Tag Archives: Tree of Life (Sefirot)

What is Happiness?

The Torah describes the holiday of Sukkot as being especially happy, and commands us to be akh sameach, “only happy” (Deuteronomy 16:15). When we look across Judaism, we find that there are actually three more holidays that are described similarly. Purim is the next one, of which the Talmud famously states that one must “increase in happiness” during the month in which Purim takes place (Ta’anit 29a). This is based on Scripture, where we read “And to the Jews was light, happiness, joy and prestige” (Esther 8:16). The last two specially-happy days are Tu b’Av and Yom Kippur, of which the Talmud states “there were never in Israel greater days of joy than the Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur” (Ta’anit 26b).

Why are these four holidays happier than the others? What is their connection to happiness? To answer that, we must first explore a bigger question: what exactly is happiness? Of course, we have all experienced happiness and innately know what it is. The real question is: what is the proper path to attaining true and lasting happiness? If we take a brief trip through centuries of philosophical thought, we will find that there are four major answers to this question. While every philosopher and school of philosophy had their own slight variation, we can group all of their answers into four categories:

Hedonism

The first and simplest answer is that the cause of all happiness is physical pleasure. Archaeologists and historians have found this sentiment in some of the earliest known human texts, including the Epic of Gilgamesh, where it says “Fill your belly. Day and night make merry. Let days be full of joy. Dance and make music day and night… These things alone are the concern of men.” Among the ancient Greeks, it appears it was Democritus (c. 460-370 BCE) who first subscribed fully to this notion. Aristippus (c. 435-356 BCE), a student of Socrates and founder of the Cyrenaic school of philosophy, made this the foundation of his worldview. It would come to be known as hedonism, the attainment of happiness through the pursuit of maximal pleasure.

Asceticism

The second answer is, perhaps ironically, the exact opposite of the first: true happiness can only come when a person detaches from all material things. Antisthenes (c. 445-365 BCE), another student of Socrates and founder of the school of Cynicism, held that the key to ultimate happiness was to be unconcerned with wealth and material pleasures. These are all temporary and fleeting, bringing a person short-lived joy and leading to ever greater addictions that can never be satisfied. Lasting happiness can only come from a simple, ascetic lifestyle. This same view is mirrored by multiple Eastern religions.

A related view is the one first espoused by Pyrrho (c. 360-270 BCE), an intriguing figure who journeyed all the way to India with the armies of Alexander the Great. He taught that happiness can only come after ataraxia, “freedom from worry”. A person does not necessarily have to detach from all material and physical pleasures, but does need to detach from all kinds of fears and dogmas. Nothing can ever be proven to be completely true, so we should stop worrying and stop making all kinds of judgements. One needs to develop a state of being mentally unbothered and at peace.

A bust of Epicurus

Epicurus (c. 341-270 BCE) took these ideas to the next level. He maintained that having no fears or worries means not having fear of God either, or any sort of divine punishment. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that the Talmudic sages had a particular aversion to Epicureanism, so much so that apikores became the standard Jewish term for a heretic. However, Epicurus did not preach immorality. Contrary to popular belief, he held that one should lead an ascetic life, be of high moral character, and focus on developing healthy and positive relationships with all people.

Virtue

Possibly the most frequent answer to the happiness question lies in developing virtue. This means being of exceedingly good character, and being moral and just. Such was the view of Plato (c. 424-348 BCE), as well as Aristotle (384-322 BCE), who added that virtue meant having a properly-balanced life. Zeno of Citium (c. 334-262 BCE), founder of the Stoic school, also held that virtue was the key to happiness. One of the later Stoics, Epictetus (c. 55-135 CE) said that one who has true virtue will be “sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy.”

This sentiment is very much in line with the view of our ancient Sages, and the approach of the Torah as a whole. One need not be an ascetic, nor should one descend into hedonism; rather, the Torah way is to balance the physical and spiritual, and focus on fulfilling the law (Torah and mitzvot), while increasing acts of kindness. This was succinctly stated by the first rabbi in Pirkei Avot, Shimon haTzadik, who stated that life is built on “Torah, divine service, and acts of kindness” (Avot 1:2). King Solomon concluded the same thing at the end of his existential Kohelet, where he ponders the meaning of life: “The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man.” This brings us to the final key to happiness.

