Tag Archives: Tree of Knowledge

Why Kiddush on Wine?

In this week’s parasha, Nasso, the Torah commands that a nazir is to abstain from wine and any other grape products. Wine appears frequently in the Torah, and plays a huge role in Judaism. Every Shabbat and holiday is ushered in with kiddush on wine, and concludes with a wine havdallah. Every wedding has a blessing on wine under the chuppah, as does a brit milah, and in ancient times wine libations were brought in the Temple. What makes wine so special?

The numerical value of “wine” (יין) is 70, a most significant number. It reminds us of the seventy names of God, of the seventy root nations of the world, and the seventy “faces” of Torah understanding. Our Sages famously stated that nichnas yayin, yatza sod, “when wine enters, secrets come out”. More than a simple proverb, it is a mathematical equation since the value of “secret” (סוד) is also 70. So, as seventy comes in, seventy comes out. On the surface level, the statement means that alcohol makes a person more likely to spill their secrets. On the deeper level, though, the Sages meant that one who drinks wine may be able to enter a mental state where they can uncover the secrets of Torah, and see it through all seventy faces. Wine can make “a man’s mind more receptive” (Yoma 76a).

Our Sages taught that wine is unique in that it defies the natural order: whereas other things degrade over time (as encapsulated in the second law of thermodynamics, the law of entropy, that the universe always tends towards disorder), wine improves and gets more valuable over time. Wine has another incredible scientific quirk: Japanese scientists researching electrical superconductors had a party in their lab and ended up accidentally discovering that wine makes certain metals superconductive!

Superconductivity refers to the property of being able to transmit electricity perfectly with no resistance and no energy loss. Generally, superconductivity requires cooling substances to near absolute zero (-273ºC). Some substances are able to superconduct at higher temperatures, around -90ºC, but even this is far too cold to be practical. Scientists around the world are therefore on the hunt for a room-temperature superconductor which, if found, would completely revolutionize the world. It would result in dramatic energy savings, and would allow for other cool phenomena like “quantum levitation”.

The Japanese scientists found that wine makes some things superconductive, especially iron-based compounds. And red wine especially was up to seven times more effective than other alcoholic beverages. No explanation for this has yet been found. It is all the more significant when we consider the central role that electricity plays in Jewish mysticism, and that our brains literally run on electrical signalling (suggesting how wine might make our brains more receptive to Torah secrets!) and that our bodies are full of iron, which makes our blood red, too.

While all of the above is fascinating, it does not explain why wine is so prevalent in Jewish rituals, especially in the recitation of every kiddush. What is the reason for wine? Continue reading

A Mystical Peek Into Megillat Esther

Purim is a deeply mystical holiday. In fact, Megillat Esther literally means “revealing the hidden”. While God is not explicitly mentioned anywhere in the Scroll, His fingerprints can be found all over it. In the same way, the Megillah is imbued with tremendous hidden wisdom. That it has a total of 10 chapters is the first clue, and if you read carefully, you will find that just about every Sefirah is mentioned!

The first Sefirah is Keter, the great “Crown” of God, and the first chapter of the Megillah is all about highlighting the greatness of Achashverosh’s crown and kingdom. Our Sages taught that Achashverosh wished to dress in the vestments of the kohen gadol, to “crown” himself as a king of the Jews (Megillah 12a). As is well-known, it was also taught that every time the Megillah refers to “the king” without a name, it is secretly referring to the King, to God. In Kabbalah, Keter always refers to Willpower (Ratzon), since the starting point of any endeavour is the will to do it. Everything begins with a will, and the universe began with God’s Will to create it, setting all of history in motion. Similarly, in the first chapter of the Megillah we find that Queen Vashti refuses to do the will of Achashverosh, thus setting the whole Purim story in motion.

The second Sefirah is Chokhmah, and the second chapter begins by introducing us to Mordechai, the paragon of a chakham, a Jewish sage. In Kabbalah, Chokhmah is also called Abba, the “father”, and we are told that Mordechai plays the role of an adopted father for the orphaned Esther. The third Sefirah is Binah, and the third chapter begins by introducing Haman, a master manipulator who knew how to twist people’s binah, “understanding”. Our Sages asked (Chullin 139b): where is Haman alluded to in the Torah? They answered that he is found in the words hamin ha’etz, “from the Tree”, referring to the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:11) Our Sages associate Haman with the Tree of Knowledge, the consumption of which brought evil into the world. According to one Kabbalistic view, the Tree of Life is associated with Chokhmah, while the Tree of Knowledge is associated with Binah, hence the mystical connection to Haman. It goes deeper. Continue reading

Jews and Christmas Trees

As we approach Christmas and New Year’s Eve and start seeing “Christmas trees” popping up all around us, it is worth exploring where this custom came from, and what the Torah might say about it. It is especially important to address because some Jews from the former Soviet Union continue to have a (seemingly) non-religious “New Year’s tree” yolka in their homes, as do assimilated and intermarried Jews across Europe and America. Is it okay to have such a tree in a Jewish home? As might be expected, the short answer is “no”. To properly understand why, we must take an eye-opening trip back in time.

An 1886 illustration of Yggdrasil by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine

The ancient Nordic and Germanic tribes celebrated a winter solstice festival usually referred to as Yule. Part of the ritual involved worshipping and decorating an evergreen tree, which symbolized life in the dead of winter. Many tribes associated the tree with Odin, the “father of all the gods” in Norse mythology. He was the most powerful figure in the Nine Worlds, represented by Yggdrasil, the sacred tree. Yggdrasil was a “tree of life” of sorts, while beneath its roots lay Hel, the underworld of the dead, and the origin of the English word “hell”. The word Yggdrasil itself means “Odin’s horse” or “Odin’s gallows” (Ygg, or Yggr, is another name for Odin). Others associated the tree with another powerful deity, Thor, “god of thunder”, Odin’s son and protector of Earth. (Fun fact: Wednesday and Thursday are named after Odin and Thor, ie. Odin’s-day and Thor’s-day!)

