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[Note: The below is for information purposes only, as is everything on this site. The decision to act upon any of it or not is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those laws which are intricate, complicated, and/or severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]
[Further Note: The information and halakhot that are discussed below are of a sensitive nature and the post includes some graphic language related to both male and female anatomy, menstruation, and sexuality. It is perhaps not appropriate reading for children or youths.]
The following is a public service for the sake of the health of religious Jewish women and the increase of sexual health, enjoyment, and a general improvement of shalom bayit.
I would advise anyone who has not done so already to read my post about when to properly begin counting the seven clean days (shivah nekiyim – שבעה נקיים). That post, when combined with this one, fundamentally transforms taharat ha-mishpahah from a burden into something normal, reasonable, and manageable.
Perhaps the most painful, irritating, invasive, and frustrating component of practical taharat ha-mishpahah is the frequent internal vaginal inspections with a cloth. The standard method that is prescribed by rabbis, kallah teachers, and yoatzot comes from the instructions for performing bedikot as found in the Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah 196:6), which states as follows:
כָּל בְּדִיקוֹת אֵלּוּ בֵּין בְּדִיקַת הֶפְסֵק טָהֳרָה בֵּין בְּדִיקַת כָּל הַשִּׁבְעָה צְרִיכוֹת לִהְיוֹת בְּבֶגֶד פִּשְׁתָּן לָבָן יָשָׁן אוֹ בְּצֶמֶר גֶּפֶן אוֹ בְּצֶמֶר לָבָן נָקִי וְרַךְ וְתַכְנִיסֶנּוּ בְּאוֹתוֹ מָקוֹם בָּעֹמֶק לַחוֹרִים וְלַסְדָקִים עַד מָקוֹם שֶׁהַשַּׁמָּשׁ דָּשׁ וְתִרְאֶה אִם יֵשׁ בּוֹ שׁוּם מַרְאֵה אַדְמוּמִית וְלֹא שֶׁתַּכְנִיסֵהוּ מְעַט לְקַנֵּחַ עַצְמָהּ
“All of these various bedikot, whether it is a bedikah for the purpose of a hefsek taharah or whether it is a bedikah for one of the seven clean days, it needs to be done with an old white linen cloth, or cotton, or clean white wool that is soft. This cloth is inserted deeply into ‘that place’ [i.e. the vagina] into all the folds and crevices until the place where the ‘member threshes’ [i.e. the opening of the cervix; where ejaculate enters], and she then looks to see if there is any reddish appearance. She does not simply insert it slightly, merely wiping herself.”
These inspections are not only difficult to do, but often lead to irritation of the vaginal canal and, in many cases, further bleeding. There have also been instances of infections or injury resulting from them, especially if the woman is the least bit obsessive and repeats them often. As a result of the discomfort, some women secretly neglect to do them, while others simply refuse to participate in taharat ha-mishpahah at all.
As will be seen below, the such intrusive “bedikot” need never be done, but only a simple wiping (of the type mentioned and rejected by the Shulhan Arukh itself).
In the Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah 196:1), Rav Yosef Karo prescribes a practice known as a mokh dahuk (מוך דחוק) wherein a woman, after having performed the bedikah just prior to sunset for a hefsek taharah, packs her vagina with clean wadded cloth for the duration of bein ha-shemashot until sundown. After tzeit ha-kokhavim (i.e. halakhic nightfall) the wadding is removed and inspected for spots of possible blood.
This practice was first recommended by the Rashba (Rav Shelomoh ben Aderet, 1235-1310) and was later adopted by other scholars in practice. Although a mokh is mentioned in the Talmud as form of birth control, it is never mentioned or prescribed by either Hazal or other Rishonim in connection with taharat ha-mishpahah. As such, it is not required at all by halakhah.
Many women find the use of a mokh to be not only uncomfortable, but also self-defeating since on the basis of it many women are told to delay an extra day or two in beginning their count of seven clean days. This very trying and unnecessary contrivance should be abandoned by Jewish women in favor of the relatively simple prescriptions of the Talmud, as codified -in this case – by the Rambam.
Translation of selections from Sefer Taharat Mosheh by Rav Tzefanyah Arusi, printed Makhon Mishnat HaRambam (Makhon Moshe”h – מכון מש”ה), pp. 103-104:
“Chapter 13: Hefsek Taharah (הפסק טהרה) and Counting Seven Clean Days (ספירת שבעה נקיים)
The Bedikah for a Hefsek Taharah
In the era of the sages of the Talmud, Jewish women were strict upon themselves and every amount of blood which they saw – which was accompanied by a hargashah  – even if it was only a drop the size of a mustard seed, and then counted seven clean days from the time that the blood stopped and then they immersed (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Isurei Bi’ah 11:4).
The widespread practice today (in accordance with the instruction of the aharonim ) is that just prior to the time of shekiah (which in their view refers to the concealment of the sun [היסתרות החמה] which is advertised in the calendars ), which is before she begins counting seven clean days, she is mafsikah taharah [i.e. she interrupts her unclean days by producing a ‘proof’ that her bleeding has stopped], that is she checks ‘that place’  with a clean white cloth. Preferably (לכתחילה) she performs a bedikah that inspects the folds and crevices [i.e. of the inner walls of the vagina] reaching to the place which the ‘member threshes’ [i.e. where the penis is inserted and ejaculates during intercourse, which is considered the entire depth of the vagina until the opening of the cervix], as mentioned in the Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 196:6. However, after the fact (בדיעבד), just the depth to which her hand reaches is sufficient, as per the Rema there. If the cloth comes out clean, it is then recommended that she place a mokh  within ‘that place’ for the duration of time between bein ha-shemashot and tzeit ha-kokhavim , and if the mokh then comes out clean she may begin to count seven clean days from that night (as regards the color of the cloth after the bedikah, see chapter 2 above that deals with the laws of ketemim).
