Category Archives: Kabbalah

Sefirat haOmer: The Inner Journey of Liberation


Taking steps daily on our journey towards freedom

We now find ourselves in Chol haMoed Pesach – the intermediate days of Passover, the middle days of this ongoing eight-day holiday. After a gruelling week of preparation and a very energetic first two festival days, we are all physically spent, ready to relax and enjoy the rest of the week to come.

MITZRAYIM TO HAR SINAI: Mark Hurvitz wrote: "Rabbi Amy Scheinerman's father (Andrew Ross z"l, a graphic artist) arranged the squares in a spiral. If you look at it in three-dimensional space we begin at the foot of Sinai and climb up to the summit in time for Shavuot!"

MITZRAYIM TO HAR SINAI: In this Sefirat haOmer chart one envisions themselves taking 49-steps up the summit of Sinai in time for Shavuot. Designed by Aharon Varady, a realization of a concept envision by Andrew Ross z”l.

Still for many people the joy of the festival and that sense of momentum in our souls remains with us. As we each work through own personal exodus during this season. Now that we have determined to become free people, naturally there is a new passion to experience and actualize that freedom. And to continue this spiritual journey to become more liberated. A desire to push forward in this march of freedom still inspiring many of us.

So who do we do that? How do we become freer and more liberated people?

And how do we satisfy this expansive drive aroused in our souls, while also being amidst an exhaustingly vigorous season?

Our tradition responds to this with the mitzvah of the Sefirat haOmer – the commandment of counting of the Omer. And through this tradition we learn how everyday we can do a little bit of work on improving ourselves. That’s all it really requires to pursue freedom within yourself, just taking a small step each day out of whatever has held us back in our life’s journey.

In the procession of the Jewish year, we are on a journey from Pesach to Shavuot. A journey which takes us from freedom in Egypt, and brings us to celebration at Sinai.

We’ve talked before about the biblical commandment, to count seven weeks of harvest gladness in which our ancestors were to offer up their coarse barley growth. And how on the fiftieth day the ancient Israelites would offer up an offering of their finest wheat in the Temple,  in order to bring great culmination to this spring season on the holiday of Shavuot – the festival of weeks, celebrated on the 50th day from Pesach. (see “The Sefirat haOmer: Making The Days Count“)

These two holidays of Pesach and Shavuot, along with a third agricultural festival of Sukkot in the fall, they are called the Shelosh Regalim. These were the three pilgrimage festivals of the Torah, which in ancient times required people to journey all the way up to the capital of Jerusalem every year for these holidays.

This holiday of Shavuot has no fixed date, it occurs after 49 + 1 days after Pesach. Nor did this holiday historically have any fixed religious significance until the rabbis of the Mishna began to relate this holiday with the giving of Torah at Har Sinai.

The rabbis therefore understood these 49 days as a time of personal preparation for receiving Torah. A period which would come to be characterized by personal reflection and ethical introspection. In this way the rabbis made this period an inner journey for us. They helped us appreciate this extensive mitzvah of Sefrat haOmer as a process on a path to become worthy of receiving this revelation of Torah. In order to stand dignified at Shavuot and receive this Torah anew.

In this way we also come to appreciate the sefirah period as a way for refining and cleaning ourselves up along the way – as we shed our slave characteristics –  on our way to the reception of the Torah at Sinai.

This sense of devotion became even more stressed by the kabbalistic masters of the 16th century in Tzfat, and then later by the chassidic masters who followed them. These mystics also decided take the journey inward, but in a much deeper and more profound way.

According to their custom of meditating upon the prayers of their highly mystical siddurim, they gave practical application to the Sefirat haOmer for making it engage a personal tikkun – a correction, a repair in one’s nature. And to do so systematically and with motivated intention.

The mystics broke the sefirah period into seven cycles of seven weeks, seven being the number of completion and wholeness (i.e. number of days in a week; creation). Each of the seven weeks were set to correspond to one of the seven sefirot (Divine forces) which active in the physical world. Likewise each day of the week was set to correspond to a sefirah as well, making us look even deeper into each of these characteristics within ourselves.

This form of meditation reflects upon seven essential characteristics, and then makes us further consider how we operate those creative drives. We learn to focus on specific points of our character.

Let me give you a few examples of how this line of meditation works, and also demonstrate how one can reflect on these (with a few off-the-cuff meditative suggestions that come to mind for me during my personal reflection at this time, those are in quotes; to give us examples of how to work through these thoughts):

Day 1 of the Omer:

חֶסֶד שֶׁבְּחֶסֶד

Kindness within Kindness

“Do I display my kindness with acts of truly pure kindness?”

Day 2 of the Omer:

גְּבוּרָה שֶׁבְּחֶסֶד

Discipline/Judgment within Kindness

“Is my sense of discipline in-line with my sense of kindness?”

Day 3 of the Omer:

תִּפְאֶרֶת שֶׁבְּחֶסֶד

Beauty/Harmony within Kindness

“Do I use my expansive kindness for bringing harmony and balance?”

Day 4 of the Omer:

נֶצַח שֶׁבְּחֶסֶד

Endurance/Victory within Kindness

“Is my sense of kindness in-line with a love that is long-lasting and able to overcome the challenges?”

During the first week we start in Chesed (Kindness), which is an accessible point of reference for the soul as we continue on with the joy of celebrating Pesach and as are just starting out on our sefirah count. Then in the second week we move into Gevurah (Discipline/Judgement). The third week Tiferet (Beauty/Harmony), etc.

Each week we look at one part of our Divinely inspired nature, and then systematically examine how we can bring balance to it. Looking at each level of our consciousness, realizing there are elements of each impulse mixed-in with the others. Our challenge is to bring balance within ourselves so that none of these are in conflict, and so that we can achieve a sense of freedom within ourselves.

This might also be helpful for beginners of this form of meditation: Think of the daily sefirah as representing one aspect of your divinely inspired inner drives or ambitions, and the sefirah for the week as representing how you go about achieving that in your actions. There is certain ways we feel inside, but its all about bringing our outward displays in-line with that.

The kabbalists weaved other meditative elements into their counting of the Omer. They also assigned certain meditative words from psalms and letters to each day. As well as pieces of the highly mystical Aramaic prayer Ana Bekoach. All these textual overlays, to further inspire an inner journey.

Now there is a reason that I keep referring to the Sefirat haOmer as a journey. This mitzvah is one with many steps in order to fulfill it.  It requires us making the effort everyday for 49 days, taking many small steps everyday. We cannot move forward if we stop at any point. Which is what makes this mitzvah so much of a discipline to keep. However, it is a deeply rewarding journey of self-exploration and refinement for those who follow all the way through!

Modern Meditative Aids for the Sefirat haOmer

colorfulomerchart KOL ALEPH MINIOne of the best ways to help one remember the daily Omer count is to use a chart. Over the years many charts have been devised to help people remember and stay accurate with their count. Many communities and homes have unique ones which people festively display and refer to.

These clever charts are also very useful for helping people visualize this path and process. One contemporary chart posted by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat of the ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal is a personal favorite. See her entry at Kol Aleph:

This not only a great way to keep count, it is also a great way to meditate upon the Omer. To think of it as a journey moving inward, to examine ourselves in our deepest core. Or we can also see this as a path around a mountain, moving upward with a step each day until we reach the peak of Sinai. This lovely chart is also overlaid with other meditative elements which color and desktop formatting today allow.

Over the years I have made the case that the rabbis made intentional use of specific words, letters and sounds to deliver imagery. As they were limited in their means of presenting these ideas in a black-and-white world in which they produced their manuscripts,  the mystics used other schemas. I have always believed that had the mystics of old lived today they would layer meaning in color, which would also aid in showing relationships of one thing to another.

I’m glad to see that several scholars and rabbis of the modern age are utilizing color to expressed concepts in their works and materials. To help people visualize the lesson and their inner journey.

Aharon-Varady-Sefirot-HaOmer-ChartOne the finest examples of this is the Sefirat HaOmer Chart of Lieba B. Ruth (aka, Lauren Deutsch), which was originally created according to her own color scheme.

Aharon Varady also notes:

“Lauren Deutsch’s system of color correspondences for the sefirot mainly follows the light spectrum from red to deep blue, then black and purple. Her systems accords well with that of Mark Hurvitz’s 7×7 Color Grid for the Omer.”

My friend and colleague Aharon Varady of the Open Siddur Project, was able formulate a meditative chart which would alternatively correspond to the color schema innovated by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

She has generously shared this Kabbalistic Sefirat HaOmer chart as free and redistributable resource through the Open Siddur Project. Please re-distribute!

DOWNLOAD: SVG (source) | PNG

Please also refer to the original post by Aharon Varady and Lauren Deutsch at Open Siddur Project:

This chart expresses how the sefirot – both for the corresponding week and day of the sefirah count – how they come together. Causing us to conceptualize and consider the relationship of one characteristic to the other, and helping us visualize the balance we are trying to achieve between these powerful forces inside us.

In like manner, Aharon Varady also created a variation of the meditative circles chart utilizing a classical and historically inspired color schema. A schema which was presented in Reb Seidenberg’s Omer Counter widget (Neohasid.org). Aharon noted that this color system corresponds closely with that of the colors suggested by the RAMAK in Pardes Rimonim,Aharon-Varady_-_Omer-Circles-(David-Seidenberg's-Color-schema) as cited in Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s book, “Meditation & Kabbalah” (p. 181)  in the chapter titled “Colors.”

Having also taken personal interest in the color correspondences within classic kabbalistic literature, I had also tried to imagine this. To perceive how the mystics would have conceived of this. So this additional contribution has helped bring that to life for me. This color schema is very useful and meaningful to both Chassidic and Sephardic followers of the mystical disciplines.

The meaning of all this is also presented for us by Aharon in his detailed comments of the aforementioned post. The entry also wonderfully included the prayers, blessings, meditations, and even an updating counting widget… in addition to the helping you identify and visualize the interacting sefirot as you observe this special mitzvah!

Conclusion:

Many of us modern people don’t have the time or space in our lives make a religious pilgrimage like ancients used to during this time of year, therefore we have a long tradition of focusing on how to take this journey inward. We should utilize the many ways of teaching and thinking which helps take us on a journey for the soul.

Want to personalize your own journey? Here is a Do-It-Yourself help for making your own Sefirat haOmer Chart.

We have been learning about this inward journey through the soul we engage in during the sefirah period. One of the best ways is to visualize that journey as path up a mountain, as previously mentioned regarding another chart.

Aharon Varady also provides us with a subtle adaptation of a chart concept envisioned by Andrew Ross z”l. As noted by Aharon elsewhere:

 “Mark Hurvitz wrote: “Rabbi Amy Scheinerman‘s father (Andrew Ross z”l, a graphic artist) arranged the squares in a spiral. If you look at it in three-dimensional space we begin at the foot of Sinai and climb up to the summit in time for Shavuot!” (Please see: http://www.scheinerman.net/judaism/shavuot/omer4.html)

This wonderful chart is designed by Aharon Varady, a realization of a concept envision by Andrew Ross z”l.

The chart image shown at the top is a Creative Commons document, editable and redistributable design. Showing a spiral starting from the upper right, and moving counter-clockwise on its way inward. Indeed, all the items presented by Open Siddur are open-source licensed to edit and share! Feel free to personalize it with numbers or meditative thoughts.

What are you making your exodus from this year? Are you trying to leave bad traits behind? Are you making a journey out of addiction? Are you finding liberation from the effects of unhealthy relationships? Or are you just stepping forward in order to leave a sense of apathy behind? Personalize this chart and meditation for your goals. Whatever helps you visualize your journey inward to the soul and upward to Sinai!

Related articles:


Parshat Noach (2013)


Genesis 6:9 – 11:32

The Time the Earth Got Dipped In the Mikvah

Last week when we discussed the Torah portion we explored how across many cultures there are certain stories that are almost universally recognized among the epic myths of the ancient world. We also explored how these stories often charge natural elements with symbolic meaning. (see Parshat Bereishit 2013) The story of The Great Flood is probably one of the best examples of that.

Let’s great right into it, and let the text lead us. We will start at the top of the third aliya. Our text reads:

“And there was a flood

forty days

upon the earth.

And the waters increased

raising the ark,

so that it was lifted up from the earth.”

| Vayehi hamabul

| arba’im yom

| al-ha’aretz

| vayirbu hamayim

| vayis’u et-hatevah

| vataram me’al ha’aretz

Genesis 7:17

One of the things that we have to notice about our Torah readings, is that in the last two weeks water has taken a large role in the narrative. (see Parshat Bereishit 2013) We began the scriptures by walking into the story right at the point of creation. The first thing we see come into existence is a water-world; the entire surface of the world is covered with water and the spirit of G-d hovers over it. In our tradition we are taught that water is the essential primordial element, our mystical tradition tells us all physical things are essential formed through water.

Did you know there are only two ways to become Jewish. One is by birth. The other is through conversion. The act of conversion is usually finalized with immersing in the mikveh, the ritual bath. It contains 40 seah of natural water, symbolizing like the 40 weeks of human gestation. By dunking in the water, as naked as they were born, one becomes reborn and emerges to a new life as a new person.

Did you know there are only two ways to become Jewish? One is by birth. The other is through conversion. The act of conversion is usually finalized with immersing in the mikveh, the ritual bath. It contains 40 seah of natural water, symbolizing like the 40 weeks of human gestation. By dunking in the water, as naked as they were born, one becomes reborn and emerges to a new life as a new person.

In many cultures water is considered a symbol of birth and rebirth, a child emerges from the womb which is filled with water. And of course water is also considered a symbol of purity, washing is thus looked at as a form of renewal in the eastern religions. Water offers purity. It is also able to quench our thirst, it is an essential element necessary for our life. But at the same time with the majority of our planet covered in harsh waters, it’s also something that people hold a deeply reverent fear for. Water is highly symbolic on many levels.

For a while I would like us to focus on this topic of birth and rebirth, because it also offers us a connection to other symbolic elements of this story.

When Jewish people look at the story of the flood we cannot help but become almost overwhelmed by the amount of connections that we can mentally make regarding the symbolic nature of water.

