Tag Archives: Sefirot

What is Happiness?

The Torah describes the holiday of Sukkot as being especially happy, and commands us to be akh sameach, “only happy” (Deuteronomy 16:15). When we look across Judaism, we find that there are actually three more holidays that are described similarly. Purim is the next one, of which the Talmud famously states that one must “increase in happiness” during the month in which Purim takes place (Ta’anit 29a). This is based on Scripture, where we read “And to the Jews was light, happiness, joy and prestige” (Esther 8:16). The last two specially-happy days are Tu b’Av and Yom Kippur, of which the Talmud states “there were never in Israel greater days of joy than the Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur” (Ta’anit 26b).

Why are these four holidays happier than the others? What is their connection to happiness? To answer that, we must first explore a bigger question: what exactly is happiness? Of course, we have all experienced happiness and innately know what it is. The real question is: what is the proper path to attaining true and lasting happiness? If we take a brief trip through centuries of philosophical thought, we will find that there are four major answers to this question. While every philosopher and school of philosophy had their own slight variation, we can group all of their answers into four categories:

Hedonism

The first and simplest answer is that the cause of all happiness is physical pleasure. Archaeologists and historians have found this sentiment in some of the earliest known human texts, including the Epic of Gilgamesh, where it says “Fill your belly. Day and night make merry. Let days be full of joy. Dance and make music day and night… These things alone are the concern of men.” Among the ancient Greeks, it appears it was Democritus (c. 460-370 BCE) who first subscribed fully to this notion. Aristippus (c. 435-356 BCE), a student of Socrates and founder of the Cyrenaic school of philosophy, made this the foundation of his worldview. It would come to be known as hedonism, the attainment of happiness through the pursuit of maximal pleasure.

Asceticism

The second answer is, perhaps ironically, the exact opposite of the first: true happiness can only come when a person detaches from all material things. Antisthenes (c. 445-365 BCE), another student of Socrates and founder of the school of Cynicism, held that the key to ultimate happiness was to be unconcerned with wealth and material pleasures. These are all temporary and fleeting, bringing a person short-lived joy and leading to ever greater addictions that can never be satisfied. Lasting happiness can only come from a simple, ascetic lifestyle. This same view is mirrored by multiple Eastern religions.

A related view is the one first espoused by Pyrrho (c. 360-270 BCE), an intriguing figure who journeyed all the way to India with the armies of Alexander the Great. He taught that happiness can only come after ataraxia, “freedom from worry”. A person does not necessarily have to detach from all material and physical pleasures, but does need to detach from all kinds of fears and dogmas. Nothing can ever be proven to be completely true, so we should stop worrying and stop making all kinds of judgements. One needs to develop a state of being mentally unbothered and at peace.

A bust of Epicurus

Epicurus (c. 341-270 BCE) took these ideas to the next level. He maintained that having no fears or worries means not having fear of God either, or any sort of divine punishment. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that the Talmudic sages had a particular aversion to Epicureanism, so much so that apikores became the standard Jewish term for a heretic. However, Epicurus did not preach immorality. Contrary to popular belief, he held that one should lead an ascetic life, be of high moral character, and focus on developing healthy and positive relationships with all people.

Virtue

Possibly the most frequent answer to the happiness question lies in developing virtue. This means being of exceedingly good character, and being moral and just. Such was the view of Plato (c. 424-348 BCE), as well as Aristotle (384-322 BCE), who added that virtue meant having a properly-balanced life. Zeno of Citium (c. 334-262 BCE), founder of the Stoic school, also held that virtue was the key to happiness. One of the later Stoics, Epictetus (c. 55-135 CE) said that one who has true virtue will be “sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy.”

This sentiment is very much in line with the view of our ancient Sages, and the approach of the Torah as a whole. One need not be an ascetic, nor should one descend into hedonism; rather, the Torah way is to balance the physical and spiritual, and focus on fulfilling the law (Torah and mitzvot), while increasing acts of kindness. This was succinctly stated by the first rabbi in Pirkei Avot, Shimon haTzadik, who stated that life is built on “Torah, divine service, and acts of kindness” (Avot 1:2). King Solomon concluded the same thing at the end of his existential Kohelet, where he ponders the meaning of life: “The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man.” This brings us to the final key to happiness.

