Tag Archives: Yevamot (Tractate)

Iyar: The Month of Healing Marriages

This week (in the diaspora) we read the parasha of Kedoshim, literally “holy”. The name of the parasha is particularly significant, for although observing the entire Torah makes us holy, it is the laws of this parasha specifically that truly distinguish a holy person from the rest. This includes one of the most difficult mitzvot to fulfil: loving your fellow as yourself (Leviticus 19:18). It also includes honouring one’s parents (19:3 and 20:9), another one which our Sages describe as among the hardest to fulfil (Kiddushin 31b). Then there’s the mitzvah of not gossiping, which the Talmud holds to be the one transgression that everyone is guilty of to some extent (Bava Batra 165a). Several times in the parasha God reminds us to carefully observe Shabbat, which has so many halachic intricacies that it, too, is among the hardest mitzvot to fulfil properly.

Finally, towards the end of the parasha there is a long list of sexual prohibitions. Rashi comments (on Leviticus 19:2) that when God tells us to be kedoshim, “holy”, He is specifically referring to sexual purity. One can never be holy as long as they engage in any kind of sexually immoral behaviour. It should be noted that sexual purity does not mean celibacy. Unlike in some other religions and cultures, Judaism does not find sexual intimacy inherently sinful. On the contrary, when it is done between a loving couple in a kosher, monogamous union, then it is a holy act.

The classic Jewish text on sexual intimacy is Iggeret haKodesh, “the Holy Letter”. There we read how kosher sexual intimacy has the power to bring down the Shekhinah, God’s Divine Presence, “in the mystery of the Cherubs”. Interestingly, one of the Scriptural proofs for this is Jeremiah 1:5, where God says that before the prophet Jeremiah was born, and before he was even conceived, he was “sanctified” (hikdashticha) by God. An alternate way of reading this verse is that the act leading to conception is itself sanctified. The Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572) added that at the climax of sexual intimacy, a couple “shines with the light of Ain Sof”, God’s Infinite Eminence (see Sha’ar HaPesukim on Kohelet).

Needless to say, to attain such a level requires that the couple is totally unified spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically. It requires true love, going in both directions. This can be illustrated mathematically, where the gematria of love, “ahava” (אהבה), is 13, and when it flows both ways, 13 and 13 makes 26, the value of God’s Ineffable Name.

In our three-dimensional (x, y, z) universe, everything has six faces or sides.

Deeper still, the male and female are represented by the letters Vav and Zayin in the holy Hebrew alphabet. The letter vav has a phallic shape, and literally means a “hook” or “connection”, while zayin is a vav with a crown on top, since the woman is described as the “crown” of her husband (עטרת בעלה, as in Proverbs 12:4). Vav has a numerical value of six, and zayin follows with seven. Six is a number that represents the physical dimension, since all things in this three-dimensional world have six sides. The seventh is what’s inside that three-dimensional space, and therefore represents the inner, spiritual dimension. Naturally, this corresponds to the physical six days of the week and the spiritual Sabbath. And it relates to the male, represented by the physical six, and the female of the spiritual seventh.

The shapes of the letters vav, zayin, and chet (right to left), according to the ktav of the Arizal. 

The eighth is what transcends the three-dimensional space entirely. Eight represents infinity, and it is no coincidence that the international symbol for infinity is a sideways eight. In the Hebrew alphabet, the eight is the letter Chet. This letter represents the Chuppah, “marriage canopy”, of the vav (male) and zayin (female). If you look closely, the shape of the letter chet is actually a chuppah, and underneath it stand a vav and zayin, male and female.* Under the chuppah, their eternal, infinite (eighth) bond is forged. The vav and zayin combine into one, and when six and seven combine, they once more make 13, ahava, love.

(As a brief aside, the letter that follows in the alphabet is Tet, in the shape of a “pregnant” zayin, and with a numerical value of nine to represent the nine months of pregnancy.)

The Healing Power of Iyar

The parasha of Kedoshim teaches us that the greatest mark of holiness is sexual purity, especially a pure relationship between husband and wife. It isn’t a coincidence that this parasha is always read at the start of the month of Iyar, or in the Shabbat immediately preceding it (when we bless the month of Iyar). Our Sages teach us that Iyar (איר or אייר) is a month of healing, and stands for Ani Adonai Rofecha, “I am God, your Healer” (Exodus 15:26). There is even an old Kabbalistic custom to drink the first rain of the month of Iyar, for it is said to have healing properties.

For the Israelites that came out of Egypt, Iyar was a month of healing from their horrible past in servitude. It was in this month in particular that they were preparing for their meeting with God at Mt. Sinai. More accurately, it was not a meeting but a wedding, for the Divine Revelation at Sinai is always described as a marriage, with the mountain itself serving as the chuppah. This is the essence of the Sefirat haOmer period in which we are in, when we count the days in anticipation of our spiritual “wedding”, and spend each day focused on rectifying and healing a particular inner trait.

Just as this month is an opportune time to mend one’s relationship with God, it is an equally opportune time to mend one’s relationships with his or her significant other. Fittingly, the Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserles, 1530-1572) wrote in his glosses to the Shulkhan Aruch that a divorce shouldn’t be done in the month of Iyar! (Even HaEzer 126:7) The reason for this is based on an intriguing legal technicality:

A bill of divorce (get), just like a marriage contract (ketubah) must be incredibly precise in its language. A tiny spelling error might invalidate the entire document. Rav Ovadia Yosef (1920-2013) was especially well-known for going through countless such contracts and repairing them, especially when it comes to the spelling of names. He was an expert in transliterating non-Hebrew names into their proper Hebrew spelling to ensure the validity of the marriage (or divorce) contract.