However, our teacher the Rambam  did not mention these practices and recorded only the law of the Talmud  alone, which is: On the day that the blood stops, she checks herself by only wiping (בקינוח בלבד) ‘that place,’ and if it emerges clean then she begins to count the seven clean days.  Such was the practice of the Jewish women of Yemen once upon a time, but it seems that currently they conduct themselves according to the more intensive practice. 
The women of the Sefardic tradition, in accordance with the Shulhan Arukh, inspect themselves until the point that the ‘member threshes,’ and the women of the Ashkenazic tradition, in accordance with view of the Rema, inspect themselves only to the point that their fingers naturally reach.”
 A hargashah refers to a bodily feeling experienced by a woman that usually accompanies uterine bleeding, including – and most usually – menstruation.
 The aharonim refers to rabbinic scholars who wrote after the publication of the Shulhan Arukh (ca. 1500 CE to the present).
 The “calendars” being referred to here are the commonly published tables of zemanim (halakhic times) throughout the year. The “shekiah” designated in the majority of such calendars refers to the setting of the sun behind the visible horizon.
 The phrase “that place” (אותו מקום) is lashon naki for the vagina as it is viewed from without. Lashon naki refers to “erudite language,” i.e. delicate pseudonyms used by scholars when discussing subjects related to sex and sexuality in an effort to imbue the discussion with proper honor and to avoid overly graphic depictions.
 As explained above, a mokh refers to a mokh dahuk (מוך דחוק), which is mentioned in the Talmud only in connection to its use as a form of birth control (akin to idea behind the modern contraceptive sponge), but is never mentioned with regard to the laws of family purity. It’s use in this way is a contrivance and a humrah instituted first by the Rashba in his Taharat HaBayit, and later prescribed in the Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah 196:1).
 The terms bein ha-shemashot and tzeit ha-kokhavim refer, in general, to a period of time that takes place at some point after the setting of the sun behind the visible horizon and the appearance of three “medium-sized” stars in the night sky, respectively. Their exact timing is a subject of lengthy and ongoing halakhic debate, but the position espoused by the Rambam, and thus adopted by Rav Tzefanyah Arusi, will be explained below.
 The phrase רבנו הרמב”ם is used in Yemenite writings in much the same way that מרן is used in Sefardic communities.
 The phrases דין התלמוד and דין התלמודי refer to the bare ruling of the Talmud as stated in the Talmud itself, without a view to later additions and [usually] strictures that were created or contrived by later writings. These mekori expressions are used intensively in the writings of both Rav Ratzon Arusi and his son, Rav Tzefanyah.
 The “wiping” referred to here is no different than is commonly used by women when cleaning themselves after urination. It certainly moves the outer labia aside, but there is no inward direct penetration by the fingers, as is usually required by those who instruct women in taharat ha-mishpahah. As Rav Tzefanyah writes explicitly later on in the chapter (p. 107):
“Every bedikah that a woman is obligated to perform, whether she is in a state of purity or uncleanness, she must do it using a cloth made of well-worn white linen, or cotton, or clean soft wool – all of these materials are considered reliable witnesses to her bedikah (cf. Hilkhot Isurei Bi’ah 4:14). According to the opinion of our teacher the Rambam, the manner of performing a bedikah is the same for every instance that one must be performed, whether she is in a state of purity or uncleanness, which is an external wiping between the lips [i.e. of the vagina].”
And as is explained in the note there, the explicit language of the Rambam in Hilkhot Isurei Bi’ah 4:13-15 is that of “wiping” (קינוח, מקנח) only and not of some sort of invasive examination. The point of this check, as stated by the Rambam, is to ascertain that the flow of blood has stopped, not to determine if there is a stray bit of blood in the vagina.
 The “more intensive practice” is actually the word mahmirim (מחמירים) and is usually translated or understood as referring someone or something that is “strict.” However, I chose the render it as “more intensive” to remove the idea that while the practitioners of the Shulhan Arukh are serious in their observance, the Rambam and those who rely on him are somehow lax, which is certainly not the case.
“The Proper Time for Performing a Bedikah of a Hefsek Taharah
According to the opinion of our teacher the Rambam, the bedikah has to be performed before the day becomes dark [ג]. And this was the custom of the Jewish women of Yemen (as well as some among the women of Ashkenaz). However, most of the women from all the ethnic sub-groups (edot; עדות) are very careful to perform a bedikah specifically at the time just prior to the time of shekiah which is printed in the calendars (and this was also the practice of many women of the Sefardic and Ashkenazic traditions, and the practice of many among the Yemenite women living in Eretz Yisrael closely resembled this).
If she forgot to perform the bedikah before sunset (shekiah), but did the bedikah after sunset and before tzeit ha-kokhavim – it still counts for her as a hefsek taharah that was performed during daylight hours, and she may begin counting the first of her seven clean days from that night. [ד]
However, if she performed the bedikah after tzeit ha-kokhavim, her counting is thereby delayed and she may only begin counting her seven clean days on the night of the following day.
