true about the Rothschilds, who are at the centre of most anti-Semitic conspiracies.

In fact, the Rothschilds played key roles in financing the Industrial Revolution, laying the first rail networks, building hospitals and schools, investing in science, and supporting the arts. Nathan Rothschild, often vilified for supposedly making money from war speculation, was actually a generous philanthropist who played a key role in the abolition of slavery. His son, Lionel, created the largest private relief fund during the Great Irish Famine. His cousin Edmond invested countless sums to make the Holy Land a habitable place, paying for the drainage of swamps, the laying down of the first plumbing and electrical grids, and building the infrastructure necessary to improve the lives of both Jews and Arabs.

Across the Atlantic, another wealthy Jewish family was making a difference: the Guggenheims. Daniel Guggenheim invested huge sums in the development of aviation technology, while his brother Simon started a scholarship fund that has since given out over $250 million to support education for all. Indeed, American Jews have a long history of philanthropy, dating back to the first Jews that came to the New World. Few remember the incredible story of Haym Solomon (1740-1785).

Solomon was born in Poland, the son of a Sephardic rabbi, and settled in New York as a young man, where he went on to make a fortune. He also joined the Sons of Liberty and was a vital figure in the American Revolution. It is estimated that he gave the equivalent of what would today be $40 billion to help establish the United States of America. This includes the crucial funds for the Battle of Yorktown, which ended the Revolution in America’s favour. He gave so much of his wealth that he died in poverty. Some scholars have suggested the US would not exist without Haym Solomon.

Many Jews in America followed his example. Judah Touro (1775-1854) paid for some of America’s first hospitals, schools, orphanages, and cemeteries. When he died, he left half a million dollars to charity—an unheard-of sum in those days—of which two-thirds went to non-Jewish causes. The Yulee family helped abolish slavery and laid Florida’s railroads. Nathan Strauss (1848-1931, of Macy’s fame) fed millions of hungry mouths and took care of America’s orphans, saying “The world is my country, to do good is my religion.” Levi Strauss (1831-1908, of jeans fame) funded multiple orphanages, synagogues, and universities in California.

The philanthropic tradition of America’s Jews continues to this day. Larry Ellison, once among the richest men in the world, has donated hundreds of millions to charity, including a whopping $200 million donation to the University of Southern California for a new cancer research centre. Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank, founders of Home Depot, have given over $200 million for environmental causes, and millions more for medical research, military veterans, and children’s causes. The Fishers, founders of clothing giant The Gap, give $20 million each year to Teach for America in support of education.

The same is true all over the world. Mathilde and Arthur Krim played key roles in ending apartheid in South Africa. The Sassoons built an array of public institutions across India and the Far East, while Germany’s Lina Morgenstern (1830-1909) brought the world kindergartens and soup kitchens. The largest private donation to a museum in British history was given by a Jew, Sammy Ofer. In Russia, Wolf Wissotzky (1824-1904, of tea fame) left over a million rubles to charity, the equivalent of about $2 billion today. Sir Isaac Wolfson (1897-1991) of Scotland gave almost everything he had to charity, saying “No man should have more than £100,000. The rest should go to charity.” There are countless other great names in Jewish philanthropy, from Moses Montefiore (who made modern Israel possible) to Sami Rohr (personally paying the salaries of over 500 rabbis) and Lev Leviev (who still supports hundreds of communities around the world).

Of course, Jewish contributions are not only financial, but span the gamut of science, technology, medicine, law, ethics, philosophy, and beyond. Waksman and Schatz discovered the first antibiotics, while Baruch Bloomberg created what is considered the first cancer vaccine, resulting in a reduction of liver cancer deaths by 90%! Like Jonas Salk before him (who developed the polio vaccine), Bloomberg did not patent his vaccine and gave it away freely to save as many lives as possible. No list could be complete without mention of Waldemar Haffkine (1860-1930), who developed the first cholera and bubonic plague vaccines, saving so many lives that Lord Joseph Lister called him the “saviour of humanity”. There are innumerable others.