Purpose

Taking what was said above one step further, we find that when we fulfil God’s law, we thereby connect to Hashem. This is indeed the root of the word mitzvah, which literally means to “bind”. Since God is the ultimate source of all goodness, binding to God is the ultimate way to maximize happiness. This view was echoed by Boethius (477-524 CE), among others. Long before them, we find it in the Torah, which repeats multiple times that we will be joyous before God (v’samachta lifnei Hashem, as in Deuteronomy 12:18, 16:11, 27:7, for example), and that we will be joyous when we receive God’s endless goodness (as in Deuteronomy 26:11).

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

This is deeply connected to what psychologists today see as the root of happiness: living with a greater sense of purpose. Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) detailed it fully in his Man’s Search For Meaning. It is more succinctly depicted in Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”, where physical pleasures are at the very bottom of the pyramid, offering the lowest degree of happiness, while “self-actualization”—living with purpose each day—is at the very top of the pyramid. Living with purpose is the key, and it needs to be a good, meaningful purpose (ie. “making more money” doesn’t cut it).

For a Jew, that purpose comes from God. We have a clear set of missions to accomplish in life, from the most basic being the fulfilment of Torah mitzvot each day, to the more mystical ones like rectifying our souls, and elevating the sparks of holiness trapped in Creation in order to repair the cosmos. This outlook gives a tremendous amount of meaning to each day, and to every moment. Something as simple as eating an apple becomes a world-altering experience: that beracha recited before consuming the apple is as a spiritual rectification that brings the world one step closer to perfection. In this way, one has the potential to be filled with joy at every moment. A person who sees himself as God’s divine emissary will therefore be, to borrow from Epictetus, “sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy.” Is this not the reason that Judaism has survived millennia of death, destruction, exile, and disgrace?

David

The perfect model of self-actualization is a person who is intricately connected to the holiday of Sukkot: King David. His Psalms are an incredible lesson in a person who has found joy at each moment by cleaving to God. Take his most famous song as an example, Psalm 23:

A song of David: God is my Shepherd, I shall not lack anything. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul; He guides me in righteous paths for His Name’s sake. Even when I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You set a table before me in the presence of my adversaries; You anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows. Only goodness and kindness pursue me all the days of my life, and I dwell in the House of God forever.

In this one Psalm we see the balance between asceticism and hedonism, we see true ataraxia—not from abandoning God, but form recognizing that faith in God means having no other fears at all—and we see the recognition that each and every day is full of goodness and kindness, even in death’s very shadow. In short, of the four answers to the question of happiness, the final is the best for it includes the other three within it. And this brings us back to the four happiest Jewish holidays.

Malkhut

It isn’t difficult to see how those four Jewish holidays described in especially-happy terms correspond to the four paths to happiness: Purim is known for its hedonistic elements, while Yom Kippur is pure asceticism. Tu b’Av is about virtue, as the Talmud (Ta’anit 26b) tells us explicitly that on that day when the men went out to find their soulmates, they were reminded not to look at physical beauty, but for a woman of real virtue. And Sukkot is the last: a holiday where we sit in Hashem’s Sukkah, literally immersed in the mitzvah, and have a chance to feel God’s “embrace”. In the same way that the fourth answer to happiness includes the three previous ones within it, Sukkot has all the elements within it, too.

Sukkot is the culmination of the season of Malkhut, the time when we crown God as “King”. It begins on Rosh Hashanah, when we start reciting HaMelekh HaKadosh, “The Holy King” in our prayers (instead of HaEl HaKadosh, “the Holy God”), and concludes with the last day of Sukkot. On that last day, the Kabbalists tell us that one’s decree for the year is sealed up for the final time, and the angels are given their instructions to carry out.

The last day of Sukkot is specifically tied to King David, who is the final leader of the ushpizin, the spiritual “guests” in the Sukkah. David is God’s appointed king on Earth, reflecting God’s own Kingship above. In the mystical Tree of Life, this is reflected in the fact that the lowest Sefirah of Malkhut, “Kingdom”, parallels the highest Sefirah of Keter, God’s “Crown”. Malkhut represents the earthly kingdom, and is therefore associated with King David. And it is in the Sefirah of Malkhut that happiness lies.

What exactly is Malkhut? While the other Sefirot, like Chessed and Gevurah, are pretty straight-forward in their meaning (at least on the surface level), Malkhut is not quite clear. How do we interact with Malkhut? Which character traits does it correspond to, and what exactly are we supposed to learn from it?

