Tag Archives: Sefer Yetzirah

Understanding Yourself Through the Letters of Your Name

Much of this week’s Torah portion, Nasso, describes the gifts that each of the Twelve Tribes brought for the inauguration of the Mishkan. Although each tribe brought the exact same set of gifts, the Torah nonetheless repeats the gifts each and every time. Some say this is because God held dear what every single tribe brought and wanted to properly acknowledge each one—even though it was all the same. Others say that while each tribe brought the same thing, the way they brought it was different, with each tribe displaying their own unique qualities.

The Midrash famously parallels the Twelve Tribes with the twelve astrological signs of the zodiac. In Yalkut Shimoni (Shemot 418), for example, we are told that

The tribe of Yehudah was in the East, together with Issachar and Zevulun, and corresponding to them above are Aries, Taurus, and Gemini… The flag of Reuben was in the South, together with Shimon and Gad, and corresponding to them above are Cancer, Leo, and Virgo… The flag of Ephraim was in the West, together with Menashe and Benjamin, and corresponding to them Libra, Scorpio, and Sagittarius. The flag of Dan was in the North, together with Asher and Naftali… corresponding to them are Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces…

Another version puts the tribes in order of birth as opposed to their encampments in the wilderness. Thus, Reuben is Aries, Shimon is Taurus, and so on. A third version (noted by Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz) also follows the order of birth, but starting from Rosh Hashanah, so Reuben is Libra and Shimon is Scorpio, etc. Nonetheless, the Midrashic version above is the most common, and the one most frequently adopted in Kabbalistic texts. It was the system used by the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, 1720-1797), and appears as early as Sefer Yetzirah, generally considered the oldest known Kabbalistic text.

As we’ve written before, Sefer Yetzirah goes through the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and explains how God fashioned the universe through them (together with the Ten Sefirot). It divides the alphabet into three major groupings: the “mothers”, the “doubles”, and the “elementals”. The mothers are the three letters aleph, mem, shin, corresponding to air (avir), water (mayim), and fire (esh). The doubles are the seven letters that have two sounds in Hebrew: beit (and veit), gimel (and jimel), dalet (and dhalet, like the English “that”), kaf (and khaf), pei (and fei), reish (and the hard ‘reish), tav (and thav, like the English “three”). Most modern speakers have dropped the jimel, dhalet, and ‘reish from use, while Ashkenazis pronounce the thav as “sav” (much like all Eastern Europeans with an accent, when speaking English, would say “sree” instead of “three”). The remaining single-sounding letters make up the twelve elementals.

On the mystical Tree of Life, the three mothers are the three horizontal lines, the seven doubles are the seven vertical lines, and the twelve elementals are the twelve horizontal lines, as follows:

Sefer Yetzirah gives us further details, paralleling each letter to a cosmic force or entity. As already mentioned, the mothers are the three primordial elements of Creation: fire, water, and air. The seven doubles correspond to the seven major celestial bodies that are visible to the naked eye: the sun and moon, plus Mercury (kochav), Venus (nogah), Mars (madim), Jupiter (tzedek), and Saturn (shabbatai). They also correspond to the seven days of the week. This is why, in most cultures, the days of the week are named after these seven bodies: Saturday for Saturn, Sunday for the sun, Monday for the moon, and so on. In his Discourse on Rosh Hashanah, the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270) comments that these seven bodies “rule” over the days of the week, and provides a siman, or mnemonic, to remember them: KaNTzaSh ChaLaM (כנצ״ש חל״ם). The Ramban concludes that Jews, unlike the pagans, name our days of the week in memory of Creation and Shabbat (ie. yom rishon, “first day”; yom sheni, “second day”; yom shelishi, “third day”, etc.)

Finally, the twelve elemental letters correspond to the twelve astrological signs of the zodiac, and the twelve months of the year. To these, we can add the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The result is the following:

Letters and Biblical Figures

If the Twelve Tribes correspond to the twelve elemental letters, which Biblical figures correspond to the mothers and doubles? Sefer Yetzirah (3:2) does suggest that from the three mothers come the “fathers” (avot). However, it does not explicitly say that the fathers are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Generally, the seven doubles are paralleled with the seven lower sefirot, and the seven lower sefirot correspond to the Seven Shepherds of Israel, among whom the patriarchs are already included. So, the three mothers must parallel some other figures. Indeed, we see three major figures in the Torah before Abraham. These are Adam, Noah, and Enoch.

