Tag Archives: Soul

The Names of the Torah’s Hidden Women

‘Shemot’ is also the name of the second book of the Torah, known in English as ‘Exodus’.

This week’s parasha, Shemot, literally means “names”. The Sages stress how important a name really is, so much so that the word shem and neshamah (“soul”) appear to share a root. The Talmud (Berakhot 7b) teaches that a person’s name affects their destiny, and changing one’s name can change one’s fate (Rosh Hashanah 16b). (Other things that can change one’s fate: moving to a new place, charity, prayer, and repentance.) The Zohar (II, 179b) further elaborates that the combinations of letters in a person’s name can reveal much about them.

Jewish tradition holds that an angel whispers a baby’s name to its parents. And yet, many Jews don’t have a Jewish name or don’t connect to their given name. Thus, the Arizal taught (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 23) that a person can have two names: a name from the side of kedushah, “holiness”, and a name from the side of kelipah, unholy “husks”. Meanwhile, the Midrash states that each person has three names: the name given by the parents, the common name (or nickname) called by close ones, and the name that a person acquires for himself. (The best of these, the Midrash concludes, is the name one makes for himself.)

The Midrash also states that Israel merited to be redeemed from Egypt because they preserved their Hebrew names, among other things.* Fittingly, Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh points out that the midwives Shifrah and Puah ensured the survival of the Jewish babies, so the gematria of their names equals 746, the value of shemot (שמות).

Where Are The Women?

Clearly, names are very important. Yet, while the names of Shifrah and Puah are mentioned, the names of many other important female figures are not! The Talmud (Bava Batra 91a) is troubled by this, and even states that in those days people argued against the Torah’s authenticity by pointing out all those missing female names (especially because Judaism passes down through the mother). And so, the Talmud fills in the details and tells us some of these important names:

Rav Chanan bar Raba stated in the name of Rav: the mother of Abraham was Amatlai, the daughter of Karnevo [אמתלאי בת כרנבו]; the mother of Haman was Amatlai, the daughter of ‘Oravti [אמתלאי בת עורבתי]… The mother of David was Nitzevet, the daughter of Ada’el [נצבת בת עדאל]. The mother of Samson was Tzlelponit [צללפונית], and his sister was Nashyan [נשיין]…

What about the others? What was the name of Rachel and Leah’s mother? How about Lot’s salt-pillar-turning wife? The wife of Potiphar that tried so hard to seduce Joseph? It is said that one of the reasons Cain killed Abel is because of a dispute over a girl (see Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, Ch. 21 or Beresheet Rabbah 22:7). What was her name? Luckily, other texts provide the answers.

Sefer HaYashar states that the mother of Rachel and Leah was called Adina (עדינה), while the wife of Potiphar was Zuleikha (זליכא). There are two main opinions as to the name of Lot’s wife: either Idit/Edith (עידית), according to sources like Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (ch. 25), or Irit (עירית), according to the commentary of the Ramban (on Genesis 19:17).

Another great source for names is the apocryphal Book of Jubilees. Here (4:2) we learn that the name of Cain and Abel’s sister was Aven (און). In traditional Jewish texts, Cain was born with a twin sister and Abel was born with two twin sisters, whom they were meant to marry. Cain reasoned Abel’s second twin should be his wife since he was the elder, and the firstborn deserves a double-portion. Abel argued that if that was the case she would have been born alongside Cain! This was one of their major points of contention, leading to Cain’s murder of Abel. The Book of Jubilees says none of this, and holds that Cain killed Abel out of anger that God did not accept his offering.

The Book of Jubilees also states that Noah’s mother was called Bethnah (ביתנה), and his wife was Emtzarah (אמצרה). Meanwhile, the Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 23:3) holds that Noah’s wife was Na’amah (נעמה), the sister of Tuval-Cain (Genesis 4:22). Interestingly, Jubilees gives us the name of Shem’s wife, too: Tzedeket-Levav (צדקת לבב). This is fitting, since Jewish tradition identifies Shem with Melchizedek. Interestingly, Jubilees states that all three of Noah’s sons built cities for themselves, and named the cities after their wives!

