Tag Archives: Sukkah (Tractate)

Do the Deaths of the Righteous Atone for the Sins of Others?

‘Nadav and Avihu consumed by fire’ by M de Brunhoff (1904)

In this week’s parasha, Shemini, we read of the sudden death of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron. The Torah states that they brought an incense offering that God “had not commanded them” (Leviticus 10:1) and as a result were consumed in a blaze of fire. The simple meaning here is that they had performed a priestly service that they were not supposed to, or were not worthy of performing, and this is why they were consumed. Rashi brings a number of other opinions as to why they perished: One is that they brazenly “rendered halachic decisions before Moses”. Another is that they had brought the offering while intoxicated, which is why just several verses later the Torah prohibits priests from being inebriated while serving in the Temple (Leviticus 10:9).

The Arizal, in Sha’ar HaGilgulim, brings a number of explanations, too. One is from an older Midrash that Nadav and Avihu refused to get married, believing that no women were worthy to marry them. Based on this, the Arizal states that Nadav reincarnated in Samson (ch. 36). Samson, too, didn’t marry any Jewish girls, and instead married Philistine women that brought him nothing but trouble. This may have been his punishment for refusing to marry a good Jewish girl in a past life. The Arizal adds that because Nadav had served while drunk, Samson was born a nazir, and was forbidden from consuming even a drop of alcohol his entire life. The proof that Samson was a reincarnation of Nadav comes from Scripture, where in one instance (I Samuel 12:11) Samson is actually referred to as “Badan” (בדן). This name is the reverse of Nadav (נדב), hinting to their spiritual connection.

Having said all that, the Arizal gives another reason for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, and in this case not because they were sinful. Instead, he explains that Nadav and Avihu correspond to the sefirot of Netzach and Hod, emerging from the highest level of Adam’s soul (ch. 33). They died to atone for the sins of the nation, and to remove the zuhama, the spiritual impurity that the Serpent (Nachash) in Eden injected into the world. (For a deeper analysis of exactly which sin Nadav and Avihu died for and why, see ‘The Holy Souls of Nadav and Avihu’ in Garments of Light.) This idea predates the Arizal, and is found in the Zohar (III, 56b), which compares Nadav and Avihu to the two goats sacrificed on Yom Kippur. The Zohar states that the two brothers were equal in greatness to the entire Sanhedrin of seventy elders, and their deaths atoned for the sins of Israel.

‘Joshua Burns the Town of Ai’ by Gustave Doré (1866)

The Zohar’s description brings to mind a similar one from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 44a), where the Sages discuss the deaths of 36 Israelites in the Battle of Ai (Joshua 7-8). Recall that Joshua led the Israelites into battle to conquer the Holy Land. The first battle, for the city of Jericho, was a flawless victory, with not a single Israelite casualty. The second battle, however, was initially a defeat, with 36 Israelites losing their lives. While this is certainly a small number in military terms, the fact that there was any casualty at all was a shock for the nation. The Sages state that, in reality, it wasn’t even 36 soldiers, for “surely it was said, ‘about thirty six men’ [Joshua 7:5] which refers to Yair, the son of Menashe, who was equal to the greater part of the Sanhedrin.”

The Sages state that actually just one person was killed in the Battle of Ai, and he was equal to 36 of the 70 wise and righteous elders of the Sanhedrin. They extract this from the words of the Tanakh itself, which states k’shloshim v’shisha ish, literally translated as “like 36 man”. In other words, the casualty of the Battle of Ai was one man likened to 36. The Sages use the same expression elsewhere, in describing Avishai, the nephew of King David (Berakhot 62b):

…“Satan stood up against Israel and stirred up David to number Israel.” [I Chronicles 21:1] And when he did number them, he took no ransom from them and it is written, “So God sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning even to the time appointed.” [I Chronicles 21:14]

… And He said to the Angel that destroyed the people: “It is enough” [I Chronicles 21:16] Rabbi Elazar explained: “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to the Angel: ‘Take a great man among them, through whose death many sins can be expiated for them.’ At that time died Avishai son of Zeruiah, who was equal in worth to the greater part of the Sanhedrin.”