Adam is, of course, the first civilized human, the first to be created, and originally a towering figure whose body shone with blinding light. Noah is at the other end of the pre-Abraham period, and was the righteous one in his generation that merited to recreate a new world. In between is Enoch, of whom the Torah curiously states that he “walked with God and was no more, for God had taken him” (Genesis 5:22).

In mystical traditions, Enoch was taken up by God’s blazing divine chariot (much like Elijah would be far in the future), and was transformed into an angel, usually identified with Metatron. Although the Torah gives us essentially no information on Enoch, the Book of Jubilees (4:17-20) explains that Enoch was the first true sage in history. He was a scribe and an astrologer, created history’s first calendar, and taught people how to accurately count months and years. He was a great prophet in his own right, seeing all of the past and all of the future. So holy was he that he never died, and was transfigured into an angel.

These three figures in Genesis neatly parallel the three mother letters of Creation: Adam being aleph, the first man, made in God’s image (which the letter aleph represents); Noah being mem, alluding to the flood waters; and Enoch being shin, alluding to the flaming chariot that took him to Heaven, and his transformation into a fiery archangel (joining the seraphim, literally the “blazing ones”).

The seven doubles, meanwhile, are the Seven Shepherds. On the Tree of Life, the letter beit leads to Chessed, personified by Abraham; the letter gimel to Gevurah, personified by Isaac; the letter dalet to Tiferet, personified by Jacob; kaf to Netzach, which is Moses; pei to Hod, Aaron; reish to Yesod, Joseph; and tav to Malkhut, David.

To summarize the above:

On a practical note, one can use this information to explore their name (or any Hebrew word for that matter) based on the meaning of its letters. If one understands the qualities associated with each letter, they may derive deeper meaning from their name, and how it may affect their own qualities, strengths, weaknesses, or even their destiny.

It is important to note that although Sefer Yetzirah has Saturn for Friday (and Joseph), and Jupiter for Saturday (and David), there are other traditions. Jupiter (Tzedek) is more fitting for Joseph, called Yosef haTzadik, while Saturn (Shabbatai) is more fitting for Shabbat and King David. Yet another tradition has the moon for King David. On the level of Sefirot, this makes most sense, since the moon is a reflection of the sun much like Malkhut is often said to be a reflection of Tiferet.

For example, Moses (משה) was famously thrown into the waters (מ) of the Nile as a newborn, led the Israelites through the waters of the Red Sea, and later had his fatal error by striking the rock for water. Meanwhile, he first encountered God at the burning bush (ש) and as a child burned his mouth with a smoldering coal (according to the Midrashic explanation for his later being “heavy of tongue”). In fact, the Arizal taught (Sha’ar HaPesukim on Ki Tisa) that Moses was a reincarnation of Noah, while other mystical texts compare him to an earthly Metatron. Finally, the hei in his name corresponds to Aries and the month of Nisan, symbolizing the pesach offering and the Exodus which happened in that month, under that sign. Thus, we see in the letters of Moses an allusion to essentially every major event of his life, and even his past life.

Thankfully, Sefer Yetzirah provides us with the exact qualities associated with each letter. The seven doubles have both positive and negative aspects clearly stated (4:2-3). The twelve elementals, meanwhile, have a certain “foundation” (5:1), which may be used for good or for evil. The three mothers are described (3:7-9) based on the qualities of their element, fire being “hot” and water being “cold”, etc. They are also paralleled to a body part. While the qualities given in Sefer Yetzirah are not always so clear, there are many commentaries which help to extract the proper meaning. These are elucidated in detail in Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s monumental Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation, In Theory and Practice.

Putting it all together, we have:

One can use the chart above to explore the features associated with each letter of their name, as well as the qualities associated with their astrological birth sign, birth month, birth day of the week, and even birth time of day. The positive qualities are potential traits that one has within and should work to express to the fullest, while the negatives are traits that one should be aware of and particularly focused on to repair. 

