Tag Archives: Yoma (Tractate)

The Origins of Ashkenazi Jews

In this week’s parasha, Noach, we read about how the seventy primary descendants of Noah settled the Earth after the Great Flood. Noah had three sons, and it is often said that they divided the three continents of the Old World amongst them: Yefet (Japheth) got Europe, Shem got Asia, and Ham got Africa. This is not exactly accurate.

For one, Canaan is a son of Ham, but did not inhabit Africa, while Nimrod is said to be a son of Cush—also of Ham—yet we know Nimrod ruled Mesopotamia (Genesis 10:10). Another son of Ham is Mitzrayim, which is Egypt, yet Mitzrayim’s own children include Pathrusim and Caphtorim, names generally associated with Greek lands. (There is historical evidence to suggest that the early pre-Greek peoples did come from Egypt.) Yavan, the classic term for Greece, is a son of Yefet. As discussed in the past, Yavan is the same as Ionia, which is the western coast of Turkey, then inhabited by Greek-speaking peoples. (The famous city of Troy was in Ionia, in modern-day Turkey.)

In fact, essentially all of the seventy places inhabited by Noah’s descendants are places in modern Turkey or the Middle East. This makes sense, since the Torah was originally speaking to an audience that was unaware of most of Europe, the Far East, sub-Saharan Africa, and needless to say, the New World. The Torah mentions the origins of those territories that were familiar to the ancient Israelites, and that would have been their immediate neighbours. It also makes sense practically, since Noah got off the Ark in Ararat—somewhere in modern Turkey—and his children and grand-children would have settled lands that weren’t too far away from there.

Mt. Ararat, as seen from Yerevan, Armenia. It isn’t certain whether this Ararat is the Biblical Ararat.

One of Noah’s descendants is named Ashkenaz (Genesis 10:3). He is a grandson of Yefet, whose children all seem to have inhabited territories in Asia Minor and Armenia. Ashkenaz, too, is in that vicinity. Even in the time of the prophet Jeremiah centuries later, Ashkenaz was a kingdom in Turkey: “Raise a banner in the land, blow the shofar among the nations, prepare the nations against her, call together against her the kingdoms of Ararat, Minni, and Ashkenaz…” (Jeremiah 51:27) The prophet goes on to call on these and other powers in the area to come upon Babylon. Ashkenaz is one of the Turkish kingdoms bordering Babylon to the north, along with Ararat.

Modern-day villages in Northeastern Turkey. (Credit: theconversation.com)

Amazingly, to this day ethnic Armenians in the region name Ashkenaz as one of their ancestors! This claim is not recent; the fifth-century Armenian scholar Koryun described the Armenians as an Askanazian people. Not surprisingly then, multiple places in Northeastern Turkey today still bear similar-sounding names, including the villages of Iskenaz, Eskenez, and Ashanas.

If Ashkenaz is a place in Turkey, how did it become associated with European Jews? Did Ashkenazi Jews come from Turkey?

Debunking Khazaria

One popular explanation for the Turkey-Ashkenaz connection points to the Kingdom of Khazaria. This was a wealthy and powerful kingdom that ruled the Caucasus, southern Russia, and parts of Turkey and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages. Historians credit the Khazars with checking the rapid Arab conquest, and preventing a Muslim takeover of Europe from the East. It is said that around 740 CE, King Bulan grew tired of his people’s backwards pagan beliefs and converted to Judaism. According to legend, he had invited representatives of the major faiths to argue their case, and concluded that Judaism was the true faith. (This is the basis of Rabbi Yehuda haLevi’s [c. 1075-1141] famous text, the Kuzari.)

Although Bulan did not impose his new religion on anyone, it is thought that much of his kingdom had become Jewish anyway within about a century. Remarkably, a large reserve of antique Khazar coins was found in Sweden in 1999, bearing the inscription “Moses is the Prophet of God”. (Modeled on, and sometimes just refashioned from, Arab coins saying that “Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah”!) Archaeologists have found similar Khazar coins all over the Old World, from England to China, showing the tremendous extent of Khazaria’s wealth and influence.

Khazar coin from c. 837 CE, with the inscription “Moses is the prophet of God”.

Like all kingdoms, Khazaria had an expiration date. It was eventually overrun by the Rus, Mongols, and others. Some say that many Jewish Khazar refugees migrated westward to Europe, and settled in the sparsely populated and resource-rich lands of Germany. Since they had come from a place traditionally known as Ashkenaz, they were labelled “Ashkenazi Jews”. This is a great story, but one that has far too many holes.

From a historical perspective, most scholars reject the Khazar hypothesis simply because there is little evidence that Khazaria experienced a mass conversion to Judaism. It is generally agreed that only a small portion of the Khazar nobility had converted, at best. Khazaria simply attracted many Jews to settle there since it was a rich kingdom with freedom of religion. In that case, any Jewish refugees that might later flee Khazaria to Europe would not be ethnic Khazars anyway.

The Schechter Letter

Then came a huge discovery from the Cairo Geniza. Now known as the Schechter Letter (as it was discovered by Solomon Schechter, 1847-1915), the text is a correspondence between a Khazari Jew and a Sephardi Jew, most likely Hasdai ibn Shaprut (c. 915-970 CE). The letter includes a brief history of Khazaria, and states that Khazaria’s Jews originally came from Persia and Armenia, from which they had fled persecution. One of their descendants, named Sabriel, eventually rose to Khazarian nobility, and finally became king. His wife, Serach, convinced him to go public with their Jewish heritage, and they did, inspiring others in the kingdom to convert to their new king’s religion.

The Schechter Letter confirms that the majority of the Jews in Khazaria were not actually Turkic converts but migrants from Persia and Armenia. Shortly after the letter was written, the Khazari Kingdom fell apart in 969 CE. (We know the letter must have been written after 941 CE, since it refers to a battle in that year for which we have other historical records.) The supposed Jewish exodus from Khazaria would have happened in the ensuing decades.

Yet, we read in the commentaries of French-born Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, 1040-1135) how he learned certain things from his visits to Jewish communities in neighbouring Ashkenaz (see, for example, Ketubot 77a), and that Ashkenaz is undoubtedly German (with Rashi occasionally using German/“Ashkenazi” words, as in Sukkah 17a, for instance). This implies that by Rashi’s time—less than a century after the fall of Khazaria—a geographical region in Western Europe referred to as “Ashkenaz” was already well-known, with Jews there freely conversing in German. It is unlikely that this would happen so soon after the fall of Khazaria; Ashkenaz must have existed long before.

Besides, we know that Jews already lived in Europe at the time of Charlemagne (742-814 CE), who had a good relationship with his Jewish subjects. Charlemagne was born right around the time King Bulan is supposed to have converted to Judaism, and before the rise of Sabriel (whom some identify with Bulan). This alone proves that Jews were already living in Europe long before any Khazari Jews appeared on the scene.

Among the Ashkenazi Jews of the Middle Ages themselves, the tradition was that they had been there since the destruction of the Second Temple. For example, the Rosh (Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel, c. 1250-1327) wrote in one of his response (20, 20) that when he moved to Toledo, Spain:

I would not eat according to [Sefardi] practice, adhering as I do to our own custom and to the tradition of our blessed forefathers, the sages of Ashkenaz, who received the Torah as an inheritance from their ancestors from the days of the destruction of the Temple. Likewise the tradition of our predecessors and teachers in France is superior…

A portrait identified with Rabbeinu Asher ben Yechiel, the “Rosh”

The Rosh speaks of three distinct European Jewish communities: Sefarad, Ashkenaz, and Tzarfat (France). This makes one wonder whether Rashi would have considered himself Ashkenazi (as people typically see him today) or Tzarfati? Rashi was born and died in Troyes, France, though he spent time in Worms and Mainz in Germany, hence the reference above to his having learned things while visiting “Ashkenaz”. This implies that Rashi may not have considered himself Ashkenazi at all. (His father was called Rabbi Itzchak haTzarfati, and though he lived for a time in Worms, probably hailed from Lunel in Southern France.) Whatever the case, we see that the Sefardi, Ashkenazi, and Tzarfati Jewish communities were already firmly entrenched at the time of Khazaria’s fall.