The same is true for spelling the other parts of the document, including the date. The problem with Iyar is that it has two spellings: איר and אייר. No one is quite sure which is more accurate. Though some say it doesn’t really make a difference how you spell Iyar, the Rema maintained that it is simply better to avoid getting divorced in Iyar altogether. When we remember that Iyar is the time for sanctifying ourselves, the time to focus on becoming kedoshim, and what that really means, we can understand the Rema on a far deeper level.

Embrace Your Other Half

The fact that the root of the problem is just one extra yud in the word “Iyar” is quite appropriate. The previously-mentioned Iggeret HaKodesh presents a classic Jewish teaching about man, “ish” (איש), and woman, “ishah” (אשה): The difference between these words is a yud and hei, letters that represent God’s Name. The similarity between them is aleph and shin, letters that spell esh, “fire”. The Iggeret HaKodesh states that when one removes the Godliness and spirituality out of a couple, all that’s left is dangerous fire. For a marriage to succeed, it is vital to keep it infused with spirituality. A purely physical, materialistic relationship built on lust, or chemistry, or socio-economic convenience is unlikely to flourish.

We further learn from the above that a couple must embrace each other’s differences (the yud and the hei). One of the most frustrating things in relationships is that men and women tend to view and experience things differently. In general, any two people will view and experience the same thing differently, and it is all the more difficult when the two are building a life together. It is important to remember that it is good to be different, to have alternate viewpoints, perspectives, and opinions. We should not be frustrated by this, but embrace it and use it to our advantage.

On that note, the Torah tells us that God made Eve to be an ezer k’negdo for Adam, an “opposing helper”. More accurately, our Sages teach us that Adam was originally a singular human with both male and female parts (Beresheet Rabbah 8:1). Only afterwards did God split this human into separate male and female bodies. (This is one reason why the Torah seemingly describes the creation of man twice, in Chapter 1 and 2 of Genesis.) So, when the Torah speaks of an ezer k’negdo following the “split” of Adam, it really refers to both husband and wife. Each is a helper opposite their spouse. The term k’negdo is of great importance, for it implies that men and women are inherently different, opposites, and it is because we are opposites that we can truly help each other. There wouldn’t be much use to being exactly the same.

Fulfilling the Mitzvah of “Love Your Fellow”

From the Torah’s description of the creation of the first couple, we can extract a few essential tips for a healthy marriage. One verse in particular stands out: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24) First, it is critical to keep the parents and in-laws out of the relationship. Second, husband and wife must “cleave” unto each other—spend plenty of time together, and as is commonly said, to never stop “dating”. Third, they shall be “one flesh”; one body and soul. It is vital to understand that husband and wife are a singular unit. In fact, the Talmud states that an unmarried person is not considered a “person” at all, since they are still missing their other half (Yevamot 63a). Each half should keep in mind that their spouse’s needs are their own needs. And each spouse should always have in mind not what they can get out of the other, but what they can give.

Of course, being one means loving each other as one. The Talmud famously states that a man should love his wife as much as himself, and honour her more than himself (Yevamot 62b). We can certainly apply this in reverse as well, for a wife should similarly love her husband as much as herself, and honour him more. That brings us back to the most prominent verse in this week’s parasha: “love your fellow as yourself”. In Hebrew, it says v’ahavta l’re’akha kamokha, where “fellow” is not quite the best translation. In the preceding verse, the Torah says “your brother” (achikha) and “your friend” (amitekha). What is re’akha (רֵעֲךָ)?

In the Song of Songs, King Solomon’s intimate Biblical poem, he constantly uses the term ra’ayati (רַעְיָתִי) to refer to his beloved. This is the same term used in the sixth blessing of the Sheva Berachot recited under the chuppah and during a newlyweds’ first week of marriage: sameach tesamach re’im (רֵעִים) ha’ahuvim. The newlyweds are referred to as “fellows” in love. So, while it might be a tall order to love everyone like ourselves, we can certainly at least love our spouses this way. And that might be all it takes to fulfill the mitzvah.

Our Sages teach that the month of Iyar which we have just begun is a time for healing, and we have suggested here that is a particularly auspicious time for healing marriages. As it turns out, those two may be one and the same. In one of the longest scientific studies ever conducted, researchers at Harvard University tracked the lives and wellbeing of families for nearly a century. The conclusion: the single greatest factor in ensuring healthy and happy lives (or not) was marriage. Statistically speaking, those couples that had the best relationships tended to live the happiest and healthiest lives.

Our Sages left one last hint for us to make the connection between the month of Iyar and the Sefirat haOmer period with the necessity of building healthy marriages: It is on that very same page of Talmud cited above (Yevamot 62b) that the Sages tell us about the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students in the Omer period—in the month of Iyar. In fact, the very next passage after the Omer one deals with marriages, and begins: “A man who has no wife has no joy, no blessing, and no goodness…”

‘Jewish Wedding’ by Jozef Israëls (1824-1911)


*This is the way a chet is written according to Kabbalah, as explained by the Arizal. However, in most cases (especially in Ashkenazi tradition) a chet is written as two zayins.

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 Rabbi That Made Judaism as We Know It

An illustration of Rabbi Akiva from the Mantua Haggadah of 1568

This week we continue to celebrate Passover and count the days of the Omer. The 49-day counting period is meant to prepare us spiritually for Shavuot, for the great day of the Giving of the Torah. As our Sages teach, the Torah wasn’t just given once three millennia ago, but is continually re-gifted each year, with new insights opening up that were heretofore never possible to uncover. At the same time, the Omer is also associated with mourning, for in this time period the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva perished, as the Talmud (Yevamot 62b) records:

Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of disciples, from Gabbatha to Antipatris, and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua—and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: All of them died between Pesach and Shavuot.