Likewise the number forty also brings to remembrance many points of ancient wisdom. The ancients noticed that the human gestation period, the time it takes for the development of a baby in the womb, is approximately forty weeks long. Thus forty was always considered a number of fertility. They often saw it useful to personify female fertility in the planet Venus as it takes forty days to retrograde from it’s place as evening star into a position of being the morning star. Interestingly, the pre-embryo of an infant according to the Talmud is said to form in the first forty days. (Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 69b) The number forty seems to hold special significance in the Jewish tradition as much as it does among the world cultures, and it is generally connected to birth and rebirth.

In the Torah the number forty reminds of us of the forty-year journey of the exodus (Numbers 14:33-34). We should also take notice that Moses fasted and communed with G-d for forty days before receiving the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28) and again a second time later in the exodus story (Exodus 34:28). The spies scouted out the promised land for forty days (Numbers 13:25). Sometimes the use of forty is a thing of good cheer, such as Kind David and Solomon ruled for forty years each (2 Samuel 5:4, 1 Kings 2:11; 1 Kings 11:42). Other times it is a negative thing, Goliath taunted Israel for forty days (1 Samuel 17:16), Egypt is prophesied to lay waste for forty years (Ezekiel 29:11-12), G-d tells Jonah to warn Nineveh they have forty days to repent or face destruction (Jonah 3:4). Sometimes it is a symbol of rest and renewal, such as when G-d gives the land a period of rest for forty years at a times (Judges 3:11; Judges 5:31; Judges 8:28). Other times it’s a symbol of judgment, during the early kingdom the people of Israel did evil and G-d gave them an advisory in the Philistines to contend with for forty years (Judges 13:1), drawing parallels to the punishment of the forty-year exodus journey.

One of the most obvious symbolism that stands out to us religious Jews is the fact that the mikvah – the ritual immersion pool, holds forty measured seah of water. For ritual purity Jews immerse themselves fully in a ritual bath filled with mayim chayim – living waters, or natural flowing water. A person dips into the pool fully nude and immerses themselves completely in order to purify themselves. When one does this they become like a new-born person, being surrounded on all sides in a pool of natural water one emerges pure like the day they were born.

Old Mikvah

Steps to an ancient Israeli mikvah. Though any natural pool of water can be used, the mikvah is specially made to provide the spiritual space to ritually dip even when a natural body of water like an ocean or lake is not nearby. Diverted and filtered rainwater and snow are used to fill it.

For this reason it is the common custom for newly religious Jews and converts to immerse in a mikvah. To symbolize their rebirth and emergence as a new and whole person.

Mikvah is a big deal in our tradition. It is something essential for religious Jews, immersing before taking upon ourselves special religious duties; this ritual takes us back to the temple period where the priest immersed themselves. Many orthodox Jews immerse before shabbat or high holidays. Others that are more mystical such as chassidim immerse themselves in a mikvah everyday before praying in the morning.

Of course today most primarily consider the mikvah as an essential for taharat hamisphacha – family purity. Men and women immerse themselves in preparation for their coming together in marriage. Women purify themselves after every menstruation and child-birth before becoming intimate again.

As we see the symbols of water and cyclical cycles of forty are numerous and overlapping, but they bring us all back to the same place. Forty and the element of water are both symbolic of renewal and rebirth. In ancient customs this is seen as an obvious biological reality that applies to all the world.

When we look at this story of the flood we see that for forty days the world was subject to a purge because of the great sins of humanity. Waters covered the face of the earth, purifying it in a measured and purposeful way. The earth had been throughly corrupted and polluted, it needed to be washed and renewed. So that after forty days man and nature could start over again pure and reborn.

Through Jewish eyes we see the story of The Great Flood as being something more purposeful that just utter destruction and punishment. We see the flood as a symbol of renewal and rebirth, not simply a simple tool of death and vengeance. It’s like the earth is being dipped in a mikvah.

However, make no mistake about it, we cannot avoid the fact that this story is indeed about judgment. Though the Torah has been no cake-walk up until now, the major theme of our Torah studies up to now have been about the creative acts. The expansive goodness of G-d. Now we are finding out in full force the judgment of G-d. Mystically we understand this as a natural reality. Kabbalistically we understand that Parshat Bereishit was about the fire of chesed (kindness) – G-d said let their be light, creating the world out of a sheer act of undeserved kindness. However Parshat Noach is about gevurah (greatness, understood as judgment), interestingly we see that gevurah is connected to the female spiritual aspect and the element of water. Kabbalistically we understand that in natural reality existence moves from a state of transmission and expansiveness, to shifting towards constriction and engulfment. (see Parshat Bereishit 2013)

Or simply put, its like how hot love eventually turns cold after a while. With any partners the initial spark of passion fades over time, and eventually your love is tempered by the bad habits that annoy you. At first you had no major issues with your spouse, but the judgments sneak themselves into the mix over time. It’s easy to understand what is going on here in the flood story. The honeymoon is over, and now the world is drowning in problems and destruction.

In spoken Hebrew the word mabul (flood) also takes on special meaning, it means to be confused and even mixed-up (like the word balbal). To be in mabul is to be in a state of confusion and disorder. I think that is the term that most of us can best appreciate. At one time or another we all have experienced a state of confusedness and disarray that is caused by negative living.

Maybe some of you are experiencing that right now. Do you feel the waters rising in a flood of negativity? The great news is that you don’t need to drown in it. We can save ourselves from it. This is all possible by us making a simple shift in thinking and actions, by making our destructive deluge a purifying mivkah for us. We decide that instead of just bobbing around in our problems until they overwhelm us, to take the plunge and immerse ourselves in our self-development.

Our Jewish tradition offers us ways to help turn these waters of negativity into a refreshing rebirth. The Torah is often described in our tradition as pure water. It refreshed the soul and also purifies one’s being. By engaging ourselves in self-reflection through Torah study we can begin to turn the waters of negativity into a source of gevurah (strength) for us. We can also engage in prayer and fasting. And of course, we can also use the ultimate symbol of rebirth by immersing ourselves in a natural pool. Mivkah offers us a way to make a mental break with the past and all it’s ties that hold us back.

Pardes: “Water, Water!”

Over the last few weeks we have been talking about mysticism, about Kabbalah. I cannot help but think of one story that comes to mind when considering the symbolic and mystical nature of water in the Jewish tradition.

Almost all people know the story from Talmud Hagigah (see Talmud Bavli 16b, Talmud Yerushalmi 2) of the Four Rabbis of Pardes. The four rabbis that go up to the sacred orchard, the grove of supernal wisdom. We understand this as them acquiring hidden truth, the secret of the hidden Torah; the Kabbalah. The text reads as follows:

“The Rabbis taught: Four entered the Pardes. They were Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva said to them, ‘When you come to the place of pure marble stones, do not say, “Water! Water!” for it is said, “He who speaks untruths shall not stand before My eyes” (Psalms 101:7)’. Ben Azzai gazed and died. Regarding him the verse states, “Precious in the eyes of G-d is the death of His pious ones” (Psalms 116:15). Ben Zoma gazed and was harmed. Regarding him the verse states, “Did you find honey? Eat as only much as you need, lest you be overfilled and vomit it” (Proverbs 25:16). Acher cut down the plantings. Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and left in peace”

תר ארבעה נכנסו בפרדס ואלו הן בן עזאי ובן זומא אחר ורבי עקיבא אמר להם רע כשאתם מגיעין אצל אבני שיש טהור אל תאמרו מים מים משום שנאמר (תהילים קא) דובר שקרים לא יכון לנגד עיני בן עזאי הציץ ומת עליו הכתוב אומר (תהילים קטז) יקר בעיני ההמותה לחסידיו בן זומא הציץ ונפגע ועליו הכתוב אומר (משלי כה) דבש מצאת אכול דייך פן תשבענו והקאתו אחר קיצץ בנטיעות רבי עקיבא יצא בשלום.

Talmud Bavli, Hagigah 14b

This is probably one of the most famous stories of the Chazal. Our sages told this story many different ways, so it peppers many great works. It is also one of the starting places for people who take up the study of kabbalah. One of the reasons is because this story offers us some warnings about taking on mystical interpretation.

We are told initially that when one ascends to a place of pure marble, which is understood to be the throne of G-d, one is not to begin to spastically blabber, “Water! Water!”

What are the connections to water here and the mystical experience? One cannot be exactly sure, but we do understand this as meaning to ascend to a spiritual realm that is somewhere between the lower and upper waters of the heavens (see Genesis 1:6). The marble throne is often said to be symbolic of the effects of water too, as our tradition tells us marble is formed by the pressure of the great waters again rocks. It hints to the primordial state of the spiritual universe, between the physical and the realm of pure energy.

Most every Jewish child knows the story summed-up this way: “One was harmed, one died, one cut his clippings, and only one went away in peace.” But how are we to understand the story?

Of Ben Azzai it is said that he merely peered upon the spiritual realm and he died. He was so overwhelmed by the experience that he could not contain himself. He engages a purely aesthetic approach. His desire was to do the ultimate spiritual act in the mind of many mystics, to leave the matters of earth and join with the spiritual. To give up the ghost and merge with the One. Thus he left his body behind and died.

Ben Zoma is said to have been harmed. We understand this to mean that he went mad. When faced with the spiritual reality of the upper realms he became overwhelmed like a person that eats too much honey. It made him sick. However, this sickness was of the mind. He became insane. The kabbalists teach us that when he saw the spiritual world laid-out and displayed for him all he saw was the connectedness of everything. It started with the element of water, he saw how it is an underlying element in everything. He fried his brain on seeing the connections of all things one to another, until all he was left muttering nothing more than, “Water! Water!”

And then there is Acher – which means “the other,” this is the term used of the heretic Rabbi Elisha ben Avuyah. He stands out in our tradition as the ultimate example of an apikores – a heretic, derived from the term “epicurean,” he became some sort of pleasure-seeking gnostic. It is said that he descended to cutting clippings, which our sages say means he cut herbs in order to offer them to idols. Instead of seeing the oneness in everything and being overwhelmed that way, he saw the distinctness and an unconnected nature in things to the point each became a living deity to him. He was permanently harmed spiritually and ethically.

Only one rabbi comes back unharmed, Rabbi Akiva. He alone is able to come and go into this realm in peace. Thus he comes back with his warning for the others, even before they attempt to go there. Do not get overwhelmed, do not cry out, “Water! Water!”

Though Rabbi Akiva’s advice is a bit curious, he doesn’t leave us without an indication as to what it means. He says that when faced with the Divine one should not speak falsehoods. To cry out, “Mayim, mayim / Water, water” he says is a lie. How so? Though not stated, it is hinted by the word itself. Maya means illusion in Hebrew. We thus mystically understand that just like light shimmers and shines off of the surface of water, so too our perception of reality is like an illusion reflected off the ripples of a pond. We don’t really see a true form, just the few distorted pieces of light that catch our eye. Thus the verse Akiva provided tell us not to be dishonest as we stand before G-d, even as he urges us not to follow after illusions.

For these rabbis it can be said that though all of them were well learned in Torah, not all of them had settled their philosophical issues before going off into the deep end. Instead of finding peace like Rabbi Akiva, the others instead followed a path of illusion that hurt them physically, mentally and spiritually.

As we talk about mysticism I want us to remember that true kabbalah challenges us from its earliest textual sources to be mindful to not fall into a trap of illusions. That we don’t get stuck in a loop of irrelevance. That we don’t become distracted by the sparkle of a false reality. To realize that the truth of Torah is indeed like water, it can only mold and bend to the state of the vessel in which it is poured into. So our first challenge is to find wholeness and rest in ourselves. It is our goal to understand that the more whole and at peace we are, the better we can reflect the Light.


Parshat Bereishit (2013)


Genesis 1 – 6:8

How We Kabbalistically Bring Thoughts Into Reality

sephirot4pngbbbOver the past few years this Torah portion has been a starting place for me to discuss aspects of Kabbalah, the basics of Jewish mysticism. It is nearly impossible for me to discuss the topic of creative process without doing so through the eyes of received wisdom. In Hebrew to mitkabel means to receive. Our received Jewish mystical tradition is thus called Kabbalah, it is the studying of received truth as documented in the Torah and it’s wealth of commentary.

One of the reasons that I feel I must take this approach is because the allegorical and spiritual essence of this story is intentional and central to the creation narrative. It’s not a cop-out that was invented by modern apologist. The Torah uses seemingly esoteric use of symbolism that richly color this narrative like none other in the scriptures.

Generally when we are looking for mystical truth from the Torah we turn to books like the Zohar, the book of enlightenment that is a commentary to the Torah. The Zohar is broken down in basic discussions and parashot (sections) that match up with cycle of parashiyot (our weekly Torah readings). It’s not the only text of kabbalah, but it is the most exhaustive and essential of the primary works of Torah commentary. Though most scholars can only date this text back as far as the middle ages, it is written in the language and tone as that of the Talmud. It features the same sages and presents the same form of discourses as Talmudic literature. Jews receive this text as being among the many mesoretic inheritances handed down to us, one that was once oral but has since been written down for posterity.

I present some commentary from the Zohar in order to offer us some guidance of how we should look at the Torah, for how we should be reading it as we go along. This is probably a good discussion to have now, as we are renewing our cycle of Torah reading for another year. Our text reads as follows:

“Says Rabbi Shimon: Woe to the man who says that the Torah came to merely relate stories and ordinary words. For if this was so, even in this present day we could make a Torah from ordinary tales; and ones probably nicer than those [in the scriptures]. If it came to present earthly matters, then even the [present] rulers of the world have among themselves works which are superior. If this is the case, let us follow their example and compose some sort of Torah of our own…

…Woe to the wicked that say that the Torah consists of stories and nothing more, for they look at the [outer] garment and no further. Praiseworthy are the righteous, who look at the Torah the proper way. Just as wine must be in a container to hold it, the Torah does not endure unless in its mantle. So therefore only look at what is under the garment. All those words and stories are garments.”

רש אמר ווי לההוא בנ דאמר דהא אורייתא אתא לאחזאה ספורין בעלמא ומלין דהדיוטי. דאי הכי אפילו בזמנא דא אנן יכלין למעבד אורייתא במלין דהדיוטי ובשבחא יתיר מכלהו אי לאחזאה מלה דעלמא אפילו אינון קפסירי דעלמא אית בינייהו מלין עלאין יתיר. אי הכי נזיל אבתרייהו ונעביד מנייהו אורייתא כהאי גוונא אלא כל מלין דאורייתא מלין עלאין אינון ורזין עלאין.

