Tag Archives: Spirituality

The Four Who Ascended to Heaven (Video)

What really happened with the four ancient Jewish Sages who ascended to ‘Pardes’, the Heavenly realms? Find out in this class where we also explore the difference between “physical” and “spiritual” worlds, the “upper waters” and “lowers waters” of Creation, and the proper approach to the study of mysticism and Kabbalah.

For the related class on ‘chashmal’ and electricity that was mentioned, see here.

Video of the Stuttgart water study here.

For a deeper analysis and exploration of the Heavenly waters and how they tie into Jewish rituals, see ‘Secrets of the Last Waters’.

That Purim When Rava “Killed” Rabbi Zeira

‘Two ancient Jewish sages studying and ascending to Heaven’ an image generated for me (in just seconds!) by Midjourney AI (Artificial Intelligence) software.

The Talmud famously quotes the sage Rava as teaching that one should imbibe wine on Purim ad d’lo yada, until one does not know the difference between “cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai” (Megillah 7b). This is a bizarre statement, because a Jew is never supposed to be so heavily under the influence. Indeed, the Talmud continues right after to tell a story of how one Purim, that same sage Rava got so drunk that he seemingly “killed” Rabbi Zeira! All was well though because, great sage that he was, Rava resurrected Rabbi Zeira back to life. The short passage ends by saying that the following year, Rava invited Rabbi Zeira to another Purim feast, and Rabbi Zeira politely declined, saying “miracles don’t happen all the time!” Nothing more is said, leaving the reader scratching his head. What really happened between Rava and Rabbi Zeira?

The simplest reading suggests that the Talmud is trying to disqualify Rava’s opinion. It was Rava who suggested that one should get really drunk, so the Talmud right after describes how Rava himself got so drunk that he ended up murdering someone. Lesson: don’t get drunk on Purim! More ironic still, it was Rava who taught, elsewhere, that one shouldn’t even look at wine, since consuming wine could lead to bloodshed! (Sanhedrin 70a) It is most likely that he only taught this after that infamous Purim incident, when he learned his lesson.

The simple solution above works, but doesn’t answer the big mysteries: why did Rava phrase his teaching that one should not know the difference between Haman and Mordechai? To not be able to differentiate at all between good and evil seems almost impossible, even when totally under the influence. Second, how could a tremendously righteous and wise rabbi like Rava kill another person? This, too, seems impossible, even if he was completely drunk. Finally, if Rava had the power to resurrect another person, why did Rabbi Zeira fear to celebrate Purim with him the following year? Surely Rava wouldn’t make the same mistake again, and even in the extremely unlikely event that he did, couldn’t Rava just revive him once more anyway? To solve these problems, we have to look deeper.

As discussed in the past (see ‘The Secret Behind Wearing Masks and Getting Drunk’ in Garments of Light, Volume Two), the real reason to drink wine on Purim is only to be able to understand Torah on a more profound level. One of the effects of alcohol is that it increases levels of (and/or acts like) the neurotransmitter GABA, an inhibitor which shuts things off in the brain. When one drinks a little bit, GABA starts to shut down processes in the outer cortex and prefrontal cortex of the brain. This includes things like motor function, decision-making, and analysis, which serves to remove various inhibitions and restraints one has, often making a person “softer”, more open and more loving, and able to see things as being more attractive. When applied to Torah, a little bit of wine can help a person notice things they never did before, or come to new realizations. Indeed, GABA is also associated with the formation of new neural connections. And, with their normal analytical mind suppressed, a person may be able to think differently than their usual modes of reasoning, opening up the possibility to chiddushim. (With too much alcohol though, GABA levels start to go up deeper and deeper into the brain, and if it gets all the way to the brain stem—which controls vital functions like breathing—it can become fatal.)

This explains why Rava would teach that drinking wine in moderation can make a person wise (Sanhedrin 70a). Our Sages similarly taught that nichnas yayin, yatza sod: when one drinks wine, “secrets come out” (Sanhedrin 38a). The traditional way to understand this statement is that a person who drinks alcohol is likely to run their mouth and reveal embarrassing secrets. On a deeper level, however, it means that a person who drinks a little bit of alcohol may be able to uncover some new Torah secrets. They may be able to see things on a more profound level. For instance, within the phrase nichnas yayin, yatza sod is a mathematical secret where the value of “wine” (יין) is 70, as is the value of “secret” (סוד). Seventy comes in and seventy comes out!

