Mekori Q&A – Major Problems with the Kabbalah

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. Rather, they were instead 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.

Kol tuv,


One Story or Two? – Rosh HaShanah and Breishit 1 & 2

[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.]

The Discussion Of Creation On Rosh HaShanah

In the Talmud Bavli (Rosh HaShanah 11a-b) there is a mahloket between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua regarding whether the creation of the world took place in the month of Tishrei or the month of Nissan. While Rabbi Eliezer maintains that the former position, Rabbi Yehoshua is adamant of the later. While both views eventually took on their own respective midrashic implications, only the view of Rabbi Eliezer was accepted for halakhic purposes (cf. b.Rosh HaShanah 27b).

The Baal HaTurim, commenting on the first pasuk of Sefer Breishit, refers to the well-known fact that the letters of בראשית can be rearranged to spell א’ בתשרי (“the first of [the month of] Tishrei”) which would cause the opening phrase of the Torah to be homiletically read as, א’ בתשרי ברא אלוקים – “On the first of Tishrei Elohim created [the heavens and the earth].” This is seen – at least by the author of the Baal HaTurim, Yaakov ben Asher – as decisive proof Rabbi Eliezer’s position on the matter.

As is pointed out by several Talmudic commentators, the actual discussion between these two Tannaim is not when the world was created, but specifically when man – the ultimate purpose of the world – was created (cf. Tosafot on b.Rosh HaShanah 8a, and the Ran on the Rif to b.Rosh HaShanah 3a). In other contexts it is related explicitly that Adam was created on the day of Rosh HaShanah itself (cf. Vayikra Rabbah 29:1, and implied in Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer, chapter 8). Thus, both the creation of the world and the creation of Adam Ha-Rishon have been traditional subjects (among others) which make up the study and spirituality of Rosh HaShanah.

Breishit 1-2: Two Creation Stories?

A discussion of creation and the origins of man necessarily brings one to the first two chapters of Parashat Breishit. However, due to the yearly cycle of sidrot both ending and beginning anew within the same festival week on Shemini Atseret (popularly “Simhat Torah”), it rarely – if ever – is apportioned the same one-week period for its study as is the case with the other portions of the Torah throughout the year. Therefore, it makes sense to take the thematic opportunity in the month of Elul to take a closer look at the account of creation found in the opening chapters of the Humash.

As is well-known, the narratives contained in the first two chapters of Sefer Breishit tell very different stories, each seeming to have a respective account of “creation.” This unfortunately has led many to err and assume that these chapters represent two ancient Mesopotamian accounts of the creation of the world which were placed at the beginning of the Torah by a “redactor” who, being religiously unable to decide between them, ultimately settled on including them both. This position has grown to be almost standard in most academic circles of critical Biblical scholarship. However, I would like to suggest that this reading of the text is premature. The claims of redaction and the presence of separate contradictory stories are made in an attempt to account for the various glaring differences between them. However, a question not often considered is: How different do two stories need to be before we must conclude that they were never meant to be the same story? The common position of critical Biblical scholarship – and particularly the Documentary Hypothesis – asserts that Breishit 1-2 were at one time two narrative with conflicting details, but once the Hebrew of the Biblical text is properly examined and understood in context – being taken at face value – it can be clearly seen that these two stories are actually one continuous narrative speaking about different things. Further, when we note certain general findings in the field of anthropology, we find that the cohesive truth of the Torah comes into uncanny focus.

The Rambam’s Use Of Anthropology

It is often wondered whether there is validity to using anthropology to aid our understanding of the Torah. However, the use of relevant cultural, scientific, and historical information is the hallmark of many commentators, from Rav Saadia Gaon to Rashi and many others throughout the ages of Jewish history.

One of the most well-known usages of anthropological texts amongst the Rishonim is found in the Guide to the Perplexed of the Rambam. He makes heavy reference to the culture of the “Sabeans” whom he understood as being a people extant during the lifetime of Avraham and the Avot. Additionally, he refers extensively to a work cited as the “Book of Nabatean Agriculture” which Rambam presents as giving a direct look into the practices of the ancient Canaanite societies of Erets Yisrael (cf. Guide 3:29, et al).

Using these tools, the Rambam comes to many conclusions about the meaning and intent of certain mitsvot that are unique and which are not necessarily in line with the views of his predecessors. He was well aware that as the world progresses, the knowledge of history progresses and it is therefore not only possible but important to use what is available to us in order to better understand the Torah.

Examples of such conclusions, based directly on the “Book of Nabatean Agriculture,” and are in response to ancient pagan agricultural practices. In 3:37 of the Guide, the Rambam explains that the laws of orlah (not eating or benefiting from the fruit of a newly planted tree in its first three years – cf. Vayikra 19:23-25) are to prevent a certain act of witchcraft, wherein the “Sabeans” (an ancient people that the Rambam is convinced by his cultural-anthropological studies are contemporaries of Avraham) put a certain rotted matter around the base of a tree, accompanied by some incantations, as a way to ensure growth. He also explains there that the laws against kilayim (planting mixed seeds in a field) and the cross-grafting of fruit trees stem from similar idolatrous concerns. Throughout the Guide, but especially in the third volume, the Rambam describes the ancient context and cultures of the Biblical world through his research into the pagan and pantheistic cultures of the time. In his view, there was simply no other way to study and obtain an understanding of the practical reasons behind the legal pronouncements of the Torah.

Breishit 1-2: How Are They Different?

While there are many differences between the First Narrative (henceforth FN) and Second Narrative (henceforth SN) of the creation account, I will attempt to highlight those generally viewed as the most significant.

  1. FN recounts a creation of heaven and earth in six days (1:1ff, 2:1-2), while SN states that they were created in a single day (2:4).
  2. FN begins with “the beginning” (1:1) in a seemingly ultimate sense while SN begins with the world already created (2:4-5).
  3. FN mentions the creation of light, day, and night (1:3-5), the sky or atmosphere (1:6-8), land and seas (1:9-10), sun, moon, and stars (1:14-18), fish and sea life (1:20-22) – SN mentions none of them.
  4. SN mentions a “garden” in a place named Eden (2:8,10,15), four rivers (i.e. Pishon, Gihon, Hidekel, and Farat), specific outlying geographical locations (i.e. Havilah, Gihon, Kush, Asshur), and precious metals and stones that are indigenous to the region of Havilah (2:10-14) – FN mentions none of them.
  5. FN presents a chronology wherein vegetation is created first (1:11-12), then animals (1:24-25), and then mankind (1:26-27), whereas the chronology of SN has first the formation of man (2:7-8), then vegetation (2:9), and then animals (2:19).
  6. In FN man and woman appear to be created simultaneously (1:26-17) and both of them only after plants and animals have already been created. In SN man is created first (2:7), then plants (2:8-9), then animals (2:19-20), and then woman (2:21-25).

It is also important to note some key differences in Hebrew terminology between FN and SN.  The terminology is listed below and then defined in the following section.

  1. Creation – In Breishit 1-2 the operative terms of “creation” are bara (ברא), asah (עשה), and yatsar (יצר). FN uses only the bara and asah, while SN uses only yatsar (with a single couplet usage of bara and asah in the introductory statement of 2:4).
  2. Earth – The terminology used for “earth” are more diverse: arets (ארץ), adamah (אדמה), and gan (גן). With a single exception (1:25 – adamah is used as an Adjectival Noun to describe a certain type of animal), FN uses only arets, while SN uses mostly a combination of adamah and gan (the exceptions being the use of arets in the introductory statement in 2:4-2:5 and in reference to certain outlying regions in 2:11-13).
  3. God – In reference to “God,” FN exclusively uses Elohim (א-להים), while SN uses HaShem-Elohim (הוי”ה א-להים).

From the above list of narrative and linguistic discrepancies between the two accounts of Breishit it should become clear that the differences between them are neither subtle or nuanced.  Instead, there is a clear and fundamental diversion of SN from FN, all the while maintaining central themes between them – the Creator, the world, and man.