Purpose

Taking what was said above one step further, we find that when we fulfil God’s law, we thereby connect to Hashem. This is indeed the root of the word mitzvah, which literally means to “bind”. Since God is the ultimate source of all goodness, binding to God is the ultimate way to maximize happiness. This view was echoed by Boethius (477-524 CE), among others. Long before them, we find it in the Torah, which repeats multiple times that we will be joyous before God (v’samachta lifnei Hashem, as in Deuteronomy 12:18, 16:11, 27:7, for example), and that we will be joyous when we receive God’s endless goodness (as in Deuteronomy 26:11).

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

This is deeply connected to what psychologists today see as the root of happiness: living with a greater sense of purpose. Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) detailed it fully in his Man’s Search For Meaning. It is more succinctly depicted in Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”, where physical pleasures are at the very bottom of the pyramid, offering the lowest degree of happiness, while “self-actualization”—living with purpose each day—is at the very top of the pyramid. Living with purpose is the key, and it needs to be a good, meaningful purpose (ie. “making more money” doesn’t cut it).

For a Jew, that purpose comes from God. We have a clear set of missions to accomplish in life, from the most basic being the fulfilment of Torah mitzvot each day, to the more mystical ones like rectifying our souls, and elevating the sparks of holiness trapped in Creation in order to repair the cosmos. This outlook gives a tremendous amount of meaning to each day, and to every moment. Something as simple as eating an apple becomes a world-altering experience: that beracha recited before consuming the apple is as a spiritual rectification that brings the world one step closer to perfection. In this way, one has the potential to be filled with joy at every moment. A person who sees himself as God’s divine emissary will therefore be, to borrow from Epictetus, “sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy.” Is this not the reason that Judaism has survived millennia of death, destruction, exile, and disgrace?

David

The perfect model of self-actualization is a person who is intricately connected to the holiday of Sukkot: King David. His Psalms are an incredible lesson in a person who has found joy at each moment by cleaving to God. Take his most famous song as an example, Psalm 23:

A song of David: God is my Shepherd, I shall not lack anything. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul; He guides me in righteous paths for His Name’s sake. Even when I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You set a table before me in the presence of my adversaries; You anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows. Only goodness and kindness pursue me all the days of my life, and I dwell in the House of God forever.

In this one Psalm we see the balance between asceticism and hedonism, we see true ataraxia—not from abandoning God, but form recognizing that faith in God means having no other fears at all—and we see the recognition that each and every day is full of goodness and kindness, even in death’s very shadow. In short, of the four answers to the question of happiness, the final is the best for it includes the other three within it. And this brings us back to the four happiest Jewish holidays.

Malkhut

It isn’t difficult to see how those four Jewish holidays described in especially-happy terms correspond to the four paths to happiness: Purim is known for its hedonistic elements, while Yom Kippur is pure asceticism. Tu b’Av is about virtue, as the Talmud (Ta’anit 26b) tells us explicitly that on that day when the men went out to find their soulmates, they were reminded not to look at physical beauty, but for a woman of real virtue. And Sukkot is the last: a holiday where we sit in Hashem’s Sukkah, literally immersed in the mitzvah, and have a chance to feel God’s “embrace”. In the same way that the fourth answer to happiness includes the three previous ones within it, Sukkot has all the elements within it, too.

Sukkot is the culmination of the season of Malkhut, the time when we crown God as “King”. It begins on Rosh Hashanah, when we start reciting HaMelekh HaKadosh, “The Holy King” in our prayers (instead of HaEl HaKadosh, “the Holy God”), and concludes with the last day of Sukkot. On that last day, the Kabbalists tell us that one’s decree for the year is sealed up for the final time, and the angels are given their instructions to carry out.

The last day of Sukkot is specifically tied to King David, who is the final leader of the ushpizin, the spiritual “guests” in the Sukkah. David is God’s appointed king on Earth, reflecting God’s own Kingship above. In the mystical Tree of Life, this is reflected in the fact that the lowest Sefirah of Malkhut, “Kingdom”, parallels the highest Sefirah of Keter, God’s “Crown”. Malkhut represents the earthly kingdom, and is therefore associated with King David. And it is in the Sefirah of Malkhut that happiness lies.

What exactly is Malkhut? While the other Sefirot, like Chessed and Gevurah, are pretty straight-forward in their meaning (at least on the surface level), Malkhut is not quite clear. How do we interact with Malkhut? Which character traits does it correspond to, and what exactly are we supposed to learn from it?