If a woman is unable to perform a bedikah just prior to sunset due to either work, travel, an event, or other similar reasons, she is able to perform a bedikah in the morning or the afternoon. If it is clean, this bedikah counts for her as a valid hefsek taharah, and she begins counting seven clean days from that night.
[ג] According to the opinion of our teacher the Rambam, ‘shekiat ha-hamah’ refers to the appearance of 2 stars and ‘tzeit ha-kokhavim’ refers to the appearance of 3 stars. There is a span of approximately 20 minutes between them (one third of an hour), that is between the appearance of 1 star to the appearance of 3 stars. The mere setting of the sun behind the visible horizon is considered to be prior to ‘shekiat ha-hamah’ and is not the same as the time of ‘shekiat ha-hamah’ that is advertised in the calendars. The entire time that the sun is set behind the visible horizon and there is 1 star, it is still completely day [yom gamur hu] according to halakhah because that one star is considered a daytime star. When the second star appears, it is split between day and night since it is considered to be the appearance of 1 daytime star and 1 nighttime star, without the possibility of deciding between them – and it this time that is referred to as ‘bein ha-shemashot’ (i.e. doubtfully day and doubtfully night). Once the third star appears, it is decisively nighttime since there are 2 night stars against 1 day star. ‘Shekiat ha-hamah‘ is a description of when these 2 stars appear, which is also known as ‘tzeit hakokhavim’ (i.e. ‘stars’ indicates at least two). From the Torah [מדאורייתא] we suspect that it is likely too late after the appearance of the second star, because we think that perhaps the third star appeared and we didn’t see it … In the opinion of Rav Yosef Qafih z”l, from the time that the sun drops just below the visible horizon until the appearance of the first star takes about 15 minutes, and between the appearance of 1 star and 3 stars is about 20 minutes, making it [i.e. halakhic nightfall] a total of 35 minutes after the setting of the sun behind the visible horizon …
[ד] See the previous comment. In the Pithei Teshuvot (196, p. 378) it says, ‘There are those who wrote to be lenient until 13 minutes after shekiah (cf. Taharat HaBayit there), and others who wrote to be lenient until 20 minutes after shekiah (cf. Birurei Halakhah, in the name of the Satmar Rebbe; the Nit’ai Gavriel in the name of the Tzanzer Rebbe.’ And he writes in the FAQ there, ‘Those who conduct themselves according to Rabbenu Tam, if they checked after shekiah they ask a competent rav.’
My sincere hope is that this was helpful and cleared up confusion on the subject. Once again, mekoriut wins the day of practical observances of the halakhah.
Be sure to join us as we travel together down the road to an easier, more joyful Pesah!
Join us next week, Thursday March 16th, when we will discuss the question: “How will Judaism survive?” Tackling questions that arise from history, science, philosophy, and some of the functional aspects of Jewish law, we will try to determine a way forward to brighter present and a brighter Jewish future.
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אמר רבא מיחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי
“Rava says, A person is obligated livsumei on Purim until he doesn’t know the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordekhai.’” (b.Megillah 7b)
Many people, adopting a widespread view, interpret Rava here to be communicating some sort of obligation to excessively consume alcohol on Purim until one either loses some or all of their senses.
What many do not know – or choose to ignore – is that there were those among the Geonim and the Rishonim who understood this statement, as it appears within the context of the Gemara, as being nidheh (“pushed out,” “set-aside,” “excluded”) from the halakhah. These posekim maintain that there is, in reality, no obligation to drink at all other than the inclusion of wine at one’s Purim seudah, and much less to get drunk.
The Rishonim most notably of this position are the Ran and the Rabbenu Efraim (see Arokh HaShulhan, Hilkhot Megillah 695:1-5 for a full discussion). In his siddur, Rav Saadia Gaon lists and explains the laws of Purim, but makes no mention whatsoever of drinking or becoming drunk. He merely instructs that a seudah be eaten during the day that includes meat and wine, both which usually accompany any festive meal in the halakhah.(cf. b.Pesahim 109a, Hilkhot Shevitat Yom Tov 6:1). He also nowhere mentions falling asleep from drunkenness (cf. Siddur Rasag pp. 256-257).
However, it is likely that we are missing the entire point that Rava intended to make in his famous statement. The entire enterprise of drinking on Purim in the first place is suggested based on reading the word livsumei as “to make [oneself] drunk.” In full context of the Gemara and the Geonic codes, the basis for such an interpretation is in actuality fairly weak, and is even forced. As was asked above, what if livsumei doesn’t refer to drinking alcohol at all?
The so-called “minor tractates” (masekhtot ketanot) of the Talmud include textual material which dates to the time of the Mishnah which was arranged, expounded upon, and then formally redacted during the Geonic era into fourteen separate discussions. In printed editions, these smaller tractates usually appear just after Seder Nezikin. One of them, Masekhet Soferim, appears just after Avot De-Rabbi Natan and discusses various laws related to the public Torah readings and various sacred books.
In Masekhet Soferim 20:1 (19:1 in some editions), it says:
“And we do not make the blessing on the new moon except for on motza’ei shabbat when a person is happy (mevusam) and in nice clothing…”
The word “happy” (mevusam) is the adjective describing someone who has performed the action of livsumei, used in Rava’s statement on b.Megillah 7b. If we understand livsumei to mean “getting drunk” then we have to reasonably conclude that Masekhet Soferim is instructing one to do kiddush levanah while intoxicated. Such a reading is not only incorrect, but absurd.