Lashon HaKodesh: No Synonyms

When these two accounts are read – especially when in English translation – it is often taken for granted that words used in reference to creation, earth, and God are either the same or similar. Even among those who are aware of the essential differences in Hebrew terminology (some of which are listed above), there is a tendency to see these terms as synonymous with one another. It is perhaps from this simplistic error, more than anything else, that the difficulty and confusion among critical Biblical scholars arises in attempting to interpret FN and SN.

The assumption of synonymous language is only made worse when the difference in Hebrew terminology is ascribed to multiple authors, each of which are supposedly using their own unique literary style to relate the same story in contradictory fashion – an a priori assumption which is based on similar unnecessary a priori ontological commitments to multiple authors. Noting such abrupt differences in almost every aspect, a student of the Biblical text must ask themselves at what point it must be concluded that the two narratives are not telling the same story in contradictory fashion, but they are instead telling two different stories.

The Rambam in the Guide dedicates the majority of the first section to making distinctions between various words and phrases used in Biblical Hebrew which appear to be synonyms but in reality are not – their respective nuances being essential for a proper understanding of both the Tanakh and, by extension, the incorporeality and unity of HaShem. There are places in Hazal which either list different Biblical terms used to refer to the same concept or which comment on the use of two words used in similar passages of the Torah. However, the overwhelming consensus among Torah scholars is that although lashon ha-kodesh (i.e. Hebrew used in the Tanakh) contains general synonyms, it does not contain any true synonyms (cf. Malbim, Mevo HaMahberet and Yair Or). While being generally similar in meaning and scope, words in lashon ha-kodesh always maintain a unique meaning and purpose which makes them wholly distinct from all other similar terms.

For a Semitic language such as Hebrew, one which likely began as purely logographic (each symbol representing a word or idea) and eventually – like many Ancient Near Eastern languages – became a purely phonetic language, it makes sense that every word is unique and has no true synonyms, even if it has a relative synonym. Due to the tri-radical system of roots used by Hebrew – which anciently were a combination of [usually] three logograms – many times words which appear to be generally synonymous are in actuality vastly different from one another.

The following is a list of basic definitions of the Hebrew terms listed above:

[A] Arets (ארץ) – A general term for earth or land, which includes all strata within in it and what is on the surface (cf. Malbim, Yair Or – Ot Alef, 42).

[B] Adamah (אדמה) – Denotes “soil” and is used to refer to the top layers of earth (cf. Malbim, Ibid.)

[C] Bara (ברא) – Creation of something from nothing (i.e. yesh me-ayin יש מאין); not necessarily absolute nothingness, but rather the creation of a thing which did not exist prior (cf. Ibn Ezra on Breishit 1:1, Rambam, Guide 2:30, and Malbim, Yair Or, 10:9).

[D] Asah (עשה) – According to some commentators (cf. Rambam, ibid.), asah is a general term for action which can take on the nuances of other verbs used in conjunction with it (essentially equating it in FN with bara). According to others (cf. Malbim, ibid.), it specifically communicates the idea of completing something.

[E] Yatsar (יצר) – The verb form of the word tsurah (צורה), meaning “form” (cf. Malbim, ibid.), it denotes the application of a physical attribute (i.e. “accident”) to an already existing substance (cf. Rambam, ibid.). In other words, the creation or modification of something which existed previously.

[F] Elohim (א-להים) – Used in reference to God when performing strict justice, i.e. calculating and inflexible (cf. Breishit Rabbah 12:15 & 14:1, Shemot Rabbah 30:13, and Pesikta Rabbati 40. See also Rashi on Breishit 1:1). It is also the plural of eloah (אלוה) which is the general term for “god” or “deity,” being coupled with singular verbs when used in reference to God – the plural being what the grammarians call the pluralis excellentiae (“plural of excellence”) or pluralis majestatis (“plural of majesty” – often referred to as the “Royal We”), of which there are many examples in the Tanakh, even in reference to great human figures or those occupying positions of political power (cf. Rav Saadia Gaon, HaNivhar Emunot Ve-Deot II:6). The word underlying both elohim and eloah is el (אל) which can mean deity, but also “power” or “judge.” As such, term can even be used to refer to human judges or courts (cf. Shemot 21:6, Tehilim 82:1, et al).

[G] HaShem (הוי”ה) – The Four-Letter Name, this name of God denotes principally the attribute of mercy (cf. Ibid.). Known also as the Shem Ha-Meforash, this name most aptly expresses the personality and actions of the Creator (cf. Rambam, Guide 1:61) in relation to mankind, and especially Am Yisrael (cf. Shemot 6:1-2, and see Rashi there).

Macro & Micro: Putting It All Together

Based on the above-listed definitions, differences in general context (also listed above), as well as many other details which are too many to enumerate here, it should be clearly seen that is indeed possible to propose an informed and non-forced reading of FN and SN that shows them to be continuous not contradictory at all.

In basic terms, FN (Breishit 1:1-2:3) should be understood to giving a macro perspective – the overall creation of the world (i.e. every location in the world) – and SN  (Breishit 2:4-2:25) to be presenting a micro perspective – the development of Adam and Havah in the garden (i.e. in a specific location in the world, namely Eden). In other words, it might be said that FN is dealing with physical cosmology while SN is dealing with anthropology.

In this vein, the following understanding can be easily proposed:

FN begins with a generic declaration of the creation by God (1:1) and then proceeds to describe a planet which is tohu va-vohu (1:2) – “astonishingly empty” according to Rashi and “completely covered with deep waters like an ocean” according to Rav Saadia Gaon – with the unrealized potential for organic life. After this brief introduction, we see the stages of development from the perspective of the entire planet (which may or may not be intended to be sequential) in a series of separations – light and darkness, clouds and seas, water and dry land, etc. – and a series of generations – vegetation, fish, birds, animals, etc. In the end, we see the creation of mankind, creating them generically as “male and female” with a divinely-appointed purpose to rule the earth (1:26-28).

SN begins with a declaration acknowledging the events of FN, but then proceeds to announce the presentation of the toledot (“outcomes” or “recorded genealogy”) of the creation of heaven and earth (2:4). It begins with noting that no vegetation had sprouted, but uses a curious modifying noun “of the field” (2:5, ha-sadeh) which denotes crops which are cultivated rather than just general flora. In fact, the text of SN explicitly attributes the lack of such cultivated crops being due to that fact of there being “no man to work the soil” (2:5). Man is “formed” (2:7, vayyitser…et ha-adam, from yatsar) – meaning that there was a pre-existing creature known as man that was imbued with a divinely-bestowed faculty that enabled human spirituality, rationality, and intelligence (cf. Ramban on Breishit 2:7, Sforno on Breishit 1:26, and Rambam, Guide 1:7). After “the” man (ha-adam in 2:7 – note the definite article) is formed, he is placed in a garden (2:8, 2:15) which has fruit trees (2:9) and rivers flowing from it, which flow to neighboring lands which are deemed good for mining various metals and stones (2:10-14). The intention of the man being placed there is to engage it agriculturally (2:15). Shortly after this, various animals “of the field” (2:19-20, see above explanation) are “formed” – i.e., “domesticated” (cf. Rashi and Rav Saadia Gaon on 2:19) – and then given names by the man (2:20), which in an Ancient Near Eastern context implies ownership. A woman suitable for the man’s new pursuits is provided for him (2:21-25) and the couple becomes the model for future marital relationships among mankind (2:24).

The basic components of both FN and SN may also be seen as follows:

FN 1:1-2:3 SN 2:4-2:25
Creation of the human species in general Specific human couple being “formed” (i.e. modified) into spiritual and fully rational beings
Creation of the world and what it contains (i.e. a general perspective) Formation of a “garden” (i.e. agricultural plot) in a specific location, complete with cultivated crops and domesticated animals
God is referred to by Elohim, creating definite boundaries and physical “laws” (i.e. the natural order) as applies to the universe as a physical entity – i.e. the raw natural order God is referred to by HaShem Elohim, creating a defined system of human society, industry, and relationships (HaShem being a name signifying self-expression and covenant-devotion to human beings) – i.e. the raw natural order plus the imposition of man’s rational faculty on that order

Far from being contradictory, FN and SN constitute the Torah’s expression of two different and important beginnings – general and specific – each account complimenting the other.

