Tag Archives: Sforno

The Second and Fifth Commandments

In this week’s parasha, Yitro, we read the Ten Commandments. The Fifth Commandment is to honour one’s parents which, while certainly important, might seem like it doesn’t really belong in the “Top 10” biggest mitzvot. Can we really place honouring parents in the same category as the prohibitions of murder and adultery? Why is it so high up there?

One good explanation emerges when we consider honouring parents in relation to the Second Commandment: to have no other gods before Hashem, and not make any images or statues of idols. In ancient times, idolatry often went together with ancestor worship. In fact, there is evidence that the Canaanites used to worship their ancestors, alongside a pantheon of gods. So, perhaps the Torah meant to say: you must not have any gods before Hashem, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t honour your parents! Parents certainly shouldn’t be worshipped, but they should be treated with dignity and given an extra measure of respect.

Another explanation comes from a teaching of our Sages that there are three partners in the creation of a human being: father, mother, and God. The child-parent relationship is a mini-metaphor for the human-God relationship. If one cannot properly honour their parents, will they be able to properly honour God? And if one isn’t grateful for their parents bringing them into this world, they probably won’t be too grateful that God did, either.

Of course, some child-parent relationships are very strenuous, making it difficult for children to honour their parents in these cases. While there are definitely exceptions, the same can be said for the human-God relationship, which goes through rocky periods, too, resulting in people getting angry or upset at God for various trials and tribulations He sends their way. In short, developing our ability to appreciate our parents—even in conditions that are less than ideal—is good practice for developing the same approach to God, no matter what He throws our way. (It’s worth recalling Isaac Newton’s words that “Trials are medicines which our gracious and wise Physician gives because we need them; and the proportions, the frequency, and weight of them, to what the case requires. Let us trust His skill and thank Him for the prescription.”)

Going back to the Second Commandment, we are told not to make engravings or images of what “is in the Heavens above, or on the Earth below, or in the waters of the Earth.” (Exodus 20:4) This means it is prohibited to make images of any beings, whether celestial or biological (as animals were often worshipped in pagan religions). In fact, there’s been an issue of depicting lions upon the curtain covering the aron in the synagogue going back centuries. Some Ashkenazi authorities were lenient on this, especially if the image was a lion in profile, but most Sephardic authorities were stringent and forbid such images. This is especially the case in synagogues, since we don’t want it to appear as if people are praying towards these images. That said, we do know that several of the flags of the Twelve Tribes had animals depicted on them (such as the lion on Judah’s flag, the deer on Naftali’s flag, and the snake on Dan’s flag). So, outside of synagogues there isn’t necessarily an issue of having such images.

The biggest problem is depictions of human-like faces. The Ba’al haTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343) comments on the same Exodus verse above that the word temunah (תמונה), “image” has the exact numerical value (501) as partzuf adam (פרצוף אדם), “the face of a human”. Rabbi Ovadia of Sforno (c. 1470-1550) adds that you cannot make such an image “even if you do not mean to use it as an object of worship”! Ultimately, the Shulchan Arukh rules that it is forbidden to make human-like depictions only if the faces protrude, like in statues or embossed engravings (Yoreh De’ah 141). A flat image, like a painting or mural, is okay. The same should apply to photographs today.

Nonetheless, the problem with such likenesses is that they may indeed end up being used for idolatrous purposes, even though they were not produced with that intention. And unfortunately, this is precisely what has happened in some ultra-Orthodox circles today with regards to portraits of rabbis.

Pictures of Rabbis

Having a portrait of a great rabbi on the wall is undoubtedly a nice way to stay inspired and keep the valuable teachings of that rabbi in mind. That said, it is vital to remember that these are just photographs, and nothing else. Some in the ultra-Orthodox world seem to have forgotten this. My wife recently spoke to a woman who told her she doesn’t take off her wig at home because the rabbis hanging on the walls shouldn’t “see” her immodestly. While modesty is commendable, believing that images on a wall have some kind of awareness is not. Such a view is not only irrational, it may well be a complete transgression of the Second Commandment. (I haven’t forgotten the Talmud’s story of Kimchit, who declared that the walls of her house never saw her hair—but that was obviously a metaphorical expression, and not a literal belief in walls being conscious and having a sense of sight.)

