Tag Archives: Shabbat

Parshat Tetzaveh (5774)


Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

Jewish Tall Hats and Turbans

Today we are going to talk about hats. The hats we wear and the roles that hats play in society. We will be looking at the function that hats play in Jewish culture and ritual as well.

Jews in Jerusalem,1895

Jews in Jerusalem,1895

Even if you aren’t a hat wearer, we all take notice of hats. Some of us more than others. However hats and head dresses are something that are not just pervasive in our society, they are actually part of the uniform of many important people. From the earliest years most of us have looked to people’s hats as a symbol of who they are and the role they play in our world. We begin to identify the different notable people by their hats; police, firefighters, nurses, chefs, etc.

Hats can tell us a lot about a person. Be it a baseball cap, a sun hat, cowboy hat or a helmet. Sometimes we can begin to discern and judge a lot about a person based on hats. The hats we wear, and how we wear them.

We are also going to give a detailed look at the way that scholars have tended to color the text surrounding this, according to their own cultural norms and class structures.

As we all know, hats play a very special role in Jewish tradition. But when we talk about hats, we can be talking about any type of head covering. As we are not all accustomed in every country to wear a traditional cap, Jewish men have taken it upon themselves to cover their heads with a kippa or a yarmulke. We all know the reasons for the kippah today, to symbolize the presence of G-d above us and show reverence.

However, we know that historically this only came about after the fall of Jerusalem to Rome (in 70 CE), the then dispersed Jews were shipped across the empire as slaves. The cap in the Roman empire designated their role as slaves. In the face of this, even the free Jews of Rome joined in solidarity with their captive brothers and also took-up the symbolic head coverings. The reason we are told, is because all Jews are servants and slaves to Hashem. We are one across all classes, that is the lesson brought down to us by almost every pulpit rabbi of our age.

And they also point out that we must keep in mind that the yarmulke is a post-biblical symbol, and a rabbinic ordinance upon the congregation of Israel.

I ask us to remove ourselves from this frame of mind for a while, as we look into the ages of the Torah when head coverings are common, but not universally symbolic in the same fashion we think of today.

Though we are mostly going to be focusing on the text of our fourth aliya, we can see that this mentioning of caps and hats is something that begins early on in the parsha:

“And these are the garments that they shall make: a choshen [breastplate], an ephod, a robe, a tunic of checker work, a cap, and a sash. They shall make holy garments for your brother Aaron and for his sons to serve Me as priests.”

וְאֵלֶּה הַבְּגָדִים אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשׂוּ חשֶׁן וְאֵפוֹד וּמְעִיל וּכְתֹנֶת תַּשְׁבֵּץ מִצְנֶפֶת וְאַבְנֵט וְעָשׂוּ בִגְדֵי קֹדֶשׁ לְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ וּלְבָנָיו לְכַהֲנוֹ לִי:

Exodus 27:4

As we see, the use of terms like “cap” are used for head coverings here. Now first we should take notice that the word which is used here, it is a seemingly generic word of sorts, as it means a hat or simply cap. The word for a cap is mitznafet, but it’s not exactly clear if this is a specific style of hat or a general term for a hat.

However, the archaic bibles of Europe most often use the word mitre. A strange and not so appropriate word. Though we will get back to that in a moment.

As we see from later on in the parsha, in our key verses for this week, more than one type of headdress is described and ordered. There is one for the kohen gadol – the high priest. And also a different style for his sons, the kohanim – the priests.

Let use take a look at the head-dress of the kohen gadol first. As the way they dress his mitznafet is different from the others:

“And you shall place the cap

on his [Aaron’s] head,

and you shall place the holy crown

upon the cap.”

| Vesamta hamitznefet

| al-rosho

| venatata et-nezer hakodesh

| al-hamitznafet

Exodus 29:6

This mitznafet is unique because it is an integrated part of the garb of the kohen gadol. With ribbons and sashes which bound it around the neck and attached through the breastplate, all meeting around the nap of the neck. But its the crown of gold the with Havayah – with the holy Four-Letter name of G-d written upon it, that is literally the crowing piece.

What we apparently see is a conned or pointed sort of headdress, with a crown of gold that was placed and tied upon it. Together they were the official headdress of the highest priestly office, only worn by the person uniquely appointed to serve before Hashem.

