Tag Archives: Talmud

When Redemption Turns Fatal

When Redemption Turns Fatal
Atonement and the implications of premature death

lost in the desertRecently as I was studying Parshat Bo I was taken back by seeing an interesting statement made regarding the celebration of Pesach with the eating of matzah. As Pesach is quickly coming upon us I was captivated by the details relating to the unique aspects of the first celebration and the way that it prescribes future observance. While bridging the two the Torah indicates that one who eats leaven will “v’nich’rata ha-nefesh hahi miYisrael / have his soul is cut-off from among Israel.” (Exodus 12:15) This is a “chukat olam t’chagu’hu / an eternal commandment that one rejoice.” (v.14)

The statement is unique, not necessarily in wording but in placement. We will see the phrase “cut-off” used many times in both Leviticus and Deuteronomy; but aside from that there are few reference earlier in the chumash. In Genesis we only have a couple similar examples; once in passing used by Isaac, and the other being the commandment given to Avraham Avinu that each Hebrew male be circumcised. (Genesis 17:14) It warns us that anyone who is not circumcised may be cut-off from his people, so they must carefully observe this.

But what do we mean by being “cut-off?” The Rashi to this verse explains to us:

And that soul shall be cut off:

He goes childless (Yevamot 55a)

and dies prematurely (Moed Katan 28a).”

ונכרתה הנפש: |

הולך ערירי |

ומת קודם זמנו: |

Rashi to Genesis 17:14

Though neither of these statements come with any prescribed punishment or qualification in the Torah, this phrase is one of the most harsh we can find in the scriptures. Our sages recognize 24 egregious sins that result in one being cut-off; meaning, ones life and legacy is cut short. (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilichot Teshuvah)

That is not to say that one is without remedy, Leviticus chapter 22 presents us with a means for repentance by removing whatever is the cause of ones offense and approaching G-d again through in worship. Clean yourself up, and return. By making teshuvahmaking repentance, returning, turning back – one is forgiven and their judgment is lifted; according to the halacha this is true for all cases, except for with the sin of idolatry (avodah zara). Though these sins seem to demand that a Sanheidrin (the supreme court of Jewish law) prescribe death for a person who commits any one of these sins, any person that repents is forgiven without consequence, except in cases of idolatry.

In Talmud Bavli mesecta Avodah Zara – which discusses the halachot related to judgment for idolatry – it is explained to us that the judgment of death is not necessary when the sin is not serious enough to demand such punishment. Thus the halacha of the Talmud is that all sins are fully pardonable, except for idolatry. Even if judicially forgiven by the sanheidrin there is a consequence to idolatry that cannot be avoided, as it is a sin against G-d the consequence comes from the hand of G-d even in face of repentance. More precisely, the hand of G-d’s mercy is restrained so that the person dies at a time and in way that only heaven knows. How can this be?

Simply put, the Torah says that when one commits a severe sin it results in keret – being cut down, one’s life cut short – though it does not necessarily imply a sentence, as much as it is a description of ones state. As the Tanya teaches, to be cut-off merely means to disconnect from our spiritual source – one disconnects themselves, and they in turn die from the atrophy this causes in their soul. (Lekutei Amarim – Tanya, Iggeret haTeshuva, siman 5)

Though this is generally the case, there are certain exceptions to the rule. The Talmud presents us a tragic example of someone, who despite his sincere repentance, still perishes; even more confusing, he is not guilt of idolatry at all. What could be so severe that one still dies after repenting? And what does this mean, is it that he was not forgiven or can it be that G-d yet demands “satisfaction?”

To understand this the rabbis present us with the story of Rabbi Elezar ben Doria as an example. We will find this presented in Talmud Avodah Zarah 17a:

והתניא: |

אמרו עליו על |

רבי אלעזר בן דורדיא, |

שלא הניח זונה |

אחת בעולם שלא בא עליה; |

פעם אחת שמע שיש זונה אחת |

בכרכי הים, |

והיתה נוטלת כיס דינרין |

בשכרה; |

נטל כיס דינרין והלך ועבר עליה |

שבעה נהרות; |

בשעת הרגל |

We learn in a b’raita of a Tanna:

‘It was said of

Rabbi Elezar ben Dordia

that there was no whore

in the whole world that he did not go to.

After he heard of this certain whore

in a large seaside city

who accepted a purse of denari [coins]

as payment

he took a purse of coins and crossed

seven rivers,

all the while traveling on foot without anything.”

Talmud Bavli Avodah Zarah 17a

As we see from the Talmud the sin of Ben Dordia was related to sexual immorality. So caught up in his sexual indiscretions that people reckoned that there wasn’t a prostitute in the entire world he hadn’t slept with.

As the story goes, one day he hears that there is a certain whore in a far off place that he hasn’t been with. Driven by compulsion, his desire to have her is so great that he immediately begins to gather the necessary money to pay her. Knowing that her fee was 100 denari, he collects only enough money necessary to pay her and then sets off on foot. And this is a hint to the level of lust that motivated him. As she is so far away and in a seaside town you would think he would pay to go by ship. Instead he is unwilling to wait or delay and therefore makes this ridiculously long journey by foot and without provisions. Being blinded by lust, he disregards his own needs and wellbeing in pursuit of this prostitute.

דבר הפיחה |

אמרה: |

כשם שהפיחה זו |

אינה חוזרת למקומה – |

כך אלעזר בן דורדיא |

אין מקבלין אותו |

בתשובה. |

So he he got it on with her.

And she said:

‘Just like this breaking-wind

will not return to its place,

so too Elezar ben Dordia

will not not be received back

in repentance.’”

As unlikely as it was, he did actually make it to his destination and get with this woman. Considering all the effort and personal cost, one would hope that his fling have would actually be worth it to him. Instead of her being the desirable woman he probably imaged, she instead showed herself to be crude and unrefined. To the point she broke-wind in bed and even made a joke over it. Then she actually went so far as to make fun of him, teasing him that he would never be accepted back because of how far he had strayed; the pun being just like her fart couldn’t go back to where it came from, so too he couldn’t go back to where he came from. Considering all he had done, his people would never accept him back.

