Tag Archives: Sacrifices

Should You Wear a Red String on Your Wrist?

Vestments of the kohen and kohen gadol

This week’s parasha, Tetzave, continues to outline the items necessary for the Mishkan, or Tabernacle, starting with the Menorah and going into a detailed description of the priestly vestments. One of the materials necessary for the holy garments is tola’at shani, commonly translated as “crimson wool”. This was a deep red fabric apparently derived from some kind of insect or worm (which is what the Hebrew “tola’at” means). The Torah speaks of this material in multiple places and in multiple contexts. Today, wearing a “tola’at shani”-like red string on the wrist has become very popular among those calling themselves “Kabbalists” and even by secular Jews and non-Jews. What is the significance of the red fibre, and is there any real spiritual meaning to the red string bracelet?

The First Red String

The earliest mention of a red string is in Genesis 38:27-30, where Tamar gives birth to her twin sons Peretz and Zerach:

And it came to pass in the time of her labour that, behold, twins were in her womb. And in her labour, one hand emerged, and the midwife took a red string [shani] and tied it to his hand saying, “This one came out first.” And he drew back his hand, and behold, his brother came out, and she said: “With what strength have you breached [paratz] yourself?” so his name was called Peretz. And afterward came out his brother that had the red string upon his hand, and his name was called Zerach.

Here, the red string is simply used to designate the firstborn. It didn’t work out as planned, for the other twin ended up coming first. The strong Peretz would go on to be the forefather of King David, and therefore Mashiach, who is sometimes called Ben Partzi. Clearly, wearing the red string wasn’t much of an effective charm for Zerach.

Temple Rituals

In addition to being used in the garments of the priests and various Temple vessels, tola’at shani was employed in a number of sacrificial rituals. In Leviticus 14 we read how someone who had healed from tzara’at, loosely translated as “leprosy”, would bring an offering of two birds which were dipped in a mixture containing the red dye. From this we see that tola’at shani (or shni tola’at, as it appears here) is not necessarily the string itself, but simply the red dye extracted from the insect. Similarly, the red dye was used in the preparation of the parah adumah, “Red Cow”, mixture (Numbers 19) which was used to purify the nation from the impurity of death.

The Talmud (Yoma 67a) describes how a red string was tied to the scapegoat on Yom Kippur. Recall that on Yom Kippur two goats were selected, one being slaughtered and the other being sent off into the wilderness, “to Azazel”. This “scapegoat” had a red string attached to it, and if the string turned white the people would know that their sins had been forgiven, as Isaiah 1:18 states: “…though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” Here, then, the red string represents the sin of the people, bound to the scapegoat going to Azazel. If it turned white, it was a good sign, whereas if the string remained red it meant God was unhappy with the nation. Indeed, the Talmud (Yoma 39b) states that in the last forty years before the Second Temple was destroyed, the red string never once turned white.

Red in Kabbalah

In mystical texts, red is typically the colour of Gevurah or Din, severity and judgement. It was therefore generally discouraged to wear red. The Kabbalists often wore garments of all white, and this is still the custom during the High Holidays, a time of particularly great judgement. It was only centuries later that the Chassidic rebbe known as Minchat Eliezer (Rabbi Chaim Elazar Spira of Munkacz, 1868-1937) wrote how having a red cloth may serve to ward off judgement and severity. Another Chassidic rebbe, the Be’er Moshe (Rabbi Moshe Stern of Debreczin, 1890-1971) wrote that he remembered seeing people wear red strings as a child, but did not know why. Still, this does not appear to have been a very popular practice then, nor is it much of a custom among Chassidim now.

1880 Illustration of Rachel’s Tomb

Rather, the red string today has been popularized by The Kabbalah Centre and similar “neo-Kabbalah” movements that cater as much to non-Jews as to secular Jews. The Kabbalah Centre explains that the bracelets are made by taking a long red thread and winding it around Rachel’s Tomb seven times. The thread is then cut into wrist-size lengths, and if worn on the “left wrist, we can receive a vital connection to the protective energies surrounding the tomb of Rachel.” It is not clear where The Kabbalah Centre took this practice from. They claim that the red string wards off the evil eye. While they cite certain passages from the Zohar regarding the evil eye, there doesn’t seem to be any connection to a red string specifically.

The Zohar (II, 139a) does state in one place that the blue tekhelet represents God’s Throne, as is well-known, which means judgement, whereas the red shani is what emerges from the Throne and overpowers the judgement, thus bringing protection upon Israel. The Zohar relates shani to Michael, the guardian angel of Israel, and uses the metaphor of a worm eating through everything to explain the tola’at shani as eating up negative judgement. This is why the famous song Eshet Chayil (Proverbs 31) states that a “woman of valour” has her whole house dressed in shanim (v. 21). She guards her household in this way. (It should be noted that in this passage the Zohar states it is gold which represents Gevurah, and silver represents Chessed. White and red, meanwhile, appear to be aspects within the sefirah of Yesod.)

So, perhaps there is something to wearing a red string.

Bringing Back Shani

The Zohar does not speak of any red string at all, and instead explains the mystical power of the red dye called shani. It is the dye itself that has power, as we see from the Temple rituals noted above. It is well-known that the blue tekhelet dye comes from a certain mollusc or sea snail called chilazon. From where does shani come?

A female and male cochineal bug.