Nowadays, one can get a portrait of the so-called “mouser rebbe” (at right), whose image can supposedly drive away mice infestations. The portrait is actually of the Hasidic rebbe Yeshaya “Shayale” Steiner of Kerestir, Hungary (1851-1925). The mouser rebbe “segulah” is really just avodah zarah, believing that a human image has some kind of spiritual or magical power. Besides, I highly doubt that Rabbi Steiner would have appreciated his face being used for pest control.

A much more popular image is that of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, which is plastered just about everywhere nowadays. The Rebbe has become, by far, the most recognizable rabbinic face on the planet. When my wife was pregnant with our first child, a Lubavitcher friend gave her a keychain with the Rebbe’s photo on it, promising that it would help with an easy delivery. What is for some just a keychain has become for others a full-blown amulet! Indeed, for many within Chabad, images of the Rebbe have taken on a life of their own, and are deeply intertwined with promoting Chabad messianism (as explored in an interesting paper here).

Some have a picture of who they believe to be Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on their walls. First of all, Rashbi lived nearly two millennia ago and there are, of course, no authentic representations of his face. (Some cite an absurd legend that because he was wanted by the Romans, they had a “mugshot” of him.) Second of all, Rashbi’s own Zohar says he was especially careful not to make any depictions whatsoever, in light of the Second Commandment (see, for instance, Tikkunei Zohar 121a). Even if the image is seemingly innocent and has no connection to idolatry, Rashbi warned it may eventually lead to idolatry anyway and cause people to falter and sin. Rashbi would certainly not be happy with the supposed “portraits” of him currently hanging on people’s walls.

The Zohar (I, 192a) does suggest that if one wants to better understand the teachings of their master, they can imagine their master’s face in their mind. It could just be that the Zohar is giving a tip or memory aid to help a person recall the teachings of their rabbi. Whatever the case, it has nothing to do with actually making physical depictions of the master’s face, which the Zohar would frown upon. The Zohar here uses Joseph as an example, saying that he would always imagine his father Jacob’s face, and this would inspire and motivate him to excel and succeed. Rabbi portraits should be just that: inspirational and motivational.

The fact that the Zohar connects the notion of “father” with the notion of “rabbi” is not coincidental. After all, the honour accorded to one’s rabbi is often compared to the honour accorded to one’s parent, and there is much discussion in Jewish law regarding who takes priority when it comes to the honour of one over the other. In some cases, like Joseph, a person’s father is their rabbi, too! Either way, we once again see a link between the Second Commandment and the Fifth Commandment.

Fake Portraits of Rabbis

Baal Shem of London, not the Baal Shem Tov

Rashbi’s face is not alone in the fake portrait department; there are numerous other “portraits” of rabbis which are not actually their portraits. The supposed picture of the Baal Shem Tov is actually the Baal Shem of London, Chaim Shmuel Yaakov Falk (1708-1782). He was also known as “Doctor Falckon” and was nearly burned at the stake for sorcery in Germany before fleeing to London! Worse still, the great Rabbi Yakov Emden accused him of being a Shabbatean! The Falk portrait was sketched by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), a Christian artist famous for his portraits of various priests and dignitaries. Somehow, it became confused with the founder of Hasidism, probably because of the “Baal Shem” title.

Apparently the Alter Rebbe

Meanwhile, the well-known “portrait” of the Alter Rebbe (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, 1745-1812, founder of Chabad) was produced by Boris Schatz (1866-1932), who was only born some five decades after the Alter Rebbe passed away. Schatz was a friend of the Schneersohns. He claimed to have seen a true portrait of the Rebbe in the collection of a Polish count (called Tyszkiewicz in some sources). According to legend, the portrait was drawn by a soldier guarding the Alter Rebbe while he was imprisoned in 1798 (or 1796). Historians seriously doubt the credibility of any of these claims, though Chabad insists that the portrait is authentic. Schatz was primarily a sculptor (which is technically forbidden based on the Second Commandment), and served as the official court sculptor for Prince Ferdinand I of Bulgaria. He later become a prominent Zionist leader, and proposed the creation of a Jewish arts school at the Fifth Zionist Congress in 1905. The following year, he founded the Bezalel Academy of Arts in Jerusalem, still one of Israel’s preeminent art schools today. Schatz’s colleagues from Bezalel later said that Schatz had admitted the Alter Rebbe portrait was a forgery.