In many places the Kabbalists speak of Malkhut as Shiflut, “lowliness”. This is associated with humility, though there is a difference. Shiflut contains within it an aspect of sadness and melancholy. It is related to the ancient concept of a bar nafle, literally a “fallen child” (or “miscarriage”) but more like a “fallen soul”. It is a soul that often feels a sense of inner emptiness, and experiences itself as constantly “falling”. While all humans, at times, experience some inner emptiness, it was King David who was the quintessential bar nafle (see Sanhedrin 96b). Yet, despite this challenging disposition, he found a way to live in joy constantly, as we have seen. How? The secret is in Malkhut.

The six Middot (in red), flow into Malkhut below.

The Kabbalists describe Malkhut as an empty vessel. It is the receptacle at the bottom of the Sefirot, and only receives from the Sefirot above, particularly the six Middot. So, to fill that vessel one needs to focus on those six qualities: to increase acts of kindness (Chessed), and develop self-restraint (Gevurah), to build virtue and lead a balanced life (Tiferet), to persevere (Netzach), to be grateful (Hod), and to have a pure, monogamous, and loving marriage (Yesod). These are the things that truly fulfill a person, and altogether lead to real happiness. This is why the Kabbalists say happiness is in Malkhut.

The Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, 1707-1746) explains that this is all encoded within the letter Shin or Sin (ש), which stands for sasson (ששון) and simcha (שמחה), “joy” and “happiness” (Ma’amar HaGeulah, Discourse 3, Ch. 11). The letter Shin has three prongs, and the Ramchal says that the first Shin in “sasson” represents the first three Middot; the second Shin represents the next three; and the letter Nun is Malkhut. (“Nun” actually shares a root with the Aramaic term for “kingdom”, and is the same root as Nineveh, the capital city we read about in the Haftarah of Yom Kippur.) This is precisely what was described above, as the Middot flow into Malkhut, and fill it with joy. (It’s worth mentioning that the Ramchal says within Yesod lies the greatest source of happiness, which is alluded to by the letter Vav in the word “sasson”)

A four-pronged Shin on the head tefillin.

The Shin itself alludes to the paths of happiness. Shin actually has two forms: the normal one with three prongs, and the mystical one with four prongs (as found on the side of all head tefillins). This represents the three classic paths to happiness, and the fourth mystical one that includes the other three within it. (Something to be mindful of as we place the tefillin on the head!) The three-four arrangement also alludes to the Tree of Life itself, which is described as having three columns, all leading to Malkhut at the bottom. The left column represents the path of asceticism, the right column of virtue, and the middle column that proper balance within the sphere of pleasure. All flow into Malkhut, the kingdom in which we must live with a divine sense of purpose, as commanded by our King above.

In short, the proper Torah way holds all paths to happiness. When we walk those paths, we bring God’s kingship into this world, and as ambassadors of the King, we are privileged to all the honours and benefits that come with the position. Then, like King David, we can happily rest in God’s House all the days of our lives.

Chag sameach!

A Mystical Map of Your Soul

This week, outside of Israel, we read the parasha of Acharei Mot. (In Israel, since Pesach is seven days and finished last Friday, Acharei Mot was read on Shabbat and this week the following parasha, Kedoshim, is read. For the next few months, the weekly parasha read in the Diaspora will be different than that read in Israel.) In Acharei Mot, we are commanded:

And any man of the House of Israel or of the foreigner that lives among them, who eats any blood, I will set My countenance upon the soul who eats the blood, and I will cut him off from among his people. For the soul of the flesh is in the blood, and I have therefore given it to you [to be placed] upon the altar, to atone for your souls. For it is the blood that atones for the soul. (Leviticus 17:10-11)

Many recipes call for the use of “kosher salt”. Chefs like it because the larger grains allow them to season their meals more precisely. Jews use koshering salt to remove the tiniest drops of blood that may have remained after draining.

The Jewish people are absolutely forbidden from consuming any kind of blood, whether in a juicy steak or even the tiniest drop inside an egg. It is quite ironic that one of the most disgusting anti-Semitic accusations thrown upon the Jews is that Jews, God forbid, consume the blood of children. (It is all the more ironic that this “blood libel” originates among Catholics who, when taking communion, believe they are drinking the blood of Jesus—who was a Jew!) In reality, Jews obsess over ensuring that we consume no blood whatsoever, and one of the requirements of kosher meat is that all of the blood has been completely removed.

The Torah explains that we should not consume blood because nefesh habasar b’dam hi, the “soul of the flesh is in the blood”. If we eat meat, it is in order to obtain the nutrients in the flesh, not to absorb the spirit of the animal. The animal’s soul is, as the Torah commands, to be placed “upon the altar”. The Kabbalists explain that by doing so, the soul of the animal is allowed to return to the spiritual worlds from which it originates.