The Torah forbids taking a census of the Jewish people. The only way it is permitted to count Jews is if each person gives some kind of “ransom”, such as a half-shekel coin, and the coins are counted, not the people. In an infamous episode from the Tanakh, Satan enticed David to sin by taking a census without collecting any ransom. As a result, a plague struck the nation, taking the lives of 70,000 people, shiv’im elef ish [I Chronicles 21:14].

Following this, God told the Angel of Destruction to stop by saying rav, “it is enough”. The Sages interpret rav to mean “rabbi”—that God actually told the angel to take the life of one righteous rabbi instead. Again, the Tanakh uses the word ish, as if a single person was killed; one man equal to 70,000. This is a beautiful teaching of the Sages, and transforms what one might read as God’s strict, merciless judgement, into God’s kindness and mercy. Although 70,000 may have deserved to die, God took the life of one righteous man instead to spare all the others.

The fact that such people—Yair, Avishai, Nadav, Avihu—are always compared to a greater part of the Sanhedrin, meaning 36 people, is not a coincidence. As we’ve written before with regards to Chanukah (when we light a total of 36 candles), the number 36 is of huge significance in Judaism.

Greater Than Thirty-Six Tzadikim

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 97b) states:

Abaye said: “The world must contain no less than thirty-six righteous men in each generation who are worthy to receive the Shekhinah, for it is written: ‘Blessed are all they that wait for him’ [Isaiah 30:18]; the numerical value of ‘for him’ [lo, לו] is thirty-six.”

But that is not so, for did not Rava say: “The row [of righteous men] before the Holy One, blessed be He, consists of eighteen thousand, for it is written, ‘It shall be eighteen thousand round about?’” [Ezekiel 48:35] That is no difficulty: the former number [thirty-six] refers to those who see Him through a bright speculum, the latter [eighteen thousand] to those who contemplate Him through a dim one.

In every generation, there must be 36 perfectly righteous people in the world. There are an additional 18,000 very righteous people in each generation. The former can behold the Shekhinah—God’s Divine Presence—clearly, while the latter only dimly. The idea of the 36 righteous people, lamed-vav tzadikim, plays an important role in Judaism, especially in Kabbalistic and Hasidic texts.

The number 36 corresponds to the 36 hours that the Divine Light shone uninterrupted at the start of Creation. It is through this Divine Light that the Tzadikim are able to behold the Shekhinah. And just as this Hidden Light continues to uphold all of Creation, so too are the 36 Tzadikim said to uphold the world, as it is written: “The tzaddik is the foundation of the world” (Proverbs 10:25).

Meanwhile, we know that the Torah, too, is the foundation of the world (see, for example, Avot 1:2). Indeed, we find that there are exactly 36 individual texts in the Tanakh: the Five Books of Moses, nineteen books of Prophets, and 12 Holy Writings. (The 36 texts are usually combined into “24 Books of the Tanakh” for the sake of convenience. So, for example, the “Twelve Minor Prophets” are combined into one book, Trei Asar.) Each of the 36 Tzadikim corresponds to one “hour” of Divine Light, and to one of the Holy Scriptures. As such, they are the 36 pillars of the world. (It just so happens that there are also 36 sins for which the Torah prescribes the death penalty, though we shall leave that discussion for another time.)

From the words of our Sages, we can extract that in addition to these 36, there is one more, even greater individual who is equal to all 36 of them, to the “greater part of the Sanhedrin”. Between the two of them, Nadav and Avihu were greater than the Sanhedrin of seventy elders in their own day, as were Yair and Avishai. And it is such people that, ever so rarely, God chooses to take away to atone for the sins of many others.

The spiritual math is simple: if you have a thousand people, each with a “kilogram” of sin, and one person with 1000 “kilograms” of merit, the merit of the one can be “taken back” in order to neutralize the sins of a thousand. In this way, a great many lives can be spared. The idea makes sense in principle, and a person who is truly the most righteous of his generation would undoubtedly have no problem giving up his or her own life to save a multitude of others.

And yet, the idea is sometimes hard for modern Jews to digest because it has been hijacked, abused, and taken to an illogical extreme by Christians.