Professor Zohar Amar of Bar Ilan University researched the subject in depth and concluded that tola’at shani is similar to the cochineal insect, famous for producing the red dye carmine (E120) which is extensively used in the food industry. After a round-the-world search, it turned out that a cochineal-like insect is found in Israel as well, and grows on oak trees.

While the cochineal insect is native to South America (where most of the carmine is still produced), its Mediterranean cousin is the oak-dwelling kermes insect. Indeed, kermes was used across the Mediterranean world for millennia, being particularly prized in Greek, Roman, and medieval society. It is best known for its ability to dye wool extremely well. Jerusalem’s Temple Institute was convinced of the professor’s findings, and has begun harvesting the bugs and their red dye in order to produce authentic priestly vestments, as outlined in the Torah.

In light of this, a genuine red string “kabbalah” bracelet—with the protective powers mentioned in the Zohar—would undoubtedly have to be made of wool dyed with kermes red. And according to the Zohar, it probably shouldn’t be worn on the left wrist at all, but instead on the right leg, the body part which the Zohar (II, 148a) states that shani corresponds to.

Imitating Pagans

Judaism is very sensitive about not imitating the ways of the pagans, or darkei Emori. One example of this, as we wrote in the past, is kapparot, which the Ramban (among others) called an idolatrous practice. The Tosefta (Shabbat, ch. 7) has a list of practices that are considered darkei Emori, and one of them is “tying a red string on one’s finger”. So, already two millennia ago it seems there were Jews tying red strings on their body, and the Tosefta (which is essentially equivalent to the Mishnah) forbids it.

The Hindu kalava looks suspiciously similar to the “kabbalah” red string.

In fact, Hinduism has a custom to wear a red string called kalava around one’s wrist in order to ward off evil. This is precisely what The Kabbalah Centre claims their red string accomplishes. Based on this alone it would be best to avoid wearing such a red string. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was one of the recent authorities who stated that the red string should not be worn due to darkei Emori. Factoring in that the red string has no basis in the Zohar or any traditional Jewish mystical text is all the more reason to stay away from this practice.

Why Do We Pray and What Should We Pray For?

This week’s parasha, Terumah, begins with God’s command to the people to bring their voluntary contributions in support of the construction of the Mishkan, the Holy Tabernacle. One of the oldest Jewish mystical texts, Sefer haBahir, explains that this voluntary “offering of the heart” (as the Torah calls it) refers to prayer, and prayer is how we can fulfil that mitzvah nowadays. Indeed, the root of the term terumah literally means “elevation”, just as we elevate our prayers heavenward.

‘Jew Praying’ by Ilya Repin (1875)

Judaism is known for its abundance of prayer. While Muslims pray five times a day, each of those prayers lasts only a few minutes. Jews may “only” have three daily prayers, yet the morning prayer alone usually takes an hour or so. Besides this, Jews recite berakhot—blessings and words of gratitude to God—on everything they eat, both before and after; on every mitzvah they perform; and even after going to the bathroom. Jewish law encourages a Jew to say a minimum of one hundred blessings a day. This is derived from Deuteronomy 10:12: “And now Israel, what does God ask of you?” The Sages (Menachot 43b) play on these words and say not to read what (מה) does God ask of you, but one hundred (מאה) God asks of you—one hundred blessings a day! The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 18:17) further adds that in the time of King David a plague was sweeping through Israel and one hundred people were dying each day. It was then that David and his Sanhedrin instituted the recital of one hundred daily blessings, and the plague quickly ceased.

Of course, God does not need our blessings at all (as we’ve explained before). By reciting so many blessings, we are constantly practicing our gratitude and recognizing how much goodness we truly receive. This puts us in a positive mental state throughout the day. The Zohar (I, 76b, Sitrei Torah) gives a further mystical reason for these blessings: when a person goes to sleep, his soul ascends to Heaven. Upon returning in the morning, the soul is told “lech lecha—go forth for yourself” (the command God initially gave to Abraham) and it is given one hundred blessings to carry it through the day. There is a beautiful gematria here, for the value of lech lecha (לך לך) is 100. Thus, a person who recites one hundred blessings a day is only realizing the blessings he was already given from Heaven, and extracting them out of their potential into actual benefit.

Not surprisingly then, a Jew starts his day with a whole host of blessings. The morning prayer (Shacharit) itself contains some 47 blessings. Within a couple of hours of rising, one has already fulfilled nearly half of their daily quota, and is off to a great start for a terrific day.

(Courtesy: Aish.com) If one prays all three daily prayers, they will already have recited some 90 blessings. As such, it becomes really easy to reach 100 blessings in the course of a day, especially when adding blessings on food and others.

Having said that, is it absolutely necessary to pray three times a day? Why do we pray at all, and what is the origin of Jewish prayer? And perhaps most importantly, what should we be praying for?

Where Does Prayer Come From?

The word tefilah (“prayer”) appears at least twenty times in the Tanakh. We see our forefathers praying to God on various occasions. Yet, there is no explicit mitzvah in the Torah to pray. The Sages derive the mitzvah of prayer from Exodus 23:25: “And you shall serve [v’avad’tem] Hashem, your God, and I will bless your food and your drink, and I will remove illness from your midst.” The term avad’tem (“worship”, “work”, or “service”) is said to refer to the “service of the heart”, ie. prayer. This verse fits neatly with what was said earlier: that prayer is not about serving God, who truly requires no service, but really about receiving blessing, as God says He will bless us and heal us when we “serve” Him.