The Neolithic Revolution

According to modern anthropology, humans have undergone several stages of development. The longest stage of human development lasted from their inception (estimated around 2.6 million years ago) until around 5,000-10,000 years ago, known generally as the Paleolithic and Mesolithic eras. During this time, humans were hunter-gatherers that were basically nomadic and lived in groups, very much akin to packs of animals. They had no developed language, only primitive superstition as their religion (if any), and no technology other than primitive implements made of stone, bone, and wood. They ate only what they could fish, hunt, gather from the wild, or scavenge. Human life continued this way until the time which anthropologists call the Neolithic Revolution.

General estimates are proposed for its subtle beginnings (i.e 10-15,000 years ago), but generally date its most complex and punctuated phase (a sort of “boom”) in the region of Mesopotamia (and particularly in region of Sumer in southern Mesopotamia, the site of modern-day Iraq) between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago. This estimate works well if we understand the current Jewish calendar as being representative of the record from mankind in the “Garden” (retrojected at some point when calendrical years began to be tracked by human society) rather than being representative of the complete span of time since the initial creation – which is dated at roughly 13.5 billion years ago.

Thus, Breishit 2:4-2:25 seems to record (not in the technical sense) the evolution of Adam and his mate, Havah, and their sanctification by HaShem from the primitive, brutish (and one could even say that in many ways it was animalistic) hunter-gatherer mode of life, to a more refined pair of the human species which engaged in cultivation of plants for harvest, domestication of fowl and livestock, the systematic use of language, spirituality, monogamy, and other positive developments of the Neolithic Revolution. These developments set the stage for the eventual building of civilizations and societies (cf. Breishit 3-4), which in turn set the stage for the very purpose of the world: Israel and the observance of the Torah (cf. Rashi on Breishit 1:1).

The ultimate goal of this divine bestowal and direction of human development is to refine a person in his relationship with God and with his fellow man (cf. Rambam, Guide 3:27), leading to the merit of Olam HaBa.

Rosh HaShanah, Teshuvah, & Humanity

“Even though the sounding of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah is a decree of the pasuk, it has in it an allusion [to something deeper], as if to say, ‘Awake, awake you sleepers from your sleep! And arise slumberers from you slumber! Search your deeds, return in teshuvah, and remember your Creator…”

– Rambam, Misneh TorahHilkhot Teshuvah 3:4

The connection between the theme of teshuvah and creation on Rosh HaShanah is that we, as the Jewish Nation, are called by the kol shofar to return to our essential God-given human distinctions and fully acknowledge the Source of all existence, HaKadosh Barukh Hu. The Torah reminds us of our “animal” potential and the need to re-dedicate ourselves to the ways in which we are different than the animalistic cultures which bustle around us (cf. Rambam, Pirush HaMishnayot – Intro to Sanhedrin 10:1) while we labor in the “garden” of the Torah and the mitsvot (cf. Targum Yonatan ben Uziel on Breishit 2:15). In other words, we are not supposed to be merely “humans” but “Jews” (cf. b.Keritot 6b, b.Bava Metsia 114b, and Maharal mi-Prag, Tiferet Yisrael, chapter 1).

Breishit 1-2 give us a deep explanation of our origins. It tells us that without that which we share in common with the Divine, we are merely an animal living in the outward form of a human body, but not truly people. We would all do well to remember the fate of Nevukhadhnetsar in Sefer Daniel (chapter 4) when HaShem removed from him his Tselem Elohim (“Divine Image”) for a period of seven years. The passage says that the lesson for Nevukhadhnetsar in being made to live like an animal was so that he would “know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of man, and to whomever He wills, He gives it.” (ibid. 4:29)

When hearing the tekiot ha-shofar on Rosh HaShanah, may we all awaken from the sleep of complacency, shake off the slumber of exile, consider our ways, return to the Torah of HaShem our Creator, and recognize that there is only One King who should rule absolutely in kingdoms of mankind.

Hotamo shel HaKadosh Barukh Hu emet – The seal of the Holy One Blessed is He is truth.” (b.Shabbat 55a)

“Gemar Be-Hathimah Tovah! – Finish with a good seal!”


To Kippah or Not to Kippah – A Meqori Question

[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.]

While learning with my son through the Qissur Shulhan Arukh – Hazon Ovadyah, we came upon a curious passage regarding the [supposed] modern meaning of kippoth. Now, to be sure, we do not learn the Qissur Shulhan Arukh as halakhah le-ma’aseh, but primarily as a guide for discussing halakhah, as some of the time what it puts forth as law is actually latter-day custom and ritual which one may either take or leave. However, since Hakham Ovadyah Yosef z”l was overwhelmingly driven by the sources and by iqqar diyn in his halakhic approach, this particular edition usually does a fine job of spelling out the basics.

In the section of Orah Hayyim, Hilkhoth Hanhaghath Adham Ba-Boqer (siman alef – siman zaan), I encountered the following statement:


גילוי הראש לאנשים אינו אסור מן הדין ואין בזה משום בחוקותיהם לא תלכו אלא מידת חסידות היא לכסות את ראשו אולם בזמנינו שהחופשיים הולכים ברשות הרבים בגילוי הראש אדם שהוא דתי עליו להזהר במשנה זהירות לכסות ראשו תמיד שיש בזה יותר ממידת חסידות כי הכיפה שעל ראשו היא לסמל ולמופת שמעידה עליו שהוא דתי


“Bareheadedness (giluy ha-rosh) for men is not halakhically prohibited, and there is no relationship between not covering one’s head and the Torah prohibition of ‘you shall not walk in their statutes’ (cf. Wayyiqra 18:3). Rather, it is noted [in the sources] as a practice of the exceptionally pious (middath hasiydhuth). However, in our times where secular people walk around in public bareheaded, it is incumbent upon a religious man to be careful in following the advice of the Mishnah that advises one to cover their head always because there is something more in covering the head than just an exceptionally pious practice, for the kippah upon his head is a symbol and a sign that testifies concerning him that he is [properly] religious…”

Upon reading this, my son and I were both struck with the vast assumption that the final line was making and how, for the most part, it was simply untrue. The kippoth on many people we have encountered in the religious Jewish world are simply not a “symbol and a sign” that they were religious. It seems that in many cases the kippah on the heads of “frum” Jews “testifies” about them, but this testimony is nothing more than `eduth sheqer. With so much blatant dissonance between perceived values and the significance attached to kippoth, I think it is an important question to ask what actual purpose they serve.

In our times, far from being an assurance of actual piety, the kippah has become little more than a sectarian I.D. badge. And I would further contend that, because the Haredi-Hasidic world has decided to focus so much on external modes of dress while allowing spiritual and moral bankruptcy among many of their members, the kippah has essentially become meaningless as an indication of yirath shamayim and instead serves in most cases to project false piety. So it behooves us, in my opinion, to ask the fundamental questions of who, when, where, why, and how Jewish men are supposed to cover their heads after it has been clarified whether Jewish men are even required to cover their heads at all. And, as with most halakhic discussions on this site, we will begin with the statements of Hazal.

Passages from the Gemara


A Jordanian Arab wearing a keffiyeh, a garment essentially identical to the sudra/sudar mentioned in the Gemara.