Rabbi Akiva is a monumental figure in Judaism. People generally don’t appreciate how much we owe to Rabbi Akiva, and how much he transformed our faith. In many ways, he established Judaism as we know it, during those difficult days following the destruction of the Second Temple, until the Bar Kochva Revolt, in the aftermath of which he was killed.

Rabbi Akiva is by far the most important figure in the development of the Talmud. From various sources, we learn that it was he who first organized the Oral Torah of Judaism into the Six Orders that we have today. The Mishnah, which is really the first complete book of Jewish law and serves as the foundation for the Talmud, was possibly first composed by Rabbi Akiva. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 86a) states that the main corpus of the Mishnah (including any anonymous teaching) comes from Rabbi Meir, while the Tosefta comes from Rabbi Nehemiah, the Sifra from Rabbi Yehuda, and the Sifre from Rabbi Shimon—and all are based on the work of Rabbi Akiva. Indeed, each of these rabbis was a direct student of Rabbi Akiva. (Although Rabbi Nehemiah is not listed among the five students of Rabbi Akiva in the Talmudic passage above, he is on the list in Sanhedrin 14a.)

In short, Rabbi Akiva began the process of formally laying down the Oral Tradition, which resulted in the production of the Mishnah a generation later, and culminated in the completion of the Talmud after several centuries.

It wasn’t just the Oral Torah that Rabbi Akiva had a huge impact on. We learn in the Talmud (Megillah 7a) that Rabbi Akiva was involved in a debate regarding which of the books of the Tanakh is holy and should be included in the official canon. Although it was the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah (“Men of the Great Assembly”) who are credited with first compiling the holy texts that make up the Tanakh, the process of canonization wasn’t quite complete until the time of Rabbi Akiva. Therefore, Rabbi Akiva both “completed” the Tanakh and “launched” the Talmud. This may just make him the most important rabbi ever.

That distinction is further reinforced when we consider the time period that Rabbi Akiva lived in. On the one hand, he had to contend with the destruction wrought by the Romans, who sought to exterminate Judaism for good. They made Torah study and Torah teaching illegal, and executed anyone who trained new rabbis. In fact, Rabbi Akiva was never able to ordain his five new students after his original 24,000 were killed. He taught them, but lost his life before the ordination could take place. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 14a) records:

The Evil Government [ie. Rome] decreed that whoever performed an ordination should be put to death, and whoever received ordination should be put to death, and the city in which the ordination took place should be demolished, and the boundaries wherein it had been performed, uprooted.

What did Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava do? He went and sat between two great mountains, between two large cities; between the Sabbath boundaries of the cities of Usha and Shefaram, and there ordained five sages: Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Yose, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua. Rabbi Avia also adds Rabbi Nehemiah to the list.

As soon as their enemies discovered them, Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava urged them: “My children, flee!” They said to him: “What will become of you, Rabbi?” He replied: “I will lie down before them like a stone which none can overturn.” It was said that the enemy did not stir from the spot until they had driven three hundred iron spears into his body, making it like a sieve…

An illustration of Rabbis Akiva, Elazar ben Azaria, Tarfon, Eliezer, and Yehoshua, as they sit in Bnei Brak on Passover discussing the Exodus all night long, as described in the Passover Haggadah. Some say what they were actually discussing all night is whether to support the Bar Kochva Rebellion against Rome. In the morning, their students came to ask for their decision. They answered: “shfoch hamatcha el hagoyim asher lo yeda’ucha…” as we say when we pour the fifth cup at the Seder.

In the wake of the catastrophic destruction of the Bar Kochva Revolt, and the unbearable decrees of the Romans, traditional Judaism and its holy wisdom nearly vanished. The “world was desolate”, as the Talmud describes, “until Rabbi Akiva came” and relayed that holy wisdom to the five students who would ensure the survival of the Torah. In fact, the vast majority of the Mishnah’s teachings are said in the name of either Rabbi Akiva or these five students. Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai alone is mentioned over 600 times in the Mishnah—way more than anyone else—followed by Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Yose. Without Rabbi Akiva’s genius and bravery, Judaism may have been extinguished.

Meanwhile, Judaism at the time also had to contend with the rise of Christianity. Rabbi Akiva had to show Jews the truth of the Torah, and protect them from the sway of Christian missionaries. It is generally agreed that Onkelos (or Aquila of Sinope) was also a student of Rabbi Akiva. Recall that Onkelos was a Roman who converted to Judaism, and went on to make an official translation of the Torah for the average Jew. That translation, Targum Onkelos, is still regularly read today. What is less known is that Onkelos produced both a Greek and Aramaic translation of the Torah to make the holy text more accessible to Jews (as Greek and Aramaic were the main vernacular languages of Jews at the time). Every Jew could see for himself what the Torah really says, and would have the tools necessary to respond to missionaries who often mistranslated verses and interpreted them to fit their false beliefs.

Interestingly, some scholars have pointed out that Rabbi Akiva may have instituted Mishnah and began its recording into written form as a way to help counter Christianity. Because Christians adopted the Torah and appropriated the Bible as their own, it was no longer something just for Jews. As such, it was no longer enough for Jews to focus solely on Tanakh, for Christians were studying it, too, and the study of Tanakh was no longer a defining feature of a Jew either. The Jewish people therefore needed another body of text to distinguish them from Christians, and the Mishnah (and later, Talmud) filled that important role. This may be a further way in which Rabbi Akiva preserved Judaism in the face of great adversity.

Finally, Rabbi Akiva also preserved and relayed the secrets of the Torah. He was the master Kabbalist, the only one who was able to enter Pardes and “exit in peace” (Chagigah 14b). One of his five students was Rabbi Shimon, yes that Rabbi Shimon: Shimon bar Yochai, the hero of the Zohar. Thus, the entire Jewish mystical tradition was housed in Rabbi Akiva. Without him, there would be no Zohar, no Ramak or Arizal, nor any Chassidut for that matter.