The Mothers of Israel

The Torah devotes quite a bit of attention to the Four Mothers of Israel (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah), but what about the names of the wives of the Twelve Tribes? The Torah only mentions the wife of Joseph (Osnat) and passively mentions the wife of Judah, calling her the daughter of Shuah. Seder HaDorot states that her name was actually Eilat, and fills in the rest:

The wife of the elder Reuben was a Canaanite woman named Elyarem. Shimon’s wife—according to this particular text; there are other opinions—was his sister Dinah, the daughter of Leah. (The Midrash explains that Shimon had to marry her because he killed Shechem, whom she was meant to marry.) Levi married Adina, a descendent of Ever, one of the forefathers of Abraham. It seems Issachar married Adina’s sister, Arida.

Zevulun married a Midianite named Marusha, while Dan married a Moabite woman named Aflala. Naftali married Merimat, a distant cousin descended from Nachor, the brother of Abraham. Gad married her sister Utzit. Asher married a great-granddaughter of Ishmael named Adon, and after she passed away, married a woman named Hadurah. Benjamin had two wives: one called Machlat, and another Arvat, the granddaughter of Abraham from his later wife Keturah.

Each of these names certainly carries deep meaning, as do all names and appellations. Jewish texts call God by many different names and titles, each of which captures a different essence of God, and thereby helps us understand Him. Similarly, all of a person’s various names and titles combine to make up who they are.

To conclude with a famous story that illustrates this, it is said that a three-year old Tzemach Tzedek (the third rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, 1789-1866) was once sitting on the lap of his grandfather, the Alter Rebbe (first rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, 1745-1813). The Rebbe asked his grandson: “Where is grandpa?” The child quickly pointed to his grandpa’s head, to which the Rebbe said, “That’s just grandpa’s head! Where is grandpa?” The child tried again and again, pointing to other parts of the body to which the Rebbe similarly replied. Later on, the young Tzemach Tzedek was playing outside and called his grandfather. The Rebbe immediately hurried over to him, and the smiling child said: “There’s grandpa!”

The Alter Rebbe and the Tzemach Tzedek

*This is actually a problematic Midrash. Names like Aaron and Pinchas don’t seem to have a meaning in Hebrew but do in ancient Egyptian! Aaron is believed to come from the Egyptian aha rw, “warrior lion”, while Pinchas sounds like the common Egyptian name Pa-Nehasi, “the bronze one”. Thankfully, a variant Midrash preserves a different tradition. While Vayikra Rabbah (Ch. 32) states that Israel was redeemed on account of their names, language, abstaining from lashon hara and licentiousness, Pesikta Zutrata (on Ki Tavo, 46a) states that it was because of their clothing, food, and language.

Is Your Brain a Quantum Computer? (A Scientific Explanation for the Soul and Afterlife)

This week’s parasha, Chayei Sarah, begins with the passing of the matriarch Sarah. The Torah states that “the lives of Sarah were one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years…” Traditionally, two big questions were asked of this verse: the first is why the Torah describes her life as one hundred, twenty, and seven years instead of simply saying that she was 127 years old when she died. The second is why the Torah says these were the lives of Sarah, instead of life in the singular, especially in light of the fact that the parasha actually describes her death, not life!

The classic answer to the first question is that Sarah was as beautiful at 100 as she was at 20, and she was as pure at 20 as she was at 7 years old. The answer to the second question, as we’ve explored in the past (see ‘A Mystical Journey through the Lives of Sarah’ in Garments of Light), is that Sarah – or at least a part of her soul – was immediately reincarnated in Rebecca, and thus Sarah’s life and life’s work continued with her future daughter-in-law. In general, the word for “life” in Hebrew is in plural, chaim, which alludes to the fact that there are really two lives: the transient life in this current physical world, and the everlasting life of the soul.

Today, many question (or outright reject) the possibility of an afterlife. Such people argue that there is no evidence or scientifically plausible explanation for such things. When the body dies, the person dies with it, and that’s it. In reality, there is a great deal of evidence to support the notion of a soul and an afterlife, and even one solid scientific explanation that is slowly gaining popularity and acceptance.