The Death of the Messiah

All of Christianity rests on the idea that Jesus, the supposed messiah, died for the sins of the world. We have already addressed the issues with Christianity on several occasions (see here, here, and here) so there is no need to do that again. What needs to be understood is where the idea comes from, and what it originally meant. The Talmud (Sukkah 52a) records the following:

What is the cause of the mourning [at the End of Days, as described in Zechariah 12:12]? Rabbi Dosa and the other Rabbis differ on the point. One explained: “The cause is the slaying of Mashiach ben Yosef” and the other explained: “The cause is the slaying of the Evil Inclination.” It is well according to him who explains that the cause is the slaying of Mashiach ben Yosef, since that agrees with the Scriptural verse, “And they shall look upon Me because they have thrust him through, and they shall mourn for him as one mourns for his only son” [Zechariah 12:10]. But according to him who explains the cause to be the slaying of the Evil Inclination, is this an occasion for mourning? Is it not rather an occasion for rejoicing? Why then should they weep?

Rav Yehudah explained: “In the time to come, the Holy One, blessed be He, will bring the Evil Inclination and slay it in the presence of the righteous and the wicked. To the righteous it will have the appearance of a towering hill, and to the wicked it will have the appearance of a hair thread. Both the former and the latter will weep; the righteous will weep saying, ‘How were we able to overcome such a towering hill!’ The wicked also will weep saying, ‘How is it that we were unable to conquer this hair thread!’ And the Holy One, blessed be He, will also marvel together with them, as it is said, ‘Thus says the Lord of Hosts: If it be marvellous in the eyes of the remnant of this people in those days, it shall also be marvellous in My eyes.’” [Zechariah 8:6]

First, we must remember that according to tradition there are two messiahs (or possibly one messiah in two phases): Mashiach ben Yosef, and then Mashiach ben David. The former dies amidst the great battles of the End of Days. For this, the people at that time will mourn. Zechariah describes a great mourning like no other, with all the families of Israel in tears. This is enough to debunk Jesus’ identification with Mashiach ben Yosef: Jesus did not die in battle, and was not mourned by all of Israel (quite the contrary). The fact that Jesus’ “father” was named Joseph means nothing, for Jesus supposedly did not have an earthly father anyway.

Now, the more important event that will happen at that same time, with the death of Mashiach ben Yosef, is the destruction of the Evil Inclination. This is, after all, the very purpose of having an “End of Days” to begin with: to destroy evil for good and usher in a perfect world. When Evil will be crushed, the people will weep. As our Sages explain, those who overcame evil and did good will weep because they will be amazed at how they were able to conquer the great temptations, while those who were evil will weep because they will realize how weak they were in falling to mere temptation. Again, Jesus’ death did not end Evil on Earth. On the contrary, one might argue that even more horrible evils were done since then, many of which were done, ironically, in the name of Jesus!

Finally, the Talmud goes on to say what will happen to Mashiach ben Yosef next:

Our Rabbis taught: The Holy One, blessed be He, will say to Mashiach ben David (may he reveal himself speedily in our days!), “Ask of me anything, and I will give it to you,” as it is said, “I will tell of the decree… this day have I begotten you, ask of me and I will give the nations for your inheritance.” [Psalms 2:7-8] But when he will see that Mashiach ben Yosef is slain, he will say to Him: “Master of the Universe, I ask of You only the gift of life.” He would answer him: “As to life, your father David has already prophesied this concerning you, as it is said, ‘He asked life from You, You gave it to him…’” [Psalms 21:5]

After his death, Mashiach ben David requests of God to bring Mashiach ben Yosef back to life. It is important to remember that this is followed by a Resurrection of the Dead of all righteous souls, not just the messiah’s. From the wording of the Talmud, we might conclude that there is indeed just one messiah: Mashiach ben Yosef dies and is resurrected as Mashiach ben David. (We can extract this from the fact that ben David seems to be asking for life for himself, and God replies that it had already been granted to you.)

In the case of Jesus, he was apparently resurrected, but then supposedly ascended to Heaven, and hasn’t been heard from in two millennia. This is not how prophecy describes the coming of Mashiach. He is supposed to come once, at the End of Days, and needs no “second coming”. He comes once, and then reigns on Earth as king of Israel. Nowhere does it state that he will come and disappear for any long duration of time. He comes once, fights great battles that engulf the whole world (as described in detail by Ezekiel and Zechariah, among other prophets), dies for the sins of Israel specifically, and to destroy Evil once and for all (similar to the way the Arizal describes the deaths of Nadav and Avihu served to remove the zuhama), is mourned by all of Israel, and is then resurrected, finishes the great wars, brings peace to the world, reigns as king of Israel, regathers the Jews to the Holy Land, rebuilds the Temple, facilitates a Resurrection of the Dead, and completes his task once a perfect world is re-established.

