Category Archives: Kabbalah and Chassidus

Why Is There Evil in the World?

“It is the function of the righteous, the saintly ones in the world, to recognize that the pure light is too strong for the world to endure. Yet it must somehow illuminate the world. Therefore it is necessary for there to be many veils to soften the light, and these veils are what we know as evil and its causes….we who possess a limited perception of the light, do not have the ability to see that all evil is but a veil needed in order to adjust the flow of light.”

-from Lights of Return (Orot HaTeshuva) by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook

Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook showed the above passage, taken from his father’s Lights of Return, to Rabbi Herbert Weiner, when the latter asked him about evil in the world.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook was the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British controlled Mandatory Palestine. Sadly, he never lived to see the foundation of the State of Israel. In Religious Zionist circles in Israel, he is commonly referred to as HaRav, or simply, “the Rabbi”. A passionate genius, he was expert in Talmud, Halakha, Jewish mysticism and philosophy, and was well versed in many areas of secular culture and thought. Unusually, his writings on all of these topics are often in poetry, as opposed to prose.

How can we reconcile apparent evil with an all-powerful and all-good God?

This is one suggested answer.

Notice, as Rabbi Weiner points out in his fascinating 9 1/2 Mystics, that according to this understanding, evil is not really bad. Rather, what seems to be evil is really a veil which allows good into the world. It is an integral part of the divine plan, and it accomplishes a good thing.

It only seems bad from a limited human perspective.

What do you think of this?

I’ve often heard students of R. Soloveitchik say that their attraction to his teachings came from the fact that he considered evil real.

On the other hand, it’s very difficult to account for evil in the world when it comes from a good God. Kol Dodi Dofek, the Rav’s  famous essay on the value of contemporary Zionism, emphasizes that we should react to evil and try and repair the damage from it. However, in his opinion, we should not focus on the “why” of evil, since it is beyond us. He therefore doesn’t really deal with the question that Rav Kook seeks to answer. This being the case, perhaps he would ultimately agree.


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Related Posts: Does God Protect Us? The Boy Who Fell from the Tree



by | June 10, 2013 · 8:35 am

How many principles of the Jewish faith?

How many principles of the Jewish faith?

This is a picture of the 13, -no sorry- FIFTEEN principles of the Biala rebbe. Joshua Harrison sent it to me.

Comment if you want a translation. Otherwise, see if you can spot what doesn’t look quite right…


by | June 4, 2013 · 3:55 pm

Is Listening to Non-Jewish Music OK? (A Non-Halakhic Discussion)

Joshe Homme, lead song writer and frontman for QOTSA, is one of my favorite musical artists. No one else I know likes his music.

Before we get back to biblical criticism (and I hope we’ll have some more guest posts before I get to  Rabbi Umberto Cassuto and some others), I want to talk about non-Jewish music for a moment. Why? Because Queens of the Stone Age are back, and I love their music. In my excitement, I’d like to point out a few theological issues with non-Jewish music. As I listen to non-Jewish music almost daily, you may conclude that I am either hypocritical on this matter, or that I think there is no problem. You’ll decide for yourself. As to the bottom line halakha le’ma’aseh (practical Jewish legal) aspect, I suggest you ask someone qualified to answer.

1) Avoiding Non-Jewish Music (A Mystical Perspective):

I’ll first outline why some mystical thinking would lead to the rejection of non-Jewish music. I won’t quote sources here, so please feel free to take me to task for this. Ask someone who is well versed in Kuzari, Tanya, Zohar, etc., regarding the points I’ll make here, and feel free to check out Maimonides’ Confrontation With Mysticism as well as Maimonides on Judaism and the Jewish People, both by Menachem Kellner, regarding Rambam and these views.

If one assumes that the Jewish soul is inherently superior to the non-Jewish soul, and also that the soul’s positive or negative qualities become a part of anything created by a person, then we have reason to reject non-Jewish music. This is because of the assumption that a non-Jewish soul is impure (if only because non-Jews eat non-Kosher food), and that it can only create something similarly impure. Non-Jewish music being impure, it will affect our souls negatively if we listen to it. In this view, spiritual forces, good and bad, work in a way which we might consider analogous to physical cause and affect. A good spiritual thing causes purity, while a bad thing (such as evil speech) causes spiritual impurity1.

So, if you believe these things, I suggest you try and phase out non-Jewish music, as well as the traditional Hasidic songs which really come from non-Jewish authors. This is by far more common than we think. It happens to be that my favorite tune for a Shabbat Song is Dror Yikra when sung according to the tune of “Sloop John B.”, the song most famously sung by the Beach Boys. My second favorite happens to be Dror Yikra according to the tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In”. That’s a really fun one, so I suggest you try it this week.

A rationalist may reject all of the points we have made here, however. Such a person will not assume that one’s soul is inherently good or bad, or that a person’s soul automatically affects their creation.Generally speaking, rationalists do not think that there are spiritual forces akin to physical cause and affect in play when we eat Kosher food, thus improving our souls, or harming them when we eat non-Kosher (the same goes for other mitzvot, such as the performance of sending away the mother bird, say). Rather, as we have explained elsewhere, keeping the mitzvot improves our souls in an entirely different way, which we will not get into here. In sum, keeping the mitzvot leads to the betterment of society and the soul, in Rambam’s opinion, and this is a natural process. . Now then, other points must be dealt with.

2) The lyrics:

I do not listen to lyrics, but I am weird in this regard. Most people do, and this being the case, it is harmful to listen to music which praises bad qualities such as excessive partying, materialism, etc., or even worse. Some songs praise rape or other unspeakable things, and even if you don’t listen to lyrics, we shouldn’t support people who praise these crimes.