The word livsumei means “to make [something] pleasant or sweet” (from the Hebrew word bosem, referring to spices) not “to become drunk,” and it is being used here to metaphorically indicate “happiness,” i.e. the happy mood resulting from the proper observance of the weekly Sabbath was considered – at least by this opinion – to be the best time to recite the blessing upon the new moon.
The Ra’avyah (Rabbi Eliezer ben Yoel HaLevi, 1140-1225) also appears to confirm such a meaning for livsumei. His text of the Gemara was apparently at slight variance from our printed editions. He quotes Rava as saying:
מיחייב איניש לבסומי נפשיה עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי
This reading appears to make even more sense (especially in immediate context, as will be explained below) and very likely means:
“A person must make himself happy (lit., pleasant) to the point that he doesn’t know the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordekhai.’”
In his commentary, the Ra’avyah makes no mention of drinking or drunkenness on Purim, but only cites his unique version of the Gemara (cf. Sefer Ra’avyah, Megillah, Siman 564) which he apparently views as being enough of a straightforward instruction regarding the nature of celebration of Purim.
Probably the greatest and most cohesive proof that the meaning of livsumei is “to makes oneself pleasant” comes from the Sheiltot De-Rav Ahai Gaon (8th century). Divided into sections according to the weekly parashah, each section in the Sheiltot contains both halakhic and hashkafic Q&A that is arranged topically. The answers to the questions asked are selected from the Gemara and the Midrash and often contain readings that do not match our printed editions of the Talmud. More often than not, Geonic works such as the Sheiltot and the Halakhot Gedolot hold more accurate versions of Talmudic passages and are regularly used by Talmudic scholars to solve textual difficulties – and it appears the statement of Rava in b.Megillah 7b is no exception.
In Parashat Vayakhel (Sheilta 67), Rav Ahai Gaon relates the dictum of Rava as follows:
ואמר רבא מיחייב איניש למיכל ולמישתי ולאיבסומי בפורייא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי
“Rava says, ‘A person is obligated to eat, to drink, and to be happy (le-ivsumei) on Purim until he doesn’t know the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordekhai.’”
It seems that Rav Ahai’s version of the Gemara (or, perhaps his elucidation of it) is meant to mirror the pasuk in Kohelet 8:15 which says, “And so I praised happiness (simhah), that there is no good for a man under the sun except to eat, drink, and to be happy…”
The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah of Berlin, 1816-1893), in his Emek HaSheilah to this passage, has a lengthy comment which features his very thorough his assessment of this citation of the Sheiltot:
 He begins by noting that the Gemara in the Talmud Bavli does not include a mention of eating and drinking, but only says livsumei.
 He notes that Rav Ahai Gaon, by first mentioning eating and drinking, is reminding the reader that the main point of the seudah is to “thank and praise” HaShem, as it states in the beginning of the sheilta. A state of thankfulness and praise, says the Netziv, cannot be attained while drunk (cf. Hilkhot Shevitat Yom Tov 6:20).
 He also notes that the only “drunkenness” (shikhrut) that should result from this seudah is the normal “intoxication” that happens in the course of a hearty meal of meat and wine. He makes reference to b.Ta’anit 26b where a kohen does not lift his hands at either Minhah or Neilah of Yom Tov for the reason that “intoxication” is common on those days. Rashi there explains that the reference is to a “kohen shatui” and being a shatui means only that one has had a minimal amount of wine (approximately 3 oz.) – he is not “drunk” in the forbidden conception of drunkenness (cf. Hilkhot Tefillah 4:17). Although still in his right mind, a kohen shatui is nevertheless forbidden from performing his priestly duties after having recently consumed even a single serving of alcohol.
 He cites the opinion of Rabbi David Luria (Radal) who notes that the meaning of livsumei – as it is used in the Gemara directly in the discussion that directly precedes Rava’s famous statement – is to eat sweet delicacies at the seudah (“revaha livsima shekhiha – room for sweets can always be found” – see b.Megillah 7b). The Radal goes on to say that “It has been established for us that any drinking is supposed to be during the seudah, and wine which is taken with a meal does not get one quickly intoxicated,” a reference to Maimonides in Hilkhot De’ot 5:3.
 He then brings the Ba’al HaMaor who, citing Rabbenu Efraim, is of the opinion that, due to the violent narrative involving Ravah and Rabbi Zeira at the Purim seudah, the statement of Rava is nidheh from the halakhah.
 To counter the Ba’al HaMaor, the Netziv brings a teshuvah from the Hatam Sofer (OH, Siman 196) where it is explained that the narrative of Ravah harming Rabbi Zeira cannot be applied broadly because Ravah was a special case (i.e. shani – see there). His special circumstances were due to him having been born under the planet Mars, as it explicitly says in b.Shabbat 156a:
האי מאן דבמאדים יהי גבר אשיד דמא א״ר אשי אי אומנא אי גנבא אי טבחא אי מוהלא אמר רבה אנא במאדים הואי אמר אביי מר נמי עניש וקטיל
“One who is born under Mars will be one who sheds blood, as Rav Ashi observed such a one will either be a surgeon, a thief, a slaughterer, or one who circumcises. Ravah said, ‘I was born under Mars.’ Abaye responded, ‘You also inflict punishment and kill.’”
After hearing the pronouncement about those born under Mars and what their professions will be, Ravah notes that he too was born under Mars and yet he engages in none of these professions. Abaye responds to Ravah that he is nevertheless a violent person. According to the Hatam Sofer, Abaye made this statement in reference to the very incident of Ravah and Rabbi Zeira at the Purim seudah!