ווי לאינון חייביא דאמרי דאורייתא לאו איהי אלא ספורא בעלמא ואינון מסתכלי בלבושא דא לא יתיר זכאין אינון צדיקייא דמסתכלי באורייתא כדקא יאות. חמרא לא יתיב אלא בקנקן כך אורייתא לא יתיב אלא בלבושא דא. ועד לא בעי לאסתכלא אלא במה דאית תחות לבושא ועד כל אינון מלין וכל אינון ספורין לבושין אינון:

Zohar: Parshat Behaaolatecha 58; 64

One of the reasons that many traditional, orthodox Jews find it fairly easy to exist in a world of deep religious conviction while still excelling in science and reason is because the two are not mutually exclusive. Nor is one called to compromise one for the other. Our Torah presents our truths, our reason produces our facts.

Though we look to this Torah for truth, we don’t presume that all that is true about the world is written here in the Torah. It is the truth, but it does not demand that we see it as necessarily factually or chronologically true. The Torah is the essential truth that G-d has revealed into this world, but it cannot be used as a history book or as a primer in physical science.

Interestingly, this Zohar text is redacted in the middle-ages, when knowledge was lost and they looked back to a more glorious and well documented past. But in his tone the author suggests that even in their dark-ages a contemporary historian could have come up with something more profound if one tried. If this Torah is about fact, then wise and important men have libraries of books that do a better job at that than our Torah. The Torah cannot have been given to us for that purpose or else it is obsolete and antiquated. Surely today in an age of science and empirical evidence this is even more true. We need to read the text deeper, in fact according to the “right way,” which is through allegory and symbolism.

Most people who come from other religious experiences tend to find this position mighty progressive, and maybe even a bit irreverent. But for the person of reason, this tends to come across as refreshing. The only people who tend to get irritated by this approach are those who intend to mock Torah, who need biblical literalism to stand as their straw-man to kick over.

It’s not just atheists that tend dislike this approach, even co-religionists tend to get upset with me for stating this. For instance once I sat in a class and heard a very liberal rabbi poking fun at our ancestors for not understanding how the world worked. His reason was to in like fashion characterize present orthodox Jews as handicapped by an almost magical view of creation and history.

When I later pulled him aside and asked how he felt his reduction to absurdity was intellectually honest he got upset. I posed that if you considering it, the more orthodox the person the more they tend to revere this mystical and allegorical mentality as found in the Zohar, it’s not theory for light-weights. In response he made issue with the authority of the Zohar and challenged that kabbalah is not universally appreciated. However I contended that this approach was a well documented and accepted concept in Judaism much prior to the Renaissance and Enlightenment, it is not a product of modern religious movements. Elements of kabbalah permeate much of our established Jewish customs and liturgy, it is a shared heritage. It is not a marginal philosophy, therefore it is dishonest to mis-characterize what it means to be a Torah believing person by slighting this approach.

One of the points I have to make to people like this when discussing the creation story of Genesis, is that we need to not just recognize the similarities that exist among the various myths and legends (example: the great flood). We also need to look at stories more multi-layered, the way we clearly know to do for the texts of other well documented societies; the Egyptians, Hindus, Greeks, Persians, Romans, etc. We know that their equivalent of the genesis narratives are made not as much to describe the literal composition of the world, but to present their perceived architecture of existence. Their philosophy surrounding the formation of the world and living souls presented in their stories was for the purpose of displaying the structure of the soul and the creative process. For these societies their sacred texts were discussion points that encouraged an almost early attempt at the philosophy of psychology. It not just said how the souls were formed, but also to exhibited what motivates them.

Now it’s not just defense of traditional Judaism that motivates me to engage people, like the previously mentioned rabbi, to dig further into our tradition to reveal a deeper kernel of truth in these stories. It’s because as people who represent Judaism to others we need to get beyond the claim that Torah is primarily concerned with mere history, because that approach does not offer us any reason for why one should personally seek out G-d or spirituality.

The Zohar, in the name of Rabbi Shimon, instead says it’s not just beneficial for us to look beyond the surface level meaning of the Torah, but it calls anyone that does not do so a sinner. The Zohar insists that we consider another way, it demands that we look for the soul of the Torah.

And this is that path that we will take as we begin to explore the Torah this year. Not that allegory is only present in the Zohar, it is present in all forms of rabbinic literature, however it is a central focus of the Zohar. Our starting off place this year is with the Zohar, as it offers us one of the best descriptions of how allegory and mystical interpretation of the scriptures works.

The Zohar contends that the Torah is wrapped in a mantle, but underneath there is a living soul to it. It’s like a person, when we look at someone generally the first thing that we see is their appearance. We judge their demeanor, how well they are dressed-up and how they present themselves. But the Zohar contends that just as foolish as it would be for us to judge a person based on their outer appearance, it is so when consider only the surface level of the Torah. (Zohar, ff. 61)

The Zohar tell us that the Torah is not just an abstract thing, there is a real substance to it. There is a solid body of truth to it. The Zohar calls the Torah mitzvot (the laws and commandments, good and holy deeds) “gufei Torah / the Body of the Torah” in Aramaic (the Talmudic language of rabbinic Judaism). It is the frame that holds us up. And on this frame hang our “levushin / garments,” the stories of the Torah are thus like the clothing one wears, that dress one up but at the same time conceal hidden person underneath.

The rabbis here challenges us to be wise, to not just look at the surface oblivious that of the anything else might existing beneath it all. If it was a person we would want to see the body underneath. Even more so we should want to get to know the person that is even deeper than that, so intimately so that we can almost touch their soul. The Zohar states that we are to look as deep as we can. Stating that the sages and our ancestors who stood at Sinai were so wise that, “la mis’taklei ela b’nishmata, d’i’hi ikara dchola oraita mamash / they only looked at the soul of the Torah, which is the essential root of everything, the real Torah.” We are told that in the future, in the world to come, all will see the soul of the Torah. (Zohar. ff. 62)

So why do we consider the Torah and its commands (mitzvot) at all? What do we have to learn from them? What importance does this Torah have to us? And why should we practice Torah mitzvot?

The Torah is the physical body that houses the soul of Essential Truth, clothed in the beauty of a story. It tells us how to bring the Divine Will into physicality, we do this by causing our soul to meet up with a physical action as mitzvot – doing the will of G-d in performing good deeds and spiritual acts.

But why does this kabbalah, the essence of all that is, have to be revealed through the Torah? The Zohar explains because it needs to be revealed in a form that we can understand. The Zohar brings forward an idea of the spiritual realm that we already understand to show as an example, it uses angels and their taking on a physical form. In order for us to perceive of them they take on a physical appearance. It is not just to see them, but also because their raw energy would be overwhelming if we came in direct contact with it. So too, this essential truth needs to be presented in a form we can understand, and in a fashion in which we can approach. (Zohar ff. 59)

The Zohar further contends that the “true Torah” (which we can call kabbalah) cannot be separated from its mantle, from the stories and it’s discussions in the scriptures. If we tried to separate them it could not last, anymore than wine could if you removed it from its flask. It needs to be held and preserved in this fashion.

However, just like with wine, we are really interested in what is on the inside. We should continue to seek to reach the sweet and sometimes intoxicating center of Divine reality hidden in these scriptures.

As we move forward in our Torah learning over this next year, I would hope that we begin to look at the scriptures as a guide to bringing our abstract feelings of faith and potential that is in our souls into reality. To utilize the Torah as our muscle to move us forward, so that we can labor in producing mitzvot that correct ourselves (tikkun atzmi) and repair our world (tikkun olam).

Continuing Discussion Regarding Applied Kabbalah

Last time we discussed this parsha we began to talk about basics of kabbalah. We started off with the primary concepts of the Three Pillars, the three modalities. They are symbolized by the variables ש for Fire, מ for Water, and א for Air. (see Parshat Bereishit 2012) When we discuss these aspects we must understand we are not talking about true elements. We are merely using these descriptions in order to best display the nature of the modalities. We are using these things to express how they react towards each other. It’s like talking about electromagnetic states; positive, negative and neutral. We began to discuss how we need to bring balance to our nature; to not be too much of a hot wire, nor should we bone cold, but we should find a golden middle path. We should bring balance to our thoughts and actions.

Now the reason we started out with the sefirah of Chesed – the Divine aspect of Kindness (also called Gedulah, or “greatness”) – is because that is the first real manifestation of G-d in the world that we can experience, according to kabbalah. It is a great and expansive form of kindness which is displayed in the scriptures as the first of the Seven Lower Sefirot – the seven Divine aspects that we display in this physical world (they are drawn from 1 Chronicles 29:11).

upperthreesefirotbThey are not the only aspects of G-d that exist. Indeed there are higher aspects of the Divine that transcend physical form, so they take the form of consciousness. They are understood as Chochmah (wisdom), Binah (discernment) and Daat (understanding, also displayed as Keter, the Crown). These are the Three Upper Sefirot. Though we understand that physical forms begin to take shape with Chesed, the scriptures tell us that very foundations of the physical world are first laid in Chochmah, in wisdom. (“Hashem b’chochma yasad-aretz,” see Proverbs 3:20) And that is what we are learning about today, creation and the creative process. How it goes from thought to physicality. We do so through the story of how a purposeful thought became ha-aretz, the Earth.

Our Torah text reads as follows:

“At the beginning

G-d created the heavens

and the earth.

Now the earth was desolate and

formless,

and darkness covered the face the deep.

And the wind of G-d hovered

upon the face of the waters.

And G-d said:

Let there be light!

And then there was light.”

| Bereshit

| bara Elohim et hashamayim

| ve’et ha’aretz

| Veha’aretz hayetah tohu

| vavohu

| vechoshech al-penei tehom

| veruach Elohim merachefet

| al-penei hamayim.

| Vayomer Elohim

| yehi-or v

| ayehi-or.

Genesis 1:1

In our kabbalistic understanding there are Ten Sefirot – ten aspects that manifest the Divine. Our sages first tell us in the Talmud that there are ten creative acts, that we call the Ten Utterances. (see Talmud, Rosh haShanah 32a) They point to here in the scriptures, where G-d says “Let there be…” Now the Talmud notes the fact that we only see nine actual spoken commands to accounts for. There is at least one unspoken act, and that is the actual creation of the world itself. If we look at our text we see a primordial world spring into existence at the beginning (bereshit). One that is formless and in chaos, with bodies of water and winds blowing over the surface of them. From this perspective the whole first sentence of Torah becomes one creative act.

From the Talmudic perspective we see how will and intention – pure thought (as expressed through the Upper Three Sefirot) – must precede action (as expressed by the Lower Seven Sefirot). Creation comes down from a higher consciousness, in the same manner that impulses from our brains manifest in the actions of our body.

The Zohar however has a slightly different take on things. It shifts the focus even more metaphysically. It agrees that there was something before this start, that is yet undescribed in the scriptures. Though it begins to count the Ten Utterances from the words, “Let there be light.” This is the first true act of creation, the Zohar contends. It starts with light, understanding that G-d needed to create a way in which to relate to us. A divine manifestation to permeate the universe that we can understand, which we perceive that as Light. The Zohar takes us to the very moments near the big bang, when the universe seems to inflate from an infinitesimally minuscule point and it is yet flooded with light.

The Zohar teaches that this overwhelming light which is displayed at the top of our kabbalistic tree, in Keter (the Crown, the highest level of consciousness), is what we can perceive of as G-d, the creator. He is manifested as a stream of pure and all-encompassing light that is without form, Ohr (אור). It is the highest aspect of the modality of synthesis, the type of state we spoke of in Tiferet (harmony); everything is in balance. There is no lack of anything, there is nothing but an endless amount of potential energy in this universe for us to draw from there. G-d is one, and nothing else exists aside from His being. In His highest form we understand G-d as being Ohr Ein Sof – the Light (ohr) that is without (ain) end (sof). G-d is everything, and yet not one thing at all.

G-d needed a place to display this power so He created a void space, The universe was thus created as an empty canvas for G-d to work with. A blank screen on which he could project His light. Into this space the Divine takes all this energy and projects it out of pure will. This is a positive force, akin to a masculine drive; this is displayed as Chochmah, which is the higher manifestation of Chesed.

tree-emptyIt takes root in Binah, in a constrictive and yet receptive form of consciousness; we understand it as being akin to a feminine aspect. Binah we understand to mean “understanding,” but it is more like receiving a spark of intuition. It is a consciousness achieved through receptivity. From here all creative things are birth. This is the upper aspect akin to Gevurah.

Thus in this structure, the crowing truth is that G-d Consciousness is pure thought, intellect and understanding (The Upper Three). When it is synthesized to be translatable into the mortal world it take the form of Daat, which is Knowledge. The world cannot contain all of the “ultimate truth,” but it is discernible through knowledge.

And at the heart of us people are our emotional drives, the first three of the Lower Seven, which is the second level of this cosmic modality (Chesed, Gevurah and Tiferet). But what we need to understand and be knowledgeable regarding is the reality that we are more than just the sum of our emotions and drives. These drives are reflections of a higher consciousness and state of mindfulness that we drawing down from a higher spiritual place.

The reason why we need to get into control of our thoughts and emotions, is because eventually they transform into actions. Our emotions replicate themselves as Netzach (Endurance), Hod (Glory), and Yesod (Foundation). This is the realm of action, where our thoughts result in work to produce what we only vision in an abstract way; in our thoughts and emotions.

These levels of the grouped sefirot are called partzufim (configurations); they are gradations of truth and existence. So far we have seen three levels of this emanation. Partzufim are described as almost separate realms, understood as distinct “worlds.” In this form of mystical teaching we state that the creative power of the Divine trickled down through levels of formation and actualization until it results in producing this world, the earth. We are told earth is created in Malchut, the lowest of the ten sefirot. It is displayed in the fourth and lowest level of the partzufim. This is the realm of the physical world, were intent, drive and actions come into true form. It is not just potential and intent anymore. Malchut in the fourth patzuf is the realm where one’s will become a true products – a solid form through action. (assiyah)

During creation in this realm we see the primordial states ש (Fire), מ (Water) and א (Air) take form to become a new elemental state never existed before – haAretz, the Earth. Unlike the mysticism of the occult schools, we understand the earth is not eternal, earth is not a natural state on its own. It is formed out of the combination of three primordial states.