Though she is an inappropriate and seemingly vile person, she isn’t the only one that needs her character scrutinized in this story. One has to wonder anyhow, what is Ben Dordia doing there at all? How is it that this man is even called “rabbi” when he is completely consumed by his perversion?

What we should first understand about Ben Dordia was that he was not actually a “rabbi” in the conventional way we think, as he was not a member of the sanheidrin at all. Notice even the prostitute calls him merely by name, the redactor doesn’t give him this title of honor early on here in the story either when recounting it. Ben Dordia was just an ordinary man, in fact probably someone best described as a mediocre man in terms of his practice; there is no other way to explain how he is able to have such a serious pursuit of his sin and not neglect his religious duties. Also notice most of the people we see in the Talmud come from legacy and with a lineage we all know, but this man just comes out of nowhere and onto the pages of the highest source of rabbinic discourse.

Despite his lack of character and duplicity, Ben Doria is somehow deeply troubled by the prostitute’s words. Though being desensitized to the depravity he was surrounded in, he had enough conviction left in him that he became overwhelmed by the realization of the truth of her estimation and completely broke down. He then ran from the place where he was at, seemingly to find his way back. His need for teshuvah was not just metaphoric, he was literally desperate to find his way back. The Talmud continues:

He went away and sat down

between two hills and mountains

and said:

‘Hills and mountains,

ask for mercy for me!’

And they said to him:

‘How can we ask for you

when we need to ask for our own sake.

As it is said:

‘For the mountain be departed

and the hills be removed…’

(Isaiah 54:10)

He said:

‘Heavens and earth

ask for mercy for me!’

And they said:

‘How can we ask for you

when we need to ask for our own sake.

As it is said:

‘For the heavens

shall vanish away like smoke,

and the earth will wear out like

a garment’

(Isaiah 51:6)

He said:

‘Sun and moon ask for mercy for me!’

And they said to him:

‘How can we ask for you

when we need to ask for our own sake.

As it is said:

‘Then the moon shall be confounded,

and the sun ashamed;’

(Isaiah 24:23)

And he said:

‘Stars and mazalot [constellations]

ask for mercy for me!’

And they said to him:

‘How can we ask for you

when we need to ask for our own sake.

As it is said:

‘And all the host of heaven shall moulder away!’”

(Isaiah 34:4)

הלך וישב |

בין שני הרים וגבעות, |

אמר: |

הרים וגבעות |

בקשו עלי רחמים! |

אמרו לו: |

עד שאנו מבקשים עליך – |

נבקש על עצמנו, |

שנאמר |

כי ההרים ימושו |

והגבעות תמוטינה |

(ישעיהו נד י) |

אמר: |

שמים וארץ |

בקשו עלי רחמים! |

אמרו: |

עד שאנו מבקשים עליך – |

נבקש על עצמנו, |

שנאמר |

כי שמים |

כעשן נמלחו |

והארץ כבגד |

תבלה |

(ישעיהו נא ו). |

אמר: |

חמה ולבנה בקשו עלי רחמים! |

אמרו לו: |

עד שאנו מבקשים עליך – |

נבקש על עצמנו, |

שנאמר |

וחפרה הלבנה |

ובושה החמה. |

(ישעיהו כד כג) |

אמר: |

כוכבים ומזלות |

בקשו עלי רחמים! |

אמרו לו: |

עד שאנו מבקשים עליך – |

נבקש על עצמנו, |

שנאמר |

ונמקו כל צבא השמים! |

(ישעיהו לד ד) |

As the Talmudic text picks up again we then see him sitting between two hills and two mountains. Lost and unable to orient himself he begins to cry out to the mountains and hills. He speaks to them in a personal tone, going so far as to ask them to pray for him; pleading “rachamim,” have mercy on me. As strange as his actions seem, what is even more strange is the fact that they actually speak back to him; the rabbis tell us that they were granted a voice to respond to him in his time time of need. Without anyone to turn to he begins to carry on a dialogue with the natural forces, and they respond to him.

If you got a miraculous response from heaven, you like most people would probably want to hear words of comfort. But there weren’t any words of encouragement or compassion given. As he goes through this back and forth with nature, each time they are going to respond with the simple truth that there is nothing they can do for him. In fact, if we look at the wording it not only tells us they are in need of help from G-d themselves, but it also suggests to us one must ask “atzmeninu / ourselves,” meaning on their own behalf.

As concise as the Talmud tries to be with content, this whole episode is not only drawn out but it is unusually repetitious. He makes the same statement each time, and the responses are the same, except for a single variation when it comes to supporting biblical quotes offered. The majority of the details are in the list of the elements he cries out to. Our rabbis suggest there is some type of deeper psychological association he must be making, for this reason their commentary mostly concerns itself with asking “what do these statements mean to him?” Though it would be easy to dismiss his pleading as mere ranting and look no further than his hysteria, we need to keep in mind that for Ben Dordia his need for a response was so great that G-d was compelled to grant him this by supernatural means; his desperation was not all trivial, nor were the words of his pleading.

Rashi is the first to offer us a explanation, suggesting that when he called out to the “harim / the hills” what he actually meant on a heart level was “horim / ancestors;” literally meaning his parents. Rashi deduces this based on Talmud Rosh haShanah 11a; citing Micah 9:2 the rabbis compares our ancestors to the mountains. The hill and mountains are made of many layers of rock and soil, each generation built upon another to provide a firm foundation. This is true of mountains and also of ones heritage. We make this journey in life on a higher road, built upon and paved by the contributions of our ancestors. Any moral higher ground we have is provided us from their ethics and experiences. The rabbis teach us here in the Talmud that we aren’t just raised to a higher and better place, but we are recipients of their divine merit. Instead of merely calling us to stand on their giant shoulders, the rabbis insist that just like wise Solomon they call to us “listen my beloved, and come leaping upon mountains, and skipping over the hills;” (Shir haShirim 2:8); our heritage in them provides us a source of joy that comes from divine grace. The mountains represent the patriarchs, the hills are the matriarchs. He cries out to his holy parents “rachamim / have mercy on me,” he is pleading for them to help him.