That there is in reality no such thing as astrology or astrological influences is the topic for another discussion. However, within the general Persian worldview of the hakhmei Bavel in the Gemara it seems that what took place during their Purim seudah was not due to drinking at all, but was instead attributed to the predisposition of Ravah to violence. The Gemara also states that specifically during the month of Adar is when a person’s individual mazal is very strong (b.Ta’anit 29b), which may – in the view of the Amoraim – have pushed Ravah over the edge toward being actively violent. In fact, when this story is related in the Sheiltot, it entirely lacks the word ivsum (intended as “became drunk” – a word present in the Gemara’s version) before kam Ravah (“Ravah arose [and slaughtered Rabbi Zeira]”) and does not seem to attribute Ravah’s violent episode to drinking at all.
Instead, the Hatam Sofer explains that Rabbi Zeira refused to make a seudah with Ravah the following Purim because there was a clear and present danger (i.e. shekhiah hezika – see there) that needed to be avoided, as it is forbidden to rely on miraculous intervention for safety in the face of practical realities. This is perhaps instructive for us today when choosing what company to keep for the Purim festivities. There are those who will undoubtedly be violent and inappropriate on Purim, but such people should be avoided out of a concern for our personal safety and the safety of our children.
The version of the Sheiltot supports the reading of the Ra’avyah, Rav Sa’adia Gaon, and others who never viewed Rava’s statement as being a reference to becoming drunk, and therefore saw no need to exclude it from the halakhah, as did the Ran and Rabbenu Efraim. Instead, Rav Ahai Gaon in his Sheiltot understands Rava to be referencing a normal, Biblical rejoicing where the Jewish people eat, drink, and are happy (Kohelet 8:15). The word livsumei is either a reference to rejoicing or to the eating of delicacies, as mentioned in the direct context of the Gemara just before the statement of Rava. The narrative of Ravah slaughtering Rabbi Zeira was not due to drinking at all, but was instead due to Ravah’s supposed astrological inclination toward violence, caused by the supposed strengthening of his mazal during the month of Adar. Rabbi Zeira’s refusal to make another seudah with Ravah is also not due to his prior excessive drinking, but due to the prohibition of relying on miracles in the face of practical safety concerns. On that page of the Gemara, the story should be seen as a related tangent – something that is highly common in the flow of the Talmudic discussion – being apropos because of the context of the incident having taken place at a Purim seudah.
It should now be abundantly clear that there is simply no way to justify the drunken and intensely shameful behavior that is perpetrated year after year on Purim in the name of Torah and Judaism.
Due to technical difficulties, the podcast has been delayed until this Sunday when it will be rebroadcast.
My apologies for any confusion or inconvenience.
Thank you and Shabbat Shalom!
Q: Someone asked…
I have heard you mention on several occasions that you object to the kabbalistic idea of there being multiple manifestations of divinity. Do you believe that such ideas are avodah zarah (idolatry)? The kabbalists who employed such language were strict monotheists, and it seems that their depictions amounted to little more than poetic illustrations of the many perceptions of God found within the Tanakh and rabbinic literature. If someone were to affirm such ideas, but still believed in Ein Sof, would you still have a problem with that? Thanks.
A: Thank you for your questions.
I do indeed view the “multiple manifestations of divinity” concept (referred in the kabbalah to as partzufim, or “faces”) as being avodah zarah. The Kabbalists who used this language were not strict monotheists. They were, however, very strict dualists who affirmed a belief in a transcendent god (which they termed Ein Sof, or “The Infinite”) who, prior to the creation, “creates” (or, emanates) another god which is imminent (i.e. finite). This language is explicit in the Zohar literature, especially in its explanation of Bereshit 1:1.
Zohar 1:15a [ד] –
בְּהַאי רֵאשִׁית בְּרָא הַהוּא סְתִימָא דְּלָא אִתְיְידַע לְהֵיכָלָא דָא
הֵיכָלָא דָא אִקְרֵי אֱלהִים וְרָזָא דָא בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלהִים
“With this Reishit (beginning), the Concealed One which is not known created (bara) this chamber, and this chamber is called Elohim (God). This is the secret meaning of the verse, ‘Be-Reishit bara Elohim‘ [i.e. ‘Using Reishit, Ein Sof created Elohim’]”
This passage reads Bereshit 1:1 as referring to two gods (powers, potencies, emanations, or what have you), one creating the other. Incidentally, the Gemara on b.Megillah 9a discusses certain changes that were made by the hakhmei ha-sanhedrin when preparing the first Greek translation of the Torah as requested by King Ptolemy. One of the changes they made was to switch the order of the words in their translation from בראשית ברא אלהים to אלהים ברא בראשית in order to avoid the appearance of polytheism since, due to the common style, as enabled by the syntax of the Greek language, the most important word would be placed first. This being the case, the hakhamim were afraid that בראשית, appearing first in the Torah, would be misunderstood as a reference to a deity. As Rashi explains there:
אלהים ברא בראשית. את השמים – שלא יאמר בראשית שם הוא ושתי רשויות הן וראשון ברא את השני
“God created in the beginning – the heavens, etc. [This rewording] was so that no one would say that Bereshit is a name and that there are therefore two gods (reshuyot, “powers”), and the one created the other.”
The commentary of the Tosafot on this passage says that,
הרי בראשית אינו שם כלל אלא בתחילה
“Behold, Bereshit is not a name at all, rather [it means] ‘In the beginning.'”