The Three Mother letters thus take their place standing over the Three Pillars, they best exemplify the first three sefirot (Keter, Chochman and Binah; and alternatively in different instances Chochmah, Binah, and Daat). These three do not directly touch this world, as it cannot contain them; they are transcendent.

worldscharts2Now to I must quickly bring us up to speed how this affects our understanding of the Etz Chaim – the Tree of Life – the form that sefirot take as they descend into our reality. The Three Mother elements spawn the creation of the physical world. The Lower Seven Lower sefirot thus become expressed by Seven Letters (ב, ג, ד, כ, פ, ר, ת) that correspond to the physical world. They are clearly representative of a shift in reality to a consciousness of space and time. These Seven Letters also correspond to the seven days of the week, and the seven planets of the classical world (Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn).

Thus the Three Mothers are the mochin (the brains), and the Seven Lower are the middot (characteristics) in which we manifest these thoughts and impulses through (such as emotions).

So what does this have to do with you and I? Why should this matter at all to any of us? This is all very psychedelic, but what is the usefulness of considering this?

One of the things that we learn here in Parshat Bereishit is that man (adam) was created b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of G-d. That does not mean that we were made to look physiologically like G-d Almighty. We are made in His image, but not as a duplicate of Him. We are not photocopies of G-d, however we do exhibit more like a traced shadow copy of G-d’s nature as though made in a camera obscura. Still the blueprint form we see in the spiritual realms for His general workings are also displayed in us. The order we see spiritually displayed in G-d’s emanations are nearly the same in principle as that of the working of our souls.

Many kabbalists understand man to be almost a microcosm of G-d, and even of the Universe itself. We have G-d given creativity and ability to shape a destiny for this universe. We do this by actualizing things we perceive in our higher intellect and imagination, and continue to work with something until all our effort begins to take a true and functioning form. And above our own intellect is an inspiration that we can also learn to draw down from a higher realms of spiritual consciousness.

In conclusion I want to remind us that we are talking about creation and the creative process. We naturally have in us the ability to create what we conceive of in our minds and dream of in our hearts. But a lot of the struggle in making that possible is learning to first let our heads rule our hearts. To be mindful and follow the cues of the wise inspiration that G-d has placed in our hearts. If so then we can be people who are not just creative, but also profoundly artistic and productive. Like the craftsman Bezalel who build the Mishkan (tabernacle) and temple instruments, for whom it is said:

And I have filled him with the Spirit of G-d, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship…

וָאֲמַלֵּא אֹתוֹ, רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, בְּחָכְמָה וּבִתְבוּנָה וּבְדַעַת, וּבְכָלמְלָאכָה

Exodus 31:3

Tips: We learned today that the commandments and the spiritual acts that we do are the gufei Torah – the Body of the Torah, because this is how we embody the Light and the true fullness of the Torah consciousness. But just like any body, if we exercise our various parts we strengthen our greater body. We become stronger and more nimble at doing the things we challenge ourselves with. Likewise in order for us to build up our creative skills and ability we need to work-out spiritually. We engage all the various parts of our intellect and desires in doing mitzvot – good deeds, spiritual acts.

The Torah mitzvot are tried and true ways to help us develop our skills and strengths. For every little good deed we do we also grown in a sense of accomplishment and pride.

It doesn’t take much to spark mindfulness and the creative process. Chant a beautiful prayer, learning a little Torah, give a tad of charity, or volunteer in the community.


Parshat Bereishit (2012)


Parshat Bereishit (2012)
Genesis 1:1–6:8

Are you mad that G-d isn’t a vegetarian? When moralizing turns ugly

I must admit that I’m only half-kidding with the title of this piece. I say only half, because as a young punk I was a vegan for many years. That’s right, in the early 90s at a time when it was almost unthinkable in the middle of the steak-and-potato suburbs I was one of the first people to take up the animal-free lifestyle, and boy was it difficult to do. Also quite costly. Luckily the food industry has been subjected to the better nutritional guidelines and forced to use dietary substitutions for the everyday products we enjoy today, and by virtue of that we have no problem finding meat-free food products on our plates everyday. This advance in the industry also has an added benefit for those of us keep kashrut, long gone are the days when you could find yourself falling off the derech because you ate an Oreo Cookie, with the realization that it was very likely that creamy center might actually be rendered beef fat; today they are certified kosher and use vegetable shortening instead. We all hold by a generally accepted truth that less animal fat is better for us, up against an over saturated existence.

What does this all have to do with the Torah? Many people who want to get back to a purer existence take a good look at what life was like here in Parshat Bereishit, in the Genesis story, in order to see what life was really like in paradise. To get a glimpse of a life without disease and cruelty we look back to the Garden of Eden. One of the points made by the moral-driven vegetarian is that in this paradise G-d caused the plants, trees and herbage to sprout up and be food for us. The ground did not need to be tilled by man. There was no farming of anything, neither plant nor animal. There was an abundance of fruit that man lived off of until the ground was cursed by G-d for man’s sin. (see Genesis 3:17-19)

Actually we don’t really seem to have to consider the concept of meat eating until the story of Noah; only after the earth is further decimated by the deluge, and coming forth from the ark on to this changed environment does our story even begin to concern itself with the issues of what is a clean and unclean animal for human consumption. It is safe to assume, as most midrash does, that before this time people were vegetarian. (see Genesis 9:3)

sephirot4pngbbbCan we assume that this was also so for that animal world as well? No, I doubt it. For the animal, if it was not already so, our tradition points out that their descent began with the first curse of the ground after the sin of Adam and Eve. Rashi tells us that the consequence of the ground being cursed on man’s account was also consequential for the snake that tricked them, when the ground was cursed it now also brought up insects, flees and ticks that harmed the animals of the field that the serpent would live upon. According to our rabbinic sources, this seems to be the point at which the sanguine circle of life gets complicated. All of nature turns on itself.

So why am I not a vegetarian any more? The real reason can almost be summed up because I became more religiously observant. How can this be when I present all these ideas supported by Torah? Mostly, because I found I really liked meat. And it all happened on Shabbat. I can even tell you what stripped the “Meat Is Murder” patch right off me, it was a Buffalo Chicken Wing. My friends would invite me for Shabbat meals week after week. In honor of the sabbath the meals are greatly involved and time-consuming, stretching on for many courses; salad, fish, soup, chicken and/or meats, some sides and kugels, a few drinks and then desert. Everyone brings out the best that they have and presents it honor of Shabbat; the crown of the week. Every week my meal would pretty much end at the first course and I would linger. I didn’t drink alcohol or eat animal products so almost nothing was left. After a while people started feeling sorry for me, and the Jewish mothers would start in, “But you’re still hungry, I think you would like one. In honor of Shabbat try just one…” That was it, all of a sudden I remembered that I really did like it. I’ve been eating tasty little kosher treats ever since.

It wasn’t an issue of people forcing their ways upon me or brow-beating me. Quiet to the contrary. To be honest I’m sure that I judged people more for their “indulgence” than they did me. Aside from the common ethical concerns that I had about meat, it just wasn’t something that I personally liked. And in my experience, traveling the world, I knew very well that meat was not something that was a daily staple for most cultures. It was something that I was less accustomed to having regularly, therefore it was only incidental that it was something I hadn’t acquired a taste for it. But in these ultra-orthodox friends I found that their old-world experience was very much the same as mine. They had all the same ethical concerns, and even more than I had considered. And they also weren’t accustomed to eating obnoxious amounts of meat, so it was reserved for special occasions. And there is no more special of an occasional than Shabbat and Yom Tov (holidays). In this spirit people would follow the common custom of Judaism to have wine, fish and meat as symbols of joy and celebration. They would save all the best of their provisions for the end of the week; for Shabbat. They would honor G-d with the best of the produce of their labor. They honor G-d with the best of their foods, these are what most of us feel are the best of our best.

Most certainly we can look in our Jewish tradition and see many examples that idealize vegetarianism though out our midrashic and mystical tradition. Aside from that, for many it seems to simplify kashrut issues to abstain from meat (this is also another reason cited by the less accustomed to Jewish observance, to believe kashrut is merely a meat issue, which is far from true). Most of us live in a culture which already overdose it when it comes to meat, and can agree that we no longer have the need in the modern world to consume meat the way we did in the past because of a wider variety of foods available to us. Being less meat dependent seems like a natural humanitarian progression for many, as they see the benefits it has upon the body and environment. It is sensible and is animal sensitive. Even in the most orthodox of homes I’ve seen many families only have mere symbolic amounts of meat and fish; even if only the meat is a mixed in ingredient for a main dish, or the fish only found in the paste made for the salad dressing. We honor our traditions, but think it wise sometimes to not go overboard.

The problem I most often had to deal with in my own character and now in other people, is that the people who go overboard tend to be the vegetarians. I understand their feelings, but I also very much recognize how inappropriately people judge others for not being as “progressive” about their eating as they are. Today I don’t mind saying that I like to eat meat. At one time I didn’t, because my ethical concerns were not appropriately met; now with that satisfied for me in my convictions, the choice of eating meat comes down to an issue of my own satisfaction. I take joy in it, so it is the right choice for me. Furthermore, for health reasons being a vegetarian is not appropriate for me. And some people do deeply judge me for that, making all the sideways statements and giving me all the glaring. No really, people are that way, no matter what the case is; that is because it is disgusting to them so it should also be so for you; they even get angry when you don’t comply to their mores.

What started out in the relationship as “I love animals so don’t eat them” for some immature people ends up leading to slurred statements like “Your a murder for eating that.” Sure, its rare that it goes that far, but more and more I see people acting that way. What started out as a kindness, turned to negativity; somehow that is a natural tendency in this universe so we need to beware of it. And that is what we are going to talk about today. Where that comes from and how to grow beyond letting our values turn sour.

Believe or not this davar Torah really has little to do with vegetarianism, that’s just a bonus in a way; okay so I merely jest. I only use this example because it is something that I can relate to in my own life, and because in a lot of ways the elements of this example are very similar to a tragic situation pointed out here in this parsha with the story of Cain and Abel.

One of the horrors of the story of Cain and Able is the emergence of anger, and in tern violence in the world. We all know the story very well, because it ends with murder.

Our parsha relates the story as such, that the two sons of Adam and Eve grow up to become men. We see their story begin with them both picking a trade for themselves. Cain raises animals (tzoan; sheep and goats), and Abel tills the ground; they are both partners in farming, just two different aspects of it. When it comes time for them to thank G-d and worship each gives according to their own produce. Cain of his produce of the ground, and Abel from his animal stock. One is accepted, the other offering is not. In then end this leads to such a feeling of being slighted that Cain murders his brother Abel over it.

Even before we can get to the issue of the sickening sin of homicide, many of us who are of a gentle nature first find ourselves stumbling over this part of the narrative first. What is it about this offering that is different that G-d would lift His eyes to recognize one, and the other he doesn’t take the time to count?

For the most part, people stumble over the issue of what the type of sacrifice it was. In a world that because of idolatry is so used to sacrifice, which typically holds animal sacrifice higher than any other because of its costliness and rarity, we tend to sometimes miss the point and think there was something better about the meat over the fruits. I have literally seen illustrations in picture books with Abel happy and his smoke rising high, and then a sad and skinny Cain whose fruits just smolder down. This odd and gross view is more prevalent in the mindset of those who follow blood atonement heresies. We know this is not true by the simple fact that the Torah demands both meat and grain offerings all through out it, and more often incense of herbage. There is nothing more sacred or more binding about a meat offering over a meal offering, they both found their place in our tradition. We cannot jump to the absurd conclusion that G-d can only take pleasure in bloody sacrifice.

Instead we are forced to find another reason. It is very apparent to us if we just take a simple look at the text, the only distinction between the offerings aside from their substance, was the maturity of the substance. It seems to be more an issue of timing for that substance. We see that Cain offered after many days, at the end of days he took from his fruits and offered. Instead we see that Abel instead took from the first-born of his flock, he didn’t wait for them to mature even, he gave immediately. It is not a matter of what type of offering, but when it was offered. This is pointed out when the mitzvah was spelled out to the children of Israel in the Torah later on, “v’lakach’ta may’reishit kol pri ha-adama/ you shall bring the first fruits of all the land…” (Deut. 26:2) Cain brought his leftovers, Abel enthusiastically gave the first of his produce. G-d regarded the one that had given with the spirit of eagerness.

We need to dismiss from our minds the idea that G-d is caught up on the issue of meat and blood. If anything our tradition suggests to us the only person caught up with this issue is Cain. Our sages widely suggest that one person hung-up on it was Cain. Our midrash tells us that Cain did not think it right that his brother should kill animals to offer in sacrifice. If we think about it, only animals killed and consumed each other, humans apparently did not. It would be natural for Cain to see something that was not natural or desirable to them as people to be barbarism, and therefore felt that Abel was acting impulsively like an animal. Some midrashim even suggested Cain thought it better for Abel to instead wait and buy grains from him by trading from his animal products with him when there was more hearty produce to sustain them with, suggesting that his way was matured as well as more humane.

The problem with Cain’s attitude is he cannot get beyond the fact that he finds someone’s practice disgusting and unbecoming. This was not their way, only animals and G-d had ever slaughtered in such a way (when G-d made garments for Adam and Eve out of animals skins; see Genesis 3:21). Sure this offering was for the worship of G-d, it was not for their consumption, but our rabbis say that even this became a stumbling block for Cain. If it was not allowed for them as humans ordinarily to slaughter, he reckoned that if it was forbidden for them then it should also be forbidden of G-d. He is not just irritated with his brother, Cain is also disgusted with G-d for this.

Our parsha describes Cain’s reaction to G-d dismissing his offering as follows:

“…and Cain became very angry,

and depressed.”

| Vayicharah le-Kayin me’od

| vayiplu panav

Genesis 4:5

And herein lies the tragedy, his attitude of disdain for cruelty, which in itself is a chesed – a kindness – got turned around and lead to negativity and even extreme anger. For as progressive and idealistic Cain’s values for life is, his inability to see his own fault and instead become more concerned with the actions of others leads him to become annoyed – another meaning of the word charah. He becomes enraged over the killing of an animal and it’s acceptance by G-d as barbaric, do much that he doesn’t seem to notice the rising coldness that eventually drives him to murder his human brother. He respects the animals, but murders a man.