So, we have the mitzvah of prayer, but why three times a day? The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) clearly explains the development of prayer in his Mishneh Torah (Chapter 1 of Hilkhot Tefillah and Birkat Kohanim in Sefer Ahava):

It is a positive Torah commandment to pray every day, as [Exodus 23:25] states: “You shall serve Hashem, your God…” Tradition teaches us that this service is prayer, as [Deuteronomy 11:13] states: “And serve Him with all your heart”, and our Sages said: “Which is the service of the heart? This is prayer.” The number of prayers is not prescribed in the Torah, nor does it prescribe a specific formula for prayer. Also, according to Torah law, there are no fixed times for prayers.

… this commandment obligates each person to offer supplication and prayer every day and utter praises of the Holy One, blessed be He; then petition for all his needs with requests and supplications; and finally, give praise and thanks to God for the goodness that He has bestowed upon him; each one according to his own ability.

A person who was eloquent would offer many prayers and requests. [Conversely,] a person who was inarticulate would speak as well as he could and whenever he desired. Similarly, the number of prayers was dependent on each person’s ability. Some would pray once daily; others, several times. Everyone would pray facing the Holy Temple, wherever he might be. This was the ongoing practice from [the time of] Moshe Rabbeinu until Ezra.

The Rambam explains that the mitzvah to pray from the Torah means praising God, asking Him to fulfil one’s wishes, and thanking Him. No specific text is needed, and once a day suffices. This is the basic obligation of a Jew, if one wants simply to fulfil the direct command from the Torah. The Rambam goes on to explain why things changed at the time of Ezra (at the start of the Second Temple era):

When Israel was exiled in the time of the wicked Nebuchadnezzar, they became interspersed in Persia and Greece and other nations. Children were born to them in these foreign countries and those children’s language was confused. The speech of each and every one was a concoction of many tongues. No one was able to express himself coherently in any one language, but rather in a mixture [of languages], as [Nehemiah 13:24] states: “And their children spoke half in Ashdodit and did not know how to speak the Jewish language. Rather, [they would speak] according to the language of various other peoples.”

Consequently, when someone would pray, he would be limited in his ability to request his needs or to praise the Holy One, blessed be He, in Hebrew, unless other languages were mixed in with it. When Ezra and his court saw this, they established eighteen blessings in sequence [the Amidah].

The first three [blessings] are praises of God and the last three are thanksgiving. The intermediate [blessings] contain requests for all those things that serve as general categories for the desires of each and every person and the needs of the whole community.

Thus, the prayers could be set in the mouths of everyone. They could learn them quickly and the prayers of those unable to express themselves would be as complete as the prayers of the most eloquent. It was because of this matter that they established all the blessings and prayers so that they would be ordered in the mouths of all Israel, so that each blessing would be set in the mouth of each person unable to express himself.

‘Prayer of the Killed’ by Bronisław Linke

The generation of Ezra and the Great Assembly approximately two and a half millennia ago composed the fixed Amidah (or Shemoneh Esrei) prayer of eighteen blessings. This standardized prayer, and ensured that people were praying for the right things, with the right words. (Of course, one is allowed to add any additional praises and supplications they wish, and in any language.)

Reciting the Amidah alone technically fulfils the mitzvah of prayer, whereas the additional passages that we read (mostly Psalms) were instituted by later Sages in order to bring one to the right state of mind for prayer. (Note that the recitation of the Shema is a totally independent mitzvah, although it is found within the text of prayer. The only other Torah-mandated prayer mitzvah is reciting birkat hamazon, the grace after meals.) The Rambam continues to explain why three daily prayers were necessary:

They also decreed that the number of prayers correspond to the number of sacrifices, i.e. two prayers every day, corresponding to the two daily sacrifices. On any day that an additional sacrifice [was offered], they instituted a third prayer, corresponding to the additional offering.

The prayer that corresponds to the daily morning sacrifice is called the Shacharit prayer. The prayer that corresponds to the daily sacrifice offered in the afternoon is called the Minchah prayer and the prayer corresponding to the additional offerings is called the Musaf prayer.

They also instituted a prayer to be recited at night, since the limbs of the daily afternoon offering could be burnt the whole night, as [Leviticus 6:2] states: “The burnt offering [shall remain on the altar hearth all night until morning].” In this vein, [Psalms 55:18] states: “In the evening, morning, and afternoon I will speak and cry aloud, and He will hear my voice.”

The Arvit [evening prayer] is not obligatory like Shacharit and Minchah. Nevertheless, the Jewish people in all the places that they have settled are accustomed to recite the evening prayer and have accepted it upon themselves as an obligatory prayer.

Since customs that are well-established and accepted by all Jewish communities become binding, a Jew should ideally pray three times daily. The Rambam goes on to state that one may pray more times if they so desire, but not less. We see a proof-text from Psalms 55:18, where King David clearly states that he prays “evening, morning, and afternoon”. Similarly, we read of the prophet Daniel that

he went into his house—with his windows open in his upper chamber toward Jerusalem—and he kneeled upon his knees three times a day, and prayed, and gave thanks before his God, as he had always done. (Daniel 11:6)

The Tanakh also explains why prayer was instituted in the place of sacrifices. The prophet Hoshea (14:3) stated that, especially in lieu of the Temple, “we pay the cows with our lips”. King David, too, expressed this sentiment (Psalms 51:17-18): “My Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall declare Your praise. For You have no delight in sacrifice, else I would give it; You have no pleasure in burnt-offerings.” This verse is one of many that shows God does not need animal sacrifices at all, and the Torah’s commands to do so were only temporary, as discussed in the past. It was always God’s intention for us to “serve” Him not through sacrifices, but through prayers. (See also Psalms 69:31-32, 141:2, and Jeremiah 7:21-23.)