And what many people believe to be the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1138-1204) was not the Rambam. For one, the man in the picture has his peyot shaved! (To fix the problem, modern renditions of the portrait add some artificial peyot, of course.) The current image is from the 1800s, based on an earlier work thought to be from the 15th century (see here). Supposedly, that image was based on an authentic engraving of the Rambam, but that’s unlikely considering the Rambam ruled such embossed engravings are forbidden (Mishneh Torah, Avodah Zarah 3:10-11), and the Rambam would not have had his peyot shaved. Some have proposed that the portrait of the Rambam is actually derived from an image of an Arab or Turkic scholar!

In short, to have images of rabbis for inspiration, motivation, or commemoration is totally fine. Anything more than that risks being idolatrous, and may well be a transgression of the Second Commandment. And, please, make sure the rabbi portraits you have are actually portraits of those rabbis!

Secrets of the Priestly Blessing

This week’s parasha (in the diaspora) is Nasso, the longest in the Torah. In it, we read how God commanded Moses to instruct Aaron and his priestly descendants to bless the people with the following formula:

יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ. יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ. יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם

Loosely translated: “God bless you and protect you; God shine His Face upon you, and be gracious to you; God lift His Face upon you, and place peace upon you.” (Numbers 6:25-27) This unique, enigmatic phrase carries tremendous meaning, and an interesting history, too. In fact, the oldest Hebrew inscription of a Torah verse ever found is this blessing!

In 1979, archaeologists in Ketef Hinnom near the Old City of Jerusalem discovered two small silver scrolls. After painstakingly unravelling the fragile scrolls (a feat that took three years), they discovered that they were inscribed with Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing, along with a few introductory lines. The scrolls have been dated back to the 7th century BCE, and are considered among the greatest finds in the history of Biblical archaeology.

What secrets are buried within the words of Birkat Kohanim?

Silver scroll with priestly blessing, discovered near Jerusalem in 1979

Restoring Divine Light

In introducing the Priestly Blessing, the Torah commands koh tevarkhu, (כֹּ֥ה תְבָרְכ֖וּ), “thus shall you bless…” The Zohar (III, 146a) reminds us that koh is an allusion to the divine light of Creation. The value of koh (כה) is 25, hinting to the 25th word of the Torah, “light”. When Adam and Eve consumed the Fruit, that original divine light of Creation was concealed. This is the secret behind God calling to Adam: ayekah (איכה), usually translated simply as “where are you?” but really meaning ayeh koh, “where is the divine light?” Indeed, the very purpose of the kohen is to help restore some of that hidden divine light. This is why he is called a kohen!

It is also why it is customary not to look directly at the kohanim when they relay the blessing. The hidden light may be far too intense, and might cause the observer’s eyes to dim (Chagigah 16a). The ancient mystical text Sefer haBahir (#124) adds that the kohanim put together their ten fingers in that unique arrangement in order to channel the energy of all Ten Sefirot. Elsewhere, we learn that the hands of the kohanim come together to roughly form an inner samekh, the only circular letter in the Hebrew alphabet, representing infinite cycles and endless blessings. Sefer haTemunah teaches that the proper shape of a samekh is a combination of a kaf and a vav. (The sum of the values of kaf and vav is 26, equal to the Tetragrammaton, God’s Ineffable Name.) Kaf literally means the “palm” of the hand, and the linear vav represents a shining ray of light.  These are the hidden rays of light, the light of koh, emerging through the hands of the kohanim as they bless.

In his commentary on the Torah, the Ba’al haTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1340) states that koh reminds us also of the Akedah, when Abraham told his attendants that he and Isaac would go ‘ad koh, “until there”. The deeper meaning is that Abraham saw the divine light emanating from the top of Mt. Moriah, the future site of the Holy of Holies. This is how he knew exactly where to bind Isaac. Previously, God had already blessed Abraham with the words כה יהיה זרעך, that his offspring would be luminous (and numerous) like the stars (Genesis 15:5). The Ba’al haTurim adds that the Shema has 25 letters for the same reasons and, amazingly, the term “blessing” is mentioned 25 times in the Torah, as is the word “peace”!

The first line of Birkat Kohanim has three words and fifteen letters, the Ba’al haTurim points out, alluding to the three Patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—whose lives overlapped for 15 years. Recall that Abraham had Isaac when he was 100 years old, and Isaac had Jacob at 60 years old, ie. when Abraham was 160. Since we know Abraham passed away at the age of 175, there were 15 years when all three Avot lived together.

