Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Gadlut of Parshat Bo (Part Deux)

I just wanted to give a little reminder to my readers (yes, I am talking to both of you) that one of the world-famous Ramban's is at the end of Parshat Bo. Ramban discusses the meaning of tefillin and then talks about one of the central ideas behind many different mitzvot. 

There are hidden Kabbalistic meanings in his explanation of tefillin (ועל דרך האמת), but I am not going to discuss them since we have not covered those Kabbalistic ideas in this blog yet.
(For those of you nerdy students who want to "read-ahead" - Ramban explains that the tefillin shel rosh represents the Olam of Adam Kadmon which is represented by the מוח of a person. (ד''ה - ואמר ולזכרון בין עיניך) And the goal is to maintain a connection across the separation between the upper two Olamot (אדם קדמון & אצילות) and the lower three (בריאה, יצירה ועשייה). If you did not understand the previous sentences, don't worry and return to this post in about two years.)
But the true gadlut (and world-famousness) of this Ramban is this central idea behind many mitzvot - the main philosophical goal of a variety mitzvot is to reaffirm the existence of HaShem and HaShem's השגחה (Divine Providence) in the world. Ultimately, even all of the laws of science are really hidden miracles of HaShem (נסים נסתרים), and if you believe otherwise then you are a kofer and denying the existence of Divine Providence. (ד''ה - ומן הנסים הגדולים). I am providing the references to this Ramban so that you can feel free to critique my interpretations. I could not possibly do justice to this Ramban without an extra ten hours that I do not have. But I highly recommend that you read (or re-read) this Ramban over Shabbat.

One final note - I read a summary of a lecture given by R. Natan Slifkin on the Heresy of Intelligent Design which is very similar to Ramban's idea of hidden miracles. R. Slifkin states that the problem with Intelligent Design is we only need HaShem for things that cannot be explained by science. Moreover, according to Ramban - to believe in Intelligent Design is heretical.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Gadlut of Parshat Bo

"All Parshiyot are created equal, but some are more equal than others." (A paraphrase of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.)

Parshat Bo is one of the most important parshiyot in the Torah. Firstly, Rashi thinks that it would have been appropriate for the Torah to begin from this week's Parshah. (Bereshit 1:1) Secondly, Parshat Bo forms the basis of the philosophical underpinnings of the entire halakhik system. But wait - there's more! Thirdly, the Parshah also tells us about the Kabbalistic concept that the Jewish people are partners in creation with HaShem. All of these three ideas actually come from the same mitzvah - Kiddush HaChodesh. (Maybe it is because of Divine Providence that this idea came to me on Rosh Chodesh Shvat.)

Rashi states that one would have thought that since the Torah is a book of laws and Mitzvot, that it should have started from the first Mitzvah that is given to the Jewish people - the Mitzvah of Kiddush HaChodesh in Parshat Bo. (Anyone who wants to ask about the different Mitzvot that were given in Sefer Bereshit - the short answer is that those Mitzvot were not given to the Jewish people. Rather those Mitzvot were given to individuals. In other words, those individuals were not necessarily included in the brit of Torah and Mitzvot.) If we step into the Torah time machine, we can go back in time about 2000 years and observe how the Jews determined what day was Rosh Chodesh in the time of the Sanhedrin.

Rosh Chodesh is the new moon that happens every month. When two kosher witnesses saw a sliver of the new moon in the sky, they would go to Beit Din and tell them that that day was Rosh Chodesh. (For more information, see the first two perakim of massechet Rosh HaShanah.) So very nice, now you see why Rashi thoguht that the mitzvah of Kiddush HaChodesh was so important - but why is it so important to halakhah and Kabbalah?

WARNING - potentially mind altering idea, read ahead at your own risk.

I am forced to reveal a secret about halakhah, the rabbis were given the authority to determine what is a mitzvah d'oraita. Did anyone faint? Am I in cherem? This mitzvah proves the collaborative relationship between HaShem and the Jewish people - HaShem wrote the Torah and invested the Jewish people with the mission/ability to transform the Torah from legal theory to reality. In other words, HaShem gave us the authority to interpret and enact the Mitzvot. (Frummie disclaimer {aka I am not Blu Greenberg} - there are limits to this Rabbinic interpretation, but the Jewish people are collaborators with HaShem on the system of Torah and Mitzvot.)

