Tag Archives: Shimon HaTzadik

The Hidden Geometry of Pirkei Avot

Between the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot it is customary to read one chapter of Pirkei Avot on each of the six Sabbaths. While the plain text of the Mishnaic tractate Avot is already full of significant statements that can be meditated on at length, a closer look reveals much more beneath the surface. One thing that becomes clear is that each chapter has its own unique structure and essence. When it comes to Chapter One, we find an obvious pattern—a hidden geometry based on a fundamental Kabbalistic principle. As is well-known, the central concept of Jewish mysticism is the framework of the Ten Sefirot. These are arranged in three columns, and in three rows:

The most important of the three rows is the middle one; composed of Chessed on the right, Gevurah on the left, and Tiferet in the centre. In fact, mystical texts often see the entire right column as an extension of Chessed, and the entire left column as Gevurah, and the entire middle column as Tiferet. The dichotomy between Chessed and Gevurah permeates Jewish writings, both mystical and plain. For example, in Jewish law one must put on their right shoe first and their right sleeve first, and just about everything is done with the right side first—to favour the side of Chessed, kindness. This is also why the right tefillin strap is longer than the left, and why we wash the right hand first in netilat yadayim. We favour the right because the left is Gevurah, “restraint” or “severity”, also known as Din, “judgement”. The left is a more “negative” quality, and is also associated with the impure forces of the Sitra Achra, along with the evil inclination. We favour the right in order to overpower the left.

Balancing these two is Tiferet in the middle, also referred to as Rachamim, “mercy” or “compassion”, as well as Emet, “truth”. Too much Chessed is not good, just as too little Gevurah is not good. A person should judge themselves regularly in order to iron out their own weaknesses and improve. And a person should not be too kind and easy-going, for then they might become a pushover and get taken advantage of. The true path is Tiferet, where severity is mitigated by kindness—hence the term Rachamim, or mercy (for more, see ‘The Meaning of Tiferet’). This is actually where many practices in Judaism come from.

For example, it is customary to add a few drops of water to the Kiddush cup of wine. This is because the red, bitter wine represents Gevurah, while the clear, life-giving water represents Chessed. Adding water serves to “sweeten the judgement”, and brings balance to the opposing forces. For the same reason, Israel has three patriarchs: first came the overly hospitable and generous Abraham, who was Chessed; then came the tough, reclusive Isaac (whose relationship with God is described as pachad, “fear”), who was Gevurah; only then came the wholesome Jacob to balance the previous two. Due to his measured approach, it was Jacob who merited becoming “Israel” and fathering the nation. Abraham leaned just a bit too far to the right, while Isaac was just a bit too far on the left. In Jacob, God had the perfect balance. Fittingly, our tractate is called Avot, literally “patriarchs”, so there is an obvious allusion to our three patriarchs here. Indeed, we find that the first chapter is built all around such threes.

Truth in Threes

The Kabbalistic trifecta described above is not just a mystical idea, but is seen as the foundation for all of Creation. It represents the cosmic balance of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Three is a most special number, and the Talmud (Shabbat 88a) points out that God “gave a three-fold Torah to a three-fold people through a third-born, on the third day, in the third month.” There are three parts to the Holy Scriptures (Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim), and three parts to the Jewish people (Kohen, Levi, Israel), and Moses was a third-born child (after Miriam and Aaron), and the Torah was given on Sinai after three days of purification, in the third month of Sivan. All of these threes reflect the mystical trio of Chessed, Gevurah, and Tiferet.

Similarly, we see that many statements in Pirkei Avot are relayed in three clauses. In fact, every single verse in the first chapter of Pirkei Avot is split into three. When further examining each verse, we see how the Sages clearly paralleled each of their three clauses to one of the three Sefirot. The first teaching comes from the men of the Great Assembly who taught: “Be cautious in judgement, raise many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah.” The first explicitly speaks of din, “judgement”, referring to the Sefirah of Gevurah. The second is about having many students, just as Chessed represents abundance (while Gevurah is restraint), and just as Abraham was famous for having many students (while Isaac, our Sages say, only had one). The last clause is about the Torah, and the Kabbalists always speak of the Torah as emanating from the central Sefirah of Tiferet, or Emet.