Delving into Ashkenazi Genes

Science can shed further light on Ashkenazi origins. One study of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA, which is passed strictly from mother to child) found that some 40% of Ashkenazi Jews come from a group of mothers in Europe, possibly converts, approximately 2000 years ago (another related study here). This would have been around the destruction of the Second Temple. We know that many Jews fled Judea (or were expelled) at the time, and settled across the Roman Empire and beyond. Similarly, a study of Y chromosomes (passed strictly from father to son) shows that most Ashkenazi Levites have a common ancestor who lived at least 1500 years ago, most likely in the Middle East or already having migrated to Europe. These scientists conclude that the Khazar hypothesis is “highly unlikely”.

Other genetic studies do appear to show high degrees of relatedness between Turkic and Iranian peoples with Ashkenazi Jews, especially males. Of course, Jews have lived and migrated just about everywhere, and undoubtedly mixed with local populations, while drawing numerous converts. One interesting study found that about 5% of Ashkenazi males are part of the Q3 haplogroup, part of the wider Q group which represents Native Americans and Asians. The researchers concluded that Q3 entered the Jewish gene pool sometime in the 1st millennium. Some say this is due to the Ashina Turks (among the Khazar elite) who converted to Judaism and took Jewish wives. Either way, it is only a tiny minority of Ashkenazis that carry such genes.*

What we see from genetic studies is that most Ashkenazi Jews today descend from ancestors that were already in Europe long before the rise of the Khazars. Historical evidence confirms the existence of widespread Jewish communities in Europe before the time of Khazaria, too. In reality, the Khazar hypothesis keeps being resurrected because it is a convenient tool for anti-Semites to attack modern Jews as “imposters” (meanwhile completely forgetting the other half of the world’s Jews which are not Ashkenazi at all!) or for anti-Zionists to deny a Jewish connection to the land of Israel.

Having said all that, we must still answer the key question: where did the “Ashkenazi” label come from?

Adapting Names

When we look at the seventy “original” nations—descendants of Noah—we find that they represent a very small geographical area. Of the seventy, fourteen come from Yefet and represent Asia Minor, Armenia, and the Aegean islands (Genesis 10:5), nine are Cushites (presumably dark-skinned people), eight of Mitzrayim, twelve are Canaanites, and twenty-six are Middle Eastern, or possibly even just Mesopotamian. As already mentioned, the Torah’s narratives are confined to a narrow geographical space that was relevant to the ancient Israelites.

A “Table of Nations” from the ArtScroll Stone Chumash

When Jews started migrating out of Israel and beyond the Middle East, they needed to come up with names for these new territories they inhabited. So, they adapted the Biblical place-names of locations that no longer existed or whose identity was no longer known. For example, Sefarad became Spain and Tzarfat became France. When scripture speaks of Sefarad or Tzarfat (as in Ovadiah 1:20), it is certainly not speaking of Spain or France! For instance, the prophet Elijah went to Tzarfat, which is described as being next to Sidon (I Kings 17:9). Sidon is, of course, a well-known ancient city, in what is now Lebanon.

For the first Jews who settled in Spain and France, they had migrated the farthest West they could possibly go at the time. For them, these new lands were the most distant from Jerusalem, so they fittingly adapted terms for places described as being exceedingly far from the Holy Land (as in Ovadiah 1:20). They couldn’t use the names of places that were still extant, but only those ancient names that were no longer relevant. In the same fashion they described Germany as “Ashkenaz”, while Bohemia was surprisingly called “Canaan”. Therefore, to say that Ashkenazi Jews are Turkish because Ashkenaz was originally a place in Turkey is like saying French Tzarfati Jews are Lebanese because Tzarfat was originally a place in Lebanon!

It is worth pointing out here that scholars have also recently pinpointed the Biblical Sefarad. There is now strong historical evidence to identify Sefarad with the ancient town of Sardis, also in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), of course. Sardis was known to the Lydians who inhabited it as Sfard, and to the Persians as Saparda. It goes without saying that Sephardic Jewish origins have nothing to do with Turks, as don’t the origins of Lydians (probably the “Ludim” of Genesis 10:13, or the Lud of Genesis 10:22), nor the Yavanim, the Greek Ionians, all of whom inhabited that same area of Asia Minor.

The Tower of Babel

‘Turris Babel’ by Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680)

After telling us the divisions of the nations in Genesis 10, the Torah goes on to relate the narrative of Migdal Bavel. We are told that the people were all still unified at this point, speaking one tongue. They gathered in Babylon to build a tower to the Heavens, with nefarious intentions. Their plans were thwarted by God, who then scattered the people all over the world and confounded their tongues.

From a mystical perspective, at this point those seventy root nations—which originally inhabited Asia Minor and the Middle East—were spread all around the globe into a multitude of various peoples with new cultures and languages. Thus, all of the world’s thousands of nations and ethnicities, wherever they may be, are spiritually rooted in one of Noah’s seventy descendants.

Consequently, there were those who believed that Ashkenaz was dispersed to Central Europe. What’s amazing is that this was not only a Jewish belief, but a Christian one, too. The evangelical Christian pastor Ray Stedman (1917-1992) wrote:

The oldest son of Gomer was Ashkenaz. He and his descendants first settled around the Black Sea and then moved north into a land which is called Ascenia, and which later became known as the Islands of Scandia, which we now know as Scandinavia. You can trace a direct link between Ashkenaz and Scandinavia.

Basing himself on earlier sources, he lists Ashkenaz as referring to all Saxons, Scandinavians, and Germanic tribes. This argument was made at least as far back as the 4th century (long before the Khazars appeared on the scene), in Eusebius’ Historia Eccliesiastica, where Ashkenaz is Scanzia, another name for Scandinavia and/or Saxony.

Around that same time, the Talmud (Yoma 10a) identifies Gomer (the father of Ashkenaz) with Germamia. While this Germamia is possibly referring to Cimmeria, or Germanikia in Syria—which would have been more familiar to the Babylonian Sages living in the Persian Empire—it is very likely that Jews who settled in Germany would see Germamia as referring to their new land. Combined with the alliteration between “Ashkenaz” and “Saxony”/“Scanzia”, we can understand why the Jews that settled in Germany adapted the name Ashkenaz.

As an intriguing aside, the Talmud cited above holds that Yefet is a forefather of the Persians, too. The Talmud reads: “How do we know that the Persians are derived from Yefet? Because it is written: ‘The sons of Yefet: Gomer, and Magog…’” The Sages seem to connect Magog with the Persians. That might make alarm bells go off in the heads of modern readers who see Iran as playing a central role in an End of Days Gog u’Magog scenario.

To conclude, the hypothesis that Ashkenazi Jews originate among Turkish converts is completely false. While some Turkish converts certainly joined the Jewish nation in the Middle Ages, Ashkenazi Judaism predates this phenomenon by centuries. Both historical evidence and genetic analyses confirm a European Jewish presence as far back as 2000 years ago.