So classical music is obviously on the table. There’s nothing wrong with it, and we’ll talk about the positive qualities good music has later on. It should be noted that there are certain artists whose lyrics can’t be ignored. Bob Dylan is the best example, but check out the “Reload” album by Metallica for some really impressive writing (or so I thought when I was 14). However, when it comes to artistic poetry, most of us will recognize the immediate value in this, so we won’t get into that here. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein fans will tout this, I imagine, though I find it hard to picture R. Lichtenstein listening to contemporary music.

3) The Danger of Having the Wrong Role Models:

Even worse is the danger that we’ll look up to artists as role models. Even when they are fine, normal people, it’s not like they’re moral philosophers or anything. They’re just guys who are good at one amazing thing. So no one should confuse a good musician for a role model. And of course, this is in regards to the good ones.I love Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, but they are not role models for Halakhic Jews by any stretch of the imagination.

4) The Positive Aspects of Non-Jewish Music:

I’ll risk stating the obvious here: Music can be an amazing and positive thing. It can be expressive, therapeutic, inspiring, and all of these things mean that we’ll be able to serve God better. We should be emotionally healthy (v’chai bahem), use the world to praise God (like King David did with his harp), and appreciate the marvelous wisdom in the world (ma rabu ma’asekha HaShem). When we hear great music from Josh Homme, about whom I know next to nothing, we should appreciate the wisdom God has given to man. Now that we have seen that non-Jewish music can be a good thing, we should ask if there is a  Halakhic reason to avoid it. I’m not qualified, so I won’t get involved, but everyone should be aware of the possibility that going to concerts and non-mitzva related parties with live music is forbidden. I’ll get back to this at the end. Obviously, in weddings and other religious celebrations we should have music, and we enhance our celebrations with it. But what about Jewish Music?

5) Jewish Music:

“There are two types of Jewish music: The kind that is mekarev (brings one closer) to God, and the kind that is merachek (brings one away from) God.”- Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Sadly, most modern Jewish music is terrible. Listeners might get the feeling that writers aren’t even trying. Besides for the overwhelmingly simplistic nature of most modern Jewish music, the style of music and melodies are almost always taken from a non-Jewish source. I’m really not sure what completely original Jewish music would sound like anyway. Klezmer, Carlbach, Miami Boys Chior, etc., all belong to non-Jewish musical cultures. Perhaps that should be considered an issue for some. This being the case, Jewish music should really be judged by the same criteria as non-Jewish music, though of course when it comes to lyrics, people taking from Tehilim, etc., are obviously giving us music with lyrics that can help us along spiritually. So then, I think we’ve touched on most of the major issues. For a superb summary of Halakhic and Jewish theological perspectives on music, check out what Rabbi Howard (Chaim) Jachter wrote here. If you want to know about the prohibitions involved with listening to music today, and especially with going to concerts or a bar with live music, then I suggest you read his post before discussing the problem with someone who is qualified2. I’ll finish off my own post with the last lines of Rabbi Jachter’s article.

“What should emerge from this review of Jewish perspectives on music is that we must take care that the music we listen to is in harmony with our Torah lifestyle and goals. Music with lyrics such as “she don’t lie, she don’t lie, cocaine” is very obviously incompatible with a Torah Hashkafa and lifestyle. The same can be said regarding all leisure activities. Care must be taken to ensure that one’s leisure activities enhance one’s relationship with God and Torah and do not, God forbid, detract from it.”

Before we actually get back to biblical criticism, I hope we can aslo discuss what the sin of Korach is. I have an idea, and I’d love some feedback.


1-Are you thinking of Plato’s ideals here? Me too. Check out 9 and 1/2 Mystics by Herbert Weiner for some interesting points about this. I’m in the middle of it now. Also, Gerschom Scholem’s Major Trends In Jewish Mysticism is a must for interested laymen.

2- Also, don’t forget to read Rambam in the 5th chapter of his “Shmoneh Perakim” as well as his commentary on Avot, 1:16. Further recommended reading is Siach Nachum R. Nachum E. Rabinovitch, OH (alt. OC) 35. He says there that 1) Even before the Temple was destroyed, music which was lustful, led to inappropriate desires, or had inappropriate language was forbidden, and 2) After the Temple was destroyed, celebration with live music or purely vocal music sung over wine was forbidden as well. Number one likely covers a lot of music today. A much more limited point is made by R. Kagan in his MB on a note Rama makes. In OC 53:25, Rama writes that a Shaliach Zibbur who enjoys non-Jewish music should be removed if, after protest, he does not stop listening to it. MB says this is in regards to music used for Avoda Zara, and not just any music. He quotes Bach as saying it must be music which is designated for the purpose of  AZ.


Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus, Rationalism

Are the Sefirot Heresy? Rashbash Takes On Kabbalah As We Know It

In the vein of my last post, where we discussed the surprising fact that some consider Kabbala to be “at odds” with the Torah, I thought I would point out the view of someone who does not, strictly speaking, oppose Kabbala, but does oppose the doctrine of the Sefirot as possibly heretical. This is the view of Rashbash, as we will see below.


To sum up the concept of Sefirot as succinctly as possible, we might just say that in their efforts to relate to the living God, many Kabbalists make statements about the nature of God, each according to their own unique schools of thought, which seem to imply that God has 10 “parts”1.

The problem that arises from saying God has different aspects present (even in a uniquely divine realm) is that it seems to contradict the idea that He is one and infinite, and therefore by definition does not have parts. (As we have mentioned, God’s unity is one of Rambam’s principles).