The Mystical Meaning of Prayer

While the Sages instruct us to pray at regular times of the day, they also caution that one should not make their prayers “fixed” or routine (Avot 2:13). This apparent contradiction really means that one’s prayer should be heartfelt, genuine, and not recited mechanically by rote. One should have full kavanah, meaning the right mindset and complete concentration. The Arizal (and other Kabbalists) laid down many kavanot for prayer, with specific things to have in mind—often complex formulas of God’s Names or arrangements of Hebrew letters, and sometimes simple ideas to think of while reciting certain words.

The Arizal explained (in the introduction to Sha’ar HaMitzvot) that one should not pray only because they need something from God. Rather, prayer is meant to remind us that God is the source of all blessing and goodness (as discussed above) and reminds us that only the Infinite God can provide us with everything we need. By asking things of God, we ultimately to draw closer to Him, like a child to a parent. There is also a much deeper, more mystical reason for prayer. Praying serves to elevate sparks of holiness—and possibly even whole souls—that are trapped within kelipot, spiritual “husks” (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 39). Prayer is part of the long and difficult process of tikkun, rectifying Creation and returning it to its perfect primordial state.

The Zohar (II, 215b) further states that there are four tikkunim in prayer: tikkun of the self, tikkun of the lower or physical world, tikkun of the higher spiritual worlds, and the tikkun of God’s Name. Elsewhere (I, 182b), the Zohar explains that man is judged by the Heavens three times daily, corresponding to the three prayer times. This fits well with the famous Talmudic statement (Rosh Hashanah 16b) that prayer is one of five things that can change a person’s fate, and annul any negative decrees that may be upon them. (The other four are charity, repentance, changing one’s name, or moving to a new home.)

I once heard a beautiful teaching in the name of the Belzer Rebbe that ties up much of what has been discussed so far:

According to tradition, Abraham was first to pray Shacharit, as we learn from the fact that he arose early in the morning for the Akedah (Genesis 22:3, also 19:27, 21:14). Isaac instituted Minchah, as we read how he went “to meditate in the field before evening” (Genesis 24:63). Jacob instituted the evening prayer, as we learn from his nighttime vision at Beit El (Genesis 28).

Each of these prayers was part of a cosmic tikkun, the rebuilding of the Heavenly Palace (or alternatively, the building of Yeshiva shel Ma’alah, the Heavenly Study Hall). God Himself began the process, and raised the first “wall” in Heaven with his camp of angels. This is the “camp of God” (מחנה) that Jacob saw (Genesis 32:3). Abraham came next and built the second “wall” in Heaven through his morning prayer on the holy mountain (הר) of Moriah (Genesis 22:14). Then came Isaac and built the third Heavenly wall when he “meditated in the field” (שדה). Jacob erected the last wall and finally saw a “House of God” (בית). Finally, Moses completed the structure by putting up a roof when he prayed Va’etchanan (ואתחנן). These terms follow an amazing numerical pattern: מחנה is 103, הר is 206 (with the extra kollel)*, שדה is 309, בית is 412, and ואתחנן is 515. Each prayer (and “wall”) of the forefathers is a progressive multiple of 103 (God’s wall).

We can learn a great deal from this. First, that prayer helps to build our “spiritual home” in Heaven. Second, that prayer both maintains the “walls” of God’s Palace in Heaven, and broadens His revealed presence on this Earth. And finally, that prayers are much more than praises and requests, they are part of a great cosmic process of rectification.

What Should We Pray For?

Aside from the things we request in the Amidah and other prayers, and aside from the all mystical kavanot we should have in mind, what else should we ask for in our personal prayers? A person can ask God of anything that they wish, of course. However, if they want their prayers answered, our Sages teach that it is better to prayer not for one’s self, but for the needs of others. We learn this from the incident of Abraham and Avimelech (Genesis 20). Here, God explicitly tells Avimelech that when Abraham prays for him, he will be healed. After the Torah tells us that Abraham prayed for Avimelech and his household was indeed healed, the very next verse is that “God remembered Sarah” and continues with the narrative of Isaac’s birth. Thus, we see how as soon as Abraham prayed for Avimelech’s household to be able to give birth to children, Abraham himself finally had a long-awaited child with Sarah.

Speaking of children, the Talmud advices what a person should pray for during pregnancy (Berakhot 60a). In the first three days after intercourse, one should pray for conception. In the first forty days of pregnancy, one can pray for which gender they would like the child to be, while another opinion (54a) holds that one shouldn’t pray for this and leave it up to God. (Amazingly, although gender is determined by chromosomes upon conception, we know today that gender development actually begins around day 42 of gestation. So, just as the Talmud states, there really is no point in hoping for a miraculous change in gender past day 40.) Henceforth in the first trimester, one should pray that there shouldn’t be a miscarriage. In the second trimester, one should pray that the child should not be stillborn, God forbid. In the final trimester, one should pray for an easy delivery.