The Quantum Brain

Although there have been millions of cases of “near death experiences” and medically-induced “clinical deaths”—many of which end with the victim or patient describing other worlds and relating accurate information that would have been impossible for them to know—these are all relegated to “anecdotal evidence” and generally not taken seriously in the scientific community. We can put all of that aside (together with countless people’s personal stories of prophetic dreams and premonitions, “out-of-body” experiences, miraculous occurrences, and other inexplicable phenomena), and focus strictly on accepted science.

In recent decades, neurologists studying the human brain have sought to uncover what it is that generates consciousness and actually makes the brain work. Why and how is it that this network of cells produces a “mind”? Biology and chemistry have given us the general mechanisms of electrical signals and neurotransmitters, but have not been able to answer the real fundamental questions. To solve the mystery actually requires the most complex of sciences: quantum physics.

In 1989, world-renowned physicist Sir Roger Penrose published The Emperor’s New Mind in which he argued that classical physics simply cannot explain consciousness, nor can the brain be compared in any way to a typical computer, or be explained with familiar algorithms. Penrose suggested that the only plausible explanation for consciousness can come from quantum physics.

To go into the major principles of quantum physics is far beyond our scope. Indeed, one of the great quantum physicists, Richard Feynman, once noted: “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Suffice it to say that quantum physics has completely revolutionized science and our entire understanding of reality. It has turned the universe into a funky place where just about anything is possible, and where things at the sub-atomic level behave in totally bizarre ways. Niels Bohr, one of the early quantum physicists (and a Nobel Prize winner) offered that “If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet.” Meanwhile, the man who is often called “the father of quantum physics”, Max Planck, stated:

As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.

From his lifetime of studies, Planck concluded that reality as we know it doesn’t exist, and all of matter is held together by some kind of universal mind or consciousness. Building on these ideas, and the complex math and science behind them, Penrose proposed that the brain is a “quantum computer” of sorts, and may be intricately linked to the very fabric of the universe.

Quantum Biology and the Soul

Penrose’s hypothesis inspired a psychology professor in Arizona named Stuart Hameroff. As a practicing anesthesiologist, Hameroff knew that anesthesia works by shutting down small proteins inside neurons called microtubules, and this shuts off a person’s consciousness. Penrose and Hameroff teamed up to continue researching the possibility of the brain as quantum computer. Incredibly, their conclusions suggest that the brain can actually store its quantum information in the universe itself, so that even if the brain was to die, its information would not die with it. That information can be held indefinitely in the universe, and can return to a revived brain, or even into another brain. This would explain near death experiences and clinical deaths, and provides a scientific explanation for reincarnation and a life after death. The death of the body does not at all mean the death of the person, or that person’s memories and thoughts.

While there are those who are quick to criticize the theory and reject it, no one has been able to actually refute it. In fact, since the theory was first proposed, more and more evidence has accumulated to support it. In 2014, quantum biologist Anirban Bandyopadhyay (based in Japan’s National Institute for Materials Science and a visiting professor at MIT) successfully demonstrated the quantum activity of microtubules.

It appears that science has finally discovered the soul. There are now valid, empirical evidence-based theories to explain the existence of an eternal mind or spirit, a universal consciousness, the possibility of an afterlife and reincarnation. The scientific community needs to stop aggressively denying anything that seems “spiritual”, and instead delve deeper into this exciting and promising new field. This sentiment was already expressed long ago by Nikola Tesla, considered by many to be the greatest scientist of all time: “The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence.” It was the genius Tesla who first noted that his brain “is only a receiver,” and stated that “In the Universe there is a core from which we obtain knowledge, strength, inspiration. I have not penetrated into the secrets of this core, but I know it exists.”

The Kabbalah of Bar Mitzvah

This week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, begins with God’s command to Abraham to leave Charan for the Holy Land. The Torah tells us that Abraham was 75 years old at this point, on which the Zohar (I, 78a) comments:

And this is why the soul will not start fulfilling the mission it was commanded to perform until it has completed thirteen years in this world. Because only from the twelfth year is the soul aroused to complete its task. Therefore it is written that “Abraham was seventy five years old”, since seven and five equals twelve.