Masekheth Berakhoth 60b – Gives the nosah for the berakhah of “spreading one’s sudar upon his head” as “oter yisra’el be-thif’arah – who crowns each Jew with beauty.” The nosah found in the siddur of Rav Saadyah Gaon, however, is “‘otef yisra’el be-thif’arah – who wraps each Jew with beauty” and he instructs that the berakhah should be said upon donning a [main; outer] garment that is exempt from ssissiyoth (Siddur Rasag, p.89). A sudar that is not too large may be such a garment (cf. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Ssiyssiyth 3:1). Giving the text of a blessing without an explicit directive to wear a particular garment carries with it the strong implication of “if” a person chooses to wear such a garment, then they must pronounce the appropriate blessing, but if they choose not to, then they [obviously] do not need to do so. However, there is nothing in this Gemara that would suggest that it is required for Jewish men to wear a head covering.

Masekheth Shabbath 118b – Among various hakhamiym stating why they felt that they merited to greater spiritual reward(s), Rav Huna is recorded as saying that his reward will be due to the fact that in his life he never walked even the distance of four cubits with a bare head (giluy ha-rosh). This, too, does not mandate that Jewish men cover their head, and it shows that Rav Huna’s practice was a matter of personal piety, not a universal law.

Masekheth Shabbath 156b – Perhaps the central reference to covering the head within the talmudhiym, in this passage astrologers are said to have informed the mother of Rav Nahman bar Yisshaq that he is destined to become a thief. Because of this his mother famously told him, “Cover your head so that the fear of Heaven will be upon you, and request [Divine] mercy.” The Gemara says that Rav Nahman was unaware of the reason for her instructions (apparently she did not tell him about the astrologers) and that one day while sitting bareheaded under a fig tree belonging to someone else he was so overcome by temptation that he climbed the tree and began eating a cluster of figs using just his mouth. This passage does not address the covering of the head being required, in fact it indicates again that most Jewish men did not cover their heads. However, doing so – when coupled with prayer – can be a tool for personal development and mussar.

Masekheth Qiddushiyn 29b – Rav Hisda is praising the person of Rav Hamnuna, his friend, to Rav Huna. Rav Huna says that when Rav Hamnuna visits he would like to meet him. Upon his arrival, Rav Huna noticed that Rav Hamnuna did not wear a sudar and when he asked him why he didn’t cover his head, Rav Hamnuna responded that the reason was because he was not yet married. Rav Huna is then said to have turned away from him, telling him not to appear before him again until he was married. This Gemara indicates two things: [1] that in some parts of the Jewish world in the times of the Amora’iym men did not cover their heads at all until they were married and [2] that appearing before hakhamiym with an uncovered head was considered disrespectful in the opinion of some, but not all.

Masekheth Qiddushiyn 31a – As mentioned in Masekheth Shabbath, Rav Huna, the son of Rav Yehoshua, is said to have not walked even the distance of four cubits because he stated that he believed that the Shekhinah (the “presence” of God; a created light sometimes accompanied by other physical phenomena to indicate holiness and/or blessing – NOT a manifestation of the Divine itself) resided just above his head and he wanted to be reverent. Again, no directive for all Jewish men to cover their heads.

There are other instances in the talmudh where kisuy ha-rosh (“covering of the head”) is mentioned in passing, but these are the main ones that are generally referenced by the literature. And, as is clearly seen, no universal directive for Jewish men to cover their heads exists as a matter of law.

The Opinion of the Rambam

The Rambam essentially codifies the sentiments expressed in the above sections of Gemara and relates them to the practices of the talmidhey ha-hakhamiym in which they engage due to their exalted status in Jewish society (cf. Hilkhoth De’oth 5:10[6]). In the Moreh HaNavokhiym (III:52), he relates similarly to covering the head, again calling it the practice of Torah scholars, but also noting that – metaphysically – it is a recognition that the Shekhinah hovers just above the head of a person. His reference there is specifically to the spiritually elite who are on a high level of personal piety.

There is one place in the Mishneh Torah where the Rambam requires that the head be covered – during tefiyllah and especially as shaliyah ssibbur (cf. Hilkhoth Tefiyllah 5:5). This requirement is based on the explicit directive in this regard in the minor tractate Masekheth Soferiym (14:15). However, the Rambam is not referring to a kippah, but rather the covering of one’s head with a talliyth gadhol.

The opinion expressed by the Rambam is generally considered as normative across the board, encompassing the views of both Ashkenazi and Sefaradi rishoniym.

The Opinion of the Taz

The Turey Zahav (pop. “Taz” – Rabbi David HaLevi Segal, c. 1586-1667) was a Polish rabbi whose commentary on the Shulhan `Arukh by the same name is one of the central works reprinted since the 17th Century. Segal was likely an admirer and believer in the false messiah, Shabbetai Tzvi (yimah shemo wa-zikhro), although he passed away before the entirety of his pseudo-messianic charade came to light.

In his comments on Orah Hayyim 8:3, the Taz states that it is forbidden halakhically to uncover one’s head – even for a moment. His reasoning is that being bareheaded is, in his view, an explicit practice of the non-Jewish nations and their cultures, being therefore a violation of Wayyiqra 18:3, which says, “be-huqqotheyhem lo telekhu – in their statues you shall not walk.” Although Rav Mosheh Feinstein z”l rules based on the strict opinion of the Taz that one should do their best to keep their head covered whenever possible (cf. Iggeroth Mosheh, Orah Hayyim 1:1), most authorities – including Rav Feinstein himself – reject the position of the Taz and instead maintain that wearing a kippah is a matter of custom, not law, and that covering the head in general is a middath hasiydhuth for men and is not a halakhic requirement.

The Coup de Gr”a

Perhaps the most famous opinion on the matter is that expressed by the Gaon of Vilna (pop. “Gra” – Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, 1720-1797). After examining all of the aforementioned passages and opinions, the Gr”a states emphatically that there is never a halakhic requirement for any Jewish man to cover his head, even while praying. His conclusion (as found in Biur HaGr”a, Orah Hayyim 8:6) is as follows:


Biur HaGra OH 8-6 A

Biur HaGra OH 8-6 B


“The fundamental principle of the matter is that there is not a prohibition at all to have an uncovered at any time. Only in front of great Torah scholars and also during prayer is it the astute thing to do from the standpoint of proper character development (mussar). And the rest of the day [i.e. outside of prayer and standing before Torah scholars] is only for those holy ones who stand continually before HaShem.”

The last line is meant as a reference to those who, of their own personal piety, decide to cover their heads continually in imitation of those hakhamiym of the Gemara who were said to have done likewise. But the reiteration of the sources by the Gr”a, and his exposition of them, is generally taken as iqqar ha-diyn, as was initially stated above by Qissur Shulhan Arukh of Hakham Ovadyah Yosef z”l.

What to do?

Let me be perfectly clear: I am NOT suggesting that anyone change their current practice. I am not on a campaign to have anyone remove their kippah. However, what I am certainly suggesting is that we see kippoth for what they are – a Jewish custom that is both expedient and astute in certain religious and social contexts, but also possessing the potential (under the current general mindset) to deceive. Therefore, kippoth are not “meaningless” as a symbol of Jewish identity in and of themselves, but they are “meaningless” as a tool for one Jew judging another.

I was once learning with a close friend of mine – who softly identifies as “Haredi” – and in the course of our discussion, the subject of wearing a kippah came up. My friend related that his rav, a prominent Haredi-Hasidic rabbi under whom he learned in yeshivah for years, once stated emphatically that if a Jew does not wear a kippah in public, then he may be assumed to be a qal (“a lightweight,” i.e. someone who is lax in their observance of the Torah and halakhah; in other words, such a person cannot be trusted with kashruth or other religious duties). I was taken aback. “Just like that?” I said, “Without any halakhic basis or personal knowledge of the individual?!” My friend almost immediately realized how harsh and potentially damaging a statement that was and started to try and find a justification for it. I told him that his rav had no right to classify good Jews as sinners without sound halakhic basis for doing so. I further told him that if his rav truly upheld such a position, then ironically it was he himself that was the “qal.” To treat someone as a sinner when they are not – or for a contrived reason not based in halakhah – is the classic definition of siynath hiynam, or “baseless hatred.”