We can look at the other references to the natural forces likewise. The heavens and earth are also thought of in a complimentary gender dichotomy, and so too the sun and moon. It is easy for us to understand, as the ancient peoples similarly recognizing the greater light of the sun that rules the day as a symbol masculinity and the less light of the moon as the a symbol of femininity. Even in the Torah we see this, in the story of Yosef’s dream the sun represents his father and the moon his mother. (Genesis 37:11, see Parshat Vayeshev)

Though his second request, to the heavens and earth, does also clearly show a more obvious intention. He asks for mercy, first from the heavens and then from the earth. He starts first by asking for grace from heaven, and then secondly for mercy from the earth; the heavens being the mysterious seat of G-d’s mercy, the earth being the calculated world of justice.

Even the sun and moon imply to us a deeper meaning, the sun also being an ancient symbol of authority. The ancient kings and rulers of the nations often considered themselves as the earthly representation of the sun-god, the moon conversely represented their goddesses and queens. In his third request he appears to be asking for the help of the rulers and authorities.

Having made three request for mercy and compassion, Ben Dordia then makes one final request to the stars and the mazalot – the signs of the zodiac. This is less in line with the dichotomy but easier to explain. He is literally pleads for the stars and zodiac (mazalot) to intervene for him and change his fate.

When we consider all this, the story begins to take shape and his motivation becomes clear. He is asking for help from anyone who will listen, from the most accessible to the least; “mom and dad, save me,” “world and universe, help me,” “your honor, sir, ma’am, have mercy on me,” and lastly “fate, can you please give me a break here.”

Though they are not able to help him, they do respond to him. And their responses are neither harsh nor unkind, they each declare their limitations and need of help from G-d themselves. They don’t just turn him down, they reveal their own frailties and inability sympathetically. They weren’t telling him “sorry, but we have our own problems to worry about,” they instead seem to be saying that they can relate to being in need.

Hearing this and understanding the truth of it Elezar ben Dordia stops his pleading. The Talmud continues with his response:

And he said:

There is nothing that doesn’t depend on me!

And he hung his head between his knees

and wept until he exhausted

his soul to death.”

אמר: |

אין הדבר תלוי אלא בי! |

הניח ראשו בין ברכיו |

וגעה בבכיה עד שיצתה |

נשמתו; |

As there is no one that can help him, Ben Dordia becomes even more inconsolable. Lost and helpless he remains crouched on the ground, head hung low between his knees, weeping – not just crying, but bawling with all the strength left him. He cries with all his being until his entire soul is exhausted to the point of death. As no one is coming to rescue him he exclaims to himself alone, “it all depends on me.” And there on the ground he remains until he weeps himself to death.

Is it possible for a person to die from inconsolable crying? And if it is, what can break a man so that he weeps until he dies? What has him so tore up and broken down? Though one might assume that his hysteria is because no one will help him, his words reveal something different all together. Sure he is broken from the reality that he is solely responsible for his own redemption, but even more so by the truth that the whole situation (ha-davar) is of his own making. He is dying inside from the revelation that “it’s all on me.” Those are the last recorded words of Ben Dordia before he lays down and dies.

Fortunately the story doesn’t end there. The Talmud continues:

Just then a bat-kol was heard saying:

‘Rabbi Elezar ben Dordia is destined

to live in the world to come!’”

יצתה בת קול ואמרה |

רבי אלעזר בן דורדיא מזומן |

לחיי העולם הבא.’ |

In his final moments before he draws his last breath a heralding voice is heard from heaven declaring that he has been accepted in repentance and earned his place in the world-to-come. His personal confession is heard in heaven and his pardon is declared by an angelic messenger.

As we look at this incident and consider his acts of repentance it is clearly evident that he is sincere and contrite, but what merits the response of heaven to pardon him is his confession, “ain hadavar talui elah bi / there isn’t anything that doesn’t depend on me.” This is not any matter for which I am not responsible.

What is so remarkable about his words? These word don’t seem intended for anyone other than himself, but they catch the attention of heaven. They are few and unsophisticated, neither lofty nor spiritual sounding in the least. But if we look beyond the simplicity of his statement we will find more than just a realization that he is helpless. G-d does not respond to him out of pity, He responds to him because Ben Dordia has a dramatic change of heart and mind. He moves beyond being more concerned with the role everyone else plays in his tragedy.

As unbecoming as his pleading with all of the world and the sky to help him seems, his attitude is very actually very typical. In fact many people go one step further and actually blame others for their downfall. He could have easily said like many people do, “its not my fault, its my parents and my culture that are to blame.” He could have blamed the world, the politicians, the system and even fate itself. But here we find him for the first time taking full responsibility. This is such a drastic change in his character that it merits him full salvation.

Though he does find a place in heaven, we cannot avoid the fact that he still dies. As discussed, this is not demanded by the halacha. This is so unusual most editions of the Talmud contain an extra line to emphasize this lest we miss this point (in brackets). This is what makes the story even more tragic, his death was unnecessary. His repentance is complete and attested to by the bat-kol, for this reason none of our rabbis suggest that his death was part of his atonement. He was not dying for his sins. The Talmud continues, and provides us a simple suggestion:

[For he only committed a sexual sin and yet he died!]

And this is how it comes together:

As he was so addicted to [his sin]

it was counted as minut.”

[והא הכא בעבירה הוה ומית!] |

התם נמי: |

כיון דאביק בה טובא – |

כמינות דמיא. |

Our halacha is that one is only required to die in cases of idolatry. Here the rabbis suggest his sin was so habitual and severe that it was equivalent to minut – to apostasy and heresy. He was not necessarily guilty of idolatry, but his sin was so great that it like a idol in his life and thus suffered likewise.