Here we have focused specifically on monetary charity, which brings us back to this week’s parasha, and God’s blessing to His people. The Torah told us long ago that, despite being constantly persecuted and exiled to the four corners of the globe, the Jewish people would nonetheless prosper and tremendously influence the world. Incredibly, we have seen this ancient prophecy and blessing immaculately realized over the ages. Moses himself instructed the people that, if their faith is ever in doubt:

For ask now of the earliest days, which were before you, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and from the one end of Heaven unto the other, has there ever been such a great thing, or has something even been heard like it? (Deuteronomy 4:32)

This piece of advice is so important that Moses repeats it later on, reminding the nation to “Remember the days of old, understand the years of former generations…” (Deuteronomy 32:7) All it takes is one honest look through history to see the truth. Therein lies the greatest proof.

Shabbat Shalom!

Kabbalah of Judaism’s Four Holy Cities

In this week’s parasha, Re’eh, a unique term appears a whopping five times: l’shakhen shmo sham, a place where God will choose “to rest His Name there”. Outside of this parasha, the term only appears once in the rest of the Tanakh. It refers to the only place where Jews are allowed to bring any sacrifices to Hashem (Deuteronomy 12:11), and where Jews should pilgrimage on the major holidays to “rejoice before God” (Deuteronomy 16:11). Although the Chumash doesn’t explicitly say where this place is, it is of course referring to Jerusalem, as we learn later in the Tanakh (for example, I Kings 11:13).

“Pilgrimage to the Second Jerusalem Temple” by Alex Levin

Why doesn’t the Chumash itself name Jerusalem? This is because the Israelites were still in the Wilderness at the time, and at that point they brought their sacrifices in the mobile Mishkan, or “Tabernacle”. In the Wilderness, the Mishkan was the place where God’s Presence rested. Even when the Israelites entered the Holy Land, it took many years for them to reconquer and settle all of it, so the Mishkan remined mobile. The Talmud (Zevachim 118b) lists all the places where the Mishkan was parked:

After 39 years in the Wilderness (since the Mishkan was built and inaugurated a year after the Exodus), it was in Gilgal for 14 years. Half of that time was spent conquering and half dividing up the land among the Tribes. The Mishkan was then placed in Shiloh and remained there for 369 years. However, there was no king in Israel then, and no leader arose to build a permanent Temple. The Talmud states that when Eli the Priest died, Shiloh was destroyed so the Mishkan was moved to the town of Nov. Later in the Tanakh we read how Nov, too, was destroyed, so the Mishkan was moved to Gibeon. When David became king he first reigned for seven years from Hebron. After that, he acquired Jerusalem and brought the Mishkan there. Henceforth, Jerusalem became the seat of the Davidic dynasty, and the place where God’s Name would rest forever.

What makes Jerusalem so special?

Centre of the Universe

Jerusalem’s Temple was built atop Mount Moriah, and the Holy of Holies over a special stone. The Talmud (Yoma 54b) states that this stone, even shetiyah, the Foundation Stone, is literally the point from which God created the universe. The Sages find proof in Psalms 50:1-2, which states: “God spoke and called the Earth, from the rise of the sun until it sets, out of Zion all beauty God shone forth.” That initial burst of light in Creation was at this very point atop Jerusalem.

The word “Zion” itself implies a foundation of sorts. In the Tanakh, we read how the Jebusites built a massive fortress there, metzudat tzion, which the Sages say means an “outstanding fortress”, one with such strong foundations that none could conquer it. Until King David, that is. The Jebusites scoffed at David when he approached with his armies, thinking that their fortress was unconquerable. David proved them wrong, then renamed the fortress after himself, and called the city ‘Ir David, “City of David” (see II Samuel 5).