Kiddush HaChodesh is one of the best examples of this collaboration between HaShem and the Jewish people. HaShem said the Pesach is to be on the 15th of Nisan. But who determines whether the 15th of Nisan in a particular year should be on a Monday or a Tuesday? Beit Din are the ones that determine which day would be Rosh Chodesh Nisan, and thus they also would determine which day is Pesach. Suppose that there was only one pair of witnesses that saw the new moon on a Monday. If Beit Din determines that they were not kosher, then Pesach is on Tuesday and not on Monday. Suppose that HaShem caused the new moon to shine on Monday so that Pesach would be on Monday for that year. The human Beit Din overrules HaShem, and Pesach and all of its Mitzvot d'oraita are not on Monday, but rather they are on Tuesday.

To sum up - HaShem wrote in the Torah that Pesach will be on the 15th of Nisan, but HaShem needed (and needs) the Jewish people to be collaborative partners to make the Torah a reality. This is part of the philosophy of halakhah - the halakhot in the Torah are/were created by HaShem to be enacted in this world via human beings. That is to say that halakhah is part human interpretation and part Divine revelation.

(A quick note on my using the terms “human beings” vs. “the Jewish people.” It would seem from the first couple perakim of Bereshit that Adam, Chava and Noach were not specifically Jewish. Indeed, had any of them fully succeeded in their missions - perhaps there would not have been any need for the Jewish people to have a special brit with HaShem. Ultimately, HaShem chose Avraham and his descendants to be the nation that was chosen to accomplish HaShem’s mission in the world. Basically, HaShem has one mission for humanity, to perfect the world. Originally this mission was given to all human beings, and later it was given exclusively to the Jewish people.)

Kabbalah explains that there is a different kind of collaboration between HaShem and the Jewish people. Halakhah focuses the legal aspect of the collaboration - it focuses on the Torah as a law book. Kabbalah focuses on the mystical aspect of the collaboration - it focuses on the Torah as a mystical guide book. HaShem has a mystical blueprint for the world, and it is the job of the Jewish people to make that blueprint a reality. The Jewish people are partners with HaShem in the ongoing mystical creation of the world(s).

Now we can see why Parshat Bo is an important Parsha. Kiddush HaChodesh is the first mitzvah in the Torah and according to Rashi it would have been an appropriate beginning point for the Torah. Not coincidentally, the first mitzvah in the Torah also establishes the legal foundation of the relationship between HaShem and the Jewish people. HaShem has given the Mitzvot to us, but it is our job alone to enact them properly in this world. Finally, this same relationship exists on the mystical level. The Torah that HaShem gave us is a mystical blueprint for the world (interpreted on the Remez and Sod level of the Torah) and it is our job to enact the mystical reality in the world.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Total Recall of Sefarim

There was a mediocre science fiction movie that was made in 1990 called Total Recall. (The original short story by Philip K. Dick is called, "We Can Remember it for You Wholesale," and it is excellent.) The main plot of the movie (spoiler warning?) is that Arnold Schwarzenegger has intentionally erased his memory in order to catch the bad guys who end up being the good guys. (I have heard of many people who either needed to see this movie multiple times to figure out what exactly was going on, OR never actually figured out what was going on!) One of the memorable scenes in the movie is when Gov. Schwarzenegger opens a box that contains a handwritten letter which he discovers is actually his handwriting. The mystery is that he does not remember writing the letter, but it is definitely written in his own handwriting.

I occasionally find that the same scene happens in my life (without the muscles or accent) with seforim that I own. This past Shabbat I was learning the Pri Tzaddik when I saw that not only had I highlighted some passages, but I had even made notes! It was undoubtedly my handwriting, but I have absolutely no memory of learning that torah by the Pri Tzaddik.  (Obviously I need to do more chazarah!) Even after I read the entire piece, I still had no recollection of the ideas that he was discussing. But the good news is that the piece is relevant to the concept of different names of HaShem, and I will discuss that in my next post.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Post Parshah Thoughts - A Name for All Time

It is an uncommon occurrence that Parshat HaShevua melds perfectly with a kabbalistic sefer, but I merited such an occurrence this Shabbat. The reference from the Parshah is Shemot 3:13, where Moshe asks how is HaShem to be called? HaShem responds that his name is, “Eh-iyheh asher Eh-iyheh.” The Kabbalah is courtesy of the Ba’al HaLeshem Sha’ar 7, 4:2 - where he discusses the name of HaShem which indicates the beginning of the ongoing process of creation. (Don’t worry, I will explain this idea!) This name is AHYH (אה-יה) and literally means, “I will be.”