Lastly, in addition to common things that everyone prays for (peace, prosperity, health, etc.) the Talmud states that there are three more things to pray for: a good king, a good year, and a good dream (Berakhot 55a). The simple meaning here is to pray that the government won’t oppress us, that only good things will happen in the coming year, and that we will be able to sleep well without stresses and worries. Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh points out that a good king (מלך) starts with the letter mem; a good year with shin (שנה); and good dream (חלום) with chet. This spells the root of Mashiach, for it is only when Mashiach comes that we will finally have a really good king, a really good year, and have the most peaceful sleep, as if we are living in a good dream.

Courtesy: Temple Institute


*Occasionally, gematria allows the use of a kollel, adding one to the total. There are several reasons for doing this, and the validity of the practice is based on Genesis 48:5. Here, Jacob says that Ephraim and Menashe will be equal to Reuben and Shimon. The gematria of “Ephraim and Menashe” (אפרים ומנשה) is 732, while the gematria of “Reuben and Shimon” (ראובן ושמעון) is 731. Since Jacob himself said they are equal, that means we can equate gematriot that are one number away from each other!

For those who don’t like kollels and want exact numbers (as I do), we can present another solution: Abraham’s prayer is the only one not exactly a multiple of God’s original “wall” of 103. The reason that one wall is “incomplete”, so to speak, is because every house needs an opening—Abraham’s wall is the one with the door, so his wall is a tiny bit smaller!

Tzom Gedaliah and Mystical Secrets of Fasting

Clay Bulla of Gemaryahu ben Shaphan, dated to 586 BCE.

Today is the Fast of Gedaliah, one of the “minor fasts” of the Jewish calendar. This fast commemorates the assassination of Gedaliah ben Achikam, the governor of Judah, some 2500 years ago. After the Babylonians destroyed the Temple and sent the majority of Jews into exile, they left a small number of Jewish farmers in their newly-created province of Judah, under the leadership of the righteous Gedaliah. Gedaliah was the grandson of Shaphan, one of the court scribes of Judean royalty who likely played a role in the composition of the Biblical Book of Kings, among others. (Incredibly, Jeremiah 36:10 describes how Shaphan had a son named Gemaryahu, and recently Israeli archaeologist Yigal Shiloh discovered a bulla in Jerusalem inscribed with the words: “belonging to Gemaryahu ben Shaphan”.)

The Books of Jeremiah (ch. 41) and II Kings (ch. 25) describe how a certain Ishmael killed Gedaliah “in the seventh month”, during what appears to be a feast day, which our Sages stated was Rosh Hashanah. The reason for the assassination is not explicitly given. It seems Ishmael believed that if anyone should govern in Israel, it should be him since he was a member of the Judean royal family and a descendant of King David. Ishmael didn’t think the whole thing through very well. Assassinating Gedaliah immediately raised fears that the Babylonians would return to punish the Jews for smiting their appointed governor. The fearful Jewish populace thus fled to Egypt, while Ishmael himself escaped to Ammon.

The tragedy was a great one not only because of the grotesque assassination of a righteous Jew by his fellow (Ishmael also slaughtered a handful of other Jews, as well as innocent pilgrims on their way to worship in Jerusalem.) Perhaps more significantly, the fleeing of the last Jews of Judea meant that the Holy Land was essentially devoid of its people for the first time in nearly a millennium. While Jews from Babylon would later come back to rebuild, they would be faced with new settlers that had since filled the vacuum in Israel: the Samaritans. This people would be a thorn at the side of the Jews for centuries to come. Worst of all, the assassination of Gedaliah is yet another example of sinat chinam, baseless hatred and Jewish in-fighting, which seems to always be the root of all Jewish problems.

The Sages instituted a fast to commemorate all of these things. And the fast’s timing is particularly auspicious, as it comes during the Ten Days of Repentance when we should be focusing on kindness, prayer, and atonement. Now is the time to repair relationships and form new bonds, for families and communities to come together. For many, it also something of a “practice run” for the more famous fast that comes just days later: Yom Kippur. This brings up an important question. What exactly does fasting have to do with atonement, spiritual growth, and self-development?

The Power of Fasting

Offerings on the Altar (Courtesy: Temple Institute)

Aside from its well-documented health benefits, fasting brings a great deal of spiritual benefits, too. In the fast day prayers, we read how fasting is symbolic of sacrificial offerings. In the days of the Temple, people would atone by bringing an offering, shedding its blood, and watching its fat burn on the altar. In Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh (Kavanot haTaanit), Rabbi Chaim Vital, the Arizal’s foremost disciple, explains that the sight of the animal being slaughtered would immediately inspire the person to repent. They would feel both a great deal of regret for their sin, and compassion for the animal, and would recognize that it should have been them slaughtered upon the altar. In lieu of a Temple, we fast to burn our own bodily fat, and “thin” our blood. The Arizal taught that the penitent faster is thus likened to a korban.

Rabbi Vital then reminds us that the food we eat contain spiritual sparks, and even the souls of reincarnated people. While we hope that our blessings and proper intentions when eating frees these sparks and elevates them to Heaven, we are not always successful in this regard—especially when we lose sense of the meal and eat purely for physical reasons. These sparks remain with us, and can even affect our thoughts and emotions. The Arizal explains that a fast day is an opportunity to free those sparks trapped within. We avoid eating anything new, resulting in the body shedding its fat and blood, and just as these things “burn up” physically, the sparks lodged within them “burn up” and ascend as well with the help of our prayers and pure thoughts and intentions. Moreover, the difficulty of fasting breaks apart the kelipot, the spiritual “husks” that trap those holy sparks.