More specifically, the first line of the blessing is for Abraham, the second is for Isaac, and the third is for Jacob. This is why the second line speaks of illumination since, as is well-known, Isaac saw the intensely bright divine light unfiltered at the Akedah, and this is the reason he later became (physically) blind. The Sforno (Rabbi Ovadia ben Yakov Sforno, 1475-1550) adds that within the second line of the blessing is a request for God to give light to our eyes so that we could see God within all things, in all the wonders of the world, and in all the wealth (material and otherwise) that God has blessed us with.

The Ba’al haTurim continues that the third line of Birkat Kohanim is for Jacob, which is why it begins with the word yisa (יִשָּׂ֨א), reminding us of Genesis 29:1 when Jacob fled (וישא יעקב רגליו). It has seven words to indicate the subsequent births of the Twelve Tribes, who were (except for Benjamin) born to Jacob over a span of 7 years. The last line again has 25 letters to remind us of koh, and further alludes to the Sinai Revelation—another burst of divine light—when God said (Exodus 19:3) “thus [koh] you shall speak to the House of Jacob” (כה תאמר לבית יעקב). The Ba’al haTurim concludes that the final word of the blessing, shalom, has the same numerical value as Esau (376) to teach us that one should spread peace among all people, gentiles included, and even Esau!

Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra, 1089-1167) says that “peace” means complete peace, with not even a little stone or a wild animal to bother a person. Meanwhile, the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270) says that “peace” here refers to shalom malkhut beit David, peace upon the kingdom of David and his dynasty. We may infer from this that it refers as well to geopolitical peace in Israel, and a request to hasten the coming of Mashiach. This is related to the Sforno’s interpretation, as he says the verse refers specifically to the World to Come in which, as described in the Talmud (Berakhot 17a), the righteous will bask peacefully in God’s glory.

May we merit to see it soon!

Time Travel in the Torah

This week’s parasha is Ki Tisa, in which we read of Moses’ return from Mt. Sinai where he had spent forty days with God. During that time, he had composed the first part of the Torah and received the Two Tablets. The Talmud (Menachot 29b) tells us of another incredible thing that happened:

…When Moses ascended on High, he found the Holy One, Blessed be He, sitting and tying crowns on the letters of the Torah. Moses said before God: “Master of the Universe, who is preventing You from giving the Torah [without these additions]?” God said to him: “There is a man who is destined to be born after many generations, and Akiva ben Yosef is his name. He is destined to derive from each and every tip of these crowns mounds upon mounds of halakhot.” [Moses] replied: “Master of the Universe, show him to me.” God said to him: “Return behind you.”

Moses went and sat at the end of the eighth row [in Rabbi Akiva’s classroom] and did not understand what they were saying. Moses’ strength waned, until [Rabbi Akiva] arrived at the discussion of one matter, and his students said to him: “My teacher, from where do you derive this?” [Rabbi Akiva] said to them: “It is an halakha transmitted to Moses from Sinai.” When Moses heard this, his mind was put at ease…

Up on Sinai, Moses saw a vision of God writing the Torah—this is how Moses himself composed the Torah, as he was shown what to inscribe by God—and he saw God adding the little tagim, the crowns that adorn certain Torah letters. Moses was puzzled by the crowns, and asked why there were necessary. God replied that in the future Rabbi Akiva would extract endless insights from these little crowns.

Moses then asked to see Rabbi Akiva, and was permitted to sit in on his class. Moses could not follow the discussion! In fact, the Talmud later says how Moses asked God: “You have such a great man, yet you choose to give the Torah through me?” At the end of the lesson, Rabbi Akiva’s students ask him where he got that particular law from, and he replied that it comes from Moses at Sinai. Moses was comforted to know that even what Rabbi Akiva would teach centuries later is based on the Torah that Moses would compose and deliver to Israel.

This amazing story is often told to affirm that all aspects of Torah, both Written and Oral, and those lessons extracted by the Sages and rabbis, stems from the Divine Revelation at Sinai, and from Moses’ own teachings. It is a central part of Judaism that everything is transmitted in a chain starting from Moses at Sinai, down through the prophets, to the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah, the “Men of the Great Assembly” and the earliest rabbis, all the way through to the present time.