Long before it was known as City of David, or Zion, and before it was settled by Jebusites, it was already famous as a holy mountain. Upon it, various priests would come to offer incense. This is where the name Moriah comes from, literally mor, “myrrh” (or “incense”), and Yah, “God”. The first priest active there was Melchizedek, identified with Shem, the son of Noah. The Torah calls him a “priest of God, the Most High” and introduces him as the “king of Shalem” (Genesis 14:18). The Book of Jubilees tells us how Noah divided up the Earth among his three sons, and Shem received all the holy places, including Zion (Jubilees 8:19).

Shem built his home on Zion, and called it Shalem, a place that was “wholesome” and “peaceful”. Later on, God commanded Abraham to take Isaac upon Mt. Moriah. At the end of that episode, we read how Abraham called the place Hashem Yireh, since this is the place where “God is seen” (Genesis 22:14). The Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 56:10) states that this holy site now had two names: Yireh and Shalem. Each of these names was given by a holy man, so which would stick? In order not to favour one holy man over another, the two were combined to create Yerushalem, or Yerushalayim, “Jerusalem”.

Jerusalem, Zion, City of David, Moriah, Shalem, Yireh—all are names for this holy place, each signifying something of its incredible past. Indeed, it is said that Jerusalem has seventy different names, just like God, the Jewish people, and the land of Israel, and just as the Torah has seventy different faces. Whatever the case, it is the city that “brings everyone together” (Psalm 122:3) and has the power to “make all Israel friends” (Yerushalmi Chagigah 3:6).

Gate to Heaven

The Midrash states that Zion is the place through which all the blessings from Heaven enter this world, and the place through which all blessings descend upon the Jewish people (Yalkut Shimoni, Ezekiel 392). At the same time, it is the place through which all of our prayers ascend to Heaven, too. This is why Jews always pray towards Jerusalem. And if they are in Jerusalem they pray towards the place where the Holy of Holies stood.

More amazing still, some say that Mt. Moriah is the peak upon which God gave Israel the Torah! In other words, Moriah is one and the same as Sinai. The Midrash (Shocher Tov 68) states that God took off a chunk of Moriah (like a piece of challah) and transplanted it to the Sinai wilderness. After He gave the Torah, He put that chunk back in Jerusalem. This is why the Talmud (Ta’anit 16a, with Tosfot) states it is called Moriah, from root hora’ah, “instruction”, the same as the root of Torah. On Mt. Moriah the Torah was given! And from here, the “fear” or “awe” (mora) of God entered the world.

“Jacob’s Ladder” by Stemler and Cleveland (1925)

There is a further allusion to this in that the gematria of Sinai (סיני) is 130, equal to sulam (סלם), “ladder”, referring to the Heavenly Ladder that Jacob envisioned (Genesis 28:12). This vision also took place upon Mt. Moriah. Afterwards, Jacob called the place Beit El, “House of God”, for he had foreseen that the Holy Temple would be built there. Jerusalem is therefore a “ladder to Heaven”, and a place through which angels enter and exit our world.

Having said all that, it is easy to understand why Jerusalem is so important to the Jewish people. It is mentioned over 600 times in the Tanakh (and, it is fitting to add, not once in the Koran). It has had a nearly continuous (with minor blips) Jewish habitation and presence for some 3000 years. When the Second Temple was destroyed, the Roman historian Tacitus estimated a Jewish population in Jerusalem of 600,000, while Josephus counted over a million.

Even in the most difficult of days, Jews hung on to their holy city. When the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270) arrived in 1267 following the horrors of the Crusades, he still managed to find two Jewish families. By the Ottoman period in the 16th century, Jews once again formed the largest proportion of the population. In 1818, Robert Richardson found that Jews, while not the majority, made up the single largest group of people in the city, and estimated there were twice as many Jews as Muslims. Prussian consul Ernst Gustav Schultz noted something similar in 1844 (counting 7210 Jews to 5000 Muslims, and 3390 Christians), as did Swiss explorer Titus Tobler two years later (7515 Jews to 6100 Muslims, and 3558 Christians).