I want to sum it up this way, we need to keep in mind that people who are more concerned with other’s actions than their own; people who moralize heavily upon narrow pet causes tend to cause harm to others through their negativity. More often than not descending into judgmental speech and treatment of people. And as we know, to cause to bring shame or embarrassment upon a person is also counted as a form of bloodshed in our tradition; its not just causing blushing, its spiritually more harmful than most recognize.

Three Season Kabbalistic Wheel of MonthsAnd so it is for many people, for some reason it is natural in the universe that what starts out as concept of warm chesed (kindness), often finds a way of turning into cold gevurah (judgment) over time. And that is really the topic really at hand today. How is it that such a thing happens to people over time?

Kabbalistically, it is quite easy to understand. In fact before we can begin to understand anything else about Kabbalah it is essential that people learn this principle. It is presented to us in the Sefer Yitzerah that there are three “mother letters.” They are three archetypal letters and corresponding energies. Shin (ש), Mem (מ) and Alef (א); the Shin we are told represents fire, Mem represents water, Alef represents air. They are three positions in time we are told, meaning lengths in a journey; when we apply them to a year calendar (like in the Israel, which has only three distinguishable seasons) they correspond to Shin being the heat of summer, Mem being the coldness of winter, and Alef as Spring that is the temperate and airy balance between those two extremes.

In Kabbala, and indeed strongly stressed in Chassidut, learning is held up on the foundation of these three pillars. For those who study the ChaBaD school of thought it is important for one to work out their path of maturing the higher intellect (as presented in the upper three sefirot), they correspond like our letters above in a descending pattern; Chochmah is wisdom, Binah is discernment, but the balance of them both is the understanding called Daat. It’s more simply explained through the human emotions by the Breslov Chassidim and the GR”A (Gaon of Vilna) by placing the example par-excellence in the center of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. We begin with sefirot of Chesed (Kindness), Gevurah (Judgment) and work our way to the central balance of Tiferet (Harmony, understood as mercy); the ChaGaT school. In these mystical teachings of these great schools of thought the goal is to balance out our human flaws by coming to a harmony between extremities inside of us.

This pattern is something that we need to understand because it tends to play out in the minds and lives of people even if we aren’t aware of this; it is a natural principle in the universe. Sadly it is most often seen in the lives of religious people, and we as people of faith need to recognize this. People often start out in their religious or ethical journey out a creative spark of kindness. They are motived by love and kindness and warmth, but then as we tend to cool down as time goes on and often fizzle towards judgmental coldness. Now gevurah is not a bad thing, it actually means to become more mighty and strong; it is not mere negativity, the problem is that as some of us cool down as we “mature” in our understanding we tend to become as judgmental as we are knowledgeable. We often tend to start out less understanding but burning with passion like wild youth, but then as we become more mature and wise we tend to cool down and sadly manifest all the things we have come to know in judgementalism if we aren’t careful. Somehow we think we know better, so everyone else should as well. Our expansive kindness (chesed) can turn cold if we aren’t careful, and we can get stuck in the moralizing rut of being the frozen-chosen though our unchecked judgment (gevurah).

Our goal should be to find the balance between the two, the harmony of tiferet. It is the maturity beyond any one extreme, it is not the hot high road, nor the cold low road, it is the golden middle path between them both. It is neither overwhelmed with endless permissiveness seen in the example of chesed as being the essential drive of expansiveness present in the world and the personal character, nor is it trapped in the constrictiveness and desolate coldness of strong opinion and judgments as with gevurah, instead it is the beauty (another meaning of tiferet) that is found in the balance between the two that allows us to show mercy to others in self-control. In this Kabbalah and Torah challenge us to move beyond being thoughtless do-gooders or judgmental smart people, and become beautiful people of true mercy and harmony and understanding; in the balance of tiferet. We need to find that centered spirit of joy in our souls.


Shiviti: Menorah L’MaNatzeach B’Neginot


Shiviti: Menorah L’MaNatzeach B’Neginot
The Menorah Psalm Shiviti

Menorah Sheviti in ColorThese images have been some of the most popular and most requested on this blog. Unfortunately the originals weren’t the best quality, as they were just something I was toying with at the time in order to accompany text; they were more of an afterthought. After being able to get copies of the original software again I was able to do some corrections and updates (you know some Operative System updates are terrible about supporting old packages sometimes!). These new releases are set in a more widely recognizable JPG file-format for you to share across platforms. Thank you to everyone who helped with the corrections and suggestions, including my friend Aharon Varady of the Open Siddur Project.

Menorah Sheviti Milim Corrected (June 2012)You can also download the new three-paged Psalm 67 Meditation Packet, which contains the full-sized images, along a Hebrew/English translation of Psalm 67!

For more information about the meaning of the Shiviti see the following related posts. These lessons go in a systematic order to help you grow in your understanding of this practice:

You can also find a beautiful restored historical Shivit from our friends at The Open Siddur Project, find it here:


Breaking Down Elitism In Kabbalah Study


Breaking Down Elitism In Kabbalah Study
Guidance from the Talmud

This piece comes together after me considering the Talmud while studying the parashiot of Devarim (Deuteronomy), specifically concerning how the people have and should cleave to G-d. This is a major topic in Parshat Va’etchanan, Parshat Eikev, and Parshat Nitzavim. Considering the text, I felt the need to explain how based on this teaching I am burying the hatchet with pop-kabbalism in pursuit of equal access to truth for all.

Recently I got a bit critical of non-Jewish groups for misusing mysticism and spirituality in order to attract Jewish converts. Some have asked where I stand with certain Jewish groups and those that are closely associated with Jewish roots. In fairness I have to to respond to this. This is not about any one group, so I hope no one gets any hurt feelings and receives the message in the spirit in which it is given.

What are People’s Concerns With “Fad” Kabbalah Groups?

Everyone talks about Kabbalah these days. As a teenager when I started studying it, no one really knew what the heck I was talking about. I live in Los Angeles, where Kabbalah has become a big trend with many groups teaching Jewish mysticism.

But course everyone is going to throw out the name of the Kabbalah Centre. The Centre has been criticized for many things over the years, so people like to scandalize over them. Like many major religious organizations they are chastised for shadiness in fund raising, cult-like dedication, etc. But they aren’t the only show in town, they aren’t alone in this criticism. I am not a defender of these groups, if anything people know that my personal relationship has been more one of criticism of the organizations than anything else. I will not answer for them as I’m not their business manager, nor a forensic accountant. I won’t answer for their ethics. But truth be told, I agree with some of the concerns that are pointed out by leaders of the Jewish community at large.

With that said, my main objection has been to certain group’s teaching style, which can be summarized as a “dumbing down” of mysticism to the point that people don’t walk away able to practice on their own. One cannot learn without being led by the hand. This creates a dependency on leadership and leaves one without the ability to explore on their own; unable to check the traditional sources in a transparent and egalitarian way. People will often laugh at groups like this that are so unsophisticated that people aren’t even taught Hebrew well enough for basic reading of the letters, so people “scan” the lines of Hebrew text with their eyes to take in it’s essence.

We all know that kabbalah is traditionally at the apex of learning for the advanced Talmudic scholar. When so many talmidei chachamim (wise scholars) can barely make sense of most of the mystical concepts, some wonder if Kabbalah can truly be appreciated by those who are in most cases completely illiterate.

What it all comes down to is people are going to ask how relevant teaching from a group is when they do no promote basic literacy of Judaism. How then can someone gain the skills they need to feed their own Jewish soul. I say it this way because I do not answer for the needs of non-Jewish people, they have the right to seek out their needs as they see fit; but I do believe that there are many non-Jews who connect to Kabbalah that have needs that can be met in the same manner as us Jews.

Kabbalists are receiving truths that are laid out in their fullness in the Torah; the written Torah, we call that the Scriptures; and the oral Torah, which is Talmud and all the learning of the rabbis though out the ages. This we all agree on. But let’s kick this old-school and use the big boy, the Talmud.

The Talmudic Response to Elitism

In the Talmud we find an interesting discussion taking place that I believe really gets to the heart of the issues. We need to turn back to the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. The Holy Temple (may it be rebuild speedily in our days!) is no more, the land is completely conquered and subjugated by the Romans. But truth be told, the Hebrew language has been forgotten by the masses for centuries and replaced with Aramaic long before Latin and Greek came on the scene. This subjugation of the people was just another historical problem that made it difficult for the rabbis to communicate message of Torah. It become apparent to Rabbi Eliezer, like many rabbis, that the Torah which has sustained the Jewish people all this time is at risk of being even more obscured to them. They see their lives, even people’s “eternal life” in jeopardy. So Rabbi Eliezer begins to lament before the sages, among those present is Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. If you have a Gemara handy you can follow along at Talmud Bavli Ketubot 111b, I will attempt to give the most intelligible rendering of the Hebrew-Aramaic text:

“Said Rabbi Eliezer:

The illiterate (amei ha-artzot)

will not live [fut. meaning: be resurrected].

As it is said: The dead live not, etc (Is. 26:14)

So it was also taught: The dead will not live.

As this might [be assumed to refer] to all,

it was specifically stated, ‘The lax’

written about [actually refers to] a person who is

lazy in the words of Torah.”

אמר ר׳ אלעזר |

עמי הארצות |

אינן חייב |

שנאמר מתים בל‬ ‫יחיו וגו׳ |

תניא נמי חכי מתים בל יחיו |

יכול לכל |

ת״ל רפאים |

בל יקומו במרפח‬ ‫עצמו |

מדברי תורה הכתוב |

Rabbi Eliezer in his own right is a great mystic. His teaching was received from Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, one of the last of the holy rabbis to witness the glory of the Temple. Because of this they are close to the light of the Divine Presence, the Shechina, that dwelt there. But it can already be seen that from generation to generation the torch they passed on seemed to dim a bit. Rabbi Eliezer was quiet an exception though, he was considered very conservative and known to defer strictly to the ruling of those who came before him. But even Rabbi Eliezer, being born a decade after the destruction of the Temple, knew that the average person could barely connect to Torah that they needed to keep their spirit alive in their current state of foreign living.

Now I need to give a crash course into the terminology, for those who are new to talmudic study. In the Talmud there are generally two types of person discussed. First is the talmid chacham, the wise student; the scholar. This is the class of person that Rabbi Eliezer is. The other is the am ha-aretz; literally it means a person of the land. Though this term can sometimes be seen used almost derogatorily in the Talmud as these scholars discuss among themselves, it is not a humiliating term. In an agrarian society most of the people worked as farmers, these were the common people. They by and large were busy working and didn’t have the luxury to spend time with extensive study. These working class were generally illiterate.

What Rabbi Eliezar is saying is that the people are too illiterate to understand Torah, what is going to sustain their spiritual living? What is going to resuscitate the fallen society of Israel? He used the prophetic book of Isaiah and points out a verse that discusses the aftermath of punishment and destruction, where the memory of the judged is obliterated in that example. He seems to be saying to the crowd we don’t need to get to spooky about some future age, it can apply to the situation at hand. The people are dead and do not live in Torah, they are just a shadows of their selves from being lazy regarding the Torah. If we don’t do something all is going to be lost and forgotten.

Now remember Rabbi Eliezar is a hard working student, and scrupulous in the smallest detail. He puts a lot of work into his dedication. But what he said caught the attention of his own teacher:

“Rabbi Yochanan spoke to him saying:

It is not pleasing, or proper to their Master

to be that way towards them.

It specifically refers

to one who makes himself relaxed

regarding idolatry [lit. star working/worship],

this is the one of who it is written of.”

מדבר א״ל ר׳ יוחנן |

״לא ניחא למרייחו דאמרת‬ |

להו הכי תתוא |

במרפת עצמו |

לעבודת כוכבים |

תוא דכתיב |

א״ל מקרא ‫אהד |

Now who is the Master that is being spoken of? It means G-d. Rabbi Eliezer is rebuked by his teacher who says that his attitude and presentation is displeasing and wrong in the eyes of G-d! It’s not okay for him to have this attitude towards the illiterate.

Now, let me step back for a second again to point out something about the people he is discussing, the amei ha-artzot. Remember I said this literally means people of the land. In a way this is like our term heathen, which also means a person on the land. The designation am ha-aretz is the closest thing once can get to calling someone a heathen, without calling them a gentile. This is a unlearned person, which means they are often prone to superstition. Especially in this society, in the agrarian society everything comes down to getting the season right. They do this by watching the heavens, and because its concentrically complex some people come up with all kinds of superstitions surrounding it. Don’t call them dumb, the rest of the ancients went so far as to deify and worship these pieces of clockwork in the sky.

That’s right, the people who created science, mathematics, philosophy, democracy, the pyramids of Egypt and the Pantheon of Athens all worshiped the heavily bodies. They were smart people, but they noticed things moved around a lot and came up with only one explanation. The bodies were gods, at times one would go this way and another one would rise that way, as they were battling it out in the heavens. For instance, from our perspective planets would even go backwards and do loops, and the people would go wild that was a bad omen because that god was retreating. So the people would chant, and pray and sacrifice to help out these gods; worship them to give them strength. This is magic, and sorcery. In the Talmud, before near-monotheisms like Christianity and Islam, the only other style of religion on the block was was this type of celestial body related worship. So the term for designating something as idolatrous in the Talmudic literature is to say it is of the AKUM; avdei kohavim u’mazalot, worshipers of the stars and zodiac. Who are the AKUM? Namely gentiles. But being that the people of Israel were not in a bubble, they tended to be influenced by this simple world-view that pervaded the entire earth. Though by tSephirot and Mazalothis time in history Jews weren’t prone to overt worships of idols, instead the real problem was adoption of superstitious practices based on foreign religion.

Now the mystical understanding of the world by these holy Rabbis, these Kabbalists if you will, was different from the general world view. They too saw that the heavenly bodies had influence on the world around us. The sun shinning according to the seasons, the moon has its pull on the tides, and they even seemed to understand how the other planets helped keep us in a steady and predictable orbit. Though they understood these were just creations of G-d, if they had any influence it was just as agents of G-d’s order. Instead being gods that are blessing people, the heavenly bodies and zodiac signs (mazalot; meaning drips from above) were understood as a natural occurrence. The heavenly bodies were as natural in the clouds in the sky that give dew to the earth, the effects of the planets and stars are like dew that also trickles down upon us in its proper time.

