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What is Tekhelet?

At the beginning of this week’s parasha, Tetzave, the Torah describes the special garments worn by the Kohanim. Making these garments requires the use of three unique dyed fabrics: tekhelet, argaman, v’tola’at shani, “blue, purple, and crimson wool”. Last year, we discussed tola’at shani and the practice of wearing a red string on the wrist. This year we will explore the other two ingredients: tekhelet and argaman. What are they and where do they come from?

In Greek mythology, the hero Hercules discovered Tyrian purple when his dog chewed on sea snails, as depicted here in Peter Paul Rubens’ “Hercules’ Dog Discovers Purple Dye”

Argaman is more commonly known as “Tyrian purple” or “royal purple”, a famous and prized dye in ancient times. Historical records and archaeological findings show that as early as 3500 years ago, trade in Tyrian purple was widespread across the Mediterranean and the Middle East. It was the Phoenicians who were experts in its production, and carried it around the region. (In fact, the root of the term Phoenician means “purple” in Greek. Similarly, some scholars have found evidence that Canaan means “dye merchant”.) Tyrian purple was worth at least as much as silver, and in some points in history, more than gold.

By the Roman Era, it was so expensive and prized that it was essentially only worn by royalty, hence “royal purple”. An average Roman, or even a Roman senator, would wear a toga pura, plain white, while magistrates and priests wore a toga praetexta, with a purple stripe or hem. Only the emperor would wear a toga picta, one that was entirely dyed purple, with gold embroidery. (Such a toga might also be worn by high ranking generals during their victory processions, as well as by the consuls.)

Shells of the Murex snails that produce purple and blue dye. (Credit: U.Name.Me)

How did the Phoenicians produce argaman? It was extracted from the glands of shellfish on the Phoenician shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. These Murex snails make the dye as a defense mechanism, spraying it on potential predators (just as squids and octopuses, their mollusc relatives, famously do). Research shows that the snails also use the dye for their own predatory behaviour when catching prey, and also as an antimicrobial to protect their eggs. To extract the dye, the snails are either “milked”, which takes a very long time, or more commonly, pierced through their shells to have the glands removed. It would take over 10,000 snails to produce just a few grams of dye!

Tekhelet was made the same way. Though not nearly as popular in ancient times, it was known as “royal blue”. The Phoenicians made it the same way, extracted from a snail. Some say it was derived from a different species of snail, while others point out that the same Tyrian purple, when exposed to large amounts of UV radiation (sunlight), becomes blue.

The Talmud (Menachot 44a) states that the dye was made from chilazon, a snail “whose body resembles the sea, and its form resembles a fish, and it comes up once in seventy years, and with its blood one dyes tekhelet, and therefore its blood is expensive.” It’s not quite the blood of the snail that makes the dye, of course, nor do the snails emerge only once in seventy years. This bit probably entered the Talmud because by that point in history, tekhelet production among Jews had long ended, and knowledge of its exact extraction forgotten. It was probably difficult, if not entirely impossible, for Jews to get their hands on it.

Tzitzit with tekhelet (Credit: Tekhelet.com)

Dr. Baruch Sterman, in a paper for B’Or HaTorah (vol. 11, pg. 185), points out that by the 4th century CE it was actually a crime for a commoner to wear tekhelet across the Roman world. It is highly likely that it was then, for this reason, that most Jews stopped using tekhelet in their tzitzit. Dr. Sterman brings proof from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 12a), where we read how two rabbis were arrested by the Romans for possessing tekhelet. Wealthy Jews living in the Persian Empire continued to pay exorbitant rates to import and use it, until sometime in the middle of the 7th century. It was then, likely due to the rise of Islam and the rapid Arab conquest of the region, that use of tekhelet among all Jews essentially ceased. This is why until today the majority of Jews do not use tekhelet in their tzitzit (as the Torah commands). However, in recent decades, the Murex snails have been rediscovered, and tekhelet is once again available.

Having said all that, Karaite Jews—a small group that rejects the Talmud—believe that tekhelet (and argaman) could not have been derived from snails. And they actually have a couple of seemingly valid points.

The Problem of Karaite Tekhelet

The Karaites believe that tekhelet cannot come from a snail because the Torah would not command something so important to come from a non-kosher animal. They also argue that royal blue tekhelet from snails would have been far too expensive for the average Israelite. Finally, they point out that God commanded this to the Israelites in the Wilderness—so where would they find sea snails in the middle of the desert? Instead, Karaite scholars proposed that tekhelet came from an indigo plant, such as the Indian Indigofera tinctoria (incidentally, this is the indigo once used to dye jeans blue).