In 723 CE, the Christian missionary Boniface went forth to convert the pagan Germanic tribes. He came upon a village in the midst of worshipping an oak tree in honour of Thor and were apparently about to sacrifice a baby. Boniface took an axe and chopped the tree down—according to legend, miraculously in one swipe. He didn’t do away with the tree-worshipping ritual entirely, though, and offered the pagans a way to hold on to their old customs: Boniface pointed to a baby fir tree and said “let this tree be the symbol of the true God”. So goes the story, anyways.

While the Germanic and Nordic tribes were all eventually converted to Christianity (some by choice, most by force), they retained many of their old customs. Another example: In Norse myth, “Father Odin” (with his long white beard) would go around on his eight-legged horse to deliver gifts at Yule-time, with the help of the alfar, “elves”, which play an important role in the Norse worldview. “Father Odin” became “Father Christmas”, ie. Santa Claus. To make this less pagan and more palatable to Christians, the figure of Santa Claus was eventually associated with “St. Nicholas” instead, much like the pagan evergreens became symbolic of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. In fact, the spherical red ornaments commonly hung on Christmas trees evolved from apples once hung on Christmas trees to represent the Forbidden Fruit.

There is a great deal of irony here, in that something symbolizing life is chopped down and killed! (And plastic tree alternatives are no better, for they will go on to contaminate the Earth with toxic chemicals for centuries.) It is fitting, then, that the Christmas tree is decorated with “apples” of the Forbidden Fruit, which did not grow on the Tree of Life, but rather on the Tree of Knowledge which brought death into the world. Rabbi Abraham Abulafia (c. 1240-1291), one of the great Sephardic mystics, in his Sefer Sitrei Torah, likened the wooden cross upon which Jesus presumably died to the Tree of Knowledge. (In Hebrew, the word for “wood” and the word for “tree” is the same, etz.) Jesus claimed to be the Tree of Life, the only path to eternal life in Heaven, and for this preposterous claim—supplanting the singular God and His Torah—he was punished measure for measure by being killed on a “tree of death”.

Abulafia held that believing in Jesus was undoubtedly a form of idolatry (and, for those who like numbers, he gave a further mathematical proof in that the gematria of “Jesus”, Yeshu [ישו] is 316, equal to “elohei nekhar”, אלהי נכר, the Torah term for a foreign or false god). We should remember to stick to the one true God and His Torah alone for, as King Solomon said, “it is a Tree of Life for those who grasp it, and whoever upholds it is fortunate.” (Proverbs 3:18) In case anyone was doubting what Solomon was referring to here, he began by stating Torati al tishkach, “do not forget My Torah, and may My mitzvot always be upon your heart.” (Proverbs 3:1) The Torah, and fulfilment of its mitzvot, alone holds the true spiritual path—that is the Tree of Life.

One of those 613 mitzvot of the Torah is not to worship trees, nor bring trees anywhere near the sacrificial altar in the Temple, not even to plant trees that might later be used for worship (Deuteronomy 16:21). Throughout the rest of Scripture, we find that Jews unfortunately sometimes went astray and succumbed to the idolatries of the nations around them, including worshipping Asherah trees and using them as ritual objects. The prophet Jeremiah warned us long ago: “Thus said God: Do not learn from the ways of the nations… for their customs are worthless; they chop down a tree from a forest, they adorn it with silver and gold…” (Jeremiah 10:2-4) As such, there is certainly no room for Christmas trees in a Jewish home. But what if the trees are devoid of any religious significance?

Yolka

After the October Revolution of 1917, the Communists in Russia went on to ban all religious activity, including Christmas trees. Nonetheless, as the famous saying goes, “old habits die hard”, and people weren’t willing to give up on their customs. Thus, just as Boniface had done centuries earlier, the leaders of the USSR decided to simply replace the symbolism. In 1935, they reintroduced the ritual as a novogodniya yolka, a “New Year’s tree”, along with Dyed Moroz, “Grandpa Frost”, and his snowy female helper Snigurachka, in place of the more religious Santa Claus and his mystical elves. Instead of Christmas Eve, Dyed Moroz would come on New Year’s Eve. (Interestingly, the mysterious word yolka probably comes from that pagan Yule festival.)

In the past, we’ve written about the permissibility of Jews celebrating the secular New Year’s Eve. While there is some leniency regarding New Year’s Eve, the tree in the home is an entirely different issue. When the Torah is so explicit about avoiding any tree rituals, and considering how strongly the Tanakh cautions us about Jews going astray and mimicking the tree-customs of the nations, and keeping in mind how the origins of the tree are deeply pagan first and foremost, as well as extensively Christian thereafter, it is important to stay away from anything remotely resembling a Christmas tree or yolka.

Thankfully, we have a much better tree-related celebration just a month or so after in Tu b’Shevat. This one requires no wanton destruction of trees, nor any pagan-like tree rituals, instead simply appreciating all the good that trees and plants do for us. And it comes with a mystical custom to hold a Tu b’Shevat seder, like on Pesach, symbolizing the forthcoming Final Redemption. When the actual Mashiach does come to usher in the Redemption, our Sages say he will “flourish like a palm tree; thrive like a cedar in the Lebanon.” (Psalm 92:13) May we merit to greet him soon.