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. 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]
kisei-eliyahu-citation-1

“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]
kisei-eliyahu-citation-2

“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,

YB

Too Much Heart – Comments on Parashat Kedoshim

The 15th of Shevat

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,

TEXT

באחד בשבט ראש השנה לאילן כדברי בית שמאי בית הלל אומרין בחמישה עשר בו

TRANSLATION

“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:

TEXT

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

TRANSLATION

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.

  • First, the tree is planted.
  • Second, it is left completely alone for its first three years.
  • Third, the fruit produced by it in the fourth year is brought to Yerushalayim to be consumed there.
  • Fourth, from the fifth year onward its fruit is permissible and may be eaten as usual.

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?

Brit Milah and Milat HaLev

In Vayikra 12:3, the Torah commands the circumcision of eight-day-old infant males when it says,

TEXT

וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי יִמּוֹל בְּשַׂר עָרְלָתוֹ

TRANSLATION

“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:

TEXT

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

TRANSLATION

“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)’ [1]. 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’ [2].”

[1] cf. Yermiyahu 9:25
[2] 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.

“Circumcision” of the Heart?

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,

TEXT

וּמַלְתֶּם אֵת עָרְלַת לְבַבְכֶם וְעָרְפְּכֶם לֹא תַקְשׁוּ עוֹד

TRANSLATION

“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,

TEXT

וְלֹא תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם זֹנִים אַחֲרֵיהֶם

TRANSLATION

“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,

Kol tuv,

YB

Did the Rambam Codify a Prayer to Angels?

[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.]

Learning through the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam, one will soon reach the seventh chapter of Hilkhoth Tefiyllah. The main subject of this chapter is the order and number of daily berakhoth and the general structure of the three daily prayers. However, in the fifth halakhah one encounters something apparently difficult in light of the general approach of the Rambam – a recitation that sounds very much like an entreaty or prayer to “angels.” The recitation is as follows:

TEXT

וכל זמן שייכנס אדם לבית הכיסא אומר קודם שייכנס התכבדו מכובדים קדושים משרתי עליון שמרוני עד שאיכנס ואצא כי זה דרכן של בני אדם

TRANSLATION

“Each time that one enters the bathroom (beyth ha-kisse’), he says just before entering, ‘Be honored, O honored holy ones, servants of the Most High, guard me until I both enter and exit, for this is the way of human beings.'”

This version of the recitation is essentially the one that is found in the Talmudh Bavliy, but there are other versions. For instance, in the siddur of Rav Sa`adyah Gaon (p. 88) the text, mostly identical to that of the Rambam, differs slighty:

TEXT

התכבדו מכובדים קדושים משרתי עליון עמדו במקומכם והזהרו בי שזו דרכן שלבני אדם

TRANSLATION

“Be honored, O honored holy ones, servants of the Most High, stand in your place and beware of me, for this is the way of human beings.”

[It is likely that the phrase in the text of the Rambam “shimruniy – guard me” (שמרוני) is not actually a request to guard the one saying it, but should be understood as a terse form of that which is in the text of Rav Sa`adyah Gaon, i.e. a warning that the “angels” should not follow the person into the place of uncleanness due to base human functions. At least, this is how I imagine that the Rambam understood it. In the intensely mystical Sassanian (Persian) environment of the Babylonian hakhamiym, it is likely that they did intend to entreat angels to guard them against “demons” or negative forces that they believed to be present in unclean places such as the bathroom. It is interesting to note that in some manuscripts of the Mishnah Torah the word המתינו (hamtiynu – “wait for me”) is found in place of שמרוני.]

Personally, as with most things, I believe that the original intention of this recitation is expressed in the Talmudh Yerushalmiy. The hakhamiym of Eress Yisra’el were generally more rational and divorced from superstition. There are several possible reasons for this, but in my opinion it is due to being surrounded by overtly idolatrous polytheism and their seeking to separate fully from it – seeing it for what it is – as opposed to the Zoroastrian culture which maintained an approximation to “monotheism” although not in pure form, the its abstract ideas being more subtle in their error than the concrete rituals of the Romans. As such, the popular astrological wisdom and superstitions regarding numbers and orientations of objects that was widespread in that part of the world – being unconnected with the worship of statues and various gods – had the appearance of wisdom and what we might call today “scientific knowledge” which was likely the basis that the hakhmey bavel allowed themselves to accommodate them. This can be understood similarly to how the halakhah requires that one rely on common medical knowledge to make determinations about when to profane the Shabbath for the sake of preserving life. Later readers and students of the Talmudh Bavliy, among both the Geoniym and the Rishoniym, tended to move the text away from such a context, alternately ignoring and/or reinterpreting the meaning of such statements, and many times choosing to base themselves on the more sensible (read, “less mystically-charged”) Talmudh Yerushalmiy.

However some of the Geoniym, most famously Rabbenu Hananel, began to learn the sughyoth of each Talmudh in a side-by-side comparative fashion, coming to conclusions on the meaning of the Mishnayoth on the basis of this type of contrastive study. It is likely that the Rambam also engaged in a similar type of study, as did Rav Sa`adyah Gaon, judging from their writings and halakhic rulings in various places which adopt the position of the Yerushalmiy over that of the Bavliy. This, despite the fact that the Bavliy was considered the more normative source of practical Jewish law. In a contemporary context, Rav David Bar-Hayyim יצ”ו of Makhon Shilo regularly holds classes wherein he has revived this method of study and pesaq, his close students referring to it as the “Bar-Hayyim method.” Even in the writings of Rav Hayye Gaon, there was at times a tendency to mention the halakhic practices of the yeshivoth of Eress Yisra’el with a tolerant attitude, even to the point of stating that although such was not the practice in Bavel, it was nevertheless acceptable to comport oneself according to their practices, should one personally elect to do so (cf. Ramban on b.Niddah 51b in reference to y.Berakhoth 2:3). This open attitude on the part of the Geoniym (and particularly Rav Hayye) speaks volumes with regard to the meqoriy understanding of regional mihaghiym, the elucidation of which is perhaps for another post.

The version preserved in the Talmudh Yerushalmiy is:

TEXT

נכנס לבית הכסא מברך שתים אחת בכניסתו ואחת ביציאתו בכניסתו מהו אומר כבוד לכם המכובדים משרתי קודש דרך ארץ הוא פנו דרך ברוך האל הכבוד כשהוא יוצא מהו אומר ברוך אשר יצר את האדם בחכמה

TRANSLATION

“One who enters the bathroom (beyth ha-kisse’) makes the blesses twice; once on the occasion of his entering and one on the occasion of his exiting. On entering, what does he say? ‘Honor to you, O the honored ones, servants of the Holy One, this is the way of the world, turn to your path. Blessed is the honorable God.’ When he exits, what does he say, ‘Blessed [are you, HaShem Eloheynu, King of the universe,] who formed the man with wisdom.'”

