As we prepare for Pesach this week many Jews around the world will fill out a mechirat chametz, “Sale of Chametz”, form which will presumably absolve them of the responsibility of destroying some of the chametz in their possession. The idea is that a person can set aside the chametz that they wish to keep and “sell” it to a gentile. After Pesach, this chametz is “purchased” back and the Jew can use the chametz once more. The purpose is to avoid transgressing the mitzvahs of bal yera’eh (Exodus 13:7), that no chametz “be seen” in one’s possession, and bal yimatzeh (Exodus 12:19), that no chametz “be found” in one’s possession. By hiding and temporarily “selling” it, the chametz is no longer technically in the Jew’s possession and cannot be seen. Where did this interesting innovation come from? Continue reading
In this week’s parasha, Vayikra, we see the word HaMashiach (המשיח) appear for the first time. In fact, the word only appears a total of four times in the entire Torah, three in this week’s parasha, and once next week. In all four cases, the Torah is not speaking of the messiah, but rather of the High Priest, the anointed kohen gadol. Of course, this is only true on the surface, peshat, level. On a deeper, mystical level the Torah is indeed alluding to the messiah at the End of Days.
It is fitting that we are reading these words now, when the Jewish world is abuzz over what coronavirus means in the grand scheme of things, and whether, perhaps, it is a sign of Mashiach’s coming. Jewish social media is full of posts and reposts affirming that coronavirus is absolutely a sign of Mashiach’s arrival, with all kinds of “proofs” based on gematria and ancient prophecies. While some of these are accurate, others are nonsensical, absurd, or just plain fake, so it is worth checking the sources behind everything you receive.
Many of the posts cite the same verse, Isaiah 26:20: “Go, my people, enter your chambers, and lock your doors behind you. Hide but a little moment, until the fury passes.” This verse is indeed a prophecy for the End of Days. The preceding verse speaks of the Resurrection of the Dead (“Your dead shall live, dead bodies shall arise; those that dwell in the dust will awake and sing…”) while the verse that follows describes God’s final retribution: “Behold, God shall come forth from His place to punish the dwellers of the earth for their iniquity…” Having said that, it isn’t only sinners that perish. On the contrary, Isaiah cautions everyone to hide behind closed doors for, as the Sages teach, in such moments the angel of death is let loose and doesn’t differentiate between the righteous and the wicked. (For a detailed explanation of this, see Alshech on Exodus 12:13.)
Now, what exactly is the nature of the za’am (זעם), “fury”, that Isaiah speaks of? Is it really a virulent plague?
A Plague Before Mashiach
In several places, the Sages speak of a great plague that will befall the world before Mashiach comes. Possibly the earliest mention of this is Tosefta Ta’anit 2:11, where the Sages discuss if a global flood can come upon the Earth again, since God promised it wouldn’t (Genesis 9:15). The Sages qualify that statement:
Rabbi Meir said: A flood of water will not come again, but a flood of fire and brimstone will, like He brought upon the people of Sodom, as it is written, “And God rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire.” (Genesis 19:24) Rabbi Yehudah said: A flood upon the whole world will not come again, but a flood upon individuals will, such as if a person is at sea and his ship sinks and he dies—this is like a personal flood. Rabbi Yose said: A flood of water will not come again, but a “flood” of plague upon the idolaters in the days of Mashiach will…
A similar statement is found in the Midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 2:13):
“The fig tree puts forth her green figs…” (Song of Songs 2:13) Said Rabbi Chiya bar Abba: before the days of the messiah, a great plague will come to the world, and the sinners will succumb to it “…and the vines in blossom give forth their fragrance…” (ibid.) These are the survivors, of whom it is said: “And it shall be, that he that is left in Zion, and he that remains in Jerusalem [shall be called holy…]” (Isaiah 4:3)
Such passages agree that a devastating plague will come upon the world at the End of Days to strike down idolaters and sinners (though even the righteous will suffer among them). It is interesting to point out how the coronavirus we are dealing with today has, strangely, left the vast majority of children unaffected, with mild symptoms, or none at all. Scientists have yet to find a good explanation for this baffling phenomenon. Perhaps, from a spiritual perspective, it is because innocent children cannot be categorized as “sinners” or “idolaters”, and are being spared.