In precisely balanced language, the verses cited above state that a Jew who consumes any blood within which is soul, nefesh, will be “cut off” from his nation, and God will personally set His wrath upon that Jewish soul, nefesh. The same word is used to refer to the soul of the Jew and that of the animal. People sometimes forget that animals, too, have souls, and it is forbidden to harm animals in any way.

Having said that, there is of course a great difference between the soul of an animal and the soul of a human. In fact, we find in the Tanakh that five different words are used to refer to the soul. Our Sages explain that a person actually has five souls, or more accurately, five parts or levels to their soul. (The Ba’al HaTurim, Rabbi Yakov ben Asher [1269-1343], states that the five prayer services of Yom Kippur, and the five times that the Kohen Gadol would immerse in the mikveh that day, is in order to purify all five souls; see his commentary on this week’s parasha, Leviticus 16:14.) These five souls are in ascending order, and correspond to the spiritual universes of Creation and to the divine Sefirot. Each soul is itself made up of even smaller, intertwining parts. Understanding the soul and its dynamics is a central part of Jewish mysticism, and what follows is a brief overview of that spiritual map.

The First Three Souls

The first and lowest of the souls is the nefesh. As we have already seen, this soul is associated with the blood, and is the “life force” of a living organism. Above that is the soul called ruach, literally “wind” or “spirit”. We find this term right at the beginning of the Torah (Genesis 1:2) in referring to the Spirit of God (Ruach Elohim) and in many other places to refer to the souls of great people, such as Joshua (Numbers 27:18). Above that is the neshamah, literally “breath”, which we are first introduced to during the creation of Adam, where God breathes a nishmat chayim, “soul of life” into the first civilized man (Genesis 2:7).

These first three souls—nefesh, ruach, and neshamah; often abbreviated as naran—are spoken of widely across Jewish holy texts, from the Tanakh through the Talmud and the Zohar. For example, the Talmud (Niddah 31a) states how there are three partners in the creation of a person: the father is the primary source of five “white” things (bones, nerves, nails, brain, eyeball), the mother is the primary source of five “red” things (blood, skin, flesh, hair, iris), and God gives ten things, including the ruach and neshamah. (The nefesh presumably goes together with the blood from the mother.)

The Zohar (I, 205b-206a) elaborates that the neshamah is greater than the ruach, which is greater than the nefesh, and that a person only accesses higher levels of their soul if they are worthy. Sinners do not have access to their neshamas at all. They are just living nefesh, like animals. Based on this, the Zohar has a unique perspective on Genesis 7:22-23:

All in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life [nishmat ruach], whatsoever was in the dry land, died. And He blotted out every living substance which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and creeping thing, and fowl of the sky; and they were blotted out from the earth; and Noah alone was left, and they that were with him in the ark.

The Zohar sees these two verses as distinct. First, all those people who did merit a ruach and neshamah (meaning they weren’t completely sinful and didn’t deserve to perish in the Flood) died of natural causes. Only after this did God “blot out” all that remained, including animals and people who were so sinful they were essentially like animals, bearing only a nefesh.

With these three souls in mind, many aspects of life can be better understood. For example, when one is asleep only the nefesh remains in the body (to keep it alive), while the higher souls may migrate. This is why a sleeping body is unconscious and likened to a corpse, and why sometimes dreams can be prophetic, as the higher souls may be accessing information from the Heavens, or through interaction with other souls.

Another intriguing example is from Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra, 1089-1167) who relates the three souls to three major purposes of sexual intercourse. The first and simplest is for procreation, something that even animals do, and naturally corresponds to nefesh. The second is for good health, corresponding to ruach. The third is for love and intimacy, fusing the souls of husband and wife, corresponding to the neshamah.

In addition to naran, the Zohar sometimes speaks of additional, even higher souls, such as “nefesh of Atzilut” and “neshamah of Aba and Ima” (see II, 94b). To make sense of these, we must turn to the Arizal.

Earning Your Higher Souls

In multiple places, Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), the primary disciple of the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572) and the one who recorded the bulk of his teachings, describes the anatomy of the soul (see, for example, the first passages of Sha’ar HaGilgulim or Derush Igulim v’Yosher 3 in Etz Chaim). At birth, a baby only contains a full nefesh. As the Torah states, the nefesh is in the blood, and the Arizal adds that since the liver filters blood and is full of it, it is the organ most associated with nefesh. By the age of bar or bat mizvah, a person now has the ability to fully access their ruach. The organ of ruach is the heart (also stated in the Zohar, III, 29b, Raya Mehemna), associated with one’s drives, and both inclinations, the yetzer hatov and the yetzer hara. Only at age 20 does the neshamah become fully available (in most cases). The neshamah is housed in the brain, and is associated with the mind.