What is usually not discussed about this story, though, is the deeper and far more perplexing notion that Moses travelled through time! The Talmud does not say that Moses saw a vision of Rabbi Akiva; it says that he literally went and sat in his classroom. He was there, sitting inconspicuously at the end of the eighth row. As a reminder, Moses received the Torah in the Hebrew year 2448 according to tradition, which is 3331 years ago. Rabbi Akiva, meanwhile, was killed during the Bar Kochva Revolt, 132-136 CE, less than 2000 years ago. How did Moses go 1400 years into the future?

Transcending Time and Space

In his commentary on Pirkei Avot (Magen Avot 5:21), Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach Duran (1361-1444) explains:

Moshe Rabbeinu, peace be upon him, while standing on the mountain forty days and forty nights, from the great delight that he had learning Torah from the Mouth of the Great One, did not feel any movement, and time did not affect him at all.

As we read at the end of this week’s parasha, Moses “was there with God for forty days and forty nights; he ate no bread and drank no water, and He inscribed upon the tablets the words of the Covenant…” (Exodus 34:28) At Sinai, Moses had no need for any bodily functions. Rabbi Duran explains that from his Divine union with God, Moses transcended the physical realm. In such a God-like state, he was no longer subject to the limitations of time and space.

In this regard, Moses became like a photon of light. Modern physics has shown that light behaves in very strange ways, and does not appear to be subject to time and space. Fraser Cain of Universe Today explains how

From the perspective of a photon, there is no such thing as time. It’s emitted, and might exist for hundreds of trillions of years, but for the photon, there’s zero time elapsed between when it’s emitted and when it’s absorbed again. It doesn’t experience distance either.

Light transcends time and space. In this way, Moses was like light. And this is quite fitting, for this week’s parasha ends with the following (Exodus 34:29-33):

And it came to pass when Moses descended from Mount Sinai, and the Two Tablets of the Testimony were in Moses’ hand when he descended from the mountain, and Moses did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant while He had spoken with him. And Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face had become radiant, and they were afraid to come near him… When Moses had finished speaking with them, he placed a covering over his face.

Moses glowed with a bright light, so much so that the people couldn’t look at him, and he would wear a mask over his face. Moses had become light. And light doesn’t experience time and space like we do. There is something divine about light. It therefore isn’t surprising that the Kabbalists referred to God as Or Ain Sof, “light without end”, an infinite light, or simply Ain Sof, the “Infinite One”. Beautifully, the gematria of Ain Sof (אין סוף) is 207, which is equal to light (אור)!

Travelling to the Future

While Moses was instantly teleported into the future, we currently have no scientifically viable way for doing so. However, the notion of travelling into the future is a regular fixture of modern science fiction, and the way it usually presents itself is through some form of “cryosleep”. This is when people are either frozen or placed into a state of deep sleep, or both, for a very long time (usually because they are flying to distant worlds many light years away), and are reanimated in the distant future. For this there is a good scientific foundation, as there are species of frogs in Siberia, for example, that are able to freeze themselves for the winter, and thaw in the spring. They can do this without compromising the integrity of their cellular structure, in a process not yet fully understood. If we could mimic this biological process, then humans, too, could potentially freeze themselves for long periods of time, “thawing” in the future. And this, too, has a precedent in the Talmud (Ta’anit 23a):

[Honi the Circle-Drawer] was throughout the whole of his life troubled about the meaning of the verse, “A song of ascents, when God brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like them that dream.” [Psalms 126:1] Is it possible for a man to dream continuously for seventy years? One day he was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked him: “How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit?” The man replied: “Seventy years.” He then further asked him: “Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?” The man replied: “I found [ready-grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted these for me so I too plant these for my children.”

Honi sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him. As he slept a rocky formation enclosed upon him which hid him from sight and he continued to sleep for seventy years. When he awoke he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree and he asked him: “Are you the man who planted the tree?” The man replied: “I am his grandson.” Thereupon he exclaimed: “It is clear that I slept for seventy years!” He then caught sight of his donkey who had given birth to several generations of mules, and he returned home. He there enquired: “Is the son of Honi the Circle-Drawer still alive?” The people answered him: “His son is no more, but his grandson is still living.” Thereupon he said to them: “I am Honi the Circle-Drawer”, but no one would believe him.