Another, more likely, possibility is the woad plant, Isatis tinctoria, which contains the same indigo dye. This plant actually grows in Israel, and was once known as “Asp of Jerusalem”. Interestingly, the Mishnah (Megillah 4:7) states how Kohanim are forbidden from blessing the congregation if their hands are stained with “istis”, ie. the Isatis tinctoria dye. The Bartenura (Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura, c. 1445-1515) confirms that istis is a dye “whose colour resembles tekhelet”. This makes it clear that Kohanim in the ancient Holy Temple did use woad as a blue dye, though for what purpose is unclear.

Karaite Jews today continue to make tekhelet from indigo or woad to dye their tzitzit. Since Karaites hold strictly to the Written Torah, they maintain that tzitzit must be blue (and cannot be entirely white like most current “Rabbinic” tzitzit). They hold that any blue dye is fine, since the Torah does not explicitly say that other blue dyes are forbidden. The Talmud, meanwhile, states that a person who uses plant-derived blue dyes instead of authentic tekhelet is sinning, and God declares that He will “exact retribution” from such a person (Bava Metzia 61b, see also Tosefta on Menachot 9:6). And here the Karaites should take heed, for when it comes to tekhelet they are absolutely mistaken.

The big problem for the Karaites is basically everyone else. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) wrote in his History of Animals about the production of blue and purple dyes from snails, as did the Roman philosopher and historian Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) in his Natural History. These were the choicest and best dyes for clothes and fabrics. While tekhelet and argaman were expensive for the distant Greeks and Romans to procure, they would not have been expensive for the ancient Israelites. After all, these dyes were only expensive to purchase; there is no indication that they were expensive to produce. And the Israelites, like the Phoenicians and Canaanites, were the producers. They made the dyes cheaply, and exported them far and wide, for a healthy profit.

It was only in later centuries, when Israel was no longer an independent entity and was subject to a series of foreign empires, that Jews lost control of the means of tekhelet production. Tekhelet became rarer, and more expensive, and eventually forbidden. This development only occurred in the late Second Temple era, and possibly later. Still, when chemists in the 1990s analyzed blue fabrics uncovered at the Masada archaeological site, they discovered that the fabrics were indeed dyed with Murex snail tekhelet. Even in the late Second Temple era, tekhelet was available and used widely. Besides, the average Israelite in those days would have needed only a minute amount to dye a handful of strings to fulfil the mitzvah of tzitzit.

Another bit of evidence for the fact that snail dye was the real tekhelet comes from the Tanakh itself. While we’ve already seen how historical and archaeological records make it clear that the ancient Phoenicians were experts in snail dyes (not any plant-based blue dyes), we mustn’t forget that these same Phoenicians were heavily involved in the production of Israelite holy items, too! We read in the haftarah for last week’s parasha (I Kings 5:26-6:13) how King Solomon made an agreement with the Phoenician King Hiram, and the latter’s workers played an instrumental role in the construction of the Holy Temple. Granted, this was not the Mishkan of the Wilderness, but the later Temple was based on the earlier Mishkan, and the items were fashioned to the same specifications.

Where was Hiram’s capital city? The Tanakh always refers to him as melekh tzor, “King of Tyre”. This is the selfsame Tyre as the Tyre of Tyrian purple and Tyrian royal blue. We read how “Hiram, king of Tyre, sent his servants to Solomon…” (I Kings 5:15) It is hard to believe that it’s only a coincidence that the Tyrians renowned around the ancient world for their snail dyes are the same ones that the Tanakh tells us worked in Jerusalem! The evidence is therefore quite strong that tekhelet and argaman are the same as the snail-derived Tyrian dyes.

Tekhelet in the Wilderness

The nail on the coffin comes from an even more ancient historical text. Long before Pliny, Aristotle, and even Hiram, the ancient Egyptian Papyrus Anastasi I—dated back to the Nineteenth Dynasty (c. 1292-1189 BCE)—mentions how a royal blue dye is made from sea creatures and smells like putrid fish. This is particularly important because the Nineteenth Dynasty was the time of Pharaoh Ramses II, who is the one most associated with the Exodus. Ramses II built a new capital city which, of course, he named after himself, and which archaeologists have uncovered and refer to as Pi-Ramesses. This is the same city that the Torah mentions the Israelite slaves built (Exodus 1:11). Putting the pieces together, we now have an answer to the question posed by the Karaites: how did the Israelites find tekhelet and argaman in the Wilderness?

