Tag Archives: Souls

Abortion: What Does Judaism Really Say?

A short class on the complex issue of abortion, through the lens of both science and Jewish law. 

For a written summary and more info, see ‘A Mystical Look at Pregnancy and Abortion’.

The Other Bilaam

‘The Prophet Balaam and the Angel’ by John Linnell (1859)

This week’s parasha, Balak, features the infamous gentile sorcerer and prophet Bilaam. We see him riding a donkey, being confronted by an angel, and attempting to curse Israel. The Torah later states that Bilaam was slain by the sword when Israel warred with Midian (Numbers 31:8), and according to tradition he was killed by Pinchas. In the Book of Joshua (13:22) we are told again that Bilaam was slain, and here he is called hakosem, “the magician” or “the diviner”. The Sages ask (Sanhedrin 106a-b) why Scripture uses this language; after all, was Bilaam not a true prophet? The answer is peculiar and seemingly makes no sense: “This is in accordance with what people say, that she came from princes and rulers, but was licentious with carpenters.” What does this have to do with anything? More perplexingly, the Talmud goes on to make two more bizarre points about Bilaam.

First, our Sages stated that Bilaam was killed by Pinchas Lista (Sanhedrin 106b). The word lista means something like a “criminal” or “gangster”. There is certainly no way that our Sages could refer to the great and holy Pinchas as lista! Second, the same passage in the Talmud says that Bilaam was killed when he was 33 years old. This is absolutely impossible. We know that Bilaam was an advisor to Pharaoh back in Egypt when Pharaoh had decreed to drown the male children, and we know that Bilaam’s sons instigated the Golden Calf incident some 39 years prior to the events of this week’s parasha. Bilaam must have been a very old man at this point. How could our Sages say he was only 33? How do we make sense of this puzzling Talmudic passage?

Long ago, scholars had pointed out that the description of Bilaam above does not at all match the Torah personality of this week’s parasha, but it does seem to closely resemble another ancient figure. That last number 33 may have given it away, since it is often associated with a person who was killed at that age: Jesus. Could it be that the Sages were actually speaking about Jesus in code, to avoid alerting the Christian censors? Indeed, Jesus was executed at the command of the cruel Roman governor Pontius Pilate—whom the entire Jewish people at the time despised as we know from historical sources—and this is probably why the Talmud says Bilaam was killed by “Pinchas Lista”, ie. Pontius the criminal! And now we can understand the cryptic statement about the woman who “was licentious with carpenters”, since Jesus and his father were carpenters. It seems abundantly clear that the Sages were not actually speaking of Bilaam, but secretly alluding to Jesus.

The big question is: why would the Sages use Bilaam as a stand-in for Jesus? And what is all of this even supposed to teach us? Continue reading

Four Levels of Human

In this week’s parasha, Tazria, we read about various skin ailments that could afflict a person in ancient times. The section begins with the words “A human [adam] upon whose skin will be…” (Leviticus 13:2) The Zohar (III, 48a) asks: why does the Torah specifically say adam, “human”? This is peculiar language, for we would more likely expect the Torah to use the far more common term ish, a “man” or a “person”. The Zohar notes how at the beginning of Vayikra, too, the Torah stated “A human [adam] among you who will bring a sacrifice…” (Leviticus 1:2) Why “human”?

Credit: Totemical.com

The Zohar answers that the Torah has four distinct words for human beings: adam, gever, enosh, and ish (אדם, גבר, אנוש, איש), and these correspond to the four types or four levels of being human. The term adam is reserved for the highest, most refined, and most spiritual level of a human being, for this is the original word used in the Torah, as God intended man to be, b’tzalmo, in His image (Genesis 1:27). This is why, when speaking of bringing an offering to God, the Torah specifically uses adam, for a person had to be on a very refined and pure level to properly offer a sacrifice.

The same is true for the mysterious skin ailments in this week’s parasha. As our Sages taught, these were not actually communicable diseases, but rather spiritual ailments sent upon a person for a very specific reason. They manifested solely on the skin because skin is the most external part of a person’s body, the outer shell. The person afflicted was really pure and holy inside, so the ailment could only cling to the most external surface. Only the greatest of people had these skin ailments, such as the prophetess Miriam as we read later in the Torah. (Our Sages described Mashiach as being similarly skin-afflicted, for evil is only able to cling to him externally).

