Tag Archives: Vilna Gaon

Is Kabbalah Kosher?

In this week’s parasha, Nitzavim, we read that “The hidden things are for Hashem, our God, and the revealed things are for us and our children forever, to fulfil the words of this Law.” (Deuteronomy 29:28) The verse is a significant one for a number of reasons, one of which is that it is used as Scriptural proof for the Jewish mystical tradition, commonly referred to as “Kabbalah”, those esoteric secrets—“hidden things”—of the Torah. The Torah cautions that these secrets are best to be kept for God, while the revealed parts of the Law are for us and our children.

And yet, Jewish mysticism has been a very popular area of study for millennia. We know of the existence of multiple “mystery schools” in the Second Temple era. Some of the earliest mystical texts were composed in this time period, and have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the centuries following the destruction of the Second Temple, a number of new mystical texts appeared, known as the Heikhalot, Heavenly “Palaces”.

The main protagonists of the Heikhalot are Rabbi Akiva and his contemporary, Rabbi Ishmael. We know from the Talmud that these two were great mystics. The Talmud (Chagigah 14b) famously records how Rabbi Akiva led three other rabbis to the Heavenly realms of Pardes. This is traditionally taken to mean that they plunged into the depths of Jewish esotericism, where “Pardes” is an acronym for pshat, remez, drash, sod, the four main levels of Torah study: the simple, surface meaning; the sub-textual allusions; the allegorical, metaphorical, and extra-Scriptural narratives; and the mystical secrets of Kabbalah.

‘Elijah Taken Up to Heaven’

The three rabbis that went along with Rabbi Akiva didn’t fare so well: Ben Azzai died, Ben Zoma apparently lost his mind, and Elisha ben Avuya became a heretic. Only Rabbi Akiva “exited in peace”. There were many other mystics in their day. The Talmud (Sukkah 28a) states that although Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai (whose students were the teachers of Rabbi Akiva) was the least knowledgeable of Hillel’s eighty disciples, even he was an expert in Ma’aseh Merkavah, “the Work of the Chariot”. Ma’aseh Merkavah refers to the opening account of the Book of Ezekiel, where the prophet describes God’s “Divine Chariot”. Similar holy visions were beheld by the other prophets, including Isaiah and Daniel, while Elijah was taken up to Heaven in such a fiery chariot (II Kings 2:11). Thus, Ma’aseh Merkavah is believed to be concerned with attaining prophecy, or with spiritual ascent to the Heavens. This is precisely how one might elevate to Pardes.

The other major area of mysticism in Second Temple and early Talmudic times was known as Ma’aseh Beresheet, “the Work of Creation” (Chagigah 11b). This refers to the opening account of Genesis, and the secrets of God’s formation of this universe. The study of Ma’aseh Beresheet would presumably allow one to attain certain divine creative powers. This is what the sages Rav Chanina and Rav Oshaia delved into every Friday afternoon, and were able to produce a lamb out of thin air—then barbecue it for lunch! (Sanhedrin 65b)

Such great power exists within the study of Maaseh Merkavah and Maaseh Beresheet that the Sages caution these subjects must not be taught publicly, and not to all those who wish to learn them: “Maaseh Beresheet must not be expounded upon before two, and Maaseh Merkavah even before one, unless he is a sage and understands of his own knowledge.” (Chagigah 2:1) Even to the understanding scholar, the Sages permit only the “chapter headings” to be revealed. The master points the student in the right direction, and nothing more. In this way, only the truly deserving wise one will come to understand the mysteries. Perhaps this is why the study was eventually called Kabbalah, from the root meaning “to receive”, for one could only receive it through divine inspiration from Above, and after having received the chapter headings from a master.

Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, the Vilna Gaon

Interestingly, the term Kabbalah in the Talmud refers not to mysticism but to the Tanakh, specifically to the books of Nevi’im and Ketuvim which follow the Five Books of Moses. This actually makes a lot of sense, since most of Kabbalah is built upon verses and passages in the Prophets and Writings. One who studies Kabbalistic texts will quickly recognize how most of the passages open with Scriptural verses, with concepts supported by Scriptural verses, especially from the Books of Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Shir haShirim, and of course, Ezekiel and Isaiah. Other texts of Tanakh are frequently cited, too. In fact, it is said that the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, 1720-1797), among the greatest of Kabbalists, studied nothing but Tanakh after a certain age, since he could derive everything directly from Scripture.

This may be one reason, among others, why study of Nevi’im and Ketuvim is so rare in the Orthodox yeshiva world today. Since Kabbalah is often seen as taboo, especially for young minds, it may be best to avoid study of Scriptural passages that may bring up uncomfortable or mystical questions. Indeed, it is the story of the Four Who Entered Pardes that is most commonly used as proof that the young, the uninitiated, or those that have not mastered every facet of Torah must not delve into Kabbalah. The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) codifies this as law.

The Sages of the early generations commanded that these matters should not be explained except to a single individual [at a time]. He should be a wise man, who can reach understanding with his own knowledge. In such an instance, he is given fundamental points, and an outline of the concepts is made known to him. He [is expected to continue to contemplate] until he reaches understanding with his powers of knowledge and knows the ultimate meaning and depth of the concept. (Yesodei HaTorah 2:12)

The Rambam is an interesting case, for he was no Kabbalist by any means. A strictly rationalist thinker, he rejected any notion of evil spirits and demons, thought superstitions to be silly at best, and made sure to expunge all sorts of mysticism-based rituals from his code of law. For the Rambam, Maaseh Merkavah simply refers to the various spiritual entities that God created, mainly the ten types of angels (Yesodei HaTorah, ch. 2). What the prophets saw were just “visions and parables”, not actual concrete things. Maaseh Beresheet, meanwhile, is essentially science and physics—the study of the elements and their properties, the various “spheres” of astronomy, the nature of the luminaries, stars and planets—these are the things he calls “Maaseh Beresheet” (Yesodei HaTorah, ch. 3-4). The Rambam believes this is what is meant by “Pardes” (4:3). For him, Kabbalah is not an exercise in amulets or magic, exorcism or demonology, astrology or fortune-telling—all of which he expressly rejects as irrational, unreal, and absurd.