To sum it up, it appears to me that Rabbi Yochanan is disappointed that Rabbi Eliezer generalized a whole class of people. Notice Rabbi Eliezer used the not as often occurrence of am ha-aretz in the plural, amei ha-artzot; but Rabbi Yochanan brings it back to being a discussion of a single hypothetical person, we are talking about the actions of an individual. What he is saying is that this doesn’t apply to a class of people, but to the person that becomes tolerant of superstition. This superstition is actually idolatry, rooted in revering the lights of the heavens. His position is these type of people are the “lax” spoken of that are shadows of themselves; they are the spiritually dead.

But the discussion continues, in the general rule of going back and forth. One person speaking, the other responding.

“I [Rabbi Eliezar] interpret likewise,

it is written:

For Thy dew is as the dew of light,

and the land shall drip life to the lax. (Is. 26:19)

All who make use of the light of Torah,

the light of Torah will revive.

And all who do not utilize the light of Torah,

the light of Torah will not revive.”

אני דורש |

דכתיב |

כ יטל אורות טליך |

וארץ רפאים תפיל |

כל‬ ‫המשתמש באור תורה |

אור תורה מהייהו |

וכל שאין משתמש באור תורה‬ |

אין אור תורה מהייהו כיון דהזייה |

Rabbi Eliezer, concedes and agrees with his teacher. However, he points out that his understanding of the Scriptures based on a verse in the very same chapter of Isaiah is that that not only is one to avoid misappropriating the lights in the heaven, it is important that people connect to the true light. Now here in this context we are not talking about the Ohr Ain Sof – the Infinite Light, the loftiest description of the all encompassing and transcendent G-d. This light spoken of is the closest thing we can get to G-d; meaning the light of Torah. We can call it what ever we want, the DNA of the universe and all kinds of things, but the Torah is the closest we can get to G-d. G-d is the Father of all, the Torah is the DNA that connects us and all things to Him, in it we find the clues to who He and we are.

The Torah cannot ever be separated from the Light, the Torah so symbolizes the essence of the Divine that the Kabbalists teach that even higher than the Name of 72 or any other mystical name is one name; its a big name that is symbolic of the Ain Sof, it contains 304,805 letters; it is every letter of the Torah (the Chumash, Pentateuch) strung together as a single word.

The light is Torah, Rabbi Eliezer contends. Those who utilize it will be revived by it, but those who don’t utilize it will not benefit from it and remain dead – presumably both in this life and in the world to come.

Interestingly enough Rabbi Yochanan seems to concede to this point, as he doesn’t have a response. It doesn’t explicitly say, but we can assume by one of the speakers calling the other rabbi (my master), that it is literal and thus the student Rabbi Eliezer is speaking to his teacher Rabbi Yochanan in this next section as well. Rabbi Yochanan now too begins to despair seeing the truth of this point. Of course Rabbi Eliezer is right, it’s not enough to not be ignorant. It is important to make use of the truth, which is the light of Torah. So Rabbi Eliezer sits there and considers everything until he can find a solution to the problem: how can the illiterate connect to the Torah? Our text continues:

“Because he was in despair he said to him:

Master [lit. rabbi] I have found

for them a remedy [a tikkun’]

from the Torah [the Chumash, Pentateuch]:

For you who did cleave to

Hashem your G-d,

everyone of you is alive today. (Deut. 4:4)

Now is it possible to cleave

to the Shechinah [the Divine Presence]?

As it is written: For Hashem your G-d

is a devouring fire. (Deut. 4:24)

Any man who marries his daughter

to a scholar (talmid hacham),

or carries on a trade on behalf of

scholars,

or benefits scholars from his estate

is regarded by Scripture

as if he had cleaved to the Shechinah.”

דקמצטער א״ל |

רבי מצאהי |

להן תקנה‬ |

מן התורה |

ואתם הדבקים |

בה׳ אלהיכם |

היים כולכם היום |

וכי אפשר לדבוקי‬ |

בשכינה |

והכתיב כ י ה׳ אלהיך |

אש אוכלה |

אלא כל המשיא בתו |

לתלמיד‬ ‫הכם |

והעושת פרקמטיא |

לתלמידי הכמים |

״והמהנה תלמידי הכמים מנכסיו‬ |

מעלה עליו הכתוב |

כאילו מדבק בשכינה |

Now this is where its going to get intense, I hope that everyone will try to follow through what can seem very complicated, but it isn’t really. We are just a bit culturally removed from the situation to see it sometimes.

Rabbi Eliezer says he actually found a good remedy to their problem found in the actual Torah (the Chumash, Books of Moses; which is holds more weight than the books of the Writings or the Prophets). After the Children of Israel suffered the annihilation of the entire first generation from the exodus Moses spoke to the survivors right before they went in to establish the homeland of Israel. Moses seems to praise the people, that all of them that are alive are the faithful that “cleaved” to G-d. Now at this time in history, deveikut is not yet understood as the Chassidic concept of connecting to G-d through communing in nature and meditation. Deveikut means literally to be glued; meaning to be attached, to be connected to something. We understand this as holding fast to G-d.

The subtext understood here is that we cannot touch G-d. If G-d were even a tangible thing and we tried “gluing” ourselves to Him, being all powerful and “a consuming fire” we would be destroyed. We cleave to G-d through connecting to Torah.

But what does this have to do with providing a scholar a wife, and a share in the business, etc? Earlier in the Talmud, in fact quite often throughout Talmud Sanhedrin, we discuss the topic of people connecting through the talmid chacham by partnering with him. One might not be able to study the Torah themselves, but they can enable ones who are able to study Torah to do so. Now when you married off your daughter to someone in those days you gave them a dowry to help them along, and they became beneficiaries of the family. Though dowry is not widely known today, there are certain traditions that still remain for many pious to this day. It is common for the brides family to give seforim (sacred Hebrew books) and income in order to study Torah in a kollel (a yeshiva for the married; akin to a seminary). It was established as a precedent that people can partner with the scholars by making them part of their family, by opening up their home, sharing their business by making a student a silent partner, or by leaving them a share of inheritance in order to aid the pursuit of Torah learning. This is how the mitzvah of Deut 10:20, to “cleave to G-d” is going to be understood when enumerated as part of the 613 mitzvot; that one needs to connect to Torah people (in addition to connecting to G-d by swearing by his Name, which is another mitzvah all together).

Now how does he come up with this? I don’t believe he is just remembering case law. I believe a sense of humility came over him that he took at good look at his life. Like I said Rabbi Eliezer was a great sage, and being wise and promising he was married to the daughter of the great Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel (father of Gamliel II), the Nasi (prince, president) of the Sanhedrin at end of the second Temple period. His wife, known as Imma Shalom, had a few sheckles to rub together herself; she was so well off her and her brother once sued a judge just to cause him grief. They were very well off people. He had all the advantages to begin with being an exceptional intellectual and then was fortunate to marry into the very elite. It appears to me he begins to realize that had it not been for that he would not have been able to dedicate his life to exclusive Torah study.

And so he sees that just as people were able to cleave to one another; attaching themselves contractually to each other through marriage, business and patronage; so they could cleave to each other in pursuit of Torah. The scholar is partner in the business the benefactor works himself, but the scholar receives profits from it. And the benefactor is also a partner in scholarship, that the benefactor receives spiritual reward from studies he enabled the scholar to engage in. Ordinary a scholar is not able to making a living, and a person making a living cannot be a scholar; but here they can partner with each other toward the same goal of advancing the light of Torah.

So Rabbi Eliezer ends his discourse with this ruling that goes unchallenged:

“Likewise based on this case,

one may say of:

To love Hashem your G-d…

…and to cleave to Him etc.

(Deut. 30:20, truncated);

is it possible for a human being

to cleave to the Shechinah?

But [what this can means is that:]

Any man who marries his daughter

to a scholar,

or carries on a trade

for scholars,

or benefits scholars from his estate

is regarded by Scripture

as if he had cleaved to the Shechinah.”

כיוצא בדבר |

אתה אומר |

לאהבה ‫את ה׳ אלהיך |

ולדבקה בו וכי |

אפשר לאדם |

לידבק בשכינה |

אלא |

כל המשיא‬ בתו |

להלמיד הכם |

והעושה פרקמטיא |

להלמידי הבמים |

והמהנה תלמידי‬ |

הכמים מנכסיו מעלה

עליו תכתוב |

כאילו מדבק בשכינה |

He basically gives us all the point that he had before, except this time he is referring to another observation based on the words of Deut. 30:20. He speaks of the verse in short, the Rabbis knew the scriptures by heart so they all saw what he was alluding to. For those of who are not as well versed let me paraphrase; that which will keep the people alive and extend their days would be the people loving G-d, listening to His voice and cleaving to Him. If they did this it would sustain the people until they would settle the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Rabbi Eliezer, based on the former precedent relating to cleaving, says its appropriate to apply the same to this verse here. He comes to the conclusion that a person could show their love for G-d, obedience to uphold Torah, and cleave to G-d all by connecting to the people of Torah, the scholars. If they loved G-d, they would love those that labor in the advancement of Torah. Rabbi Eliezer has become humbled to the point that he sees his place of privileged in Torah knowledge and now comprehends the people’s patronage of this as an act of love. The common man, and the scholar in relationship with each united on account of how much they both love G-d and His Torah.

It’s a beautiful concept. We cannot cleave to an all-powerful, incorporeal G-d; so we cleave to His Torah; if one cannot cleave to the words of Torah themselves, they cleave to the people who can give them the worlds of Torah. It’s a beautiful idea, an ideal marriage. I say that because this cleaving is like a marriage, a wife cleaves to her husband and as we read “the two become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24) thus she is also the recipient of all his earnings as they share everything; they share and share a like. Thats the relationship here.

 Bringing It Back to the Modern Age: What does this mean for us?

As we look back we can see that Rabbi Eliezer was correct. This way of partnering through philanthropy and scholarship did in fact keep the light of Torah alive in the lives of people. The settlement of The Land has begun again, the holy language has been renewed and true national culture has been regained.

Not everyone is a scholar, this is a fact. Not everyone has the ability or capacity to be a scholar, some people are worker bees. This is a fact of life and nature, there is nothing special or degrading about any one position though. We all have our place. But the scholars work is just as hard as the laborer, the talmid chacham merely labors in another strenuous fashion that takes all his strength. Sephardic Jews still use the term chacham for designating a wise authority in Judaism, the Rav; in the west we more often use the term rabbi; Chassidim, we connect through our own personal teacher, our rebbe. We love to learn from all the people of Torah and all shluchim (agents, ambassadors, representatives of Judaism), one of the ways we can show our love back and appreciation of this teaching is to support them so this mechanism of Torah learning continues.

Bottom line for me, is we need to stop scoffing at people who give money to organizations and teachers to instruct them in Torah and mysticism. It’s wrong for people to look down and say “So they think they are doing something so special by giving all that money? They can’t even say a proper kiddush…

On the other hand, we have jumped forward into the future. The world surroundings have also changed in 1900 years. Literacy is now common in the world, we hold literacy so high that now it is considered a basic human right. And as I have already said, The Land and the holy language has been revived. There are not as many obstacles as people faced during the 1st and 2nd century to literacy and knowledge. I personally, want the best for people; to have a fair and egalitarian society where people of all backgrounds are uninhibited in understanding because of lack of knowledge. As cheesy as it sounds, for those who are seekers of truth I want “No Child Left Behind” (sans George W. Bush, of course).

As I consider all this I cannot avoid having at the forefront of my mind the words of G-d through the prophet Hosea, the prophet that speaks to us of destruction and redemption. We all know this scripture:

“My people perish for lack of knowledge.”

| Nid’mu ami, mib’li ha-da’at

Hosea 4:6

Interesting, this scripture. Because it does not exactly means that a person dies. Yes it does mean that in the figurative sense. But literally it means to be silenced, to be quieted. In the flowery sense we understand it means to destroy, snuff out, or to smother a person. Its a fitting symbolism because a person that can not speak up, a person that has lost their voice, a person that can no longer question is as good as dead. It’s my hope that we all find our voice, not just for ourselves but so we can also communicate this message of hope to others.

Yes, it is well and good to connect to Torah and show devotion towards G-d through aiding the scholars. But let us remember that the scriptures still call us to serve G-d with all our heart, soul and strength. (Deut. 6:5) With everything we can do well, all our strengths, we should utilize in our pursuit of the light of truth. Those of us who have intellect, we should utilize it. And those of us who are limited in understanding, and I consider myself one of those people, let us then enable others to actualize those things for us as a posterity of truth that will bring a tikkun, a correction to this world.

There are two questions we need to ask ourselves today:

  1. Am I utilizing the light to my full potential?

  2. Those who I connect to for the light of Torah, are they giving me something authentic that I can utilize or is it just a lot of talk?

Only you can can take that inventory and answer that for yourselves, my friend.


The Menorah Psalm – Meditative Paths


Introduction to the Menorah Shiviti  (Newly Edited June 2012)

Earlier this year with the coming of the Sefirat haOmer when I released the sections of the Nusach haAri-z”l relating to the blessings of the count I also felt the odd urge to muse concerning the kavanah (Heb. “intention;” meditation) of Psalm 67 as instructed by the Baal haTanya. Little did I know that would become one of the most well read blogs I’ve written. It was later followed up by introducing to the morning prayers the kavanah of Shiviti Hashem, as an example of meditative liturgy; this post is also one the most requested to date. In both blogs I made mention of the kavanah of the Menorat L’MaNatzeach – commonly known as the Menorah Psalm – but did not explain the actual practice of saying these menorah kavanot. But it was a good start because we got to see how to do a kavanah and then how to Shiviti, before we work on putting both practices together today. It is due to the high interest regarding this topic I will now be explaining these practices for the first time, we will start simple and continue to work our way up one level of understanding as we go. I would encourage you to read the other two blogs to get an idea of the background of such traditions, and the meaning of the Psalms itself. Here we go….

The History of this Practice

Menorah Sheviti Milim Corrected (June 2012)No one is certain how far back the tradition of saying the kavanah of the menorah goes. What we do know is that the custom of reading Psalm 67 in the form of the menorah was encouraged by great mystics such as Rabbi David ben Yosef Avudraham as far back as 14th century Spain. That is the same country and around the time in which the first siddurim (Hebrew prayerbooks) were created. But even before siddurim it was the custom of some to say this psalm from a written parchment, akin the the custom of the pious to read the ketoret from a handwritten parchment that some still practice to this day.