The Zohar employs a method of gematria known as mispar katan, “small” or “reduced value”, where the digits of a multi-digit number are themselves summed up to produce an “inner” number. In this case, 75 reduces to 12. The Zohar explains that it is only when a person turns 13 that their true soul begins to be aroused. Until that age, a child is dominated by the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. Indeed, it is the nature of a child to be selfish. This is expressed in its greatest form with a newborn, who is completely unconcerned about their parents’ wellbeing. As the child grows, they slowly learn to become less selfish and more selfless. By 13, they are (supposed to be) fully cognizant of this struggle, and now have the ability to truly overcome their yetzer hara.

The Arizal elaborates on this through an exposition of the five levels of soul. While many think of a soul as being a single entity, it is in fact a collage of many sparks distributed among five major layers. The lowest level of the soul is nefesh, which is simply the life force. The nefesh is found not only in humans, but all living organisms. The Torah cautions (Deut. 12:23) that one should not consume blood with meat because hadam hu hanefesh, the blood is (or contains) the life force of the animal.

The layer above the nefesh is the ruach, an animating “spirit”, which the Sages state is housed within the heart, and encapsulates one’s inclinations, both good and bad. Then comes the most important soul, the neshamah, whose seat is in the brain. This generates the mind of a person, and makes up their identity and inner qualities. Beyond the neshamah is the chayah, the “aura” that emanates from a person’s body, and the highest level of soul is the yechidah, a spiritual umbilical cord of sorts that connects one to their source in Heaven.

In the introduction to Sha’ar HaGilgulim, Rabbi Chaim Vital writes that a newborn child has expressed their nefesh, and begins to tap into their ruach. By age 13, the ruach has fully developed (in most cases), and now the person begin to access their neshamah. It is expected that the neshamah will be expressed in its fullest by the age of 20. This is why the Torah considers one who has reached 20 years to be an adult. The multiple censuses taken in the Torah only counted those above 20, and only those above this age were fit for military or priestly service. Similarly, the Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 14:7) states that Adam and Eve were created as 20 year olds. For this reason, the Sages teach that although an earthly court can try a person over the age of 13, the Heavenly courts only try people over the age of 20. (See Sanhedrin 89b, and Rashi on Numbers 16:27.)

We can now understand why the Zohar above states that a person only begins to fulfil their task in this world starting at 13. It is at this age that they begin to tap into their neshamah, the most unique of the five souls, which contains one’s identity and purpose. We can understand why the Zohar says that before 13, one is dominated by the yetzer hara, for in this period one is still growing within their ruach, which contains the evil inclination. And based on this, we can understand the significance of a bar mitzvah.

What is a Bar Mitzvah?

The Mishnah (Avot 5:22) states:

At five years old, one should begin the study of Scripture. At ten, the study of Mishnah. Thirteen, the obligation to observe the mitzvot. Fifteen, the study of Talmud. Eighteen, marriage. Twenty, to pursue. Thirty, for strength. Forty, for understanding. Fifty, for counsel. Sixty, to be an elder. Seventy, for fulfilment. Eighty, for fortitude…

Jerusalem, 1999: A mass Bar Mitzvah celebration by the Western Wall for Soviet immigrants.

The Mishnah tells us that a 13 year old becomes obligated in fulfilling the mitzvot. This is tied to the age of puberty (see Niddah 45b), and since girls begin this stage of life earlier, their age for mitzvot is 12. At this age, boys and girls are ready; their ruach now fully developed, and with it the ability to overcome tests and challenges. Their neshamah begins to emerge as well, meaning that they can start to find their unique niche in this world. By 20, it is hoped that a person has figured it out, and can now pursue it, as the above Mishnah states. Of course, many do not have it figured out by 20, and the Arizal maintains that some never tap into the full potential of their neshamah at all. This is particularly true in our generation.

It is therefore of tremendous importance to guide and encourage bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs in their personal development, and to provide them with not only a physical education, but a spiritual one. It is imperative to remember that while these young people are not yet adults, they are no longer children either, and should not be treated as such. They should be challenged. They should be given responsibilities, and much more than just making their beds. Otherwise, they risk remaining in a state of immaturity and entitlement for the rest of their lives. The Midrash (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 26) states that it was precisely when Abraham turned 13 that he recognized God, rejected the immorality of his society, and began his life’s good work. Let’s inspire our youths to do the same.