Now regarding the assisting kohanim we read something different. Let me provide you the Hebrew text as well, and not merely a transliteration, so you can see what I mean here for yourself. Also, take notice of the odd Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation (a public domain text that is commonly used by Open Source communities):

“Vechagarta otam avnet Aharon uvanav vechavashta lahem migba’ot,

וְחָגַרְתָּ אֹתָם אַבְנֵט אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו, וְחָבַשְׁתָּ לָהֶם מִגְבָּעֹת,

JPS (1917): “And thou shalt gird them with girdles, Aaron and his sons, and bind head-tires on them

Exodus 29:9

Naturally, people wonder what this means. Many others find themselves amused and entertained by the thought of what this could mean. Who has ever heard of a head-tire? I certainly haven’t seen this before this mention here. So what are we talking about here?

Most clear and modern translations of the Torah (such as the latest Judaica Press, Kol Menachem, Kaplan, etc.) instead translate the phrase, “vechavashta lahem migba’ot” as, “and dress them with high-hats.”

Now I know I like to roll with the chassidish hat-lovers, but even I get amused as people perk up their ears and take pride in their fedora or shtreimel at this point. I have met some really cool kohanim and plenty of leviim with some pretty tall hats in my day, but that’s not exactly what it’s talking about.

Well, it might be to them, but that’s not exactly the way I see it. To me, when I hear of mitznafet, in my mind’s eye and according to my cultural mindset, for some reason I first think of the word “turban” instead. But maybe that is because I’m simply used to seeing pictures of tzaddikim (righteous men) in turbans as much as I am in dress-hats. In turbans and head wraps according to the custom of Sephardic Jews and the near-eastern classical age. This is the manner of the Rambam, the Ben Ish Chai, Baba Sali, the chief Sephardic rabbis, etc.

And there are differences still if we draw comparisons and make assumptions based on our own cultural application. It is certainly true that for Sephardim today, the symbol of a turban is a sign of honor and respect. Not just everyone wears a turban in this day and age. So when it is applied, it says something about the dignity of the person.

Now how can I suggest that this is a turban spoken of here? What sources do I and other modern translators have to use this term? As the Torah and our sages seem to display, a mitznafet is a hollow piece of fabric, like most hats. However, they were also twisted and rolled around ones head, forming a hollow interior. (see Exodus 39, and relating commentary) Each layer upon the other appearing like tires, just as the JPS describes without using the then “oriental” word turban.

The Cyclopaedia – Chambers of 1728

One can certainly ask, what’s the difference anyhow? It’s just a hat! You see it your way, I see it my way. And one can also ask, why should we care that rabbis have obsessed over this point? They obsess over every detail anyhow!

However, it isn’t just rabbis and their talmidim that have obsessed over this point. Even the non-Jewish scholars and thinkers of Europe deeply struggled to understand what the form and meaning of all this was.

If you noticed, back in Rashi’s commentary for Exodus 28:4 he states that in old French this type of hat – the mitznafet, it is “kemin kiphat / it’s called a cipha.” He also gives the Aramaic word according to the Onkelos, kovain.

However, this old term cipha in Rashi’s 11th century French dialect is very close to the late-Latin word for this style hat, called a cofia. From this we get the middle-English coif and the Germanic kupfe. But often times when it gets time to translate into formal English, Europeans most often use the word mitre here.

Interestingly, this topic also has pretty detailed references in some fine classic works. As in the premier book of wisdom and knowledge of the early-1700s, the “Cyclopaedia: or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences” of Epharim Chambers. Except we will not get anywhere looking under the Latin cofia. We will find our reference under the Greek term “cidaris (kedaris),” the Greek work for crown that is akin to the Hebrew word “keter” (crown).

Chambers, as a scholarly Englishmen of his day, was not unread and unlearned when it came to the classics of the rabbis. His understanding of the text and the rabbis seems to agree with that of the average Hebrew reader. He says:

The rabbis say the same thing is meant by both these terms [mitznafet and mitgbaot], and that the bonnet used by priests in general was made of a piece of a linen cloth fifteen yards long, which covered their heads like an helmet or a turban: and they allow no other difference to be between the high priest’s bonnet, and that of other priests, than this, that one is flatter, and more in the form of a turban, whereas the other worn by ordinary priests wore something more in a point.”

However, interestingly. The first thing that one notices about Chamber’s contrast between the turbans of the kohen gadol and the kohanim, is a description that is purely based in status. In the opening lines to his entry we read:

The mitre used by the Jewish high priests. When- ever there is mention of the high priest’s mitre, the Hebrew word made use of to express it is always miznepheth; and myg-baoth is used to signify the bonnet belonging to common priests.”