The Torah tells us that when the Israelites left Egypt, God commanded them to ask the Egyptians to give them precious materials: “And the children of Israel did according to the word of Moses, and they asked of the Egyptians jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment.” (Exodus 12:35) The Israelites got tekhelet and argaman from the same place they got their gold and silver (also used in constructing the Mishkan): from the Egyptians. The Papyrus of Anastasi proves that the ancient Egyptians, too, produced blue and purple dyes from Mediterranean snails. They made “raiment”, garments and fabrics dyed with these colours. The Torah informs us that the Israelites took these fabrics with them. And this is how they had them available for the Mishkan in the Wilderness!

Despite all that’s been said, the Orthodox world today has been very slow in readapting the use of tekhelet. Some rabbis maintain that these Murex snails are not the right ones. The Radziner Rebbe (Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner, 1839–1891) didn’t know about the snails at all and instead consulted chemists to produce a blue dye from the common cuttlefish, Sepia officinalis. The problem is that the cuttlefish only produces black ink, and turning it blue was a long chemical process that required adding iron filings. When later analyzed by experts, it was found that the Radziner Rebbe’s dye was basically synthetic, and the blue was simply a result of the added iron. (For more, see Dr. Sterman’s article in B’Or haTorah, cited above.) Meanwhile, Rabbi Isaac Herzog (1888-1959, Israel’s first Chief Rabbi) was an early proponent of snail-derived dyes.

In recent decades, more and more researchers have explored the subject, and today everything points to tekhelet being the blue dye of the Murex trunculus snail. The scientists at Masada confirmed it chemically, and although some state that there is no chemical difference between woad, indigo, and Murex blue, there are small differences in their molecular structure. One with a chemistry background will agree that the addition of even a single atom can dramatically change the nature of a substance. Still, many rabbis are reluctant to adopt tekhelet, and have decided it is best to wait until Mashiach comes just to be sure.

Comparing the chemistry of blue dyes: though looking similar to the untrained eye, the chemical structure of plant-based Indigotin (top left) is different from synthetic indigo (bottom left) and the indigo of Murex snails (bottom right).

And as for the Karaite argument that the Torah wouldn’t command something derived from a non-kosher animal, this argument falls apart when considering the third ingredient that always goes along with tekhelet and argaman: tola’at shani. The word is literally translated as a “crimson worm” or, more accurately, “red insect”. Tola’at definitely refers to a bug of some sort, as we read in Exodus 16:20 how leftover manna was infested with tola’im.

Tola’at shani is undoubtedly referring to the common carmine dye used around the world, and known commercially in food as E120. This dye is derived from a variety of scale insects, most commonly the cochineal family of bugs. Professor Zohar Amar of Bar Ilan University spent many years researching tola’at shani and concluded that it is unquestionably a red insect, which nests in the common Israeli oak tree. In fact, the Temple Institute has already begun harvesting these insects to produce an authentic avnet, the priestly belt that requires the red dye, in preparation for Mashiach’s coming and the return of priestly service in the forthcoming Third Temple.

Clockwise from top left: Professor Amar leads the Temple Institute’s Tola’at Shani harvest; the “crimson worm” on a branch of an Israeli oak tree; Professor Amar holds a cup of crimson water produced by crushing a single worm. 

The Secret Connection between Tu b’Shevat and Tu b’Av

Today we celebrate the holiday of Tu b’Shevat, the “new year for trees”. It is customary to consume a variety of fruits, especially the Seven Species of Israel (pomegranates, olives, dates, figs, and grapes, plus wheat and barley). In Israel, it has become customary to plant a tree. Some are familiar with a Tu b’Shevat “seder” that parallels the Passover seder and includes drinking four cups of wine. This seder emerged in the mystical circle of the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572), though wasn’t publicly written about until nearly two centuries later.

According to the Kabbalistic seder, one should actually eat of three types of fruits: those that are inedible on the outside but edible on the inside (like nuts or bananas); then those that are edible from the outside but not on the inside (like dates or olives); and finally those that are entirely edible (like figs or blueberries). This represents a transition from tough kelipot to no kelipot at all. The term kelipot literally means “peels” or “husks”, and plays a huge role in the Kabbalah of the Arizal. Man’s purpose is to symbolically break the kelipot and extract the sparks of holiness trapped within. Thus, on Tu b’Shevat one starts by eating fruits with a tough exterior, then proceeds to eating fruits with a smaller kelipa (a hard pit deep inside), and finally eats a completely edible fruit with no kelipa. The last represents a perfect, restored world. It is symbolic of the Garden of Eden where, in Jewish tradition, all trees and all parts of trees were completely edible—even their bark and wood!

