Tag Archives: Vilna Gaon

Should Jews Celebrate Birthdays?

At the end of this week’s parasha, Vayeshev, we read that it was “Pharaoh’s birthday” (Genesis 40:20). This is the only place in the Torah that explicitly mentions a birthday, which leads to the question: are birthday celebrations kosher? Where did birthday parties come from, and what is so special about the day of birth anyway?

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The Kabbalah of Kippah

‘Balaam and the Angel’ by John Linnell

This week’s parasha, Balak, recounts the attempt of two great sorcerers, Balak and Bilaam, to curse the people of Israel. Balak was a Moabite king who worried that Israel would conquer his land. He hired the famous gentile prophet and wizard Bilaam to curse the nation. Bilaam knew he would be unable to do this, for he can only pronounce what God desires. And so, each time Bilaam sought to pronounce a curse, a blessing emerged from his mouth instead. Balak tried several magical tricks and sacrificial rituals to change that, to no avail. Israel remained blessed.

The persistent motif in this parasha is the eye, or vision more broadly. Right from the beginning, we read:

Balak the son of Tzippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites… He sent messengers to Bilaam the son of Beor, to Pethor, which is by the river of the land of his people, to call for him, saying, “A people has come out of Egypt, and behold, they have covered the eye of the land, and they are stationed opposite me.” (Numbers 22:2-5)

This kind of language permeates the entire parasha, and is perhaps most concentrated in the following passage:

Bilaam raised his eyes and saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes, and the spirit of God rested upon him. He took up his parable and said, “The word of Bilaam the son of Beor and the word of the man with an open eye. The word of the one who hears God’s sayings, who sees the vision of the Almighty, fallen yet with open eyes. (Numbers 24:1-4)

Bilaam had a special “open eye” for seeing divine visions. Interestingly, although translated as “open eye”, the Hebrew is actually shtum or stum ‘ayin, which can be read as “closed eye”. Rashi comments on this dichotomy, bringing sources that favour both translations, with the possibility that Bilaam was blind in one eye or was missing an eye. The deeper mystical meaning is referring to an inner, spiritual eye. Aderet Eliyahu (the commentary of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, 1720-1797) states that this refers to seeing with divine inspiration. The Torah is alluding to an eye that is covered up, not visible on the face of a person. This eye is often referred to as the “third eye”.

When worn properly, the head tefillin points directly to the pineal gland inside the brain.

In Kabbalah, the third eye is associated with the head tefillin, which the Torah commands be placed “between your eyes”. Despite this, we do not put the tefillin between our eyes, but atop the head, above the hairline. This alludes to the fact that the head tefillin is about opening up our third eye, buried deeper in our brains. Science has shed some incredible light on this subject.

Deep in our brains is a small organ called the pineal gland. It releases the sleep hormone melatonin, and has also been found to contain DMT (dimethyltryptamine), a chemical that causes hallucinations and visions. Some say this chemical generates our dreams, or at least plays some role in dreaming. In South American shamanic rituals, a special tea (called Ayahuasca) with a high concentration of DMT is brewed and drunk in a religious ceremony to open one’s eyes to spiritual visions (and apparently works extremely well).

Pineal gland atop a bird’s brain.

If we can point to any part of the brain as being a “receiver” for prophecy, it would certainly be the mysterious pineal gland. Most intriguingly, scientists have found that the pineal gland contains photoreceptor cells similar to those in our eyes! (In animals, it rests higher in the brain and appears to respond to light, and may even be involved in processes like bird migration.) For these reasons, many have identified the pineal gland with the mystical third eye described in ancient mystical texts.

One of these ancient texts is the Zohar, on this week’s parasha. The section on Balak is possibly the longest in the entire Zohar. It includes what some identify as a separate mystical text that was only later incorporated into the Zohar, called the Yenuka, or “Child”. It describes a dialogue that Rabbi Yitzchak and Rabbi Yehuda had with a particularly precocious child. The child reveals some incredible mystical secrets, and one of these is regarding the inner eye. (For more on these secrets, and to the identity of this mysterious child, see the second edition of Mayim Achronim Chova – Secrets of the Last Waters.) The Zohar (III, 187a) reads:

[The Child] opened the discussion with the verse: “The wise man, his eyes are in his head, while the fool walks in darkness…” [Ecclesiastes 2:14] Why does it say the eyes are in his head? Are the eyes of a man in any other place? …Rather, the meaning of the verse is this: it has been taught that a man should not walk four cubits with an uncovered head. What is the reason? Since the Shekhinah rests upon the head, and a wise man’s thoughts and visions are in his head…

King Solomon alluded to the third eye when he said a wise man’s eyes are in his head and show him the light. The meaning of his words are quite clear, for he didn’t mean that a fool is literally blind, rather that he is lacking spiritual vision, which a wise man has. The Zohar comments by first stating that it is obvious the eyes are in (or on) the head. What one should understand is that contained within our heads are all of our holy thoughts and spiritual visions, imbued by God, and thus God’s divine presence, the Shekhinah, hovers over the head.

The Child goes on to state that a spiritual light emanates from the head of a righteous person, and he sees that light glowing upon the heads of Rabbi Yitzchak and Rabbi Yehuda. The Kabbalists associate that light with the two highest souls of a person, the Chayah and Yechidah. While the three lower souls (Nefesh, Ruach, Neshamah) reside in the body, the higher souls exude outwards and hover over the body. (For more on this, see A Mystical Map of Your Soul.) This is why it is common to wear two head-coverings, for example a kippah and a hat, which is meant to “cover” the two higher souls. These souls are particularly roused during prayer, which is the deeper reason for having a kippah and a tallit over one’s head.

The Child alludes to a Talmudic teaching of Rav Huna, who said he never walked four cubits with an uncovered head because the Shekhinah hovered over it (Kiddushin 31a). Elsewhere in the Talmud, we learn that an astrologer told the mother of Rav Nahman bar Yitzchak that he would become a thief, so his mother made him wear a head-covering his whole life to ensure “the fear of Heaven should always be upon him” (Shabbat 156b). It worked, and Rav Nahman became a great rabbi instead. Some cite this as the source for calling a kippah a yarmulke, meaning “fear of the King”. A kippah should remind a person at all times Who is above them.

Despite such teachings, wearing a kippah at all times was not a halachic requirement in those days. This was especially the case for an unmarried man, as we learn from another passage in the Talmud (Kiddushin 29b):

Rav Ḥisda would praise Rav Hamnuna to Rav Huna by saying that he is a great man. Rav Huna said to him: “When he comes to you, send him to me.” When Rav Hamnuna came before him, Rav Huna saw that he did not wear a head-covering. Rav Huna said to him: “What is the reason that you do not wear a head-covering?” Rav Hamnuna said to him: “The reason is that I am not married.” Rav Huna turned his face away from him, and he said to him: “See to it that you do not see my face until you marry.”

The story comes full circle with Rav Hamnuna. The Zohar states that the mysterious Child—who taught the secret of the inner eye and the kippah—is none other than the son of Rav Hamnuna Saba (“the Elder”). Although it isn’t entirely certain if these are the same Rav Hamnunas, it appears that this is indeed the case. Rav Huna (who was so careful with a head-covering) was the one who taught and made sure that Rav Hamnuna would get married and cover his head. The child that resulted from that marriage was the angelic child, who went on to reveal the secret of the head-covering.

It was Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575), a great mystic in his own right, who incorporated this practice as law in the Shulkhan Aruch, stating that one should not walk four cubits with his head uncovered (Orach Chaim 2:6). In previous centuries, wearing a kippah or head-covering was only mandatory during prayer (Mishneh Torah, Sefer Ahava, Hilkhot Tefilah 5:5). Even in the centuries following Rabbi Karo, there were those that maintained wearing a kippah all the times was not a strict requirement but a middat hassidut, an extra measure of piety. (Such was the view of the Chida, Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azzulai, 1724-1806; as well as the Vilna Gaon, and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888).

Today, it has become accepted for a Jewish man to wear a kippah all the time, and for good reason. It is a mark of modesty, and a symbol of one’s Jewishness. It reminds a person of the Heavens above, and saves them from sin. It (hopefully) motivates a person to do Kiddush Hashem. It reminds a person of their higher souls, and the holy Shekhinah resting upon them. And it serves to stimulate and guard one’s “third eye”, one’s inner vision, and those holy Torah thoughts residing in the mind.

Shalom Aleichem: To Sing or Not to Sing?