Today, there are over half a million Jews in Jerusalem. At the time of the Temple’s destruction, the Midrash records that there were a total of 481 synagogues in Jerusalem, each with a Torah school inside (Yalkut Shimoni, Ezekiel 390). A study in the year 2000 found that Jerusalem now has over 1200 synagogues. This is undoubtedly more than at any time in its history. The borders of Jerusalem today are larger than they have ever been, and the city is flourishing in every way. Indeed, this is one of the great prophecies of the End of Days, and Jerusalem will only grow further, as the Talmud (Bava Batra 75a-b) states:

In the time to come, the Holy One, blessed be He, will add to Jerusalem a thousand gardens, a thousand towers, a thousand palaces, and a thousand mansions; and each will be as big as Sepphoris in its prosperity…

Four Holy Cities

A 19th century map of the Four Holy Cities

While the entire land of Israel is holy, and Jerusalem is undoubtedly its focal point, it is often said that Judaism has four holy cities. In addition to Jerusalem, the other three are Hebron, Tzfat, and Tiberias. Where did this notion of four holy cities come from?

In 1492, the Spanish expelled all of their Sephardic Jews. It is reported that the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II said of his Spanish counterpart at the time something along the lines of: “They tell me that Ferdinand of Spain is a wise man, but he is a fool, for he takes his treasure and sends it all to me.” Bayezid sent his navy to bring many of those Jews to his empire, especially to the cities of Thessaloniki and Izmir. Others went to Europe, North Africa, or even the New World, while some headed straight for the Holy Land.

In 1516, the Ottoman Turks conquered the Holy Land, allowing even more Jews to settle there. Many Jews relocated, particularly to Hebron and Tzfat, in addition to Jerusalem. Just a few decades later, the great Donna Gracia (1510-1569) and her nephew Don Joseph Nasi (1524-1579) sought to re-establish a semi-autonomous Jewish state in the Holy Land (three centuries before the Zionist movement!) and actually received a permit from the Sultan to settle Jews in Israel. Don Joseph particularly liked the Tiberias area, and was officially given the title “Lord of Tiberias” by the Ottoman throne.

By 1640, the Jewish communities of Jerusalem, Hebron, and Tzfat were very large, though still struggling financially. Throughout history, it was customary for Jewish communities in the diaspora to send money in support of Jewish communities in the Holy Land. This was seen as both a huge mitzvah—supporting those brave Jews that risked so much to stay in their ancestral land—as well as a way for Jews in the diaspora to participate in the monumental mitzvah of dwelling in the Promised Land. The Jewish communities in Jerusalem, Hebron, and Tzfat regularly sent emissaries across the diaspora to collect funds. Around 1640, the leaders of these three communities got together and decided to unite their funds. They became known as the “Three Holy Cities” (or by their acronym יח״ץ), and sent a single emissary to collect on behalf of all three. By 1740, the Jewish population of Tiberias had grown large enough that they joined the fund, too, and thus was formed the “Four Holy Cities”. (Some say that the Four Cities first merged earlier, in the late 16th century.)

Still, while the concept of “Four Holy Cities” might be recent, it is by no means meaningless or coincidental.

Four Aspects of Judaism

Why did Jews migrating to Israel choose to settle in these four cities in particular? It was not by random chance that Jews yearned to settle in them! These cities are indeed of greatest significance to the Jewish population, which is why Jews went there in the first place. Jerusalem has already been discussed; what of the others?

Tzfat is first mentioned in the Talmud as a place where signal fires were lit so that all the surrounding towns would know the new moon had been announced (Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashanah 11b). By the end of the 16th century it had become renowned as the centre of Kabbalah, and was the home of greats like the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570) and the Radbaz (1479-1589), the Arizal (1534-1572) and Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620). It is where Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575) produced the Shulchan Arukh, still the foremost code of Jewish law.