There is a fear, I think, that if rabbis assert the actual laws regarding kippoth and headcovering in general that people will become even more assimilated into non-Jewish culture and eventually leave Judaism as a result. I have seen many great rabbaniym, including Rav Ratson Arussi shlit”a, assert that today “it is different” and that we are now obligated by popular [Haredi-Hasidic] custom to cover our heads, especially when making a berakhah or mention a Divine Name, even though no such halakhic obligation exists. But this begs the question that if not wearing a kippah was somehow some sort of a fast track into apostasy, why didn’t either Hazal, the Geoniym, or the Rishoniym address it? With all of the persecutions and the outright practices of idolatry by the non-Jewish nations around them which historically led to assimilation and apostasy among Jews, yet never was there a decree by Hazal made that Jewish men need to cover their heads in order to solve the problem. And if they did not see it as a solution, then why should we?

The fear is that as secularism encroaches daily upon our faith and our morality, we need every bit of sanctity and personal piety that we can get as religious Jews. Ergo, so this line of thinking goes, giving orthodox Jews the room to choose whether they will wear a kippah or not puts us in danger of losing spiritual ground.  We must make a para-halakhic decree and force everyone to abide by it! In my humble view this is a mistaken philosophy. Not mistaken as in a misunderstanding of the sources, has wa-shalom, but rather a misunderstanding of social reality. As noted above, the orthodox world has unfortunately developed into a situation where dress, not (or, at least more than) deeds or manners, dictate one’s level of devotion to Judaism, and where the presence of a kippah – or lack thereof – can determine how someone will be treated and how their family will be treated. Even the mere color or style of a kippah leads others to make grotesque personal judgments – all completely divorced from an actual examination of moral character. Le-`aniyuth da’ati, it would serve the spirituality and moral atmosphere of Kelal Yisra’el if such empty, external, and ultimately baseless ways of relating to fellow Jews were discouraged, not reinforced. Not placing so much ill-founded emphasis on the wearing of a kippah would eventually force orthodox Jews to relate to actually relate to the person and not their choice of hat.

A Possible Way Forward?

I think that if a significant number of orthodox Jews returned to the practice of carrying a kippah with them to wear at times of prayer, religious ceremonies, or for showing respect to prominent Torah scholars – while all other times being without one – it would eventually cause the Jewish world to be forced to redefine their values. A person who is meticulously shomer shabbath, is careful with kashruth, and in all other ways follows halakhah, yet does not usually wear a kippah while in public might be a moral force to be reckoned with. Perhaps.

So, “to kippah or not to kippah?” is a meqori question – with an answer that definitely comes out on the side of not needing to wear one, but the social impact such a decision makes is potentially complicated and someone who chooses to take that option should think carefully about this.

More later,

Kol tuv,


Did Anyone Question the Authenticity of the Zohar?

The Zohar literature, including the Zohar, Zohar Hadhash, and the Tiqquney HaZohar – along with their respective books and sub-divisions – was published over the course of almost 300 years (approx. 1300-1587 CE) and straddles the periods of the late rishoniym and early aharoniym; with the era of the former generally held to have been during the 11th to 15th centuries, and the era of the later generally held to have been from the 16th century until the present time.

Although there was much written on the subject of the Zohar and the authenticity of its content, only a minority of what is extant was authored in the narrow window between the publication of the Zohar literature and the end of the period of the rishoniym. Much of what exists in this genre was written in the period of the early aharoniym and remains very valuable. The main reason for the lack of earlier literature is that the Zohar, even after its initial publication, was not a very widespread or well-known book.

What is available exists in two types:

[1] independent works authored specifically on the subject of the authenticity of the Zohar literature, and [2] quotes from Hazal, Geonim, and Rishonim (e.g. Rasag, Rashi, Tosafoth, Rambam, et al) whose explicit statements in times prior to the Zohar are directly contradicted by, and in many cases preclude, explicit statements made later by the Zohar and its commentaries.

Works in the period of the [later] Rishonim written disputing the Zohar and its authenticity:

  • Sefer Behiynath HaDath – Rav Eliyahu Del Medigo (15th Century CE)
  • Sefer HaYuhasiyn, account of Rabbi Yishaq de-min Akko – Rav Avraham Zakuto (15th Century CE)

Works in the period of the Aharonim written disputing the Zohar literature and its authenticity:

  • Sefer Ariy Nohem – Rav Yehudah Aryeh DeModena (17th Century CE)
  • Mitpahath Sefariym – Rav Ya`aqov Emden (18th Century CE)
  • Shu”T Hatham Sofer (6:59), referring to the work of Rav Emden – Rav Mosheh Sofer (18th Century CE)
  • Teshuvah Me-Ahavah (1:14) – Rav Eli`ezer Fleckeles (19th Century CE)
  • Milhamoth HaShem – Rav Yihya Shelomo Al-Qafih (19th Century CE)

These are by no means exhaustive lists, but they do comprise the majority of what is available.

The following are examples of literature prior to the publication of the Zohar which discuss similar topics:

  • HaNivhar Emunoth wa-De`oth – Rav Sa`adyah Gaon (10th Century CE), This work is a comprehensive compendium of explanations not only of the position of Torah Judaism on hashqafic topics, but also includes the arguments of detractors and the basis for their being rejected. The interesting thing about this work is that it deals with almost every major theme of the later “Kabbalah” which became embodied in the Zohar literature and rejects them as not being authentically Jewish. These topics include the idea of multiplicity or aspects as relates to the One Transcendent God, Reincarnation, and Emanation (assilyuth אצילות) among others.
  • Moreh HaNavokhiym – Rav Mosheh ben Maimon (Rambam – 11th Century CE), a work also detailing the necessity of intellectual and rational approaches to the Torah and the Prophets, as well as explaining the meaning of many of the misswoth and the various reasons behind them. It also deals with concepts later embodied in the “Kabbalah,” such as “secret” mystical names of God and amulets, which are roundly rejected.
  • Ma’amar Tehiyath HaMethiym – Rav Mosheh ben Maimon (Rambam – 11th Century CE), In the first section, the Rambam accounts for the misunderstanding of his own teachings regarding the resurrection from the dead by bringing an example of a gross misunderstanding of God’s own words in the Shema` (Devariym 6:4). He refers to the “belief of the dualists” who believe that the three mentions of the Divine Name in the Shema` (i.e. HaShem, Eloheynu, HaShem) are three separate forces/entities/modes of the Divine (halilah wa-has) which supposedly comprise a composite unity. The Rambam of course rejects this reading of the Shema` in his statements there. However, the Zohar (2:53b) espouses just such a heretical interpretation. This passage was ironically used by later Christian Hebraists and the Catholic church in justifying the supposed validity of their belief in a “Trinity” from “Jewish” teachings.
  • Rashi and Tosafoth on b.Meghiyllah 9a (11th, 12th-13th Centuries CE), In an interesting passage about the request of King Ptolemy (Talmay HaMelekh) that the hakhmey HaSanhedriyn write for him a copy of the Torah in Greek, the Gemara explains that several deliberate changes to the text were made by them while translating in order to avoid certain polytheistic errors. Two of the notable changes were made to Bereshiyth 1:1 and 1:26; the former change being that instead of the text reading “Bereshiyth bara Elohiym” they wrote “Elohiym bara bereshiyth,” and the later being that in place of “Na`aseh adham” they wrote “E`aseh adham.” In the first instance – since syntax in the Greek language which often puts the most important noun in the sentence first and sorts out the meaning and parts of speech via case endings – the hakhamiym did not want the Greeks to think that “Bereshiyth” was the name of one deity which created a second deity named “Elohiym” (halilah) and that there are thus multiple powers in Heaven (halilah wa-has), so says Rashi. The Tosafoth add to this by saying that “Bereshiyth eyno shem kelal ela ba-tehiylah” meaning that the term “bereshiyth” is not a name at all, but is rather just the Torah’s way of saying “In the beginning.” The second change was made due to the presence of the plural form (i.e. “Let us make man”), lest again the Greeks think that the Torah promotes polytheism and that multiple gods created mankind (halilah – see Rashi there). However, the Zohar – in commenting on these very passages – adopts the mistaken and erroneous views which these changes were specifically intended to negate. On Bereshiyth 1:1 the Zohar says that “Reshiyth” is the name of one of the partzufiym/sefiyroth and it creates another/emanates another partzuf/sefiyrah named “Elohiym” which it can then inhabit. On Bereshiyth 1:26, the Zohar depicts two of the partzufiym (faces/personalities which supposedly make up the Divine), “Abba” and “Imma,” arguing whether or not they should make man – “Abba” is con while “Imma” is pro – and in the end “Imma” says that although mankind will sin against us “Let us make man” anyhow. The implications of these interpretations in light of the Gemara and its commentators are wide-reaching.