For this reason many people opposed the doctrine, and I’ll just bring the objections of Rashbash on the matter, in a non-perfect translation.

He begins by noting that Kabbala is an inherently secret tradition which is only passed on to the extremely wise, and then only by word of mouth. Therefore, anyone who publicizes kabbala is either making things up or violating the law to not publicize it. He then says regarding the Sefirot in particular:

“Furthermore, they don’t know what these ten Sefirot are; if they’re  descriptions, or names, or influences that emanate from God…”

In Rashbash’s opinion, these are the only plausible understandings for what the Sefirot may be. He then discusses each option.

If you say they are (just) names, then they (must not be) independent parts; but if they are independent entities then they are a multiplicity of parts, and if this is the case, the Christians claim there are three parts (to God), and these ones (publicizing Kabbalists) claim there are ten!

And if you say they are (descriptive) attributes, then why are these ones different than the other attributes which describe God? God taught Moses about 13, so why have they diminished from this number by 3?…And if Moses did not reach (the level to know the Sefirot), how could another reach (the level to know) them?

…And if you say they are influences…that is to say, angels…one who prays to them- if he says they are powers or influences- if this is the case, one who prays (to) and concentrates on them is a heretic, since anyone who prays to one of the angels is a heretic! And one who thinks (the Sefirot) are things unto themselves and different than God is a heretic!

And if you say they are attributes, they should tell us what difference there is from the other ones.”

He concludes with the following:

 ‘…students who have not learned enough, and who do not want to put in effort into legal topics, choose impatiently to glorify themselves with the knowledge of Kabbalah, in order to make themselves great before women and ignoramuses, and to take a crown for themselves with light words…and one who guards his soul will stay away from them.”

Harsh words, I think!

First of all, Rashbash’s general objection to publicly taught Kabbala is very interesting, since it makes us doubt whether the Kabbala that we hear of and are often taught in schools is the real deal. For that matter, it seems that Rashbash would be very uncomfortable in particular that the Sefirot are often referenced in the midst of Jewish education, and commonly feature in paintings and other works of art in Jewish homes and synagogues. But of course, his is not the only opinion on the matter.

At any rate, I just thought it was interesting that someone who was not opposed to Kabbala was so strongly opposed to one of its most famous and relatively standard doctrines.

What makes his opinion even more interesting is that Rashbash’s father was actually a noted Kabbalist, and likely subscribed to the doctrine of Sefirot. I have no idea if they discussed the matter, but i think that accusing your father of holding a possibly heretical idea is one of those things that cause a lot of tension at thanksgivings and bar mitzvas.

Anyway, if you are interested in the topic, you can see how many generations of rabbis treated the question of the Sefirot in Louis Jacobs’ “Theoogy in the Responsa”.

As a bonus, I’m including a picture of Peter Haas’ book, which I came across as I was looking for the Rashbash’s book of responsa. Needless to say, I did not read it.



1I cannot do the doctrine of the Sefirot justice, since it’s enormously complicated, so if you want to learn more I suggest the interesting discussions in Moshe Hallamish’s “Introduction to Kabbalah“, Scholem’s “Kaballah”,or his classic “Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism”.

The Sefirot, as I understand, are the mystic’s way to solve the problem of a distant God, the “Ein Sof”, who cannot be described or related to, since He is completely transcendent. Therefore, they explained God’s relation to the world (and apparently Himself) through the doctrine of Sefirot.

As Wikipedia puts it (succinctly), the Sefirot “are the 10 attributes/emanations in Kabbalah, through which Ein Sof (The Infinite) reveals himself and continuously creates both the physical realm and the chain of higher metaphysical realms (Seder hishtalshelus).”

In Scholem’s useful language, the Sefirot are a “realm of divinity, which underlies the world of our sense-data and which is present and active in all that exists.”


Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus

Where is God?

​By Gene Matanky

In Hasidut we find two opposing conceptions of God’s place in the world. One being that God is everywhere, meaning that God is not only to be found in learning Torah, but also in prayer, in nature, in our fellow man, and most importantly inside each and every one of us. The notion that God is to be found EVERYWHERE is revolutionary for the religious man; it bestows the divine in the mundane, in the average man.

​However within Hasidic thought there is a drastically different, and seemingly contradictory, conception of God; that God is in exile from His world. This view is expressed in the following stories:

“The Baal Shem Tov was walking once when he spotted a little girl crying. He asked her, “What is the matter?”. She responded, “I’m playing hide-and-seek, but no one came to find me.” At this the Baal Shem Tov said, “And so too it is with us, God is hiding, but we don’t look for Him”.

So too, R’ Shmelke would say that until we began to pray for the Shechina which is in exile, instead of for ourselves, the Messiah would not come.

This idea of God not being able to be found is brought to its climax in the thought of the Kotzker Rebbe. The Kotzker Rebbe asked his Hasidim, “Where is God to be found?”. Answering his own question to them, he explained that “God is found wherever man lets Him in.”

According to these stories, God is not everywhere, but is in fact far away in exile! How may we explain the incongruity between these two opinions of where God is to be found?

A. J. Heschel, although not directly speaking about this subject, sheds light on it. In his work “The Sabbath” he speaks about the plight of modern man. Modern man, Heschel writes, lives in a world which pursues and values things and objects, such as the domination of nature, and a materialistic lifestyle. He seeks to use others (not just people, but anything that is outside the self) as objects and therefore does not relate to them as subjects in and of themselves.