When I was in college one of my professors, Jonathan Z. Smith, referred to this pasuk as one of the great ironies in the Tanakh. (He actually quoted chapter and verse from the Bible.) Moshe asks HaShem to tell him how will the Israelites know that I am telling the truth when I talk to them? What name shall I call You? HaShem responds (flippantly, like the professor), “I will be whatever I will be!” Ever since that fateful chilly day in a lecture hall in Chicago, I have never been able to understand this pasuk. Yet, I finally managed a breakthrough today on a bright and sunny Shabbat morning in Israel.

The word that Prof. Smith translated as a verb can also be translated as a noun - as the name of HaShem AHYH. This is the name that is connected to the highest of the Sefirot, which is called Keter. (Here comes my quick summary of the Sefirot, which are commonly translated as emanations. They are ten different and distinct ways to discuss how HaShem relates to the world. The Sefirah of Chesed is used to describe how HaShem is kind with the world. Additionally, the concept of Min HaKoach el HaPoal also applies to the Sefirot. Chesed is the Koach of kindness and Netzach then becomes the Poal of kindness.) The main concept for us is that Keter is the highest of the Sefirot and is the Koach for all of them. This concept is similar to the post on Tzimtzum, where I described that there was a first substance from HaShem that rapidly expands and becomes the universe. The name AHYH represents the Koach for the creation of the universe, or the beginning of other processes. This name can be used to describe this first substance. (This is a general summary of ideas that were being discussed in the Ba’al HaLeshem that I was reading today.)

The insight that I had into this week’s Parshah is that HaShem tells Moshe this name at the beginning of the redemption from Mitzraim. The pesukim are describing that HaShem tells Moshe how he will lead B’nei Israel out of Mitzraim. It is entirely appropriate to use the name AHYH at this point because no redemption has actually happened yet. The entire process of redemption is still in the Koach, and during the next three Parshiyot we will read about the actualization of the process of redemption.

One last thought about the concept of Keter and the name AHYH - this concept was not only the beginning of a historical process. I mentioned in the opening paragraph that the process of creation is ongoing - Kabbalah states that the world is constantly under the Divine influence of HaShem. The world is constantly being created every second. Thus Keter and the name AHYH, represent the very beginning of the ongoing process of creation and this is the name that also described the beginning of Yitziat Mitzraim.

Photo Credits -

Friday, January 16, 2009

Kabbalistic Cholent - Ramban's Introduction to Sefer Shemot

Did you know that the Ramban was not only a master of Parshanut of the Chumash, and a great innovator in explaining the Gemara - he was also a great Kabbalist. (There are indeed many great kabbalists lurking in the Rabbinic history of Judaism.) The Ramban was also an early lover of Eretz Israel and made aliyah to Tzefat towards the end of his life. Thus we can almost feel the electricity in the air as we turn to the Ramban to introduce Sefer Shemot.

According to the Ramban, Sefer Shemot completes the story that was started in Sefer Bereshit. Sefer Bereshit describes the creation of the world, the origins of the human race in general and the Jewish people in specific. The lives of the Avot and Imahot are paradigms of behavior for later generations, and they also create the core and foundations for the Jewish people as a nation. As a whole, Sefer Shemot emphasizes three historical events:

·         The redemption of the Jews from slavery in Mitzraim.

·         The acceptance of the authority of the Torah at Har Sinai.

·         The building of the Mishkan which becomes the physical place on Earth where there is the greatest potential for connection between human beings and HaShem.

We have previously introduced the Kabbalistic concept of Min haKoach el HaPoal (from the potential to the actual). According to the Ramban, Sefer Bereshit is the Koach of the concept of the Jewish people and Sefer Shemot is the Poal. These three historical events become three foundations of the Jewish people as a nation. The redemption from Mitzraim emphasizes the unique and special relationship between HaShem and the Jewish people. The Torah defines what the Jewish people need to do in order to be closer to HaShem. Finally the Mishkan becomes the place where people can be the closest to HaShem. These three foundations were initiated in Sefer Bereshit and are culminated in Sefer Shemot.