The Incredible Midrash of the Death of Moses

‘The Death of Moses’ (Illustration from the Providence Lithograph Company)

On the holiday of Simchat Torah, we conclude the yearly cycle of Torah readings with the final portion, V’Zot HaBerakhah. This short parasha relays Moses’ final blessing to the people before ascending Mt. Nebo and returning to his Maker:

Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died. His eye had not dimmed, nor had he lost his vigour… And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses, whom Hashem knew face to face…

The Torah tells us that Moses was incomparable, and there was never a prophet like him. Indeed, in his 13 Principles of Faith, the Rambam has one principle (#6) stating that God communicates with man through prophecy, and a separate belief (#7) that Moses’ prophecy is the greatest of all. The Sages stated that while all the other prophets saw visions only through a blurry (or dim) lens, Moses saw visions through a perfectly clear lens. While all the other prophets only received visions while dreaming or entranced, Moses alone could communicate with God fully conscious and awake.

‘Moses Coming Down From Mt. Sinai’ by Gustav Doré, with rays of light shining forth from Moses’ face.

The Midrash (Devarim Rabbah 11:3) presents an intriguing passage where various Heavenly figures argue with Moses on who is the greatest. Adam comes first and says: “I am greater than you because I was created in the image of God.” Moses replied that although Adam was initially very great, his honour was taken away from him, whereas the Torah says that Moses had not “lost his vigour”. The Sages teach that Adam initially glowed with a pure light. This light was lost after the consumption of the Forbidden Fruit, leaving behind only frail skin. Moses reversed this: upon his return from the summit of Sinai, his skin glowed so brightly that he had to wear a mask (Exodus 34:35).

After Adam, came Noah and said: “I am greater than you because I was delivered from the generation of the Flood.” Moses replied: “I am far superior to you. You saved only yourself, but had no strength to deliver your generation, while I saved both myself and my generation when they were condemned to destruction at the time of the Golden Calf.”

Abraham arose next, and said: “I am greater than you because I used to give hospitality to all wayfarers.” Moses replied that while Abraham “fed uncircumcised men, I fed circumcised ones” and while Abraham “gave hospitality in an inhabited land, I fed them in the wilderness.”

Isaac argued he was greater than Moses because he was willing to die upon the altar, and witnessed the Divine Presence at that moment. Moses countered that he regularly spoke “face to face” with the Divine Presence, and his eyes had not dimmed from this, while Isaac had ultimately gone blind.

Finally, Jacob said: “I am greater than you because I wrestled with the angel and prevailed.” Moses replied: “You wrestled with the angel in your own territory [on Earth], but I went up to their territory, and they feared me.” The passage concludes by saying that this is what King Solomon hinted to when he wrote v’at alit al kulana, “…and you have excelled them all.” (Proverbs 31:29)

The Ascent of Moses

The Midrash continues to describe the moment of Moses’ passing. When the time came, God instructed the angel Gabriel to bring up Moses’ soul. Gabriel told God: “Master of the Universe! How can I witness the death of him who is equal to 600,000? How can I behave harshly to one who possesses such qualities?” So God told the angel Michael to bring Moses. Michael replied: “Master of the Universe! I was his teacher, and he my pupil, so I cannot witness his death.” God then had to summon the wicked Samael to bring up Moses’ soul. Samael took his sword and went gladly, for he had been waiting a very long time for that moment. However, when he approached Moses and saw the pure light shining from his face, he trembled and said: “Surely no angel can take away Moses’ soul!”

Samael tried to take Moses anyway, telling him that he should come willingly, for all mortals must die. Moses argued that he is unlike any other mortal, and proceeded to give a resume of his achievements. Convinced, Samael went back to Heaven. God insisted that Samael go back to bring Moses, and not take no for an answer. Samael returned sword in hand, and Moses drew his staff for battle. The Midrash says that Moses readily defeated Samael, blinded him, and “removed his beam of glory”.

