Tag Archives: Tikkun

The Genius of Mishnah

This week’s parasha (outside of Israel) is Emor, which begins with God commanding Moses to speak to the kohanim and to teach them. This is one of the key verses having a clear reference to the Oral Torah. Moses relayed not just the five books of the Written Torah, but also many more oral teachings and explanations that were passed down over the millennia. Another source for the Oral Law is Exodus 34:27, where God tells Moses to write down the words of Torah, and then adds that al pi—literally meaning “orally” or “on the mouth”—of these words of Torah, God is making a covenant with us. The Sages point out that this is another major allusion to the Torah sh’b’al peh, the Oral Torah (see Gittin 60b).

The necessity of an Oral Torah is actually self-evident since Torah laws are very brief and usually come with no explanations or details. For instance, we are told numerous times to bind certain signs upon our arms and to tie fringes on our clothes, but there is no description of what these things should look like. Another classic example is Deuteronomy 12:21 where we are told to slaughter animals for consumption “as I have instructed you”, yet no instructions or slaughtering procedures are written anywhere in the Torah. The obvious implication is that Moses relayed many teachings and instructions that were not recorded.

Eventually, those teachings did come to be recorded in the Mishnah. The term Mishnah comes from the verb lishnot (לשנות), “to repeat”, since these laws and teachings were originally learned through constant repetition, to reinforce the knowledge and memorize it crystal clear. Less known is that, since the same exact verb is leshanot (לשנות), meaning “to change”, the Oral Law was not meant to be written down in order to keep it fluid and flexible.* Judaism is always evolving, and halakhah must change under varying circumstances and as new problems emerge. The central idea behind having an Oral Law was so that it would not come to be “set in stone” like the written law. The Torah thus remains fresh in every generation, and open to new ideas, applications, and chiddushim. This is really the beauty of the Oral Torah. (In fact, when the Arizal relates the different aspects of Torah to the mystical Sefirot, he points out that the Mishnah specifically is in Tiferet, “Beauty”, see Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh.)

On a more mystical level, Mishnah (משנה) has the same letters and numerical value as Neshamah (נשמה), “soul”, for while the Written Torah is the “body” of Judaism, the Oral Torah is its inner dimension and true essence. (This is also why it is customary to recite Mishnayot in honour of the dead, to elevate their souls.) It is important to clarify that while the Mishnah is certainly not the entire Oral Torah, it is the first text of the Oral Torah and the foundation for the rest. Continue reading

What’s The Ideal Number of Children to Have?

1907 Illustration of the Exodus from the Providence Lithograph Company

This week we begin reading Shemot, the second book of the Torah. Commenting on Israel’s rapid population growth (Exodus 1:7), Rashi famously cites the Midrash that each woman gave birth to six children in a single pregnancy! This is a classic Midrash in the sense that it probably should not be taken literally. One way to make sense of it is to suggest that perhaps each woman produced six Jewish souls per pregnancy. We know that while there was a limited number of Israelites physically present in Egypt and at the Exodus, we maintain that all Jewish souls that ever lived or will live (including those of converts) were there spiritually. Jewish souls from across history were liberated from slavery in Egypt and experienced the Revelation at Sinai. That’s one reason the Passover Haggadah reminds us that each and every Jew at the seder should feel like he or she personally came out of Egypt. You did!

Back in Egypt, the physical Jewish population did indeed grow rapidly. However, when we read the detailed genealogical lists in the Torah, we find that family sizes were not disproportionally large. Amram and Yocheved had three children, Aaron had four, Moses just two. In fact, throughout the Torah family sizes seem relatively small. Isaac had two sons, and Joseph had two as well (that we know of). Abraham was one of three sons. He went on to have a single child with Sarah, one with Hagar, and six more with Keturah (who may or may not be the same person as Hagar). There’s a tradition that Abraham had a daughter, too. Jacob had two children from Rachel, two from Bilhah, two from Zilpah, and seven from Leah—six boys and a girl (like Abraham). The reason for this, from a mystical perspective, is quite evident.

When it comes to the Sefirot, six are described as “masculine”, and the seventh is the feminine Nukva. Higher above, the Sefirah of Binah is called Ima, the “mother”, while Chokhmah is called Aba, the “father”. In this arrangement, the first and highest Sefirah of Keter symbolizes God Above. So, there’s God, father, mother, the six sons, and the daughter. This is a complete mystical “family”. Is this, then, the ideal family on the physical plane as well?

Not exactly. Continue reading

Yosef haTzadik and Shimon haTzadik—What’s the Connection?

This week we read Miketz, which continues to narrate the rise of Joseph. Of all the Biblical figures, Joseph alone carries the unique title haTzadik, “the righteous one”. We refer to the patriarchs with the title Avinu, “our father”; to Moses as Rabbeinu, “our teacher”, and to his successors as haNavi, “the prophet”. Joseph stands apart as being Yosef HaTzadik. Certainly, all of the great Biblical figures were righteous, yet only Joseph carries the title.

At the same time, of all the Rabbinic figures, one is typically referred to as HaTzadik, and that would be Shimon HaTzadik, “the last of the Men of the Great Assembly” (Avot 1:2). Shimon might be considered the first or earliest Talmudic sage. The era of Zugot, “pairs” begins with him (and his student, Antigonus of Socho). His generation represented the transition from the era of Prophets to the era of Sages. So, we have two figures called “HaTzadik”, one Biblical and one Rabbinical. We know that in Judaism there are no coincidences. So, what’s the connection? Continue reading