Ironically, it was the Rambam’s own son, Rabbeinu Avraham (1186-1237), who became a great mystic and played a huge role in the development of modern Kabbalah.

The New Kabbalah

A 17th-century illustration of a Sufi meditating

Rabbeinu Avraham wrote a monumental 2500-page philosophical work called Kitab Kifayah al-Abidin (“A Guide for the Servants of God”). Scholars note how Rabbeinu Avraham integrated a great amount of material from Muslim Sufi mystics. Incredibly, Rabbeinu Avraham himself writes in his book that the ancient mystical tradition of the Hebrew Prophets was forgotten among Jews, “because of their iniquities”, and has been carried forward by the Sufis! He argues that the Sufis “imitate the Prophets [of Israel] and walk in their footsteps.”

The fusion of Jewish and Sufi mysticism continued strongly in Egypt for several generations. Rabbi Gavin Michal beautifully traces how these traditions made their way to Tzfat: Rabbeinu Avraham’s great-great-grandson, Rabbeinu David, the last official nagid of the illustrious Jewish community in Egypt, packed his bags and resettled in Aleppo, Syria in the early 1400s. He brought with him his massive Sufi-inspired Jewish mystical library. This library was a key source of literature for the early Tzfat Kabbalists, who lived a short trip away from Aleppo. Amazingly, historical sources suggest that one of these early Kabbalists was a Sufi convert to Judaism.

Hamsas: not a Jewish thing

It therefore isn’t surprising that Arab and Muslim mystical beliefs strongly influenced Jewish mysticism. In his Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem points out numerous examples of this. While most of these concepts are valuable, some are most unfortunate: Arab demonology and superstition, too, neatly made its way into Kabbalistic literature. This is most evident in the plethora of Arabic hamsas and “evil eye” amulets that have sadly infiltrated so many Jewish homes. (We have also written in the past how Muslim ritual inspired the “mystical” custom of upsherin.)

At the same time that this was happening in the Middle East, a parallel Jewish mystical movement was rapidly developing on the other side of the Mediterranean, in Spain. Their Kabbalah, too, was not immune to the beliefs and practices of the neighbouring Christians.

Rise of the Zohar

In the 11th and 12th centuries, mysticism was slowly spreading in the Sephardic Jewish communities of Spain. It wasn’t until the late 13th century that Kabbalah received an immense boost with the publication of Sefer HaZohar, aka. “The Midrash of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai”. The publication was spearheaded by Rabbi Moshe ben Shem Tov de Leon (1240-1305), a great Kabbalist in his own right. He claimed that this book was the unadulterated teachings of the Talmudic sage Shimon bar Yochai, or Rashbi, a disciple of Rabbi Akiva.

While the Zohar was undoubtedly full of profound wisdom and authentic mysticism, it immediately aroused a great deal of suspicion. After all, no one had ever seen, or even heard of, such a text before. One scholar who took up the mission of discovering the Zohar’s real roots was Rabbi Itzchak d’min Acco (“Isaac of Acre”, c. 13th-14th century). Rabbi Itzchak was possibly a student of the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270), who had made aliyah after his famous Disputation and settled in Acre, where Rabbi Itzchak was apparently born. Rabbi Itzchak studied among those pre-Tzfat era Kabbalists in Israel. The Crusades made life difficult, and Rabbi Itzchak fled to Spain in 1305.

There, he met Rabbi Moshe de Leon, and questioned him about the Zohar, pointing out that the Kabbalists of the Holy Land knew nothing of such a work. Rabbi Moshe swore that he possessed an original manuscript from Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, back in his hometown of Avila. He promised to fetch the text and show it to Rabbi Itzchak, but suddenly died. Perhaps this untimely death is itself proof enough that Rabbi Moshe de Leon swore falsely!

For Rabbi Itzchak, it was not enough, and he decided to continue his search in Avila. There, he met a rabbi who knew Moshe de Leon’s family, and the rabbi told him that de Leon’s wife admitted he had composed the Zohar by himself, attributing it to Rashbi so that it would be accepted as authentic (and sell more copies). Many later Kabbalists reject this narrative, and believe it is a legend meant to discredit the Zohar. The story appeared in the first edition of Sefer Yuchasin (by Rabbi Avraham Zacuto, 1452-1515), and was censored out of all subsequent editions for over 300 years.

Over those centuries, the Zohar became the primary Kabbalistic text, so much so that it essentially became synonymous with Kabbalah. More ancient and once prominent texts like Sefer Yetzirah and Sefer HaBahir fell far behind. The Zohar inspired a massive new wave of mysticism that made a permanent impact on Judaism. It was the Tzfat Kabbalists of the 16th and 17th centuries in particular that neatly analyzed, categorized, and made sense of the Zohar, producing a whole new worldview and publishing a vast array of novel mystical literature that took the Jewish world by storm.

While halacha was once clearly separated from mysticism, the distinction started to get blurry. We sometimes forget that the Shulkhan Aruch, still the most famous of Jewish law codes, was composed by Rabbi Yosef Karo, a noted Tzfat Kabbalist. As such, he couldn’t possibly omit Kabbalah entirely from his laws, and mystical rituals and beliefs seep in on multiple occasions. The trend would continue, and reach even greater heights under the later Hasidim.

By this point, the authorship of the Zohar was seldom disputed. Still, the belief that it was written by Rashbi himself is false. After all, the Zohar clearly states that Rashbi charged his disciple Rabbi Abba with composing his teachings (see Zohar III, 287b). The Italian Kabbalist Rabbi Mordechai Galante (d. 1560) held that the Zohar was compiled sometime in the Geonic period (c. 589-1038 CE) from these ancient manuscripts of Rabbi Abba. The fore-mentioned Sefer Yuchasin holds that the Zohar may have originated with Rashbi, but was reworked and expanded by future generations of Kabbalists. No one knows exactly where it came from.

Some said it was the Ramban who discovered the Zohar when he arrived in Israel, then shipped it back to Spain (to save it from the Crusader wars or to reveal it to the Sephardi Kabbalists). The ship capsized or went off course, and the text ended up in the hands of Moshe de Leon! Others still believed that the Zohar was discovered by an Arab king, or by Spanish conquistadors, and sent over to the Sephardi Kabbalists for translation.