In ancient times, Tu b’Shevat served a far more practical function. As the Mishnah states (Rosh Hashanah 1:1), Tu b’Shevat is one of the four “new years” of the Jewish calendar, and begins a new agricultural cycle. It opens a new season for tithes, and was vital for tracking the ages of trees. According to the Torah, it is forbidden to consume the fruits that a tree produces in its first three years (Leviticus 19:23). This is known as the mitzvah of orlah. It is therefore vital to know a tree’s age, so Tu b’Shevat is significant as it is considered a tree’s “birthday”.

Having said that, the same Mishnah says that Rosh Hashanah (the first of Tishrei) is the new year for “planting”. This suggests that Rosh Hashanah might be a tree’s birthday, too! That is indeed the case, and results in some interesting legal ramifications. The Talmud discusses them at length (starting on page 14a of Rosh Hashanah), as do the various commentators and legal authorities.

One of the points to be considered is that a tree does not have to be a full three years old, rather it can be in the third year of the agricultural cycle. So, for example, if a tree was planted several weeks before Rosh Hashanah, it may be counted as being in its first “year”. Once Rosh Hashanah hits, the tree enters its second year, even though it has only been alive for several weeks! Halachically, a tree must be planted at least 44 days before Rosh Hashanah to qualify. If it is planted within 44 days before Rosh Hashanah, then it would have to wait until the next Rosh Hashanah for its first birthday. Tu b’Shevat, meanwhile, plays a larger halachic role with regards to when the fruits of the tree ripen.

Hidden within this little-known law is a mystical secret that ties together the two “Tu” holidays of Judaism: Tu b’Shevat and Tu b’Av.

Enter Tu b’Av

Young Girls Dancing on Tu B’Av (Courtesy: Temple Institute)

The holiday of Tu b’Av is most-associated with love and marriage, for the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:8) states that on this day “the daughters of Jerusalem used to go out in white garments… and danced in the vineyards, exclaiming: ‘Young man! Lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself…’” Tu b’Av marked the start of the grape harvest, and on that day all the single ladies would go out to the vineyards to find their matches. It appears everyone would get married in one massive wedding, and so the Mishnah states that “no days were more joyous” for Israel.

At first glance, it may seem like there is no connection between Tu b’Shevat and Tu b’Av, other than the fact that they are both on the fifteenth of the month, and take place exactly six months apart. Upon closer examination, one will discover the two are deeply linked.

We saw above that a tree must be planted at least 44 days before Rosh Hashanah to be considered in its first year. The month immediately preceding Rosh Hashanah, Elul, has 29 days. Count another 15 days before that, and we find that 44 days before Rosh Hashanah is Tu b’Av! Thus, while Tu b’Shevat marks the start of a new agricultural season, Tu b’Av may very well mark its end, being the last day that a tree can be planted to qualify for its first birthday.

Similarly, while Tu b’Shevat is important for the tithing of fruits, it is on Tu b’Av that the final fruit harvest of the year begins. The Mishnah states that the last major harvest of the year began on Tu b’Av and continued until Yom Kippur. Then, on Sukkot, the nation ascended to Jerusalem with their fruits in hand to celebrate the final harvest festival. A new fruit begins its journey on Tu b’Shevat (when the earliest new year’s sap starts following in a tree, as the Talmud describes), and concludes its journey on Tu b’Av, by which point it is ready for harvest. The ancient Israelites would begin working their fields on Tu b’Shevat, and reap their rewards on Tu b’Av.

This connection between Tu b’Shevat and Tu b’Av is actually alluded to in the Mishnah cited above:

…on these days the daughters of Jerusalem used to walk out in white garments… and danced in the vineyards, exclaiming: “Young man! Lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself. Do not set your eyes on beauty, but on family. ‘Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain, a woman who fears God shall be praised.’ [Proverbs 31:30] And it further states: ‘Give her from the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.’” [Proverbs 31:31]

The young ladies would remind the bachelors that they shouldn’t select a bride based on her appearance, but that she comes from a good family, and has virtuous character. They go on to quote the famous verse from King Solomon’s Eshet Chayil that a God-fearing woman is better than a beautiful one. Peculiarly, the following verse, too, is added: “Give her from the fruit of her hands…” Some say it was the ladies who said this extra verse, while others say that this is what the men replied to the ladies. Whatever the case, the allusion to fruits is clear. The hard work that began on Tu b’Shevat culminates in the fruits of that labour on Tu b’Av.