Had his sin been considered a typical transgression or he been a member of the sanheidrin, his resulting death might be understandable. The Torah commands that willful sinners among the elders are to be put to death, for intentionally violating the law and causing others to do likewise even after being censured by their peers. There are three ways ones atonement can be secured after execution is ordered if one chooses to repent; being pardoned by the sanheidrin, Yom haKippurim – the Day of Atonements, and suffering. Ordinarily any one of these will suffice. But in the case of a religious leader the offense holds much more weight. Even if being reconciled to his people and his peers, the elder suffers in death. The Talmud elsewhere tells us:

אבל מי שיש חילול השם בידו – |


אין לו כח |

בתשובה לתלות, |

ולא ביום הכפורים לכפר, |

ולא ביסורין למרק. |

אלא כולן תולין, |

ומיתה ממרקת, |

שנאמר: |

ונגלה באזני הצבאות |

אם יכפר העון הזה |

לכם עד תמתון” |

(ישעיהו כב) |

But if the sin he enacts is a chilul Hashem

(a desecration of the name of G-d)

it is not enough for him;

relying only on repentance,

Yom haKippurim to atone,

nor suffering to purify.

However, all of them together suspend it,

and death finishes it off.

As it is said:

‘It is obvious in the eyes of the L-rd of Hosts

that the atonement for this one

will not be until he dies.’”

(Isaiah 22:14)

Talmud Bavli Yoma 86a

The first reason this example does not apply to Ben Dordia is because the scripture cited is actually about an unrepentant person. The Tanach speaks of a person who refuses to call out to G-d in weeping and humility (v.12), and they instead are happy in their sin and glad of it as they eat and drink themselves to death (v.13); of such a person G-d is saying that until it kills them they will not atone for themselves (v.14).

Though the rabbis only use this verse figuratively when they cite it here. They are rabbis who most often concern themselves with matters that pertain to themselves, with the Talmud being their court records and transcription. They naturally discuss things herein that relate to themselves. But they are fully aware that they are merely men, even among them their could be found people who despite their wisdom and sincere religiosity retained the attitude of “eat, drink for tomorrow we die.” They therefore read this verse another way, that sometimes sins of pleasure are so strong and binding that even for the religious the battle will remain until the day they die. Maybe even more so, we all know the rabbinic maxim that states: “the greater the man the greater the yetzer hara (negative drive).” (Talmud Bavli Sukkot 52a) The impulse towards sin only dies with with the person, but a living person will always need to balance the influence of their higher-self and their base-nature. But its not possible to kill the drive of a person’s sinful nature without killing them intern.

But again this does not apply to Ben Dordia in either case. He is just a lowly man, that is fully repentant. But there is some similarity, he will battle sin until his dying day. But his death is incidental, in that there is no way for him to find his way out of the wilderness and back to his people. Being only indirectly consequential, in that his death was caused by the lifestyle he lived prior to repentance. The damage he had done to himself could not be reversed, so he died. We don’t know if he would have survived if he found his way back and repented in the proper way as a Jewish man before the elders, on Yom haKippurim or through personal infliction. He was left in such a fragile state that he could go no further and so he died where he lay. As he could not find his way back, a voice from heaven came to him and declared that he would be destined for salvation.

This outcome for him seems so unfair that heaven itself has to speak up and say that if he cannot live in this world he deserves to know that he will live in the world to come. This is because the scripture do explicitly tell us that life is the rewarded of the penitent. G-d sends messengers to call people back; even if only for them to hear the message and care less, or see the point of their error but not “get it.” Some people will never accept the message, closing their eyes and ears. But for those who understand and who take this call to heart and return, they will be healed. (Isaiah 6:9-10)

His death seems to trouble the rabbis even more so, they understood these laws and scriptures thoroughly and found no reason for his demise either. Instead of being insensitive and without comprehension, Ben Doria comes to this ascent of consciousness of his personal responsibility on his own, and without any intervention. His understanding is something so remarkable that they count him among the chachamim. For this reason they elevate him beyond being a simple person that they could not find remedy for, and instead reckon him a great man who suffered post-facto for apostasy.

That is not to say that his deathbed repentance doesn’t trouble some. Unlike the many other religions that hang their atonement and salvation on ones belief, Judaism does not and instead puts greater stock in ones actions. Emunah to the Jew means faithfulness, not faith that is an abstract feeling; it’s a description of ones ethic to follow through. Even our term for Jewish law – halacha – is a term that emphasizes the helek, the way one goes and the path they lead in this life. One should repent and live a life of holiness. This was not the case for Ben Dordia. No one challenges the truth of his redemption, yet even the Talmud itself shows the discomfort some feel with his late reflection:

Rabbi heard this and wept, saying:

‘It is possible to acquire the world to come

after years [of dedication],

and another to quire that world in an hour?’”

בכה רבי ואמר: |

יש קונה עולמו בכמה |

שנים |

ויש קונה עולמו בשעה אחת. |

Talmud Bavli Avodah Zarah 17a

The concern of Rabbi Yehuda haNasi is also understandable, being devout and faithful in Torah was the lifetime occupation of the rabbis of the Great Assembly, the sanheidrin that he headed; that enforced Jewish law, which he was chiefly responsible for documenting in the Mishnah of the Talmud; he is a tzadik par-excellence. We can look at the above statement several ways, but the obvious tone clearly carries through. For all the dedication Rabbi has invested in his practice he is anguished that Ben Dordia did nothing at all and was granted salvation. It might even seem convenient. He has no opportunity to exit his situation and there he remained, until there is nothing left he can do and then he repents. It angered Rabbi to the point of tears that for all his years of dedication, this single act of repentance by this sinner was regarded just as meritorious as his accomplishments. If this story concerns itself with what is fair, in the eyes of the faithful Ben Dordia’s “easy” redemption is unfair.

It is quite true, this is not something ordinarily we as Jews would look upon favorably. But the truth of the validity of such redemption remains even if it saddens and upsets anyone. Though this type of atonement is extraordinary and surely less than ideal, it is necessary that one not compare their own path of redemption to that of Ben Dordia or anyone else. Though most people who occupy themselves in Torah living will have an entire lifetime of personal growth and struggles to master, this story of redemption does not cheapen our approach towards atonement. What is important to comprehend here is that the understanding that Ben Dordia had to come to was his life’s struggle, this battle with himself was just as difficult as the entire life-struggle of anyone else.

Even his very name showed a tendency to be prone towards depending on supernatural help, his name Elezar means “G-d will help” or “G-d has helped.” But here he has to transcend his understand of his self and realize “there is nothing that isn’t dependent on me” to solve.