Hebron was King David’s first capital before he built Jerusalem. It was there that he was accepted as king by the nation, and where he was anointed by the elders of Israel (II Samuel 5:3). It is the birthplace of the Davidic dynasty. Meanwhile, Hebron is home to the Cave of the Patriarchs, the resting place of the forefathers and foremothers of Israel. It is explicitly mentioned in the Torah multiple times. Later, it would become a centre of Jewish mysticism, too, like Tzfat, and was home to the great Kabbalists Rabbi Malkiel Ashkenazi (d. 1620) and Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas (1518-1587), among others.

Tiberias is actually built on an older Biblical town. It is quite ironic that it is referred to as Tiberias, named after the Roman emperor Tiberius (42 BCE-37 CE). To the ancient Jews it was “Rakat”, as we read in the Tanakh and Talmud (Joshua 19:35, Megillah 5b). Tiberias did not participate in the Jewish revolts against the Roman Empire, and was spared both in 70 CE and in 135 CE. This is why many Jews resettled there, and it is where the Sanhedrin was re-established around 150 CE. Rabbi Akiva was buried in Tiberias, and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai called it home. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi lived there, too, and it is where he put together the Mishnah. The Talmud Yerushalmi followed, and was similarly composed in Tiberias.

Tiberias continued to have a large Jewish population for centuries. The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) was buried there in 1204. The city was completely destroyed during the Mamluk period, and when Rabbi Moshe Bassola (1480-1560) visited in 1522, he found nothing but a few households and many marauding Arabs. This is where Donna Gracia and Don Joseph come into the picture, receiving a permit from the Ottomans in 1561 to rebuild the city and settle Jews there. It was Don Joseph who rebuilt its ancient walls (dating back to the time of the Biblical Joshua), and planted its first orchards.

In short, these three additional Holy Cities all played instrumental roles in Jewish history. Without their flourishing Jewish communities—which produced the Mishnah and Talmud Yerushalmi, the Shulchan Arukh and the bulk of Kabbalah—Judaism as we know it would not exist. So, while the notion of “Four Holy Cities” may have formally originated in the 18th century, its spiritual origins go back much further.

Each city can be said to parallel a different facet of Judaism. Hebron plays a big role in the Chumash, while Jerusalem is the primary locale of the rest of Scripture, the Nevi’im and Ketuvim. Tiberias is the home of the Mishnah and Talmud, while Tzfat is the capital of Kabbalah. Hebron represents the Patriarchs, Jerusalem represents the Prophets, Tiberias the ancient Sages, and Tzfat the Kabbalists. In fact, each of these four cities symbolizes something even greater.

The Four Elements

Ancient texts from all around the world, as well as Jewish mystical texts, speak of four primordial elements: air, water, fire, and earth. Sefer Yetzirah, one of the oldest Kabbalistic texts, explains how God formed all of Creation starting with these fundamental entities. First came the most ephemeral and intangible of them: air. This came out of God’s Spirit, which itself came out of the Ten Sefirot (1:9-10). Then came “water from breath” (1:11), and then “fire from water” (1:12). These three elements correspond to the three “mother” letters of the Hebrew alphabet: Aleph (for avir, “air”), Mem (mayim, “water”), Shin (esh, “fire”). Only much later was created the most physical and tangible of the elements, earth.

These four primordial elements neatly correspond to the four scientific elements upon which all life is built: hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon (sometimes abbreviated as “HONC”). Hydrogen is the key element in water (its name literally means “water-maker”), and it is specifically those intermolecular hydrogen bonds that give water most of its incredible properties. Oxygen is what feeds a flame, and without it no fire burns. Nitrogen makes up 78% of our air, while carbon fills our earth, whether in coal, oil, diamonds, or countless other substances.

The Four Holy Cities also correspond to those four primordial elements. Tzfat is atop a mountain, and with an elevation some 900 metres above sea level, is the highest city in Israel. It is quite literally “up in the air”. Tiberias, meanwhile, rests on the shores of Israel’s most important body of water, the Galilee. Hebron is associated with that plot of earth that Abraham purchased, and within which the patriarchs are buried. And Jerusalem is where the Eternal Flame, esh tamid, burned for centuries, and will be reignited once more in the near future.

Four Holy Cities Summary Table