In this version, the “angels” are simply enjoined not to follow, as if the one entering the bathroom is merely taking a respectful leave of their presence. It also lacks an entreaty of any kind, whether for protection or for them to “wait.”

Mori Yusef Qafih z”l, in his commentary to Hilkhoth Tefiyllah 7:5, seems to prefer the version of the Yerushalmiy since it is obviously less problematic in its phrasing. Rav Qafih there [הערה יז], after commenting on the problems of adulteration to the printed texts of the Gemara and the Rambam (as opposed to the uncensored handwritten manuscripts), quotes the Yerushalmiy and then writes, ונאה ויאה בהתאם למטרה (“…and [this version] is pleasing and befitting in accordance with the goal [of saying it in the first place].”) However, as we shall see, the Rambam did not consider it problematic because of his rational meqoriy understanding of who or what these “angels” truly are and the overall function of the recitation (referred to by the Yerushalmiy as a “blessing”) in the first place.

Never did the Rambam understand this declaration as a “prayer,” nor at any time did he deem requests or favors as permissible when asked of mal’akhiym (“angels”). In the fifth of his thirteen foundations (note: יסודות not עיקרים) of Jewish faith, the Rambam states emphatically that

The fifth foundation [of faith] is that God, blessed be he, is worthy that we serve him, to glorify him, to make known his greatness, and to perform his commandments, but not to do this to those that are below him, that is, in the creation. Not to the angels, or to the stars, or the planets – or anything else – for they are all created things in nature and in their function, there is no volition or judgment [of their function] except by God himself. It is also not fitting to serve them as intermediaries to God. Only to God should you incline your thoughts and your actions. This is the fifth principle and it warns against `avodhah zarah (idolatry) and most of the Torah speaks out against this.

From here it is clear as to what the exact position of the Rambam was regarding the concept of entreating entities other than God himself. He forbade it completely and considered it to be completely outside the realm of proper monotheistic faith. But with all of the other adjustments in the Mishneh Torah that the Rambam makes in order to present the halakhah in a way that is free from superstitious concerns, why did he not simply leave out this recitation before entering the bathroom? Did the Rambam indeed codify a prayer to angels?

No, he did not.

In an article by Rabbi Dr. Hananel Sari (Shevat 5773) written for the monthly newsletter of the organizations Makhon Mosheh and Halikhoth `Am Yisra’el entitled Or HeHalikhoth, the position of the Rambam from his own writings is explained as regards the nature of mal’akhiym and specifically the purpose and identity those that are constantly referred to by Hazal as accompanying each individual (cf. b.Ta`aniyth 11a).

The following is my translation of the article by Rabbi Dr. Sari:

TRANSLATION

…The mal’akhey ha-shareyth that the Gemara describes, such as that they accompany a person home from the beyth kenesseth on Shabbath, appear to be the same mal’akhiym that are mentioned in other places in the sayings of Hazal. They testify to the deeds of a person if he acts in a way that is not appropriate (cf. Ta`aniyth 11a), and it seems that a person is supposed to separate and take leave of them by reciting various apologies before they enter to perform their needs (i.e. use the bathroom – cf. b.Berakhoth 60b).

The Shulhan Arukh writes that today we no longer have the custom to say this apology, called hithkhabdu mekhubadim (“Be honored, O honored ones…” cf. Orah Hayyim 3:1), since we are not so strong in our yirath shamayyim (“fear of Heaven”) that mal’akhiym accompany us (cf. Mishnah Berurah). In the halakhic work Kaf HaHayyim an opinion is brought in opposition to this that there are mequbaliym who recommend to say it also in our times, since these mal’akhiym continue to accompany each person also today. This mahloqeth, whether mal’akhiym still accompany people in our generation or not and if it is feasible to turn to them (for they comment on their observation that reciting this passage accomplishes not only positive assistance to those who say it, but it is also an important part of promoting a more meticulous inspection of our deeds), these issues are debated due to a conception of mal’akhiym which is far removed from that of the Rambam.

In the Moreh Navokhiym (2:6, 3:22) the Rambam, in dealing with the explanation of the nature of mal’akhiym, mentions that the meaning of the “mal’akh” is not always consistent, however the basic meaning is always “shaliyah” (emissary). Because of this, each naviy is worthy of being called by this name and even the forces of nature through which the Holy One, blessed be he, manages His world, all of them are worthy to be called “mal’akhiym” and they are known as the pamalya shel ma`alah (i.e. the entourage of the Holy One, blessed be he). After this introduction, the Rambam brings a passage from Midrash Qoheleth that tells how when a person sleeps “nafsho omereth le-mal’akh umal’akh omer le-keruv – his soul speaks to the ‘angel’ and the angel speaks to the ‘cherub’.” And from here he learns that in the language of Hazal the creative faculty of a person is called a “mal’akh” (‘angel’) and his intelligence is called “keruv” (‘cherub’).

The Rambam knew that the majority of people were not accustomed to designating these parts of the soul as being mal’akhiym and would even resist accepting this fact. Therefore, he continues and says, “How important this is for the one who knows, and how ugly it is to those who are fools.” We find therefore who these mal’akhiym are according to the Rambam that accompany a person to every place that he goes, and it is clear now that in his opinion each person is accompanied by these two mal’akhiym also in our times. Now it only remains to clarify who is the “evil mal’akh” and who is the “good mal’akh.” The question is not so difficult, yet the Rambam also deals with this question, but in another chapter of the Moreh (2:12) – see there.

END TRANSLATION

Making requests – either for intercession or favors – from objects or beings other than HaShem is a violation of the fifth foundation of Jewish faith and is the basis of all idolatry. Even nevi’iym who received their prophecies through the agency of a mal’akh didn’t ever make requests of them. Instead, they prayed directly to God and allowed God to use whatever means he deemed necessary to answer them.

This short recitation instituted by Hazal amounts to little more than a dual reminder to oneself while tending to regular bodily needs: (a) to hold off thinking holy and religiously-constructive thoughts while in the bathroom until we are finished and exit, and (b) that our intellects – our rational capacity (צלם א-להים sselem Elohiym)- are intensely powerful tools for serving the One and only Creator of the Universe, blessed is he.

So, we truly do have two angels sitting just above our shoulders. Now, that is something to think about.

Kol tuv,

YB

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!”