There is no more need for him after that. He is not a god, and is never described as such. He is not supposed to be prayed to, or worshipped. He is a man. And although Scripture describes him as a child of God (as in the Psalm above), it clearly describes all of Israel as children of God (as in Deuteronomy 14:1, for example).

To summarize, the concept of unique righteous people dying to atone for the sins of others is an ancient Jewish one, and a valid one. Christians adopted it, to an extreme (ie. not to a specific generation of Jews, but for all mankind for all time), to describe Jesus. This is not surprising, for as we’ve written before, the character of Jesus was carefully constructed from Jewish texts, both Scriptural and extra-Scriptural. This is how some Jews unfortunately succumb to Christian missionaries who bring “proof” from Jewish texts. These prove nothing but the eventual coming of the true messiah—may we merit to see him soon.

Wasting Seed: Minor Taboo or Grave Sin?

In this week’s parasha, Vayeshev, we read about the incident of Yehuda and Tamar. Yehuda’s eldest son, Er, marries a beautiful woman named Tamar. Unfortunately, Er “was evil in the eyes of God, and God put him to death.” (Genesis 38:7) As was customary in those days, since Er died without a son, it was expected that his brother, Onan, would perform levirate marriage and take Tamar as his wife. As the Torah describes, the purpose of this is to essentially provide a sort of heir for his childless brother. Onan was happy to marry Tamar, but

knew that the progeny would not be his, and it came about, when he came to his brother’s wife, he wasted [his semen] on the ground, in order not to give seed to his brother. And what he did was evil in the eyes of God, and He put him to death also. (Genesis 38:9-10)

As we know, Yehuda would end up being with Tamar himself, and out of that union would come Peretz, the ancestor of King David.

‘Judah and Tamar’

The big question is: what was it that Er and Onan did that was so despicable to God? The classic answer is that they wasted their seed (as the Torah states above), which is why they were punished so severely. This narrative is then used as proof from the Torah that wasting seed is among the gravest of prohibitions.

And yet, the Torah itself does not actually prohibit wasting seed anywhere, at least not explicitly. Considering how strictly the Sages spoke about not wasting seed, we might be surprised to find that it is not one of the 613 commandments. So, what is the true extent of this prohibition? Where did it come from? And what was really going on with Er and Onan?

A Closer Look at Er and Onan

While the Torah tells us that Er was evil in God’s eyes, it does not explain why. Many commentators (including Rashi and Rabbeinu Bechaye) assume that he must have been evil for the same reason his brother Onan was: for wasting seed. Rabbeinu Bechaye (1255-1340) clarifies that the sin was not the act of wasting seed itself, but rather for an ulterior motive. Er did not want to impregnate Tamar so that her beauty would not be ruined. He wanted her solely for physical pleasure. This is what was despicable to God.

Similarly, a careful look at the Torah makes it clear that Onan’s sin was not wasting seed either. What the Torah says is that Onan did not want to fulfil the mitzvah of levirate marriage. He avoided impregnating Tamar because he “knew the progeny would not be his”, and the reason he spilled his seed on the ground was “in order not to give seed to his brother”. The sin here was not the act of wasting seed, but rather disrespecting his own brother, and refusing to fulfil the mitzvah of levirate marriage.

Such is the opinion of Tzror haMor (Rabbi Abraham Saba, 1440-1508), and we see similar comments by Sforno (Rabbi Ovadiah ben Yakov, 1475-1550). Chizkuni (Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoach, c. 1250-1310) goes even further, saying that Onan was really out to increase his share of land, for if he would have fulfilled the mitzvah, the child would receive Er’s portion of land, and if not, then Onan would be the inheritor. From these commentaries, and the Torah’s own simple reading, we can definitively conclude that the sin was not the wasting of seed itself but the evil ulterior motives behind it, especially the disrespect for a brother.

All of this is right in line with the Torah’s persistent theme of brothers failing to love each other, starting with Cain and Abel and continuing through Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and Yehuda’s sons. The Torah takes every possible opportunity to remind us to love each other wholeheartedly (as we are all brothers), and that tragedies always befall the Jewish people when we lack brotherly love—as our Sages explicitly state countless times.