There are many more things which could be listed here, but much of it is already written in the works mentioned above.

More on this later,

Kol tuv,



Why is the Zohar Considered Authoritative? – A Mekori Perspective

According to the hakdamah of the Mishneh Torah, it seems that any book(s) or commentary(s) which may have arisen after the hatimat ha-talmud (“the sealing of the Talmud” – see there) – such as the writings of the Geonim (or even the Mishneh Torah itself) – are measured by their faithfulness to the halakhic and aggadic literature which was bequeathed to us by Hazal and their students (i.e. MishnahTosefta, Mekhiltot, Sifra, Sifre, Bavli, Yerushalmi, and the Tannaitic midrashim/baraitot). Much like the prophets were tested against the collective mesorah up until their time, and by abrogation of it they themselves were rejected, so also are books composed since the close of the Talmudic age are in need of similar such “testing.”

Now, granted that there are two types of potential errors in such books:

  1. Unintentional errors of interpretation or logical understanding, etc. – In other words, a certain talmid hakhamim codifies the halakhah as he sees it and explains hashkafah as he understands it from Tanakh and Hazal, but perhaps the halakhah is not like him or perhaps he misunderstands such issues as the nature of suffering or the function of sekhar ve-onesh (or similar issues). These types of potential “mistakes” do not necessarily disqualify the author. Rather, we see that the attempt to understand Torah is a process wherein one is obligated to accept that different views of Torah from the sources is not only possible but probable.
  2. Departures from mesorah or attempts to replace it/abrogate it – Should a new book or treatise be written that stands in opposition to the halakhah or hashkafah as expressed by Tanakh and Hazal – especially that which seeks not to understand but to supplant – is to be rejected. Examples are “new revelations” that, rather than seek to understand the statements of Hazal in aggregate, attempt to make the case for “secret teachings” or “hidden meanings” that are in contradiction to established mesorah – such books and their authors are to be rejected.

[NOTE: I am aware that the above are fairly general and that it could be discussed in more detail, such as when to set aside midrashim in favor of peshat or outdated “scientific” ideas in order to incorporate new ones. However, for now these definitions should suffice for this discussion.]

Each of the above certainly has limitations. For example, and perhaps most importantly, there are ideas about which alternate views are not acceptable and cannot be tolerated, such as the nature of the yihud HaShem, or the fact of a physical (read, bodily) resurrection, or the permanence and immutability of the Torah. Diverging from such foundational tenets (and those like them) define apikorsim and minim, and the Rambam – drawing on both the text of the Mishnah and the logical outcomes of rational monotheism – composed his 13 Foundations of Jewish faith to show us where our speculation may go before it is undone and we undermine ourselves (cf. Hilkhot Teshuva 3:14-17).

Many books have come on the scene – both pre-Talmudic and post – claiming to be authentic to our mesorah, or to be an extension of it, or even to replace it. Examples include the “New Testament,” the “Qur’an,” the “Kebra Nagast,” the books of the Shabbateans (followers of Shabbetai Tzvi, yimah shemo ve-zikhro), and many others. Many of these works were accepted by great and learned people. If Shelomoh HaMelekh could worship idols, if Elisha ben Avuyah (“Aher“) could accept the idea of ribbui reshayot from the books of the dualists, if Yohanan Kohen Gadhol could become a Tzaduki at the end of his life, if the Hakham Tzvi z”l could accept Shabbetai Tzvi (yimah shemo) as the mashiah, and if the Hafetz Hayim z”l could be led to accept the blatantly forged (supposedly lost) Seder Kodashin of the Talmud Yerushalmi (to the point of changing his halakhic practices based on it), then the fact that the Zohar was accepted by many great scholars when it first published should neither surprise us nor become the sure basis for its acceptance.

As an aside, one of the most common mistakes is the equation of “kabbalah” with the Zohar literature itself; if the latter is rejected, it is thought, then the former ceases to exist. Such an idea is patently false, but nevertheless demonstrates how entrenched in the minds of contemporary Jews is the idea that all authentic spirituality or “mysticism” in Judaism is inextricably linked to the ideas expressed in the Zohar. The truth of the matter is that the bodies of knowledge known as maaseh merkavah (“Workings of the Chariot” – i.e. metaphysics) and maaseh bereshit (“Workings of the Creation” – i.e. physics) – as mentioned in the Mishnah, Masekhet Hagigahpreceded the 13th century publication of the Zohar by [possibly] thousands of years, as did the Sefer Yetzirah. The Sefer Yetzirah is referred to and expounded by the Kuzari and Saadiah Gaon, among others – all before the Zohar. The Rambam himself makes veiled references to these same ideas in his Moreh HaNavokhim, expounding (where possible) mystical and philosophical concepts related to both maaseh bereshit and maaseh merkavah – again, all before anyone had ever heard of the Zohar.

But this leads to another fact that is often overlooked in the history of the Zohar – many kabbalists at the time of its publication (and afterward) also rejected it as being authentic. Rabbi Avraham Zacuto, in his Sefer HaYuhasin, relates the extant portion of an account written by the well-known kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak De-Akko (a talmid of the Ramban) who traveled to the home of Mosheh De Leon and offered to purchase the original manuscripts of the Zohar from his widow, whereupon she confessed to him that there were no original manuscripts and that her late husband had forged it and attributed it to Shimon ben Yohai in an effort to gain acclaim and a higher purchase price. Other well-known kabbalists who rejected the Zohar as an authentic book of mesorah were Rabbi Yaakov Emden and the Hatam Sofer (who was the student of the famed and intense mystic, Rabbi Nathan Adler). Their use of language is strong against the Zohar, using words like “forgery” and “lies” to describe it. All the while, however, these men and others maintained a highly-developed mystical system based on earlier literature.

The facts are clear to all who are willing to take an honest look: the Zohar contradicts a great many things which came before it in both the realm of halakhah and hashkafah – even contravening such things that are “off limits” halakhically, such as the nature of the yihud HaShem. And these things are well-known, they are not my invention nor the invention of secular scholars seeking to defame religion. They have been discussed and wrestled with for hundreds of years by rabbis and scholars in every area of Jewish literature. It has been proven that the Zohar borrows and incorporates sections of Rashi, Tosafot, the Rambam, and other works which preceded it. It also contains a vast amount of original material, much of which is controversial and contrdictory when compared to works possessing an established mesorah from Hazal.

Nevertheless, it is true that there are genuinely positive statements and spiritual truths expressed in the Zohar. However, it is also true that there are explicit statements of polytheism and dualism expressed there as well. So, the operating principle (it seems) is that anything valuable in the Zohar may already be found in uncontested and authentic works that preceded it, and anything questionable is of its own invention. Such an observation makes the Zohar superfluous and the attempt to incorporate it into the corpus of Jewish literature as being arguably more trouble that it is worth – a fact that is well-attested to by Jewish theological history since its publication in the 13th Century.

The continuous heretical movements which base themselves upon it (e.g. the Shabbateans) and the seemingly endless stream of charlatans offering miracle cures, instant wealth, and super powers of protection to those who embrace the Zoharic kabbalistic system are a proof that giving Zohar a prime place in Judaism has proven almost disastrous. It appears also to be the case that the positive parts of the message endorsed by hasidism (i.e. that every Jew is important, serving God with joy, etc.) could have been brought about without the aid of Zoharic literature – in fact, such ideas already existed outside the dark, pietistic world of the mitnagdim in other parts of the [non-Ashkenazi] Jewish world.