 

Pesah Matters – Meqori Perspectives – Part II: Coverings, Cucumbers and Gebrokts

[Note: The following is for information purposes only, as is everything on this site. The decision to act or not act upon any of it is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those which are intricate and/or are severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]

In this post, I want to highlight some of the inane measures taken by some, invented in the name of avoiding hamess on Pesah, that one might encounter. Newcomers to Judaism, such as geriym and ba`aley teshuvah, are often thrown off by such weird practices and often – in an honest attempt to understand the intention of the Torah – invent myths about the supposed nature of hamess based on them. More than this, many of these contrived “chumros” blur the lines of the halakhah and actually lead to some people violating actual prohibitions because of the misunderstanding caused by such “customs.” As it says in the Gemara, “כל המוסיף גורע – kol ha-mosiyf gorea` – everyone who adds [to the law in actuality] detracts [from it]” (b.Sanhedriyn 29a).

Much the nonsense comes from a directive – quoted in the name of the Arizal – that one should be careful to respect every “chumrah” of Pesah, no matter how strained the concern may be. Another one has the Arizal promising that anyone who is careful with even the slightest amount of hamess on Pesah is guaranteed not to sin for the entire year (Mishnah Berurah, Be’er Heitev 447:1). First of all, no one knows if he ever said such things, they may be completely fanciful. Second, even if he did say them, I am sure that even he would not have countenanced some of the ridiculous practices that have cropped up today. Third, if the Arizal did say these things he had no halakhic authority to do so. Halakhah comes from Hazal as explained by their direct expositors, and from nowhere else. Ironically, many of the “chumros” invented for Pesah cannot be attributed to modernity, so one has to wonder, if Hazal took no issue with them, how is it that anyone else should?

Foil, Foil Everywhere

Perhaps the most well-known para-halakhic practice in preparation for Pesah – which has already become a major parody within the Jewish world – is the covering of all kitchen surfaces with aluminum foil. Counters, stovetops, cupboards, sinks, and yes, even the refrigerator door handle – everything is obsessively covered before Pesah by many Jews. So widely-practiced is covering by foil that when I lived in Israel, they actually included rolls of aluminum foil in the Ma’oth Hittiyn care packages. So now public charity is being used to buy foil! When the Gemara in Masekheth Pesahim (see chapter 10, `Arvey Pesahim) takes great pains to discuss exactly how much wine should be given to each `aniy in order to fulfill the misswah of the arba`ah kosoth (since there is a shittah that says one can fulfill it with only two full cups instead of four), why would we then spend hundreds and possibly thousands of public dollars on something that has no basis at all in halakhah? Kol ha-mosiyf gorea` (כל המוסיף גורע) indeed.

You will be happy to know that there is absolutely no need according to halakhah to cover anything with either aluminum foil or parchment paper. Not your sink, not your cupboards, not your counters, not your stove, and no, not even your refrigerator door handle. What is required is that you clean your home of visible hamess, giving special attention to any significant pieces in the same room that may be able to be combined to form the bulk of a Suri or “Egori” olive (ke-zayith, cf. m.Keliym 17:8). Further required is that all cooking and food preparation utensils be either set aside or undergo a kashering process (I will discuss hakhsharath keliym in the next post). What is strongly recommended, however, is that you thoroughly clean the exposed surfaces of your kitchen (no need to pull out the refrigerator), using a bleach-based cleaning solution. The bleach solution will nullify any traces of hamess that might possibly be found by rendering them inedible. Since you do not cook or set food – especially hot food – directly on your counters or the shelves of your fridge they do not require kashering, let alone covering.

To give you an idea of just how sane the actual laws of kashering are for dishes and surfaces, check out this brief summary based on the rulings of Rav Yitzchak Abadi of Jerusalem.

Confusing Cucumbers

Probably the most inane para-halakhic and superstitious “custom” that I have heard of in regard to avoiding hamess on Pesah is the refusal to eat cucumbers by Chabadniks because – and I quote – “its seeds look like grains of wheat.” This is insane. Do these same people avoid eating kosher sushi because it looks just like real crab? Certainly not. What are they afraid of? Confusing cucumber seeds and wheat berries? If someone thinks that this could happen, they quite frankly need to take anxiety medication and discuss their irrational fears with a professional. I think it is obvious to any reasonable, thinking person that this is ludicrous – aside from being completely without basis in the halakhah. I mean, do they forget that beautiful little piece of Gemara in Pesahim about Rav Huna’s seder plate? He put rice on it! Obviously, Hazal were not at all concerned about the “appearance” of qitniyoth confusing us into eating wheat and barley (cf. b.Pesahim 114b).

Another incarnation of this is requiring that all fruits and vegetables be peeled prior to consumption on Pesah because there might be “traces of chametz” in the peels. Don’t be taken in by this and do not be fooled into thinking that those who do such things are on a “higher level” of dedication. Comparing one level of foolishness to another only serves the purposes fools. The fact is that Hazal are the bearers of the mesorah and in many cases they are the architects of it. They knew what hamess was and how to effectively avoid it on Pesah. They transmitted those things faithfully to us in their talmudh and so there is no need for later innovations that are obsessive and usually based on some kabbalistic consideration foreign to Hazal in the first place.

Now, this is not to say that there isn’t the concept of being unusually careful in an effort to completely avoid hamess on Pesah – there certainly is (and I plan to discuss this in the next post on kashering). But those considerations are already built into the halakhah itself. And it is not as if the meqori approach guarantees that in all things it will be “easier” than the mainstream practice. Although this is generally the case, it is not always the case. One who truly seeks to fulfill the Divine will is open to the truth whatever it may be, whether easy or difficult. May HaShem grant us the ability to perform every misswah, great or small, with a full heart.

No KLP Kneidlach? It Gebrokts My Heart

Gebrokt is a Yiddish word meaning “broken” and refers to massah that has been soaked in water or some other liquid. Entrees that were made with such massah are called “gebrokts” because the massoth are generally broken into small pieces or ground prior to cooking or baking with them. The Hebrew term for such entrees is massah sheruyah meaning “soaked massah.” The Hasidic practice is to avoid allowing any liquid, especially water, to come in contact with massah during Pesah. The reason? They are afraid that even their massoth may be hamess. The explanation goes the that there may be some small amount of flour that went through the baking process that never truly mixed with water to become dough. Putting that massah into water would expose that bit of flour to water and it could thereby become hamess. This is absolutely ludicrous. This is the reason for all of the products made from potato flour that show up on Pesah. However, I am waiting for some “rebbe” to announce that potatoes may actually be one of the five grains and are therefore forbidden be consumed (this is a joke, of course, but I think my intent is clear). Even still, with all the fuss over the supposed wheat-like appearance of cucumber seeds, you would think that they would avoid potato flour because it looks very similar to…oh, possibly… FLOUR.