The Zohar does not say much about the other levels of human. Based on the discussion that follows though, we can deduce that the next level after adam is ish. Both adam and ish are high-level humans, so much so that even God is metaphorically described with these titles in various places in Tanakh. For instance, the Zohar points out how Ezekiel 1:26 describes God k’mareh adam, “resembling adam”, and in the Song of the Sea we find that God is called ish milchamah, a “man of war” (Exodus 15:3). Moses, the greatest of prophets, is called an “ish” in multiple places, such as Exodus 32:1 and Numbers 12:3. Lastly, we saw above that a person who got a skin affliction was described as an adam, but later in the chapter the Torah also calls such a person ish o ishah, “man or woman” (Leviticus 13:29). This actually helps us understand the difference in levels between adam and ish.

When it comes to adam, this is a complete human being entirely in God’s image. That means adam has both male and female halves, as the Torah says that God created Adam “male and female” (Genesis 1:27, 5:2). On this, our Sages (Yevamot 63a) taught that a person who is not married is not called “adam” since they are missing their other half! A real adam is one who is righteous and refined, and is also eternally bonded to their soulmate who is righteous and refined. This is the complete human, on the highest possible level. Below that is ish o ishah, where there is a clear distinction between “man” and “woman”, referring to a refined righteous person, though unmarried or not successfully married. This can help us further explain the Zohar’s pointing out that Moses is often called an “ish”, but not an “adam”, since Moses had stopped being intimate with his wife. (Unlike Moses, Mashiach will not separate from his wife, see Zohar I, 82a [Idra Zuta], 137a [Midrash HaNe’elam], and 145b.)

The next level after ish is gever, a term difficult to translate. The root literally means “strength” or “restraint”, and could also refer to a “hero”, “warrior”, or “great one”. It implies physical strength or greatness, but not necessarily much spiritual elevation. A gever might be one who is successful in other areas of life, but not in the spiritual realm. It may explain why Jeremiah famously said “Blessed is [or will be] the gever who trusts in God…” (17:7) The great person will truly be great only when they learn to trust in God.

The lowest level of human is enosh, literally “mortal”. This is a person who is simply alive, but otherwise contributing little to the world. This is why King David asked: “What is enosh that You should even remember him…?” (Psalms 8:5) Further proof comes from the man actually named “Enosh”, the grandson of Adam, the first to go “off the derekh” and away from the true spiritual path (Genesis 5:26). It is also why the generic word for “people” in Hebrew is anashim, deriving from this same root.

Finally, the Zohar states that there is a level that is even lower than all of the above, when a person is “sub-human” and behaving like an animal. This is the level of behemah, “beast”. The Zohar says this is the hidden meaning of Psalms 36:7 which states that “Your righteousness is like the highest mountains, Your justice is like the great depths, You save adam u’behemah, O Hashem!” God saves both the highest human, adam, and the lowest, behemah.

Souls and Universes

One might notice that the four (five) types of human above neatly parallel the five levels of soul, as well as the four (five) mystical olamot, or “universes”. The lowest type of human is the animalistic behemah, corresponding to the lowest level of soul, the nefesh. When the Torah speaks of the nefesh, it is usually in relation to animals and their blood. In fact, in later mystical texts the term nefesh behemit, “animal soul”, is used frequently. This lowest level corresponds to the bottom, physical universe, Asiyah.

Above that is the ruach level of soul, corresponding to the enosh level of human, and to the Yetzirah universe. Then we have the great and “largest” neshamah paralleling the great gever human, and the realm of Beriah. Higher still is the chayah soul to go along with the ish and ishah, and the lofty realm of Atzilut. Recall that chaya is typically associated with one’s “aura”, and recall as well that Moses was the quintessential “ish”. With this in mind, we can deeply understand the Torah telling us that Moses had a brightly-glowing aura! Better still, Atzilut is often described as God’s infinitely glowing “emanation”.

At the very top is the yechidah soul-level, corresponding to adam, and fittingly corresponding to the highest “universe” of Adam Kadmon, a reality in which the human is entirely one with the cosmos. This is a place of total unity, just as adam refers to a husband-wife pair with their souls united wholly as one.

Finally, the Torah amazingly alludes to all of this in cryptic fashion in the account of Creation. First, in Genesis 1:25 we read that God vaya’as (ויעש) “made” all the land animals and the behemah. The verb used is the same as that of Asiyah (עשיה), the lowest realm. In the following verse, we are told that God vayomer (ויאמר) “spoke” to bring forth adam in His image, and this human would dominate the universe, alluding to the highest level of human, the Adam Kadmon, with speech being his greatest power. Next, in verse 27, we are told that God “created” the human male and female, referring to the ish and ishah level. Then, in verse 28, God “blessed” the humans to conquer the Earth, alluding to the physically domineering gever. Finally, Genesis 2:7 tells us that God vayitzer (וייצר) “formed” the human from the dust, hinting that “to the dust he shall return”, and alluding to the low level of the earthly and mortal enosh, fittingly corresponding to the realm of Yetzirah (יצירה).

To summarize:


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