Tag Archives: Shlach

The Heavenly Academies

This week’s parasha (in the diaspora) is Shlach, recounting the Sin of the Spies. When God subsequently punished the Israelites for their lack of faith, He said of that generation: “in this wilderness they will end, and there they will die.” (Numbers 14:35). The Zohar (III, 161b) explains that they died there in the wilderness, but not in the afterlife, meaning they did still merit to enter the supernal Garden of Eden. The Zohar further points out that the Torah specifically states their “corpses shall fall in this wilderness” (Numbers 14:32). The use of the word “corpses” serves to teach us that only their physical bodies—not their souls—would fall. God would destroy the evil inclination that ensnared their bodies into sin. The souls, however, would ultimately ascend to Heaven.

Following this, the Zohar takes us on a long journey exploring the Heavenly Academies. One such yeshiva is presided over by Betzalel, the craftsman who put together the Mishkan. There is an academy of the Sages of the Mishnah, and another academy for the “masters of Scripture” (מָארֵי מִקְרָא), a place devoted to the study of Tanakh. Higher than these is the academy for the study of Aggadah (ie. Midrash), and the Zohar makes sure to point out that these luminous Aggadists are the ones who truly understand the Torah properly. (Intriguingly, the Zohar does not seem to describe an academy for the study of Talmud!)

Higher still is the yeshiva of Aaron, called the Yeshiva of Love (מְתִיבְתָּא דִּרְחִימוּתָא). Aaron leads his students through the Heavens, and they fly around “like eagles”. Aaron visits an even more exclusive academy, the yeshiva of Moses, called the Yeshiva of Light (מְתִיבְתָּא דִּנְהוֹרָא). Aaron’s students have to wait outside since only Aaron is allowed to enter, as well as any individuals Moses calls by name. Just like he did on Earth, up in his academy Moses is still wearing his special veil, his face being too luminous to behold. Even higher than this academy is the Yeshiva of the Firmament (מְתִיבְתָּא דִּרְקִיעָא), presumably presided over by the angelic Metatron.

Several pages later, the Zohar (III, 167b) tells us about the academies (“palaces”) of women. First is the school of Batya, the daughter of Pharaoh who adopted Moses. There are thousands of righteous women there learning with her. They learn “what they did not merit to learn in this world” since, until recent history, women were not expected to learn Torah. Meanwhile, there are many more thousands of female souls learning with Serach, the daughter of Asher (for more on her, see ‘The Incredible Story of Serach bat Asher’ in Garments of Light, Volume One). Here they focus on learning the secrets of the Torah’s mitzvahs, and the deeper reasons for the commandments.

The third female academy is full of myriads of women, and they don’t seem to do much learning here but rather spend their time in meditation, song, and praising God, alongside many angels. The leader here is Yocheved, mother of Moses. Opposite her academy is a similar palace belonging to Deborah the Judge and Prophetess. She, too, leads the women in song and prayer. In addition to these, there are four palaces that are concealed, belonging to each of the four Matriarchs. These are called the “palaces of the trusting daughters” (הֵיכָלִין דְּבָנוֹת בּוֹטְחוֹת), but they are too lofty to be described.

The Zohar does divulge a deep secret here. While during the day the male and female souls are segregated in their various academies and palaces, the soulmates do reunite at night:

Every night they get together, since the time of coupling is at midnight, both in this world and that world. The coupling of that world is accomplished by the adherence of one soul to the other, light with light. The coupling in this world is body to body. Everything is as it should be: a kind with its kind, a match with its match, body to body; and in the other world, it is light with light… The union in that world produces more fruit than the coupling in this world. When they pair up in the pairing in that world, with their unified desire, and when the souls cling one to another, they produce fruit. And lights emerge and lamps are produced. These are the souls of those that convert…

The souls of Jewish converts are produced from the spiritual unions of the righteous souls above!

Going back to our parasha, the Zohar tells us that despite what we might read in the Torah, the generation of the Exodus and the Wilderness was indeed a very righteous one. The Zohar (III, 168b) says there will never be another generation as worthy as they until the coming of Mashiach. And at that time, the Wilderness generation will merit to be the first to rise in the Resurrection of the Dead. May we merit to see it soon.

Who Entered the Holy Land?