All in all, Rabbi Akiva is among the most formidable figures in Jewish history. In some ways, he rivals only Moses.

How Moses Returned in Rabbi Akiva

We see a number of remarkable parallels in the lives of Moses and Rabbi Akiva. According to tradition, Rabbi Akiva also lived to the age of 120, like Moses. We also know that Rabbi Akiva was an unlearned shepherd for the first third of his life. At age 40, he went to study Torah for twenty-four years straight and became a renowned sage. According to the Arizal, Rabbi Akiva carried a part of Moses’ soul, which is why their lives parallel so closely (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 36):

Moses spent the first forty years of his life in the palace of Pharaoh, ignorant of Torah, just as Rabbi Akiva spent his first forty without Torah. The next forty years Moses spent in Cush and Midian, until returning to Egypt as the Redeemer of Israel at age 80, and leading the people for the last forty years of his life. Rabbi Akiva, too, became the leading sage of Israel at age 80, and spent his last forty years as Israel’s shepherd. As we’ve seen above, it isn’t a stretch to say that Rabbi Akiva “redeemed” Israel in his own way.

More specific details of their lives are similar as well. Moses’ critical flaw was in striking the rock to draw out water from it. With Rabbi Akiva, the moment that made him realize he could begin learning Torah despite his advanced age was when he saw a rock with a hole in it formed by the constant drip of water. He reasoned that if soft water can make a permanent impression on hard stone, than certainly the Torah could make a mark on his heart (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 6:2). Perhaps this life-changing encounter of Rabbi Akiva with the rock and water was a tikkun of some sort for Moses’ error with the rock and water.

Similarly, we read in the Torah how 24,000 men of the tribe of Shimon were killed in a plague under Moses’ watch (Numbers 25:9). This was a punishment for their sin with the Midianite women. Moses stood paralyzed when this happened, unsure of how to deal with the situation. The plague (and the sin) ended when Pinchas took matters into his own hands, and was blessed with a “covenant of peace”. The death of the 24,000 in the time of Moses resembles the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva that perished, with Rabbi Akiva, like Moses, unable to prevent their deaths. In fact, Kabbalistic sources say that the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva were reincarnations of the 24,000 men of Shimon (see Sefer Gilgulei Neshamot, 20).

There is at least one more intriguing parallel between Moses and Rabbi Akiva. We know that the adult generation in the time of Moses was condemned to die in the Wilderness because of the Sin of the Spies. Yet, we see that some people did survive and enter the Promised Land. The Torah tells us explicitly that Joshua and Caleb, the good spies, were spared the decree. In addition, Pinchas was blessed with a long life (for his actions with the plague of the 24,000) and survived to settle in Israel. (According to tradition, Pinchas became Eliyahu, who never died but was taken up to Heaven in a flaming chariot.) We also read in the Book of Joshua that Elazar, the son and successor of Aaron, continued to serve as High Priest into the settlement of Israel, and passed away around the same time as Joshua (Joshua 24:33). Finally, the Sages teach that the prophet Ahiyah HaShiloni was born in Egypt and “saw Amram” (the father of Moses) and lived until the times of Eliyahu, having been blessed with an incredibly long life (Bava Batra 121b). In his introduction to the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, 1135-1204) lists Ahiyah as a disciple of Moses, later a member of David’s court, and the one who passed on the tradition through to the time of Eliyahu.

Altogether, there are five people who were born in the Exodus generation but were spared the decree of dying in the Wilderness. (Note: the Sages do speak of some other ancient people who experienced the Exodus and settled in Israel, including Serach bat Asher and Yair ben Menashe, but these people were born long before the Exodus, in the time of Jacob and his sons.) These five people were also known to be students of Moses. The conclusion we may come to is that five of Moses’ students survived to bring the people and the Torah into Israel, just as five of Rabbi Akiva’s students survived to keep alive the Torah and Israel.

If we look a little closer, we’ll find some notable links between these groups of students. We know that Elazar ben Shammua, the student of Rabbi Akiva, was also a kohen, like Elazar the Priest. Caleb and Joshua are descendants of Yehudah and Yosef, reminiscent of Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yose (whose name is short for “Yosef”), the students of Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Meir, often identified with the miracle-worker Meir Baal HaNess, has much in common with Pinchas/Eliyahu, while Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai explicitly compared himself to Ahiyah haShiloni in the Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 35:2). As such, there may be a deeper connection lurking between the five surviving students of Moses and the five surviving students of Rabbi Akiva.

Lastly, we shouldn’t forget the Talmudic passage that describes how Moses visited the future classroom of Rabbi Akiva, and was amazed at the breadth of wisdom of the future sage. Moses asked God why He didn’t just choose Akiva to give the Torah to Israel? It was such a great question that God didn’t reply to Moses!

The Greatest Torah Principles

Of all the vast oceans of wisdom that Rabbi Akiva taught and relayed, what were the most important teachings he wished everyone to take to heart? First and foremost, Rabbi Akiva taught that the “greatest Torah principle” (klal gadol baTorah) is to love your fellow as yourself (see Sifra on Kedoshim). Aside from this, he left several gems in Pirkei Avot (3:13-16), which is customary to read now between the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot:

Rabbi Akiva would say: excessive joking and light-headedness accustom a person to promiscuity. Tradition is a safety fence for Torah, tithing is a safety fence for wealth, vows a safety fence for abstinence; a safety fence for wisdom is silence.

He would also say: Beloved is man, for he was created in the image [of God]; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to him that he was created in that image, as it  says, “For in the image of God, He made man” [Genesis 9:6]. Beloved are Israel, for they are called children of God; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to them that they are called children of God, as it is stated: “You are children of the Lord, your God” [Deuteronomy 14:1]. Beloved are Israel, for they were given a precious item [the Torah]; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to them that they were given a precious item, as it is stated: “I have given you a good portion—My Torah, do not forsake it” [Proverbs 4:2].