Chopping Trees, Breaking Axes

Digging deeper, one finds that Tu b’Av happens to be associated with trees, too. In the times of the Temple, there was a special offering called korban etzim, “the wood offering”. The term is first mentioned in the Tanakh (Nehemiah 10:35), where the priests cast lots to determine who would get the honour of bringing the wood offering. The wood was used to burn the special flames of the sacrificial altar, which the Torah commands must never be put out (Leviticus 6:5). The Torah states that the Kohen would add a fresh supply of wood every morning. Where did the wood come from? It was chopped from surrounding forests and brought into the Temple in a special ceremony that took place nine times a year (Ta’anit 4:5). The most important was the fifteenth of Av, Tu b’Av, for on that day another ceremony took place (Ta’anit 31a):

Rabbah and Rav Yosef both said: “[Tu b’Av] was the day on which they stopped felling trees for the altar.” It has been taught: Rabbi Eliezer the Great said: “From the fifteenth of Av onwards the strength of the sun grows less and they no longer felled trees for the altar, because they would not dry [sufficiently]”. Rav Menashya said: “And they called it the ‘Day of the Breaking of the Axe.’”

The Talmud tells us that Tu b’Av was the last day of the year to harvest wood for the Temple. There was a special ceremony where the lumberjack’s axe was symbolically broken. No more trees would be felled until the following year. Tu b’Shevat might be a tree’s birthday, but Tu b’Av is a tree’s happiest day! We might say that trees and Jews have this in common—no day was “more joyous” for them.

This brings us right back to where we started: the Tu b’Shevat seder prescribes eating a set of fruits culminating in those that are entirely edible, symbolic of our return to the Garden of Eden. In Eden, there was no need at all to fell trees. Man was in complete harmony with his surroundings. A tree could be eaten—even its bark and wood could be eaten—without any detriment to the tree, for nothing died in Eden.

Perhaps the Breaking of the Axe ceremony was so important because it symbolized that return to the Garden, a return to a perfect world. It represented a future time when the nations “will beat their swords into plowshares” (Isaiah 2:4), when all weapons will be broken, when nothing will need to be destroyed. None will die, whether man, or the “man of the field”, as the Torah calls the tree (Deuteronomy 20:19). This brings us to one final insight.

Love and Trees

The major theme of Tu b’Shevat is trees, while the major theme of Tu b’Av is love. If the two holidays really are so intricately linked, what does the theme of one have to do with the other?

The Love Trees of St. Augustine, Florida

When we ponder our relationship with trees, we recognize that we simply couldn’t exist without them. They provide us with food to eat and wood to build our homes. From them we derive life-saving medicines, indispensable compounds, and the very oxygen that we breathe. Amazingly, they require nothing in return from us. Trees are a lesson in unconditional giving.

And this is the key to true love. Love can only flourish where there is unconditional giving. This is obviously true for a parent-child relationship. A parent gives endlessly to their young child, and expects little in return (while receiving a tremendous amount of stress, no less) yet loves the little one immeasurably.

The very same is possible between spouses. It is certainly much more difficult, as we are partnering with grown adults and our expectations naturally tend to be high. However, if we condition ourselves to give unconditionally, we have the chance to develop the highest level of love. When each spouse carries that mindset, and learns to truly give to the other unconditionally, there is no doubt that the marriage will be fruitful in every way.

Chag sameach!

The Mystical Purpose of the Omer

“Bringing the Omer to the Kohen” by Ahuva Klein

In this week’s parasha, Emor, we read of the commandment to count the Omer. Each of the forty-nine days between the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot must be enumerated. In Temple times, this went along with a special “wave-offering” consisting of sheaves (omer in Hebrew) of barley. The Torah doesn’t clearly spell out why this must be done. However, a big clue is given from the conspicuous interplay between the words Emor (the name of the parasha) and Omer (the mitzvah commanded in this parasha).

The difference between Emor (אמר) and Omer (עמר) is just a single letter: an aleph replaced with an ayin. Our Sages point out that when two words differ in such a way, there is a special connection between them. The letter aleph is the first in the alphabet, with a value of one, representing the One God. (In fact, an aleph is composed of two yuds joined by a vav, the sum of which is 26, equal to God’s Ineffable Name, Yud-Hei-Vav-Hei). Each Hebrew letter is also a word with its own meaning. “Aleph” means “master” or “chief”, once more hinting to God being the Master of the Universe. Ayin, meanwhile, means “eye”. The eyes are the tools with which we see this physical world. Because of this, the eyes mislead us, distracting us from the truth that everything is truly One. Indeed, the Shema that we recite twice daily cautions not to follow “after your eyes”. The aleph therefore represents spirituality, while the ayin represents physicality.

The Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570) suggests that Israel represents the unique, spiritual nation among the seventy root nations of the world that are trapped in physicality, the value of ayin being 70. Here (Pardes Rimonim 13:3), he gives the most famous example of the interplay between aleph and ayin: The Sages state that Adam and Eve were initially created as beings of light (אור). Only after consuming the Forbidden Fruit did their light disappear, replaced with fragile skin (עור). Other examples of such parallel terms described in mystical texts include “me” (אני) and “poor” (עני), “nothingness” (אין) and “eye” (עין), and the words in question: “emor” (אמר) and “omer” (עמר).