This is not hard to understand if we look beyond our own personal discomfort and consider the struggle of another. It should not need to be explained, for this reason no one responds to Rabbi’s lament. It is Rabbi who reflects upon this and rebuffs himself. The Talmud for this ends with Rabbi himself commenting a second time:

Rabbi [also] said:

‘Not only are baalei teshuvah

[repenters, lit. people who return]


but they are even called “Rabbi.”’”

ואמר רבי: |

לא דיין לבעלי תשובה |


שמקבלין אותן, |

אלא שקורין אותן רבי‘! |

Talmud Bavli Avodah Zarah 17a – Rabbi Yehuda haNasi, 2nd century CE

Considering all this, Rabbi Yehuda haNasi goes on record in praise and support of Elezar ben Dordia. He not only comes to the conclusion that this man’s story of redemption is honorable, but acknowledges the commonality of their human experience. Yehuda haNasi calls him “Rabbi,” a nickname that most often refers to himself in the proceedings of sanheidrin; he is the chief and senior elder and is called “rabbi / my teacher” by the others in the Talmud. The redemption of Rabbi Elezar ben Dordia is something which all of us, even the most pious of people, should learn from.


As we come to the completion of this study, one of the things that I want us to keep in mind is that reality that we are always able to make teshuvah – to turn around and make a change, to return. But we do need to keep in mind the reality of repentance, it might remove the stains of sins no matter how deep they run (Isaiah 1:18) but this does not mean that we are free of the natural results that such distorted living causes. This does not in any way effect our level with G-d, but it can be confusing and almost unfair that some of the results of sin can be revisited in our lives. Most often take place after a while, once a person has moved on from that type of life. Revisiting it can often bring confusion and shame of ones past back to haunt them. But our place as penitent people is not in any way compromised before the Throne of Heaven.

Keeping this in mind it should on one hand bring us comfort, our struggles are merely with the physical that we are trying to subjugate to our spiritual and higher selves. Sometimes it takes a lot longer to remedy distorted living in our physical person than it does on a heart level, and what we sow today does not necessarily reflect what we are currently reaping. When your hearts is right, it is right no matter what the physical manifestations say. But conversely, we need to bare in mind that we cannot be foolish enough to sow today and think that we wont reap the consequences of our deeds at some point.

Shmueli Gonzales, is a writer and Torah student from Southern California. In addition to divrei Torah and contributions to the Open Source publication of the siddur, he also spends much time as a volunteer educating people regarding HIV/AIDS.

Parshat Ki Tavo (2011)

Parshat Ki Tavo
Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8

“My Father was a homeless Aramean.” The story of the Jew, both born and converted

Our parsha begins with the words “vehaya ki tavo el ha’aretz / and it shall be when you have come into the Land,” derivi ng its name. In this parsha, we continue with discussing the laws related to the people coming into the Land. But here we are talking about once they already have come into the Land to possess it and settle it.

We are told that the people are to take the first fruits of the Land and to put them in a basket and go up to the place “vehalachta el-hamakom asher yivchar Hashem Eloheicha leshaken shmo sham / to the place where Hashem your G-d will choose to cause His Name to dwell there,” meaning the Beit haMikdash The Temple. What we learn from the sages is that during the first season of fruit it was to marked by a reed rapped around it to identify it as the first fruits, then when they were ripe they were to be collected in a basket and brought to Beit haMikdash, and as our text says presented before the altar. This was done during Shavuotthe festival of first fruits, which was spring barley festival also known as Pentecost (see Exodus 23:16, Numbers 28:26). Settlement would happen bit by bit as we are told (see Deut 7:22), and eventually the sanctuary of the MiskanThe Tabernacle, would give way to a permanent home, just as the people each find their own home. This was their moment to celebrate not only did they have a home, but also a parnasa – a way to support themselves. They really had it all now, they were complete.

So when this happened they were to go up to the Temple and present themselves before the priests, whoever it is in those days (obviously meaning it was gonna be at a different times for different people).

For a person like me who loves the siddur (prayerbook), this is lovely because it goes step by step through a process of the ritual and how it was officiated by the priests. I don’t want to spend to much time on the process because its beautifully clear. But one part we must take notice of is the statement the man makes to the priest, he says to him:

I affirm today

before Hashem your G-d

that I have come into the land

which Hashem swore

to our forefathers to give us.”

| Higadeti hayom

| l’Hashem Eloheicha

| ki-vati el-ha’aretz

| asher nishba Hashem

| la’avoteinu latet lanu.

Deuteronomy 26:3


The basket is taken by the priests and presented before the altar, then a declaration is made. Now it’s a little bit long so we should assume it was read by each person. In fact the Mishnayot tell of this, as we learn how the people who knew what they were doing and were literate went first to make their declaration to get out of the way, and then those who didn’t went next so that they could be helped through the process. It’s a very beautiful way of showing that we should be concerned to help our fellow through the joy of a mitzvah too, if we are good at something we are then more than able to help another along too. But I digress…

The declaration started with the statement:

My father was a wandering Aramaean.

He went to Egypt

and resided there as an immigrant…”

| Arami oved avi

| vayered Mitzraimah

| vayagor sham bimtei

Deuteronomy 26:4

The statement made would go through how the Hebrews became a great people in Egypt, and how they became persecuted and were enslaved. It goes into great detail about the suffering and afflictions, and then how G-d saved the people with terrible signs and wonders. And then how they were brought into the land flowing with milk and honey.

The statement concludes with the basket being taken once again and presented in keeping with the words:

And now, behold,

I have brought the first of the fruit of the land,

which You Hashem have given me”

| Ve’atah hineh

| heveti et-reshit pri ha’adamah

| asher natatah li

Deuteronomy 26:10a

Then the fruits were finished being presented and he would prostrate before the altar.

Now back to this statement being made, as I said it goes through a very strong description of the type of sufferings the children of Israel went through. It doesn’t just say they suffered, it says it in many colorful ways just how much they suffered. Yet they also went on to speak amazingly about the deliverance from bondage and how they were brought to a prosperous land. Why are they to do this though?