*Shortly after publishing this article, Kevin Brook pointed out the following to me, from his book The Jews of Khazaria (pg. 204):

Some researchers thought it was possible that these could have been inherited from the Khazars, but this idea is no longer viable. Ashkenazim belong to the Q haplogroups that were later precisely identified as Q-Y2200 (Q1b1a1a1a) and Q-YP1035 (Q1b1a1a1a2a2). On the Y chromosome tree, Q-Y2200’s parent haplogroup Q-Y2225 (Q1b1a1a1) was found in an Italian sample from Sicily, and geneticists determined that QY2225’s distant ancestors had apparently lived in the Middle East. The Ashkenazic branches of Q are very different from Q1a1b-M25 and Q1a2-M346, which are common among Turkic-speaking peoples, and the common ancestor between them all lived many thousands of years ago, far in advance of Khazaria’s existence.

What Does God Ask Of You?

In this week’s parasha, Ekev, we read: “And now, Israel, what does Hashem, your God, ask of you? Only to fear Hashem, your God, to walk in all of His ways, and to love Him, and to serve Hashem, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deuteronomy 10:12) Moses instructs his people that they should sincerely love, fear, and serve God. We have written in the past how the Sages say that loving God and serving God is often best done by loving and serving His creations. The Midrash compares this to a servant who takes care of the king’s son. Surely, the king will love such a servant and wish to bestow goodness upon him, for the servant cares for the king’s beloved child. As the Torah calls us all children of Hashem, the King, it goes without saying that those who take care of God’s children are naturally beloved by God.

This is the quality that made Aaron so special, and, according to some, earned him the merit of being chosen the progenitor of the priestly lineage. Pirkei Avot (1:12) famously instructs us to be, above all else, like Aaron (and his disciples): “loving peace and pursuing peace, loving all people, and bringing them closer to Torah.” Elsewhere in Avot (3:10), we are told that “One with whom his fellows are pleased with, God is pleased with.” The Kabbalists beautifully point out that the gematria of the command to love God (ואהבת את יי אלהיך) is 907, the same as the command to love your fellow (ואהבת לרעך כמוך אני יי), for one is impossible without the other.

‘Micah Extorting the Israelites to Repentance’, by Gustave Doré

This is what the prophet Michah concluded when he, too, asked the same question as Moses did: “… And what does Hashem request of you? Only to act justly, and to love kindness, and to walk modestly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) Be just and treat everyone fairly; be kind and genuinely love to help others—and do it all humbly and modestly.

The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) takes a more literal approach, with Rava stating that God will ask each person six specific questions upon their death:

When man is led in for Judgment, he is asked: Did you deal faithfully? Did you fix times for learning? Did you engage in procreation? Did you hope for salvation? Did you engage in the dialectics of wisdom? Did you understand one thing from another?

The first question implies dealing honestly in business or in financial matters. Judaism has always taught the necessity of being scrupulously honest when it comes to money. The Kabbalists state that a person will be forced to reincarnate into this world if they so much as owe a single penny. They discuss how the value of shekel (שקל) is 430, equal to nefesh (נפש), “soul”, for each person’s material wealth is intricately tied to their spiritual nature. This is why giving money to charity can actually alter a person’s fate, as explained in the past. (See ‘How Charity Can Save Your Life’ in Garments of Light.)

Meanwhile, the Talmud holds that even though the Torah allows Jews to loan with interest to non-Jews, one shouldn’t charge interest from anyone, and a usurer might not even be a kosher witness in court (Sanhedrin 24b-25b). The same is true for someone who owes a lot of money. A person should not get themselves into great debt, and should ensure as much as possible that they will be able to repay a loan. This is why Rabbi Shimon, one of the five great students of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, held that the worst possible trait is that of a person who takes on debt and fails to repay (Avot 2:10). He bases himself on the words of King David: “The wicked man borrows and does not repay, but the righteous one is benevolent and gives.” (Psalms 37:21)

The wording of the Talmud is that a person will be asked if they took care of their finances b’emunah, “in faith”. Unfortunately, there are plenty of people who seem faithful, but engage in all kinds of financial tricks under the table. A person cannot be of great emunah if, at the same time, they cheat in financial matters, or are even a little bit dishonest with money. This includes gambling, stock market speculation, and all sorts of tax deceptions which have become so commonplace in our time.

Upholding Creation

The second question asked in the afterlife is whether a person set aside regular times to learn Torah. The Sages state that learning Torah is the most important mitzvah. Indeed, without learning Torah a person won’t know the right way to fulfil any mitzvah. The Torah is a “Tree of life for those who grasp it” (Proverbs 3:18), and the Sages quoted God stating: “I created the evil inclination, and I created the Torah as its antidote.” (Sifre Devarim 45) One who learns Torah is upholding the Covenant between God and Israel—since the Torah is the very text of that Covenant—and hence God states “If not for My covenant day and night, I would not have set the ordinances of Heaven and Earth.” (Jeremiah 33:25) God declares that He would not have created this universe were it not for His Torah—and His people upholding it day and night. (Some have therefore said that the world has time zones so that at any given moment, a Jew somewhere in the world is learning Torah.)

Similarly, the third question refers to procreation, for without it, too, humanity would cease to exist. More specifically, without Jewish procreation, there would be no Jews, and therefore no one to uphold that Covenant. The schools of Hillel and Shammai debated what it takes to fulfil the mitzvah of procreation (Yevamot 62a). According to Hillel, a person must have one boy and one girl, while according to Shammai, a person must have two boys and two girls. The reasoning of the latter is that Eve initially had four children: Cain, Abel, and the sisters each was born with. The first instance of pru u’rvu in the Torah resulted in two boys and two girls, so this is the standard for fulfilling the mitzvah.

However, the Talmud goes on to note another opinion that it was Shammai that taught one must have at least one boy and one girl, whereas Hillel taught that a person must simply have at least one child, whether boy or girl. The most lenient opinion, therefore, is that a person fulfils the mitzvah by having a single child, while the praiseworthy has at least two of each. A person who adopts a child or “raises an orphan” fulfils the mitzvah as well (Megillah 13a).

Of course, it isn’t enough just to have the kids. Parents need to invest their time and energy to ensure the children will be both righteous and successful. The Talmud (Kiddushin 29a) reminds us that, among other things, a parent is obligated to teach their child Torah, and also some kind of craft or career to ensure an honest livelihood. After all, “If there is no Torah, there is no flour; if there is no flour, there is no Torah.” (Avot 3:17) To raise children solely with Torah and assume a livelihood will come on its own, or to rely on the charity of others, is a gross sin. The Rambam (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:10) is particularly vocal about it:

Anyone who comes to the conclusion that he should involve himself in Torah study without doing work and derive his livelihood from charity, desecrates God’s Name, dishonors the Torah, extinguishes the light of faith, brings evil upon himself, and forfeits the life of the World to Come, for it is forbidden to derive benefit from the words of Torah in this world.

Our Sages declared: “Whoever benefits from the words of Torah forfeits his life in the world.” Also, they commanded and declared: “Do not make them a crown to magnify oneself, nor an axe to chop with.” Also, they commanded and declared: “Love work and despise rabbinic positions.” All Torah that is not accompanied by work will eventually be negated and lead to sin. Ultimately, such a person will steal from others.

Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, the Rambam, aka. Maimonides, 1135-1204

Although the Rambam makes it clear that Torah study is of absolute importance, and should take precedence over one’s worldly occupation, he nonetheless reminds us that “the greatest sages of Israel were lumberjacks and water-drawers…” (ibid., 1:9) To be fair, there are other rabbinic authorities that allow for full-time Torah scholars who make learning their occupation, but this must only be for a minority of distinguished thinkers. It is certainly not a standard for everyone, for that would be completely unsustainable.