Today, we know how scientifically precise those statements are. For example, at any given time the liver (the body’s largest internal organ) contains about 10% of the body’s blood volume, and filters about a quarter of all blood each minute. As well, we know today that the majority of the brain’s development ends around age 20 (though minor changes continue for at least another decade, if not longer). It therefore isn’t surprising that teenagers are so good at making bad decisions. We can also understand why being a teenager is so difficult emotionally, as this is when the ruach is in full force in the heart, and one struggles with their desires and inclinations.

Reinforcing what was said in the Zohar, the Arizal taught that one does not automatically have full access to these souls, but must work on themselves and merit to attain them. Unfortunately, a great many people spend their entire lives stuck in nefesh, living very materialistic and animalistic lives, never overcoming their desires and inclinations (ruach), or achieving any kind of mental greatness (neshamah). The potential is there, though never realized.

For those who do grow ever-higher, they may be able to access even loftier soul levels: the chayah and yechidah. In the Torah, we see many places where the soul is referred to as chayah, including right at the start where God breathes a soul into Adam and makes him l’nefesh chayah (Genesis 2:7). The chayah is sometimes described as an aura. It is not housed within the body, but glows outward, and plays an important role in the interactions between people.

Above it is the highest level of soul, the yechidah, “singular one”, which connects a person directly with God. It is like a divine umbilical cord, and one who realizes it and senses it may certainly draw through it information from Above. The yechidah, too, has Scriptural basis, for example in Psalms 22:21 and 35:17 where David asks God to save his nefesh and yechidah from danger.

Souls Intertwined With Universes

In Etz Chaim, Rabbi Vital cites the Talmud (Berakhot 10a) as the source for the concept of five souls, as well as the five olamot, spiritual universes. (The mystical Sefer HaBahir adds that this is the secret of the letter hei, which has a numerical value of five.) There in the Talmud, the Sages point out how David’s Barchi Nafshi, Psalms 103-104, uses the phrase Barchi nafshi et Hashem, “May my soul bless God” five times. These, the Sages state, correspond to the five olamot, “worlds” or “universes” that David inhabited. Though the Talmud goes on to present a more physical explanation of what these worlds are, it is possible to read deeper between the lines, and the Kabbalists find allusions to five cosmic, spiritual universes, which are: Asiyah, Yetzirah, Beriah, Atzilut, and Adam Kadmon. While explaining these worlds in depth is a topic for another time, we can state that the five souls correspond to these five universes.

In fact, the Arizal teaches that one can identify the soul elevation of another by studying the colour of their aura: black is the colour of Asiyah, the lowest, physical realm which we visibly inhabit. The higher world of Yetzirah, the domain of angels and spirits, is red. Even higher is Beriah, literally “Creation”, where the very spiritual foundations of Creation exist. It is white. Above this is Atzilut, “divine emanation”, which is pure, brilliant light. These worlds, and souls, correspond to the letters of God’s Name. The final hei is Asiyah/Nefesh, the vav is Yetzirah/Ruach, the first hei is Beriah/Neshamah, the yud is Atzilut/Chayah, and the “crown” atop the yud is Adam Kadmon/Yechidah.

How the letters of God’s Ineffable Name relate to the five levels of soul, the five “universes”, and the Ten Sefirot. (Zeir Anpin refers to the middle six Sefirot from Chessed to Yesod.)

All of these also correspond to the major branches of Torah study. Learning Tanakh is in Asiyah, while Mishnah is in Yetzirah. Talmud is in Beriah, while Kabbalah is in Atzilut. When one learns these texts, they are putting on a spiritual “garment” for that soul level, rectifying it and elevating it further, and this garment will remain with them in the World to Come (see Sha’ar HaPesukim on Tehilim). This is the deeper meaning of Psalm 19:8, which states that God’s Torah is temimah, meshivat nefesh, is “pure and restores the soul”.

Adam Kadmon is left out of the above (and in general is made distinct from the other four universes) because that level is where one has mastered all of the Torah branches, has refined their soul to the highest degree, and is a perfectly righteous person. This level may be equated to the super-lofty soul of Nefesh d’Atzilut which we previously mentioned from the Zohar. Such a rare person is referred to as a malakh, an “angel”, and this was the case with people like Eliyahu, Yehudah, Hezekiah, and Enoch (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 39).