“Emor” means to speak. It is one of three major roots for “speaking” in Hebrew. The Zohar (I, 234b) explains that ledaber (לדבר) refers to simple, day-to-day speech; le’emor (לאמר) is to speak from the heart; and lehagid (להגיד) is to speak from the soul. For more practical examples, a simple, everyday Torah insight is called a dvar (דבר), while a long and in-depth discourse is a ma’amar (מאמר), and on Pesach we have a particularly special text that comes straight from the soul called the haggadah (הגדה). The form of speech we are interested in here is emor—speech of the heart.

What is the connection between this type of speech and the Omer?

32 Paths of Wisdom

Sefer Yetzirah, perhaps the oldest Jewish mystical text, explains how God brought about the universe. It begins by stating that God created through 32 Paths of Wisdom. These 32 paths are the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the 10 Sefirot (as explained here). Sefer Yetzirah tells us that the first letters God forged were aleph, mem, and shin, which brought about the three primordial elements: air (avir or ruach), water (mayim), and fire (esh). These central letters therefore stand at the three horizontal axes of the Kabbalistic “Tree of Life”. The Arizal elaborates (Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh, drush 2) that God then brought about the substances of the first day of Creation: light, water, and space, ie. or (אור), mayim (מים), and rakia (רקיע). As we read in the Torah, these were the only things in existence at the end of Day One.

The three horizontal lines of the Tree of Life correspond to the paths of the letters Aleph, Mem, and Shin.

You may have already noticed that the initials of these three things make aleph-mem-reish (אמר), “emor”. Amazingly, it is exclusively this verb of speech that the Torah uses in describing God’s creation: v’yomer, God spoke (ויאמר), and everything came to be. It is this form of speech that contains within it the very power of Creation.

Even more amazingly, the Zohar we saw above states that this is speech from the heart. The heart is a special organ for, unlike any other organ, it literally intertwines with every single living cell in the human body, ensuring that the tiniest bodily component receives oxygen and nutrients. So, too, does God permeate the entire universe, and is intertwined with even the tiniest bit of matter, ensuring its continual existence. In Hebrew, “heart” is lev (לב), which has a value of 32, once more alluding to those 32 paths of Creation.

Better yet, the 32 paths correspond to the 32 times that God (Elohim) is mentioned in the account of Creation. It is only after the account of Creation ends, at the 33rd instance, that the Torah introduces us to God’s Ineffable Name. So, too, during the Sefirat haOmer period, we have 32 days before we reach the climax of the whole Omer period, the 33rd day, the holiday of Lag b’Omer. Of course, man is a microcosm of the universe, so it is only fitting that the human body has a spinal cord with 31 pairs of nerves emerging out of it, sitting beneath the all-important 33rd component, the brain.

With this in mind, we can understand the connection between Emor and Omer.

Rectifying Speech

The Sefirat haOmer period is meant to be one of rectification and purification. Upon the Exodus, the Israelites spent these 49 days preparing to receive the Torah at Sinai. We relive this experience each year, and likewise work on ourselves in these seven weeks. When we count the Omer each night, we quote from the verse in this week’s parasha: “And you shall count for yourselves from the morrow after the day of rest, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the waving [omer hatenufah]; seven weeks shall there be complete; until the morrow after the seventh week shall you count fifty days…” (Leviticus 23:15-16) and then we add, in many versions of the prayer, “in order to purify the souls of Your people Israel from their impurity.” The very purpose of the Omer is personal development and purification. How do we purify ourselves?

The greatest sin that needs to be atoned for is improper speech. The Talmud (Yoma 44a) states that it was for this sin in particular that the Kohen Gadol entered the Holy of Holies just once a year, on Yom Kippur. Conversely, as we saw above, proper speech has the power to create worlds. Impure speech can be immensely destructive while pure speech can rectify anything. King Solomon similarly wrote that “death and life are in the hand of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). It is through the mouth that we speak, and the tongue is its primary organ. Beautifully, the mouth, too, contains 32 teeth to parallel the 32 paths of Creation, with the central 33rd component being the tongue.