The problem, he explains, is that when man treats others as tools to be used, he becomes one himself. One becomes a “self” by incorporating the “non-self”, the understanding that one is more than his “ego”. The “ego” is essentially a survival mechanism, a machine, and by only acting as the “ego” without any regard for the “other”, one becomes what is, essentially, only a machine.

Here lies the answer. There is no real difference between the conception that God is everywhere or that He is only to be found where man lets him in. If I may rephrase the Kotzker, his question is not “Where is God?”, but “Where is man?”.

The answer is that man is wherever he lets God in. God is everywhere. However it is man who is not always to be found.

In Heschel’s thought, caring for something outside of ourselves is to transcend the self, and only when we transcend ourselves can we be called human. By relating to others as subjects we become subjects too, thereby making room for God, the subject par excellance.

There is a parable R’ Nachman would give of someone standing by an amazing view, mountains, valleys, rivers, and forests. Another man joined him and placed his hand in front of the first man’s face, blocking his view.

The hand is so much smaller than the mountains and valleys, R’ Nachman explained, however it can still block them. So it is with us; the objects of this world are so much smaller than God yet they can block Him from our view. It is our task, we learn from Hasidut, to see God anyway.


Gene Matanky studies Jewish Thought in Bar Ilan University. He is also involved with מרק״ם and the Boger community of Midreshet Ein Prat.

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Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Making Gold from Copper

 By Yitzchok Tendler

Catchy title, huh? Despite what you may have thought, this is not merely a misleading gimmick to get you to read my article. In fact, if you stick with me here, you will get practical, step-by-step guidance on how to make gold from copper. So, if you are bummed about not winning the powerball last week, this is  the next best way to become millionaire.

Before we start on the good stuff (please don’t skip ahead), let me begin with a caveat: I take no responsibility for any injuries that may be sustained in following this advice. I have never tried this personally, nor do I know anyone who has; I am simply recording a supposedly ancient Jewish source which tells you how to make gold.

Yes, I know that this smacks of alchemy’s age-old quest to turn lead into gold, which, by the way, may actually have succeeded. So, relax and give this a shot.

Exhibit A  

Our first source is a verse in last week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, which names a chieftain of Esau named Hadad, and then adds some information about his spouse “…and the name of his wife was Meheitav-el, the daughter of Matred, the daughter of Mei-Zahav” (Genesis 36:39).

What kind of name is Mei-Zahav, literally translated as “waters of gold”? Was this Barry Goldwater’s granddaughter? (ha ha, just cracked myself up!) Let’s start with the more tame approaches:

Rashi – “‘mei’ is really ‘mahu – what is it?’. Meaning, he was so wealthy that gold was like nothing to him”. Nice, fits well and makes sense.

Onkelos – “They were goldsmiths”. Wonderful. See Targum Yonasan ben Uziel and Targum Yerushalmi for approaches that contain interesting variations of these two opinions.

Now, let’s jump to the fun part:

Ibn Ezra – After quoting some of the above, he writes that “some say that this is a hint to the art of making gold from copper, but these are “divrei ru’ach (vain, empty words)” (emphasis added).

The point is, that Ibn Ezra is quoting some unnamed biblical commentators who believed that this dude named Mei-Zahav (who we know nothing else about) knew how to make gold from copper. Ibn Ezra, ever the Jewish rationalist of the Spanish renaissance, dismisses this claim.

Exhibit B

A very fascinating man named Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein lived and studied in Lithuania from 1860-1941. He was the son of the great Rabbi Yechiel Michel Halevi Epstein, Rabbi of Novardhok and renowned author of the monumental halachic work Aruch Hashulchan. Additionally, his uncle was the famed “Netziv”, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, Rosh Yeshiva of the flagship Lithuanian yeshiva, Volozhin.

In addition to coming from such illustrious Rabbinic stock, the younger Rabbi Epstein, despite being a bookkeeper by profession, was a noted Torah scholar in his own right. There is almost no synagogue or yeshiva in the world that does not carry his work “Torah Temima”, a highly informative and innovative commentary on Talmudic and Midrashic texts which he placed alongside the biblical source that spawned them. Despite some minor controversy, Torah Temima remains highly popular among the learned masses of Jews from across the spectrum.

Less well known, however, is another commentary he wrote on the Torah called “Tosefes Bracha”. This work is not formatted the same way as Torah Temima, and instead is a standard-design freestyle commentary on the Chumash. Unlike Mekor Baruch, Tosefes Bracha has not been reprinted any time recently and is fairly difficult to find (in fact, it isn’t even one of the 40,329 seforim freely available on! It is available on another site, though, here).

In Tosefes Bracha, commenting on the aforementioned verse, things begin to get very, very interesting. Rabbi Epstein first quotes the aforementioned comment of the Ibn Ezra, who, you will recall, quoted and then dismissed as “divrei ruach” other commentators who claimed that Mei-zahav refers to the art of making gold from copper. It seems to be fairly straightforward: Ibn Ezra is dismissing this likely superstitious, weird, and irrational assertion as total hogwash.

Rabbi Epstein, however, is not so sure. “I am unsure”, he writes. “If this ‘ru’ach’ of Ibn Ezra is really serving to dismiss the very possibility of making copper from gold. Perhaps it is merely dismissing the likelihood of this biblical name serving as an awkward reference to that possibility”. In other words, maybe Ibn Ezra simply doesn’t believe that this biblical name is a hint to this “art”, but he does believe in the real possibility of making gold from copper!

Conceding that this sounds like a far-fetched theory, Rabbi Epstein explains why, in fact, it is not so crazy:

“What brought me to this doubt is what I found in a Sephardic sefer called Nifla’ot Ma’asecha (printed in Livorno, Italy), where the author quotes a manuscript he found which describes how to transform copper to gold”.