The Problem with Kabbalah

Gershom Scholem notes a number of issues within the Zohar that make it impossible to have been composed by Rashbi, Rabbi Abba, or anyone else from that time period. In fact, it appears that the person who put together the Zohar was not even a very good Talmudist. For example, the Talmud (Shabbat 33b) says that Pinchas ben Yair was Rashbi’s son-in-law, whereas the Zohar inaccurately says he was his father-in-law. Similarly, the Zohar is pretty confused about its Talmudic history, and in listing Rashbi’s ten main disciples, mixes together Amoraim and Tannaim from different centuries. Scholem also points out that the Zohar improperly uses the Aramaic language, while clearly incorporating many words with Spanish origin (such as esnoga, “synagogue” or gardin, “guardian”).

Rabbi Leon Yehudah Aryeh da Modena

These issues were already noted by earlier Jewish scholars. Rabbi Eliyahu del Medigo (c. 1458-1493), another great Italian sage, was part of a Kabbalistic circle before growing distant from the mystics. He noted how the Zohar has names of rabbis that lived long after Rashbi. A fellow Italian, Rabbi Leon da Modena (1571-1648) wrote an entire treatise, Ari Nohem, debunking the Zohar. He concludes that it must be only a few centuries old, and its Chokhmat haKabbalah is neither Chokhmah (wisdom) nor is it authentic Kabbalah! Rabbi Yakov Emden (1697-1776) was most vocal in his attack on the Zohar, and stated it was a complete forgery. The Yemenite sage Rabbi Yichya Kapach (1850-1931) believed the same thing.

Others have staunchly defended the Zohar, of course. Those Spanish-looking words may be there because they come from earlier Latin words, which would have been familiar to Rashbi. The names of sages from different time periods may be mixed together in one passage, but we often find the same thing in the Talmud. Truly, one who studies the Zohar will find it hard to believe that it could have all been composed by one Kabbalist, whether Moshe de Leon or someone else. In fact, the Zohar isn’t a monolithic text at all, and is composed of various distinct parts (Raya Mehemna, Midrash haNe’elam, etc.) It probably was pieced together from earlier genuine manuscripts, and was probably edited by a circle of Sephardi Kabbalists in the 13th century, who firmly believed the teachings dated back to Rashbi in some way.

It should be mentioned that Rabbi Itzchak d’min Acco’s account does not end with Moshe de Leon’s family. He continued his search, and met at least two other rabbis that swore on the Zohar’s authenticity. Even Gershom Scholem held that Moshe de Leon was an honest scholar, and certainly no faker who was out to dupe others or make money. (Scholem nonetheless believed that de Leon and his circle were the Zohar’s originators.)

Rav Dessler

Today, the Zohar has seemingly become accepted by all Orthodox communities, and some claim that denying the authenticity of the Zohar is heresy. This is not true. Rav Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1953) held that there is nothing wrong with believing the Zohar was composed by someone in the 13th century. Meanwhile, Rav Ovadia Yosef (1920-2013) said that the Yemenite communities that do not accept the Zohar should not be considered heretics. After all, these communities existed long before the Zohar’s publication, and were never exposed to it. He even conceded that some of their arguments may have substance. (See Ma’ayan Omer, Perek 7, Siman 93.)

Illustrations of Sefirot in von Rosenroth’s ‘Kabbala Denudata’

One of their arguments is that the Zohar was influenced by Christian belief. Gersom Scholem illustrates multiple instances of this in his Kabbalah, especially when it comes to Christian demonology. Aside from that, some of the Zohar’s teachings may be seen as inadvertently supporting Christian theology. In fact, Christian scholars (like Picco della Mirandola, Johann Reuchlin, Christian Knorr von Rosenroth, and even Newton and Leibnitz) actually took up the study of the Zohar themselves, and believed that this text would result in Jews finally converting to Christianity willingly. History shows that while some Jews may have done so, many more Jews instead started to believe in Christian ideas like man becoming god (or god becoming man), and that a messiah can die without completing his task, to return in a future “second coming”. This was a huge issue in the heresy of Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676), and continues to be a significant problem with certain Hasidim today.

One specific example of how Christianity may have influenced post-Zoharic Kabbalah is particularly relevant now, on the cusp of Rosh Hashanah. It is customary to recite Tefillat HaParnasah, a prayer for sustenance, at the end of each prayer service during the High Holidays. In many Sephardic machzorim, a supposed “name of God” is invoked—though not recited aloud—during this prayer (it is also found in the parnasah insert during the Amidah of many Sephardic weekday siddurim). That “name” is Dikarnosa (דיקרנוסא), which apparently comes from Malachi 3:10, though it is difficult to see how other than the appearance of the word די in the verse. Others link it to a fusion of Malachi 3:10 and the word nasah in Psalms 4:7, נסה עלינו אור פניך ה׳.

In reality, Dikarnosa means absolutely nothing in Hebrew or Aramaic. However, it has a clear Spanish (or Latin) root: dei (“god”) and karne (“meat” or “flesh”). Some believe karnosa is a combination of karne and sanguis, “blood”. Whatever the case, the meaning is pretty clear: either the name is invoking a “god of meat” or speaking of a “god of flesh and blood”. Dikarnosa may be the name of an old pagan Spanish deity of abundance (hence the association with parnasah) or, according to one Catholic priest, potentially rooted in an old appellation for Jesus who, according to Christianity, is God literally incarnated in “flesh and blood”.

While Dikarnosa is not explicitly mentioned in the Zohar, it emerged in post-Zoharic Kabbalah circles, and was already firmly accepted in the times of the Arizal. His primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), wrote about it in Pri Etz Chaim (Sha’ar HaAmidah, ch. 19). It isn’t surprising then that the Dor De’a of Yemen claimed that modern Kabbalah is contaminated with paganism.

Such are the possible dangers of studying the Zohar, and the Kabbalah that emerged from it. Some become imprisoned in demonic fears, others become extremists, or adopt all sorts of bizarre rituals, while others still are drawn to real heresy. This is one reason why the Noda b’Yehudah (Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, 1713-1793) went so far as to ban (unsuccessfully) the study of Zohar and Kabbalah. There are so many mystical texts out there that it isn’t clear which are genuine and which are not, which have been influenced by Christianity or Shabbateanism (or other heretical movements) and which have not. It is easy to be led astray.