More than anything else, the purpose of the Omer (עמר) is to allow us to rectify our speech (אמר). The Torah itself hints to this in the verse above, calling the special offering of these 49 days the omer hatenufah, where the latter word can be split (תנו פה) to mean “give mouth”, or “teach the mouth”. Each of the seven weeks that the Torah prescribes correspond to one of the seven mystical middot of the Tree of Life. In the Omer period, we are meant to rectify these seven “lower” Sefirot (hinted in the term Sefirat HaOmer). We do not mention the three “higher” sefirot above. We can understand why this is so, for the Sages say the upper sefirot are the mochin of the mind, while the lower seven are the middot of the heart—and as we saw above, it is the speech of the heart that we are particularly focusing on. The final Sefirah is called Malkhut, “Kingdom”, which Patach Eliyahu (Tikkunei Zohar 17a) says is פה, the mouth. The very culmination of the Sefirat HaOmer period is the purification of speech.

The mochin above (in blue) and the middot below (in red).

Rabbi Akiva’s Students

The Sefirat HaOmer period overlaps with the tragic deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students. As is well-known, the students died because they lacked respect for one another. How exactly did they disrespect each other? Although we have discussed in the past that they were probably killed by the Romans during the Bar Kochva Revolt, the Talmud (Yevamot 62b) cryptically states that they died of a disease called croup. Elsewhere, the Talmud (Sotah 35a) suggests that croup is the standard Heavenly punishment for a person who commits slander. We may learn from this that Rabbi Akiva’s students spoke negatively about each other, and thus deserved their cruel death penalty.

Rabbi Akiva’s students ceased to die on the 33rd of the Omer, as if God was hinting at their misuse of the tremendous powers of speech. One of Rabbi Akiva’s surviving students, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, himself had to hide from the Romans for 13 years because he spoke negatively about the authorities. It was he who ultimately fixed the 33rd of the Omer as a holiday. Although this was the day of his death, it was also the day he revealed the depths of Kabbalah, and the teachings that would eventually be compiled into the Zohar. Lag b’Omer is a celebration of this mystical wisdom, much of which is focused on the powers of divine speech.

To bring it all together, we find that the term “lag” (לג) actually appears in the Torah. It is found only in one passage, Leviticus 14, where it refers to a measure of oil, log hashamen. This was a special oil used in the purification procedure for a metzora, loosely translated as a “leper”. The Sages teach that a person would be afflicted with this illness if they spoke negatively about another, motzi shem ra, hence the term “metzora”. Like the Omer, the log hashamen was also a “wave-offering”, a tenufah. Afterwards, the oil was sprinkled and poured upon the leper in order to purify them. If “log” (לג) hints to the oil used to purify improper speech, and Omer (עומר) is the inverse of emor, itself alluding to impure speech, then Lag b’Omer (לג בעומר) takes on an entirely new meaning.

Chag sameach!

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!   

Tisha B’Av: The Untold Story of Napoleon and the Jews

Tisha b’Av is the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. This holiday commemorates many historical tragedies, most significantly the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem. One of the most common stories heard on Tisha b’Av is about Napoleon walking by a Paris synagogue on this day, hearing the lamentations and loud weeping of the Jews. In the story, he asks what the Jews are crying about, and after being told about the destruction of the Temple nearly two millennia ago, apparently remarks something along the lines of: “A nation that cries and fasts for 2,000 years for their land and Temple will surely be rewarded with their Temple.”

Hearing this story immediately sets off some alarms. Firstly, Napoleon was no ignoramus, and was certainly well aware of the destruction of the Temple (after all, the Temple is featured in the “New Testament” and plays an important role in Christian history as well). More notably, Napoleon was a military man his entire life; his biography is the very definition of a tough guy. This man lived by the sword—it is highly unlikely that he would praise people for sitting and crying about something.

In fact, the myth of Napoleon and Tisha b’Av has been debunked multiple times (see here for example). One of the earliest known sources of the legend is a Yiddish article from 1912, later included in the 1924 American Jewish Yearbook, and similarly appearing in a 1942 book called Napoleon in Jewish Folklore. Here, we are given a far more logical version of the story: After hearing the weeping of the Jews in a synagogue in Vilnius, Napoleon points to his sword and says, “This is how to redeem Palestine.”

Napoleon and the Jews

An 1806 depiction of Napoleon emancipating the Jews

Napoleon would actually play a tremendous role in Jewish history, and might even be credited with starting the process of “redeeming Palestine”. It was Napoleon that ushered in the “emancipation” of Jews in Europe. Wherever he conquered, he would free the Jews from the ghettos, and give them equal rights. In France, he went so far as to declare Judaism one of the state’s official religions in 1807. Napoleon also famously sought (and failed) to re-establish the Sanhedrin.