The practice of avoiding gebrokts and worrying that massah, although prepared according to strict standards of shemirah, may actually be hamess is a thoroughly Hasidic invention. Although there were those, even before Hasidism, who had the practice of not eating massah sheruyah on the night of the seder – such as the Ra’avan (cf. Ra’avan, Pesahim 162a) – their concern had nothing to do with avoiding hamess (or they would have avoided it throughout the hagh), rather it was to preserve the strong taste of massah in the mouth, something that is lost when it is soaked in water. Even after the emergence of the Hasidic movement, there were those – such as Rav Hayyim Volozhiner – who maintained the practice of not eating gebrokts during the seder because of the Rambam, who says that massah eaten during the seder should be “lehem oni – poor bread” (i.e. not “enriched”) and should be free of salt, spices, eggs, fruit juice, olive oil, etc. (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Hamess Umassah 5:20). The irrational fear that duly guarded massoth could actually be hamess historically arose from the Hasidic movement alone. Their attempts to co-opt earlier sources to justify their nonsense is strained at best.

There are some Hasidic-Haredi groups that refuse to eat massah at all during Pesah because of the fear that it may actually be “chametz.” Only because it is a misswah de-oraytha do they consent eat a small amount during the seder. This fear should illustrate well the concern in Hazal that “אין לדבר סוף – ein le-davar sof – there is no end to the matter.” In other words, there has to be a limit of what we consider a reasonable and likely concern (hashash) because if there isn’t insanity ensues. This reasoning is brought in m.Pesahim 1:2 and codified by the Rambam in Hilkhoth Hamess Umassah 2:7 about checking the home for hamess. It is brought in m.Yoma 1:1 with regard to keeping a new wife in reserve for the kohen gadhol on Yom HaKippuriym since it is a Torah requirement that he be married. Hazal instruct that it is enough to have one woman prepared to marry the kohen should something happen to his current wife during the night – if it should enter our minds to arrange for still another in case something happened to both the wife and the back-up, they say that you would then have to worry about the back-up of the back-up as well, ad infinitum, and אין לדבר סוף – ein le-davar sof. Since entering into an impossible and endless regress is never the requirement of the Torah or the halakhah, such unlikely concerns may be dismissed. This reasoning is stated throughout the Gemara as well, and it is nearly always mentioned as a limit to the word hashash, meaning worry or suspicion. Hazal thereby teach us that it is right and good to have concerns about the misswoth of the Torah, but that there must be reasonable limits to such concern – and it is they who held the authority to set the boundaries for such things.

This also happens to be why I personally believe that when the Rambam states that hamess cannot be nullified “even [in a ratio of] one in several thousand” that he is referring to actual, quantifiable, reasonably present hamess – not invisible hamess that is conjured up through the powers of unlimited hashash (cf. Hilkhoth Ma’akhaloth Assuroth 15:10-11). But this is for another time.

Best,

YB

My Recent Discussion with a Chabadnik

Currently, my family and I belong to a really warm and exceedingly friendly “Modern Orthodox” shul. It was originally a small, traditional community synagogue that broke away from the local Conservative place two decades ago and many of the families who founded it can still attend. Occasionally, we have “visitors” from the local Chabad-Lubavitch outpost, whose missionary efforts are in full swing among our membership. These subverters attend when they need to escort someone over to their home whom they have invited for a meal. They also show up to shul functions, working the crowd as if they are the hosts, even though they have opened their own meeting hall right up the road. It is well-known that their entire presence in our shul is for the purpose of a long-sighted coup d’état – through erosion, not force – and it would be comical if it weren’t so sad.

While I normally do my best to ignore them, there are times when I can no longer take their suffusive know-it-all comments and I engage them. I have called-out several Chabadniks who have quoted passages from the “Rambam” that do not exist, asking them to open the Mishneh Torah and “prove it,” and I have had to break it to them that their Torah scrolls are not “the most kosher” but are actually pasul, etc.  A few nights ago after `Arviyth I decided to educate one of them about the heretical nature of his beliefs about God, good and evil, and creation. As I later told the community rabbi, “Someone has to keep them honest. Plus, I tire of their continually confident ignorance about Judaism.”

Most people only see the externals of dress, apparent piety, and the ease of participation in Jewish rituals that Lubavitchers offer. Underneath, however, lies an entangling web of heresy and `avodhah zarah. The theology of Hasidism in general – and of Chabad-Lubavitch in particular – stands in complete opposition to Judaism in its most basic definition of monotheism. I cannot tell you how many times that I, after expressing concern over their core beliefs, am told, “But they do so much good work! And they are non-judgmental and accepting. Many of the Jews who go to their functions would never even observe Shabbos if it wasn’t for them. At least it’s something.” Yet I am completely sure that if these same Jews were going to functions sponsored by Jews for Jesus, none of these same individuals would make reference to “all the good work” that Jews for Jesus does in an effort to excuse their religious doctrines – even if they were to, for some reason, hold them on Shabbath. Instead, their hospitality would be seen as predatory and the greatest fear of these same people would be the possible conversion of these irreligious Jews to another religion altogether. All “the good work” they do would be viewed as drawing these poor Jews into a religious trap.

Before I relate the contents of the discussion I had with this “rabbi,” I want to emphasize a point of central importance. When the majority of the world was not monotheistic, it was incumbent upon religious monotheists, such as Muslims and Jews, to philosophically explain what they meant by the “unity” and “incorporeality” of the One God. Even Christians entered the discussion, albeit with a paganized form of Platonism that, on the one hand rejected the pantheon, but on the other hand was not truly monotheistic, as it admitted multiplicity, corporeality, and spatial reference in regard to God (has wa-halilah). However, in our post-modern and post-monotheistic society today, most people assume that professing a belief that “there is only one God” is enough to qualify for being called a “monotheist.” Since most people in our times who believe in God do not accept explicit polytheism, the ability to explain the philosophical tenets of pure monotheism has fallen largely into disuse. According to the Rambam and others, learning them is a misswath `aseh (cf. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Yesodhey HaTorah 1:4[6]).

In Shu”t HaRiva”dh, Mori Yusef Qafih z”l is asked the following question (p. 3):

TEXT

שאלה: מדוע פותח הרמב”ם את חבורו בהלכות יסודי התורה דווקא – ח אדר תשנ”ט

תשובה: הרמב”ם פתח ספרו בעניני אמונה. הוא סבור כי ללא אמונה טהורה ומזוקקת אין יהדות טהורה והקימה להלכות ודינים

TRANSLATION

Question: Why is it that the Rambam begins his work [i.e. the Mishneh Torah] with Hilkhoth Yesodhey HaTorah [dealing primarily with the philosophical tenets of pure monotheism]? (8 Adar 5759)

Answer: The Rambam began his book with matters of belief.  He is of the opinion that without pure and unadulterated belief [one’s] Judaism is [thus] not pure and so he put it first, before halakhoth and diniym.