The Zohar not only adopts the mistaken reading of Bereshit 1:1, but it also purports that it is the “secret” meaning of the original words.
Just in case you think that my reading of the Zohar is uncharitable, the Kisei Eliyahu (written in the 19th century by Eliyahu Suleiman Mani as an introduction to the Zohar and Lurianic Kabbalah) makes a sharp distinction between the Ein Sof – to which he says it is forbidden for us to direct our prayers – and Zeir Anpin (one of the lower manifestations/faces), which is referred to as “our God” and which, together with his celestial wife Nukba, cares for and governs the world on behalf of the Ein Sof.
From page כ”ו – [brackets mine]
“The principle that arises [from the previous section] is that the First Cause – which is called Ein Sof by mouths of all the kabbalists – is the one who emanated, created, formed, and made all things, and he conceals himself within Zeir Anpin. Therefore Zeir Anpin is the ruler of all the created things, and directs them, and nourishes them, and provides for them with the power of Ein Sof that is in him. Therefore, he [i.e. Zeir Anpin] is our God and we are his people, for our souls are a part of him, and he is whom we should worship, etc.”
From page כ”ז – [brackets mine]
“And so you see that all the directing of the world is done through Zeir Anpin, and everything is by the power of Ein Sof, blessed is he, which illumines him like a soul within him For with his power [i.e. the power of Ein Sof] Zeir Anpin performs all of his deeds, and also with all of our calling out to him. All of our prayers are to him [i.e. to Zeir Anpin] because ‘he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock of his hand’ [cf. Tehillim 95:7]. And just as our teacher [Yitzchak Luria] has written (may his merit protect us) in the book Mavo Shaarim, ‘We are his people Israel and all of us are guarded by Zeir and Nukba, and we are their children, as it is written: You are children of HaShem your gods’ [cf. Devarim 14:1, apparently elohim here is being taken by Luria to be plural and a mystical reference to the heavenly couple of Zeir Anpin and Nukba].”
This type of language is unfortunately not rare, and it is highly problematic.
As for the monotheism of those who espoused such ideas, I would say that while they may have strongly professed a strict monotheism, their writings betrayed otherwise. Rav Yihyeh Qafih, z”l refers to this type of profession in his Milhamot HaShem as being no different than when Christians, after explaining all of their ideas about multiplicity within God, the incarnation through a virgin, etc. then proceed to say “but we really just believe in one God” – it is not much more than lip service to a monotheistic idea. In saying this, Rav Qafih quotes directly from a very important passage in the Moreh HaNavokhim of the Rambam which says,
If, however, you have a desire to rise to a higher state, viz., that of reflection, and truly to hold the conviction that God is One and possesses true unity, without admitting plurality or divisibility in any sense whatever, you must understand that God has no essential attribute in any form or in any sense whatever, and that the rejection of corporeality implies the rejection of essential attributes. Those who believe that God is One, and that He has many attributes, declare the unity with their lips, and assume plurality in their thoughts. This is like the doctrine of the Christians, who say that He is one and He is three, and that the three are one. Of the same character is the doctrine of those who say that God is One, but that He has many attributes; and that He with His attributes is One, although they deny corporeality and affirm His most absolute freedom from matter; as if our object were to seek forms of expression, not subjects of belief. For belief is only possible after the apprehension of a thing; it consists in the conviction that the thing apprehended has its existence beyond the mind [in reality] exactly as it is conceived in the mind. If in addition to this we are convinced that the thing cannot be different in any way from what we believe it to be, and that no reasonable argument can be found for the rejection of the belief or for the admission of any deviation from it, then the belief is true. Renounce desires and habits, follow your reason, and study what I am going to say in the chapters which follow on the rejection of the attributes; you will then be fully convinced of what we have said: you will be of those who truly conceive the Unity of God, not of those who utter it with their lips without thought, like men of whom it has been said, “Thou art near in their mouth, and far from their reins” (Jer. 12:2). It is right that a man should belong to that class of men who have a conception of truth and understand it, though they do not speak of it. Thus the pious are advised and addressed, “Commune with your own heart upon your bed and be still. Selah.” (Ps. 4:5)
(I:50 – Friedlander Edition)
True monotheism is necessarily apophatic, and consists in our taking every measure to nullify any corporeality or spatio-temporal attributes from our conception of God. Doing this is essential to “pulling the plug” on even the possibility of idolatry, which a proper monotheistic conception of God necessarily precludes.
The Kabbalah, however, is not only decidedly cataphatic, but its practitioners relate to divinity in very practical and matter-of-fact ways on the basis of such mistaken descriptions of God. I wish that it were an uncommon occurrence, but I regularly hear the kabbalistic rabbis in my own city make bold and unabashed statements such as, “You’re God, I’m God, everything is God. In Judaism we believe that the entire world is just God” (this is a direct quote). The repeated instances of these and similar statements simply disallow me from accepting the thesis of the kabbalistic apologists. To claim that all of the cataphatic statements made in the Zohar and other mystical books are mere “metaphors” or “poetry” to illustrate certain concepts does not stand up to textual scrutiny. Further, it defies the consistent events of history and cannot be maintained with complete intellectual honesty. While I do believe that some kabbalists (e.g. the Ben Ish Hai) worked very hard to distance the kabbalah from this troubling phenomenon, and they should be respected and praised for doing so, the fact is that the majority then did not, and today still do not, do so.