These actions brought upon him the ire of many of his contemporaries, especially Czar Alexander of Russia, who branded Napoleon the “Anti-Christ” for liberating the despised Jews. Moscow’s religious authority at the time proclaimed:

In order to destroy the foundations of the Churches of Christendom, the Emperor of the French has invited into his capital all the Judaic synagogues and he furthermore intends to found a new Hebrew Sanhedrin—the same council that the Christian Bible states condemned to death (by crucifixion) the revered figure, Jesus of Nazareth.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the “Alter Rebbe” (1745-1812)

Of course, most Jews were ecstatic, and relished their newly acquired liberties. It became common for Jews to name their children “Napoleon”, or adopt the last name “Schöntheil”, the German translation of “Bonaparte”. Yet, not all Jews were happy about this development. The Alter Rebbe—founder of Chabad, who lived during the times of Napoleon—wrote the following in one of his letters:

If Bonaparte will be victorious, Jewish wealth will increase, and the prestige of the Jewish people will be raised; but their hearts will disintegrate and be distanced from their Father in Heaven. But if Alexander will be victorious, although Israel’s poverty will increase and their prestige will be lowered, their hearts will be joined, bound and unified with their Father in Heaven…

The Alter Rebbe thus fled from the approaching French forces, inspired his followers to do the same, and even supported the Russian military. He was right about Bonaparte. Napoleon had no interest whatsoever in seeing the Jews flourish as Jews, or practice their religion proudly. His intentions were clear: the complete assimilation of the Jews into European society. It was Napoleon that first permitted Jews to serve in the military, openly stating that “Once part of their youth will take its place in our armies, they will cease to have Jewish interests and sentiments; their interests and sentiments will be French.”

As it turned out, opening the doors for Jews to serve in the French military would lead to the proliferation of the Zionist movement, and the establishment of the State of Israel.

France and Israel

1899 Guth painting of Alfred Dreyfus for Vanity Fair

In 1894, Theodor Herzl was a young journalist working in Paris. He was covering the infamous “Dreyfus affair”, where a Jewish captain in the French military, Alfred Dreyfus, was wrongly accused of treason. During this time, Herzl witnessed the extreme anti-Semitism of the French firsthand. He realized that no matter how much the Jews assimilate, they would still never be accepted into European society, and reasoned that the Jews must have their own free state. Thus, it was a Jewish soldier in the French military—what Napoleon so dearly wanted—which catapulted the Zionist movement.

Interestingly, Napoleon himself seemed to have supported the notion of a Jewish state in Israel. In 1799, before he was emperor, and while besieging the city of Acre in Israel, Napoleon issued a proclamation inviting “all the Jews of Asia and Africa to gather under his flag in order to re-establish the ancient Jerusalem. He has already given arms to a great number, and their battalions threaten Aleppo.” Ultimately, the British defeated Napoleon’s forces, and the plan never materialized.

Nonetheless, Napoleon’s role in igniting the flames of Zionism cannot be overlooked. Zionism was primarily a secular movement, its most fervent supporters being assimilated European Jews who, like Herzl, were frustrated that they were still hated and unwanted in European society. This secularism was a direct result of Napoleon’s campaigns. Without his spearheading of the Jewish “emancipation”, it is doubtful that there would have ever been a Zionist movement to begin with.

And although there is much to criticize about Zionism, these mostly secular European Jews succeeded in re-establishing a free Jewish state in the Holy Land after two very long millennia. Yes, the Israeli government is unfortunately secular, and Mashiach has not yet come, and there is a great deal of work to do to restore a proper Jewish kingdom as God intended. However, the State of Israel allowed for the majority of Jews to return to their homeland, escape persecution, live openly as Jews, fulfil mitzvot only possible in the Holy Land, and travel freely to Jerusalem. Israel is undoubtedly paving the way for the Final Redemption, which is why many great rabbis of recent times have described it as reshit tzmichat geulatenu, the first steps of the redemption.

It is therefore fitting that the gematria of “France” (צרפת), where the whole process began, is 770, a number very much associated with redemption as it is equivalent to בית משיח, the “House of Mashiach”. Ironically, this number is most special for Chabad—the same Chabad that so resisted Napoleon and the French! (And at the same time, adopted the tune of Napoleon’s military band as their own niggun, still known as “Napoleon’s March” and traditionally sung on Yom Kippur!)

Most beautifully, it appears to have all been predicted long ago by the Biblical prophet Ovadia, who prophesied (v. 17-21):

And Mount Zion shall be a refuge, and it shall be holy; and the house of Jacob shall possess their heritage… And they shall possess the Negev, the mount of Esau, and the Lowland, with the [land of the] Philistines; and they shall possess the field of Ephraim, and the field of Samaria; and Benjamin with Gilead. And the great exile of the children of Israel, that are wandering as far as צרפת [France], and the exile of Jerusalem that is in Sepharad, shall possess the cities of the Negev. And saviours shall come upon Mount Zion to judge the mount of Esau; and the kingdom shall be God’s.