One final comment - (really a mini-SZP) the Ramban states that the mission of the Jewish people includes living in their proper place which is Eretz Israel. The Jewish people are not complete until they are living in Eretz Israel, observing the Torah, to bring the world closer to HaShem.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Pardes is a Hebrew word which is generally translated as garden, or orchard. However, Pardes is also an acronym which has a specific meaning in the area of Parshanut (exegesis). It refers to the idea that a pasuk can be explained on four different and distinct levels. Here is a general overview of these four levels of meaning:

·         Pshat - Literal Meaning

·         Remez - Hinted Mystical Meaning

·         Drash - Midrashic (Homiletical) Meaning

·         Sod - Secret (Mystical) Meaning

Kabbalists generally change the order Remez and Drash, and thus Pardes becomes Padres. (Not to be confused with a baseball team that is located in southern California.) The Parshanut moves from the most literal explanation of a pasuk, to a mystical secret (like tzimzum) which is almost completely divorced from the meaning of the pasuk. An oversimplification of the Padres model of parshanut is that a pasuk can be analyzed in four ways:

·         Pshat - What the pasuk actually says or means.

·         Drash - A moral lesson that can be learned from a single pasuk or a group of pesukim.

·         Remez - A mystical lesson that can be learned from the Gematria of a single word or a group of words.

·         Sod - A mystical concept that is based on one word, or even one letter.

As we continue to explore the concept of Padres in future posts, there will be a number of examples of the parshanut of Padres in action.

Photo Credit © Adrian van Leen for CC:PublicDomain

Thursday, January 8, 2009

KID - What's In a Name?

We know from reading the Chumash that HaShem is called by many different names, yet according to Kabbalah each of these names has a specific function. A good example of the different names of HaShem can be found in the the first two perakim of Bereshit. The first perek refers to HaShem as Elokim, whereas the second perek refers to HaShem as YHVH Elokim. (Tangent - there is always a problem when discussing the names of HaShem because you are only allowed to pronounce them properly during davening or when you are reading a pasuk. Elokim is really Elo-him and YHVH is really Yud - Heh - Vav - Heh, which we do not know how to pronounce properly.) These are the two common names of HaShem - Elokim and YHVH. Other names include: E-l, Shadd-ai, and Ehi-yeh.

There are many different meanings and functions that are assigned to these two names, the most well known is that Elokim refers to HaShem acting in a strict manner (מדת הדין - Middat HaDin). YHVH refers to HaShem acting in a merciful manner (מדת הרחמים - Middat HaRachamim). This is one of the themes of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we ask HaShem to judge us in a merciful way (מדת הרחמים - Middat HaRachamim) and not in a strict way (מדת הדין - Middat HaDin).

In Kabbalah these names describe two different ways that HaShem relates to the world. Elokim describes how HaShem controls the laws of nature (השגחת כללית - Hashgachat Klalit). Ultimately HaShem controls how babies are born, how plants grow, Newtonian physics, etc... Additionally, the laws of nature are fairly consistent and predictable. Conversely, YHVH describes special providence from HaShem (השגחת פרטיט - Hashgachat Pratit) which can override the laws of nature. When a miracle happens which contradicts the laws of nature, the Torah will use the name YHVH to describe the miracle. For example, Shemot 14:21 describes HaShem bringing the western wind to split the Yam Suf and uses the name YHVH.

We discussed two of the names that HaShem is called in the Tanakh: Elokim and YHVH. We said that these names can be used to describe HaShem as being strict or merciful. They can also be used to describe different relationships that HaShem has with the world: a constant predictable relationship similar to the laws of nature, and a special miraculous relationship which can contradict the laws of nature.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

SZP - Shameless Zionist Plug

Learning Chumash in Eretz Israel

Like the world at large, my blog is ever evolving. Tonight I had a Zionist experience with my son and I felt the need to publicize it. My son and I were reviewing Parshat Toldot for his Chumash class. Since my son is an oleh chadash, he can sit in this class for hours and still have no clue what is going on.

Thus, we were reading the pesukim that describe the episode where Yitzchak visits the Philistine city of Gerar. And my son immediately asked, “Abba, where is Gerar?” I then pulled out a map of Israel and pointed to the Gaza Strip and said, “Near there.” Then I pointed to the city where we live and said, “Look we are only about one hour from Gerar.”

(Political Tangent - For better or worse, all of my children are very aware of the existence of the Gaza strip. For example, my five year-old asked me today, “Isn’t Gaza where the bombs are?” My children are completely ignorant of the magnitude of the Gaza military incursion, but they are still somewhat aware of the impact that Hamas is having on Israeli society. Nevertheless, the relevant point vis-à-vis my son is that he was aware of the Gaza Strip and it was a good geographic reference point for him.)

As we continued to read the pesukim, we also came across Rechovot and Be’er Sheva. Again I was able to point to these cities on the map and show him where they are relative to where we live and to Yerushalayim. I felt that he was able to make a more personal connect to the Chumash then he ever was in America. Another small reminder of why it was so important for my family to make aliyah.