In the same way, when Rava taught that one should drink until they don’t know the difference between “cursed is Haman” (ארור המן) and “blessed is Mordechai” (ברוך מרדכי), he really meant to look beyond the surface and see that, in gematria, these two statements are exactly equal! (Both add up to 502.) Mordechai is the force of goodness that perfectly neutralized Haman’s evil. So, it’s not that Rava said a person should get smashed on Purim, he meant that a person should drink just enough to learn Torah better and uncover its secrets. With this in mind, we can understand what happened between Rava and Rabbi Zeira that fateful Purim.

Basic Gematria Chart

Ascending to Heaven

As we might expect, when two sages get together on Purim, they are not getting together simply to party. They surely used it as an opportunity to pursue a higher spiritual endeavour. Purim, like all holidays, is when spirituality is heightened and the Heavens are more accessible. What Rava sought to do, with Rabbi Zeira’s help, is nothing less than ascend to the upper worlds. There is a long tradition of a pair or group of sages getting together to accomplish such feats. Surely the most well-known is the story of the Four Who Entered Pardes:

The Sages taught: Four entered “the orchard” [pardes], and they are: Ben Azzai, and Ben Zoma, Acher, and Rabbi Akiva… Ben Azzai glimpsed and died, and with regard to him the verse states: “Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of His pious ones” [Psalms 116:15]. Ben Zoma glimpsed and was harmed, and with regard to him the verse states: “Have you found honey? Eat as much as is sufficient for you, lest you become full from it and vomit it” [Proverbs 25:16]. Acher “cut the saplings”. Rabbi Akiva came out safely. (Chagigah 14b)

Long before Rava and Rabbi Zeira, Rabbi Akiva led a group of four to ascend to the Heavenly “orchard”. Through various Kabbalistic means, the souls of the four wise men went up to the upper worlds, and the Talmud even describes some of the incredible things they saw. It was so shocking that Acher, previously known as Rabbi Elisha ben Avuya, “cut the saplings” and became a heretic. Ben Azzai’s soul never returned, while Ben Zoma went mad. Only Rabbi Akiva survived the experience and came out whole.

In his Ben Yehoyada, the Ben Ish Chai (Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, 1835-1909) explains that this is precisely what happened to Rava and Rabbi Zeira! They were learning some really deep stuff and Rava was teaching Rabbi Zeira such great mystical secrets that his soul literally left his body and ascended heavenward. Rava was able to then draw Rabbi Zeira’s soul back down to this world and revive him. The Ben Ish Chai connects this to what happened at Mount Sinai, when the entire nation “died” and was “resurrected”, because God’s revelation was so intense. With this in mind, I believe we can properly understand why the Talmud uses a unique word in this passage:

Another version of ‘Two ancient Jewish sages learning Torah and ascending to Heaven’ generated by Midjourney AI

The standard Aramaic term for “killing” in the Talmud is katal (קטל). Yet here, the Talmud doesn’t use that word, but uses shecht (שחט) instead. This word is, of course, the one used in reference to the kosher slaughter of an animal, for meat consumption. So, what does it mean that Rava shechted Rabbi Zeira? We must remember that the purpose of shechitah is not to just kill the animal. Rather, shechitah is the mechanism through which the animal’s soul is able to return to Heaven. On a Kabbalistic level, it functions as a tikkun for the animal’s soul, allowing it to ascend upward. This is precisely what Rava did to Rabbi Zeira, by extracting the soul out of his body and elevating it to the upper worlds, giving him an “out-of-body” experience. I think this is the real reason the Talmud uses the term shecht!

To go back to our three starting questions: 1) Rava did not say one should be drunk out of their minds, rather he taught that one should drink a little wine in order to learn better and be able to unravel Torah secrets. 2) Rava never literally killed anyone, God forbid, but simply elevated the soul of Rabbi Zeira through the depth and breadth of his Torah teachings. 3) Rabbi Zeira did not wish to have another “out-of-body” experience with Rava the following year simply because he knew how perilous such a journey might be. After all, Ben Azzai’s soul was so happy up there that he never returned to Earth. So, it’s not so much that Rava wouldn’t be able to revive Rabbi Zeira again, but that Rabbi Zeira worried he might not wish to return!

It must be mentioned here that there is an alternate way to read the Talmud’s concluding words in this passage. Since the Talmud does not identify who the “he” is, some people read it to mean that it was Rabbi Zeira who asked for another Purim party with Rava—having had such an awesome experience the previous year—and it was Rava who declined, since he was not sure if he could revive Rabbi Zeira again! Whatever the case, we must remember that a Jew need not resort to chemical substances for spiritual elevation; Torah study itself can be far more potent.

Chag Sameach!

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 incorporates 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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