The Midrash Rabbah quoted above goes on to cite a couple of passages that also appear in the Talmud about the final seven-year period before Mashiach comes, and the state of the world during that time. We’ve written about both of these prophecies on multiple occasions in the past (see, for example, #21 here), so we shall not repeat them. It suffices to say that much of what the Sages predicted has come true. The final sign given in the lengthy midrashic passage is that if you see a generation where people are growing bolder and bolder, love to “rant and rave”, where blasphemy is widespread and people constantly “taunt” God, you should expect Mashiach to be near.
This is one of the factors that distinguish between the current state of the world compared to previous global plagues. For example, the Spanish Flu that started in 1918 certainly qualifies as a great plague that engulfed the entire world, with an estimated 50 million deaths. It came at the same time as World War I, and there were certainly Jews then who expected Mashiach imminently. The critical difference between then and now is the set of prophecies in the Talmud, which are more descriptive of today’s world than, say, 1918, as well as the fact that today we have the State of Israel. The latter is especially significant, since Ezekiel (ch. 37-38) prophesied that Jews would first return to Israel, settle down and build a prosperous country, and only then Mashiach would come. Thus, it is only today that essentially all the prophecies have been fulfilled. And there is at least one more.
Rome and the Enemies of Israel
Another intriguing prophecy that has been brought to light in recent days is the destruction of Rome. The notion that Rome will be crushed before Mashiach comes is found across ancient Jewish texts. This is because, of course, for most of history the biggest oppressor of Israel has been Rome. It was Rome that destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and thrust the Jewish people into this current, millennia-old exile. From historical records, we know that Rome enslaved countless Jews, far more than any other empire in history (see, for example, Samuel Kurinsky’s The Eighth Day). Later, Rome transformed into the Christian Empire—its seat being the Vatican in Rome—from which horrifying crusades, inquisitions, and other terrors were launched.
For the Sages, the greatest enemy was always Rome, and for Mashiach to come it meant Rome must fall for good. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a-b) records how when the students of Rabbi Yose ben Kisma asked him when Mashiach would come, he answered: “When [Rome] falls down, is rebuilt, falls again, and is again rebuilt, and then falls a third time, before it can be rebuilt the son of David will come.” Rabbi Yose predicted that Rome would fall three times. The third would be the last, and then Mashiach would come.*
While the city of Rome has been conquered and sacked multiple times, there have been three major powers that can be called “Rome”. The first was the Roman Empire itself, which formally came to an end in 476 CE. Then, in 800 CE, Pope Leo III resurrected the title and crowned Charlemagne as Roman Emperor once more. What followed was the era of the “Holy Roman Empire”. By 1648, the Holy Roman Empire was dismantled (though the title was carried on by some German powers until 1806). Finally, in 1861 the various kingdoms and states on the Italian peninsula unified to form the modern nation-state of Italy in the hopes of forging a renewed, strong Rome. Today’s Italy can therefore be seen as the third incarnation of ancient Rome. (This is all the more compelling when we remember that Italy was Hitler’s primary ally.)
As it stands currently, Italy has been hardest hit by the coronavirus. They have already had more than double the casualties of China, where the plague began. While we sincerely wish for everyone around the world to be healthy and protected from this dreadful pandemic, it is understandable why some have connected Italy’s unfortunate (and inexplicable) fate to this ancient prophecy. On that note, closely following Italy in terms of casualties are Spain and Iran—probably next in line when it comes to horrible treatment of the Jewish people throughout history. Of course, these numbers will change with time, and we pray for the plague to end immediately so that none more shall perish, no matter where they happen to live.
A Final Prophecy and a Call to Action
The Sages famously state that “in Nisan they were redeemed, and in Nisan they are destined to be redeemed again.” (Rosh Hashanah 11a-b) Just as the Israelites were saved from ancient Egypt in the month of Nisan, the Jewish people in the End of Days will be saved in the same month. The Sages actually debate in these pages whether the Redemption will take place in Nisan or in Tishrei, bringing various Scriptural proofs for both possibilities. The only conclusion is that both must happen: the process will begin in Nisan, and end in Tishrei, with the blowing of the Great Shofar.