As an Englishmen in a society of roles, status and nobles the idea of social status and level of influence is always at the forefront of his mind. He touches on that first.

Feeling old-school this Shabbat? Go turban!

Feeling old-school this Shabbat? Go turban!

Likewise, he also flavors the status symbols after the model which he knows. That of the pope and the arch bishops; he sees the priestly high hats, their turbans as mitres. Pointed hats with a flat face. The guy with the tallest and firmest hat was higher in the caste, and the priest with the crown was the final authority; kind of like the Pope (or archbishop) in his mitre.

Chambers explains to us that this term is derived from the Hebrew translation of migbaot by the catholic St. Jerome, who chose to use the Latin term mitra to express this, which hints at the shape of a helmet.

Interesting to see how different people and cultures look the same concepts differently, but at the same time they also subtly or sometimes exaggeratedly apply the mindset and structure of their society into that interpretation as well. In a time when the Bible was still considered a book of civic law and understanding, it was interpreted in a way that few of us would relate to today.

Of course, Chambers as an honest scholar admits the limitations of his understanding here. He states early on that their function and descriptions of these headdresses are “so various and different” that they are not well understood. Maybe today, we have a much clearer understanding, or at least a healthier understanding of this than in his day.

However, even then we should keep in mind that progress can also be lost over time as well. In a scholarly view of the past, one can’t help but notice that by the early 20th century the simple use of the word turban was no longer palatable anymore. Not in an age when the British Empire suppressed, instead of honored, people with turbans in places like India and the near-east. The scholars of that day rather refer to tires on peoples heads, before elevating the symbol of the turban.

Now before we give up on Chambers, I would also like to note that he did give us one other insightful and maybe practical application of hats in Jewish culture. At the end of the entry, in the second paragraph:

It is to be observed, that the Hebrew priests never appeared in the temple without covering their heads. And still at this day it is reckoned an incivility in the East, and a mark of con- tempt, for any man to pull off his hat or turban to another, or to hew his naked head before any one.”

He brings it back to the idea of head coverings as signs of reverence. And to be without a head covering, and to flash ones head by choice or by force is considered a sign of contempt.

Modern Use of Hats as Keys to Layered Consciousness

To bring this to a head, let us take our own practical look at hats and what they tell us. It is obvious that kippot and hats are a sign of religious devotion among Jews. Yes, it is a sign of reverence. Ask a religious Jew why they wear one, they will reply like Rav Huna, “Because the Divine Presence is always over my head.” (Talmud Bavli, Kiddushin 32a) Today all holy minded Jews cover their heads in prayer, as this is common among all Jews of every “class” and background. And for traditional people a kippah is often worn all day long.

As each Jews covers their head, they designate for themselves that the One G-d of all is resting above their head. Jews therefore seek to elevate their mind as they cover their head, in order that one might be inclined to act dignified and without contempt.

In our current, modern age we have no stratus levels set by how tall or firm your hat is, as seemed to be suggested regarding this text by all of the commentators stretching back to ancient times. For modern Jews, a hat will not tell you how important a person is. Any person can wear a kippa or a hat, so of course it doesn’t in any way suggest one is a priest or a rabbi. This is the symbol for all the people, common and otherwise.

That is not to say that wearing a certain style of yarmulke does not tell us a lot about a person. Though it might mean little to the outside world, a kippa will tell a person a lot about your religious affiliation.

The orthodox and chassidic often prefer the most modest colors, are you a black velvet type of guy? Or are you more kippa sruga – do you go knitted, are you more Modern Orthodox or even Religious Zionist? Maybe you’re a friend of the Nachs, the Breslovs and wear a Rebbe Nachman cap as you dance in the middle of traffic. Are you a kabbalist who wears white? Or maybe you’re more exotic and wouldn’t mind davening in a Bukharian kippa or fez.

The way one covers, and the style they prefer on their head, can say a lot to others. Does one wear it well, or just awkwardly? Maybe you are in protest, and don’t wear one at all. Either which way, in many cases the way one wears a yarmulke speaks loudly about the person. Much more than the outside world appreciates. But they mean something different according to their application in each custom or persuasion.

And hats for the religious Jew are no less telling. Take just orthodox Jews alone. They all seem the same to the outside world, but to the Jew a person’s hat can tell us a lot about them.