(Interestingly, this passage in Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh shows an incredibly detailed and accurate knowledge of the digestive system. Rabbi Vital explains how the stomach and intestines break down the food, absorb it into the bloodstream, where it goes to the liver for further processing, and then to the heart which delivers the nutrients to the rest of the body, particularly the brain, the seat of the neshamah.)

Secrets of Fasting

Etz Chaim, “Tree of Life”. Note the sefirot of Gevurah and Hod on the left column.

The Arizal mentions how it is good to fast not only on the six established fast days of the Jewish calendar (Gedaliah, Kippur, 10 Tevet, Esther, 17 Tamuz, and 9 Av), but on every Monday and Thursday. This is, in fact, an ancient Jewish custom that is attested to in numerous historical documents. (One of these is the Didache, an early Christian text of the 1st century CE that tells its adherents not to fast on Mondays and Thursdays because that is when the Jews fast!) The Arizal explains that Monday and Thursday, the second and fifth days of the week, correspond to the second and fifth sefirot of Gevurah and Hod. Gevurah and Hod are on the left column of the mystical “Tree of Life”, and the left is associated with judgement and severity. By fasting on these days, one can break any harsh judgments decreed upon them.

The Arizal also taught that one who fasts two days in a row—48 hours straight—is likened to having fasted twenty-seven day fasts, and one who can fast three days straight has fasted the equivalent of forty day fasts. This is important because one of the most powerful fasts in Jewish tradition, which will completely purify the greatest of sins, particularly sexual ones, requires 84 day-fasts. (The number 84 comes from the fact that Jacob was 84 years old when he was first intimate, with Leah, and conceived Reuben.) Usually, this was done by fasting 40 days straight (eating only at night), followed by another 44 days (or vice versa). A person can thus accomplish the same purification by fasting both day and night for a whole week straight, from the end of one Shabbat to the onset of the following Shabbat.

As this would be a personal fast, it may be permissible to consume salt and water, as the Talmud (Berakhot 35b) does not consider these to be “food”, and permits them on personal fasts only. The Arizal actually gives a tip for one who feels thirsty during a fast: they should meditate on the words Ruach Elohim (רוח אלהים). Recall that Genesis begins by telling us that God’s Divine Spirit, Ruach Elohim, “hovered over the waters”. And so, one who meditates upon this should see his thirst quickly dissipate. Ultimately, the Arizal says that Torah study is the best way to repent and expiate sins, much more so than any fast. So, a person who is not up to the task of intermittent fasting may substitute with diligent Torah study.

Soon enough, there will be no need to fast at all, as the prophet (Zechariah 8:19) states: “So says Hashem, God of Hosts: The fast of the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth days shall be for the house of Judah for gladness, joy, and good times; for love of truth and peace.” With each passing moment, we near the time when all of these fast days—the fourth (ie. the 17th of Tammuz, in the fourth month), the fifth (9 Av, in the fifth month), the seventh (Tzom Gedaliah), and tenth (10th of Tevet) shall turn into joyous feast days. May we merit to see this day soon.

Gmar Chatima Tova!   

The Priests and the Aftermath of the Golden Calf

This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tisa, most famous for its account of the Golden Calf incident. Last year, we addressed some of the major questions surrounding the Golden Calf, including who exactly instigated the catastrophe, why it was done in that particular way, and the mystical reasons behind it. Another set of questions arises from the way Moses dealt with the incident. We read how Moses first had the Golden Calf ground up and mixed with water, a mixture that the populace was forced to drink. Then, he called on the perpetrators to be killed by sword. Finally, God sent an additional plague as punishment for the incident. What is the significance of these three measures?

Priestly Procedure

Rashi comments on Exodus 32:20 that Moses “intended to test them like women suspected of adultery”. This refers to the sotah procedure, described in Numbers 5:11-31, where a woman who may have committed adultery is brought before the priests and tested by having her drink a special mixture of “holy water”. If she is guilty, she would die immediately; if innocent, she would be blessed. Moses did the same by grinding the Golden Calf into a special mixture and having the people drink it. This would identify those who were guilty of idolatry. The symbolism is clear: in the same way that the adulteress cheats on her husband, the Israelites at Sinai “cheated” on God.

Rashi further explains that this procedure was only to identify those who had worshipped the Calf secretly, without any witnesses. However, there were those who had worshipped the Calf openly and publicly. Deuteronomy 13:13-18 states that the punishment for such open displays of idolatry—assuming the idolaters had been given a clear warning—is death by sword. It was these people (three thousand of them) who were killed in this particular way.

The last group were those who had worshipped the Calf openly, but were not given a warning. In Jewish law, the death penalty is not meted out unless the perpetrators were given a clear explanation of their sin and were explicitly warned about the consequences beforehand. Since this last group of people worshipped the Calf openly, but without a warning, they could not be punished. In such cases, it is up to the Heavens to dole out justice. This is why they were punished with a plague.

Priestly Origins

Rashi’s comments come from the Talmud (Yoma 66b), which also provides us with an alternate explanation for the three types of punishment. Those that were most involved in the idolatry—sacrificing animals and burning incense to the Golden Calf—died by sword. Those who merely “embraced and kissed” the Calf died by plague. And those who only “rejoiced in their hearts” and worshipped the Calf in secret died by drinking the mixture.