In many places the Kabbalists speak of Malkhut as Shiflut, “lowliness”. This is associated with humility, though there is a difference. Shiflut contains within it an aspect of sadness and melancholy. It is related to the ancient concept of a bar nafle, literally a “fallen child” (or “miscarriage”) but more like a “fallen soul”. It is a soul that often feels a sense of inner emptiness, and experiences itself as constantly “falling”. While all humans, at times, experience some inner emptiness, it was King David who was the quintessential bar nafle (see Sanhedrin 96b). Yet, despite this challenging disposition, he found a way to live in joy constantly, as we have seen. How? The secret is in Malkhut.

The six Middot (in red), flow into Malkhut below.

The Kabbalists describe Malkhut as an empty vessel. It is the receptacle at the bottom of the Sefirot, and only receives from the Sefirot above, particularly the six Middot. So, to fill that vessel one needs to focus on those six qualities: to increase acts of kindness (Chessed), and develop self-restraint (Gevurah), to build virtue and lead a balanced life (Tiferet), to persevere (Netzach), to be grateful (Hod), and to have a pure, monogamous, and loving marriage (Yesod). These are the things that truly fulfill a person, and altogether lead to real happiness. This is why the Kabbalists say happiness is in Malkhut.

The Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, 1707-1746) explains that this is all encoded within the letter Shin or Sin (ש), which stands for sasson (ששון) and simcha (שמחה), “joy” and “happiness” (Ma’amar HaGeulah, Discourse 3, Ch. 11). The letter Shin has three prongs, and the Ramchal says that the first Shin in “sasson” represents the first three Middot; the second Shin represents the next three; and the letter Nun is Malkhut. (“Nun” actually shares a root with the Aramaic term for “kingdom”, and is the same root as Nineveh, the capital city we read about in the Haftarah of Yom Kippur.) This is precisely what was described above, as the Middot flow into Malkhut, and fill it with joy. (It’s worth mentioning that the Ramchal says within Yesod lies the greatest source of happiness, which is alluded to by the letter Vav in the word “sasson”)

A four-pronged Shin on the head tefillin.

The Shin itself alludes to the paths of happiness. Shin actually has two forms: the normal one with three prongs, and the mystical one with four prongs (as found on the side of all head tefillins). This represents the three classic paths to happiness, and the fourth mystical one that includes the other three within it. (Something to be mindful of as we place the tefillin on the head!) The three-four arrangement also alludes to the Tree of Life itself, which is described as having three columns, all leading to Malkhut at the bottom. The left column represents the path of asceticism, the right column of virtue, and the middle column that proper balance within the sphere of pleasure. All flow into Malkhut, the kingdom in which we must live with a divine sense of purpose, as commanded by our King above.

In short, the proper Torah way holds all paths to happiness. When we walk those paths, we bring God’s kingship into this world, and as ambassadors of the King, we are privileged to all the honours and benefits that come with the position. Then, like King David, we can happily rest in God’s House all the days of our lives.

Chag sameach!

Kabbalah of Judaism’s Four Holy Cities

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

“Pilgrimage to the Second Jerusalem Temple” by Alex Levin

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

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

What makes Jerusalem so special?

Centre of the Universe

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

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

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

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

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

Gate to Heaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four Holy Cities

A 19th century map of the Four Holy Cities

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

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

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

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

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

Four Aspects of Judaism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Four Elements

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

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

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

Four Holy Cities Summary Table

Secrets of Shema

In this week’s parasha, Va’etchanan, we find the Shema and its first paragraph. The Shema is undoubtedly the most important text recited by Jews. It sets out the fundamental creed and purpose of Judaism. It is the first thing that a Jewish child should be taught (Sukkah 42a). According to one opinion, reciting the Shema is what distinguishes a person from being an ‘am aretz—one of the unlearned masses (Berakhot 47a). The Midrash states that one who properly recites the Shema is like one who fulfils all Ten Commandments! (See Otzar Midrashim, pg. 489.)

That last statement is particularly significant since there was a time when the Ten Commandments were recited together with the Shema (Berakhot 12a). The Sages eventually removed the Ten Commandments and replaced it with the current third paragraph which discusses the mitzvah of tzitzit. This was done because of the growing Christian movement that had abandoned essentially all of the mitzvot and focused only on the Ten Commandments (with Shabbat moved to Sunday). The Sages instituted the new third paragraph to lessen the emphasis on the Ten Commandments and to make it clear that we are obligated to keep all of God’s commandments, as the third paragraph states explicitly.

The Shema’s importance cannot be overstated. It is the very first topic discussed in the Talmud. It is the last verse to emerge from the lips of a dying Jew. Kabbalistic texts speak at length about the Shema and its power, the endless meditations and intentions associated with it, and the incredible secrets buried within it. The following is a tiny sample of some of those mysteries.

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