He then went to the Beit Midrash and overheard the scholars say: “The law is as clear to us as in the days of Honi the Circle-Drawer”, for whenever he used to come to the Beit Midrash he would settle for the scholars any difficulty that they had. Whereupon he called out: “I am he!” but the scholars would not believe him nor did they give him the honour due to him. This hurt him greatly and he prayed [for death] and he died…

“Honi HaMeagel”, by Huvy. Honi is famous for drawing a circle in the ground around him and not moving away until God would make it rain. Josephus wrote that Honi was killed during the Hasmonean civil war, around 63 BCE. The Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, 1555-1631) said that people thought he was killed in the war, but actually fell into a deep sleep as the Talmud records.

Honi HaMa’agel, “the Circle-Drawer”, who was renowned for his ability to have his prayers answered, entered a state of deep sleep for seventy years and thereby journeyed to the future! This type of time travel is, of course, not true time travel, and he was unable to go back to his own generation. He prayed for death and was promptly answered.

Travelling back in time, meanwhile, presents far more interesting challenges.

Back to the Future

In 2000, scientists at Princeton University found evidence that it may be possible to exceed the speed of light. As The Guardian reported at the time, “if a particle could exceed the speed of light, the time warp would become negative, and the particle could then travel backwards in time.” This is one of several ways proposed to scientifically explain the possibility of journeying back in time.

The problem with this type of travel is as follows: what happens when a person from the future changes events in the past? The result may be what is often referred to as a “time paradox” or “time loop”. The classic example is a person who goes back to a time before they were born and kills their parent. If they do so, they would never be born, so how could they go back in time to do it?

Remarkably, just as I took a break from writing this, I saw that my son had brought a book from the library upstairs. Out of over 500 books to choose from, he happened to bring Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Now, he is far too young to have read it, or to even known who Harry Potter is. And yet, this is the one book in the Harry Potter series—and possibly the one book in our library—that presents a classic time paradox!

In Prisoner of Azkaban, we read how Harry is about to be killed by a Dementor when he is suddenly saved by a mysterious figure who is, unbeknownst to him, his own future self. After recovering from the attack, he later gets his hands on a “time turner” and goes back in time. It is then that he sees his past self about to be killed by a Dementor, and saves his past self. The big problem, of course, is that Harry could have never gone back in time to save himself had he not already gone back in time to save himself in the first place!

Perhaps a more famous example is James Cameron’s 1984 The Terminator. In this story, John Connor is a future saviour of humanity who is a thorn in the side of the evil, world-ruling robots. Those evil robots decide to send one of their own back to a time before John Connor was born in order to kill his mother—so that John could never be born. Aware of this, Connor sends one of his own soldiers back in time to protect his mother. The soldier and the mother fall in love, and the soldier impregnates her, giving birth to John Connor! In other words, future John Connor sent his own father back in time to protect his mother and conceive himself! This is a time paradox.

Could we find such a time paradox in the Torah? At first glance, there doesn’t appear to be anything like this. However, a deeper look reveals that there may be such a case after all.

When God Wanted to “Kill” Moses

In one of the most perplexing passages in the Torah, we read that when Moses took his family to head back to Egypt and save his people, “God encountered him and sought to kill him.” (Exodus 4:24) To save Moses, his wife Tziporah quickly circumcises their son, sparing her husband’s life. The standard explanation for this is that Moses’ son Eliezer was born the same day that he met God for the first time at the Burning Bush. Moses spent seven days communicating with God, then descended on the eighth day and gathered his things to go fulfil his mission.

However, the eighth day is when he needed to circumcise his son, as God had already commanded his forefather Abraham generations earlier. Moses intended to have the brit milah when they would stop at a hotel along the way, but got caught up with other things. An angel appeared, threatening Moses for failing to do this important mitzvah, so Tziporah took the initiative and circumcised her son. Alternatively, some say it was the baby whose life was at risk.

Whatever the case, essentially all the commentaries agree that God had sent an angel to remind Moses of the circumcision. Who was that angel? It may have been a persecuting angel, and some say he took the form of a frightening snake. Others, like the Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush Weisser, 1809-1879) say it was an “angel of mercy” as Moses was entirely righteous and meritorious. Under the circumstances, one’s natural inclination might point to it being the angel in charge of circumcision, as suggested by Sforno (Rabbi Ovadiah ben Yakov, 1475-1550). Who is the angel in charge of circumcision? Eliyahu! In fact, Sforno proposes that the custom of having a special kise kavod, chair of honour, or “chair of Eliyahu” (though Sforno doesn’t say “Eliyahu” by name), might originate in this very Torah passage. Every brit milah today has such an Eliyahu chair, for it is an established Jewish tradition that the prophet-turned-angel Eliyahu visits every brit.