Books such as Kellner’s “Must a Jew Believe Anything?” and Shapiro’s “The Limits of Orthodox Theology,” while making some important observations and raising some good points, attempt to place the “blame” for the concept of necessary beliefs on the shoulders of the Rambam, who formulated the 13 Principles of Jewish Faith (as they are popularly known), and act as though necessary beliefs are not an authentic Jewish value. However, this is incorrect as both the Mishnah and the Gemara make statements regarding basic necessary beliefs, as well as the division between Judaism and heresy, in just as strong a fashion. Aristotelian philosophy, despite what many may prefer to believe, was not the source of Jewish “dogmatics.” Instead, it was Hazal who made these determinations in the mesorah they authored for us. The answer to Kellner’s question is “Yes” and the actual limits that Shapiro is looking for are likely more narrow than he envisions. [1]

Twice in the Mishneh Torah the Rambam refers to pure monotheism as “she-zeh hu `iqqar ha-gadhol she-hakol taluy bo – this is the greatest principle [of belief] upon which everything depends” (cf. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Yesodhey HaTorah 1:4[6] and Hilkhoth Qiryath Shema` 1:2). In other words, if an idolater were to outwardly live an “orthodox lifestyle,” but inwardly was an atheist, a polytheist, or believed that the Transcendent God is subject to physicality, then none of his mechanical carrying-out of the commandments would matter – it would be nothing more than an act of futility. In fact, this is exactly what Mori Yusef Qafih z”l writes in his introduction to his edition of the Moreh HaNavokhiym (Intro, p.17):

“…For a great many are those who are involved with the intricate details [of halakhah] and forget the principle above all other principles [of belief], and there are those who indeed turn to a path of personal piety, but submerse their days in intricate halakhic analyses and in casuistry regarding far-fetched and invented situations, which who knows if they will ever occur in actuality, and yet they neglect the foundation of foundations and the pillar of wisdom, that is the [proper] knowledge of HaShem – Blessed is He – just as the Rambam began his greatest book [i.e. the Mishneh Torah], ‘It is the foundation of foundations and the pillar of wisdom to know that there is a Prime Being, and He causes to exist everything that does exist, and everything that exists, whether in heaven or earth or that which is between them, does not exist except by the verity of His existence…and this [concept] is what the prophet means when he says, And HaShem, God, is true.’ For without knowing this greatest fundamental [principle], as much as is possible [2], a person is liable to be externally observant of the commandments without ever becoming aware of this. According to the opinion of the Rambam, the essence of these commandments performed with external appendages without [proper] knowledge of the One who commanded them and without knowing their nature or purpose, are merely (in the definition of Rambam in [the Moreh HaNavokhiym] III:51, ‘like one who turns the soil with the spade or hew trees in the forest.’ [i.e. those who perform intensive yet mindless labors]”

[I would encourage anyone who is able to read the 51st chapter of the third volume of the Moreh for a complete overview of this concept.]

My discussion with this particular Chabadnik was as follows. Although I have taken great care to preserve the content and verbiage, in the interest of organization I have taken some constructive liberties in laying out the material (much like Rav Yehudhah HaLewiy did in putting together the Kuzari). The topic begins as seemingly innocuous, but it progresses to become more serious and comprehensive. This was not the first difficult conversation he and I have had, but it was our first time discussing these particular issues.

***

As I was walking out of evening prayers last Friday night and wishing everyone “Shabbat Shalom,” I was met by a local Chabad “rabbi” who greeted me with a hollow, “Good Shabbos. It’s good to see you.” I responded jokingly as follows:

Me: “Jews in shul is always a good thing…that is unless we are hiding from someone!”

Chabadnik: “Even then there is good. There is good in everything.” 

Me: “Except in evil of course. There is no good in evil.” (This is where I essentially baited him, knowing he would immediately object.)

Chabadnik: “That’s not true, everything is a mixture of good and evil. The Tanya says…” (He began to make a reference to the Lubavitcher “bible,” Likkutei Amarim Tanya, a collection of discourses and letters by the first leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch hasidic sect, Shneur Zalman of Liady, which explain the kabbalistic doctrines of Hasidism. )

Me: “Now, rabbi, the idea that there is evil even in good is a latter-day Hasidic doctrine and it belonged to the followers of Shabbetai Tzvi before it belonged to you. The Rambam says that evil is not a positive substance, but is the absence of good. Evil is a privation. Have you read the Moreh HaNavokhiym? The Ramban also refers to the Moreh on this subject in his commentary on the Torah. Don’t Lubavitchers study the Rambam?” (cf. Rambam, Moreh HaNavokhiym III:10-12 for an explanation of evil from a Jewish philosophical perspective. In the Kabbalah, God has a “right” and a “left” emanation, the left being Sitra Ahara [Aramaic for “the Other Side”] and the source of evil. For kabbalists, evil is just another action of God – has wa-halilah. This entire idea flies in the face of Hazal in Bereshiyth Rabbah 1, “No evil comes down from above” – which, of course, is twisted around by kabbalists to be a proof for their error that, since they hold that evil comes from God, all evil is actually good since “No evil comes down from above.”)

Chabadnik: “So there’s no such thing as evil, then?” (This was not a genuine inquiry. He actually thought this was going to be a “gotcha” moment.)

Me: “No, there is evil, but evil is not a positive creation, it is the absence of good. Like darkness is the absence of light and not a substance in and of itself. God is not the source or the Creator of evil.” (See the Moreh there where Rambam utilizes this very metaphor. The Rambam in the Moreh, Rav Sa`adyah Gaon in Emunoth wa-Dhe`oth [1:3], Ralbag in Milhamoth HaShem, and many others among the Rishonim who quote or refer to these works, affirm that God is indeed not the author of evil. Saying “evil is not a positive creation” or “evil has no positive reality” is not the same as the kabbalistic notion that “evil is an illusion,” which means that things which we perceive as being evil – tragedies, sickness, disabilities, starvation, rape, murder, etc. – are really “good” [halilah] and, according to such a view, it is only our perspective that is skewed.)

Me: “But even those who hold that evil has positive existence among the Rishonim do not hold that good can be found in it. They hold them to be polar opposites.” (Rabbenu Nissim in Meghillath Setariym appears to [possibly] espouse an ontological understanding of evil, as does Rav Yehudhah HaLewiy in the Kuzari [i.e. those things which lack the `inyan elohiy].)

Chabadnik: “So what about a pig?”

Me: “What about a pig?”

Chabadnik: “It’s evil isn’t it?”

Me: “No, it’s just a pig.”

Chabadnik: “But you can’t eat it.”

Me: “You can’t eat your children either. Are they evil?”