This comment makes this source sound like a very ancient source: it is an obscure Sephardic book which quotes an unnamed manuscript. In truth, however, Nifla’ot Ma’asecha is a book of Segulot (spiritual remedies) written by Aleppo born Kabbalist Rabbi Avraham Chai Shalom Hamawi, who died in Iran in 1888, when Rabbi Epstein was around eighteen years old. This Rabbi Hamawi, who, according to wrote no less than 39 books, seems to have been a prolific writer on the topic of Segulot.

Getting back to Rabbi Epstein, his comment in Tosefes Bracha ends with this final line: “And if you want to know the details, see my book Mekor Baruch, Volume 3 chapter 19, subsection 6. It isn’t too difficult.”

Wow, very exciting! Now we just have to flip to exhibit 3, which is the passage in Mekor Baruch  referenced in Tosefes Bracha.

Exhibit C

Mekor Baruch is a very fascinating book. It is four volumes of stories, anecdotes, and Torah thoughts on every imaginable topic. It loosely serves as an autobiographical work which contains very interesting information on Rabbi Epstein’s life, that of his family (notably his uncle, the Netziv), and is a wonderful window into Eastern European life. In chapter 6 of volume 3 he relates several stories about a particular Magid, an itinerant preacher commonly found in Eastern Europe. This Magid apparently had a very difficult life, and complains bitterly to Rabbi Epstein about his plight. His grueling profession had him on the road for many months at a time, delivering homilies to audiences that were not always friendly.

Beyond everything else, what bothered the Magid the most was that he had once read in a book the secret to transforming copper to gold. At the time he had paid little notice to it, but as time went on and his personal troubles abounded he began to imagine that this secret could be solution to all of his problems. He had been so close to wealth and riches but, alas, he had forgotten where he had read this secret so he could not reference it, follow the instructions, and make his fortune. This pained him enormously.

Rabbi Epstein, in his vast and eclectic library, owned a copy of the aforementioned work, Nifla’ot Ma’asecha, source of the quoted manuscript containing this secret. He turned to the Magid and said, “I’ll make you a deal: I’ll show you the source containing the secret of ‘transforming copper to gold’ if, upon completing the process, you agree to split the profits with me 50-50”.

At first the magid didn’t believe Rabbi Epstein; after all, he had spent years searching high and low for this source and asking seasoned scholars, all to no avail. However, once the Magid was convinced by the assembled that Rabbi Epstein, in addition to possessing a virtually photographic memory that retained all information it absorbed also wasn’t one to be “pulling his leg”, his astonishment began to give way to more practical matters. he began bargaining and negotiating for greater shares of the anticipated gold. In truth, Rabbi Epstein writes that he himself didn’t believe and trust the efficacy of this alleged kaballistic process. However, once he recalled the Ibn Ezra quote from Vayishlach he began to entertain the possibility that this may actually work. He still was very skeptical, but, for fun, engaged in negotiations with the magid, eventually settling on a deal that gives 30% to Rabbi Epstein and leaves 70% for the magid. Additionally, rabbi Epstein promised not to show this secret to anyone else, lest he generate “competition” in the gold market.

Once the deal was struck with a formal handshake, Rabbi Epstein took the Magid privately to show him the sefer containing the coveted secret of “turning copper to gold”. The Magid, almost delirious from joy imagining the enormous potential for him and his family, promised to begin the process as soon as he returned to his hometown.

Unfortunately, the Magid didn’t live long enough to realize his dream; immediately upon returning home he  contracted the illness from which he eventually died. Rabbi Epstein writes that he forgot this entire story, until he began gathering information and sources for Mekor Baruch. Now, he writes, since the Magid is no longer alive I am absolved of my oath of secrecy and I can share this secret for the benefit of the public.

And now, finally, here is the actual text of  the manuscript quoted Nifla’ot Ma’asecha, by Rabbi Avraham Shalom Chai Hamawi:

“Take nine chicken eggs and place them in a pot. Cover the pot, and then place it under a putrid garbage pile for a minimum of 30 days. Next, open the eggs and you will find that each one now contains a worm. Transfer everything in the pot to another pot, and wait as the worms begin to grow and eat everything in the pot. Eventually the worms will begin eating each other, until just one large worm will remain. Next, burn this worm, but be cautious to stand at a distance due to the pungent odor. You will be left with the ashes which should be gathered and stored. Afterwards, take pure copper and melt it down, after which some of the powder should be added. You will now have gold.”      

Rabbi Hamawi leaves off with a cryptic line: “blessed is he who knows if these words are accurate”.

After publicizing this information Rabbi Epstein writes that he gives his blessing to anyone who chooses to step up and try this relatively “simple project” – to change copper into gold.



Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus, Parshah

Will Keeping the Mitzvot Really Build the 3rd Temple?

Twice in the past few weeks, I have come across the same message from “Chabad In the Cardo”, which goes as follows:

“Help Build the 3rd Bais Hamikdash…By Doing Acts of Goodness & Kindness”

What exactly is the meaning of this statement?

I believe Chabad in the Cardo is implying that by being nice to people (an important Mitzvah, ask Hillel or Rabbi Akiva), we may literally cause the 3rd Temple to be built. Lest you be fooled into thinking that being nice to others is merely conducive to the kind of constructioni that occurs in a natural manner (Bob the Builder style), the sign comes with a picture, akin to Ikea instructions. In fact, this picture tells us, if we are goodii and keep the mitzvot the Temple will come down ready-made from heaven!