‘Elijah Taken Up to Heaven’

Yet, Eliyahu could not have been there at the brit of Moses’ son, for Eliyahu would not be born for many years! Eliyahu lived sometime in the 9th century BCE. He was a prophet during the reign of the evil king Ahab and his even-more-evil wife Izevel (Jezebel). The Tanakh tells us that Eliyahu never died, but was taken up to Heaven in a fiery chariot (II Kings 2). As is well-known, he transformed into an angel.

The Zohar (I, 93a) explains that when Eliyahu spoke negatively of his own people and told God that the Jews azvu britekha, “have forsaken Your covenant” (I Kings 19:10), God replied:

I vow that whenever My children make this sign in their flesh, you will be present, and the mouth which testified that the Jewish people have abandoned My covenant will testify that they are keeping it.

He henceforth became known as malakh habrit, “angel of the covenant” (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, 29), a term first used by the later prophet Malachi (3:1).

If Eliyahu is Malakh haBrit, and is present at every circumcision, does this only apply to future circumcisions after his earthly life, or all circumcisions, even those before his time? As an angel that is no longer bound by physical limitations, could he not travel back in time and be present at brits of the past, too? God certainly does transcend time and space, and exists in past, present, and future all at once. This is in God’s very name, a fusion of haya, hoveh, and ihyeh, “was, is, will be”, all in one (see Zohar III, 257b, as well as the Arizal’s Etz Chaim, at the beginning of Sha’ar Rishon, anaf 1). And we already saw how God could send Moses to the distant future and bring him right back to the past. Could He have sent Eliyahu back to the brit of Moses’ son? Such a scenario would result in a classic time loop. How could Eliyahu, a future Torah prophet, save Moses, the very first Torah prophet? Eliyahu could not exist without Moses!

It is important to note here that there were those Sages who believed that Eliyahu was always an angel, from Creation, and came down into bodily form for a short period of time during the reign of Ahab. This is why the Tanakh does not describe Eliyahu’s origins. It does not state who his parents were, or even which tribe he hailed from. Others famously state that “Pinchas is Eliyahu”, ie. that Eliyahu was actually Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron. Pinchas was blessed with eternal life, and after leaving the priesthood, reappeared many years later as Eliyahu to save the Jewish people at a difficult time. He was taken up to Heaven alive as God promised. In the Torah, we read how God blessed Pinchas with briti shalom (Numbers 25:12). Again, that key word “brit” appears—a clue that Pinchas would become Eliyahu, malakh habrit.

While it is hard to fathom, or accept, the possibility of an Eliyahu time paradox, there is one last time paradox that deserves mention. And on this time paradox, all of our Sages do agree.

The Paradox of Teshuva

When we read our Sages description of the process of teshuva, “repentance”, it is hard not to notice the inherent time paradox lying within. In multiple places, our Sages state that when a person truly repents, the sins of their past are expunged from their record. They are not only erased, but it is as if they never happened to begin with. Some go further and state that not only are the sins completely erased, they transform into merits! (Yoma 86b) In other words, it is almost as if one’s soul travelled back in time and, when presented with that same challenge, actually fulfilled a mitzvah instead! It is much like the classic literary version of a hero going back in time to fix an old mistake. This is the tremendous power of teshuva. It may be the closest any of us will ever come to time travel.

That same page of Talmud goes further in saying that one who truly repents lengthens one’s life. To explain, when a person sins it may be decreed in Heaven that their life will be cut short. When they repent, the sin is erased and so is the decree, so their life is re-extended. Imagine such a parallel in the physical world: a person is a smoker or heavy drinker for decades, then quits and “repents”, and all the damage done to the cells and organs of their body simply vanish. They are instantly as good as new! It doesn’t happen in the physical world, but it does in the spiritual world. Repentance for the past actually has a real impact on one’s future, rewriting one’s destiny, much like time travel.

Finally, that same page of the Talmud states that one who truly repents hastens the Redemption. The Sages reaffirm countless times that the arrival of the Redemption is based solely on our merits. If Israel only “hearkens to His voice”, the Redemption would come “today” (Sanhedrin 98a). The fact that so much time has passed and Mashiach has still not come is a result of our own sins. By wholeheartedly repenting, we wipe away those sins of the past. Like time travel, this rewrites our destiny—our history—and we thereby hasten the Redemption.