How the souls and universes relate to the “Tree of Life” which depicts the 32 Paths of Creation – the 10 Sefirot and the 22 Hebrew letters.

Emptying The Universe’s Soul

In case it wasn’t complicated enough just yet, the Arizal taught that each of the five souls is itself composed of five souls. So, within the nefesh, ruach, neshamah, chayah, and yechidah (abbreviated as naran chai) there is an inner nefesh, ruach, neshamah, chayah, and yechidah! That makes 25 smaller parts to the soul. Furthermore, each of these parts is composed of 613 sparks corresponding to the 613 mitzvot. Each of those sparks is further composed of 600,000 even smaller sparks. Multiplying them all together, we get 9.195 billion sparks.

In the same place where he writes this (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 11), Rabbi Vital explains that all of these sparks were contained within Adam. We may assume that it probably isn’t the case that each person has 9 billion or more sparks, but that Adam’s original soul divided up into so many sparks. Since it is said that in the same way all people are physical descendants of Adam, they are also his spiritual descendants, we might conclude that the world should expect to have a population of up to 9.195 billion people. Interestingly, demographers are currently predicting that Earth’s population will actually top out around 9 billion, and will then start to decline. This prediction is quite amazing in light of one famous Talmudic teaching:

In Yevamot 62a, the Sages state that Mashiach will not come until all souls are born. They describe a Heavenly repository of souls called guf, literally “body”. Only when guf is empty can Mashiach arrive. The guf may be mystically referring to that first “body” of Adam which contained all souls within it. Once all of those sparks are born, all souls from the beginning of time will be alive simultaneously so that everyone can witness the tremendous Final Redemption. It appears we are inching ever closer to that moment.

The Jewish View on Cards and Gambling

In this week’s parasha, Matot-Massei, we read how the Israelites were supposed to divide up the Holy Land between the Twelve Tribes:

And you shall inherit the land by lot according to your families; to the more [numerous] you shall give the more inheritance, and to the fewer you shall give the lesser inheritance; wherever the lot falls to any man, that shall be his…

We learn that the land of Israel was apportioned based on family size, with larger families logically receiving a larger share. Now, to determine which chunk of land a family would receive, the Israelites cast lots. The Talmud (Bava Batra 122a) describes how this was done: two urns were prepared, one containing the names of the Twelve Tribes, and the other containing the names of the various allotments of land. Elazar the High Priest would pick one name from each urn, thus designating a piece of land for a particular tribe.

Casting lots was very common in Biblical times, and is mentioned frequently in the Tanakh. For example, the Torah commands casting lots to determine which goat is sent to Azazel on Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:8). In the Book of Jonah (1:7), the sailors on Jonah’s ship cast lots to determine who was guilty of causing the storm. In the time of King David, the kohanim were thus divided into 24 groups (I Chronicles 24). Haman cast lots to determine the best day to attack the Jews, and this is why the holiday is called “Purim”, since purim was the Persian word for “lots” (Esther 3:7).

Casting lots suggests a large degree of chance or randomness in the process. Yet, people of faith are naturally quite averse to the concept of random chance, for isn’t everything determined by God? Not surprisingly, the word “lot” (goral) also takes on the meaning of “fate” in the Tanakh. For instance, Isaiah (17:14) prophesies: “At evening there will be terror, and before morning they are not. This is the portion of them that spoil us, and the goral of them that rob us.” The ultimate fate of those that harm the Jewish people will be utter destruction. The Sages, too, were uncomfortable with the idea of dividing the Holy Land by seemingly random lots. They therefore stated (ibid.) that the lots were really just a show for the people to see what God intended. In reality:

Elazar was wearing the Urim and Tumim, while Joshua and all Israel stood before him… Animated by the Holy Spirit, he gave directions, exclaiming: “Zevulun” is coming up and the boundary lines of Acco are coming up with it. [Thereupon], he shook well the urn of the tribes and Zevulun came up in his hand. [Likewise] he shook well the urn of the boundaries and the boundary lines of Acco came up in his hand…

Elazar would prophetically see which tribe needed which land, and when he then shook the urns those exact pairs that he foresaw would emerge! So, the process was not random at all, but simply a materialization of the Divine Will. Still, the Sages insist that in the messianic era the Holy Land will not be apportioned through this method of casting lots, but rather “The Holy One, blessed be He, Himself, will divide it among them; for it is said [Ezekiel 48:29], ‘And these are their portions, says the Lord God.’”