All is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is granted. The world is judged with goodness, and all is in accordance with the majority of one’s deeds.

He would also say: Everything is given as collateral, and a net is spread over all the living. The store is open, the storekeeper extends credit, the account-book lies open, the hand writes, and all who wish to borrow may come and borrow. The collection-officers make their rounds every day and exact payment from man, with his knowledge and without his knowledge. Their case is well-founded, the judgement is a judgement of truth, and ultimately, all is prepared for the feast.

These words carry tremendous meanings, both on a simple level and on a mystical one, and require a great deal of contemplation. If we can summarize them in two lines: We should be exceedingly careful with our words and actions, strive to treat everyone with utmost care and respect, and remember that a time will come when we will have to account for—and pay for—all of our deeds. We should be grateful every single moment of every single day for what we have and who we are, and should remember always that God is good and just, and that all things happen for a reason.

Chag sameach!

Who is Metatron?

In this week’s parasha, Mishpatim, we read about a large set of laws that Moses received on Mt. Sinai following the Ten Commandments. While there, God tells Moses (Exodus 23:20-21):

Behold, I am sending an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Beware of him and obey him; do not defy him, for he will not forgive your transgression, for My Name is within him.

God sends an angel to guide the Israelites through the Wilderness to the Promised Land. This is a very special angel, for God says that He has placed His Name within the angel. The Torah does not identify the name of this angel, but the Talmud does (Sanhedrin 38b):

A certain heretic said to Rav Idit: “It is written: ‘And to Moses He said: Come up to God.’ [Exodus 24:1] The heretic raised a question: It should have stated: ‘Come up to Me.’” Rav Idit said to him: “This is Metatron, whose name is like that of his Master [God], as it is written: ‘…for My Name is within him.’”

‘Angel Appearing to Joshua’ by Gustave Doré. According to the Book of Zerubavel, this was Metatron, the same angel that led the Israelites through the Wilderness.

A heretic challenges Rav Idit by saying that God should have spoken to Moses in the first person, saying “come up to Me”, not “come up to God”. Rav Idit replied that the speaker was the angel Metatron, who was sent by God to be His representative, and has God’s Name within him, as the Torah clearly states.

How do we find God’s Name within the name “Metatron”? The Kabbalists pointed out that the gematria of Metatron (מטטרון) is 314, equal to the Name of God Shaddai (שדי). However, this is only on the surface level. In reality, God’s absolute Name is the Tetragrammaton, and we do not find these four letters (Yud, Hei, Vav, Hei) in Metatron.

Of course, we must remember that the names of angels were generally adapted from non-Jewish sources, as the Talmud affirms (Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashanah 56d). How could this be? The true names of the angels had to be concealed so that people would be unable to summon them. Metatron, therefore, is not the angel’s real name. This is pretty evident in itself because anyone who first hears the term “Metatron” would never guess it is a Hebrew word. It sounds foreign, perhaps Aramaic, or more likely Greek. Indeed, some scholars have suggested that “Metatron” comes from the Greek meta and thronos, meaning “near” or “after the throne”, ie. that Metatron is the angel that sits nearest to the Throne of God, or the one that has authority right after the Throne of God. This brings us to the second place in the Talmud where Metatron is mentioned, in one of the most perplexing and intriguing Talmudic passages.

Sitting in Heaven

The Talmud relates the famous story of the “Four Who Entered Pardes” (Chagigah 14b-15a):

The Sages taught: Four entered “the orchard” [pardes], and they are: Ben Azzai, and Ben Zoma, Acher, and Rabbi Akiva… Ben Azzai glimpsed and died, and with regard to him the verse states: “Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of His pious ones” [Psalms 116:15]. Ben Zoma glimpsed and was harmed, and with regard to him the verse states: “Have you found honey? Eat as much as is sufficient for you, lest you become full from it and vomit it” [Proverbs 25:16]. Acher cut the saplings. Rabbi Akiva came out safely.

…“Acher cut the saplings” [meaning, he became a heretic]. With regard to him, the verse states: “Do not let your mouth bring your flesh into guilt” [Ecclesiastes 5:5]. What was it [that led him to heresy?] He saw the angel Metatron, who was granted permission to sit and write the merits of Israel [some versions add: for one hour a day]. He said: “It is taught that in the world above there is no sitting, no competition, no turning one’s back to Him, no lethargy. Heaven forbid—there are two authorities!”

They removed Metatron from his place in Heaven and smote him with sixty lashes of fire, so that others would not make the mistake that Acher did…

In this esoteric narrative, four great mystics of the highest order are able to ascend to the Heavens. Ben Azzai died immediately, Ben Zoma lost his mind, and Elisha ben Avuya became a heretic, for which he was referred to as Acher, “the other”. Only Rabbi Akiva exited in peace. (For a deeper analysis of this enigmatic passage, see Secrets of the Last Waters.)

The Talmud relates what it was that turned Elisha ben Avuya into a heretic. He saw Metatron sitting in the Heavens, when it was taught to him that none but God sits in Heaven. He concluded that perhaps there is more than one god, and this led him to abandon the Torah. (We must remember that this was nearly two millennia ago, in a time when most of the world was still polytheistic.) Back in Heaven, Metatron was severely punished for not standing up when the Sages entered, causing Acher’s apostasy.

This narrative seems to support the Greek origins of the name Metatron. He was the angel that was permitted to sit in Heaven—like none other but God Himself—as if on a lesser throne, a throne next to God’s, meta-tron. So, what was his real name?