Going back to the subject at hand, nowhere else in the Torah is wasting seed an issue. The Torah does state that a man who has an “emission” is impure for purposes of going to the Temple. What he must do is bathe in water, and wait until the evening for the impurity to go away (Leviticus 15:16). No other punishment is prescribed, irrespective of why the man might have the emission.

Spilling Seed, or Spilling Blood?

It is in the Talmud where wasting seed takes on its grave overtones. The Sages compare one who wastes seed to a murderer, an idolater, and an adulterer (Niddah 13a-b). This is quite shocking, considering that murder, idolatry, and adultery are the three “cardinal sins” of Judaism. These are the things one must give up their life for in order to avoid, even if coerced. The Sages are equating wasting seed with the worst possible sins.

In the same pages, we read how Rav Yochanan holds that one who wastes seed “deserves death”. Interestingly, he bases himself on the verses in the Torah concerning the deaths of Er and Onan! Yet, as we’ve seen, their sin was not the act of wasting seed, but their evil ulterior motives. In reality, the Sages are hard-pressed to find a good source for the prohibition. They resort to various colourful interpretations of Scriptural verses in an attempt to illustrate the evils of wasting seed. For example, Isaiah 1:15 says “And when you spread forth your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; when you make many prayers, I will not hear, [because] your hands are full of blood.” Rabbi Elazar says that “hands are full of blood” is referring to those who masturbate, since spilling seed is like spilling blood! This is far from the plain meaning of the verse, which is obviously talking about actual bloodshed.

We should keep in mind that in these Talmudic pages, the Sages are not just prohibiting masturbation or wasting seed, but even for a man to simply touch their “member”—even to urinate! “Rabbi Eliezer said: Whoever holds his member when he urinates is as though he had brought a flood on the world.” Rabbi Tarfon later adds that his hand should be cut off! It goes without saying that the Sages were exceedingly careful to avoid any sexual transgressions, and raised many “fences” to ensure that no one should even come close to sinning so gravely. We must remember that the Talmud often uses hyperbole to get a point across and it isn’t always wise to take statements literally. The Sages themselves question Rabbi Eliezer, and say that not holding one’s member would be very impractical, for “would not the spray splatter on his feet…?”

The point, rather, is to teach us that “such is the art of the evil inclination: Today it incites man to do one wrong thing, and tomorrow it incites him to worship idols and he proceeds to worship them.” (Niddah 13b) The Sages are specifically referring to one who fantasizes to “give himself an erection”, and that such a person “should be expelled”. After all, the yetzer hara works in such a way that it gets a person to make a tiny sin, and slowly leads them to greater transgressions. It might start with a small thought, grow into a consuming fantasy, and eventually leads one to grossly misbehave. In short, the fear is that a person will get accustomed to bad habits, and it will end up leading to more severe transgressions.

Halacha & Kabbalah of Spilling Seed

The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) codifies as law the prohibition of wasting seed, whether with one’s partner or on their own (Mishneh Torah, Issurei Biah 21:18):

It is forbidden to release semen wastefully. Therefore a person should not enter his wife and release outside of her… Those who release semen with their hands, beyond the fact that they commit a great transgression, a person who does this will abide under a ban of ostracism. Concerning them, it is said: “Your hands are filled with blood.” It is as if they killed a person.

The Rambam makes a distinction between a situation of husband and wife versus a man doing it on his own, which is far worse and likened to murder. Having said that, many other great authorities in Jewish law were more lenient when it comes to wasting seed, especially when the intention is not evil. The Rambam’s contemporary, Rabbi Yehuda haHasid (1150-1217), wrote in his Sefer Hasidim that while masturbation is forbidden, and requires a great deal of penance to repair, it is occasionally permitted if it will prevent a person from a more serious sin. On that note, the Rambam himself wrote elsewhere (Commentary on the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 7:4) that wasting seed is not an explicit Torah prohibition, and carries no actual punishment of any kind. However, he writes in the same place that although many things are permitted when done consensually between husband and wife, it is nonetheless important to be exceedingly modest when it comes to sexuality.