To get back to the third question, the Sages state that having children “hastens the Redemption”. There are a certain number of souls (in a Heavenly repository called “guf”) that must be born, and only when all of these souls have been born can Mashiach come. Thus, having children accelerates the time of Redemption.

This ties into the fourth question a person is asked: did they look forward to the Redemption? The wording is not if they waited for the Redemption, or hoped for it. Instead, whether they looked forward to it, suggesting a more active form. It isn’t enough to passively wait for the Redemption. Each person must do what they can to hasten it. This includes things like doing more acts of kindness and showing ahavat chinam, expressing baseless, non-judgemental love for all fellow Jews (Yoma 9b); engaging in kiruv; and, of course, repenting wholeheartedly (Sanhedrin 97b). Each person has to continue working on themselves to be ever-more righteous. Increasing one’s charitable donations hastens the Redemption, too (Isaiah 1:27 and Bava Batra 10a).

Garment for the Soul

The final two questions deal with one’s knowledge and understanding. It isn’t enough to engage in light learning here and there. A person must be steeped in dialectics (pilpul) and understand the depths of one thing from another (davar mitokh davar). The Arizal taught that a person must learn Torah on all four of its levels; pshat (simple), remez (sub-textual), drash (metaphorical), and sod (secret). These levels are collectively known by the acronym pardes, “orchard”—a word that is also the origin of the English “paradise”. One who doesn’t learn Torah on all four levels has not fulfilled the mitzvah of Torah study and will return in a reincarnation to do so (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, 16).

The Arizal also taught that Torah study not only strengthens a person spiritually, but literally creates a “garment” for the soul to be worn in the World to Come (Sha’ar HaPesukim, Tehillim). This is the meaning of the verse “The Torah of Hashem is perfect, it restores the soul” (Psalms 19:8). Meanwhile, the power of Torah study is so great that it creates angels, and these angels could eventually communicate with the student and bestow Ruach HaKodesh, divine inspiration, upon them (Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh, 1).

The Talmud specifies that one should spend a third of their time studying Tanakh, then a third studying Mishnah, and a third studying Gemara (Kiddushin 30a). This was at a time when no other texts were available, so one should probably make another “third” for the many other areas of Jewish study we have today, including halachic and midrashic literature, mussar, hashkafa, various responsas and commentaries, as well as Kabbalah. The Arizal divided up his Torah study routine as follows (Sha’ar HaMitzvot, Va’etchanan):

First, he would read the weekly Torah portion. On Sunday, he would focus on the first six verses. On Monday, the next four. On Tuesday, the next five, and on Wednesday the next six. Another five on Thursday, making a total of 26 verses, and then the whole parasha on Friday. This was done in the traditional manner, shnaim mikra v’echad targum—reading each verse twice in Hebrew, and once in Aramaic.

Next, he would study a portion of Nevi’im, the Prophets, followed by Ketuvim, the other Holy Writings that make up the Tanakh. This, too, was done with shnaim mikra and a targum. The Arizal then studied the Mishnah, followed by Gemara, together with the various commentaries. Finally, he engaged in Kabbalah.

Yirat Hashem

Rava derived the six questions above from Isaiah 33:6, where the prophet declares, “And there shall be faith in your times; strength, salvation, wisdom and knowledge…” Faith refers to the first question regarding faithful business, times refers to the second question of setting times for Torah-learning, strength to procreation, salvation to the Redemption, wisdom and knowledge to the last two questions.

The Isaiah verse concludes with “… the fear of Hashem is His treasure.” One’s rewards (treasure) in the afterlife are contingent upon these six questions. Yet, what unifies them all is yirat Hashem, “fear” or “awe” of God.

One who is truly God-fearing will undoubtedly be scrupulously honest with financial matters, and strive to hasten the Redemption. It is doubtful that a Jew can be truly God-fearing without constantly meditating upon Torah and understanding its depths. Thus, complete yirat Hashem encompasses all of these things. Conversely, a person who does not live these ideals is probably not as God-fearing or faithful as they might believe themselves to be.

Is It Necessary to Have a Hebrew Name?

‘Elijah Taken Up to Heaven’

This week’s parasha is named after Pinchas, grandson of Aaron, who is commended for taking action during the sin with the Midianite women. Pinchas was blessed with an “eternal covenant”, and Jewish tradition holds that he never really died. Pinchas became Eliyahu, and as the Tanakh describes, Eliyahu was taken up to Heaven alive in a flaming chariot (II Kings 2). While we know what the name “Eliyahu” means, the name “Pinchas” is far more elusive. It doesn’t seem to have any meaning in Hebrew. Historical records show that there was a very similar name in ancient Egypt, “Pa-Nehasi”. Did Pinchas have a traditional Egyptian name?

When we look more closely, we find that multiple figures of the Exodus generation actually bore Egyptian names. For example, “Aaron” (or Aharon) doesn’t have a clear meaning in Hebrew, and appears to be adapted from the ancient Egyptian name “Aha-Rw”, meaning “warrior lion”. Even the origin of Moses’ name is not so clear.

Although the Torah tells us that Pharaoh’s daughter named him “Moshe” because she “drew him [meshitihu] from the water” (Exodus 2:10), it seems very unlikely that an Egyptian princess should know Hebrew so well and give her adopted child a Hebrew name. Our Sages noted this issue long ago, and grappled with the apparent problem. Chizkuni (Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoach, c. 1250-1310) writes that it was actually Moses’ own mother Yocheved that named him “Moshe”, and then informed Pharaoh’s daughter of the name. Yet, the Midrash affirms that Yocheved called her son “Tuviah”, or just “Tov” (based on Exodus 2:2), and Moshe was the name given by Pharaoh’s daughter. Meanwhile, Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra, 1089-1167) suggests that Pharaoh’s daughter called him “Munius”. Josephus takes an alternate approach entirely, saying that Pharaoh’s daughter (whose name was Thermuthis, before she became a righteous convert and was called Batya or Bitya in Jewish tradition) named him Moses because the Egyptian word for water is mo.

The most elegant solution might be that Pharaoh’s daughter called him “Mose” (spelled the same way, but pronounced with a sin instead of shin), which means “son” in Egyptian. This is most fitting, since Pharaoh’s daughter yearned for a child of her own, and finally had a “son”. In fact, we see this suffix (and its close variant mses, from which the English “Moses” comes) used frequently in Egyptian names of that time period, such as Ahmose, Thutmose, and Ramses. Thus, he would have been known as Mose (or Moses) during his upbringing, but later known to his nation as Moshe, with a more appropriate and meaningful Hebrew etymology, yet without having to change the spelling of the name (משה) at all.

All of this begs the question: is it important to have a Hebrew name? And is it okay to have a Hebrew name together with an English name, or a name in the local language of wherever a Jew may live?

Why Are So Many Sages Called “Shimon”?

When looking through the names of the many rabbis in Talmudic and Midrashic literature, we find something quite intriguing. Although we would expect the Sages to be named after great Biblical figures like Moses, David, or Abraham, in reality there are essentially no sages with such names! Instead, we find a multitude of names of lesser-known Biblical figures, and many names that have no Biblical or Hebrew origin at all.