But is such a thing really possible?

This belief, which is extraordinarily popular in our community, may be found in many important classical sourcesiii. Despite this, Rambamiv rejects this belief completely, because there’s no way Mitzvot could have anything to do with the spiritually enchanted appearance of a building-even the Temple- from the sky. In fact, not only is this view untrue in his opinion, but it may be a damaging one, as we will show later on.

There are two reasons Rambam rejects the idea that mitzvot could have magical powers, both of which are explained in Menachem Kellner’s fantastic book ‘Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism’ v.

1) It is logically simpler to explain that mitzvot are not mystically endowed with powers, or do not have special inherent qualities, than to say that they do. Rambam prefers the simplest solution available when answering a question.

We may see his philosophical preference for simplicity when he says that “species and the other universals are…mental notions and that every existent outside the mind is an individual or group of

Why consider species and universals nothing more than categories man has thought of? Because Maimonides, Kellner explains, holds that we shouldn’t suggest a complex answer when a simpler one is available. In our case, this translates into rejecting the belief that mitzvot have qualities that are inherent, essential, or existential to them.

2) Rambam believes that God is “…One to whose unity there is no comparison…in the universe…His power is infinite….and the knowledge of this Monotheism is a mandatory commandment”vii. Because God is completely unique and alone in the heavens, there must not be any magic to affect or control Him. Furthermore, since it’s impossible for mitzvot to share a quality with God, it’s impossible that they are inherently holy or powerful in the way that God is.

For these two reasons, we may see that Rambam constantly demystifies the mitzvotviii, explaining them in historical and philosophical contexts that disagree with the idea that mitzvot have any inherent qualities, let alone the ability to build the Temple.

Rather than explain that they are spiritually mystical rituals that affect the universe or our souls, Rambam explains that every mitzvah “exists either with a view to communicating a correct opinion, or to putting an end to an unhealthy opinion, or to communicating a rule of justice, or to endowing men with a noble moral quality…”ix. They bring us to be “occupied with” Godx, and are “the path of wisdom” which we follow because “it is true”xi. But these are all completely natural elements of the world, and there’s nothing supernatural, mystical, or magical about any of the goals of the Mitzvot.

In contrast, the statement that by doing acts of kindness we will rebuild the Temple implies that the mitzvot have the spiritual magical ability to build something, or to force heaven to build it! Rambam completely rejects this notion, since it contradicts his principle of God’s unity and uniqueness, as well as his philosophical doctrine that the simplest solution should be preferred.

In his view, all buildings must be built in completely natural ways, including the Temple. The Messianic process will be a completely natural onexii, and indeed, we will be able to say that keeping the mitzvot allowed us to reach that point. This natural process of redemption and the building of the Temple is a good example of how the mitzvot work in his opinion. They are a challenge for us, and not a kind of spiritual mysticism with seemingly magical properties.

Even though we have great leaders who held an enchanted mystical view of the mitzvot, there are some dangers in seeing the world this way.

If we tell everyone that keeping the mitzvot will protect them, or spiritually cause physical changes in our world, they may stop keeping them if they come to the conclusion this does not work. Furthermore, the belief that mitzvot are to be kept because they have spiritual powers may also cause some of us to forget that though we may keep the mitzvot so that God should protect us, we should strive to keep them because we desire to serve Him.

Additionally, this “enchanted”xiii view of our religion encourages a rejection of science, objective cause and effectxiv, and the way that the world works generally, since it could cause people to they think they have an “in” of sorts with the rules of the universe, and may manipulate the physical world. And that will probably make Bill Nye very angry.

The Science Guy aside, Rambam holds that keeping the mitzvot cannot stave off cancer, build the Temple, or protect us from robbers. If we rely on supernatural means of protection we will each suffer the consequences.

However, if we keep the mitzvot for the reasons Rambam lists, we may be able to return the focus of the mitzvot to the service of God, striving for perfection, and helping each other reach these goals, without the damages of assuming the universe or our mitzvot will do it for us. If we do that, then indeed, perhaps we will soon hire a good contractor to build the Temple, or one will even volunteer.

iRashi on dor haflaga

iiFor example, say, by not shouting or crying, as one had better not.

iiiMidrash Tanchuma, Pekudei, sec. 11, Rashi Tractate Sukka 41a ‘Ee nami,’ BT Rosh Hashanah 30a ‘lo’, Tosafot BT Sukka 41a ‘Ee nami,’ BT Shevuot 15b ‘ein’,Ritva BT Sukka 41a. Hai Gaon lists lists this as a possibility but appears to find it more likely the resurrected dead will be the ones to rebuild the Temple. (cited in ‘Theology in the Responsa’ p.23, Louis Jacobs, Littman Library,2005)

ivHe relies on other sources in this particular matter (ie:how the temple will be built), such as JT Megillah 1:11, Pesahim 9:1, Leviticus Rabbah 9:6, and Bamidbar Rabbah, 13:2. This is also likely the opinion of his followers and later rationalists, but we’ll leave that unanswered for now. However, we can say with confidence that it is certainly not the opinion of any of the Aristotelian Rishonim (Ralbag being perhaps the most prominent among them), for the reasons we will provide, which should make sense according to any Aristotelian.

vLittman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2006 (Oxford), pp.11-15,33-42,59-65. Suffice it to say that this post was made possible by Kellner’s writings, which I am a big fan of.

viGuide for the Perplexed, 3:18

viiMishnah Torah, Yesodei Hatorah, 1:7

viiiAs well as pretty much else anything he can get his hands on. For example, see Shapiro, Marc B., ‘Maimonideian Halakha and Superstition’, pp.95-150, in his ‘Studies in Maimonides and His Interpreters (University of Scranton Press,2008)

ixGuide 3:31

xGuide 3:51

xiMT Teshuva, 10:2

xii MT Hilchot Melachim 11:1, Hilchot Beit Habechirah 1:12

xiii This is how Kellner refers to the world of Maimonides’ opponents throughout his writings.

xiv Not exactly what Hume was aiming for.


Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus, Rationalism

You’re an Apikores!

One of my pet peeves is how much people throw around the term heresy in Orthodox Judaism. Why does this bother me? Because they have no idea what they’re talking about.

Fortunately for you, I was obsessed with the question of “what is Jewish heresy?” for some time, so I have done a lot of reading (for a layman) on the matter. Furthermore, I have been called a heretic, a kofer, and an apikores, you name it! So if you’re looking for someone with some personal experience in the area- you got the right guy.

Heresy, as it is generally understood in Judaism, is an idea or belief that deviates from dogma, or authoritative beliefs that must be held. To disagree with dogma means a person has broken with Judaism. There are a lot of arguments over why you cannot deviate from certain beliefs, but at any rate, that is the bottom line.

So, for instance, it is usually considered OK to have diverging opinions over whether or not the Red Sea split into two or 12, since this is not a question of dogma. However, whether or not the Torah is from heaven is the kind of argument that can legitimately lead to someone being called a heretic.

If we can prove that Judaism has a set of beliefs that qualify as “dogma”, than any beliefs or ideas that deviate from them are heresy. If we cannot prove it, we will have less success.

The most famous proposed set of Jewish dogmatic beliefs is the 13 principles of Maimonides, which includes things like proper beliefs about God, that Torah is from heaven, and that God will eventually resurrect the dead. Presumably, according to Maimonides, if you deviate from these beliefs you are a heretici.

Now you may say that the 13 principles are our dogma, and they are certainly the most popular candidate that I know of. But a lot of people will disagree with you, and Marc B. Shapiro wrote a book that is simply a list of accepted Orthodox scholars who disagree with the 13 principles. It’s not such a short book either.

Examples of principles that are disputed:

3)That God has no body:

I don’t know anyone myself who believes that God has a body, but Raavad, the most accepted rabbinic authority in France in his own lifetime, did. He writes in his critique of Hilkhot Teshuva 3:7 that people “greater than he (ie:Rambam)” believed God has a body. Ok, so maybe this one isn’t dogma.

6)Moses’s prophecy is the most superior:

Not so says the Ari and the Alter rebbe of Chabad, R. Shneur Zalman. Kabbalists have a better understanding (likutei amarim, ‘igeret hakodesh’, no. 19).

Also, Rav Yosef Albo and R. Tzvi Hirshy Chajes both hold the Messiah will have greater prophecy than Moses did.

7) Every verse of the Torah was given to Moses at Sinai.

Modern Orthodox readers should also be made aware that Rav Soloveitchik’s view (as reported in Nefesh harav) that Yehoshua wrote the last 8 verses of the Torah contradicts this principle. Of course, this opinion appears in the Talmud 3 times, and once in Sifrei.

According to Rambam, it is a mitzvah to hate and destroy anyone who disagrees with his principles. If you will read Shapiro’s book, you will see this list contains many of the Sages, so I would would recommend that you wait to act on this instruction until you have read the book thoroughly. It is called ‘The Limits of Orthodox Theology’, and it is published by the Littman Library on a print by demand basis.

I should add that according to most interpreters, Rambam would see the idea of Sefirot as encroaching on the unity of God, which is of course against his 13 principles. Again we see that kabbala is in hot water with him.

On the flip side, there are those who hold it is heresy to not accept the kabbala, but obviously Maimonides opposes this idea, as is made eminently clear in Kellner’s ‘Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism.’ I can’t imagine a person reading this book and coming away with another idea.

So kabbala might be a moot point, despite the almost daily attempt to claim it is dogma.

I highly recommend every book I have listed here, and I encourage everyone to stop calling each other heretics until they at least peruse a few of them. Also recommended is Doniel Hartman’s ‘The boundaries of Judaism’ and Kellner’s ‘Must a Jew Believe Anything?’.

Kellner’s fantastic book ‘Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought’ goes through several attempts at Jewish dogma in the two centuries following Rambam, and you can see there that at the very least, Judaism lacks an agreed upon set of beliefs, and even lacks an agreed upon definition of dogma!

In all this uncertainty, it appears that the norm has become to simply accept anyone who keeps the mitzvot as part of the team, an opinion Maimonides seems to vociferously oppose. At any rate, rationalists continue to daven with kabbalists, and in my experience, very few fights break out.

iI say presumably because Menachem Kellner holds this really only applies to the first 5 principles. He discusses this in his Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought, mentions this in ‘Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism’, and I believe he goes over this as well in his “Must a Jew Believe Anything?’. All are published by the Littman Library.


Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus, Miscellaneous, Rationalism

Why Does God Tell Moses to Look the Wrong Way?

Yesterday we read Va’etchannan, which begins with Moses’ rejected plea to enter the Land of Israel. While Moses is not allowed to go, God does tell him to “Go up to the top of the Pisga, and lift up thy eyes westward, northward, southward, and eastward, and behold with thy eyes, because you will not cross the Jordan (river)” (Deuteronomy 3:27)

The question (which someone pointed out to me in shul), is why does God tell Moses to look the wrong way? Israel is to the west of where Moses is standing, and even to look north(west) and south(west) may make sense. But why east? That is simply the opposite direction from where Moses should look!