The same page of Talmud reminds us that the entire tribe of Levi did not participate in the sin. The Sages explain that this is why the Levites were elevated to the status of priests. Prior to the Golden Calf, it was the firstborn male of every family that was supposed to ascend to the priesthood. After the Calf, the Levites were designated as the priestly class, with the descendants of Aaron serving as the kohanim, the high priests. For this reason, a firstborn male must be “redeemed” from a kohen in a special ceremony known as pidyon haben thirty days (or more) after his birth.

Illustration depicting Moses commanding the Levites at the Golden Calf, from ‘Compendium of Chronicles’ by Persian-Jewish sage Rashid-al-Din (1247-1308)

Priestly Exceptions

Having said that, we do see a number of exceptions to this rule. Pinchas was a Levite who was elevated to kohen status after his actions brought an end to the immoral affair with the Midianites. He would go on to become the kohel gadol, the High Priest, and hold that position longer than anyone else—over 300 years according to certain opinions!

Another exception was the prophet Samuel. His barren mother, Hannah, promised that if God would give her a child, she would make the child a nazir (loosely translated as “monk”) from birth and dedicate him to the priesthood. After Samuel was weaned, Hannah—considered a prophetess in her own right—left him under the tutelage of the High Priest Eli. The Tanakh tells us that Eli’s own two sons, Hofni and Pinchas (not to be confused with the Pinchas above) were “base men who did not know God” (I Samuel 2:12), and it appears that Samuel filled the void they left, for he “served before Hashem, a youth girded with a linen ephod” (2:18). The ephod was one of the special vestments worn only by the kohanim, as described in last week’s parasha. Despite Samuel being from the tribe of Ephraim, it appears he became a full member of the priesthood. So great was he that Psalms 99:6 famously equates Samuel with Moses (a Levite) and Aaron (a kohen) combined.

In fact, long before Aaron we read how Melchizedek was a “kohen to God” who came to bless Abraham (Genesis 14:18). Melchizedek is identified with Shem, the son of Noah (appropriately his firstborn son, according to many opinions). He was the first person in history to serve as a proper priest, offering sacrifices to God upon an altar upon exiting the Ark following the Great Flood (see Beresheet Rabbah 30:6).

Finally, the Talmud (Sukkah 52a) speaks of a certain “righteous priest” who is one of the four messianic figures prophesied by Zechariah. While Mashiach himself is said to be from the tribe of Judah and a descendent of King David, there are a number of perplexing sources speaking of Mashiach being a kohen! In fact, there are only four places in the entire Torah where the word mashiach (משיח) actually appears. All four cases are in reference to a kohen, mentioned as hakohen hamashiach. While the simple explanation is that this refers to the “anointed” priest, ie. the High Priest, the deeper meaning suggests that Mashiach himself is somehow a kohen.*

In reality, this isn’t so hard to understand. After all, when Mashiach comes everything will revert to the way it was meant to be originally. The sin of the Golden Calf will be rectified, together with all the other tikkunim. Thus, the priesthood will once again belong to the firstborn. And even this will likely be temporary, for God always intended the Jewish people to be a mamlechet kohanim, for each and every Jew to be a priest, as it is written (Exodus 19:5-6):

…If you would but hearken to My voice, and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasure among all peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation…

Courtesy: Temple Institute


*Interestingly, the breakaway sect of priests known as the Essenes—who likely produced the Dead Sea Scrolls—believed in a messianic figure referred to as moreh tzedek, the “Righteous Teacher”. Scholars have suggested this was a high-ranking kohen named Judah who separated from the corrupt Sadducee priests of the Second Temple and founded the ascetic Essene sect. Judah was ultimately killed for apostasy, and the Essenes apparently believed that he would return to life to usher in the Messianic age. It seems early Christians adopted many elements of this legend. The possibility is explored by Michael O. Wise in The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior Before Christ.

Secrets of the Akedah

akedah-stampThis week’s parasha is Vayera, most famous for describing the Akedah, or “binding of Isaac”. As is well known, God seemingly commands Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son, with no clear reason why He wants this. Later, the text suggests that it was a test of Abraham’s devotion to God: how much was Abraham willing to give up in his service of the Divine? The test seems quite cruel. How could God command a person to do something as abhorrent as sacrificing a child? Of course, child sacrifice is itself totally forbidden by Torah law, and God never intended for Abraham to hurt Isaac. In that case, why command such a thing in the first place?

Many interesting answers have been presented to deal with this. A careful analysis of the text shows that God never actually commanded Abraham to kill Isaac. Rather, he said to take him to Mt. Moriah and, literally, “elevate him as an elevation”. It is assumed that the word “elevation” (olah) is a “burnt-sacrifice”, since this is how the term would be used many times later in the Torah. However, this is not necessarily the case. In fact, this is pointed out by the Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 56:8), which records the following conversation between God and Abraham:

Abraham said to [God]: I will set my words before you. Yesterday you said to me: “In Isaac will be called your seed” (Genesis 21:12). Then you went back and said, “Take your son” (Genesis 22:1). Now you say to me, “Do not send forth your hand against the boy” (Genesis 22:12).