One very common name is Yochanan: There’s Yochanan ben Zakkai and Yochanan haSandlar, Yochanan bar Nafcha, Yochanan ben Nuri, and Yochanan ben Beroka. Another popular name is Yehoshua. While we might not expect this name to be so popular (considering its association with Jesus), we still find Yehoshua ben Perachia, Yehoshua ben Levi, Yehoshua ben Chananiah, Yehoshua ben Korchah, and many others. There are also lots and lots of Yehudas like Yehuda haNasi (and his descendents, Yehuda II and Yehuda III), Yehuda ben Beteira, Yehuda bar Ilai, and Yehuda ben Tabbai. And there are tons of Elazars: Elazar ben Arach, Elazar ben Azariah, Elazar ben Pedat, and many more with the similar “Eliezer”.

Perhaps the most common name is “Shimon”. There is Shimon haTzadik and Shimon bar Yochai, Shimon bar Abba and Shimon ben Shetach, Shimon ben Gamaliel (both I and II), Shimon ben Lakish (“Reish Lakish”), and more. We would think this is a strange choice, considering that the Biblical Shimon was actually of somewhat poor character (at least compared to the remaining Twelve Sons of Jacob). In fact, on his deathbed, Jacob did not bless Shimon at all, and instead said he wanted nothing to do with his violent nature. Moses, meanwhile, completely omits Shimon in his last blessings! So why would so many of our Sages be called “Shimon”?

A Good-Sounding Name

What might explain the strange selection of names among our ancient Sages? While no clear reason stands out, there is one plausible answer. It appears that the choice of names above was heavily influenced by the contemporary Greek society. Just as today many Jewish parents seek Hebrew names that also sound good in English, it seems parents back then wanted names that sounded good in Greek (since most Jews lived in the Greek part of the Roman, and later “Byzantine”, Empire).

We find that Greek names tend to end with an “n”: Platon (“Plato” in Greek), Jason, and Solon, for example. Numerous others end with “s”: Aristotles (“Aristotle” in Greek), Pythagoras, Philippos. Indeed, many of our Sages actually have such Greek names directly: Yinon, Hyrcanus, Pappus, Symmachus, Teradyon, and Onkelos. There is no indication that these great rabbis had some other “Hebrew” name.

Those that did want to bear Hebrew names could choose names already ending with an “n” like Shimon and Yochanan. Or, they could choose names where adding an “s” to the end would be easy: Yehoshua in Greek is Yeosuos (later giving rise to Yesus, ie. Jesus), while Yehuda is Yudas (Judas). Such names would be easy to convert between Hebrew and Greek. We know from historical sources that several people named Chananiah were simultaneously called “Ananias” in Greek.

The same is true for Elazar or Eliezer. Many Greek names transliterated into English and other languages simple lose their “s” and end with an “r”: Antipatros becomes Antipater, while Alexandros becomes Alexander. In reverse fashion, Elazar could easily become Elazaros (or Lazarus)—very palatable in the Greek-speaking world which our early Sages inhabited.

On that note, what do we make of “Alexander”? A great number of Jews both modern and ancient (there is Alexander Yannai and Rabbi Alexandri in the Talmud) have this name. Some cite a famous Midrashic account of Alexander the Great’s arrival in Jerusalem as being proof that while Alexander is not a Hebrew name, it is something of an “honorary” Jewish name. This requires a more careful analysis.

Is Alexander a Jewish name?

The Talmud (Yoma 69a) describes Alexander the Great’s conquest of Judea. As he is marching towards Jerusalem, intent on destroying the Temple, Shimon HaTzadik goes out to meet him in his priestly garments (he was the kohen gadol at the time). When Alexander sees him, he halts, gets off his horse, and bows down to the priest. Alexander’s shocked generals ask why he would do such a thing, to which Alexander responds that he would see the face of Shimon before each successful battle. Alexander proceeds to treat the Jews kindly, and leaves the Temple intact. The Talmud stops there, though it does mention that this event took place on the 25th of Tevet, which was instituted as a minor holiday on which mourning was forbidden. (The story is also attested to by Josephus, though with a different high priest—see here for more.)

‘Alexander the Great and Jaddus the High Priest of Jerusalem’ by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669)

According to one tradition, the priests at the time wanted to honour Alexander for his kindness, and named all the boys born that year “Alexander”. In another version, Alexander was given a tour of the Holy Temple and, naturally, wished to place a statue of himself inside. Since this was impossible (but they couldn’t refuse the emperor), Shimon haTzadik convinced him that it would be a greater honour for all the children born to be named “Alexander”. Either way, some like to say that “Alexander” has become a Jewish name ever since.

In truth, this suggestion looks more like a modern way of explaining why so many Jews were named Alexander. In reality, the Midrash clearly states that a Jew should not name his child Alexander. We read in Vayikra Rabbah 32:5:

In the merit of four things was Israel redeemed from Egypt: they did not change their names*, nor their language, they did not speak lashon hara, and not one among them committed sexually immoral sins… They did not call Yehuda “Rufus”, and not Reuben “Lullianus”, and not Yosef “Listus”, and not Benjamin “Alexander”…

Apparently, when Midrash Rabbah was composed—just like today—it was common for Jews to have a non-Jewish name that they would use regularly, together with a Hebrew name that they would use only in Jewish circles. The Hebrew name “Benjamin” was often paired with “Alexander”.

We see from the Midrash above that it is important to have a Hebrew or Jewish name. But what exactly counts as a “Jewish” name?

Non-Jewish “Jewish” Names

Although today most Jews insist on having Hebrew or Biblical names (and rightly so), it seems that our Sages weren’t so strict in this regard. Indeed, many of them bore Greek, Latin, or Aramaic names with no second Hebrew name. Akiva, Avtalyon, Nechunia, Mani, Nittai, Nehorai, Adda, Papa, Simlai, Tanhum, Tarfon, Ulla, and countless others are cited in rabbinic literature. As we saw earlier, those that did have Hebrew names naturally chose names that would be palatable to the surrounding Greeks, much like many Jews today choose names that have easy English homonyms.

This trend continued for centuries, all the way up to modern times. The result is that many seemingly “Jewish” names are actually adaptations of very non-Jewish names. For example, one popular name among Ashkenazi Jews in the past was Feivel or Feibush. This name, meaning “bright”, comes from Phoebus, one of the appellations for the Greco-Roman god of light, Apollo. With this in mind, there may actually be a big halachic problem of bearing this name, since it is forbidden to recite the names of idols. (Some say the name was only meant to substitute the Biblical name Shimshon, the root of which is “sun”, thus having a similar meaning to Phoebus.)

Another appellation for Apollo was Lycegenes or Lukegenes, “born of a wolf” (possibly the source of the name “Luke”), which would be “Wolf” in Germanic countries, where the wolf was an important symbol in European mythology. Wolf also became very popular among Ashkenazis, who usually added the Hebrew translation Ze’ev to the name. The same is true for the classic German/Norse name Baer (“Bear”), to which Ashkenazis added Dov, its Hebrew translation. None of these names are Biblical or Talmudic, nor is their origin truly Hebrew. (Ironically, the name Ze’ev appears in the Tanakh [Judges 7:25] as the name of an enemy Midianite prince that the Israelites slayed!)

Having said that, many have linked these names to Biblical characters. For example, Benjamin is described in the Torah as a wolf (Genesis 49:27), so some carried the name “Binyamin Wolf”, where the former was their actual Jewish name while the latter was their social name. The same goes for “Yehuda Leib”, where Leib means “lion”, like Aryeh, the symbol of the Biblical Yehuda. It has even become common to combine all three to form “Yehuda Aryeh Leib”. Similarly, there’s “Naftali Tzvi Hirsch”, since the Biblical Naftali is described as a deer, ayalah or tzvi, and “Hirsch” is German for “deer”.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the “Alter Rebbe” (1745-1812)

“Schneur”, too, is of non-Jewish origin, and comes from the Spanish name Senor (and is sometimes a German equivalent for Seymour). Chassidim have since reinterpreted it in the Hebrew as Shnei Or, “two lights”. It probably didn’t have this meaning when it was given to Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder and first rebbe of Chabad. In his case, “Schneur” was likely meant to be his social name while “Zalman” (Solomon, or “Shlomo) was his traditional Jewish or Hebrew name.