Chabadnik: [Looks a bit stunned, but continues] “So why can’t we eat it?”

Me: “Because HaShem forbade it to us as a tamei animal.”

Chabanik: “Well, isn’t tum’ah evil?”

Me: “No. When your wife has children she becomes tamei’ah, right? Is having children evil or sinful? When you have relations with your wife, you become tamei, right? Is a married couple having relations evil?” (In the kabbalah, as well as the superstitious environment that preceded it, ritual impurity is understood to have an objective reality, whereas the Rambam in the Moreh [III:66] explains ritual impurity as being [essentially] a legal state meant to deter an over-emphasis of the temple cultus (and also to keep us from handling harmful, unhygienically-filthy objects, e.g. carcuses, corpses, bloody cloths, etc.). The Mishneh Torah is explicit that the concepts of ritual impurity – tum’ah – and purity – taharah – are legal concepts meant to impress themselves on the human intellect, being divorced from any physical reality [Hilkhoth Miqwa’oth 11:15[12].)

Chabadnik: [At a bit of a loss, but setting up for another intended “gotcha” moment.] “So where does my energy come from?” (I assumed when he said this that he meant “negative” energy, but then he waved his hand over his entire body, indicating that he meant the entirety of his “energy.”)

Me: “It’s a beriyyah (a creation). It’s not the essence of God, if that’s what you mean. You are a creation of God, not a piece of God. God does not have pieces or parts. Again, this is right in the Rambam.” (I was referring to the Hasidic/Kabbalistic idea that every Jew is a “chelek elokai mimaal mammash – a literal ‘piece’ of God above” – cf. Tanya, chapter 2 – which Lubavitchers love to cite since it features popularly in their ideology.)

Chabadnik: “So there’s something outside of God? How can there be anything but Him?”

Me: “Are you referring to the misreading of ein `odh milevado? Look at the pasuqiym again in context and with the traditional commentators. It means ‘there is not another God beside HaShem,’ not that God is the only thing in existence. God is not inside of you, this table, the trees, or anything else.” (In context [cf. Devariym 4:35-39], this is meant as a statement against polytheism, not against the reality of the created world. דו”ק)

Chabadnik: “Why can’t God be inside of everything? Why can’t everything be an emanation of God?”

Me: “Again, don’t you Lubavitchers learn the Rambam? He writes very clearly in the third Principle of Jewish Faith that “eyno guf” – He is not a physical body – “wa-lo koah be-ghuf” – and He is not a force that resides within bodies. God is transcendent and completely separate from the creation. This is a central tenet of monotheism!” (cf. Rambam, Piyrush HaMishnayoth, Sanhedriyn 10:1 – The word ‘body’ here is being used here it the philosophical sense of ‘an object or entity which has substance and/or form.’)

Chabadnik: “So you’re saying that HaShem is not continually recreating the world and bringing it into existence at every moment?” (This Gnostic idea is another major doctrine in Hasidism.)

Me: “Yes. The world has been created already and now continues on it’s natural course, as it says in the Gemara, ‘`olam ke-minhago nohegh.’ He does not need to ‘redo’ anything after He has decreed it.” (cf. b.`Avodhah Zarah 54b – In other words, since the time of creation, the universe moves along its natural course. The Rambam in the Moreh [2:29] discusses this very principle in regard to the nature of miracles and whether they should be seen as innovations within, or permanent/temporary changes to, the natural order.)

Chabadnik: “So then what does it mean when it says, ‘ha-mechadesh b’khol yom tamid maiseh breishis’?” (This is from the first berakhah of Qiryath Shema` in the morning recitation. This text of the berakhah also appears in the seder tefiylloth of the Rambam in the Mishneh Torah and in the siddur of Rav Sa`adyah Gaon.)

Me: “That is a Hasidic misinterpretation of the text of the berakhah. It says explicitly in the Gemara that ‘ha-mehadhesh be-khol yom tamiydh ma`aseh bereshiyth’ refers to the sun coming up and re-illuminating the darkness of night. Look at Rashi there and you’ll see how it was understood originally.” (cf. b.Haghighah 12b – This is an explicit explanation of exactly what is meant by the wording of this berakhah, and it has nothing to do with a supposed continual recreation of the universe. Rather, it is referring to the darkness of night being dispelled by the light of rising sun, and vice-versa, thus “re-enacting” the original “Let there be light” of Bereshiyth 1:1-3. Rashi appears to re-interpret the simple meaning of the Gemara  to make it fit with his own understanding of astronomical processes, but it is nevertheless a astronomical process being related by Hazal, not a Gnostic process of continual emanation –

TEXTS

Haghighah 12b - Ma`aseh Bereshiyth - Text

Haghighah 12b - Ma`aseh Bereshiyth - רשי

TRANSLATIONS

Gemara – “…Rather, morning enters and night exits, and [He thereby] ‘mehadhesh be-khol yom ma`aseh bereshiyth – renews daily the Work of Creation’…”

Rashi – “Morning enters – into its container and the light becomes visible. And night exits – from its container and spreads out beneath the light, and behold the world becomes dark. And this is His ‘daily renewal of the Work of Creation.'”)

Chabadnik: “Well, the Ramban (Nachmanides) talks about a continual creation.”

Me: “I don’t believe you. But if you can produce it, I would love to see it. Another Chabad rabbi who comes here regularly quotes fictional Rambams. You guys are in the habit of misquoting things.”

Then the community rabbi interrupted us and asked if we would lock up before we left. We both responded that we were just leaving. I ended up walking the rabbi home. He was amused at my confrontation with the Chabadnik. I just told him that I was just “having some fun.”

I will try to publish updates and answer questions as they come up.

Kol tuv,

YB

NOTES:

[1] I in no way intend to express disrespect for the work of either Dr. Menachem Kellner or Dr. Marc B. Shapiro, for whose scholarship I have a great respect in many ways. I only intend to strongly disagree with their assessments of the nature and necessity of correct beliefs within Judaism and Jewish tradition.

[2] “As much as is possible” is an important point to note, since it is meant to assuage fears that the proposition of proper beliefs necessarily damns those who, either by mistake or by mental incapability, cannot fully grasp them.

Does Judaism Affirm a Form of Panentheism?

No.

The third Principle of Jewish Faith, as codified by the Rambam (cf. Piyrush HaMishnayoth, Sanhedriyn 10:1), states explicitly that the Creator “has no physical body and is not a force which resides within a physical body” (אינו גוף ולא כח בגוף). This statement precludes the basic tenet of Panentheism, i.e. that God resides actually within everything that exists. And this sentiment does not originate in the philosophy of the Rambam. There were others – such as Rav Sa`adyah Gaon – who affirmed this as well.