The later Kabbalists understood that the Torah carries no explicit punishment for wasting seed, but found an allusion to a more mystical punishment. They taught that wasting seed produces banim shovavim, literally “wayward children” (a term that comes from Jeremiah 3:14 and 3:22). These impure spirits—potential souls that are brought into this world without a body—attach to a man’s neck and cause him great damage, and can harm his children, too. There is no doubt that the Rambam, being a strict rationalist and staying away from anything “Kabbalistic”, would disagree with this approach. The Rambam did not believe in demons or evil spirits, and refused to accept the validity of many (if not all) Kabbalistic ideas and practices.

The Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572), perhaps the greatest of Kabbalists, was a major proponent of the banim shovavim notion. Since his time, it has become customary in some communities to focus on purifying from sexual sins and from wasted seed during the weeks when we read the consecutive parashas of Shemot, Va’era, Bo, Beshalach, Yitro, and Mishpatim. Since the initials of these parashas spell “shovavim”, it is thought to be an auspicious time for such repentance. Yet even the Arizal taught that wasting seed is primarily a problem when a person does so on their own, for selfish, lustful reasons. If one is married, and there is genuine loving intimacy between husband and wife, the prohibition is no longer so clear cut. (See, for example, Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Noach).

Indeed, many authorities were lenient with regards to wasting seed in the context of a husband and wife being together—as long as they are not like Er or Onan. If the intention is pure, and the couple has fulfilled the mitzvah of procreation (so they are obviously not trying to avoid having children), then occasionally wasting seed is permissible. Among those that held this opinion include the tosafist Rabbi Isaac ben Shmuel (c. 1115-1184, in his comments to Yevamot 34b) and the Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, 1555-1631, in his comments on Nedarim 20a).

In fact, even the Arizal taught that, in certain special cases, wasted seed can serve a positive purpose. In Sha’ar HaGilgulim (ch. 26), we read how the ten drops of wasted seed that unintentionally emerged out of Joseph (as per the famous Midrash) resulted in levushim, protective “garments” for the soul. The seed wasted indirectly by tzaddikim may similarly produce such protective garments, especially when it happens during proper, loving, holy zivug (union) between husband and wife. Such union, while not fruitful in this world, corresponds to “heavenly unions” that are spiritually fruitful. It is important to repeat that this entails being an actual tzaddik—being righteous, just, observant, modest, humble, selfless—and being intimate in a holy, loving, kosher, monogamous union.

On that note, it is worth mentioning that a couple that is childless, or already pregnant, is absolutely allowed to continue to be intimate, and this is not at all considered “wasting seed”. (The Talmud adds that intimacy during the third trimester is particularly healthy for both mother and baby, see Niddah 31a.) At the very start of Sha’ar HaMitzvot, the Arizal explains that such unions might not produce physical children, but they produce many spiritual children. This is one meaning for the verse in the Torah that says Abraham and Sarah “made souls” in Charan (Genesis 12:5)—although they were physically childless, they had produced many souls in Heaven, and these souls later came down into human form. In fact, there are those who say these souls are given to converts, who receive a Jewish soul upon their successful conversion. The souls that Abraham and Sarah made all those years come down into the bodies of converts, which is the deeper reason why all converts are referred to as “ben Avraham” and “bat Sarah”.

To summarize and conclude, the issue of spilled seed is indeed a serious one, and should not be taken lightly. There is room to be lenient in certain situations, such as a righteous married couple who already has multiple children, or a young, unmarried gentleman, whose frustration might reach a point where he is led to worse sins. The Sages recognized how incredibly difficult the latter case can be, and stated that a young bachelor who lives in the city and can still hold himself back from sexual sins is so praiseworthy that God personally calls out his name in Heaven every day (Pesachim 113a). Rabbi Chiya, meanwhile, said that it is best to stay married no matter what, and to always treat one’s wife exceedingly well—even if she is the worst possible wife—because wives “save us from sin” (Yevamot 63a). It is fitting to end with another famous adage from the Talmud (Sukkah 52b): אבר קטן יש לו לאדם מרעיבו שבע משביעו רעב “There is a small organ in a man’s body—if he starves it, he is satisfied; if he satisfies it, he starves.”

Who is Samael?