Another important point about the “poetic” language used to express acts of God in the kabbalah is the switch from kingly decrees in the Torah’s creation narrative to very intense and graphic sexual imagery in the narrative of the Zohar. One of the reasons, in my view, that the Torah expressed creation in terms of statements or decrees (i.e. “let there be,” etc.) is because an expression of God’s will in a decree or a statement is one of the least corporeal concepts we can relate to, being readily translated into simile and metaphor. This portrayal was in sharp distinction to nearly every other creation myth in antiquity wherein the world was seen as either being manufactured from the bodies of the gods and goddesses themselves, or as a product of copulation between various divinities. Even the eminent scholar of kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, acknowledges the sexual mythos inherent in the Zoharic depiction of God in the act of creation, describing it as a “re-emergence” and admitting that such imagery is foreign and in direct tension with the Biblical account (cf. On The Mystical Shape of the Godhead, p. 108).
The purpose of not employing such common ancient mythological imagery – even though we do have a principle of torah dibrah ke-lashon benei adam (“the Torah speaks in human terms”) – was, I believe, to immediately divorce the ancient hearer of the Torah from such ideas. That the basis of creation are divine pronouncements or decrees was also explicitly championed by Hazal (cf. Pirkei Avot 5:1ff) – they never made any mention of supposed “divine sexuality.” The kabbalah, however, reintroduced these mythological concepts to the point where kabbalistically-minded individuals truly believe that blessings, etc. come into the world via the supposed unification of male and female forces in a heavenly realm. So, even though Yermiyahu HaNavi (cf. 7:18; 19:4-5; 23:27; 44:17-22, et al) railed against the worship of Baal and the Queen of Heaven (which featured sexual relations with temple prostitutes in order to encourage the deities to do likewise above), husbands and wives are now taught that the mystical purpose of their sexual relations on Friday night is for the supposed unification of the sefirot of Tiferet (also called “Tzadik” and representative in the kabbalah of the male member) and Malkhut (also called “Shekhinah” and representative in the kabbalah of the female genitalia). In effect, we have in many ways returned to our ancient errors through such teachings. “As a dog returns to its vomit, so also does a fool repeat their folly” (Mishlei 26:11). May we be delivered from all such foolishness.
Lastly, and most importantly, the standard for idolatry is much lower than needing to express cataphatic views of God or adopting a form of Panentheism. As Rambam explains in the opening chapters of Hilkhot Avodah Zarah, idolatry – in its most basic form – consists of merely using or appealing to other beings (or perceived beings) as intermediaries between oneself and God – even if one does not believe that such intermediary beings are themselves gods or a part of God (cf. 1:2-3, Yemenite Manuscripts). Rambam is very clear there that professing a strict monotheism does not rescue one from committing serious acts of idolatrous worship.
Thanks for writing. I hope this helped to answer your questions.
Not long ago, we celebrated the holiday of Tu BiShevat (ט”ו בשבט), commonly referred to as “the new year for trees.” In actuality, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat is not a “holiday” at all. In was only in the 16th century that the kabbalists of Tzefat, most notably Yitzhak Lurya (the “Arizal”), imbued the day with mystical significance and even formulated a “seder” after the fashion of the seder shel Pesah – complete with four cups of wine, a haggadah, and special foods – a rite which has unfortunately become nearly ubiquitous among Jewish communities today. Being a late contrivance that was specifically invented to further the dualist mystical system of Luria, it should be altogether avoided. The more modern modern conception of Tu BiShevat as “Israeli Arbor Day,” wherein children are taught about the fruits of the land of Israel and the regulation of agriculture by the Torah, is a positive development and should be encouraged.
Tu BiShevat is actually nothing more than a calendrical marker created by Hazal in order to facilitate the observance of the laws of orlah. The Mishnah, in Masekhet Rosh HaShanah 1:1, lists Tu BiShevat as one of the four “new years” that takes place throughout the year. It says,
באחד בשבט ראש השנה לאילן כדברי בית שמאי בית הלל אומרין בחמישה עשר בו
“On the first of the month of Shevat is the ‘new year for a tree,’ according to the words of Beit Shamai, but Beit Hillel say, ‘One the fifteenth day of the month.'”
This rosh ha-shanah le-ilan (ראש השנה לאילן) is a necessary institution in order to objectively determine when the fruit of newly-planted trees becomes permissible according to the Torah in Vayikra 19:23-25, which says:
כג וְכִי תָבֹאוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ וּנְטַעְתֶּם כָּל עֵץ מַאֲכָל וַעֲרַלְתֶּם עָרְלָתוֹ אֶת-פִּרְיוֹ שָׁלֹשׁ שָׁנִים יִהְיֶה לָכֶם עֲרֵלִים לֹא יֵאָכֵל כד וּבַשָּׁנָה הָרְבִיעִת יִהְיֶה כָּל-פִּרְיוֹ קֹדֶשׁ הִלּוּלִים לַיהוָה כה וּבַשָּׁנָה הַחֲמִישִׁת תֹּאכְלוּ אֶת-פִּרְיוֹ לְהוֹסִיף לָכֶם תְּבוּאָתוֹ: אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם
“23 – And when you come to the land and you have planted every type of [fruit-bearing] tree for food, you shall consider its fruit as forbidden as the orlah of the uncircumcised. For three years shall those trees be as uncircumcised to you and you shall not eat from them. 24 – In the fourth year all of its fruit shall be holy to, and comprise a praise of, HaShem. 25 – In the fifth year you shall eat its fruit so that it may thereby produce additional fruit. I am HaShem your God.”