The historical Jewish response to the Zohar can – in my estimation – be divided into three basic approaches:

  1. Full acceptance – The full acceptance of the Zohar and its attendant literature as being 100% authentic is most aptly characterized by the Hasidic movement(s) and the North African Sefaradim. Such adherents hold it to be the holiest text in Judaism and that it should be used to “correct” (read, supersede) all other texts – especially those which came before it – which are viewed as being “ignorant” or “unaware” of the secret tradition that it holds.
  2. Modified acceptance – This approach, most commonly associated with the Gr”a and his talmidim, is to effectively accept the Zohar, but to reject its commentaries. In other words, the Gr”a took great liberties to “re-read” (however, I am sure that he himself did not see it that way) the text of the Zohar in order to make it fit into the established mesorah. By doing so, he rejected many of the ideas of Lurianic kabbalah, and sought new readings (many of which are either based on his own emendations of the text or forced readings of the plain meaning of the Aramaic) to remove conflict and controversy. However, in doing so, the Gr”a also “re-reads” the text of the Gemara in certain places, and in some cases he reverses generations of clear and uncontested pesak halakhah from the Gemara to accommodate the clear “ruling” of the Zohar to the contrary (one example of this is the wearing of tefillin on holo shela-moed).
  3. Full rejection – Characterized most aptly by the 19th-century Dor De`ah movement in Yemen led by Rav Yihyah Qafih z”l. Rav Qafih authored a book entitled Milhamot HaShem (“The Wars of HaShem”) wherein he effectively demonstrates (like other hakhamim before him) that the Zohar simply cannot be a product of Hazal and their students, is subsequently not an authentic work of mesorah, and therefore must be rejected. He brings a myriad of proofs for this.  The Darda`im (i.e. adherents to the teachings of Mori Yihyah, also known affectionately as “Mori HaYashish” z”l) and other groups choose to rely instead on the works of previously established authors for spirituality, such as the Rambam (Moreh HaNavokhim), Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi (Kuzari), Rabbi Bahyah ibn Pekuda (Hovot HaLevavot), Rav Saadiah Gaon (Pirush al Sefer HaYetzirah and HaNivhar Be-Emunot Ve-Deot), and others.

We have a principle of “lo ba-shamayim hi“, i.e. that the Torah is not “in heaven” and therefore we do not base our belief in any certain book or teacher based on purported “miracles” or claims of special “revelation” or “prophecy.” Instead, we are charged with being faithful to the texts and the mesorah that we have to judge all that comes after it. This is why the latter two approaches (i.e. any approach beyond blind acceptance) take measures to study the relevant sources in order to formulate their opinions, rather than seeking a sign or relying on the fact that the likes of the Arizal gave it their approbation.

The Zohar has been accepted – and continues to be so – based almost solely on “mob rule” as it were. In other words, since it has been read and used by a lot of Jews for a long time, most Jews simply assume that it “must” be true. In reality, however, there is no basis for its acceptance, but rather to the contrary. And as has been mentioned, there is nothing on the part of its supporters to substantiate their claims other than dogmas and the attribution of “special powers” or “revelations” or mystical “prophecy” on the part of those famed historical figures who did accept it, while attributing error and arrogance to those scholars who argued against it. It is no different than the many false religious movements that have arisen in world history; they begin with charismatic and bold claims based essentially on nothing and demand blind obedience from all with whom they speak. But in the end, their claims are empty and their reasoning is circular. And, more importantly, they are out of line with the authentic mesorah of Hazal.

Have you ever wondered why those who merely question the authenticity of the Zohar are threatened with excommunication and charges of heresy, while those who propose that a section of the Gemara should be emended (and other such normal acts of Torah scholarship) are met with none of these? Le-aniyut da’ati, it seems that those without truly substantive arguments have nothing left but threats of Divine judgment and ad hominem attacks. Sound familiar?

And PLEASE do not take my word for it – go and see for yourself. Investigate the matter thoroughly and with an open mind. If you come thereby to different conclusion, then you will have no threats and suffer no humiliation from me. And I certainly will not threaten you with a charge of “arrogance” for not seeing things the way that this or that scholar has seen them.

UPDATE: Rabbi Berel Wein (may he live and be well) gives an honest historical talk on the subject of the Zohar. HERE is the link to a short version and HERE is the link to the full lecture. They are both well-worth watching. 


Parashat Vayetze: HaMakom – God’s Place or the Place of God?

From Parashat Vayetze arises the source for the well-known title for God Ha-Makom (“The Place”).  This title is traditionally used in the Haggadah Shela-Pesah and is sometimes translated into English as “the Omnipresent.” But how does the Hebrew phrase “the place” give rise to the concept of omnipresence?

The popular teachings of the Kabbalah and Hasidism have postulated that HaMakom is a veiled reference to Panentheism and the central Lurianic doctrine known as “tzimtzum” (i.e. that God somehow made a “void” in the midst of himself into which he placed the created universe). This idea, of course, is completely without basis within the teachings of Hazal and its explanation entails the setting aside of several tenets of Judaism and principles of pure monotheism. This misunderstanding of the meaning of HaMakom is based on a passage from the Midrash Rabbah that says “He is the place of the world, but the world is not His place” (Bereshit Rabbah 68,10). But does this passage really support a panentheistic view of God and creation?

On the surface, it really does seem to. However, there are many places where the exponents of the Kabbalah take passages of the Torah, Na”Kh, talmud, and midrashim out of context and re-interpret them to their own ends. One example is that of Iyov 31:2 which refers to “a portion of God above.” The kabbalists (and subsequently the leaders of Hasidism) made the bold claim that this “portion of God” being referred to is the soul which is actually composed of God Himself (and specifically the highest level of the soul known as yehidah – taken from yet another passage of the midrash which lists five names of the soul in the Tanakh). However, when the passage is looked at in context, we see that it has absolutely nothing to do with the human soul. The passage in its context reads:

בְּרִית כָּרַתִּי לְעֵינָי וּמָה אֶתְבּוֹנֵן עַל בְּתוּלָה. וּמֶה חֵלֶק אֱלוֹהַּ מִמָּעַל וְנַחֲלַת שַׁדַּי מִמְּרֹמִים? הֲלֹא אֵיד לְעַוָּל וְנֵכֶר לְפֹעֲלֵי אָוֶן? הֲלֹאהוּא יִרְאֶה דְרָכָי וְכָל צְעָדַי יִסְפּוֹר?


“I have made a covenant with my eyes, how can I then look upon a virgin? And what will be my portion of God above, the inheritance of the Almighty from on high? Is it not misfortune to the unjust and disaster to the doers of iniquity? Does He not see my ways and count all of my steps?” (Iyov 31:1-4)

This passage has nothing to do with souls, pieces of God, or the Kabbalah. Rather, it is Iyov’s acknowledgment of God’s punishment of the wicked, a punishment which he would “inherit” if he should act wickedly in his life.

The contention that this passage from the Midrash Rabbah somehow supports a panentheistic view of God is similarly contrived, as we will see. However, upon a closer look at the entire passage, it becomes clear what the intention of Hazal was when they constructed this instructive allegory.


BR 68-10a

BR 68-10b


And [Ya`akov] reached the place – Rav Huna said in the name of Rabbi Ammi, For what reason do we use a kinnui for the name of the Holy One Blessed is He, calling him Makom [“Place”]? Because while He is the place of the world, the world is not His place – from what is written (Shemot 32) ‘Behold, [there is] a place with Me…’ So, the Holy One Blessed is He is the place of the world, and the world is not His place.’