The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him: “I will not profane my covenant and the utterance of my lips will not change” (Psalms 89:35). When I said to you, “take”… I did not say “slaughter him” but rather “bring him up.” You brought him up, now bring him down!

High Priest in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur

High Priest in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur

Rabbi Isaiah Horovitz (c. 1565-1630), better known as the Shelah HaKadosh, points out that Abraham was explicitly commanded to go to Mt. Moriah, which gets its name from mor, the fragrant myrrh, which was the first ingredient of the ketoret, the incense offering in the Temple. The ketoret was the most powerful and most precious of all offerings, and was the incense that the High Priest brought into the Holy of Holies – the innermost chamber of the Temple – on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. The Shelah HaKadosh explains that Abraham was meant to play the role of High Priest and bring Isaac to the Holy of Holies, where his son would be elevated spiritually. No death was necessary at all!

It seems like Abraham, living in a time where child sacrifice was so common, misunderstood God’s command. God had to intervene and stop Abraham at the last moment, teaching him that there is no place for child sacrifice in a just world. He blessed Abraham nonetheless for his boundless devotion. Still, we no longer see God communicating with Abraham, and the story then shifts to Isaac. Perhaps Abraham didn’t exactly pass the test as God had hoped.

Meanwhile, Isaac was indeed elevated. The text ends without mentioning Isaac. It says that Abraham returned to the youths that accompanied him to the mountain, and they all returned to Be’er Sheva. Isaac is nowhere to be seen! The next time he is discussed is three years later. Based on this discrepancy, the Midrash comments that Isaac was brought into the Heavenly Garden of Eden for three years following the Akedah! This midrashic explanation alludes to a far greater secret within the Akedah.

Repairing Death and Returning to Eden

The Arizal taught that the Akedah was a tikkun, a spiritual rectification, for a monumental event that happened centuries earlier. Following man’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the first sons Cain and Abel got into a scuffle and Cain ended up killing his brother. This was the first act of murder, and ushered in all future killings. Of course, such a tremendous sin requires a tikkun.

According to Biblical chronology, Isaac was 37 years old at the Akedah. The Arizal says that this hints to the above tikkun, as 37 is the gematria of “Abel” (הבל). Also, when Isaac asked his father what they will sacrifice, Abraham answered that “God will see for Himself the lamb for the offering, my son” (Genesis 22:7). The phrase can also be read in this way: “the lamb for the offering is my son” (ha’seh l’olah bni). Rashi comments here that at this point Isaac understood that he would be sacrificed, and did not protest. The Arizal sees in the phrase ha’seh l’olah bni (השה לעלה בני) the initials of Abel, once more hinting at the tikkun at hand.

Had Abraham actually sacrificed Isaac, the Arizal suggests that the tikkun for all murder, killing, and even death itself would have been affected. All of the spiritual vessels of the world would have been repaired, and the Messianic age would have been ushered in immediately, with the resurrection of the dead along with it. Isaac would have been resurrected himself right away, making his death last only a fleeting instant, just enough time for him to enter Eden and bring it back down to Earth.

Alas, this was not the case. Isaac certainly did ascend to Eden, but ended up staying there for a while longer. The world was not yet ready for the Messianic age. While it didn’t happen at that point, it will happen in the future. In fact, Isaac will return to the world to fulfil his destiny, and the Arizal sees in his name (יצחק) an anagram of ketz chai (קץ חי), “the one who will live [again] at the end”. Who, exactly, will this “End-Times” Isaac be?

The First Three and the Last Three

The mystical Sefer Yetzirah states a famous principle: “the end is wedged in the beginning”. The whole process of tikkun will end very similarly to how it all began. In the same way that it began with our three forefathers, it will end with another set of three figures. When describing the events of Mashiach’s coming, Jewish texts usually refer to three individuals: Eliyahu, Mashiach ben Yosef, and Mashiach ben David. Eliyahu is first, who comes to announce the coming Redemption. Mashiach ben Yosef is next, whose job is to fight the necessary battles to prepare the world. Finally, Mashiach ben David comes to usher the world into a new era.

The Talmud (Sukkah 52a-b) records how Mashiach ben Yosef will have to die. The Arizal instituted a kavanah (intention or meditation) within the Amidah (during the blessing for rebuilding Jerusalem) for one to pray that ben Yosef will not have to die. However, it seems that the death of Mashiach ben Yosef is nothing more than the fulfilment of the Akedah, and in his monumental Sefer Asarah Ma’amrot, Rabbi Menachem Azariah de Fano writes explicitly that Mashiach ben Yosef will die and be resurrected shortly after, having fulfilled his task. He even implies that Mashiach ben Yosef is none other than Isaac! (We discussed this identification in more detail in a previous post here.)

It is quite easy to see how the three Messianic figures parallel the three patriarchs. Abraham was the first “to call in God’s name” and made it his life’s mission to teach people about monotheism and inspire repentance. Similarly, Eliyahu’s mission is to make a grand announcement – calling in God’s name – and to inspire people to repent (see Malachi 3:23-24). Jacob was the last patriarch, the one who became Israel and fathered the Twelve Tribes. Likewise, Mashiach ben David will restore the nation to Israel and re-establish the Twelve Tribes. Mashiach ben Yosef, like Isaac (whose gematria, 208, actually equals “ben Yosef”!) has the most difficult task. Several millennia ago, the world was not yet ready for it, but it is certainly ripe now. May we merit to see its fulfilment soon.