If the Sages were not fond of casting random lots by chance, how would they feel about playing games of chance and gambling?

Gambling in the Talmud

In 1999 and 2000, the Muslim Waqf (Temple Mount authority) dug up 9000 tons of Temple Mount soil and unceremoniously dumped it in the Kidron Valley, creating one of the largest archaeological catastrophes in history. Thankfully, archaeologists did not give up on this precious soil, and began the “Temple Mount Sifting Project”. Among the many incredible finds are these Second Temple-era playing dice.

In a list of people that are ineligible to serve as witnesses or as judges, the Mishnah includes a mesachek b’kubia, a person who plays with dice, and mafrichei yonim, “pigeon flyers”. According to the Talmud, the latter most likely refers to people who bet on pigeon races, which were apparently common in those days. We know from historical sources that gambling with various dice games was very popular in Greek and Roman times. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 24b) goes on to discuss what the problem with such people is.

Rami bar Hama teaches that the issue with gambling is that it is essentially built on a lie: each player agrees to pay a certain sum of money if they lose, yet they hope (and fully intend) not to lose at all! That means the initial agreement made by the players is not even valid. The losing gambler is entirely dejected, and gives up their money reluctantly, often with a nagging feeling of being robbed or cheated out of their money.

Rav Sheshet disagrees. After all, there may be some people who are not so sad to part with their money, or are simply addicted to the game itself. Whatever the case, Rav Sheshet holds that gambling is inappropriate because it is a terribly unproductive waste of time, and the gambler contributes nothing to “the welfare of the world”. This is why, Rav Sheshet says, the Mishnah above concludes by saying that only a full-time gambler is prohibited, but one who has an actual job and just plays for fun on the side is permitted.

Nonetheless, Rav Yehudah holds that regardless of whether the gambler has an occupation or not, or whether he is a full-time player or not, a gambler is disqualified from being a kosher witness or judge. Rav Yehudah bases his statement on a related teaching of Rabbi Tarfon, and on this Rashi comments that a gambler is likened to a thief. The Midrash is even more vocal, saying that gamblers “calculate with their left hand, and press with their right, and rob and wrong one another” (Midrash Tehillim on Psalm 26:10).

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 25b) goes on to state that the prohibitions above don’t only refer to a literal dice-player, but any kind of gambler, including one who plays with pebbles (or checkers), and even with nuts. The Sages state that such a person is only readmitted when they do a complete repentance, and refuse to play the game even just for fun without any money!

Halachically-speaking, the Shulchan Arukh (Choshen Mishpat 370:2-3) first states that any kind of gambling is like theft and is forbidden, but then suggests that while it may not exactly be theft it is certainly a waste of time and not something anyone should engage in.

A Ban on Gambling

While the Talmud does not explicitly forbid gambling, later rabbis recognized its addictive nature and sought to ban the practice entirely. In 1628, for example, the rabbis of Venice issued a decree (to last six years) excommunicating any Jew who gambled. Part of the motivation for this decree was the case of Leon da Modena (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Modena, 1571-1648).

Rabbi Leon Yehudah Aryeh da Modena

Born in Venice to a family of Sephardic exiles, da Modena went on to become a respected rabbi and the hazzan of Venice’s main synagogue for forty years. A noted scholar, he wrote about a dozen important treatises. In Magen v’Herev, he systematically tore down the major tenets of Christianity, while in Ari Nohem he sought to discredit Kabbalah and prove that the Zohar has no ancient or divine origin. (The latter is probably why he isn’t as well-known in Jewish circles today as he should be.)

In 1637, he published Historia de’riti hebraici, an overview of Judaism for the European world, meant to dispel myths about Judaism and quell anti-Semitism. Historians credit this with being the first Jewish text written for the non-Jewish world in over a millennium, since the time of Josephus. The book was incredibly popular, and played a key role in England’s readmitting Jews to the country in the 1650s (after having being expelled in 1290).

More pertinent to the present discussion, Rabbi da Modena wrote Sur miRa (“Desist from Evil”), outlining the problems with gambling. He would know, since he was horribly addicted to gambling himself. He wrote of this problem in his own autobiography, Chayei Yehudah. And because such a high-profile sage was a gambler, his rabbinic colleagues in Venice issued that decree to ban any form of gambling.

Rabbi da Modena’s game of choice was cards. At that point in time, playing cards had become wildly popular in Europe. First invented in China in the 9th century, playing cards slowly made their way across Asia, and reached Europe around 1365. They have remained popular ever since, both for gambling and non-gambling games. While it is clear from an halachic standpoint that card games involving money (like Poker or Blackjack) should not be played, is it permissible to play non-gambling card games (like Crazy Eights or Go Fish)?