The word “uncircumcised” is arel (ערל) and refers to an uncircumcised male, while the world orlah (ערלה) is a direct reference to the remaining foreskin of such males. But what do a tree or fruit have to do with either circumcision or foreskins? This question will be answered in the course of this essay, but first let us consider the overall process regulating the life of a fruit tree.
This wasn’t the end, however. From the fifth year onward, most trees were subject to further laws, such as the bikkurim. These laws applied to grapevines, olive trees, pomegranate trees, fig trees, and date trees – which, together with wheat and barley, comprise the shiv’at minin (the “seven species” of special produce grown in the land of Israel). Beyond these five, the fruit of all trees were subject to the laws of berakhot, which one is required to recite before and after consuming them. In other words, the tree goes from a state of being completely forbidden to being regulated by laws and principles of the Torah. But what is the connection to circumcision?
In Vayikra 12:3, the Torah commands the circumcision of eight-day-old infant males when it says,
וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי יִמּוֹל בְּשַׂר עָרְלָתוֹ
“And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin (orlah) shall be circumcised.”
What is the purpose of this operation? The Rambam says in the Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Milah 3:8, that its reasons are two:
מאוסה היא העורלה שנתגנו בה הרשעים שנאמר כי כל הגויים ערלים. וגדולה היא מילה שלא נקרא אברהם אבינו שלם עד שמל שנאמר התהלך לפניי והיה תמים ואתנה בריתי ביני ובינך
“The foreskin (orlah) is disgusting and the wicked of the world were deprecated thereby, as it is said, ‘For all of the nations are uncircumcised (arelim)’ . Great is circumcision (milah), for Avraham Avinu was not called complete until he circumcised himself, as it is said, ‘Walk before me and be perfect, and I will give you my covenant, between me and you’ .”
 cf. Yermiyahu 9:25
 cf. Bereshit 17:1-2
So, (a) the foreskin is considered disgusting, and (b) it is the sign of completion and the covenant (berit) between the Jewish nation and God.
In the Moreh HaNavokhim (“Guide to the Perplexed”) III:49, the Rambam further explains his view of circumcision from the standpoint of philosophical erudition. He states that, “One of its objects is to limit sexual intercourse, to weaken the organ of procreation as much as possible, and thereby cause man to be moderate…The natural drive [for sexual fulfillment] retains its full power, but is guarded against excess.” In other words, the functional purpose of circumcision is to make it easier for Jewish men to make less use of their genitals’ sexual function.
The removal of the foreskin, beside its influence on sexual function, also has hygienic and practical daily ramifications. Uncircumcised males are often faced with the build-up of bacteria, discomfort, infections, and an extra need to touch or handle their members when urinating. All of this extra touching and the need for daily pre-occupation with and care for the sexual organ is obviated through the removal of the foreskin.
After the circumcision of a male, the surgical removal of the orlah, the usage of that organ is regulated by the wisdom and laws of the Torah related to sexual relationships. So it seems that the concept underlying the “circumcision” of trees and of Jewish males is the same: to lessen its overall usage and subject it to the laws of the Torah. For trees, years in which we can make use of their fruit are lessened and we are commanded to exercise complete restraint for the first four years. For males, their foreskins are circumcised, they enter into a time of complete sexual restraint, and then, once married, are directed to manage their drives and body in accordance with the regulations of the Torah.
Perhaps the imagery of circumcision makes sense when applied by the Torah to fruit trees, but what relevance could it have to one’s “heart”? In Devarim 10:16, the Torah commands us to,
וּמַלְתֶּם אֵת עָרְלַת לְבַבְכֶם וְעָרְפְּכֶם לֹא תַקְשׁוּ עוֹד
“Circumcise the foreskin (orlah) of your hearts, and do not anymore stiffen your necks.”
In the Torah, the heart is seen as the seat of an individual’s emotional as well as intellectual activity. However, it requires development and training and is not naturally governed by principles or intellectual virtue. Without such training, the heart is essentially no different than that which is possessed by animals, operating on a level of reaction and instinct. So, what does this have to do with a “circumcision” of the heart?
In Bamidbar 15:39, we are warned,
וְלֹא תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם זֹנִים אַחֲרֵיהֶם
“Do not turn aside after your hearts and after your eyes, after which you tend to go astray.”
The word usually translated “go astray” is zonim, which literally means “to prostitute oneself” or “to commit illicit sexual acts.” And herein lies the connection between one’s heart and circumcision.
Apparently, when we circumcise our hearts, we train ourselves to utilize it and be pre-occupied with it less, not more. It seems to me that the common conception of the Biblical phrase of “circumcising the heart” having the implication that we will have a greater and more intense use of our will and passions, may be mistaken. When one removes the orlah of their heart, they are effectively making it a subservient psychological organ with which they are not constantly pre-occupied. By virtue of being endowed with our rational capacity, signified by the tzelem elohim, we are supposed to be ruled by our intellects and not our passions.
Reflect on that for awhile.
Perhaps more later,
This Sunday, February 26th, The Road Ahead will be hosting a special guest in the studio to discuss some subjects related to the Jewish life of women: Ahuvah Ilan!
Ahuvah is the wife of YB Ilan and will be joining a discussion about modesty, haircovering in the modern era, and some perspectives on joining the Jewish community, from the perspective of a woman.
It’s sure to be one of TRA’s most interesting podcasts yet!
Join us for a unique and exciting discussion about these pressing issues within orthodox Judaism today!