Judaism has never been inclined toward using images or iconography, lest these be misconstrued with idolatry. Instead, in the near-eastern tradition art is often made of the written word. If images are use, they are generally of items which relate to the elements of the Holy Temple. In a blending of these traditions comes forth the Shiviti of the Menorah, in which the words of Psalm 67 are depicted in the form of the seven branched menorah of the Temple. Though this is often depicted in the siddurim of the orient and of mystical schools, this is more widely known for being hung in holy shrines and in synagogues in front of the place from which the chazzan lead prayers, and in sight of all to see.

Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, the Ari z”l, instituted this practice and instructed that we should say Psalm 67 at certain times during our davening. First is during the morning Pekudei D’Zemirah – the introductory psalms of the Shacharit; then after the Vidui confession, and for the closing of Shabbat1.  It is also included along with prayers for certain mitzvot such as Sefirat haOmer and the lighting of the Chanukah candles. Some say it after the close of the Amidah. Others say it in preparation for or during a journey. It may be said at any time.2  The custom is to read Psalms 67 in the form of the menorah whenever it is said.

The Purpose of This Meditation

The purpose of this kavanah is to ready the mind and purify ones thoughts. As we do this we are putting aside all distractions. For this reason the shviti first charges us:

Know before whom you stand,

before the King who reigns over kings,

the Holy One, blessed be He.”

דע ליפני מי אתה עומד |

לפי מלך מלכי המלכים |

בקבה |

Then the shviti opens up with the words of Psalm 16:8, the main thought of the kavanah:

I have set YHVH before me at all times”

שִׁוִּיתִי יְהוָה לְנֶגְדִּי תָמִיד

Shiviti YHVH l’negdi tamid

We begin to place G-d before us. We recognize that G-d is watching over us, so we take on a solemness of being before the King. Not only that, we focus on the placing the name of G-d before us. Not just figuratively, in its form as literally done in a artistic shviti. We mean to make a conscious choice to connect to G-d through the meaning of His Four-Letter Name, Havayah (יהוה); havaya (הֲוָיָה), as the name is refereed to among the kabbalists means being, existence or experience. In everything we encounter though out our day we make a choice to experience G-d in it.

We wish to draw the light of righteousness and truth to shine over the face of the earth. We do this by meditating on this happening and connecting to the holy Name of Havayah (יהוה), to seek Hashem so that He “ya’air panav itanu / shine His face towards us” as described in verse 2. Ya’air means to enlighten, to brighten, to illuminate, and to kindle.

How To Say this Meditation

As we focus on this psalm we consider ourselves as though we are lighting the actual menorah of the Temple. But we should not think that our devotion in any way kindles the Light of G-d, meaning to set His glory ablaze. No, the light of G-d is eternal. It is like the ner tamid, the light of the center shaft that is always kept lit day and night; unlike the six branches of the menorah of the Temple which was only kept alight at night. The center light is the Shechinah, the presence of G-d that is eternal, with no beginning nor end. It has no correspondence to anything as it is a manifestation of the Ohr Ain Sof, the Infinite Light that is transcendent; we only know it through the familiar Name of Havayah (יהוה). Thus the name of Hashem stands in the center of the Shiviti, in the place of the center light. 

Menorah Sheviti in ColorFrom that eternal life of G-d’s whole and holy light we seek to light our own flame. The Torah tells us how the lamps of the menorah are to be aligned and lit. What do I mean by aligned? When the menorah was created it was made so that “v’he’ehlah et nairoteh’ha v’hay’ir al ay’ver paneh’ha / they shall light the lamps so that it lights the face of it.” (Exodus 25:37) And this is exactly how it happened when Aharon (Aaron) the High Priest went about it, as instructed by G-d through Mosheh (Moses), “Behalotecha et-ha-neirot / when you light the lamps / el mol pnei menorah / toward the face of the menorah / yairu shivat hanerot / shall the seven lamps be lit.” (Numbers 8:2) The lights are lit and are turned in order to shine towards the center light, which symbolizes the Shechinah (Presence of G-d), in order to accentuate and aggrandize it. And being turned in this way the lamps also shine off the body of the menorah as well, so that the very face of its body reflects this light and floods the whole sanctuary with light. The body of the menorah has seven branches which relate the seven lower sefirot – the mystical manifestations of Divine action in the physical world – from Chesed to Malchut.3 First we focus our minds toward G-d. Then we make the intention to take every element of our physical lives and reflect the Light of G-d’s goodness on to it, bringing the light of His presence to all parts of our mundane existence; then shinning it into our entire world.

The first line consists of the first four words of Psalm 67, this is not considered actually part of the psalm but the header to it. These four words of verse 1, “L’MaNatzeach b’neginot mizmor shir4 / For the conductor, on the neginot (an instrument); a psalm, a song,” span across the six flames and the additional ornamental bowl that tops the menorah. These words help us set up the psalm. From right to left these words are set up, just like we set up our candles on Chanukah. This order of right to left is also the direction in which Hebrew is read. The letters of the phrase are almost evenly divided, to span all the branches.

Now one will notice that the seven branches contain verses which are set on their side. The words of each verse span from top to bottom. It is the custom that as the words begin to bend and turn we keep the Shiviti upright, focusing in order be able (to read the verses without turning it in any way. Of course, as one reads it they should consider the meaning and significance each line.

There are 49 words of the Psalm that relate to parts of the menorah body. These words begin with verse 2, “Elohim yachanainu viybaracheinu / May G-d be gracious to us and bless us…” It is common tradition for the next seven verse to go from left to right. One verse for each of the branches, including the center shaft. This is candle-lighting order, the same order that candles are to be lit on Chanukah. Though the verses can be said in any order, the only requirement of our custom is to say it in the form of the menorah.

Further Contemplation: Considering Our Core

There are also other ways we can further contemplate upon the menorah when lined up in this progressive fashion. Let us take a look at two more quick kavanot to further fine-tune our minds and focus, ones that can be done while saying the psalm.

As we say the psalm we make notice that the verses concerning the benefit of Israel, and the well being of all the nations intertwined through out the chapter. Now notice that the 3rd and 5th branches, the innermost spanning arm contains a unique occurrence of mirroring verses. The two arms bear the words “Yoducha amim Elohim / G-d, may the peoples give thanks to You / yoduch elohim kulam / let the peoples, all of them, give thanks to You.” At our core we should be aware and intend that our actions bring godliness to all parts or our lives, so that we can show people the goodness of life for which one can be grateful. First we can start considering all the reasons we have to be grateful. Then we think about sharing this attitude of gratitude. Why is this represented on the right arm and the left arm of the menorah? Its like a person that shares a loaf of bread with a friend, he tears it in half, this is your share and this is mine; however, like a good friend, the pieces in both hands are equal.

Keeping Ones Self Grounded

Other wonderful thought is to consider the center shaft of the menorah. It contains 49 letters, just like our Psalm contains 49 words that associate with the body of menorah. This psalm can be thought of a summary of the whole chapter, the nature of the chapter condensed down and concentrated in this one verse. Also the center shaft is where the menorah meets the ground, and upon which all the other branches rely. This is what we should hang out hopes on. Understanding our goal here is what keeps us “grounded.” This is the central reason for our devotion, to make this possible, that…

The nations will be gland and sing for joy.

For You will judge the nations fairly,

and the peoples of the earth will rejoice.

Selah.”

| Yismauchu viyarnenu, l’amim.

| Ki tishpot amim mishor:

| ul’amim ba’aretz tan’chaim

| Selah.

Psalm 67:5

We are desire and intend to draw godliness in the world so that not only will we be singing and praying songs of gladness, so too will the entire world. Let let all the nations of the world sing for joy! We desire and intend to help spread equality, fairness and justice across the entire face of the earth.

Also, feel like your are in a situation where an unfair judgment is hanging over you? This is a perfect time to open one’s heart and feel the light of G-d’s truth illuminating the situation so that the darkness of confusion dissipates.

Download the Liturgy Aids!

It is with great excitement that I release the two shivit shown above that I have created. They are according to traditional texts and created after carefully comparing many traditional sources.

As this is a liturgy based project I am keeping my commitment to partner with the Open Siddur Project, and release traditional materials with a Creative Commons Zero licensing. Using free and open source material that are free of copyright helps enriches the entire Jewish community! You may download, print, copy and redistribute this material as much as you want. These items are now liberated and the property of the entire Jewish community!

I owe a special thank you to my friend Aharon Varady, founding director of Open Siddur, for guiding me through the design of these graphics.

Included in the following packet are the two full paged shviti presented above, and a new translation of Psalm 67 with brief instructions to help you focus on each branch of this kavanah.

To download click on the image below. As usual, this is a work in progress. Do keep a look out for future updates and additions that are sure to come!

 

Footnotes:

1 – It is not the case for Ashkenazim to say it motzei shabbat, as expressed by the Rema in the Shulchan Aruch. Nor is it the custom after the Vidui, which is a Sephardic custom.

2 – In an informative paper titled “Seven Branches of the Menorah” Rabbi Dovid Sears presents the following wonderful leads that confirm its varied placement in various siddurim: “For example, the popular Sefardic Siddur Tefilat Yesharim arranged by Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad presents this Menorah facing the “Baruch she-amar” prayer. Among the editions of the Siddur ha-ARI, in the 1972 reprint of the Siddur Kol Ya’akov (Slavita 1804) it appears immediately following the Author’s Introduction, while in the 18th century ms. Siddur ha-ARI of Rabbi Avraham Shimshon of Rashkov (facsimile ed. Bnei Brak 1995), it follows the passage of Ketoret.”

3 – 1 Chronicles 29:11

4 – however, here it includes a Vav, coming from the use of a holamוֹ“, thus a silent letter for the sake of implying a vowel. However, the Vav is intentional, as it represents a dividing line of one side from the other.


Sheviti Hashem: The Unspoken Declaration


Sometimes The Siddur Has Silence that Speaks Louder Than Words

If one was to ask a class of observant Jewish students what the first prayer in the siddur (hebrew prayerbook) is just about every hand would go up in the air. It’s seems like an obvious answer for most of us. But of course, if this was a real classroom I would be pulling a Lisa Simpson and complicating the matter by pointing out some geeky fact that turns the questions on its ear. You know the type, the preschool kid that tells the teacher she’s wrong because it was Copernicus that proved the world was round. No one likes a know it all. But, truthfully the answer is not quite as cold cut as it seems. And my reason for pointing out my odd fact is not to be an intellectual elitist, holding on to some more stringent view. Let me explain. First off, it would be helpful if before we start talking about liturgy we understand what we are discussing.

The Development of Liturgy

Liturgy has always existed within our tradition. The most published portion on the holy scriptures, probably more so than any book, is the Book of Psalms which is clearly written as a collection of musical and liturgical standards. Repeating holy scriptures was our first stab at formal prayer, and in some cases fixed prayers later became enshrined in holy scripture. The influence went both ways as scriptures and Temple prayers developed.

When the Temple era came to an end, with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. prayers took center stage as prescribed in Isaiah chapter 1, to offer sacrifice of the lips instead of animals. Fixed prayers from the Temple were now elevated in significance, and new prayers were added over time to deliver something worthy of saying for just about every occurrence and season. But the siddur, the prayerbook we know today would not make its rise until around the 15th century at best and not widely available as a complete work until the mid-to-late 19th century. For most of our history people have just repeated prayers they knew from their common recurrence in our life-cycle events. And when in doubt people would turn to their rabbis for advice. Through out the ages we have learned these prayers like one learns a song, that is our liturgy. The tune and delivery I use my be different from yours, but that’s the nature of song. But no matter how it’s delivered, it’s a homelike tune we all relate to on some level.

The Development of the Nusach Ha-Ari z”l

As the treasury we know today as the siddur was being developed, so too the school of Jewish mysticism was on the rise. The mystics were a group of elite rabbis who collected prayers, but for a different reason than to just know what to say on a given occasion. They knew the prayers by heart, they didn’t need a script. Prayers collected by the kabbalists were incorporated in their own siddurim, but these books mostly served as commentaries on selected prayers. The commentaries contained many diagrams and instructions on how to focus the mind in a meditative way though kavannot (Heb. “Intentions”).

As I briefly touched upon in my last weeks look a the kavannah of Psalm 67 for the Sefirat ha-Omer, the Baal haTanya – Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe – was one of the first of the great rabbis to really take the mystical traditions of the Lurianic kabbalists (the followers of the ARI Z”L, the great mystic of the 16th century) and present their customs in a complete liturgical work for congregational prayer and daily devotion. The Baal haTanya’s siddur was intended to teach the common man how to pray, a much needed aid that was starting to take root during the late 18th century in Europe. His simplification came by focusing on documenting the things that needed to be said, and leaving out silent meditations.

The Baal haTanya provided his chassidim with a siddur that made full use of the richness of Jewish prayer that Eastern European Jews enjoyed and carefully conformed it to the teachings of the ARI Z”L. The text the holy Ari adopted and taught from was the Sephardic tradition, the liturgy documented by the Jews of Iberia and intern favored by the Jews of the near-east. The Baal haTanya conformed his text to that style and incorporating many of it’s unique prayers.

However, interestingly, prayer books like Eastern Europeans enjoyed were not at all common in Sephardic and Oriental Jewish communities. There was more documentation about their prayers and customs in classical legal works and kabbalistic commentaries they called “siddurim” than in any book dedicated to how to say your prayers or lead a service. Simply put, it wasn’t as needed because there was greater familiarity with the Hebrew prayers for the Jews of the near east. In the end as Sephardim and Mizrahi Jews began to formulate true prayerbooks for their prayer services like Ashkenazim (Eastern Europeans) invented, they brought in the silent meditations presented with their highly involved diagrams. Why? Partially because of their familiarity with them. Secondly because, in the days before the prayer books the diagrams were often enlarged and displayed in synagogues and holy shrines for one to use as prayer aids. It just seemed right that they belonged.