The Mystical Purpose of the Omer

“Bringing the Omer to the Kohen” by Ahuva Klein

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

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

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

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

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

32 Paths of Wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rectifying Speech

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Akiva’s Students

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

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

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

Chag sameach!

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.

Purim: The First Jewish Holiday

The festive holiday of Purim is the last in the Jewish calendar year. Most have heard the basic story: the Jewish people are dispersed across the vast Persian Empire, where an evil minister (Haman) has devised a plot to exterminate them all on one fateful day. Mordechai and the secretly-Jewish Queen Esther save the day. The whole narrative is recorded in Megillat Esther, a short text at the end of the Tanakh. While every Jew (and most gentiles) have heard of Passover, the High Holidays, and Chanukah, Purim remains among the lesser-known Jewish holidays. And yet, in several places across our holy texts, Purim is recognized as being essentially the greatest of holidays, and the only one to remain following the coming of Mashiach. For example, the Midrash of Yalkut Shimoni (in Passage 944) states:

…כל המועדים עתידין ליבטל וימי הפורים אינן בטלים לעולם

“All the holidays are destined to be nullified, but the days of Purim will never be nullified for eternity…”

An 18th-Century Megillah

An 18th-Century Megillah

Purim is not only the last holiday on the Jewish calendar year, but the last to remain in the future. What are we to make of such statements? What makes Purim so special that it stands alone among holidays that will be commemorated by Jews for eternity?

To properly answer this question requires first answering a more fundamental question: When did Judaism begin?

The First Jew

What is the starting point of Judaism? When can we say for sure that the Jewish people had their beginning? Who was the first Jew?

Some erroneously believe that Adam and Eve were the first Jews. This is, of course, grossly incorrect, as the Torah views Adam and Eve simply as the first civilized humans. More commonly, people point to Abraham as the first Jew. Though he is certainly the first of the forefathers, and the point at which the tradition – in some shape or form – begins, it is very hard to describe him as “Jewish”. After all, the Torah in its full form wouldn’t be revealed until centuries later. So, it must be Moses and the Israelites, who received the Torah at Sinai following the Exodus. Surely, they were the first Jews! Indeed, most people would pick that moment as the official start of the Jewish people.

Yet, the truth is that those Israelites were practicing a very different religion. There were no synagogues in those days, no amidah prayer and no tehillim, no volumes of Talmud to study, and the events of Nevi’im and Ketuvim, Chanukah, Purim, and Tisha b’Av (among others) wouldn’t happen until far in the future. This was a religion whose rituals mostly centred on sacrificial offerings.

Today, we have no korbanot, no pilgrimage festivals, no Temple or Mishkan, no death penalties, no polygamy, no prophecy, no slavery, no tithes, no priests, no Canaanites, Amorites, Moabites, or Amalekites. Although we read parashat Zachor to remember the evil Amalekites and remind ourselves to destroy them, we have no idea who the “Amalekites” actually are in our times!

The Judaism of today – focused on Torah study, prayer, and halakhah – is completely different than the ancient Israelites’ religion of sacrifices, agricultural laws, and priestly laws. And, of course, those Israelites certainly weren’t known as “Jews”.

Having said that, we are undoubtedly bound by a chain of tradition, and there is a clear evolution from ancient Israelite to modern Jew. At which point did everything change?

The Birth of the Jewish People

Some 2500 years ago, the Kingdom of Judah was destroyed, together with its Holy Temple. While the previous destruction of the Kingdom of Israel resulted in most of its populace being scattered across the Assyrian Empire, the Kingdom of Judah did not suffer the same fate. Instead, the people of Judah (among them many Benjaminites and Levites, as well as refugees from the other Israelite tribes which fled to Judah when the Kingdom of Israel was destroyed) were taken captive to Babylon.

The Temple, with all of its sacrifices and offerings, was gone, and so were the priestly rituals. The people were no longer farmers on their own lands; the many agricultural laws of the Torah no longer applied. Pilgrimages festivals in Jerusalem were no longer possible either. To survive, the religion had to undergo a major transformation.