Becoming an Angel

The renowned scholar of Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, researched the origins of the angel and presented his findings in an essay, “Metatron”. He found that in the most ancient texts which mention the figure (such as the Apocalypse of Abraham) he is called Yeho-El (יהואל). This is precisely what we’d expect, for angel names generally have the suffix El, and Metatron is the one who carries God’s Name, the Tetragrammaton. His real name, then, is simply the Name of God with the angelic El appended to it. In some texts, he is even referred to as the “Lesser God” (יהוה קטן). Not surprisingly, these texts didn’t make it (for the most part) to the official corpus of Rabbinic literature. They did find their way into Gnostic and Mandean texts. (On that note, it should be mentioned that Christians revere Metatron, too, as do Muslims, who refer to him as Mitatrush.)

Scholem also presents alternative possibilities to the name Metatron. It may be rooted in matara, “keeper of the watch”, or metator, “a guide” (after all, Exodus says God designated him to guide the Israelites in the Wilderness). In some ancient texts, Metatron is an angel that preceded Creation and assisted God in bringing about the physical universe. Again, this is a dangerous idea that may lead to a belief in dualism or heresy, and is a problem for a monotheistic Judaism. Instead, Jewish texts generally present the origins of Metatron in a different way.

Cover for the popular 2011 video game ‘El Shaddai – Ascension of the Metatron’, released for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Gamers play as Enoch in defending the world, and are supported by angels like Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael. The game developers clearly did their research!

The Zohar draws from the apocryphal Book of Enoch in teaching that “Enoch is Metatron” (see, for example, Zohar III, 189a). Recall that Enoch was a descendant of Adam (seven generations down) of whom the Torah states “And all the days of Enoch were three hundred sixty and five years. And Enoch walked with God, and he was not; for God took him.” (Genesis 5:23-24) Thus, Enoch never died, but was taken up to Heaven by God, where he was transformed into the angel Metatron. He is the angel that “walks with God”. The one that God sent to Earth to lead the Israelites. This is a fitting role for Metatron, for he was once a man of the Earth, too.

In Jewish tradition, there are two men who became angels, and two angels who descended into this world and became like men. The latter are Shemhazai and Azazel, while the former are Enoch and Elijah. Perhaps we can say that Enoch and Elijah filled the missing spaces of Shemhazai and Azazel. Enoch became the angel referred to as Metatron, while Elijah became the angel referred to as Sandalfon. Interestingly, if Metatron’s real name is Yeho-El, then we find that the names of the two angel-men share the same letters: יהואל and אליהו. In fact, the names are just reversed, and mean the same thing!

It should be mentioned that there were those in the past who rejected the notion that Enoch became an angel. For example, Onkelos translates Genesis 5:24 to say that Enoch was “no more” because God killed Enoch! This would fit with the alternate view that Metatron has nothing to do with Enoch and was already an angel before Creation. In more recent centuries, some Kabbalists even believed there must be two Metatrons, each with a slight variation of the name (מטטרון and מיטטרון). It is also possible that the two became one: an angel called Metatron existed before Creation, and when Enoch went up to God his soul was fused with that angel.

The notion of a fusion of different souls is supported by the teachings of the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572). In one place, he describes how Enoch took the highest and purest soul of Adam, called zihara ila’ah, and fused together with it in becoming Metatron (Sha’ar HaPesukim on Beresheet). Elsewhere, the Arizal writes that any person who refines themselves to the highest degree, and fulfils all of their rectifications, is called a malakh, “angel” (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 39). The Arizal says this was the case with Elijah, as well as Yehudah, Hezekiah, and Metatron, too.

Scribing and Teaching

What is the angelic role of Metatron? We saw above from the Talmud that Metatron is the Heavenly Scribe, writing down the merits of Israel. Gershom Scholem argues that he is one and the same as the Sar HaOlam, the “prince of the world” mentioned in Rabbinic literature, appointed to watch over our Earth. The Talmud (Yevamot 16b) says that he is the subject of the verse: “I have been young, and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread.” (Psalms 37:25) This makes sense, for Metatron began his life as the earthly Enoch; born a baby, grew to adulthood, and was then transformed into an angel with everlasting life.

The Arizal agrees, teaching that Metatron is the “prince of the seventy nations”, the angel above all the lesser angels appointed to watch over each of the seventy root nations on Earth (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 31). In the same place, the Arizal confirms that Metatron is Enoch, who never died. He also reveals that he was the angel that came to Joseph and taught him all seventy languages in one night so that Joseph could present himself before Pharaoh.

In his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, the Ravad (Rabbi Avraham ben David, c. 1125-1198) says that Metatron was the angel that taught Moses. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 3b) states that Metatron teaches Torah to little schoolchildren. Not much else is known of him.

In the past, various critics of Judaism have used the notion of Metatron to suggest that Jews have strayed from monotheism. This is a false claim. From its first pages, the Torah speaks of angels that serve as God’s emissaries and assistants. Metatron is just another angel, albeit one imbued with more powers than others.

This brings us back to the first Talmudic passage cited above (Sanhedrin 38b), which continues with the heretic questioning Rav Idit: “If so, we should worship [Metatron] as we worship God!” Rav Idit replied: “It is written: ‘Do not defy [tammer] him,’ meaning ‘Do not replace Me [temireni] with him.’” In a classic play on words, Rav Idit explains that when God said not to rebel against His appointed angel, He also meant not to start worshipping him in place of God.

We mustn’t forget that there is only one God whom we pray to and turn to. The Jewish people have no intercessors or intermediaries. We are Israel (ישראל), or yashar-El (ישר-אל), “direct to God”. And Rav Idit concludes in the Talmudic passage that the ancient Israelites ultimately rejected Metatron as their guide, and requested that God Himself lead them, as it is written (Exodus 33:15): “If Your Presence go not with me, raise us not up from here.”