That brings us back to the story of the Four Who Entered Pardes. We learn from that story that maybe one in four who delve into Kabbalah will emerge unscathed. The remaining three are in danger of being lead to heresy, mental issues or extreme asceticism, or worse, an untimely death.

In Search of Authentic Kabbalah

Having said all that, we mustn’t forget that there absolutely is an authentic Jewish mysticism out there. As already stated, the Tanakh itself is full of genuine mysticism, as is the Talmud. The schools of Ma’aseh Merkavah and Ma’aseh Beresheet are real, and existed. There were mystical texts that predated the Zohar, as did the central concept of Ten Sefirot. There is no doubt that much of this authentic mysticism made its way into the Zohar and subsequent works, which is why it became so popular, spread so quickly, and was accepted by so many.

Certainly, there are countless kernels of truth within the Zohar, which were further refined and polished by later Kabbalists like the Ramak and the Arizal. It is a repository of tremendous wisdom (and we have, of course, cited it frequently in this forum). It played a key role in preserving Judaism in the face of attractive Christian and Muslim mysticism in the first half of the last millennium, and in the face of enticing secular “Enlightenment” in the second half. (Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, 1728-1790, famously said that “the Zohar has kept me Jewish.”)

Today, Kabbalah has become inseparable from Judaism, and has engrained itself into every aspect of our faith—without most Jews even being aware of it. Simple things like doing netilat yadayim in the morning to rid of an impure spirit (something completely omitted in the law code of the rational Rambam), staying up all night on Shavuot, or just commemorating Hoshana Rabba are all based on mystical teachings. Any discussion of reincarnation, cosmogony, eschatology, or even a classic Torah-versus-science debate is impossible without Kabbalah. There is little doubt that the mystical tradition has immensely enriched Judaism.

But what do we make of those foreign influences? Some have argued that foreign influence is actually a good thing. After all, the Rambam himself had stated that we should “accept the truth from whomever speaks it”. There is an old mystical idea that the Torah, too, is in exile among the nations, and we must rediscover these true concepts from the nations, refine them, and restore them to their holy source. When looking from this perspective, we recognize that even the Talmud had adopted (or rediscovered) countless ideas from neighbouring Greeks, Romans, and Persians. And ancient Kabbalah, too, long before the Zohar, drew from other mystical traditions.

Like the critics of today, Rabbi Leon da Modena recognized way back in the 16th century that Kabbalah was essentially Greek Neoplatonism in Jewish clothing. Meanwhile, in his Jews, God, and History, historian Max I. Dimont argues that from the very beginning, Kabbalah “fed on noncanonized prophecy, Zoroastrian resurrection mythology, Greek science, numerology, gnostic heresies.” He concludes that “This was the material Jewish saints and scholars worked on for centuries, distilling it, shaping it, blowing life into it.” There is still much work left to be done in distilling, shaping, and refining Kabbalah. There are some ideas that are best to be buried and forgotten, and some truly profound ideas that should be disseminated further.

Dimont goes on to credit the Zohar and subsequent Kabbalistic texts with having “a large share in the sudden efflorescence of science…” and “laying the intellectual foundations for the seventeenth-century rebirth of philosophy and the establishment of scientific methodology…” A multitude of scholars share his conclusions. At the end of the day, Kabbalah has had a tremendous (mostly positive) impact not only on Judaism, but on the whole world.

What can we conclude from all of this? At the very least, that Kabbalah should be studied carefully, with a grain of salt and an open mind. It is very important to temper the study of Zohar and other Kabbalistic texts with more rationalist sources like the Rambam. We shouldn’t confuse Kabbalah with halacha. We should keep in mind the many authoritative voices in Jewish history that cautioned against, if not outright rejected, the Zohar, and we should never forget those Four Who Entered Pardes.

Those who choose to enter, beware.

Understanding Yourself Through the Letters of Your Name

Much of this week’s Torah portion, Nasso, describes the gifts that each of the Twelve Tribes brought for the inauguration of the Mishkan. Although each tribe brought the exact same set of gifts, the Torah nonetheless repeats the gifts each and every time. Some say this is because God held dear what every single tribe brought and wanted to properly acknowledge each one—even though it was all the same. Others say that while each tribe brought the same thing, the way they brought it was different, with each tribe displaying their own unique qualities.

The Midrash famously parallels the Twelve Tribes with the twelve astrological signs of the zodiac. In Yalkut Shimoni (Shemot 418), for example, we are told that

The tribe of Yehudah was in the East, together with Issachar and Zevulun, and corresponding to them above are Aries, Taurus, and Gemini… The flag of Reuben was in the South, together with Shimon and Gad, and corresponding to them above are Cancer, Leo, and Virgo… The flag of Ephraim was in the West, together with Menashe and Benjamin, and corresponding to them Libra, Scorpio, and Sagittarius. The flag of Dan was in the North, together with Asher and Naftali… corresponding to them are Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces…

Another version puts the tribes in order of birth as opposed to their encampments in the wilderness. Thus, Reuben is Aries, Shimon is Taurus, and so on. A third version (noted by Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz) also follows the order of birth, but starting from Rosh Hashanah, so Reuben is Libra and Shimon is Scorpio, etc. Nonetheless, the Midrashic version above is the most common, and the one most frequently adopted in Kabbalistic texts. It was the system used by the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, 1720-1797), and appears as early as Sefer Yetzirah, generally considered the oldest known Kabbalistic text.

As we’ve written before, Sefer Yetzirah goes through the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and explains how God fashioned the universe through them (together with the Ten Sefirot). It divides the alphabet into three major groupings: the “mothers”, the “doubles”, and the “elementals”. The mothers are the three letters aleph, mem, shin, corresponding to air (avir), water (mayim), and fire (esh). The doubles are the seven letters that have two sounds in Hebrew: beit (and veit), gimel (and jimel), dalet (and dhalet, like the English “that”), kaf (and khaf), pei (and fei), reish (and the hard ‘reish), tav (and thav, like the English “three”). Most modern speakers have dropped the jimel, dhalet, and ‘reish from use, while Ashkenazis pronounce the thav as “sav” (much like all Eastern Europeans with an accent, when speaking English, would say “sree” instead of “three”). The remaining single-sounding letters make up the twelve elementals.

