This week’s parasha is Balak, named after the Moabite king who sought to curse Israel. The Zohar spends a significant amount of time on the mysteries of this parasha. Included within it is a distinct mystical text known as the Yenuka, the “Child”, describing some fateful encounters between the Sages and an angelic youth, who reveals to them profound Torah secrets. (The identity of this child and some of his teachings were explored in the second edition of Secrets of the Last Waters.) In the first encounter (Zohar III, 186a), Rabbi Yitzchak and Rabbi Yehudah are travelling and make a stop at the home of the famous mystic Rav Hamnuna Saba. They meet the Rav’s wife and child, then settle down to rest and eat. This sets the stage for the youth to reveal the secrets of things like netilat yadayim, mayim achronim, and zimun.
In another encounter (III, 188a), Rabbis Elazar, Abba, and Yose make a stop at the same home. The Yenuka senses that the Sages are perplexed by an issue regarding Ammon and Moav (which ties to this week’s parasha, Balak being the king of Moav). The youth segues into a discussion of the mystical secrets of grains and breads. These teachings help us understand why the hamotzi blessing is so powerful and “covers” all other foods. It also explains why the Sages described bread as the most wholesome food, and one that can save a person from many illnesses: In Bava Metzia 107b, for instance, we read that the gematria of “illness” (מחלה) is 83, while “bread” (לחמה) is its anagram, with the same value. This is to teach that eating a simple meal of bread and water—with the right blessings and meditations in mind—can cure a person of 83 illnesses.
The Yenuka explains that when grain is threshed and winnowed, the kelipot, “husks”, are removed. Of course, in Kabbalah, all holy things in this lower world are said to be surrounded by spiritual “husks”, and the mission of the Jew is to extricate the holy sparks within to repair the cosmos. The very epitome of this process is the production of flour from grain. Once the external, hard, inedible shell is removed, the pure insides can be converted into flour, and then bread. Bread is unique because it is human food. Animals also eat meat and eggs, fruits and vegetables, mushrooms, nuts, seeds, milk and honey. What no animal can do is prepare bread. That requires divine intellect.
The quintessential grain is wheat, חטה, which shares a strong connection to “sin”, חטא. Why? The Yenuka explains that the letter ח represents the “male” husks and impurities, while ט represents the “female” husks and impurities. Together, חט symbolizes all husks and impurities—sins—and this is why these two letters do not appear anywhere in the names of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. In the grain, the ח is the chaff, while the ט is the straw. Once removed from the חטה, one is left only with ה, representing God, purity, and holiness. There is no spiritual negativity or impurity in bread at all.
Originally, in the Garden of Eden, there were no kelipot. It was Adam and Eve’s consumption from the Tree of Knowledge that brought impurity into the world. Initially, God’s presence was openly revealed, and His unity was seen within all of Creation. That unity is represented by the letter Aleph, which has a value of one, and literally means “master”, as in the one Master of the Universe. The Aleph itself is composed of a letter Vav (6) connecting two Yuds (10 each), so the inner value of the letter is 26, equivalent to God’s Name (יהוה). When Adam and Eve ate of the Fruit, they brought the kelipot into the world—Adam the masculine ח, and Eve the feminine ט. Now, all the Godliness (א) was covered with חט, creating a reality where sin (חטא) is possible.
The Zohar (III, 188b), therefore, notes that the Forbidden Fruit was actually wheat, חטה! (See also Berakhot 40a.) Of course, it was not wheat as we know it, for it had no kelipah, no chaff or straw, and grew on a tree. Rather, the Forbidden Fruit had the quality and potential of wheat, in its ideal primordial state. I believe this is also the secret behind our Sages’ statement that in the restored Garden of Eden in the World to Come, “wheat will rise up, and grow tall like a palm tree… and the kernels will be as big as the kidneys of an ox” (Ketubot 111b). Once we return to a pure world without kelipot, wheat will again grow on trees with kidney-sized fruit! (The kidney size is based on a prophecy in Ha’azinu, Deuteronomy 32:14, which uses the term כליות חטה, “kidney-wheat”.)
Lastly, the Arizal taught that when one recites hamotzi and eats the first kezayit of bread, they should meditate upon the letter Aleph (Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Ekev). The shape of the Aleph represents that process of removing the kelipah and elevating the holy sparks back up to Heaven: the lower Yud up to the higher Yud.
Putting it all together, we see that in the process of turning raw wheat (חטה) into bread, the kelipah of the חט is removed, leaving behind the divine ה of the wheat in the bread, thereby allowing us to elevate it back up to the א of God. This is the secret of “hamotzi”, המוציא, which literally means “to extract”, for the holy spark (ה) within the wheat is extracted and raised back up to God (א). This serves to restore the cosmos and reverse the original sin (חטא). The Arizal notes one more thing that can help us remember the cosmic tikkun at play: we eat and chew the bread with our 32 teeth, corresponding to the 32 Paths of Creation. With all of this in mind, we can better understand the spiritual power of bread and the hamotzi blessing.