The Mystical Meaning of Snow

This week we begin reading Shemot, the Book of Exodus, and are reminded of some of the smaller details which are sometimes forgotten. One of these is when Moses asked God to provide him with signs that he could use to prove to the Israelites that he is really the redeemer (Exodus 4). God gives Moses three signs: the first is Moses’ staff transforming into a serpent, the second is Moses’ hand becoming “leprous like snow”, and the third is turning water into blood.

The first sign we later see expanded in the famous episode where Moses and Aaron go head-to-head with Pharaoh’s magicians and a serpentine battle ensues. The third sign would, of course, become the First Plague. But what of the middle sign? What is the meaning behind Moses’ hand becoming snowy? Even more intriguingly, the word “snow”, sheleg (שלג), actually appears for the very first time in the Torah right here. As a general rule, when a word appears for the first time in the Torah, it is there that we find its true significance. What is the spiritual significance of snow?

In his Ma’amar haGeulah, “Discourse on the Redemption”, the Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, 1707-1746) gives a beautiful explanation of snow. We say that water is symbolic of Chessed, life-giving lovingkindness. And when water is exposed to great Din, harsh judgement, and the “life” is taken out of the water, it becomes cold and hard ice. We have previously discussed this idea in comparing Moses—whose name comes from him being drawn out of water (מִן הַמַּיִם מְשִׁיתִהוּ)—and his adversary Korach, whose name literally means “ice” (קרח). However, there is a middle position between water and ice, a balance of Chessed and Din. This is when the Din is absorbed just the right way to get water to crystalize into snowflakes. Now, when exposed to the harshness, the water does not become lifeless and hard, but rather the true beauty of the water emerges in perfectly-shaped crystals.

As is well-known, no two snowflakes are exactly the same (since the possibilities of particle arrangement are mathematically astronomical). That unique beauty emerges when Chessed and Din are properly balanced. So, while water is Chessed and ice is Din (or Gevurah), snow represents Tiferet. Tiferet is the root-Sefirah of Israel. Thus, it is most appropriate that snowflakes generally take the shape of a hexagram, ie. a magen David, among the greatest of spiritual symbols, and the one used to identify Israel for centuries. (In fact, the gematria of “snow” [שלג] is 333, further indicating its connection to the third lower Sefirah of Tiferet, and to the magen David that is composed of a set of triangles.)

In Tanakh, we are told that when Israel properly repents and God purifies us back to an original holy state, He makes us “pure like snow” (see Isaiah 1:18, for instance). Snow is the ideal position of the Jew, in balance between Chessed and Gevurah; pure, ordered, and beautiful. (On that note, it is halachically permissible to a make a mikveh out of snow!) We can learn from this as well that when just the right amount of pressure is applied to the Jew, that’s when his or her true inner beauty emerges. It is therefore not too surprising that throughout our history God has always made sure to keep us a little bit uncomfortable.

Finally, and perhaps most incredibly, the Midrash states that God created the Earth itself from “the snow beneath His Throne of Glory” (Yalkut Shimoni I, 1; Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, Ch. 3; see also Zohar I, 6b). This is based on a verse in Job, where God commands the snow hevey aretz, “become Earth!” (37:6) Snow is one of the primordial building blocks of Creation, a process which was carefully balanced between Chessed and Gevurah. And here, there is an amazing scientific connection.

Snowball Earth

In recent decades, much evidence has come to light that the Earth was once entirely frozen. Across the planet, layers deep within the Earth—even under what are today hot deserts—strongly suggest the presence of glaciers. Scientists argue that Earth was once a “snowball”. (Others say it wasn’t entirely frozen but was more of a “slush-ball”.) Across the globe, it was really cold and snowy, hence the name for the era, the “Cryogenian” period, and the popular name for the theory: “Snowball Earth”. Amazingly, it is estimated that this snowball era occurred right before the Cambrian Explosion, which is when most of Earth’s major life forms initially emerged, roughly half a billion years ago according to scientists. (On the age of the universe problem, please see here, and on the issue of evolution and the origins of life, here.) If true, it would give a whole new meaning to the ancient Jewish teaching that God used snow to create Earth as we know it.