On the mystical Tree of Life, the three mothers are the three horizontal lines, the seven doubles are the seven vertical lines, and the twelve elementals are the twelve horizontal lines, as follows:

Sefer Yetzirah gives us further details, paralleling each letter to a cosmic force or entity. As already mentioned, the mothers are the three primordial elements of Creation: fire, water, and air. The seven doubles correspond to the seven major celestial bodies that are visible to the naked eye: the sun and moon, plus Mercury (kochav), Venus (nogah), Mars (madim), Jupiter (tzedek), and Saturn (shabbatai). They also correspond to the seven days of the week. This is why, in most cultures, the days of the week are named after these seven bodies: Saturday for Saturn, Sunday for the sun, Monday for the moon, and so on. In his Discourse on Rosh Hashanah, the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270) comments that these seven bodies “rule” over the days of the week, and provides a siman, or mnemonic, to remember them: KaNTzaSh ChaLaM (כנצ״ש חל״ם). The Ramban concludes that Jews, unlike the pagans, name our days of the week in memory of Creation and Shabbat (ie. yom rishon, “first day”; yom sheni, “second day”; yom shelishi, “third day”, etc.)

Finally, the twelve elemental letters correspond to the twelve astrological signs of the zodiac, and the twelve months of the year. To these, we can add the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The result is the following:

Letters and Biblical Figures

If the Twelve Tribes correspond to the twelve elemental letters, which Biblical figures correspond to the mothers and doubles? Sefer Yetzirah (3:2) does suggest that from the three mothers come the “fathers” (avot). However, it does not explicitly say that the fathers are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Generally, the seven doubles are paralleled with the seven lower sefirot, and the seven lower sefirot correspond to the Seven Shepherds of Israel, among whom the patriarchs are already included. So, the three mothers must parallel some other figures. Indeed, we see three major figures in the Torah before Abraham. These are Adam, Noah, and Enoch.

Adam is, of course, the first civilized human, the first to be created, and originally a towering figure whose body shone with blinding light. Noah is at the other end of the pre-Abraham period, and was the righteous one in his generation that merited to recreate a new world. In between is Enoch, of whom the Torah curiously states that he “walked with God and was no more, for God had taken him” (Genesis 5:22).

In mystical traditions, Enoch was taken up by God’s blazing divine chariot (much like Elijah would be far in the future), and was transformed into an angel, usually identified with Metatron. Although the Torah gives us essentially no information on Enoch, the Book of Jubilees (4:17-20) explains that Enoch was the first true sage in history. He was a scribe and an astrologer, created history’s first calendar, and taught people how to accurately count months and years. He was a great prophet in his own right, seeing all of the past and all of the future. So holy was he that he never died, and was transfigured into an angel.

These three figures in Genesis neatly parallel the three mother letters of Creation: Adam being aleph, the first man, made in God’s image (which the letter aleph represents); Noah being mem, alluding to the flood waters; and Enoch being shin, alluding to the flaming chariot that took him to Heaven, and his transformation into a fiery archangel (joining the seraphim, literally the “blazing ones”).

The seven doubles, meanwhile, are the Seven Shepherds. On the Tree of Life, the letter beit leads to Chessed, personified by Abraham; the letter gimel to Gevurah, personified by Isaac; the letter dalet to Tiferet, personified by Jacob; kaf to Netzach, which is Moses; pei to Hod, Aaron; reish to Yesod, Joseph; and tav to Malkhut, David.

To summarize the above:

On a practical note, one can use this information to explore their name (or any Hebrew word for that matter) based on the meaning of its letters. If one understands the qualities associated with each letter, they may derive deeper meaning from their name, and how it may affect their own qualities, strengths, weaknesses, or even their destiny.

It is important to note that although Sefer Yetzirah has Saturn for Friday (and Joseph), and Jupiter for Saturday (and David), there are other traditions. Jupiter (Tzedek) is more fitting for Joseph, called Yosef haTzadik, while Saturn (Shabbatai) is more fitting for Shabbat and King David. Yet another tradition has the moon for King David. On the level of Sefirot, this makes most sense, since the moon is a reflection of the sun much like Malkhut is often said to be a reflection of Tiferet.

For example, Moses (משה) was famously thrown into the waters (מ) of the Nile as a newborn, led the Israelites through the waters of the Red Sea, and later had his fatal error by striking the rock for water. Meanwhile, he first encountered God at the burning bush (ש) and as a child burned his mouth with a smoldering coal (according to the Midrashic explanation for his later being “heavy of tongue”). In fact, the Arizal taught (Sha’ar HaPesukim on Ki Tisa) that Moses was a reincarnation of Noah, while other mystical texts compare him to an earthly Metatron. Finally, the hei in his name corresponds to Aries and the month of Nisan, symbolizing the pesach offering and the Exodus which happened in that month, under that sign. Thus, we see in the letters of Moses an allusion to essentially every major event of his life, and even his past life.

Thankfully, Sefer Yetzirah provides us with the exact qualities associated with each letter. The seven doubles have both positive and negative aspects clearly stated (4:2-3). The twelve elementals, meanwhile, have a certain “foundation” (5:1), which may be used for good or for evil. The three mothers are described (3:7-9) based on the qualities of their element, fire being “hot” and water being “cold”, etc. They are also paralleled to a body part. While the qualities given in Sefer Yetzirah are not always so clear, there are many commentaries which help to extract the proper meaning. These are elucidated in detail in Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s monumental Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation, In Theory and Practice.

Putting it all together, we have:

One can use the chart above to explore the features associated with each letter of their name, as well as the qualities associated with their astrological birth sign, birth month, birth day of the week, and even birth time of day. The positive qualities are potential traits that one has within and should work to express to the fullest, while the negatives are traits that one should be aware of and particularly focused on to repair. 

Did Bilaam Prophesize 9/11?