In Babylon, offering sacrifices was not possible, so the people began to offer prayers instead. Making pilgrimages was not possible, so people gave the festivals new meanings, and celebrated them with feasts at home. In Babylon, observing the Torah’s laws directly was not possible, but studying the laws was, so this is what the people did, preserving the law in their hearts and minds. Not surprisingly, those who best knew the law were most respected. The priest gave way to the rabbi. And perhaps most importantly, across the Babylonian domain, as the various Israelite tribes blended together and assimilated, ancestral history became blurry, and everyone simply became known as a “Yehudi”, from the name of the most populous of the tribes, and the last surviving kingdom, Judah.

Thus, it is really at this point, in Babylon, between the First and Second Temples, where Judaism as we know it is born. And this is precisely the time of Purim.

The First Rabbi

Purim takes place during the time of the Babylonian Captivity, after the destruction of the First Temple, and shortly before the construction of the Second Temple. It is in Megillat Esther that we are first introduced to the “Jews”:

There was a Yehudi man in Susa the capital city, and his name was Mordechai, the son of Yair, the son of Shim’i, the son of Kish, a Benjaminite. (Esther 2:5)

'The Triumph of Mordechai' by Pieter Lastman (1624)

‘The Triumph of Mordechai’ by Pieter Lastman (1624)

Mordechai is from the tribe of Benjamin, yet he is described as a Yehudi. As we continue reading, we see no more mention of any specific tribes of Israel. Rather, the text always refers to the people, wherever they were across the 127 territories of the empire, as Yehudim. They had now officially become, not Israelites or Hebrews, but Jews.

Their leader is Mordechai: not a priest, not a Levite, not a king, and not a prophet (at least, not according to the plain text, though later traditions suggest that he really was a prophet). Back in the land of Israel, the leadership used to be held firmly by the Kohanim in the Temple, and by the royal family in the palace. In Babylon, none of that mattered. Mordechai was simply a wise man, a respected communal leader and advisor. One may even argue that Mordechai is history’s first “rabbi” in the proper sense of the term.

Purim as Independence Day

By the time the Jews were permitted to return to Israel, and finally rebuild the Temple, they had become accustomed to their new religious ways. Soon, the Great Assembly compiled the Tanakh, and laid down the first texts of prayer and blessing. The Second Temple was not nearly what the First Temple had been; it was devoid of the Ark of the Covenant and the Urim and Tumim. The age of prophecy had ended, too, as did the monarchy. Though there was a return to Torah law, the law was superseded by imperial law, now that Israel was a vassal of the Persian Empire, and then the Greek, and finally the Roman.

A split among the Jewish people was slowly developing: There were those who wanted to return to the ways of ancient Israel, centred on the Temple, together with its priestly and agricultural laws. And then there were those who wanted to maintain the ways that had developed in Babylon. Ultimately, they would form two groups: the Tzdukim, or Sadducees, and the Perushim, or Pharisees. Their names reveal much:

Though it is thought that “Tzduki” comes from the name of their founder, Tzadok, it nonetheless shares a root with tzedek, as this group thought they were the correct ones, following the proper ancient way. Meanwhile, “Perushi” literally means “separatist”, as these were the “reformers” trying to change the ancient system. Not surprisingly, the Tzdukim were primarily composed of the priestly classes, who wanted to restore their central role among the people, while the Perushim were composed primarily of the scholarly class. Perhaps to distance themselves from the Perushim, the Tzdukim rejected any concept of an “Oral Tradition”, and stuck firmly to what is written in the Torah. The Perushim, meanwhile, maintained that there is an ancient tradition dating back to Moses. (Click here to read about the validity – and necessity – of the Oral Tradition.) 

As the priests, the Tzdukim controlled the Temple, and relegated the Perushim to the sidelines. Ironically, this sealed their doom, for when the Second Temple was destroyed, the Tzdukim and their faulty ideology collapsed with it. Not dependent on a Temple, the Perushim survived. Rabbinic Judaism and the Oral Torah thrived along with them. And here we are today.