Rabbi Yitzhak said, ‘It is written (Devarim 32) – The Eternal God is a dwelling-place.[i] We do not know if The Holy One Blessed is He is the dwelling-place of the world or if His world is His dwelling-place. [The matter is clarified] from what is written (Tehillim 90), ‘Adhonoy, You are a dwelling-place…’ So, The Holy One Blessed is He is the dwelling-place of the world and His world is not His dwelling-place.’

Rav Abba bar Yudan said, ‘[This may be compared] to a soldier who is riding on a horse and his weaponry draped on either side. The horse is secondary to the rider, the rider is not secondary to the horse, as it says (Havakuk 3), ‘For you ride upon Your horses.'”


[i] “Ma`onah Elohei Kedem – מענה אלהי קדם” can apparently be understood as either “A dwelling-place [for] the Eternal God” or “The Eternal God is a dwelling-place.” And the word translated “dwelling-place” does not just indicate a place to exist, but a “refuge” or “abode.”

We can already see that the simplistic quotation of the phrase “He is the place of the world” does not carry with it the panentheistic meaning that has been attributed to it. In fact, such a reading should be clearly undermined by the second part of the statement, which says, “…the world is not his place” since Panentheism maintains the very real immanence of God throughout the entire world.

The commentaries below the text are divided with one giving the standard kabbalistic notions and the other, the Matanot Kehunah, gives a simpler approach, even relating a portion of it to the version found in the Talmud Yerushalmi.


Matanoth Kehunah - BR 68-10


“The girsa in the Yalkut reads: ‘…and His world is not His place. Rabbi Yossi ben Halafta said: We do not know if The Holy One Blessed is He is the place of the world or if the world is His place.’ From what is written etc. – That is to say, from what is written ‘Behold, there is a dwelling-place with Me’ it is inferred that the place [being referred to] is located ‘with Him’ and not that He is in the place [referred to]. Who is riding etc. – It is a remez that hollow spaces of the world and everything that they contain are secondary to Him. And in the Yerushalmi it reads: ‘The horse does not whip the soldier, rather the soldier whips the horse.’ “

It is abundantly clear that this midrashic passage was meant to communicate something other than Panentheism and perhaps even its opposite, i.e. that we should not think that the name HaMakom indicates that HaShem is within physical space (which is not possible because, as the Rambam clearly writes אינו גוף ולא כח בגוף), but rather that everything is secondary to him and that he is metaphrically our dwelling-place of refuge. We turn to God in times of difficulty because the entire world is subject to him and we turn to him in times of happiness and blessing for the same reason. There are many passukim in the Tanakh that communicate this same idea:

  • Tehillim 91:1-4
  • Tehillim 46:1-12
  • Tehillim 18:1-7
  • Devarim 33:27
  • Mishlei 14:26
  • Mishlei 18:10
  • Yesha`yahu 25:1-4
  • Yerimiyahu 16:19
  • and others…

Like a horse is ridden and steered by its rider, HaShem “rides” on the world in complete domination of it, steering it and whipping it in direction of his will. He does not dwell within the world, being somehow contained in it, but rather the world exists within space and is limited by the will of HaShem. If we think about it, all the names we use for God – both of Biblical and Rabbinic origin – are meant to communicate the ultimate position, power, and authority of HaShem. None of them refer to where he supposedly is located since “location” – like color, smell, or body parts – simply have no relevance to him, the Supreme Master of everything.

This message is as pertinent today as it was in the ancient world. No matter how advanced we get as a species, we still cannot escape the primitive pitfalls of attributing physical limitations or properties to the One Transcendent Creator of the universe, may he be blessed.

During Pesah we think of Him as HaMakom – the master of the world who bent all the forces of nature to our benefit and programmed the miracles of the exodus into the world from the six days of creation.

UPDATE: There entire concept of God occupying physical space, or having any category of spatial reference apply to him was completely rejected by pure Judaic monotheism. Most traditional commentators on the Humash at Bereshit 28:11 completely ignore the reference to ha-makom as explained by the midrashic passage noted above. Instead, the usual interpretation presents the words vayifga ba-makom as a reference to something other than a name of God. I have presented the commentary of each one below in a very abbreviated fashion to illustrate this point.

  • Rav Saadia Gaon understands vayifga ba-makom as a reference to that particular location, not God.
  • Rashi understands ba-makom as referring to an actual place and not as a name for God. He interprets vayifga, like the Midrash, as a veiled reference to Yaakov praying and thereby instituting Arvit, the evening prayer. Makom is viewed here as referring to God (i.e. he approached God in prayer), but it is not explained according to Panentheism.
  • The Baal HaTurim sees the three mentions of the word makom as a hint (remez) pointing toward the three pilgrimage festivals to be instituted later on that specific location (i.e. Mount Moriah).
  • Sforno breaks apart vayifga ba-makom into two phrases: vayifga, which indicates that Yaakov did not intend to necessarily end up there, and ba-makom which supposedly alludes to rest stops that were commonly on the roads between cities in ancient times.
  • Daat Zekenim views the language vayifga ba-makom as a reference to the evening prayer, much like Rashi.
  • Rashbam simply states that vayifga ba-makom means that Yaakov happened to reach a location outside the city of Loz.
  • The Kli Yakar cites various sayings of Hazal to the effect that vayifga ba-makom refers to Yaakov reaching a special place which would in the future become the site of the Beit HaMikdash and the source of blessing for the entire world. He further explained that vayifga ba-makom is a certain reference to prayer and the institution of Arvit.
  • The Ohr HaHayim explicitly says that the peshuto shel-mikra is that vayifga ba-makom refers to a certain place for Yaakov to dwell. He then proceeds to explain that the equation of the makom mentioned in the verse with Mount Moriah does not present a contradiction.

None of these explain “Makom” as a special name of God indicating his immanence in all of creation. Those that seem to uphold the reading of “Makom” as a reference to God, do so only in an ancillary sense with regard to their reading of vayifga ba-makom as an indication of prayer by Yaakov. It can only be assumed that they understood “Makom” as properly explained by the Midrash Rabbah: an indicator of God’s supreme rule in every location, and not as an allusion to Panentheism.

In fact, the Ibn Ezra explicitly rejects such an interpretation of vayifga ba-makom and instructs the reader to ignore midrashic methods of expounding Bereshit 28:11. After giving the peshat of the verse he says,

“…we do not find anywhere in the Scripture that HaShem is called ‘Makom,’ and do not pay any attention to derash. [For if this were so, then the phrase in Megillat Esther 4:14] ‘mi-makom aher – from another place’ [would be problematic]. But [this reference, i.e. in the Megillah] has nothing to do with HaShem.”

Lastly, Rav Saadia Gaon, in a passage from his famous “Beliefs and Opinions” (HaNivhar Emunot Ve-Deot, I:11) says the following:

“And I say concerning the concept of place* (ha-makom) that it cannot be that the Creator needs a place that he might be in it, and this is so for many reasons. First, because he is the Creator of all place and also because he alone is The Pre-Existent One (ha-kadmon) even before there existed any place, and his creation of place did not affect any change in him. And further because that which needs a place is the body* that fills every [space] that meets it and comes into contact with it, and it will be that each one of these things in contact with one another is a place for the other – and such cannot be so for the Creator. And that which is said by the prophets that he is ‘in heaven’ [is not literal], but is a way of communicating greatness and exaltedness because from our perspective the heaven are higher than anything else known to us, just as it is explained by Scripture, ‘For God is in heaven and you are upon the earth’ (Kohelet 5:1), and “for the heavens and the heavens of heavens cannot contain you’ (I Melakhim 8:27). And this was also the meaning of their statements to the effect that he dwells in the Beit HaMikdash, ‘and I will dwell among the children of Israel’ (Shemot 28:45), and ‘HaShem dwells in Tzion’ (Yoel 4:21) – all of this is to confer honor upon that place and upon that nation. And in addition to this, he already displayed there his created brightness/light, which we mentioned above is referred to as shekhinah and kavod.”

May we all diligently negate all physical reference or category from the one transcendent blessed God – to whom neither space, time, motion, or physical qualities whatsoever have any relevance. Amen, selah.