At first glance, it may not seem like there should be a problem with this. Yet, some rabbis have recently spoken out against all playing cards. Usually, this prohibition is connected not to gambling or wasting time, but rather to cards’ apparent origins in idolatry or the dark arts. Although it is true that some types of cards are used in divination and fortune-telling, it is important to examine the matter in depth and determine whether cards really are associated with forbidden practices.

The History of Playing Cards

Mamluk Cards

The exact origins of cards are unclear. We do know that they come from China, where paper and printing were invented. Card games are attested to in Chinese texts as early as 868 CE. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Muslims brought cards across Asia. They were particularly popular in Egypt during the Mamluk Sultanate (1250-1517). The Mamluks created the first modern-style deck of 52 cards with 4 suits. The suits were sticks, coins, swords, and cups. In the 15th century, Italians started to make cards of their own, with the suits being leaves, hearts, bells, and acorns. The French had three-leaf clovers for leaves, square tiles (or diamonds) for bells, and pikes for acorns. Although these suit symbols remained, the English names reflect the earlier suits of sticks (“clubs”) and swords (“spades”).

The Muslim Mamluks did not draw any faces on their court cards (since depicting faces in art is forbidden in Islam). The Europeans did not have this issue, and adapted the Muslim court cards of malik (king), malik na’ib (deputy king), and thani na’ib (second deputy) to king, queen, and prince or knight (“jack”). In 16th century France, the four kings were depicted as particular historical figures: the King of Spades was King David, the King of Clubs was Alexander the Great, the King of Hearts was Charlemagne, and the King of Diamonds was Julius (or Augustus) Caesar.

We see that playing cards have no origins in idolatry. The style of cards we know today were developed by staunchly monotheistic Muslims. They were further developed by mostly non-religious European renaissance printers, against the wishes of the Church which sought to ban cards on a number of occasions. Neither are playing cards known for being used in fortune-telling. However, a related type of card is used in divination today.

Tarot Cards and Kabbalah

In 15th century Italy, a different type of playing card developed. These were called trionfi, later tarocchi, and finally “tarot cards”. They, too, have four suits, but with 56 cards. These were, and still are, used for a number of different games, just like regular playing cards are. Outside of Europe, tarot cards are not well-known, and are generally associated with fortune-tellers.

In reality, the earliest mention of tarot cards being used in divination is only from 1750, and it was essentially unheard of until the late 19th century. Besides, most diviners actually use a different deck of 78 cards. Of course, such divination is entirely forbidden according to the Torah. So, it seems like some well-meaning rabbis have confused these tarot cards with regular playing cards. Ironically, many occultists actually claim that tarot cards come from Kabbalah!

The Tarot “Tree of Life” (Credit: Byzant.com)

These occultists tie the 22 additional divination cards to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the 22 paths on the mystical “Tree of Life”. The ten numeral cards (naturally) correspond to the Ten Sefirot, while the four suits correspond to the four olamot, or universes. Finally, the four court cards and the ace represent the five partzufim (with the king and queen appropriately being Aba and Ima). While these parallels are neat, there is absolutely no known historical or textual basis to support these claims. Tarot cards have nothing to do with traditional Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism. (There is a concept in Kabbalah of a negative set of Ten Sefirot belonging to the Sitra Achra, so perhaps there is some connection between these tarot cards and certain evil spiritual forces.)

Having said all that, to forbid playing with cards (or even standard tarot cards) just because some people recently started using them in divination is like forbidding drinking coffee because some people recently started divining with coffee (a practice called “tassology” or “tasseography”). While playing cards copiously is certainly a waste of time, there is nothing wrong with the occasional—no gambling—game.

Ba’al HaTurim

It is fitting to end with the words of the Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, c. 1269-1343) who writes in his commentary on the Torah (Tur HaAroch on Deuteronomy 1:1) that Moses himself cautioned Israel about gambling in his final speech before passing away:

Before Moses got ready to relate all these various commandments, he used the present opportunity, a few weeks before his death, to admonish the people, and to remind them of past sins, and how they had caused Hashem a lot of grief during these years. He reminded them how God had treated them by invoking His attribute of mercy and loving kindness time and again. He warned them not to become corrupt again by gambling… They should not rely on the fact that because they were human they were bound to err and sin from time to time and that God, knowing this, would overlook their trespasses.