You shall rejoice in all the goodness

which was give you to you by

Hashem your G-d

and unto your household;

and the Levite and the convert

which is in your midst.”

| Vesamachta vechol-hatov

| asher natan-lecha

| Hashem Eloheicha

| uleveitecha atah

| vehaLevi vehager

| asher bekirbecha.

Deuteronomy 26:11

The reason we are to go through this whole declaration is so that we can rejoice, because G-d has taken us from being children of a wandering Aramean to now be a people who possess a fruitful land. Though telling our story comes with a lot horrible scenes, we came from nothing to having it all; so we rejoice in this.

Every so often I speak with my family about the horrors of the shoahthe holocaust and the stories surrounding the families I know that are survivors. Though my family has been here in California for many many generations, they remember the early days of Los Angeles and the Jewish community of Boyle Heights, the original immigrant Jewish community. They watched on as may people after the war came to join family members already here, swelling the neighborhoods with new enterprise and energy. My grandmother speaks to me fondly of shopping in the farmers markets and shops. But they confided in me one of the things that perplexed a lot of them, like most American people, was what the stories were surrounding these earlier pioneers and then the immediate survivors of the Shoah. They had to ask as the people still had an awkwardness present in their personality and attitudes, along with a resolute spirit worth noticing. But the bearers were not willing to speak about what refined such a temperament within them. Of course these Ashkenazim also married into my family, but they still were left wondering

I had to remind them that not to long ago these people were not so well off, many of them came with nothing and not but a few pennies to rub to together. I put it bluntly, these immigrants were strangers and poor and were really taken advantage of on top of all their suffering, most didn’t want to talk about it as living it was hard enough. Those who did really didn’t start speaking of the horrors of the shoah, for instance, until well into the late-1970s when I was a child. In some way I can understand, in some way that’s the way it always is that people can only really get beyond the anguish of it all when their joy is complete and they are looking back at it from a better place. It took at lot of hard work, but as we see these Jews often did very well for themselves in this prosperous land. Now a lot of Jews openly talk about their struggle, but it took a long time to feel secure enough to be that open.

I think about this as I sit here and read the declaration of the first fruits being made, it starts out with a pretty sad start “my father was a homeless Aramean.” This is not just exaggeration. Its not a story of “I walked to school, barefoot, in the snow, uphill, both ways.” Our father Abraham was a wandering nomad. And being a wanderer is something us Jews certainly understand well, often doing it ourselves. But the reason we should give our story is to rejoice. And as we see, it’s a compulsory mitzvah that we rejoice.

But it makes me think. How do I tell my story, am I beaten down and angry? Or do I have the spirit of a mitzvah maker? Either you can think of it as “My father was a homeless Aramean…” and tell “…see how far I have come” or you can be negative and ungratefully ignore just how good you really do have it in the here and now. How do you tell your story, what is your declaration?

The Honor of the Convert: Who’s Your Daddy?

As we see everyone is required to bring first fruits, once they have land and the trees produce they are to bring the fruit and declare. Everyone is to do so, including the Levite priests and the gerimconverts, the people who were formerly strangers in the land. The obvious questions arises when we read the statement that this is about the children of Israel and their subjugation and redemption. The point of this strikes us in the very first words “My father was a wandering Aramean,” and continues on with all kind of lines relating us calling out and being saved by “Hashem Elohei Avoteinu / Hashem G-d of our fathers.”

One really has to take notice because even before the convert is directly mentioned we can already start asking the inevitable question. Everything begins smooth as the statement to the priests first used the words, “Hashem Eloheicha / G-d of your fathers.” But what happens when a person gets a few lines into it and the statement is made that we have come asher nishba Hashem la’avoteinu latet lanu / Hashem swore to our forefathers to give us” and the person is a convert; meaning their forefathers were not so promised? Can one say this? To some critical people it may sounds like these converts are making an untrue statement.

This is an issue that is presented to us as early as the Mishnah:

These bring [first fruits] but don’t

recite [the declaration]

The convert, since

he cannot say:

‘[I have come to the Land] which Hashem

swore to our fathers

to give to us’ (Deuteronomy 26:3).

But if his mother was an Israelite

he brings and recites.

When he prays [shemonah esreh] in private,

[instead of saying: The G-d of our fathers]

he says: ‘The G-d of the fathers of Israel’

and when he prays

in the Beit Keneset (synagogue)

he says: The G-d of your fathers.

But if his mother was an Israelite

he says: The G-d of our fathers.”

אלו מביאין ולא |

קורין |

הגר מביא ואינו קורא, |

שאינו יכול לומר |

אשר נשבע ה‘ |

לאבותינו |

לתת לנו” (דברים כו,ג); |

אם הייתה אימו מישראל, |

מביא וקורא. |

וכשהוא מתפלל בינו לבין עצמו, |


אומר אלוהי אבות ישראל; |

וכשהוא מתפלל |

בבית הכנסת, |

אומר אלוהי אבותיכם. |

ואם הייתה אימו מישראל, |

אומר אלוהי אבותינו |

Mishna, Mesecta Bikkurim 1:4

I don’t want to spend too much time on the topic of conversions (we dealt with that last week, in Parshat Ki Tietzei). But the statement comes across with an honest point. One should not say the statement because the promise was not made to their forefathers. This small section is a well known passage, taken directly from the Babylonian Talmud.

But the part that continues on related to the mother is present for pretty obvious reason to a Talmud student but often missed otherwise, at this point in history Jewishness is passed through ones mother already. True inheritance is through the father as declared in the Torah, but religious linage is defined by the mother. Because of rape during war and such it could become impossible identify lineage in a very definite way. In a male oriented society, linage submitted to matrilineal descent by reason that the although father could be in question, the mother was almost always known. What is suggested here in this continuing section is that if ones mother was Jewish, then he was properly descended and the statement is still true. A convert who had a Jewish mother, could say this. But it says otherwise the convert should not pray this way, but instead in private say “G-d of the fathers of Israel” and then only “G-d of your fathers” when in shul.

The discussion doesn’t go any further here in the Talmud Bavli – the Bablyonian Talmud which is the standard, due to it’s general comprehensiveness; as opposed to the Talmud Yerushalmi, the Palestinian Talmud which did not have the benefit of and extra 150 years for compilation which was afforded the sages in the east. People being more familiar with Bavli often cite this source as halacha (law) because in general we posek (rule; decide) according to Bavli (even more so in the Ashkenazi world), and it has found itself into many scholarly works.