This week’s Torah reading is Balak, which describes how the Moabite king Balak hired the (non-Jewish) prophet Bilaam to curse the Israelites. Balak saw what the Israelites had done to neighbouring kingdoms, and feared that he would lose his own as well. He therefore sought to reverse their fortunes through a curse. The Sages state that Bilaam could sense the precise moment when – just once a day, for precisely 1/58,888th of an hour (or about 61 milliseconds) – God was in his “strictest” mode, and Bilaam could take advantage of this moment to kindle God’s wrath against His chosen people (Berakhot 7a).

The plan ultimately failed, of course, and instead of cursing the Israelites, Bilaam’s mouth uttered blessings and praises. Perhaps most interesting, Bilaam also spoke a series of prophecies about the End of Days. They begin like this:

I see it, but not now; I behold it, but it is not soon. A star has gone forth from Jacob, and a scepter will arise from Israel which will smite the Moabite princes and uproot the sons of Seth. Edom shall be inherited, and Seir will become the inheritance of its enemies, and Israel shall do valiantly. And out of Jacob shall one have dominion, and will destroy the remnant of the city… (Numbers 24:17-19)

1558 Mantua Publication of the Zohar

1558 Mantua Publication of the Zohar

Bilaam describes a time in the very distant future, and the Sages agree that the “star of Jacob” refers to Mashiach. The Zohar (III, 212b) further elaborates on Bilaam’s prophecies, and describes what precisely is supposed to happen, and when that star of Jacob will be seen. Within this lengthy passage are a few verses that describe a scene quite familiar to the modern reader, and have therefore been used to suggest that the Zohar predicted the events of September 11, 2001:

… And [the star] will be seen on the sixth day, on the 25th day of the sixth month. It will be gathered on the seventh day, at the end of seventy days. On the first day it will be seen in a city of Rome. On that same day, three high structures of that city of Rome will fall and a great edifice will fall…

In traditional Jewish texts, Rome is typically referred to as Edom, and represents the entire Western (or European/Christian) world. The “city of Rome” represents whatever place is the centre of the Western world at a particular period of time. After the city of Rome itself had fallen in 476 CE, the “new Rome” was Constantinople. When this new Rome collapsed as well (and became present-day Istanbul), a “Third Rome” was said to arise. In the past, we have written about the identity of the Third Rome. Most scholars – at least in Jewish circles – agree on two possibilities: the Third Rome is either Moscow (as we have written about before), or New York.*

World Trade Centers: North, South, and 7

World Trade Centers North, South, and 7

If it is indeed New York, then the Zoharic passage above makes a lot of sense. A great edifice of three high structures will fall? Yes, on September 11, three of the iconic World Trade Center buildings collapsed (WTC1, WTC2, and WTC7). And the dates match quite closely, too. The Zohar says the 25th of the sixth month, ie. the 25th of the month of Elul. September 11, 2001 happened to be the 23rd of Elul!

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, a number of articles circulated online (for example, here) suggesting that the Zohar predicted this tragedy, and added an additional detail of great interest: These articles claimed that Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, better known as the Vilna Gaon – who lived in the 18th century – corrected the Zohar and wrote that the event will, in fact, take place on the 23rd of Elul. These articles claim that the Vilna Gaon’s correction is recorded in a mystical text called Sifra DiTzniuta.

Are these claims true, and did the Zohar really predict the September 11 attacks?

What Do The Prophecies Actually Say?

First of all, Sifra DiTzniuta was written and published long before the Vilna Gaon’s time, so suggesting that his correction of the Zohar was recorded there is already unlikely. The Vilna Gaon did write a commentary to the Sifra DiTzniuta (full text is available here).

Having searched through both Sifra DiTzniuta and the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on it, I was unable to find any reference to the 23rd of Elul, or any correction of the Zohar’s prophecy. This doesn’t necessarily mean the claim is false, but it definitely looks like the source is incorrect.

Either way, we have to go back to the Zohar and read the entire passage, not only those few verses describing the fall of the buildings. It reads like this:

It is taught that in the future, the Holy One, blessed be He, will rebuild Jerusalem and reveal one firm star, glowing with seventy pillars of fire, and with seventy sparks flashing from it in the middle of the Firmament, and they will be reigned over by seventy other stars, and they will glow and burn for seventy days.

And [the star] will be seen on the sixth day, on the 25th day of the sixth month. It will be gathered on the seventh day, at the end of seventy days. On the first day it will be seen in a city of Rome. On that same day, three high structures of that city of Rome will fall and a great edifice will fall. The ruler of that city will die. Then the star will spread out to be seen in the rest of the world. In that time, great wars will stir all around the four corners of the world and no faith will be found among [its people].

In the middle of the world, when that star will shine in the middle of the Firmament, a great king will arise and rule the world, and his spirit will gain pride over all the kings, and he will awaken a war between both sides, and he will become strong against them.

On the day that the star will be hidden, the Holy Land will tremble forty-five miles around the place of the Holy Temple, revealing an underground cave. From this cave will come out a blazing fire to burn the world. And from this cave a great branch will grow out, and it will rule over the whole world, and to it will be given the kingdom. The Holy Beings will gather to it. Then Mashiach will be revealed to the entire world…

Clearly, there is a lot more going on! While Jerusalem has been rebuilt, we have yet to see the emergence of a star glowing with seventy pillars of fire, with seventy other stars glowing for seventy days. (These may be metaphors, of course, and may not be literally referring to celestial objects.) The Zohar says the edifice would fall at the end of seventy days (or at the beginning, depending on how one reads the passage). There was nothing particularly salient about the period of seventy days before or after 9/11. Moreover, “the ruler of that city” did not die on that day. The events of 9/11 did instigate “great wars” and it is true that we live in an increasingly faithless world. Ultimately, a “great king” to rule the entire world has not arisen (as far as we can tell), nor did the Holy Land tremble to reveal a cave from which Mashiach sprang forth.

Therefore, to suggest that this Zohar is speaking of the 9/11 attacks is perhaps a bit premature. While there are several parallels, the entire sequence of events has not occurred in the years since September 11, 2001. It appears that we have yet to witness the true fulfilment of Bilaam’s and the Zohar’s prophecies.