Wasting Seed: Minor Taboo or Grave Sin?

In this week’s parasha, Vayeshev, we read about the incident of Yehuda and Tamar. Yehuda’s eldest son, Er, marries a beautiful woman named Tamar. Unfortunately, Er “was evil in the eyes of God, and God put him to death.” (Genesis 38:7) As was customary in those days, since Er died without a son, it was expected that his brother, Onan, would perform levirate marriage and take Tamar as his wife. As the Torah describes, the purpose of this is to essentially provide a sort of heir for his childless brother. Onan was happy to marry Tamar, but

knew that the progeny would not be his, and it came about, when he came to his brother’s wife, he wasted [his semen] on the ground, in order not to give seed to his brother. And what he did was evil in the eyes of God, and He put him to death also. (Genesis 38:9-10)

As we know, Yehuda would end up being with Tamar himself, and out of that union would come Peretz, the ancestor of King David.

‘Judah and Tamar’

The big question is: what was it that Er and Onan did that was so despicable to God? The classic answer is that they wasted their seed (as the Torah states above), which is why they were punished so severely. This narrative is then used as proof from the Torah that wasting seed is among the gravest of prohibitions.

And yet, the Torah itself does not actually prohibit wasting seed anywhere, at least not explicitly. Considering how strictly the Sages spoke about not wasting seed, we might be surprised to find that it is not one of the 613 commandments. So, what is the true extent of this prohibition? Where did it come from? And what was really going on with Er and Onan?

A Closer Look at Er and Onan

While the Torah tells us that Er was evil in God’s eyes, it does not explain why. Many commentators (including Rashi and Rabbeinu Bechaye) assume that he must have been evil for the same reason his brother Onan was: for wasting seed. Rabbeinu Bechaye (1255-1340) clarifies that the sin was not the act of wasting seed itself, but rather for an ulterior motive. Er did not want to impregnate Tamar so that her beauty would not be ruined. He wanted her solely for physical pleasure. This is what was despicable to God.

Similarly, a careful look at the Torah makes it clear that Onan’s sin was not wasting seed either. What the Torah says is that Onan did not want to fulfil the mitzvah of levirate marriage. He avoided impregnating Tamar because he “knew the progeny would not be his”, and the reason he spilled his seed on the ground was “in order not to give seed to his brother”. The sin here was not the act of wasting seed, but rather disrespecting his own brother, and refusing to fulfil the mitzvah of levirate marriage.

Such is the opinion of Tzror haMor (Rabbi Abraham Saba, 1440-1508), and we see similar comments by Sforno (Rabbi Ovadiah ben Yakov, 1475-1550). Chizkuni (Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoach, c. 1250-1310) goes even further, saying that Onan was really out to increase his share of land, for if he would have fulfilled the mitzvah, the child would receive Er’s portion of land, and if not, then Onan would be the inheritor. From these commentaries, and the Torah’s own simple reading, we can definitively conclude that the sin was not the wasting of seed itself but the evil ulterior motives behind it, especially the disrespect for a brother.

All of this is right in line with the Torah’s persistent theme of brothers failing to love each other, starting with Cain and Abel and continuing through Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and Yehuda’s sons. The Torah takes every possible opportunity to remind us to love each other wholeheartedly (as we are all brothers), and that tragedies always befall the Jewish people when we lack brotherly love—as our Sages explicitly state countless times.

Going back to the subject at hand, nowhere else in the Torah is wasting seed an issue. The Torah does state that a man who has an “emission” is impure for purposes of going to the Temple. What he must do is bathe in water, and wait until the evening for the impurity to go away (Leviticus 15:16). No other punishment is prescribed, irrespective of why the man might have the emission.

Spilling Seed, or Spilling Blood?

It is in the Talmud where wasting seed takes on its grave overtones. The Sages compare one who wastes seed to a murderer, an idolater, and an adulterer (Niddah 13a-b). This is quite shocking, considering that murder, idolatry, and adultery are the three “cardinal sins” of Judaism. These are the things one must give up their life for in order to avoid, even if coerced. The Sages are equating wasting seed with the worst possible sins.

In the same pages, we read how Rav Yochanan holds that one who wastes seed “deserves death”. Interestingly, he bases himself on the verses in the Torah concerning the deaths of Er and Onan! Yet, as we’ve seen, their sin was not the act of wasting seed, but their evil ulterior motives. In reality, the Sages are hard-pressed to find a good source for the prohibition. They resort to various colourful interpretations of Scriptural verses in an attempt to illustrate the evils of wasting seed. For example, Isaiah 1:15 says “And when you spread forth your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; when you make many prayers, I will not hear, [because] your hands are full of blood.” Rabbi Elazar says that “hands are full of blood” is referring to those who masturbate, since spilling seed is like spilling blood! This is far from the plain meaning of the verse, which is obviously talking about actual bloodshed.

We should keep in mind that in these Talmudic pages, the Sages are not just prohibiting masturbation or wasting seed, but even for a man to simply touch their “member”—even to urinate! “Rabbi Eliezer said: Whoever holds his member when he urinates is as though he had brought a flood on the world.” Rabbi Tarfon later adds that his hand should be cut off! It goes without saying that the Sages were exceedingly careful to avoid any sexual transgressions, and raised many “fences” to ensure that no one should even come close to sinning so gravely. We must remember that the Talmud often uses hyperbole to get a point across and it isn’t always wise to take statements literally. The Sages themselves question Rabbi Eliezer, and say that not holding one’s member would be very impractical, for “would not the spray splatter on his feet…?”