However, when it comes to citing the halacha most often people will cite it differently than presented above, though still affirming the source. This is because both Rashi and Rabbenu Tam state that one is indeed commanded to bring first fruits, but a converts is not to make the declaration so as not to make an untrue statement. From here it appears the heavy weights have spoken and the issue is settled.

However, this very position by the wise Rashi in the 11th century is quickly opposed even by Askhenazi poskim such as Rabbi Yoel Ben Yitzhak haLevi immediately after him the 12th century (see Ravyah 2:253–6). This position would even be opposed by Rashi’s own grandson, Rabbeinu Yitzhak mi-Baale ha-Tosafot (Rabbi Yitzchak haZaken bar Shmuel) who stated that a convert should indeed declare the statement (see Tos. Bava Batra 81b).

Now how would powerful Talmudists come to this conclusion? Rabbi Yitzhak cited the Talmud Yerushalmi.  This might seems strange to some as there is no real difference in the Mishnah, they share the same text except for a couple changes. First the the word shainu of Bavli is exchanged with sh’ain, and the omission of the section related to unique phrasing of “G-d of the fathers of Israel” and to pray differently in the synagogue; but aside from this it is very much the same. Sure it could be looked at from a different angle, but in full honestly the statement of prohibition sounds resolute.

However, the Talmud Yerushalmi, unlike the Bavli has a Gemara (original commentary on the Mishnah); this is very unique, we often would expect the case to be the other way around. And in this commentary we find one amazing turn of law as the Gemara goes directly against the Mishnah. Once again I’ll provide my own translation:

Converts say ‘G-d of our fathers’

as if to indicate if his mother was from Israel

he would say ‘G-d of our fathers,”

even though his ancestors

were not foreigners.

Said Rabbi Yossi, affirmed by

Benyamin bar Ester

sustained by Rabbi Chiyyan bar Bo.

Rabbi Chezekiah

in the name of Rabbi Bar Bo affirmed

bar Ester established

for when a gentile violated

a daughter of Israel;

Matnita [Baraita] (outside the mishnah).

Rabbi Zarkon said Rabbi Zaira,

want to hear something

revealed to me:

For Avraham, Yizchak and Yaakov

was it not so;

Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov,

their ancestors did not have anything

to swear upon but

but the Holy One, Blessed be He;

however their males perhaps declared.

I was taught in the name of

Rabbi Yehudah:

If a convert comes between you and declares

what is his grounds?

‘”Because father of many nations (goyim)

I have made you.” (Genesis 17:5)

Before you were father

of man, and now from here I will make you father

of all the nations’

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi

stated this law

as Rabbi Yehudah

It was authenticated and established

by Rabbi Avehu

as indicated by Rabbi Yehudah.”

גרים אומרים אלהי אבותינו |

. והא תנינן אם היתה אמו מישראל |

אומר אלהי אבותינו |

הא גרים בני |

גרים לא. |

אמר ריוסי קיימה |

בנימין בר עשתור |

קומי רבי חייא בר בא |

רבי חזקיה |

בשם רבי חייא בר בא קיימה |

בר עשתור קומינן |

בגוי שבא בעבירה על |

בת ישראל |

היא מתניתא. |

רבי זריקן אמר רבי זעירא |

בעי כלום |

הוא מתכווין לא |

לאברהם יצחק ויעקב |

וכי |

אברהם יצחק ויעקב |

אבותיהם היו [כלום] |

נשבע |

הקבה |

אלא לזכרים שמא לנקיבות. |

תני בשם |

רבי יהודה |

גר עצמו מביא וקורא |

מה טעם |

כי אב המון גוים |

נתתיך. |

לשעבר היית אב |

לאדם ועכשיו מכאן ואילך אתה אב |

לכל הגוים. |

רבי יהושע בן לוי |

אמר הלכה |

כרבי יהודה. |

אתא עובדא קומי |

דרבי אבהו |

והורי כרבי יהודה: |

The Gemara Yerushalmi Mesecta Bikkurim 3

And in a striking statement we have our halacha laid out for us from the Gemara of Talmud Yerushalmi. We find that if one’s mother was an Israelite then he could make the statement even if his father’s fathers were not Israelites. However, it points out that even the forefathers were converts, who had no one to mention as their fathers, they could merely swear upon G-d alone and yet seem to have made the declaration. But Avraham was made the father of many goyimnations, also the term we use for gentiles as the term merely means they are from among the other nations. This halacha is laid down for us in the name of Yehudah bar Ilai and as we see it is properly certified to be true, thus this is the law; even though this is in opposition of the Mishnah of Rabbi Yehudah haNasi.

Though there seems to have been some debate upon the subject between many great rabbis of Rashi’s age and immediately after, by the time of the Rambam (Maimonides; mid-to-late 12th century) this issue would begin to narrow.

The Yerushalim would be set down for us as law in the Rambam’s Mishne Torah. In the first part of chapter four we learn that a woman and the androgynous [note: I’m walking right past that one, not even go bite at it!] do bring first fruits, but do not declare. Why? Because they are women and women cannot own land at this point in history, remember land ownership for women is even relatively a new concept in western society. Also woman is also not bound to have to keep time related mitzvot, so it is very similarly to when doing such a mitzvah; a woman can perform it but without need to say the blessing (to not say a blessing in vain, and because it includes G-ds name also means using G-d’s Name in vain). And then we read:

Nor does a guardian, a slave, or an agent declare,

because they

can not say ‘which

You have given me, Hashem’ (Deut. 26:10)

However, a convert brings and declares,

considering it is said of Abraham

‘Father of many nations I have made you.’

(Genesis 17:5)

Indeed he is father of all the world,

all who come under the wings of the

Shechinah (Divine Presence).”