The Shviti: Placing Hashem Before Us

Those of you who have visited any Jewish shrines know exactly what I’m talking about when I mention charts and mystical diagrams. We call them Shvitis, they often take on the form on an enlarged writing of the Four-Letter name surrounded by verses of Psalms or prayers. The most famous of these is probably in the form of the Psalm 67 menorah. Others incorporate many mystical ways of reading Divine Names, but that are not meant to be pronounced. Why do we call them Shvitis? Because they usually bear the words of the Psalm that says:

“I have set

Hashem

before me at all times.”

| Sheviti

| Hashem

| l’negedi tamid

שִׁוִּיתִי |

יְהוָה |

לְנֶגְדִּי תָמִיד |

Psalms 16:8

Now one might ask, how intrusive into the text of the siddur can these mandala like meditations be? I mean, if they are useful why are they left out of the Baal haTanya’s siddur? You might say, who is he to leave out these things that are so authentic and sacred? Well, if we use a siddur as a seder (an order) of prayers and devotions, and go through it from waking up to going to sleep, then the first occurrence of shviti is at the beginning of the siddur. That’s right. When one wakes up they are to immediately have in mind this verse “I have set HASHEM before me at all times.” For this reason in many Sephardic and Edut haMizrach siddurim the first words you will see is these words “sheviti Hashem l’negedi tamid.”

If this was a real classroom I would hear just about every western, observant Jew gasp. This is problematic because at this point in history we all accept that the first words of out of our mouth and before we open our eyes is the prayer Modeh Ani, that we greatly thank G-d. Of course we also obsess over the different customs of washing among the different sects of Judaism, but we all accept in unity that we don’t intone the Four-Letter Name of Hashem in the first prayer we say of the day and instead wait until we get around to taking care of our business. So we all start with this prayer that refers to G-d, but without explicit use of the Four-Letter Name (יהוה).

So ingrained is it into the mind of observant Jews that this prayer is taught and known by the children as some of their first words. Really, before some Jewish toddlers can tell you answers to simple questions they already know how to say this prayer by heart. Though in our different communities we might truncated the prayers to make them easier to say for children at first, Modeh Ani is not one of them as we want them to learn it in full. This is our first confession of the day. I don’t want to spend too much time of it, as we will get to this prayer next week, and I’ve already taken us the scenic route to the point of all of this.

At this point, many would say “Oh, okay, I understand now why the Baal haTanya would leave it out. You don’t want to confuse people so that they might say the words of sheviti Hashem. Good thinking.” But still there will be the few who will grumble, and whisper to each other “See I told you those sephardim, chassidim, and kabbalsists are playing fast and loose with orthodoxy.” Considering myself to be the product of all of the above I would ask someone to cough up their copy of the Shulchan Aruch for a second. I’d hold it up and make the point that there is nothing more Orthodox than the Shulchan Aruch, which would become known to anglos as The Code of Jewish Law. I wouldn’t even site the words of Rabbi Joseph Karo, the Sephardic Kabbalistic master known as the Maran who first authored the work. Ironically I’d cite the words of the Rema, Rabbi Moses Isserelis – who wrote the Ashkenazi glosses to the work:

“I have placed Hashem before me

at all times:”

This is a paramount principal

of the Torah

and attribute of the steps of the righteous

who walk before G-d.

שויתי הלנגדי |

תמיד:” |

הוא כלל גדול |

בתורה |

הורה ובמעלות הצדיקים |

אשר הולכים לפני האלהים: |

Shulchan Aruch: Rema 1:1

We don’t need to turn far. If we take “the book” when it comes to Jewish practice and turn to the very first reference page and paragraph, and here we have it. This would also be repeated by the Baal haTanya in the Shulchan Aruch haRav, Mehadurah Batra 1:5, just with the quote of our biblical verse at the end instead of being the leading words. According to the “code” the first thing we are supposed to think in our mind at the start of the day is “I have placed Hashem before me at all times.” Here the Rema is himself quoting the Rambam – Rabbi Moses Maimonides, the 12th century Sephardic scholar, master rationalist, and first exhaustive codifier of Jewish law (see Moreh Nevuchim – The Guide for the Perplexed 3:4)

Now, there is probably a reason other than just typesetting that explains the juxtaposition when the Baal haTanya repeats this law; to make it clear to his reader that this is a thought and not a statement he moves it to the end and adds the words “k’umo shekavut / as it is written.” He wants his chassidim to know this is a thought, it’s not spoken words. Like it’s written, it remains written but not said. As I have pointed out, when he created his siddur the Nusach Ha-ARI Z”L known as Siddur Torah Ohr (the precessor to Siddur Tehillat Hashem) he focused on the spoken words and not the meditations. However, if you look closely, it was not a forgotten point. It just became mentioned in the notes (which are exact quotations from his Shulchan Aruch).

Nusach ARI Z”L as a Process, Not a Possession

And this is primarily the differences between the Nusach ha-Ari (Chabad) tradition and the Nusach ARI Z”L siddurim of either Sephardic or other Chassidic origins. The nusach of the Sephardim/Mizrahim and other Chassidim have been heavily influenced by the teachings of the ARI Z”L and following his teachings so their prayers are Nusach ARI in their own right as well. However these other texts tend to contain many meditations and silent things that are not meant to be spoken out loud, and contain local variances and customs. This pretty much sums up the differences. The ARI Z”L never wrote a siddur of his own, and for that matter never wrote any writings for himself. Instead we learn of his wisdom through his student Rabbi Chaim Vittal and his other disciples, so we all just copy his teachings. Thus no one can lay claim to having “the” Nusach ARI. The Nusach Ha-ARI Z”L is a way, not a thing.

I say all of this because as we start to step into the study of the siddur I am going to be presenting the text according to the Nusach Ha-ARI Z”L. This is most often going to be based on the text of the Lubavitcher Chassidim, the text I have adopted and utilize in my daily prayers. Though at other time I will mention the Nusach Edut haMizrach, the tradition of the Sephardic and Middle-Eastern Jews; which is my tradition by birth. I do this to be intellectually honest, I can only share what I know. This is what I understand so that’s all I feel free talking about. But I will try to touch on other unique aspects of the different traditions when possible. But I hope we all understand that when we talk about the siddur we are talking about a growing and living thing that we all need to be flexible and giving towards. Because it’s something different to us all. And that is okay and possible, without compromising anything! Nachon, got it?

The Kavannah: How to Sheviti Hashem

Now on to the fun part. As we have discussed, the generally universal tradition today is to always start our day with a prayer of thanks; this is the Modeh Ani. It is the custom to not open one’s eyes nor say any other word in the morning until we give thanks. But we don’t say any Divine Name until we wash out of respect of G-d and in respect of our need for self-care right away. However, before we open our eyes it is a good practice for us to mentally make ourselves aware that Hashem is before us at all times. We can even visualize the Four-Letter Name (יהוה), but not say it. This is something we should all be able to agree on, it is appropriate.

But why should we do it? If it’s a kavannah – an intention – what is it’s purpose? What do we want to achieve or recognize by this? To find the answer lets continue looking at the text of the Shulchan Aruch:

“For the manner that a person sits,

moves and conducts himself

when he is alone in his house,

is not the manner one sits, moves and deals

when before the presence of a great king.

Likewise, in the way one chats openly as

he wishes while he is among his household

and relatives, is not the same way as when

he speaks in the court of a king.

How much more, if a man strongly takes

to heart that the great king,

The Holy One, blessed be He,

whom the whole earth is filled with His glory,

stands over him and observes his deeds.

As it says, “If a person hides

out of sight, will I not see him” says Hashem.

[Considering] this he will respect

and surrender to awe

of the Holy One, blessed be He,

and be bashful before Him always.

One should not be ashamed

before people

who mock his service to Hashem.

Even secretly when lying in ones bed

know before whom he is lying.

Immediately arouse oneself from slumber

with agility to serve the

praised and exalted Creator.”

כי אין ישיבת האדם |

ותנועותיו ועסקיו |

והוא לבדו בביתו, |

כישיבתו ותנועותיו ועסקיו |

והוא לפני מלך גדול; |

ולא דיבורו והרחבת פיו |

כרצונו, והוא עם אנשי ביתו |

וקרוביו, כדיבורו |

במושב המלך. |

כל שכן, כשישים האדם אל |

ליבו שהמלך הגדול, |

הקבה |

אשר מלא כל הארץ כבודו, |

עומד עליו ורואה במעשיו, |

כמו שנאמר: “אם יסתר איש |

במסתרים ואני לא אראנו נאם ה‘”, |

מיד יגיע אליו היראה |

וההכנעה בפחד |

השית |

ובושתו ממנו תמיד. |

ולא יתבייש |

מפני בני אדם |

המלעיגים עליו בעבודת השית. |

גם בהצנע לכת בשכבו על משכבו |

ידע לפני מי הוא שוכב |

ומיד שיעור משנתו, |

יקום בזריזות לעבודת |

בוראו יתברך ויתעלה |

Shulchan Aruch: Rema 1:1

The Rema, does such a great job of explaining this concept so it’s hard to top that. But he gives us a lot to think about. Everyday as we consider this the meaning of it grows. Let’s take a few minutes to walk through some of these thoughts together, these are just a few ideas of what we can think about:

Make The Name of G-d Apparent – even before we have opened our eyes or moved to get up we are to think about G-d. Placing G-d before us means that we make a mental commitment to act as though we are in the presence of G-d. Just like if we were in the presence of a king or judge we would want to behave becomingly, we should recognize our lives are watched over by G-d. This comes with a benefit, on one hand we have G-d looking out for us to administer liberty and justice. But we also have a responsibility, to recognize that G-d demands that we behave as decent people in our dealings even when we think that no one else is watching. Before we open our eyes, we determine to behave as noble and dignified people in our dealings; both in public and private. If we can do it in our private lives we won’t have slip ups of bad actions in public.

Choosing to Use Noble Speech – what’s funny about the wording that the Shulchan Aruch uses is that it describes a person that is in their own home, among their own guests and surrounded by their own family and feeling free to speak openly he just “blabs” with his mouth widely letting loose whatever he feels like without regard. Before we say a single word we determine to employ noble and becoming speech. One of the terrible things about lishon hara – evil speech – is that most of us would never allow ourselves to say the types of things publicly that we say privately, we would be too ashamed. So we should think about being in the presence of the greatest King, G-d Himself, then we would watch what comes out of our mouth and speak in a dignified way. This means, even in the way we speak to ourselves in our thoughts. Think about it, some of us say demeaning things about ourselves that we are too considerate to ever say to another human being

Consider Where G-d Is At In Our Lives – the entire world is filled with G-d. We understand, in kabbalistic principal, that G-d is the Ain Sof; without limits, without end. But that also means that though G-d is not one thing or a person, His very sustenance and glory fill the entire universe. G-d’s glory exists in everything and everywhere, no matter how much any of us try to take credit or mold things our way. We need to consider that there is nothing outside of His realm of influence or where His rules of goodness need not apply. We need to think, how would we act if G-d was a person standing over us and observing our deeds? It’s not that G-d is watching over us like a prison guard waiting for us to slip up. Actually, the relationship is one in which G-d is given credit for everything we enjoy and every opportunity we have through a blessing. In order for us to do something that is wrong most people out of seeming shame decide that they will not say inappropriate blessing for whatever action or item they are illicitly enjoying. But just because we don’t mention G-d doesn’t mean His ways don’t exist; that’s as silly as pretending your spouse doesn’t existing if you turn around their portrait. We should discipline ourselves to know that godliness is displayed through creation, progress, wisdom, prosperity, etc. Everything we see is a manifestation of G-d’s order, if we understood that then everything we see will begin to remind us of G-d and His ways.

Be Bashful Before G-d – often times when people speak in the English vernacular we refer to this concept as being “ashamed before G-d.” Though this is not a mistranslation, it’s not exactly a one-for-one rendering. Even before we get up out of bed and out of the sheets we need to understand that we are completely exposed before G-d. But its more than that. As we begin to engage in our daily needs and we assess the day we can stand amazed at how brilliant the Creator is. Everything we begin to do and enjoy has blessings traditionally associated with them. Sometimes the truth of it just hits us, we just have to say “wow, it really is amazing that all these things necessary for life work out for me day after day.” Life is a complex function, with many dependencies for us to just to wake up let alone get through the day. G-d  is called Chai haOlamim – The Life of the Worlds – all the universe and  life within it is an extension of Him and sustained by His will. Even us. We are just a small part of this big universe, yet even as simple people we benefit from so much that we can be humbled. We feel so small before G-d and the universe that we become like a child with a surprise gift that is so bashful for being remembered that they want to hide shyly. We should always try to retain this type of wonder with the world.

But Don’t Be Ashamed Before Men – even before we move from bed, to get out from under the sheets we make a conscious choice to not feel embarrassed or foolish for our wonder of life and our respect to honor the little things in life, realizing that all these small things when they come together make our world so much better. There is nothing mature or smart about taking for granted the gift of life and the wonders of the world as the self-proclaimed intellectuals of our age like to flippantly do. They say that nothing you do as an individual matters that much. Some suggest that religious people thinking G-d considers their needs and betterment to be egotistical. Others suggest a faithful person is needlessly groveling and that his humility is a sign of mental weakness. Either way, it can be hard to face the world some days because people are so jaded that many will attack your devotion for reasons of humility or ego; you just can’t do anything right. But we aren’t supposed to hide from the world, we are called to transform it. That mean’s we also aren’t to conceal our service to G-d and pride in being our true selves, because it is through those things that we exemplify the truth of our values. Our actions speak louder than words.

Wake Up With Enthusiasm – if we really took to heart the idea that G-d watches over us then we would realize that we are laying before the Great King. Just as people jump up from bed with excitement if an important guest suddenly showed up, we need to wake to the day in order to serve G-d. We wouldn’t leave a king waiting at the foot of our bed, no we would jump up quickly and honored to be of service. How do we do accomplish this? By arousing ourselves to get up and wake the day. It means more than just getting up. The battle of our day starts even before we open our eyes or say a word, it starts when we actually wake. We should arouse ourselves to wake with all the agility and excitement that a youth would show toward their beloved.

When we begin the day by placing Hashem before us we recognize that G-d is present. As the day and world unfolds before us we begin to see that G-d is present in the world, in our deeds, and in our happenings. If we want to encounter G-d then we need to get up and see Him in action. As we lay there without saying a word we begin to arouse ourselves to rise up and meet G-d where He is, emulating G-d’s passion to be active in the world. This gives meaning to the scriptures when it says “has kol basar mif’neh Hashem ki naior mim’on kadsho / be silent all flesh before Hashem, for He is aroused out of His holy habitation.” (Zechariah 2:17)

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