In the next verse, Shimon haTzadik teaches that “the world stands on three things: on the Torah, on the service of God, and on acts of kindness.” Once more, the parallel to the three Sefirot is clear: kindness is Chessed, service (avodah, literally “labour”) is Gevurah, and the Torah is Tiferet. Shimon’s student Antigonus taught: “Do not be as servants who serve their master for the sake of a reward; rather, be as servants who serve their master not for the sake of a reward; and may the awe of Heaven always be upon you.” The one who serves his master (or Master) only out of obligation and fear is in the difficult realm of Gevurah, while the one who serves his master out of love is, of course, in Chessed. Whatever the case, one should never forget the truth of who the real Master is, and have the awe of Heaven upon them (Tiferet).

Then comes Yose ben Yoezer: “Let your home be a meeting place for the wise; dust yourself in the soil of their feet, and drink thirstily of their words.” The wise, like the Torah, stem from the Sefirah of Tiferet. One should roll around in the dust of their feet (meaning to humble one’s self before them, which is Gevurah) and drink thirstily (evoking water and abundance, both symbolic of Chessed).

His partner, Yose ben Yochanan, taught: “Let your home be wide open, and let the poor be members of your household, and do not engage in excessive conversation with the woman…” To have one’s door open is to be hospitable—Chessed. To remember the poor, who are undoubtedly experiencing tremendous din upon them, is Gevurah. We have already discussed in the past the real meaning of not speaking excessively to “the” woman. Rabbi Yose explains that this will ultimately lead a man to “neglect the study of Torah”—Tiferet.

Yehoshua ben Perachiah then famously says: “Assume for yourself a master, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every man to the side of merit.” One’s master will (hopefully) lead them to the balanced life and teach them truth—Tiferet; a friend is a companion in Chessed; judging others favourably is the right way to approach Din and Gevurah.

Nitai haArbeli speaks next: “Distance yourself from a bad neighbor, do not cleave to a wicked person, and do not abandon belief in retribution.” While one should always be kind to their neighbours, they should also be weary of the bad apples. Remember, too much Chessed is not a good thing! One should certainly distance from the wicked person (who is attached to that negative Left Side). And no matter how hopeless it may seem (especially now with what’s going on in the world), there will in fact be a great reckoning to come, just as the Torah promises—do not lose hope in this truth! The “era of Tiferet” will soon be upon us, so don’t abandon belief in divine retribution.

Yehuda ben Tabbai then says that one should not act like a lawyer (Chessed), and one should be neutral when judging (Gevurah), and once judgement is passed one should see both litigants as righteous since they have accepted the truth (Tiferet). His colleague Shimon ben Shetach similarly teaches that a judge should be diligent in questioning witnesses in order to reach the correct verdict (Chessed), though a person should be restrained in their speech and careful with every word (Gevurah), lest their speech lead to the proliferation of falsehood (the opposite of Tiferet and Emet).

One can continue in this manner for the rest of the chapter and unravel the three-part structure of every phrase, with clear allusions to Chessed, Gevurah, and Tiferet each time. The very last verse mirrors the first, and gives the most explicit reference to these three Sefirot. In the beginning, Shimon haTzadik told us that the world stands on three things, and now at the end Shimon ben Gamliel tells us the world endures through three things: Din, Emet, and Shalom, three alternate names for Gevurah, Tiferet, and Chessed, respectively. In this way, we can understand each line of the first chapter of Avot on a far more profound level.

Shabbat Shalom!

Apocrypha, Part 2: Ben Sira & Maccabees

Continuing our journey into the Apocrypha, we explore the mysterious books of Ben Sira and the Maccabees. Along the way, we uncover what really happened with King Ptolemy and the 72 Sages who produced the Septuagint, where the name of the continent “Africa” came from, the origin of the ancient holiday called Yom Nicanor, and the true identity of the first rabbi, Shimon haTzadik.

For part one of this series, see here.
For more on “When Jews and Greek were Brothers”, see here.
On the identity of Shimon haTzadik

A Brief History of Red Heifers

This week’s double parasha (in the diaspora), Chukat-Balak, begins with a description of the purifying parah adumah, the “red heifer”. The Mishnah devotes an entire tractate, Parah, to explore the subject. It gives a short history of all the red cows that had been prepared up until that point (3:5). The first was, of course, prepared by Moses in the Wilderness. According to the Mishnah, this one jar of ashes lasted nearly a millennium, throughout the period of Judges and the entire First Temple era! (Only a pinch of red heifer ashes was needed to make a large amount of purifying liquid.)