This entire chain of events was set in motion with the story of Purim, which describes the rise of the Jewish people, and their salvation from the brink of destruction. Had it gone another way, Haman would have finished off what Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar started; the Israelites would have perished, and Judaism as we know it would have never emerged. And so, Purim is a sort of “Independence Day” for the Jewish people. The Midrash describes Purim as the last of Jewish holidays because, ironically, it is really the first of Jewish holidays!

We can now better understand, beyond the chronological reasons, why the short Megillat Esther was included in the last sections of the Tanakh. What began at the birth of humanity with Adam and Eve, then progressed through Abraham and the start of monotheistic faith, and was propelled onwards by Moses and the prophets that followed, culminated with the final formation of the Jewish nation. The Tanakh thus presents us with a clear, sequential evolution from start to finish. Abraham was called Ivri, a Hebrew, and Jacob became Israel, with his twelve sons founding twelve tribes that ultimately came out Egypt. Those tribes settled in the Holy Land, but were later scattered across the successive Assyrian-Babylonian-Persian Empires. And it was in the Persian Empire that we truly became Jews. The Tanakh essentially ends on that note, its central narrative having been completed.

The End is Wedged in the Beginning

Sefer Yetzirah famously states the principle that “the end is wedged in the beginning, and the beginning is wedged in the end.” Based on this, we can see a far more profound reason for why Purim alone will be celebrated in Messianic times. As the story of the Jewish people’s official beginning, Megillat Esther also encodes within it the secret of the end.

The Megillah describes a world where Jews are scattered from East to West, fractured apart, assimilating. God is nowhere to be seen. In fact, Megillat Esther is unique in that it makes no explicit mention of God anywhere in the text, as if everything is simply up to chance, hence the name Purim, literally “lotteries”.

Indeed, the world we see today is a mirror of that described in Esther: Jews are once again scattered all over the world, fractured and assimilated, living in a seemingly Godless universe. Once again, we are confronted with intense hatred, and many seek our extermination. The rest of the world is blind to this, appeasing those very people who openly state their aims of annihilating the Jews. It goes without saying that, once again, Persia is at the centre of this threat. With everything that’s going on in the world, there seems to be little hope.

But Purim comes along and reminds us that God is with us, as hard as it might be to see. Salvation will surely come, and from the unlikeliest of places. In the final moments, everything will flip upside down. Just as Haman was hanged on the very gallows he prepared for Mordechai, those who seek to eliminate the Jews will succumb to their own evil devices. And the Jewish people will once again have, to quote the Megillah (8:16), “light, joy, happiness, and honour.”

Sefer Yetzirah and the 32 Paths of Creation

This week we begin reading the Torah anew, starting from the very first portion, Beresheet. The first chapter famously recounts God’s creation of the universe. Although the account in Genesis is itself quite brief, the Jewish sages had much to say about the events of creation. This was a topic of particular interest to the Kabbalists. In fact, Kabbalistic teachings are usually divided between two main headings: Ma’ase Beresheet, “the Work (or Narrative) of creation”, and Ma’ase Merkavah, “the Work (or Narrative) of the Chariot”. The former explores the genesis and nature of the universe, along with many metaphysical concepts, while the latter is primarily focused on various aspects of God, and vehicles of prophecy.

One of the earliest known Kabbalistic texts is Sefer Yetzirah, the ‘Book of Formation’. This book outlines how God created the universe, mainly focusing on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Since we see in the Torah that God created the world through speech (“God said ‘Let there be light’…”), it is concluded that the building blocks of the universe must be the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Everything that exists was fashioned out of unique combinations of these special letters.

Along with the 22 letters were the 10 sefirot, divine energies that imbue everything within creation. These 10 sefirot correspond to the 10 digits, from 0 to 9 (and hence, the root of sefirah is the same as that of the Hebrew for number, mispar). Just as modern physicists might argue that the entire universe can be reduced to mathematical equations, Sefer Yetzirah reduces all of creation down to the base numbers and letters. And so, Sefer Yetzirah begins by stating that God created the universe through lamed-bet netivot, “thirty-two paths” of creation.