At this point, a voice called forth from Heaven and said: “The time of your death has come.” Still, Moses would not relent, so God had to do the job Himself. As soon as He extracted Moses’ soul, the soul itself protested:

Master of the Universe! I know that You are the God of all spirits and all souls, the souls of the dead and the living are in Your keeping, and You have created and formed me and placed me within the body of Moses for a hundred and twenty years. And now, is there a body in the world purer than the body of Moses…? Therefore I love him and I do not desire to leave him.

The Soul continued to tarry until finally “God kissed Moses and took away his soul” with a Divine Kiss. It was then that the Divine Presence proclaimed: “And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses…”

When reading such Midrashic passages, it is important to remember the old adage that those who deny the validity of the Midrash are heretics, yet those who take the Midrash literally are fools. Although this Midrash probably shouldn’t be taken literally, it certainly captures the incomparable greatness of Moses.

Chag Sameach! 

‘Moses on Mount Sinai’ by Jean-Léon Gérôme (c.1900)

Tzom Gedaliah and Mystical Secrets of Fasting

Clay Bulla of Gemaryahu ben Shaphan, dated to 586 BCE.

Today is the Fast of Gedaliah, one of the “minor fasts” of the Jewish calendar. This fast commemorates the assassination of Gedaliah ben Achikam, the governor of Judah, some 2500 years ago. After the Babylonians destroyed the Temple and sent the majority of Jews into exile, they left a small number of Jewish farmers in their newly-created province of Judah, under the leadership of the righteous Gedaliah. Gedaliah was the grandson of Shaphan, one of the court scribes of Judean royalty who likely played a role in the composition of the Biblical Book of Kings, among others. (Incredibly, Jeremiah 36:10 describes how Shaphan had a son named Gemaryahu, and recently Israeli archaeologist Yigal Shiloh discovered a bulla in Jerusalem inscribed with the words: “belonging to Gemaryahu ben Shaphan”.)

The Books of Jeremiah (ch. 41) and II Kings (ch. 25) describe how a certain Ishmael killed Gedaliah “in the seventh month”, during what appears to be a feast day, which our Sages stated was Rosh Hashanah. The reason for the assassination is not explicitly given. It seems Ishmael believed that if anyone should govern in Israel, it should be him since he was a member of the Judean royal family and a descendant of King David. Ishmael didn’t think the whole thing through very well. Assassinating Gedaliah immediately raised fears that the Babylonians would return to punish the Jews for smiting their appointed governor. The fearful Jewish populace thus fled to Egypt, while Ishmael himself escaped to Ammon.

The tragedy was a great one not only because of the grotesque assassination of a righteous Jew by his fellow (Ishmael also slaughtered a handful of other Jews, as well as innocent pilgrims on their way to worship in Jerusalem.) Perhaps more significantly, the fleeing of the last Jews of Judea meant that the Holy Land was essentially devoid of its people for the first time in nearly a millennium. While Jews from Babylon would later come back to rebuild, they would be faced with new settlers that had since filled the vacuum in Israel: the Samaritans. This people would be a thorn at the side of the Jews for centuries to come. Worst of all, the assassination of Gedaliah is yet another example of sinat chinam, baseless hatred and Jewish in-fighting, which seems to always be the root of all Jewish problems.

The Sages instituted a fast to commemorate all of these things. And the fast’s timing is particularly auspicious, as it comes during the Ten Days of Repentance when we should be focusing on kindness, prayer, and atonement. Now is the time to repair relationships and form new bonds, for families and communities to come together. For many, it also something of a “practice run” for the more famous fast that comes just days later: Yom Kippur. This brings up an important question. What exactly does fasting have to do with atonement, spiritual growth, and self-development?

The Power of Fasting

Offerings on the Altar (Courtesy: Temple Institute)

Aside from its well-documented health benefits, fasting brings a great deal of spiritual benefits, too. In the fast day prayers, we read how fasting is symbolic of sacrificial offerings. In the days of the Temple, people would atone by bringing an offering, shedding its blood, and watching its fat burn on the altar. In Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh (Kavanot haTaanit), Rabbi Chaim Vital, the Arizal’s foremost disciple, explains that the sight of the animal being slaughtered would immediately inspire the person to repent. They would feel both a great deal of regret for their sin, and compassion for the animal, and would recognize that it should have been them slaughtered upon the altar. In lieu of a Temple, we fast to burn our own bodily fat, and “thin” our blood. The Arizal taught that the penitent faster is thus likened to a korban.