Sephardic Jews are just as culpable. Many have Arabic names like “Massoud” (which means “lucky”) or “Abdullah”. In fact, Rav Ovadia Yosef’s birth name was Yusuf Abdullah, and it was only when the family made aliyah to Israel that “Abdullah” was replaced with its Hebrew translation “Ovadia” (which is a Biblical name). At one point, a popular female Sephardic name was “Mercedes”. This one is highly problematic, as it happens to be a Spanish appellation for the Virgin Mary! (The automobile brand Mercedes is named after a Jewish girl of that name, the daughter of the company’s founder Emil Jellinek and his French-Sephardi wife.) A similar problem lies with the very popular “Natalie”, which literally means “Christmas” in Latin.

Is it okay to bear such names? A distinction must be made between those that clearly have an idolatrous origin versus those that were simply adapted from non-Jewish names but still carry a good meaning. The latter are certainly permissible, since many of our great Sages had such foreign names. Over time, many of these evolved a deeper, Jewish meaning. For instance, Adele was a classic German name (meaning “noble”) and yet the Baal Shem Tov chose it for his daughter. He explained to his chassidim that he received this name through divine inspiration, and that it is an acronym (אדל) for the important words in the Torah אש דת למו—that God gave His people “a fiery Torah” (Deuteronomy 33:2). The Torah, like fire, purifies all things. The Baal Shem Tov’s daughter went on to become a holy chassid of her own, imbued with so much Ruach haKodesh that she was nicknamed Adele HaNeviah, “Adele the Prophetess”.

Jewish “Non-Jewish” Names

The opposite case exists as well: names that appear to be non-Jewish but actually have a clear Jewish origin. Take “Elizabeth”, for example. While it may sound like a classic European name, it is actually the transliteration of “Elisheva” (אלישבע), the righteous wife of Aaron (Exodus 6:23). Some Jewish name sources incorrectly write that John is a non-Jewish name, associating it with the “New Testament” John. Yet, even that John was originally a Jewish man living in Israel, and “John” is simply a transliteration of the Hebrew name “Yochanan”. (It sounds closer in Germany and Eastern Europe, where “John” is “Johan”, or “Yohan”.)

There are numerous other examples. Susanna is Shoshana (שושנה), and Abigail is Avigayil (אביגיל). In the Tanakh, the latter makes an important comment about names, pointing out that because her first husband’s name was Naval (“abomination”) he acted abominably (I Samuel 25:25). She later married King David and is considered a prophetess in her own right.

Many are surprised to discover that “Jessica” comes from the Torah. It is an English adaptation of Iscah (יסכה), mentioned in Genesis 11:29 and, according to our Sages, the birth name of Sarah. Rashi comments:

Iscah. This is Sarah, because she would see [סוֹכָה] through divine inspiration, and because all gazed [סוֹכִין] at her beauty. Alternatively, יִסְכָּה is an expression denoting princedom [נְסִיכוּת], just as Sarah is an expression of dominion [שְׂרָרָה].

Interestingly, it appears that the earliest recorded use of the transliteration “Jessica” comes from Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. Here, Jessica is the Jewish daughter of the play’s Jewish villain, Shylock. Although many see The Merchant of Venice as an anti-Semitic work, others actually see it as Shakespeare’s cunning manipulation of that era’s rampant anti-Semitism and his own “plea for tolerance”. After all, Shylock’s most famous speech (Act III, Scene 1) reads:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

Shylock argues that his own villainy is nothing but a reflection of the villainy of the Christian world. Shakespeare recognized the cruelty that Jews had suffered, and tells his anti-Semitic audience that Jews are human, too.

Is It Necessary to Have a Hebrew Name?

Ultimately, it is certainly beneficial to have a Hebrew name of some sort, whether Biblical, Talmudic, adapted, or modern. After all, Hebrew is a holy language, and each of its letters carry profound meaning. The Hebrew term for “name” is shem (שם), which is a root of neshamah (נשמה), “soul”, and spelled the same as sham (שם), “there”, for it is there within a person’s name that his or her essence is found. For this reason, the Talmud (Yoma 83b) tells us that Rabbi Meir used to carefully analyze people’s name to determine their character. (This Talmudic passage was explored at length in Secrets of the Last Waters.)

The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b) also notes that changing one’s name is one of five things a person can do to change their fate. Indeed, we see this multiple times in Scripture. Abraham and Sarah have their names changed (from Abram and Sarai) to allow them to finally have a child. Jacob becomes Israel, while Hoshea becomes Yehoshua (Joshua). At some point, Pinchas becomes Eliyahu, and even Yosef (Joseph) becomes Yehosef (Psalms 81:6). On that last name change, the Midrash explains that it was only because Yosef had an extra hei added to his name that he was able to ascend to Egyptian hegemony.

Thus, having a name with a deep meaning, in Hebrew letters, and one that is actually used regularly (as opposed to a secondary Hebrew name that no one calls you by) is of utmost significance. If you don’t yet have such a name, it isn’t too late to get one!

*This Midrash presents a possible contradiction: how can it say that the Israelites did not adopt Egyptian names when we see that some clearly did? Maybe most of the Israelites did not adopt Egyptian names, though some did. Thankfully, another Midrash (Pesikta Zutrati on parashat Ki Tavo) steps in to offer an alternate reason. Here, Israel was redeemed in the merit of three things: not changing their clothing, their food, and their language. Changing their names is conspicuously absent.

Red Cow: Quantum Physics in the Torah

This week’s parasha, Chukat, begins with the laws of the Red Cow (or “Red Heifer”). The Torah describes in detail the Red Cow ritual, starting with the production of a special mixture which alone had the power to remove the greatest of impurities, the impurity of death. (Because we lack this mixture today, everyone is considered ritually impure at all times, and this is one reason why most Orthodox authorities discourage Jews from ascending the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.) First, the Torah requires finding a perfectly red calf. The Sages elaborate that even two non-red hairs invalidate a cow. The calf must also be entirely unblemished, and in perfect health. It must not have ever been used for any kind of labour. The simple act of putting a yoke on the cow—even if just for a moment—immediately disqualifies it.

Rabbis inspect a red cow in Israel (Courtesy: Temple Institute). Jewish tradition maintains there have only been nine red cows used in history. The tenth will come in the time of Mashiach.

Once such a cow is found, it is taken to the Temple and appropriately slaughtered. The High Priest takes some of its blood and sprinkles it towards the Holy of Holies (or the “Tent of Meeting”). The cow is then entirely consumed in flames, with the added ingredients of cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson wool. At this point, the High Priest has become impure himself, and must go to the mikveh. Another priest (who is pure) must gather the ashes to be used to make the purifying solution. This person, too, becomes impure. Finally, the third pure person who actually prepares the mixture and sprinkles it on the impure people also becomes impure in the process. Perplexingly, the act of purifying others instantly makes the purifier himself impure.