In this week’s parasha, Vayishlach, we read of Jacob’s famed battle with the angel. According to many sources, Jacob battled Esau’s guardian angel. While the identity of the angel is concealed in the plain text of the Torah, Jewish tradition associates this angel with Samael. That name is one of the most famous—or infamous—of all angelic entities, not just in Judaism, but also in Christianity, Gnosticism, and other Near Eastern traditions. Who is Samael?

‘Jacob Wrestling with an Angel’ by Charles Foster

The Primordial Serpent

One of the most ancient Jewish mystical works is Sefer HaBahir. At the very end of the text (ch. 200), we are told that Samael was the angel that came down to the Garden of Eden in the form of a serpent. We read here that one of his punishments was to become the guardian angel of the wicked Esau. The Bahir explains that Samael was jealous of man, and disagreed with the fact that God gave man dominion over the earth. He came down with the mission of corrupting mankind.

The Midrash (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 14) seems to agree, describing how God “cast down Samael and his troop from their holy place in Heaven.” In the previous chapter of the same Midrash, we read how Samael is unique in that, while other angels have six wings, Samael has twelve, and “commands a whole army of demons”. The Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572) adds that Samael is in charge of all the “male” demons, called Mazikim, while his “wife” Lilith is in charge of all the “female” demons, called Shedim (Sha’ar HaPesukim on Tehilim). He further associates Lilith with the sword of the “Angel of Death”.

A little-known apocryphal text called the Ascension [or Testament] of Moses (dating back at least to the early 1st century CE) states that Samael is the one “who takes the soul away from man”, directly identifying him with the Angel of Death. This ties neatly into his name, since Samael (סמאל) literally means “poison of God”. Indeed, the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 20b) states that the Angel of Death takes a person away by standing over them with his sword, before a drop of poison falls from the tip of the sword into the victim’s mouth. Elsewhere, the Talmud (Bava Batra 16a) tells us that the Angel of Death is the same entity as Satan, and as the source of the yetzer hara (the Evil Inclination).

In his Kabbalah (pg. 385), Gershom Scholem brings a number of sources that state Satan and Samael are one and the same, together with another figure called Beliar, or Belial. There are those who say that while Satan simply means “prosecutor”, and is only a title, Samael is actually his proper name. The Zohar (on parashat Shoftim) appears to agree, stating that the two main persecuting forces in Heaven are Samael and the Serpent. Some sources depict Samael as actually riding upon the Serpent!

Belial, meanwhile, is a term that appears many times in the Tanakh. It is first found in Deuteronomy 13:14, in a warning that certain bnei Belial will come out to tempt Israel into idolatry. While the simple meaning (and the way it is generally translated) is “base” or “wicked men”, the Kabbalistic take is that it refers to impure spirits that come to lure Israel to sin. Note that the Torah says these bnei Belial will emerge from among our own people.

Not surprisingly, the Zohar (Raya Mehemna on Ki Tetze) says that there are a very small group of “Jewish” imposters who actually worship Samael. These are the ones that give all Jews a bad name, and aim to reverse all the good that Jews do in the world. We have written much of this small group of imposters before, as they are more commonly referred to as the Erev Rav. The Zohar states that Samael and Lilith were once good angels before their “fall”, and began to be worshipped as deities in their own right in the pre-Flood generation. The people in those days worshipped them in order to manipulate them to do their bidding. The Erev Rav aims to do the same today. Thankfully, God will destroy them all in the End of Days, and this is the deeper meaning of Zechariah 13:2:

“And it shall come to pass in that day,” says the Lord of Hosts, “that I will cut off the names of the idols out of the land, and they shall no more be remembered; and also I will cause the prophets and the unclean spirit to pass out of the land.”

Which prophets is God referring to? Those leaders of the Erev Rav that attempt to convince the masses that they are “prophets”, only to lead the people astray.

With this in mind, Jacob’s battle with Samael takes on a whole new meaning. It reminds us that the job of each Jew is to fight Samael and all his evil minions—the bnei Belial, the Erev Rav—tooth and nail, unceasingly, all through the dark night, as Jacob did. We must always stand on the side of light and truth, holiness and Godliness. This makes us Israel, as Jacob was renamed, the ones who fight alongside God. The Jewish people are meant to be God’s holy warriors in this world.