In this week’s parasha, Shlach, we read about the infamous incident of the Spies and the resulting decree that Israel would have to wander in the Wilderness for forty years:

In this desert, your corpses shall fall; your entire number, all those from the age of twenty and up, who were counted, because you complained against Me. You shall [not] come into the Land concerning which I raised My hand that you would settle in it, except Caleb the son of Yefuneh and Joshua the son of Nun… Your children shall wander in the desert for forty years and bear your defection until the last of your corpses has fallen in the desert. According to the number of days which you toured the Land forty days, a day for each year, you will bear your iniquities for forty years; thus you will come to know My alienation. (Numbers 14:29-34)

The plain reading suggests that of all the adults—those over the age of twenty—only Caleb and Joshua merited to enter the Holy Land. Yet, we see from other verses and sources that a number of additional people merited this as well. Who actually entered the Holy Land after the forty years in the Wilderness? Continue reading

The Spiritual Power of Bread and Challah

This week’s Torah reading is Shlach, most famous for recounting the incident of the spies. One distinguished member of each of Israel’s twelve tribes was appointed to scout the land of Israel in preparation for the Jewish people’s conquest and habitation of the Holy Land. After forty days, the twelve returned, with ten of them giving over a less-than-positive report that frightened the nation. Despite God’s promise that Israel belonged to the Jewish people and they would be able to settle it effortlessly, the people’s faithlessness caused them to fear and err, resulting in their own banishment from the Holy Land. They were condemned to forty years in the wilderness, over which time all of the adult males that came out of Egypt (and participated in the sin of the spies) would pass away.

"Return of the Spies from the Land of Promise" by Gustave Dore

“Return of the Spies from the Land of Promise” by Gustave Doré

Following this account, a number of Torah laws are introduced. One of these is that of challah, the portion of every large quantity of prepared dough that was separated and donated to the priests (Numbers 15:20). Rashi tells us that this was a portion equivalent to an omer. An omer was a tenth of an ephah (Exodus 16:36), which is defined by Chazal as equal to the weight and volume of 432 eggs. So, whenever a Jew prepares around 43 eggs’ worth of dough (or more), they must separate a small portion as a donation. The exact mass and volume of an egg are in dispute. Today, it is customary to separate challah when preparing about 8 cups of flour or more. Because of the uncertainty of the measurements, however, a blessing is only recited when preparing at least 12 cups, and some say at least 16 cups. Rashi tells us that a person at home should separate 1/24th, while a baker separates 1/48th of the total amount.

Challah and Shabbat

Although challah strictly refers to the separated portion that was donated to the priests, today it is associated with the special loaves of bread baked for Shabbat and holidays. Some connect challah to the Sabbath by the fact that it typically has seven ingredients: flour, water, yeast, eggs, sugar, salt, and sesame seeds sprinkled on top. Others point out that the mispar katan mispari, the “reduced” numerical value, of the word challah (חלה) in Hebrew is seven: ח is 8, ל is 30, and ה is 5. Together, that makes 43, where the digits themselves add up to 7 (ie. 4 + 3).


This happens to be a peculiar pattern with a number of other Shabbat-related things. The meal starts with Kiddush wine, yayin (יין), where each י is 10 and ן is 50, making a total of 70, which once again sums to 7. After the challah, the first course is fish, dag (דג), where ד is 4 and ג is 3, making 7. The main course is meat, bassar (בשר), where ב is 2, ש is 300, and ר is 200, totalling 502, with the digits again adding up to 7.

One important question to ask is: why must the entire Sabbath meal start with challah? Moreover, why does any meal typically start with bread? In Jewish law, the blessing on the bread covers all the other foods on the table. This isn’t so when one eats other things, in which case the person would have to say a separate blessing for each type of food. Yet bread somehow includes all the foods within it. What is so special about bread?

The Quintessential Human Food

Before the modern industrial age, food was quite simple. People typically ate fruits and nuts, legumes and vegetables, meat, milk, and bread. One will notice that all of these are also consumed by animals – except for bread. Producing bread is a long and complicated process, starting with hard, inedible stalks of wheat. These have to be harvested, threshed, winnowed, milled, carefully combined with other ingredients, and baked. Such a complex procedure requires a higher intellect; no other organism is capable of such a feat.

For this reason, bread is a potent symbol of humanity as a whole. It is symbolic of man’s higher spiritual condition, and greater intelligence. Bread represents our divine mission in this world: taking the raw material that God has prepared for us, and perfecting it into an elevated state. It reminds us that we are not just animals eating to satisfy a physical need. Bread is human food, and carries a far more powerful spiritual potential, including within it all other “lesser” forms of food. And so, we begin each meal with bread, and every Sabbath meal with challah.