The second red heifer was prepared by Ezra at the conclusion of the Babylonian Exile and the return of the Jews to the Holy Land. After that, there were seven more to span the Second Temple era. Shimon haTzadik, the last of the Great Assembly, prepared the third and fourth red cows. (For more on the identity of Shimon haTzadik, see ‘Who Was the First Rabbi in History?’) Recall that the Great Assembly, Knesset HaGedolah, was a council of 120 prophets and sages that helped to re-establish Judea following the Babylonian Exile. They are credited with canonizing the Tanakh, and putting together the first formal prayer texts of Judaism.

The fifth and sixth red cows were prepared by the kohen gadol Yochanan. He is an intriguing figure who, according to the Talmud, served as high priest for a whopping 80 years! (Berakhot 29a) Nonetheless, the Talmud uses him as proof for the teaching: “Do not be sure of yourself until you die!” This is because, despite serving as high priest for 80 years, Yochanan ultimately became a Tzduki, a Sadducee that denied the Oral Torah and rabbinic tradition.

The exact identity of Yochanan is subject to debate. According to Seder haDorot, he is the father of Matityahu, who was of course the leader of the Hasmonean revolt against the Seleucid Greeks and father of the Maccabees. When we say “Matityahu ben Yochanan” in our prayers, we are referring to this Yochanan. The Rambam, however, held that Yochanan Kohen Gadol was the son of Matityahu, who was probably named after his grandfather Yochanan. We know that one of the five sons of Matityahu was indeed named Yochanan. A third possibility, more in line with historical sources like Josephus, and with the Book of Maccabees, is that he was the son of Shimon, son of Matityahu. So, Yochanan Kohen Gadol is the same person as John Hyrcanus. (“John” and “Yochanan” are the same name.)

Coins minted by John Hyrcanus at the end of the second century BCE, with the Hebrew inscription: “Yohanan the High Priest, Council [or Leader] of Jews” (יהוחנן כהן גדול חבר היהודים)

The latter opinion makes the most sense. It explains why Yochanan would have to prepare a red heifer after the recapture and repurification of the Temple, which had previously been defiled by the Greeks. It also explains his unusually long tenure, because he would have served during the Hasmonean dynasty, which lasted about 100 years altogether. Moreover, we know that there was great conflict between the Pharisees and Sadducees precisely during the Hasmonean period, with King Alexander Yannai at one point persecuting and expelling the Pharisees, including the likes of his brother-in-law Shimon ben Shatach and contemporaries like Yehoshua ben Perachia. So, the Yochanan Kohen Gadol of the Talmud is most likely the High Priest John Hyrcanus of historical sources. And, because he served so long, he merited to prepare two red heifers.

See the video above to learn more about the fascinating era of Pharisees and Sadducees 

The next three red heifers were prepared by mysterious figures: Elyeho’enai ben HaKof, Hanamel the Egyptian, and Ishmael ben Piavi. The latter two seem to have been mentioned by Josephus. Hanamel is called Ananelus by Josephus, and he was appointed high priest by King Herod. He was replaced by a Yehoshua ben Piavi, which may be the same person as the Mishnah’s Ishmael ben Piavi. So, the last two red heifers were prepared in the time of King Herod (who reigned roughly between 37 and 4 BCE). This takes us pretty much to the end of the Second Temple era.

That leaves just one more, tenth, red heifer to the be prepared by Mashiach for the Third Temple. Although the Mishnah above doesn’t say that, the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1138-1204) does in his Mishneh Torah, writing that “the tenth will be brought by the king Mashiach; may he speedily be revealed—amen, may it be God’s will!” (Sefer Taharah, Hilkhot Parah Adumah 3:4) The Lubavitcher Rebbe pointed out that the Rambam does not add a prayer for the coming of Mashiach anywhere else in the Mishneh Torah, not even in the Laws of Kings where he actually relays the halakhot of Mashiach! So, there is a particularly strong connection between the red heifer and Mashiach. It may be because Mashiach himself is thought to have a ruddy complexion, like King David his progenitor, or because some hold Mashiach will come from Edom, the “red” Western world, as per Isaiah 63:1 and other sources.

Another possibility is that the presence of a perfectly kosher red heifer in Israel would be an especially auspicious sign of Mashiach’s impending arrival. In recent years, a number of such red heifers have indeed been spotted. Jerusalem’s Temple Institute is always on the lookout for the ideal parah adumah, and has even sought to breed their own. Last year, five perfectly good red heifers were delivered to the Temple Institute from a farmer in Texas. So, we have the red heifers already. Now, all we need is Mashiach.

Shabbat Shalom!