The archaeological site of Göbekli Tepe in modern-day Turkey dates back some 11,500 years.

A related theory gaining traction today is that civilization on Earth first emerged following the Younger Dryas era. The Younger Dryas refers to a period roughly 12,000 years ago when Earth’s temperatures were dramatically low. It was an “ice age”, following which Earth’s temperature suddenly spiked, causing the melting of vast sheets of ice resulting in massive global floods. Archaeologists have found many impressive structures and signs of civilization starting from 12,000 years ago. Even Egypt’s Great Pyramids and the Sphinx are thought to have first been built around that time, long before the “accepted” date.

While this notion might seem like it contradicts Torah chronology, the truth is that our own ancient texts (starting with Sefer haTemunah) speak of “cosmic shemittot”, eras of civilization lasting 7000 years each. Just as there is a Sabbatical shemittah every seven years, with every seven shemittot leading to a yovel “Jubilee”, the universe itself goes through a Sabbatical cycle of seven periods of 7000 years. According to many opinions, we are currently in the second cosmic shemittah, meaning there was already a 7000-year period before this one. Thus, if we count the total amount of time from the start of the cycle, it would be the current year 5783 plus the previous 7000, resulting in 12,783 years of civilizations. This number perfectly coincides with modern scientific and archaeological finds!

Whatever the case, what we can conclude for certain is that snow played an instrumental role in the formation of life on Earth as we know it, just as our Torah taught millennia ago.

Snowball Mashiach

Across the Tanakh, the most common use of the word “snow” is actually to describe a leprous person who was “white as snow”. This is the description used for Miriam (Numbers 12:10), and for Na’aman (II Kings 5:27), as well as for Moses’ hand in this week’s parasha (Exodus 4:6). To better understand the latter—the question we began with above—we have to remember a famous teaching of our Sages (Sanhedrin 98a) that Mashiach will be a “leper”, too! (For an explanation of this, see here.) The hand of the First Redeemer, Moses, becoming leprous was secretly an allusion to the “leprosy” of the Final Redeemer.

In fact, each of the three signs that God gave Moses alluded to Mashiach. This ties to the classic interpretation for why God revealed Himself as Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, “I Will Be What I Will Be”. Our Sages explained that God was telling Moses something like: “I will be with you in this Redemption as I will be with you in the Final Redemption”. So, God gave Moses three signs in order to prove he is the redeemer, yet those same three signs allude to the Final Redemption, too. The staff turning into a snake is a clear allusion to Mashiach, whose symbol is a snake (as explored last week, and here). The Serpent caused man’s banishment from Eden, and the return to Eden will be facilitated by Mashiach. Similarly, it was only after the expulsion from Eden that Adam’s foreskin grew out, and Abraham’s “blood covenant” with God is meant to rectify and reverse it. Now we can better appreciate the three signs God gave Moses: snake, snow, blood.

Going back to the Ramchal, he speaks about snow specifically in his discourse on Redemption mainly because of snow’s messianic and redemptive symbolism. Indeed, Zechariah prophesied that in the End of Days, God will bring about a kipa’on (קִפָּאֽוֹן) upon Jerusalem, a great “frost”, a plunge in temperature (Zechariah 14:6). This is part of the Final Judgement, a great Din upon the Holy City. But then, the temperature will rise again, the ice will melt, and “life-giving waters will flow from Jerusalem” (14:8). Like the Cryogenian period and the Younger Dryas, it will take an icy catastrophe to revive civilization, so the world can then be restored to a perfect Eden. That said, a snowflake having the same structure as the magen David is even more wonderful because, as explained here, the Star of David is really magen ben David, a shape symbolizing Mashiach and the Final Redemption.

May we merit to see it soon.