This week’s parasha, Vayak’hel, begins with God’s command for Israel to observe the Sabbath. One of the most famous symbols and songs of Shabbat is undoubtedly Shalom Aleichem, traditionally sung before the evening Kiddush. The lyrics of Shalom Aleichem welcome the Sabbath angels into our homes, and for many, serve to set the atmosphere of Shabbat itself. Yet, some of our wise rabbis in the past have cautioned against singing this song!  Where did Shalom Aleichem come from, and who composed it? When did Jews start singing this song, and why?

A Mystery Song

Much of the beloved Kabbalat Shabbat service is of very recent origin. For example, Lecha Dodi, through which we welcome in the Sabbath, was composed by Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz (c. 1500-1576). In fact, the eight verses of Lecha Dodi form an acrostic, the initials spelling his name. Born in Greece, Rabbi Alkabetz later moved to Tzfat, the capital of Jewish mysticism. He studied with Rabbi Yosef Karo (c. 1488-1575), famed composer of the Shulchan Arukh, and was the brother-in-law of the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570), who led the Tzfat Kabbalists before the arrival of the Arizal (Rabbi Itzchak Luria, 1534-1572). Many practices and customs of Judaism as we know them today originated in this incredible circle of Jewish mystics in Tzfat. One of these is the Kabbalat Shabbat prayer service.

Although Rabbi Alkabetz certainly wrote Lecha Dodi, there is little evidence that the wider Kabbalistic circle of Tzfat recited it in his own day. Contrary to popular belief, the Arizal did not sing this song. We know the Arizal’s teachings and practices from the writings of his students, namely his primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital (1542-1620). In Pri Etz Chaim, Rabbi Vital makes it abundantly clear, and repeats multiple times, exactly how the Arizal would perform Kabbalat Shabbat (see, for example, Sha’ar Shabbat, ch. 6):

The Arizal would go out into the fields, and recite Psalm 20 (with the most important verse there being the tenth, which starts Hashem l’mabul yashav, the initials spelling a Name of God, יל״י). He would then say Bo’i Kalah, “come my Bride” three times (based on a teaching in the Talmud, Shabbat 119a). Following this, he would recite Psalm 92 (Mizmor shir l’yom haShabbat), which also contains hidden Names of God. That would be it for Kabbalat Shabbat. Rabbi Vital explains what happens next:

And when you come home from the synagogue after praying Arvit, stand at your place at the meal table, and say “This is the meal of the Holy Apple Orchard”… and after this, encircle the table around the right, silently. Then, take in your hands two bundles of hadas [myrtle branches], and join them together, and say the blessing [besamim] on them, and smell them. And afterwards, encircle the table a second time with the branches in hand, silently. Then say “Zachor v’shamor b’dibbur echad ne’emru”. Then say Kiddush.

After eating the meal, recite some passages from the tractate Shabbat, then birkat hamazon, then say again “Zachor v’shamor b’dibbur echad ne’emru”. Then say the blessing on the hadas a second time. In the morning, for the second Shabbat meal, do the same as you did the previous night [during the first meal], and do the same for the third meal [seudah shlishit].

‘Sabbath Queen’ by Abigail Sarah Bagraim

Thus, while we find some words that remind us of Lecha Dodi, such as “bo’i kalah” and “zachor v’shamor b’dibbur echad” (rearranged by Alkabetz in Lecha Dodi so that “shamor” comes first, to spell his name “Shlomo”), there is no mention of an entire Lecha Dodi. Nor is there any mention of singing Shalom Aleichem (or Eshet Chayil for that matter).

The Arizal did teach that one should say the words “shalom aleichem” three times at the end of Birkat Levanah, the blessing on a new moon recited once a month (Sha’ar Rosh Chodesh Chanukah v’Purim, ch. 3). This is still done today. The Arizal explained that saying shalom aleichem three times serves to remove any kitrug, spiritual “prosecution”. Based on this, some believe that whoever composed the song Shalom Aleichem incorporated this teaching of the Arizal. This is probably why some (especially Sephardis) have the custom to sing only the first three stanzas of Shalom Aleichem, thus saying the words “shalom aleichem” three times. Alternatively, this may be why many others (especially Ashkenazis) have the custom to recite each stanza of Shalom Aleichem three times.