Tonight, we usher in the month of Nisan. It is a most auspicious time to bring about the Final Redemption. Now is the time to take this opportunity seriously and prepare. Thankfully, God has made it easy—after all, just about everything is closed. There are no shows, no sports games, no vacations, no activities. There is nowhere to go. For most people, there is no need to even go to work. All distractions are out of the way. Now is the time for Torah and mitzvot, for prayer and repentance.
Finally, the Sages state that the best way to bring Mashiach is for all the Jewish people to keep Shabbat together, and that if the entire nation kept just one Shabbat properly, Mashiach would come (Shemot Rabbah 25:12). The Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, 1847-1905) added that the ideal time for this unified Shabbat is the last Shabbat of the month of Adar, right before the start of Nisan (see his commentary on Parashat Zachor). That Shabbat was just a few days ago, and it just so happened that the parasha we read was Vayakhel-Pekudei, which begins with God’s command to keep the Sabbath! (Exodus 35:2) The timing couldn’t be better. Heck, even the Pope has called for everyone to keep Shabbat like the Jews!
With the State of Israel, and much of the rest of the world, currently on lockdown, God has made it especially easy for us to fulfil one proper, nation-wide Sabbath. This week we have another tremendous opportunity, and the Shabbat that follows is Shabbat HaGadol, the “Great Sabbath” before Pesach. If we do our utmost now then maybe, just maybe, it will be the Great Sabbath that brings the Final Redemption.
*Click here to read about the “Three Romes” and the coming of Mashiach from a different perspective.
This week’s parasha, Tetzave, continues to outline the items necessary for the Mishkan, or Tabernacle, starting with the Menorah and going into a detailed description of the priestly vestments. One of the materials necessary for the holy garments is tola’at shani, commonly translated as “crimson wool”. This was a deep red fabric apparently derived from some kind of insect or worm (which is what the Hebrew “tola’at” means). The Torah speaks of this material in multiple places and in multiple contexts. Today, wearing a “tola’at shani”-like red string on the wrist has become very popular among those calling themselves “Kabbalists” and even by secular Jews and non-Jews. What is the significance of the red fibre, and is there any real spiritual meaning to the red string bracelet?
The First Red String
The earliest mention of a red string is in Genesis 38:27-30, where Tamar gives birth to her twin sons Peretz and Zerach:
And it came to pass in the time of her labour that, behold, twins were in her womb. And in her labour, one hand emerged, and the midwife took a red string [shani] and tied it to his hand saying, “This one came out first.” And he drew back his hand, and behold, his brother came out, and she said: “With what strength have you breached [paratz] yourself?” so his name was called Peretz. And afterward came out his brother that had the red string upon his hand, and his name was called Zerach.
Here, the red string is simply used to designate the firstborn. It didn’t work out as planned, for the other twin ended up coming first. The strong Peretz would go on to be the forefather of King David, and therefore Mashiach, who is sometimes called Ben Partzi. Clearly, wearing the red string wasn’t much of an effective charm for Zerach.
In addition to being used in the garments of the priests and various Temple vessels, tola’at shani was employed in a number of sacrificial rituals. In Leviticus 14 we read how someone who had healed from tzara’at, loosely translated as “leprosy”, would bring an offering of two birds which were dipped in a mixture containing the red dye. From this we see that tola’at shani (or shni tola’at, as it appears here) is not necessarily the string itself, but simply the red dye extracted from the insect. Similarly, the red dye was used in the preparation of the parah adumah, “Red Cow”, mixture (Numbers 19) which was used to purify the nation from the impurity of death.
The Talmud (Yoma 67a) describes how a red string was tied to the scapegoat on Yom Kippur. Recall that on Yom Kippur two goats were selected, one being slaughtered and the other being sent off into the wilderness, “to Azazel”. This “scapegoat” had a red string attached to it, and if the string turned white the people would know that their sins had been forgiven, as Isaiah 1:18 states: “…though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” Here, then, the red string represents the sin of the people, bound to the scapegoat going to Azazel. If it turned white, it was a good sign, whereas if the string remained red it meant God was unhappy with the nation. Indeed, the Talmud (Yoma 39b) states that in the last forty years before the Second Temple was destroyed, the red string never once turned white.