Battling 365 Days of the Year

Commenting on this week’s parasha, the Zohar states that there are 365 angels ruling over each of the 365 days of the solar year. These further correspond to the 365 gidim (“sinews”, or more accurately, major nerves) of the human body, as Jewish tradition maintains. In Jacob’s battle, Samael struck him in the thigh, on his gid hanashe, the sciatic nerve. For this reason, the Torah tells us, the Jewish people do not eat the sciatic nerve “until this day” (Genesis 32:33). Removing this sinew is a key part of koshering meat. In most places, since removing it is so difficult, they simply do not include the back half of the cow or sheep in the kosher meat process.

The Zohar says that since there are 365 days corresponding to 365 sinews, the gid hanashe corresponds to a specific day of the year, too, of course. Which day is that? Tisha b’Av, the most tragic day in Jewish history. The Zohar concludes that Samael is the angel that rules over this day, which is why it is so “unlucky” and sad. At the same time, it suggests that Jacob fought Samael on that same day, so even when Samael is at his strongest, each Jew has the power to defeat him.

Interestingly, the Talmud has a different approach. There we read that Satan rules 364 days of the year! (Nedarim 32b) This is why the gematria of HaSatan (השטן, the way it appears in the Tanakh) is 364. According to the Talmud, the one day a year that Satan “rests” is Yom Kippur. Thus, Yom Kippur is a particularly favourable day to repent and to have God accept our prayers. The Midrash (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 46) takes it one step further and states that not only does Satan rest on Yom Kippur, but he actually crosses the floor in the Heavenly Court and joins the defense!

How do we reconcile the seeming contradiction between the Talmud and the Zohar? Perhaps Samael, before his “fall”, was originally appointed to rule over Tisha b’Av. After his rebellion, he sought to dominate as much of the year as possible, and remains at large 364 days of the calendar, being particularly strong on Tisha b’Av. Only on Yom Kippur does God make sure that Satan has no dominion at all.

This should remind us that, at the end of the day, God is infinite and omnipotent, and there is none that can stand before Him. Satan or Samael can be winked out of existence instantaneously if God so willed it. Alas, the impure spirits still have a role to play in history. They will soon meet their end:

Kabbalistic texts state that Satan will lead one last battle in the End of Days, against Mashiach. He will come as the dreaded Armilus. In Sefer Zerubavel, Armilus is identified with Satan himself in bodily form, while in Nistarot d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, he is the son of Satan. He will seek to kill Mashiach, and he may succeed in killing Mashiach ben Yosef, before being in turn extinguished by Mashiach ben David. This is why the Arizal instituted a custom to insert a short prayer for Mashiach ben Yosef, that he should survive, in the blessing for Jerusalem in the Amidah. We have written elsewhere, though, why Mashiach ben Yosef must die to accomplish an important tikkun (see ‘Secrets of the Akedah’ in Garments of Light).

Until then, how do we keep Samael away? The Arizal (Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Shemot) taught not to pronounce his name out loud, for this attracts him. In Jewish tradition, we instead say the letters ס״ם, “samekh-mem”. The Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570) stated that eating too much red meat during the week gives power to Samael. It is generally best to leave red meat consumption for Shabbat and holidays if possible. It goes without saying that one should eat kosher meat to avoid the gid hanashe. Meanwhile, the Talmud (Shabbat 30b) famously recounts how David kept the Angel of Death at bay by constantly being immersed in Torah study. We should be focused on study of holy texts, prayer, repentance, doing mitzvot and good deeds. Finally, we must do everything we can to defeat our own inner evil inclinations, struggling as long as it takes, unrelenting, as Jacob did in his battle. In the same passage where the Talmud speaks of the death of Mashiach ben Yosef (Sukkah 52a), it tells us:

In the time to come, the Holy One, blessed be He, will bring the Evil Inclination and slay it in the presence of the righteous and the wicked. To the righteous it will have the appearance of a towering hill, and to the wicked it will have the appearance of a hair thread. Both the former and the latter will weep: the righteous will weep saying, “How were we able to overcome such a towering hill?!” The wicked also will weep saying, “How is it that we were unable to conquer this hair thread?!” And the Holy One, blessed be He, will also marvel together with them, as it is said, “Thus says the Lord of Hosts, ‘If it be marvellous in the eyes of the remnant of this people in those days, it shall also be marvellous in My eyes…’” [Zechariah 8:6]