Photo Credit © Christof Wittwer for CC:Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial

Preparation for Pardes


This lovely blog is now going to discuss the concept of Pardes. Pardes is an acronym which refers to four layers of Biblical exegesis and/or hermeneutics. I foolishly thought that I could briefly discuss this idea in a CAT. I have now realized that it will take me a number of posts to do a modicum of justice to the idea of Pardes.

I started doing some research for this post, in order to provide my reader (no, that is not a typo) with a clear and accurate description of the Kabbalistic explanation of Pardes. Thus, I turned to everyone’s favorite research team: Google and the Internet. Well, shiver me timbers there’s a lot of different kinds o’ definitions of Pardes out there.

Adventures in Internet Research

First I found a nice website decorated with Jewish stars. The site discussed examples of using the hermeneutics of Pardes to explain pesukim. However, occasional references to the Christian Bible began to make me suspect that this site was not 100% Glatt Kosher. As I read on a little more, I was informed that Jesus could solve all of my problems. I suddenly realized that I was on a Jews for Jesus website. After a short yelp, I returned to the Google search page to try and avoid repeating this research mistake.

Next I found a nice book written by Prof. Michael Fishbane (Faculty of the University of Chicago) called The Garments of Torah - Essays in Biblical Hermeneutics. Lo and behold - there was a preview of the book on Google Books. (Google Book tangent - if you do not have a Google account, then you are missing out on a great Internet resource. Google books has thousand of books that can be read online, and they are even searchable!) Unfortunately, despite the fact that the title was in English - the book was actually written in an obscure incomprehensible dialect of English called: Academese. I like to think that I have an above average vocabulary, but each sentence had at least 4 or 5 words that needed a dictionary! Can someone please tell me what an organon is? (Even Microsoft Word thinks that the word is misspelled) Clearly this book was not going to help give me a clear definition of Pardes. I am sharing these Internet adventures with you so that you have been warned about the difficulties of doing Internet research about Pardes.

An Admission and a Disclaimer

All of this is to say that as I begin to talk about Kabbalah and Pardes, I am forced to admit that I may not know what I am talking about. I am reminded of an episode that happened to me, when I was in college at University of Chicago. I took a course about Philosophies of Religion. In the first class the Professor began talking about Kant and Hegel, and then said: “Every time that I talk about Kant and Hegel, I have the distinct feeling that I have no idea what I am talking about.” Now we are ready to begin discussing Pardes, but don’t claim that you were not forewarned.

Photo Credit © Michael Jastremski for CC:Attribution-ShareAlike

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Hermeneutics - The Garden of Interpretation

Words I Learned in College

Hermeneutics is one of my two favorite words that I learned in college (the other one is: polemic). I love these words because of the amount of time that I invested in order to fully understand them - each word took me at least six months to master. As a reward for my efforts, they have stayed with me like a pair of faithful dogs ever since.

Hermeneutics basically means the art and methodology of interpretation - in the Beit Midrash we generally refer to the same concept as Parshanut. (Actually, I discovered that the Princeton Dictionary of Fancy Stuff defines hermeneutics as the theology of interpreting texts. That definition is also a good translation of Parshanut.) Hermeneutics/Parshanut should be part of your derech ha’limmud - your methodology of learning Torah.

Hermeneutics in Action

Chazal had many different forms of Parshanut of the Torah. One of these forms was: how to derive halakhot from pesukim. An example of this form of Parshanut is the 13 Middot of R. Yishmael; which can be found in a siddur before Psukei D’Zimrah. ArtScroll even translates the word, “Middot”, as hermeneutical principles. (NOTE - I am not guaranteeing how often I will actually agree with the ArtScroll Publishing Company in the future.)

One example of these 13 Middot is the gezeirah shaveh. If the same word or phrase appears in two places, then the halakhot from one mitzvah can be applied to the other and vice versa. A common example of a gezeirah shaveh is the link between Pesach and Sukkot. There is a mitzvah to make Kiddush and eat Matzah on the first night of Pesach. So too (because of this gezeirah shaveh), there is a mitzvah to make Kiddush and eat in the Sukkah on the first night of Sukkot. This is an example of how Chazal learned halakhot from pesukim using Parshanut as a methodology of hermeneutics. In later posts we will explore other forms of Chazal’s hermeneutics, including homiletical interpretation (Midrash) and mystical interpretation (Kabbalah/Sod).