The Power of Sefer Yetzirah

Sefer Yetzirah is first explicitly mentioned over 1500 years ago in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 65b), where Rabbi Chanina and Rabbi Oshaia studied it together on Friday afternoons. Using the secrets described in the text, the two rabbis learned how to create ex nihilo, like God. Each Friday, they would team up to create a calf from thin air, and eat it!

It is said that the patriarch Abraham was capable of the same feat. The 18th chapter of Genesis describes the well-known story of the three angels that visited Abraham. It then says that Abraham “took butter and milk, and the calf which he had made, and set it before them…” (Genesis 18:8). Many have asked: how is it possible that the forefather of the Jewish people gave his guests a mixture of dairy and meat products? The simple answer is that, of course, Abraham preceded the giving of the Torah, and at that time there was still no prohibition on consuming dairy and meat together. However, Jewish tradition maintains that although the forefathers lived before the giving of the Torah, they still fulfilled its precepts through an oral tradition, and from the prophecies they received from God. So, how did Abraham put both dairy and meat before his guests?

The Malbim’s commentary on the verse quotes earlier mystical teachings that say Abraham knew the secrets of Sefer Yetzirah and fashioned the calf from scratch. This is why the verse clearly says “…and the calf which he had made [asher asah]”. Since Abraham made the calf, it was only a hunk of flesh, with no divine soul (which only God can infuse), and was therefore pareve, considered neither dairy nor meat.

Jewish tradition holds that Abraham was actually the author of Sefer Yetzirah. Others believe it was written by Rabbi Akiva, based on teachings that were initially revealed by Abraham. Either way, today Sefer Yetzirah has been made available through an excellent translation by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. Rabbi Kaplan carefully translated several versions of the text, and included rich commentary and explanations in the book. Anyone interested in a deeper understanding of the foundations of the Hebrew alphabet, the nature of creation and the elements, as well as a Jewish take on meditation, astrology and cosmology, should definitely undertake a careful study of this important book.

A Brief Overview of the 32 Paths

Where exactly are the 32 Paths of Creation derived from? A careful analysis of the Genesis text shows that God (Elohim) is mentioned 32 times in the account of creation. Each of these 32 parallels the 32 paths. There are ten cases where the Torah says Vayomer Elohim, “And God said…” These 10 correspond to the 10 sefirot. The remaining 22 mentions of God correspond to the 22 letters in the following way:

Sefer Yetzirah breaks down the Hebrew alphabet into three groups: the “mothers”, the “doubles”, and the “elementals”. There are three mother letters: aleph (א), mem (מ), and shin (ש). These are the mothers because each is associated with one of the three primordial elements of creation: aleph is the root of air (avir, אויר), mem is the root of water (mayim, מים), and shin is the root of fire (esh, אש). These three correspond to the three times that the Torah says “God created” (Genesis 1:1, 21, and 27).

There are then 7 double letters, those that have two sounds in Hebrew: beit (ב), gimel (ג), dalet (ד), kaf (כ), pei (פ), reish (ר), and tav (ת). (It should be noted that unfortunately, modern-day Hebrew has lost the double sounds of the gimel and reish.) These seven correspond to the seven times that the Torah says “God saw” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). The remaining 12 letters are known as the “elementals”, and correspond to the remaining 12 times that God is mentioned.

So, the 32 paths derive from the 32 times that God is mentioned in Genesis, and further broken down into their groupings of 10, 3, 7, and 12 based on the specific type of verb used in relation to God.

Etz Chaim, "Tree of Life"

Etz Chaim, “Tree of Life”

Finally, all of these are embedded into the Etz Chaim, the “Tree of Life”, the most famous of Kabbalistic diagrams, and one we have discussed on several occasions in the past. The 10 blue circles on the diagram correspond to the 10 sefirot. The sefirot are interconnected by 22 lines, corresponding to the 22 letters. There are three horizontal lines, corresponding to the three mother letters; seven vertical lines, corresponding to the seven double letters; and twelve diagonal lines, corresponding to the twelve elemental letters.

This simple diagram amazingly captures a great deal of information, and is therefore a key foundation of Kabbalistic thought – as well as the first step towards creating your very own calf!