וכן האפיטרופין והעבד והשליח אינן קוראין,

לפי שאינ ן

יכולין לומר אשר |

נתת לי, ה‘” |

אבל הגר מביא וקורא |

לפי שנאמר לאברהם |

אב המון גויים נתתיך” |

(בראשית יז,ה) |

הרי הוא אב כל העולם |

כולו שנכנסין תחת כנפי |

השכינה |

Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilichot Bikkurim 4:2, Halacha 3

The Rambam states that for a man, the only time he can not read and declare the statements is when he is not the actual owner; it cannot be done by proxy, because the words “which You have given to me” are not true. But he says a converts both brings and declares, hinting that there is no contradiction about it being promised to ones fathers because Avraham is the father of the nations of the world, and even more so for those who come into the Kahel HashemCongregation of Hashem (see Parshat Ki Teitzei) and come to roost under the Shechinah. A convert can refer to G-d as “G-d of our fathers” because truly Avraham is his father.

How is that the Rambam, a Sephardic sage, and Rabbi Yoel the Ashkenezi came to this opinion. Quite frankly I believe they both had experiences with people that forced them to look at the situation intently. Rabbi Yoel befriended a convert from Würzburg, who despite the halachic opinions to the contrary he permitted lead the prayers as a shliach tzibur (cantor) and ordered not alter the text; a topic he would note in his letters to Rabbi Epharim ben Yitzhak.

The other note worthy note is an infamous letter made by the Rambam to the convert Ovadiah. Now understand the issue for a moment. The statements about promises being make and kept by G-d of our forefathers not just made when making these declarations, they are also in the Amidah and in the Birkat haMazon. If one could not make these statements they should not lead the grace after meals because they could not say the statements as truths, and people could not properly agree with “amein.” The same problem would arise when leading prayers in shul. And if even if one did not lead, by altering their prayers they could be distinguished as different and feel embarrassed. This is a real problem,

Our tradition is very sensitive to not shame or embarrass anyone, we are not to remind them nor tell anyone they are converts. This should be taken seriously, because to tell other that someone is a convert is considered lishon hara – evil speech, gossip. Reminding the person that they are a convert is considered ona’at devarim – hunting one down with words, which means verbal abuse. Do this in a congregation your could be breaking two mitzvot right off the bat!

And as we see the Rambam, who is to Oral Law what Moses was to the Bible, would not tolerate this, as we see in his letter of Ovadiah he bluntly sates:

You must say everything regularly,

and without changing anything

only as all citizens of Israel prays and blesses

should you too bless and pray

when praying alone

or if you happen to be the shliach tzibur.”

יש לך לומר הכל כתקנם, |

ואל תשנה דבר. |

אלא כמו שיתפלל ויברך כל אזרח מישראל, |

כך ראוי לך לברך ולהתפלל, |

בין שהתפללת יחידי |

בין שהיית שליח צבור |

The Rambam walks past the issue of if a convert could lead prayers all together, its not even worthy of discussing so he just states that when you are the leader you can’t change anything. He goes on to talk about Avraham being the father of truth and true religion. How the way of Avraham overcame idolatry, and enlightened the world. He even tells us that Abraham was not only a convert himself, but he converted his other children/ And that Abraham also taught others and took on converts, who also fathered children among the nations; whom he was spiritual father to. In summation he charges:

Therefore, you have to say

‘our G-d and G-d of our fathers,’

As Abraham, peace be upon him,

is your father, and you have to say as

endowed “our forefathers”….

…but the “brought us out of Egypt”

or “You did miracles for our ancestors,”

it you wanted to change and say

“You have brought Israel out of Egypt”

and “You did wonders with Israel “, say it.

And if not, again your not harming anything,

since you came under the wings of

the Shechinah,

and are accompanied by it.

This is no difference between us and you.

And all the miracles that were made for us

were made for you

After all, He says in Isaiah:

“Neither let the foreigner, that has joined

himself to Hashem, speak, saying:

‘Hashem will surely separate me from

His people'” etc. (Isaiah 56:3)

There is no difference at all between us

and you in all matters.”

לפיכך, יש לך לאמר |

אלהינו ואלהי אבותינו” |

שאברהם עליו השלום הוא |

אביך, ויש לך לומר |

שהנחלת את אבותינו“…. |

אבל שהוצאתנו ממצרים” |

או שעשית נסים לאבותינו“, |

אם רצית לשנות ולומר |

שהוצאת את ישראל ממצרים” |

ושעשית נסים עם ישראל“, אמור. |

ואם לא שנית, אין בכך הפסד כלום, |

מאחר שנכנסת תחת כנפי |

השכינה |

ונלווית אליו, |

אין כאן הפרש בינינו ובינך. |

וכל הנסים שנעשו כאילו לנו |

ולך נעשו. |

הרי הוא אומר בישעיה: |

ואל יאמר בן הנכר הנלוה |

אל הלאמר |

הבדל יבדילני המעל |

עמווגו‘ (ישעיהו נו, ג) |

אין שום הפרש כלל בינינו |

ובינך לכל דבר. |

The Rambam has a striking and clear position. This would be enough to settle the issue for Sephardim permanently. It would later be affirmed by the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) of Rabbi Yosef Karo (the Sephardic master), and would not be objected by the Rema (who wrote the Ashkenazi glosses). And thus the issue ends in the 16th century.

Those opinions that arise now are merely out of step based on a minority opinion who are not aware of the halacha due to the uniqueness of its source. In my estimation the only real resistance left is a few Ashkenzi sources that are not accustomed to poskim of Yerushalmi as much as Sephardim who widely rely on it, and thus have a very different world view of “Minhag mevattel Halakhah – custom nullifies law” which is prevalent in Talumud Yerushalmi, but resisted in Talmud Balvi despite its often tendency to deviate from this position which itself is bound by it’s own version of this dictum in the famed Babylonian Talmud which reads, “Minhag l’Yisrael torat hi / the tradition of Israel is Torah law”; but again, that’s not what I’m here to talk about. 😉

I write all this to say that within Judaism it has long been well established as a fact of law that our brothers and sisters who are converts are completely equal. We are not to distinguished between ourselves and them at all. After all we are all children of a convert, his name is Avram Aveinu – Abraham our father; the “av hamon goyim / the father of many nations.” He is the father of all who to dwell among the people and Presence of the G-d of Israel.

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


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.

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