This strange Red Cow ritual puzzled the ancient Sages. They went so far as to say that even King Solomon—the wisest of all men—could not understand the Red Cow (Yoma 14a). The Sages base themselves on Solomon’s own words (Ecclesiastes 7:23): “All this have I tried by wisdom… but it was far from me.” Solomon had all the wisdom, yet there was one thing that was too “far” for him to grasp, and that was the Red Cow. (The Midrash, meanwhile, comments on Solomon’s words in Proverbs 30:18—“Three things are wondrous to me, and four I do not know”—to mean that Solomon didn’t know seven more things.  The three things wondrous to him were the secrets of the Pesach offering, matzah, and maror; and the four he didn’t know were the mysteries of the four species of Sukkot. See Vayikra Rabbah 30:14)

The Sages conclude that the Red Cow has no human logic and is, as the Torah states, a chok, an incomprehensible divine law. In other words, no one understands the Red Cow.

The Nazis tried to ban Einstein’s theories and discoveries. They didn’t like quantum physics very much, and once branded it as a “Jewish science”.

Interestingly, there is a parallel phenomenon in the world of science. The past century and a half has seen the rise of a bewildering new field called quantum physics. Like the Red Cow ritual, many experiments in quantum physics yield results that are incomprehensible. They often contradict the foundational principles of classical physics, and are sometimes just plain bizarre. This may be why Albert Einstein once humorously described quantum physics as a “talmudical theory”. (And may be why Jews are so disproportionately represented in the field.) Niels Bohr, meanwhile, said something along the lines of “Those who are not profoundly shocked when they first come across quantum theory have not understood it.” And Richard Feynman concluded: “I think I can safely say that no one understands quantum mechanics.”

Quantum physics is to science what the Red Cow is to the Torah. In fact, a closer examination may reveal a very intimate connection between the two.


One of the central principles of quantum physics is entanglement. This refers to two particles that are intertwined, and appear to affect one another instantaneously even though they may be very far apart. For example, take the case of two entanglement particles, one with a clockwise spin, and the other with a counter-clockwise spin. If the clockwise particle is forced to spin the other way, the counter-clockwise particle immediately changes its spin as well. This is true even over vast distances, and the effect is immediate, suggesting faster-than-light communication. Einstein famously called this strange phenomenon “spooky action at a distance”.

Entanglement has the potential for many practical applications, and scientists are even working on an un-hackable “quantum internet”. Meanwhile, Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose have built an entire biological theory around entanglement, which provides a scientific explanation for the soul, the afterlife, and reincarnation.

Of course, from a Jewish mystical perspective, all souls are intertwined and “entangled”. Entanglement may even explain the strange nature of the Red Cow. Recall that when the pure person sprinkles the mixture upon the impure person, he instantly becomes impure himself while the impure person becomes pure. This is precisely like a counter-clockwise particle instantly switching its spin to clockwise when its fellow entangled particle is made to go from clockwise to counter-clockwise.

Uncertainty Principle

Another foundation of quantum physics is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. In short, this means that when measuring any given particle, we can either determine its position, or its speed, but not both. If we measure its position, then technically at that split instant the particle isn’t really in motion, so we cannot determine its speed. If we measure its speed, than it can’t be standing still in any one position, so we cannot determine exactly where it is. (The principle can be explained with a classic physics joke: a police officer pulls over a speeding particle and asks: “Do you have any idea how fast you were going?” The particle replies: “No sir, but I know where I am.”)

Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh beautifully points out that the Torah actually speaks of the Uncertainty Principle. We read in Job 28 of the difference between man’s limited wisdom and God’s omniscience. We are then told that “God understands her path, and He knows her place.” (Job 28:23) Unlike man, who is incapable of grasping such things, God alone knows both the “path” (momentum) and “place” (location) of a particle! Rav Ginsburgh summarizes:

Now, what is the verse saying? Actually, it is saying exactly what Einstein said when he heard that the uncertainty principle was somehow inherent in nature: “God does not play dice with the universe.” It did not sit well with him that God cannot see beyond the uncertainty principle. Little did Einstein know that he had a verse in the Bible to support his intuition that God does know… (Lectures on Torah and Modern Physics, pg. 90)

Wave-Particle Duality

Perhaps the most well-known principle in quantum physics is that of wave-particle duality. This is the notion that every particle is also a wave. The discovery was a result of a much earlier debate (going back at least to the time of Newton) of whether light is a particle or wave. Over the decades, experiments would alternately show that light behaves as a particle, while others would show that light behaves as a wave. Eventually, it was found that photons (particles of light) behave in both ways, and the same is true for other particles, too.

Closely related to this is what is known as the “observer effect”, that the presence of a conscious “observer” actually affects whether a particle will behave as a particle or wave. In the famous double-slit experiment, whenever scientists “watch” a particle it always passes through one slit and leaves a single mark on the screen behind as expected. Yet, whenever they remove the measuring devices and shoot particles without any observation, the particle seemingly goes through both slits simultaneously, and produces a wave-like pattern on the screen!

Notions like this led Max Planck, often called the “father of quantum physics”, to conclude:

As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear-headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.

Rav Ginsburgh once more shows how wave-particle duality is secretly embedded in the language of the Torah. The Torah’s word for a “wave” is gal (גל), while the Torah’s word for a tiny drop, or “particle”, is egel (אגל). The two share one root, meaning there is a profound connection between them. Rav Ginsburgh cites ancient commentaries (ibid, pg. 128-129) which explain how a multitude of tiny drops of dew blanketing a field combine to form the appearance of a wave. The Sages are speaking of an observer who seems to be looking at a wave but, upon closer examination, is seeing individual particles of dew. This is little more than a poetic way of describing the scientific “observer effect”, where close observation and measurement shows particles while lack of measurement shows waves.

String Theory in Kabbalah

For decades, physicists have been looking for a “theory of everything” that can elegantly explain all of the various phenomena in the universe. Currently, one very popular such theory is string theory, which holds that the universe boils down to a set of tiny vibrating strings. Differing vibrations would result in particles of different masses and charges, giving rise to the variety of forces and particles in the universe, including a particle that carries gravity (called a graviton). String theory is therefore a good “theory of everything” that can neatly unify all of physics.

Edward Witten is also Jewish, and the son of Louis Witten, another well-known physicist.

In reality, string theory is not one theory, and has multiple versions. In the past, there were five major, accepted models. Then, in 1995 Edward Witten was able to unify these models into one wholesome theory, called M-theory, sparking a “superstring revolution”. Since then, a great deal of work has been done to strengthen and support M-theory, which continues to be one of the leading models in modern physics.

Interestingly, M-theory suggests that the universe has a total of 11 dimensions. Three of these are the familiar dimensions of space (length, width, height). The fourth is the dimension of time, which is really inseparable from the three of space, and part of one continuum. In addition to these, there are seven more dimensions unperceivable to human senses:


Etz Chaim, “Tree of Life”, showing the upper sefirot (Keter/Da’at, Chokhmah, and Binah, known as the Mochin), and the seven lower sefirot.

Anyone who has dabbled in Kabbalah will immediately recognize that this conception of 11 dimensions perfectly parallels the “dimensions” of Kabbalah, ie. the Sefirot. In the arrangement of the sefirot, too, we have the three sefirot of the mochin, which are tied to a fourth (usually hidden) sefirah of Da’at, just like the three spatial dimensions are intertwined with time. Below the three mochin are the seven middot. Like the 11 dimensions of M-theory, the Kabbalistic “Tree of Life”—as made popular by the Arizal—is typically shown depicting 11 sefirot. (Yet, the Sages insist that there are ten sefirot, never eleven! It should be noted that in non-M-theory versions of string theory, there are indeed only 10 dimensions.) One who studies both M-theory and the Arizal’s teachings of the sefirot will quickly find tremendous overlap between them.