Whats interesting is that often times I will be with friends around town or I’ll be working a job, and as I have people come up to me and start talking I can quickly mention the community or background of this person I’ve just met. Jews tend to brighten up, that I “get it” and they don’t have to explain themselves. But my friends and coworkers often look at me strangely wondering how I “profiled” a person. Well, its nothing mental and it’s certainly not clairvoyance.

As our new friend walks away, I can then begin to explain what everyone else missed, but that speaks subtly to me. This man is saying something, be it with a Brooklyn-style hat or even an old world shtreimel. And if one wears a hat, what type and how do they wear it? Maybe you’re a Spanish-Portuguese Jew in top hat. The style and brand, the shape or the bend in the bill, a pinch or no pinch, dimpled or not dimpled, black or gray? Little touches and accents to your hat can most often tell a person a lot about who you are and your temperament.

You know right away what sect or school of mind a person is from by this. Different schools have a different “uniform” and “cap.”

And for each person it fits differently as well, not every person is identical even if they are similarly styled. Each shows his own character in the way he fashion and handles himself.

These days I’m not really into looking very religious, not that I’m against it. It’s just not where I’m at in my life right now. I’m more interested in doing religious, than looking like it. I’ll admit, aside from prayer and learning I don’t wear kippot often enough. I do when I engage in soulful stuff, as I feel the need like any other Jew does. Much more often at home than when out of the house, oddly enough.

But when shabbat comes, I find myself more intensely getting back into the old mindset of my younger days. Sometimes I just slip back to that mood for no reason, just because that is where my head is today. I take out my hat, clean it and get ready to slip into the comfort of the sabbath.

One may also wear a hat during prayer, to increase this sense of awareness of G-d’s presence. I take it out for that purpose more often these days as well.

Shmueli GonzalesEven more so, like many people of the chassidic philosophy, I especially make special note to wear a hat on the sabbath. As we are mystically taught in the Talmud, on the day of Shabbat we are given a second soul. (Bavli Beitzah 16a) We are given an additional soul, in order to have a double helping of Shabbat joy. To symbolize this many wear a second hat; meaning a kippah and a dress-hat, both. Since each living soul should wear a hat, we deck ourselves with two; one for each soul that we are dressing for the occasion.

Even then as I don my hat, I also keep in mind that I’m not taking on a costume. Nor am I conforming or being nostalgic. But only people who have lived that experience would know what I mean. Recently a friend saw a picture on Facebook of me going out in my hat. Being that we both came out of the same chassidic sect and schools of though, he takes notices of things that only another travelers would notice and also take comfort at the sight.

As I’m walking out the door one day I get a message. Taking notice of the make and color of the hat he texts back excited. And in response I begin to reminisce of the old days, when we were younger and supposedly more level-headed. I talk about the years before this hat was rained on, rusted on, moth bitten, stomped on, and then restored to be worn proudly with scars. But I love my roughed-up hat, because it’s a lot like me. And it says a lot about me. And it also says a lot about what has been put into my head as well. The examples and mindset I follow. He gets excited at the special appearance of the old gray hat as much as I do:

CHAIM: “Same color as the Lubavitche Rebbe before he was the Rebbe! Nice!”

SHMU: “I loved it, being so young and already well hatted. you know, the hat is the sign your serious. but it was cute. the old guys would be all, “look at this hat, how much did it cost? only a Yid would buy such a fine hat, im telling you… feel it… right, like i said…” hahaha and then someone’s father comes in from Kfar Chabad with a shtreimel that puts us all to shame. heheheh but something as simple as a hat sometimes says a lot about a persons temperament and influences that few outsides appreciate.”

And in that way, a friend who knows me as close as a brother can point out to others how I’m of a certain philosophy, while also appreciating my less than dogmatic approach regarding my chassidut. He sees the uniqueness and personal styling lost on the untrained observer who just sees another one of “them.”

Ever since then my head has been wrapped around this topic (no pun intended). The topic of hats and turbans. The elegance and gracefulness of them. The poised way a fine and fitted hat makes one feel. Not just how warm its keeping me this winter. But also the gentle and refined spirit that they can bring over a person who understands and values the symbolism. The person who wants to not just look his best, but also think and feel his best.

This shabbat, maybe you want to give it a try. Do you feel a second soul welling up? Is there double the joy inside that you just want to dress up and celebrate? Maybe you should try wearing a hat. It just might be something that simple that can help set your head into shabbat mode.

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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.


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