Additionally, Rav Sa`adyah Gaon, in his well-known work Emunoth Wa-Dhe`oth, discusses extant ideas of creation as postulated by the various religions and philosophical schools around in his day. Although he was referring to his contemporaries, his list is still fairly comprehensive for our times, and one would be hard-pressed to find another metaphysical cosmology not mentioned by him there. One of the twelve theories of creation discussed is Emanationism (אצילות – i.e. the idea that God emanated his own essence into the lower forms of the creation, referred to by Rav Sa`adyah as “The third theory is that of him that asserts that the Creator of physical bodies has created them out of His own essence… [Ma’amar Rishon, III]). He then goes on to refute this theory with 13 separate refutations. Emanationism requires a belief in Panentheism. It is not possible to believe in emanation and to be a pure monotheist, dissociating God completely from any form or accident of physicality or spaciality.

Judaism has always championed the belief in creatio ex nihilo (“creation from nothing” – e.g. Rambam, Ramban, Rasag, et al), and has traditionally tolerated a belief in an [Aristotelian] primordial substance from which the world was created (e.g. Rambam, Kuzari, Ibn `Ezra, et al), by a completely transcendent and incorporeal God whom is completely removed from His creation and is not associated in any way with it. 

Panentheism, although championed by many as being the true view of the Torah, is certainly a mistake and an aberration [read, “heretical,” i.e. incompatible with authentic Jewish teachings]. Equally as many cannot fathom how a veritable majority of “orthodoxy” has accepted idolatrous ideas. However, we are not more “special” today than were out ancestors in their day. Throughout our history, we have gone astray after idolatry, superstitions, and false gods/conceptions of God. These types of issues are dealt with all the time by the Biblical prophets, everything from actual prostration to statues to simply holding such beliefs inwardly. This is why Yehezqel (14:17) refers to those who “wayyinnazer me-aharay wi-ya`al gillulaw el libo – who separates himself from Me and brings his idols into his heart.” The only course to remedy – offered every time, whether in exile or in the Land – is through teshuvah and getting people back on track through proper teaching and education. Silence on these foundational issues in the name of “unity” has only led to the current situation where the tenets of monotheism have been all but eroded from the Jewish nation.

The reason why Panentheism and other constructs featuring emanation (אצילות) seem to make sense to people is due to the basic error that in order to interact with the world, God needs some physical mechanism. It is reasoned that since God upholds the existence of the universe at every moment then He must be involved at every moment with making sure that it endures – this is false. We say that the world was created by God through His “will” or “decree” because these are the least physical anthropomorphic descriptions we can come up with. In other words, we are trying to avoid the mythologies of ancient pagan cultures who maintained that the world was fashioned through the very actual labor of the gods. However, it must not be extrapolated from these terms that God must then be maintaining continual concentration to uphold the existence of the world. Although this is how “will” works for us, it is not how it works for HaShem. There is no concept of haysah ha-da`ath (“mental interruption” or “loss of concentration”) with HaShem.

Instead, the “decrees” of HaShem in creating the world should most aptly be viewed from the perspective of law. In other words, when a beyth diyn makes a decree, it continues (generally) until either the reality of the circumstances in which and for which the decree was originally made significantly change or until another, usually greater, beyth diyn arises who decides to overturn it. This is the implication of the pasuq, “Forever HaShem, Your word stands firm in the heavens” (Tiliym 119:89). HaShem is the sovereign Judge who “decreed” the world into existence and that reality has not changed, nor will anyone ever arise who may overturn His words.

In short, God created the world and is completely separate from it – He does not reside inside of it, nor is the world constructed “out of Him” (if such a thing were even possible, has wa-halilah). And if the complete separation between HaShem and the world gives you pause and makes you wonder “If HaShem is so far away, then how does He interact with the world?” then your view of God is ultimately physical. He – Blessed is He – does not need physical senses, tools, mechanisms, or spatial proximity to accomplish anything.

More on this later.

Kol tuv uverakhah,

YB

Did Anyone Question the Authenticity of the Zohar?

The Zohar literature, including the Zohar, Zohar Hadash, and the Tikkunei 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 rishonim and early aharonim; with the era of the former generally held to have been during the 11th to 15th centuries, and that of the latter 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 rishonim. Much of what exists in this genre was written in the period of the early aharonim and remains very valuable to anyone engaging in a historical study of the Zohar. 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, geonimand rishonim (e.g. Rasag, Rashi, Tosafot, 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 which dispute the Zohar and its authenticity:

  • Sefer Behinat HaDat – Rav Eliyahu Del Medigo (15th Century CE)
  • Sefer HaYuhasin, account of Rabbi Yitzhak de-min Akko – Rav Avraham Zakuto (15th Century CE)

Works in the period of the aharonim which dispute the Zohar literature and its authenticity:

  • Sefer Ari Nohem – Rav Yehudah Aryeh DeModena (17th Century CE)
  • Mitpahat Sefarim – Rav Yaakov Emden (18th Century CE)
  • Shu”T Hatam 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)
  • Milhamot 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 Emunot ve-Deot by Rav Sa`adyah Gaon (10th Century CE) – This work is a comprehensive compendium of explanations that not only sets forth the hashkafah of Torah Judaism on many 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 which was to emerge under the later “Kabbalah” which became embodied in the Zohar literature – and it roundly rejects them as not being authentic or based in Hazal. These topics include the idea of multiplicity or aspects as relates to the One Transcendent God, Reincarnation, and Emanation (atzilut אצילות), among others.
  • Moreh HaNavokhim by Rav Mosheh ben Maimon (Rambam – 11th Century CE). THis work details the necessity of intellectual and rational approaches to the Torah and the Prophets, as well as explaining the meaning of many mitzvot and the various reasons behind them. It also deals with concepts which were later embodied in the “Kabbalah,” such as “secret” mystical names of God and amulets, which are roundly rejected as superstitious, idolatrous, and foolish.
  • Ma’amar Tehiyat HaMetim by 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 (Devarim 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, Elohenu, HaShem) are three separate forces/entities/modes of the Divine (halilah) that supposedly comprise some sort of composite unity. The Rambam flatly rejects this reading of the Shema in his statements there. However, the Zohar (2:53b) espouses just such a nonsensical interpretation. Ironically, this passage was used by later Christian Hebraists, and even the Catholic church, in justifying the supposed validity of their belief in a “Trinity” from “Jewish” teachings.
  • Rashi and Tosafot on b.Megillah 9a (11th, 12th-13th Centuries CE). In an interesting passage about the request of King Ptolemy (Talmai HaMelekh) that the hakhmei HaSanhedrin write for him a copy of the Torah in Greek, the Gemara explains that several deliberate changes to the text were unanimously made by them during their translation in order to avoid certain polytheistic errors by Greek readers. Two of the notable changes were made in Bereshit 1:1 and 1:26 – the former being that instead of the text reading “Bereshit bara Elohim” they wrote “Elohim bara bereshit,” and the latter being that in place of “Na’aseh adam” they wrote “E’aseh adam.” In the first instance – since syntax in the Greek language often puts the most important noun in the sentence first and sorts out the meaning and parts of speech via case endings – the hakhamim did not want the Greeks to think that “Bereshit” was the name of one deity which created a second deity named “Elohim” (halilah) and that there are thus multiple powers in Heaven (halilah), so says Rashi. The Tosafot add to this by saying that “Bereshit eino shem kelal ela ba-tehilah” meaning that the term “bereshit” 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 Bereshit 1:1 the Zohar says that “Reshit” is the name of a partzuf/sefirah and it creates/emanates another partzuf/sefirah named “Elohim” which it can then inhabit. On Bereshit 1:26, the Zohar depicts two of the partzufim (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 both shocking and 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,