Rabbi Vital then reminds us that the food we eat contain spiritual sparks, and even the souls of reincarnated people. While we hope that our blessings and proper intentions when eating frees these sparks and elevates them to Heaven, we are not always successful in this regard—especially when we lose sense of the meal and eat purely for physical reasons. These sparks remain with us, and can even affect our thoughts and emotions. The Arizal explains that a fast day is an opportunity to free those sparks trapped within. We avoid eating anything new, resulting in the body shedding its fat and blood, and just as these things “burn up” physically, the sparks lodged within them “burn up” and ascend as well with the help of our prayers and pure thoughts and intentions. Moreover, the difficulty of fasting breaks apart the kelipot, the spiritual “husks” that trap those holy sparks.

(Interestingly, this passage in Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh shows an incredibly detailed and accurate knowledge of the digestive system. Rabbi Vital explains how the stomach and intestines break down the food, absorb it into the bloodstream, where it goes to the liver for further processing, and then to the heart which delivers the nutrients to the rest of the body, particularly the brain, the seat of the neshamah.)

Secrets of Fasting

Etz Chaim, “Tree of Life”. Note the sefirot of Gevurah and Hod on the left column.

The Arizal mentions how it is good to fast not only on the six established fast days of the Jewish calendar (Gedaliah, Kippur, 10 Tevet, Esther, 17 Tamuz, and 9 Av), but on every Monday and Thursday. This is, in fact, an ancient Jewish custom that is attested to in numerous historical documents. (One of these is the Didache, an early Christian text of the 1st century CE that tells its adherents not to fast on Mondays and Thursdays because that is when the Jews fast!) The Arizal explains that Monday and Thursday, the second and fifth days of the week, correspond to the second and fifth sefirot of Gevurah and Hod. Gevurah and Hod are on the left column of the mystical “Tree of Life”, and the left is associated with judgement and severity. By fasting on these days, one can break any harsh judgments decreed upon them.

The Arizal also taught that one who fasts two days in a row—48 hours straight—is likened to having fasted twenty-seven day fasts, and one who can fast three days straight has fasted the equivalent of forty day fasts. This is important because one of the most powerful fasts in Jewish tradition, which will completely purify the greatest of sins, particularly sexual ones, requires 84 day-fasts. (The number 84 comes from the fact that Jacob was 84 years old when he was first intimate, with Leah, and conceived Reuben.) Usually, this was done by fasting 40 days straight (eating only at night), followed by another 44 days (or vice versa). A person can thus accomplish the same purification by fasting both day and night for a whole week straight, from the end of one Shabbat to the onset of the following Shabbat.

As this would be a personal fast, it may be permissible to consume salt and water, as the Talmud (Berakhot 35b) does not consider these to be “food”, and permits them on personal fasts only. The Arizal actually gives a tip for one who feels thirsty during a fast: they should meditate on the words Ruach Elohim (רוח אלהים). Recall that Genesis begins by telling us that God’s Divine Spirit, Ruach Elohim, “hovered over the waters”. And so, one who meditates upon this should see his thirst quickly dissipate. Ultimately, the Arizal says that Torah study is the best way to repent and expiate sins, much more so than any fast. So, a person who is not up to the task of intermittent fasting may substitute with diligent Torah study.

Soon enough, there will be no need to fast at all, as the prophet (Zechariah 8:19) states: “So says Hashem, God of Hosts: The fast of the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth days shall be for the house of Judah for gladness, joy, and good times; for love of truth and peace.” With each passing moment, we near the time when all of these fast days—the fourth (ie. the 17th of Tammuz, in the fourth month), the fifth (9 Av, in the fifth month), the seventh (Tzom Gedaliah), and tenth (10th of Tevet) shall turn into joyous feast days. May we merit to see this day soon.

Gmar Chatima Tova!