And one who has delved into the Kabbalah of the Arizal will know just how easy it is to get lost in descriptions of dimensions within dimensions, and universes superimposed upon universes; in souls entangled across vast distances, and across eons of time; and in lengthy formulas of yichudim, kavvanot, and tikkunim (“unifications”, “meditations”, and “rectifications”). In fact, studying the Arizal sometimes feels like studying quantum physics. Truly, the two go hand-in-hand, and are poised to bridge the gap between the realm of science and the realm of the spirit.

Should You Wear a Red String on Your Wrist?

Vestments of the kohen and kohen gadol

This week’s parasha, Tetzave, continues to outline the items necessary for the Mishkan, or Tabernacle, starting with the Menorah and going into a detailed description of the priestly vestments. One of the materials necessary for the holy garments is tola’at shani, commonly translated as “crimson wool”. This was a deep red fabric apparently derived from some kind of insect or worm (which is what the Hebrew “tola’at” means). The Torah speaks of this material in multiple places and in multiple contexts. Today, wearing a “tola’at shani”-like red string on the wrist has become very popular among those calling themselves “Kabbalists” and even by secular Jews and non-Jews. What is the significance of the red fibre, and is there any real spiritual meaning to the red string bracelet?

The First Red String

The earliest mention of a red string is in Genesis 38:27-30, where Tamar gives birth to her twin sons Peretz and Zerach:

And it came to pass in the time of her labour that, behold, twins were in her womb. And in her labour, one hand emerged, and the midwife took a red string [shani] and tied it to his hand saying, “This one came out first.” And he drew back his hand, and behold, his brother came out, and she said: “With what strength have you breached [paratz] yourself?” so his name was called Peretz. And afterward came out his brother that had the red string upon his hand, and his name was called Zerach.

Here, the red string is simply used to designate the firstborn. It didn’t work out as planned, for the other twin ended up coming first. The strong Peretz would go on to be the forefather of King David, and therefore Mashiach, who is sometimes called Ben Partzi. Clearly, wearing the red string wasn’t much of an effective charm for Zerach.

Temple Rituals

In addition to being used in the garments of the priests and various Temple vessels, tola’at shani was employed in a number of sacrificial rituals. In Leviticus 14 we read how someone who had healed from tzara’at, loosely translated as “leprosy”, would bring an offering of two birds which were dipped in a mixture containing the red dye. From this we see that tola’at shani (or shni tola’at, as it appears here) is not necessarily the string itself, but simply the red dye extracted from the insect. Similarly, the red dye was used in the preparation of the parah adumah, “Red Cow”, mixture (Numbers 19) which was used to purify the nation from the impurity of death.

The Talmud (Yoma 67a) describes how a red string was tied to the scapegoat on Yom Kippur. Recall that on Yom Kippur two goats were selected, one being slaughtered and the other being sent off into the wilderness, “to Azazel”. This “scapegoat” had a red string attached to it, and if the string turned white the people would know that their sins had been forgiven, as Isaiah 1:18 states: “…though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” Here, then, the red string represents the sin of the people, bound to the scapegoat going to Azazel. If it turned white, it was a good sign, whereas if the string remained red it meant God was unhappy with the nation. Indeed, the Talmud (Yoma 39b) states that in the last forty years before the Second Temple was destroyed, the red string never once turned white.

Red in Kabbalah

In mystical texts, red is typically the colour of Gevurah or Din, severity and judgement. It was therefore generally discouraged to wear red. The Kabbalists often wore garments of all white, and this is still the custom during the High Holidays, a time of particularly great judgement. It was only centuries later that the Chassidic rebbe known as Minchat Eliezer (Rabbi Chaim Elazar Spira of Munkacz, 1868-1937) wrote how having a red cloth may serve to ward off judgement and severity. Another Chassidic rebbe, the Be’er Moshe (Rabbi Moshe Stern of Debreczin, 1890-1971) wrote that he remembered seeing people wear red strings as a child, but did not know why. Still, this does not appear to have been a very popular practice then, nor is it much of a custom among Chassidim now.

1880 Illustration of Rachel’s Tomb

Rather, the red string today has been popularized by The Kabbalah Centre and similar “neo-Kabbalah” movements that cater as much to non-Jews as to secular Jews. The Kabbalah Centre explains that the bracelets are made by taking a long red thread and winding it around Rachel’s Tomb seven times. The thread is then cut into wrist-size lengths, and if worn on the “left wrist, we can receive a vital connection to the protective energies surrounding the tomb of Rachel.” It is not clear where The Kabbalah Centre took this practice from. They claim that the red string wards off the evil eye. While they cite certain passages from the Zohar regarding the evil eye, there doesn’t seem to be any connection to a red string specifically.

The Zohar (II, 139a) does state in one place that the blue tekhelet represents God’s Throne, as is well-known, which means judgement, whereas the red shani is what emerges from the Throne and overpowers the judgement, thus bringing protection upon Israel. The Zohar relates shani to Michael, the guardian angel of Israel, and uses the metaphor of a worm eating through everything to explain the tola’at shani as eating up negative judgement. This is why the famous song Eshet Chayil (Proverbs 31) states that a “woman of valour” has her whole house dressed in shanim (v. 21). She guards her household in this way. (It should be noted that in this passage the Zohar states it is gold which represents Gevurah, and silver represents Chessed. White and red, meanwhile, appear to be aspects within the sefirah of Yesod.)

So, perhaps there is something to wearing a red string.

Bringing Back Shani

The Zohar does not speak of any red string at all, and instead explains the mystical power of the red dye called shani. It is the dye itself that has power, as we see from the Temple rituals noted above. It is well-known that the blue tekhelet dye comes from a certain mollusc or sea snail called chilazon. From where does shani come?

A female and male cochineal bug.

Professor Zohar Amar of Bar Ilan University researched the subject in depth and concluded that tola’at shani is similar to the cochineal insect, famous for producing the red dye carmine (E120) which is extensively used in the food industry. After a round-the-world search, it turned out that a cochineal-like insect is found in Israel as well, and grows on oak trees.

While the cochineal insect is native to South America (where most of the carmine is still produced), its Mediterranean cousin is the oak-dwelling kermes insect. Indeed, kermes was used across the Mediterranean world for millennia, being particularly prized in Greek, Roman, and medieval society. It is best known for its ability to dye wool extremely well. Jerusalem’s Temple Institute was convinced of the professor’s findings, and has begun harvesting the bugs and their red dye in order to produce authentic priestly vestments, as outlined in the Torah.

In light of this, a genuine red string “kabbalah” bracelet—with the protective powers mentioned in the Zohar—would undoubtedly have to be made of wool dyed with kermes red. And according to the Zohar, it probably shouldn’t be worn on the left wrist at all, but instead on the right leg, the body part which the Zohar (II, 148a) states that shani corresponds to.

Imitating Pagans

Judaism is very sensitive about not imitating the ways of the pagans, or darkei Emori. One example of this, as we wrote in the past, is kapparot, which the Ramban (among others) called an idolatrous practice. The Tosefta (Shabbat, ch. 7) has a list of practices that are considered darkei Emori, and one of them is “tying a red string on one’s finger”. So, already two millennia ago it seems there were Jews tying red strings on their body, and the Tosefta (which is essentially equivalent to the Mishnah) forbids it.

The Hindu kalava looks suspiciously similar to the “kabbalah” red string.

In fact, Hinduism has a custom to wear a red string called kalava around one’s wrist in order to ward off evil. This is precisely what The Kabbalah Centre claims their red string accomplishes. Based on this alone it would be best to avoid wearing such a red string. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was one of the recent authorities who stated that the red string should not be worn due to darkei Emori. Factoring in that the red string has no basis in the Zohar or any traditional Jewish mystical text is all the more reason to stay away from this practice.