The Origin of Shalom Aleichem

So where and when did Shalom Aleichem first appear? It seems the earliest source is Seder Tikkunei Shabbat, a work first published in Prague in 1641. I found a 1650 Krakow edition, and its Kabbalat Shabbat service and meal table ritual is nearly identical to what is generally practiced today. There are the six Psalms before Lecha Dodi, then Lecha Dodi itself, followed by two more Psalms. Then there is Shalom Aleichem, with all four stanzas—each to be read three times—followed by a prayer called Ribbon Kol HaOlamim, and then Eshet Chayil.

Cover of Tikkunei Shabbat

The cover page of the text says it is based on the teachings of the Arizal. It isn’t clear who exactly put the book together, though it appears to mention a “Rabbi Isaiah Nasi”. That may be Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (Shelah HaKadosh, 1555-1630), a renowned Kabbalist who was born in Prague and lived for a time in Krakow. He got hold of the teachings of the Arizal, and towards the end of his life travelled to Tzfat in hopes of learning directly from the Arizal’s disciples. Considering that Seder Tikkunei Shabbat was first published twenty years after the Shelah left Europe, and eleven years after he died, it may have been put together by someone else, based on his teachings, which were in turn based on the Arizal.

Still, we do not know who it was that composed Shalom Aleichem. Whatever the case, within a century it had become popular enough that there were those who opposed singing it. One of these opponents was Rabbi Yakov Emden (1697-1776). He published his own siddur, where Shalom Aleichem is missing. He pointed out several issues with the song, including the absurd request for angels (and not God Himself) to bless us (although earlier Jewish works don’t necessarily have a problem with this), and the strange wording of the song, especially the word “mimelekh”. Amazingly, modern versions of Rabbi Emden’s Beit Yakov siddur do include Shalom Aleichem! The earliest Beit Yakov siddur I could find was from 1881, which has Shalom Aleichem in full, though without that problematic word mimelekh.

Shalom Aleichem, with commentary, in an 1881 Beit Yakov siddur

The commentary in this version of Beit Yakov explains that the custom of singing Shalom Aleichem is based on the Talmudic statement (Shabbat 119b) that when one comes home from the synagogue on Friday evening he is followed by two angels:

Rav Chisda said in the name of Mar Ukva: “One who prays on Shabbat evening and recites Vaykhulu, the two ministering angels who accompany the person at all times place their hands on his head and say to him: ‘And your iniquity has passed, and your sin has been atoned.’” [Isaiah 6:7] It was taught [in a Baraita]: Rabbi Yose bar Yehuda says: “Two ministering angels accompany a person on Shabbat evening from the synagogue to his home, one good angel and one bad angel. And when he reaches his home and finds a candle burning and a table set and his bed made, the good angel says: ‘May it be Your will that it shall be like this for another Shabbat.’ And the bad angel answers against his will: ‘Amen.’ And if the person’s home is not prepared for Shabbat in that manner, the bad angel says: ‘May it be Your will that it shall be so for another Shabbat,’ and the good angel answers against his will: ‘Amen.’”

It is these angels that Shalom Aleichem is apparently referring to. The angels are welcomed into the home, asked to give us their blessing, and to head back out. We see above that one of the angels is a kategor, a “prosecutor”. As we learned from the Arizal, saying shalom aleichem three times eliminates kitrug, “prosecution”, thus neutralizing that “bad” angel.

As for the argument that the song is requesting blessings from angels, I believe the second argument regarding the strange wording of mimelekh actually serves to neutralize the first argument. This line is meant to remind the singer and the audience that, of course, we are really just request a blessing from God Himself—through His messenger angels (something that happens many times in the Torah)—hence the words “From the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He” (מִמֶּלֶךְ מַלְכֵי הַמְּלָכִים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא). We are welcoming the angels that are coming our way mimelekh, “from the King”, and who are blessing us mimelekh, “from the King”.

To summarize, Shalom Aleichem probably did not emerge among the early Tzfat Kabbalists, nor was it recited by the Arizal as some believe. It had only become widely popular by the middle of the 18th century. The identity of the author remains unknown.

So, should we recite Shalom Aleichem, or not? For those who have reservations (like Rabbi Emden, and apparently also the Vilna Gaon) and feel strongly that it should be skipped (or wish to mirror the early Tzfat Kabbalists as closely as possible), they have on whom to rely. However, it is difficult to avoid such a deeply-rooted and widely-accepted custom. Ultimately, the song is based on a Talmudic passage, speaks only of positive things, and affirms God is the “King of Kings”. It is a mystical, albeit mysterious song, and a beautiful, peaceful way to start the Sabbath festivities.