YB

What Happened To Jewish Prayer? – A Mekori Perspective – Part I: Introduction

“It is a positive commandment [mitzvat aseh] to pray each day, as it is said, ‘And you shall serve HaShem your God’ (Shemot 23:25). From the part of the Oral Torah heard by Mosheh himself, they learned that this ‘service’ is a reference to prayer. And it is said, ‘And you shall serve Him with all of your heart’ (Devarim 11:13). The hakhamim said regarding this verse (b.Ta`anit 2a), ‘What is this service that is in the heart? This is prayer.”

(Rambam, Hilkhot Tefillah 1:1)

Jewish prayer 1And so begins the laws of prayer in the Mishneh Torah. The Rambam goes on to explain that throughout the Biblical era prior to the Babylonian exile each person composed his own prayers in pure Hebrew (called “yehudit” – cf. Nehemyah 13:24). Hazal relate to us that the morning, evening, and afternoon times of prayer were instituted by the avot themselves (cf. b.Berakhot 26b). However, after Ezra HaSofer returned with the exiles from Babylon, he set up the supreme court of 120 hakhamim (a court unmatched at any time in history) known as the Anshei Keneset HaGedolah (“Men of the Great Assembly”). These great visionaries set up the entire system of what is recognizably rabbinic Judaism today; the official formula of berakhot and the proper occasions to recite them, the minyan, the synagogue system, public kriat ha-torah, and the texts of the prayers were all instituted by Ezra and his grand beit din.

The reason for this sudden change in protocol was that, due to the exile, the majority of the Jewish people were unable to adequately compose their prayers, let alone in their own native language of Hebrew (cf. Hilkhot Tefillah 1:4). To remedy this, the hakhamim created a standard prayer of eighteen short blessings to express the collective and individual praises, gratitude, and needs of the Jewish nation (1:5). The hakhamim knew that praying and expressing religious concepts in foreign languages – or, more accurately the inability to verbalize them in Hebrew – could be a doorway to avodah zarah and religious misconception. One example of such misconception is illustrated by the common [mis]translation of the Hebrew word kippur (כפור) by the English term “atonement,” which is an expressly Christian idea related to their idolatrous conceptions of God. This is why prayers and blessings that are said in foreign languages, although allowed, are subject to intense rabbinical scrutiny. The translation of their wording and content must be by an expert, and even in translation such blessings require the mention of the Hebrew names of God (i.e. untranslated) in order to be halakhically valid (cf. Hilkhot Berakhot 1:6, and the comments of Rav Yosef Qafih z”l there).

The purpose of composing various blessings, and developing them in accordance with a set structure and formulation, was to make them “well-ordered prayers and blessings in the mouth of all Israel, so that all of the subject matter of each blessing will be prepared and ordered in the mouth of the non-native Hebrew speaker” (1:6). The people who occasioned the drafting of the prayers and blessings were not religiously educated. It is not as if they were all benei yeshivah.I Rather, the text of the Tanakh shows that they were fairly ignorant of Jewish laws, the Hebrew language, and even elements of their own culture. Only the scholarly elite such as Ezra and his colleagues still understood the Torah and its laws. And this is the point: the prayers were meant to be relatively simple to memorize for the sake of such under-educated people, but their text has grown to be something that is overwhelming and unfortunately irrelevant to many. What happened?

nosha'oth comparedOver time, the text of the prayers has grown from something that – in the rite that I personally use – consists of a few double-sided pages and takes roughly 7-15 minutes to complete (depending on the time of day) into something that spans hundreds of pages and requires anywhere from 20 minutes to more than an hour and a half. And this is just for daily prayers. When we look at the nosah for the entire year, the Rambam records roughly 20 pages of text whereas the common mahzor set today includes six or seven volumes, each of them containing several hundred pages. So, I ask again, what happened to Jewish prayer? What caused something that was easily memorized and required relatively little time to perform to become a task that cannot be reasonably completed without having a textbook and half an hour?

If we are going to be completely honest, we have to admit that most “orthodox” Jews – whether they were raised in religious Jewish homes, are baalei teshuvah, or are gerim – alternately do not enjoy prayer, do not pray properly, and in many cases simply neglect daily prayer altogether. The reasons for this are simple:

[a] The nosah is incredibly long.

[b] The physical posture employed is passive rather than active.

[c] It requires uncomfortable equipment.

[d] The prayers are hurried and rushed through, leaving all but the trained ‘murmurer’ behind.

[e] Late kabbalistic additions are many times strange and change the simplicity of focus.

[f] There is much mis-education regarding the true nature of prayer and its centrality in the daily worship of the One God of Israel.

All of the aforementioned reasons tend to cause a sense of futility and intimidation in religious newcomers while cultivating a numbness among seasoned participants. These factors often lead people not to care about or even desire understand what they are saying, being more concerned with racing through a mumbled string of paragraphs to fit everything in. Even our children have become infected with this dysfunctional relationship to prayer. I have watched as young benei yeshivah race through their shemoneh esrei, counting out the seconds and only reaching 12 to 15 before they take three steps backward. And we know this is true. I would bet that the majority of us have, at one time or another, witnessed young men rocking back and forth during prayer – giving an external show of participation – while being completely disengaged.

The Haredi/Hasidic approach to prayer has arguably destroyed its original intent, having replaced it with cheap spiritualism and over-active emotionalism. If we want a meaningful prayer experience wherein we feel at once close to and humbled before the Creator, then we need to re-align ourselves with the wisdom of Hazal and the halakhah. We need to re-discover prayer as a deep form of worship and of aligning oneself with the Divine will.

In this series of posts, I intend to address several of the issues with Jewish prayer in our times and what I see as needing to change in order to restore the beauty, simplicity, and meaning of this “service of the heart.”