Courtesy: Temple Institute

Courtesy: Temple Institute

*While New York is the largest city in the United States, and by far its most important and famous, another candidate for the “Third Rome” is Washington, D.C. Washington has the plus of being a capitol city, the seat of “the ruler” as the Zohar says. It, too, was attacked on 9/11, and its major edifice – the Pentagon (the world’s largest office building) – damaged. Interestingly, long before Washington became America’s capital city, it was settled by a man who named it Rome!

When is Mashiach Coming?

This week’s Torah portion is Metzora, loosely translated as “leper”. It begins by detailing the procedures for the purification of one who has been afflicted by leprosy. The Sages famously state (Arachin 15b) that the term metzora comes from “motzi shem ra”, slandering one’s fellow. Thus, a person would be afflicted with skin ailments if they were guilty of slander and evil speech. Since the slanderer is making their fellow look bad in the eyes of the public, they are appropriately punished by becoming visibly unsightly.

The connection between a metzora and a slanderer is seen in the case of Miriam, the sister of Moses. In chapter 12 of Numbers, we read how Miriam confronted Moses about his personal affairs in the presence of others. As a result of this public embarrassment, she was afflicted with leprosy, and became “white as snow” (v. 10).

Strangely, there is one more important figure that is said to be afflicted with leprosy, and for this person, the reasons appear inexplicable. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a) recounts the following:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi met Elijah [the Prophet] by the entrance of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s tomb… and asked him:
“When will the Messiah come?”
[Elijah responded:] “Go and ask him yourself.”
“Where is he?”
“At the entrance [of Rome].”
“And how will I recognize him?”
“He is sitting among the poor lepers, who are untying [their bandages] all at once, and retying them all at once, whereas he unties and reties each bandage separately, thinking, Should I be wanted, I must not be delayed.”

This fascinating passage suggests that Mashiach is sitting at the gates of Rome (according to the Vilna Gaon’s commentary) among all the lepers expelled from the city. Unlike all the other lepers, Mashiach treats one bandage at a time, just in case he might be called to his mantle at any moment, and must always be ready. Indeed, the following page of the Talmud asks what Mashiach’s name might be, and after citing several possibilities, the rabbis conclude that he is known as the “Leper Scholar” (or “the Leper of Rebbi’s School”).

Why would Mashiach be a leper?

The Leper Scholar

The Lubavitcher Rebbe offers one interesting answer to the puzzle. He teaches (Likutei Sichot, Vol. 7, pg. 100) that Mashiach is essentially a perfect person on the inside; however, no human being is completely perfect – such a distinction is reserved only for God – and so, his minor spiritual imperfections appear only on his most outer garments – the skin. The Rebbe goes on to say that the leprosy appearing on his skin is actually a sign of Mashiach’s tremendous spiritual powers. Rabbi Eli Touger describes the Rebbe’s teaching like this: “…there are sublime spiritual influences which, because of the lack of appropriate vessels… can produce negative effects. For when powerful energy is released without being harnessed, it can cause injury. This is the reason for the [leprosy] with which Mashiach is afflicted.”

The Midrash writes that Mashiach’s most powerful weapon is his tongue, and he slays evil with his speech. In one passage (Pesikta Rabbati 37), Mashiach is said to be confronted with 140 wicked kingdoms, and God comforts him: “… do not be afraid, for all of them will perish by the breath of your lips.” This is based on the verse in Isaiah 11, where the Messiah is similarly described as destroying the wicked with his speech. The power of speech is perhaps the greatest of all – it is through speech that God created this entire universe (“And God said ‘Let there be light’…”) – one who knows the true powers of speech can create and destroy worlds!

The power of speech is precisely what the metzora abuses in slandering a fellow, and is thoroughly punished for it with leprosy. Meanwhile, Mashiach uses the same power to root out all evil. Yet, his power is so great that containing it in his feeble body inevitably manifests as a leprosy on his skin.

With this definition in mind, we may see the word metzora in a new light. The Sages say that metzora means motzi ra, literally one who brings out evil. While this can be taken to mean one who brings out evil words about others, it can also be read as one who removes evil from the world, which is Mashiach’s ultimate purpose.

When Will Mashiach Come?

The same pages of Talmud quoted above (Sanhedrin 98a-b) record that the students of Rabbi Yose ben Kisma asked him: “‘When will the Messiah come?’… So he answered them: ‘When this gate 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.’” Rashi comments here that the “gate” which Rabbi Yose is referring to is none other than Rome (just as the Vilna Gaon commented above that Mashiach is sitting at the gates of Rome).

Rabbi Yose is saying that Rome will fall, and will be rebuilt two more times. When the Third Rome falls, one is assured that Mashiach’s arrival is imminent. Amazingly, historians often speak of “Three Romes”. The first Rome was the original Latin Rome. It collapsed in the 5th century CE, and was replaced by the Greek-speaking Constantinople (today’s Istanbul), the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, later referred to as the Byzantine Empire. When Constantinople fell, the new, “Third Rome” was said to be Moscow. Moscow reached the peak of its global power with the Soviet Union, and collapsed just as dramatically less than 30 years ago.

Three Romes: Ancient Rome, Constantinople, and Moscow

Three Romes: Ancient Rome, Constantinople, and Moscow

Interestingly, Jewish literature commonly referred to Rome as Edom, literally the “red” empire. The Soviet Union, too, was known for its association with that colour; the Communists were commonly referred to as “the Reds”, the Soviet Army as the “Red Army”, with the focal point of their empire being Red Square in Moscow.

It is commonly taught that God created civilization as we know it to last 6000 years, followed by a seventh millennium of a peaceful, cosmic “Sabbath”, mimicking the seven days of Creation (see, for example, Sanhedrin 97a). Throughout the ages, various rabbis attempted to calculate the coming of Mashiach based on this principle. If the Final Era of mankind is the 7th millennium – the Sabbath – then the Messianic Era is the preparatory period that immediately precedes the Sabbath. How long should this period be? Well, how long do we spend preparing for Shabbat?