Red in Kabbalah
In mystical texts, red is typically the colour of Gevurah or Din, severity and judgement. It was therefore generally discouraged to wear red. The Kabbalists often wore garments of all white, and this is still the custom during the High Holidays, a time of particularly great judgement. It was only centuries later that the Chassidic rebbe known as Minchat Eliezer (Rabbi Chaim Elazar Spira of Munkacz, 1868-1937) wrote how having a red cloth may serve to ward off judgement and severity. Another Chassidic rebbe, the Be’er Moshe (Rabbi Moshe Stern of Debreczin, 1890-1971) wrote that he remembered seeing people wear red strings as a child, but did not know why. Still, this does not appear to have been a very popular practice then, nor is it much of a custom among Chassidim now.
Rather, the red string today has been popularized by The Kabbalah Centre and similar “neo-Kabbalah” movements that cater as much to non-Jews as to secular Jews. The Kabbalah Centre explains that the bracelets are made by taking a long red thread and winding it around Rachel’s Tomb seven times. The thread is then cut into wrist-size lengths, and if worn on the “left wrist, we can receive a vital connection to the protective energies surrounding the tomb of Rachel.” It is not clear where The Kabbalah Centre took this practice from. They claim that the red string wards off the evil eye. While they cite certain passages from the Zohar regarding the evil eye, there doesn’t seem to be any connection to a red string specifically.
The Zohar (II, 139a) does state in one place that the blue tekhelet represents God’s Throne, as is well-known, which means judgement, whereas the red shani is what emerges from the Throne and overpowers the judgement, thus bringing protection upon Israel. The Zohar relates shani to Michael, the guardian angel of Israel, and uses the metaphor of a worm eating through everything to explain the tola’at shani as eating up negative judgement. This is why the famous song Eshet Chayil (Proverbs 31) states that a “woman of valour” has her whole house dressed in shanim (v. 21). She guards her household in this way. (It should be noted that in this passage the Zohar states it is gold which represents Gevurah, and silver represents Chessed. White and red, meanwhile, appear to be aspects within the sefirah of Yesod.)
So, perhaps there is something to wearing a red string.
Bringing Back Shani
The Zohar does not speak of any red string at all, and instead explains the mystical power of the red dye called shani. It is the dye itself that has power, as we see from the Temple rituals noted above. It is well-known that the blue tekhelet dye comes from a certain mollusc or sea snail called chilazon. From where does shani come?
Professor Zohar Amar of Bar Ilan University researched the subject in depth and concluded that tola’at shani is similar to the cochineal insect, famous for producing the red dye carmine (E120) which is extensively used in the food industry. After a round-the-world search, it turned out that a cochineal-like insect is found in Israel as well, and grows on oak trees.
While the cochineal insect is native to South America (where most of the carmine is still produced), its Mediterranean cousin is the oak-dwelling kermes insect. Indeed, kermes was used across the Mediterranean world for millennia, being particularly prized in Greek, Roman, and medieval society. It is best known for its ability to dye wool extremely well. Jerusalem’s Temple Institute was convinced of the professor’s findings, and has begun harvesting the bugs and their red dye in order to produce authentic priestly vestments, as outlined in the Torah.
In light of this, a genuine red string “kabbalah” bracelet—with the protective powers mentioned in the Zohar—would undoubtedly have to be made of wool dyed with kermes red. And according to the Zohar, it probably shouldn’t be worn on the left wrist at all, but instead on the right leg, the body part which the Zohar (II, 148a) states that shani corresponds to.
Judaism is very sensitive about not imitating the ways of the pagans, or darkei Emori. One example of this, as we wrote in the past, is kapparot, which the Ramban (among others) called an idolatrous practice. The Tosefta (Shabbat, ch. 7) has a list of practices that are considered darkei Emori, and one of them is “tying a red string on one’s finger”. So, already two millennia ago it seems there were Jews tying red strings on their body, and the Tosefta (which is essentially equivalent to the Mishnah) forbids it.
In fact, Hinduism has a custom to wear a red string called kalava around one’s wrist in order to ward off evil. This is precisely what The Kabbalah Centre claims their red string accomplishes. Based on this alone it would be best to avoid wearing such a red string. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was one of the recent authorities who stated that the red string should not be worn due to darkei Emori. Factoring in that the red string has no basis in the Zohar or any traditional Jewish mystical text is all the more reason to stay away from this practice.