The point, rather, is to teach us that “such is the art of the evil inclination: Today it incites man to do one wrong thing, and tomorrow it incites him to worship idols and he proceeds to worship them.” (Niddah 13b) The Sages are specifically referring to one who fantasizes to “give himself an erection”, and that such a person “should be expelled”. After all, the yetzer hara works in such a way that it gets a person to make a tiny sin, and slowly leads them to greater transgressions. It might start with a small thought, grow into a consuming fantasy, and eventually leads one to grossly misbehave. In short, the fear is that a person will get accustomed to bad habits, and it will end up leading to more severe transgressions.

Halacha & Kabbalah of Spilling Seed

The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) codifies as law the prohibition of wasting seed, whether with one’s partner or on their own (Mishneh Torah, Issurei Biah 21:18):

It is forbidden to release semen wastefully. Therefore a person should not enter his wife and release outside of her… Those who release semen with their hands, beyond the fact that they commit a great transgression, a person who does this will abide under a ban of ostracism. Concerning them, it is said: “Your hands are filled with blood.” It is as if they killed a person.

The Rambam makes a distinction between a situation of husband and wife versus a man doing it on his own, which is far worse and likened to murder. Having said that, many other great authorities in Jewish law were more lenient when it comes to wasting seed, especially when the intention is not evil. The Rambam’s contemporary, Rabbi Yehuda haHasid (1150-1217), wrote in his Sefer Hasidim that while masturbation is forbidden, and requires a great deal of penance to repair, it is occasionally permitted if it will prevent a person from a more serious sin. On that note, the Rambam himself wrote elsewhere (Commentary on the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 7:4) that wasting seed is not an explicit Torah prohibition, and carries no actual punishment of any kind. However, he writes in the same place that although many things are permitted when done consensually between husband and wife, it is nonetheless important to be exceedingly modest when it comes to sexuality.

The later Kabbalists understood that the Torah carries no explicit punishment for wasting seed, but found an allusion to a more mystical punishment. They taught that wasting seed produces banim shovavim, literally “wayward children” (a term that comes from Jeremiah 3:14 and 3:22). These impure spirits—potential souls that are brought into this world without a body—attach to a man’s neck and cause him great damage, and can harm his children, too. There is no doubt that the Rambam, being a strict rationalist and staying away from anything “Kabbalistic”, would disagree with this approach. The Rambam did not believe in demons or evil spirits, and refused to accept the validity of many (if not all) Kabbalistic ideas and practices.

The Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572), perhaps the greatest of Kabbalists, was a major proponent of the banim shovavim notion. Since his time, it has become customary in some communities to focus on purifying from sexual sins and from wasted seed during the weeks when we read the consecutive parashas of Shemot, Va’era, Bo, Beshalach, Yitro, and Mishpatim. Since the initials of these parashas spell “shovavim”, it is thought to be an auspicious time for such repentance. Yet even the Arizal taught that wasting seed is primarily a problem when a person does so on their own, for selfish, lustful reasons. If one is married, and there is genuine loving intimacy between husband and wife, the prohibition is no longer so clear cut. (See, for example, Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Noach).

Indeed, many authorities were lenient with regards to wasting seed in the context of a husband and wife being together—as long as they are not like Er or Onan. If the intention is pure, and the couple has fulfilled the mitzvah of procreation (so they are obviously not trying to avoid having children), then occasionally wasting seed is permissible. Among those that held this opinion include the tosafist Rabbi Isaac ben Shmuel (c. 1115-1184, in his comments to Yevamot 34b) and the Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, 1555-1631, in his comments on Nedarim 20a).

In fact, even the Arizal taught that, in certain special cases, wasted seed can serve a positive purpose. In Sha’ar HaGilgulim (ch. 26), we read how the ten drops of wasted seed that unintentionally emerged out of Joseph (as per the famous Midrash) resulted in levushim, protective “garments” for the soul. The seed wasted indirectly by tzaddikim may similarly produce such protective garments, especially when it happens during proper, loving, holy zivug (union) between husband and wife. Such union, while not fruitful in this world, corresponds to “heavenly unions” that are spiritually fruitful. It is important to repeat that this entails being an actual tzaddik—being righteous, just, observant, modest, humble, selfless—and being intimate in a holy, loving, kosher, monogamous union.

On that note, it is worth mentioning that a couple that is childless, or already pregnant, is absolutely allowed to continue to be intimate, and this is not at all considered “wasting seed”. (The Talmud adds that intimacy during the third trimester is particularly healthy for both mother and baby, see Niddah 31a.) At the very start of Sha’ar HaMitzvot, the Arizal explains that such unions might not produce physical children, but they produce many spiritual children. This is one meaning for the verse in the Torah that says Abraham and Sarah “made souls” in Charan (Genesis 12:5)—although they were physically childless, they had produced many souls in Heaven, and these souls later came down into human form. In fact, there are those who say these souls are given to converts, who receive a Jewish soul upon their successful conversion. The souls that Abraham and Sarah made all those years come down into the bodies of converts, which is the deeper reason why all converts are referred to as “ben Avraham” and “bat Sarah”.

To summarize and conclude, the issue of spilled seed is indeed a serious one, and should not be taken lightly. There is room to be lenient in certain situations, such as a righteous married couple who already has multiple children, or a young, unmarried gentleman, whose frustration might reach a point where he is led to worse sins. The Sages recognized how incredibly difficult the latter case can be, and stated that a young bachelor who lives in the city and can still hold himself back from sexual sins is so praiseworthy that God personally calls out his name in Heaven every day (Pesachim 113a). Rabbi Chiya, meanwhile, said that it is best to stay married no matter what, and to always treat one’s wife exceedingly well—even if she is the worst possible wife—because wives “save us from sin” (Yevamot 63a). It is fitting to end with another famous adage from the Talmud (Sukkah 52b): אבר קטן יש לו לאדם מרעיבו שבע משביעו רעב “There is a small organ in a man’s body—if he starves it, he is satisfied; if he satisfies it, he starves.”