In Jewish law, one should stop working and start preparing for Shabbat six hours before its onset. If each millennium of human history corresponds to one day, then six hours corresponds to 250 years, which means that the official starting point of the Messianic Era was the year 5750 (since this is 250 years before the start of the 7th millennium). Indeed, 5750 is commonly cited as the beginning of the Ikveta d’Mshicha, the “Footsteps of Mashiach”.

Incredibly, Rosh Hashanah of 5750 was celebrated in September of 1989. The Berlin Wall – and the Soviet Union along with it – came crashing down less than two months after, that same November. The Third Rome had fallen right in line with the prophesized starting point of the “Footsteps of Mashiach”, just as the Talmud records in two brief pages of the tractate Sanhedrin (97a, 98b).

Needless to say, it appears that Mashiach’s arrival may very well be imminent.

Hammurabi, Abraham, and an Eye for an Eye

This week’s Torah reading is Mishpatim, literally “ordinances”, which is primarily composed of legal matters, as its name suggests. One of the most famous Torah phrases is found in this parasha: “you shall give a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…” (Exodus 21:23-24). In legal terms, this is known by the Latin lex talionis, the law of retaliation.

Most people are well aware of the fact that in Judaism, this verse was never taken literally. It does not mean that if one person poked out the eye of another, then his eye gets poked out in turn. A simple example: what if the person doing the poking out is blind? Then poking out his eye in retaliation wouldn’t accomplish anything! And so, Jewish law is unequivocal on the fact that the Torah verse simply means that the punishment should fit the crime. In most cases, the punishment comes in the form of appropriate monetary compensation. The compensation should include medical expenses, lost wages, and the costs for the damages, both physical and emotional.

The Vilna Gaon had a beautiful way of proving that the Torah never meant retaliation, but financial remuneration instead. In Hebrew, the verse literally says “an eye under an eye” (ayin tachat ayin). The word for eye is עין, where the first letter is “under” (ie. alphabetically before) the letter פ, the second letter is under the letter כ, and the final letter is under ס. The letters above spell כסף, literally “money”. Thus, when the Torah says an eye under an eye, it secretly hints to monetary compensation.

In Roman law, as well, lex talionis referred to financial compensation, and not direct retaliation. However, a more ancient legal system – one that predates both Roman law, and even Jewish law – did indeed use this principle literally. In fact, this legal system phrases the law in a very similar way.

The Code of Hammurabi

In 1901, archaeologist Gustave Jéquier made a monumental discovery while excavating around the ancient Persian city of Susa. A massive stone stele with 44 columns of text written in the ancient Akkadian language. By the following year, the stele had been translated. It was a legal code, composed of 282 laws, dating back almost four thousand years to the reign of the Babylonian king Hammurabi (c. 1810-1750 BCE). The code begins with a brief legendary history of Babylon:

Stele of Hammurabi's Code, currently housed at the Louvre in Paris

Stele of Hammurabi’s Code, currently housed at the Louvre in Paris. The top of the stele depicts Hammurabi receiving the laws from his patron god, Marduk.

When Anu the Sublime, King of the Anunnaki, and Bel, the lord of Heaven and earth, who decreed the fate of the land, assigned to Marduk, the over-ruling son of Ea, god of righteousness, dominion over earthly man, and made him great among the Igigi, they called Babylon by his illustrious name, made it great on earth, and founded an everlasting kingdom in it, whose foundations are laid so solidly as those of heaven and earth; then Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak…

The text (which can be read in full here) then lists the laws of Hammurabi’s kingdom. It is amazing to see how many laws parallel those of this week’s parasha, among them laws of slavery, theft, and damages. Some are even expressed in similar phrases. Law #196: “If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.”

Who is Hammurabi?

Hammurabi’s code is perhaps the earliest known legal system. In fact, it is one of the oldest pieces of text ever discovered. Incredibly, archaeologists have also uncovered a multitude of tablets and writings from his reign, including as many as 55 of his own letters. And Hammurabi’s greatness goes far beyond these writings.

Mesopotamia at the time of Hammurabi

Mesopotamia at the time of Hammurabi

Though initially his reign was peaceful, Hammurabi was soon mired in various wars by the aggression of neighbouring city-states. Hammurabi came out on top, and by the end of his reign had unified all the city-states of Mesopotamia under the Babylonian banner. He transformed Babylon into a metropolis and temple-laden holy city, putting it on the map for eternity. Thousands of years later, Jews still refer to the Talmud as the Bavli, the Babylonian (due to its composition in formerly-Babylonian lands, and to distinguish it from the lesser-known Yerushalmi Talmud).

Of course, Babylon also made its way into the Torah. Before there is mention of any of our patriarchs, there is mention of the city of Babylon, with its Tower soaring to the Heavens, and drawing God’s wrath. And it appears that Hammurabi himself made it into the Holy Book.

While “Hammurabi” is an Anglicized name, the king’s name was actually pronounced Ammurapi, or Ammuraphi. In Genesis 14 we read: “And it came to pass in the days of Amraphel, king of Shinar…” Shinar is the Biblical name for Mesopotamia (likely stemming from shnei naar, the land between the two rivers, which is the same as the Greek Mesopotamia). Meanwhile, Rashi comments that Amraphel was none other than Nimrod, the great king of Babylon.

The tradition surrounding Nimrod is rich and varied. The Torah says he was a “great hunter before God” (Genesis 10:8) which some interpret to mean that he was a righteous, God-fearing man (Hammurabi’s stele also describes him as God-fearing). Others point out that his name Nimrod means “to rebel”, so he must have been the rebel who built the Tower of Babel in an attempt to conquer the Heavens.

Whatever the case, after the Great Dispersion and the confounding of languages that followed the Tower, Nimrod became Amraphel. His exit from the Torah comes at the hands of Abraham, who miraculously defeated him in the War of the Kings.

Though there is no way to say for sure that Hammurabi is Amraphel, or if he ever encountered Abraham, what we do know is that their lifespans certainly overlapped. The traditional Jewish dating for Abraham’s birth corresponds to the year 1812 BCE, while historical records suggest that Hammurabi was born around 1810 BCE.

Unfortunately, looking back so far into history is often futile, and presents a murky image at best. Perhaps future archaeological discoveries will clear up the past. Alas, for the time being we are left only to wonder about what could have been…