We will suggest 5 answers to this question, but of course this list isn’t exhaustive, and you may find none are acceptable to you.

1) God tells Moses to look in all 4 directions as this is merely an expression for “look everywhere/around”. It does not literally mean he should look east, but rather that he should look as much as he likes. This would appear to be a sort of concession to Moses. God will not let him in, but will let him look.

2) It is an angry expression, meaning “look everywhere”. This is actually not quite the same. In this understanding, God tells Moses “Look as much as you want, but you will not cross the Jordan”. In this reading we understand God to be angry with Moses for asking, as He “was angry, and would not hear me”(v.26). Perhaps according to this reading we may understand that Moses was in fact allowed to look at Israel the entire time, and did not need special permission for this. After all, why would he? Therefore, when he asks to go in, God tells him he may continue to look all he likes, but that’s all he’ll get.

3) Perhaps we might look for a deeper lesson in this strange command to look in the wrong direction. I’ll split this suggestion into two for Mystics and Rationalists.

a) Mystical Interpretation- God tells Moses to look east to teach him about the status of the east. Just as the land of Israel (to the west) is inherently holy, so too the land of Jordan (to his east, which two and half tribes have recently decided to settle in) is inherently holy as well. Thus it is exactly like the rest of Israel.

b) Rationalist Interpretation- God tells Moses to look east to teach him that just as Jordan’s land (eastward) is not used for mitzvot, and is therefore not holy, so too Israel will not be holy if it is not used for the performance of mitzvoti.

4) My wife mentioned to me that she was once taught that God in fact transported Moses to Israel in a vision, and then told him to look around in all four directions. I have not found the source for this, but this obviously would answers our question as well.

To be honest, my immediate reaction to the question was to shrug, and suggest the first answer listed here. The classical commentators (or at least all the ones included in the Torat Chaim Chumash) don’t address this question at all, so I’m inclined to think they agree with me that it’s just an expression.

While this question isn’t the strongest one in history, I think it’s worth looking at because how we answer it tells us a little bit about how we each read Tanakh (Bible), and of course, because of the general value of learning.

Let me know if you can find the source for the last suggestion!

Shavua tov

iThis ties in nicely with the explanation (BT Sotah 14A) that Moshe wanted to enter Israel so that he could perform the mitzvot that are specific to it, which is cited by Abravanel and Chizkuni on 3:25.


Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus, Miscellaneous, Parshah, Rationalism

Was Pinchas the Bad Guy?

By Avi Kallenbach

Something interesting that you don’t hear every day….

In the Mei HaShiloach a collection of derashot on the parsha said by Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbizce there is a very interesting, if not radical  approach to the sin of Zimri and the zealotry of Pinchas (which is recorded at the end of parshat Balak and the beginning of parshat Pinchas.)

In short, the Torah records that Zimri committed a sin of sleeping with a Midianite woman. Moses did not know what to do and Pinchas stepped up to the plate and killed Zimri and the Midianite woman, for which he was rewarded by God with his “covenant of peace”.

Says the Mei HaShiloach, actually, Zimri did the right thing! And it was Pinchas who was wrong in killing him.


In Izbice Chassidut there exists the psychological excercize of Berur or “sifting”. Birur consists of introspection to determine ones own inner  motivations and drives. To put things simply, our motivations can either derive from the Yetzer Hara – the evil inclination – our lusts and desires for unworthy things or from our Yetzer HaTov – the good inclination – our dedication to God and our desire to perform his will. The act of Berur determines whether a certain desire derives from a selfish evil desire or a desire corresponding to the will of God.

So far so good, but now things get interesting. If one has a desire for something illicit. Such as Zimri’s desire for a Midianite woman, one must try with all his might to suppress this desire and not act upon it. One must defeat the Yetzer HaRa. The Mei HaShiloach says that there are ten stages (corresponding to ten sefirot) of ascendancy over the Yetzer HaRa. The tenth is complete domination and the ability to not be swayed at all by the suggestions of the Yetzer HaRa.

It could happen that someone on this exalted ten level  might continue to feel an uncontrollable desire for some illicit act. It burns in him strongly in spite of his acumen in suppressing it. What does this mean? It can’t be the Yetzer HaRa for that has already been completely suppressed!  Rather, it means that the illicit desire is not illicit! It does not stem from the Yetzer HaRa but rather from the will of God! The psychological introspection of Berur checks this desire and determines that it stems from a pure source and therefore must be acted upon in order to carry out the will of God.

This was why Zimri acted as he did. He realized that his desire for the Midianite woman did not stem from the Yetzer HaRa but rather from the will of God.

Pinchas was shortsighted. He thought too technically too superficially. On the outside, yes, Zimri was commiting a sin. But Pinchas did not realize that this was a “sin” stemming deeply from the will of God, as Zimri had determined through the act of Birur. Despite Pinchas’ mistake he was considered guiltless and even righteous. Because although he did not reach the deeper meaning of Zimri’s act he nevertheless acted according to his reasoning, and according to his reasoning he performed an act of valor and mesirat nefesh.

Although thiexplanation of the Mei HaShiloach is very antinomian there is no evidence that Izbice Chassidim were antinomian themselves…

He doesn’t say this but it seems pretty obvious to me that Zimri is the Chossid who does things that are not in strict adherence to Halacha but are for the greater good whereas Pinchas is the grumpy Litvak who stubbornly keeps every halachic detail no matter what. The Mei HaShiloach is essentially saying that the path of Zimri is ultimately the better however there is still legitimacy in the acts of the Litvak Pinchas.

The vort  with a short English explanation can be found here. 


Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus