Shomer Emunim, 1st question, (#6-7)

18 Jan

First Dialogue

6 (cont.). Shealtiel: Well, before anything else, I’ll ask this: From where do you know that there are secrets and hidden parts of the Torah? Our faith famously states that Moshe (Moses) received the Torah and all of it’s explanations were given at Mt. Sinai. He gave this body over to Yehoshua (Joshua), who gave it to the elders, etc., until the early Jewish Sages, who wrote this body of knowledge down in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud [1], the Sifra, Sifri, Tosefta and Mechilta [2][3] . We listen to them, and rely on their words. And whoever does not believe in the veracity of their words is not a part of the holy nation of Israel.

But where does it say anywhere that there is an inner part of the Torah along with secret teachings? The Mekubalim say it’s true, but where does it say that in the Gemara?

7. Yehoyada: They [4] say in Tractate Pesachim 119a [5] “What does the verse (Isaiah 23:18) mean when it says ‘ve’le’mechaseh uh’sik’, [6]? This is referring to one who covers (‘mechaseh’) things that the Ancient (‘uh’sik’) of Days (a term for God culled from Daniel 7:22) covered. What are they? The Sisrei Torah (Hidden parts of the Torah).”And again, in Tractate Chagiga 13a, “One cannot give over Sisrei Torah except to one who has…”

You see explicitly that are hidden parts to the Torah which were known to our Rabbis through tradition. They are, ‘The Story of Creation’ (Maaseh Bereishis), ‘The Story of the Chariot’ (Maaseh Merkavah), and ‘The Book of Formation’ (Sefer Yetzirah), as Rashi za”l [7] writes there (ibid.).

About these secrets they taught in the Second Chapter of Chagiga, “One cannot teach Arayot (matters relating to sexuality) in front of three people. Nor Maaseh Bereishis in front of two. Nor about the Merkavah in front of one, unless he is wise and understands by himself. Tosfos [8] writes there in the name of Rabbeinu Ta”m [9], “’Maaseh Bereishis’ refers to the 42 letter name of God, which is derived from the first two verses of the Bible (I.e. Genesis 1:1 – 1:2)”. The way to derive the 42 letter name from the verses, and it’s meaning and significance, is found amongst the Mekubalim by way of tradition.

The Ramba”n, [10] in his commentary on the Torah, writes, “Maaseh Bereshis is a deep secret which cannot be understood from reading the Scripture, and which cannot be known clearly unless received by the tradition going back to Moshe at Sinai from God’s own mouth. And whoever knows it is duty-bound to keep it secret.”

The Ritv”a, [11] quoted in the book ‘Ein Yisrael’ [12] on Chapter 2 of Tractate Sukkah writes, “[The Gemara says] ‘Maaseh Merkavah is a great thing.’ This is the holy supernal Chariot that even the prophets have never seen. It’s secret is known to the Masters of the Truth.” See also the Rashb”a there [13].

The outcome of all this is the principle that Maaseh Bereishis and Maaseh Merkavah are Sisrei Torah and Godly wisdom which were passed down from Moshe our Rabbi, peace be on him, who, received them from the mouth of Almighty God. And this is also true of what’s written in Sefer Yetzirah. And you already recognize the great skill of our superiors, the Sages of the Talmud, who’s words all of Israel rely on. [14]

We also find a saying of the Sages in Medrash Rabbah on Parshas Chukas. [15] “Rabbi Yose son of Chaninah says: God said to Moshe, ‘To you, I’ll reveal the reason for the Red Heifer, but to others it will remain an incomprehensible commandment (Chuka).’” Now, if the Red Heifer is the only Chuka for ‘others’, it’s obvious that the reasons for the rest of the divine commandments (Mitzvos) were revealed by Moshe to others. [16]

What is being talked about here is Kabbalah, which is an explanation of the Sisrei Torah and contains the reasons for the Mitzvos, the secrets of Maaseh Merkavah and Maaseh Bereishis. These come to our hands through a chain of transmission from our Rabbis and back until the Sages of the Talmud.


[1] Also known as the ‘Gemara’.

[2] The books of Midrash.

[3] The chain of transmission is famously listed in the first Mishnah of the Tractate ‘Avos’, (sometimes translated as ‘Ethics of the Fathers’).

[4] Chaza”l, The Talmudic Sages (lit. “Our sages, may their remembrance be a blessing”).

[5] Standard Talmudic page notation refers to the Vilna edition of the Talmud (known as the ‘Vilna Shas’), which follows the 16th century Venice printing by Daniel Bomberg. “119a” refers to the 119th page (“daf”), front side (“amud”). (Fun Trivia: Bomberg was a Christian.)

[6] Literally translated as ‘and for stately clothing’. The Gemara is giving another, homiletic, interpretation to explain the reason for this particular choice of words.

[7] Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, French rabbi who wrote one of the first comprehensive commentaries on the Bible and Talmud, lived 1040-1105. He is known as the ‘Teacher of Israel’. His commentary is the most prominent one printed in the Vilna Shas and is included in almost all chumashim.

[8] A commentary based on the teachings of certain French and German Rabbis living between the 12th and 15th centuries. Also printed in the Vilna Shas.

[9] Rabbi Yaakov son of Meir, France, 1100-1171. The most prominent Tosafist. Also, Rashi’s grandson.

[10] Rabbi Moshe son of Nachman, known in English as Nachmanides. Spain, 1194-1270.

[11] Rabbi Yom Tov son of Avraham Asevilli, Spain, 1250-1330.

[12] He is referring to the book ‘Ein Yaakov’, by Rabbi Yaakov ben Shlomo Ibn Chabib. 1450-1516. It was also published under the name ‘Ein Yisroel’.

[13] The Rashb”a’s idea isn’t quoted because the author happened to find it interesting, but it is unrelated to his argument.

Rashb”a, Rabbi Shlomo son of Aderet, lived in Spain from 1235-1310. It is quite clear that he was a Kabbalist. He wrote a letter against his contemporary, Rabbi Avraham Abulafia (1240-1290’s ), because of the latter’s seemingly heretical ideas about prophecy and the Messiah. Modern Kabbalists say Abulafia’s ideas are rooted in Kabbalah and aren’t heretical. However, Rabbi Ergas, later on in the book, quotes many passages from Rashba’s writings which strongly indicate that he was well versed in Kabbalistic teachings.

[14] Shealtiel already recognized this in his question. The author is probably mentioning religious Judaism’s unanimous acceptance of the Talmudic Sages’ authority for the sake of the reader.

[15] The 5 books of Moses of the Torah are split into 54 portions that are read in the Synagogue on Sabbath over the course of a year. ‘Chukas’ is a portion in Numbers, or ‘Bamidbar’.

[16] The argument is as follows: The verse states, “This is the law (Chuka) of the Torah”. ‘This’ implies that there are no other Chuka’s. Yet the Torah does name other Chuka’s (e.g. phylacteries). Rabbi Yose explains that this is the only real Chuka for Israel, in that Moshe cannot reveal the reason for it. The author now draws the necessary conclusion that the reasons for all the other Mitzvos were obviously given. And while this is not proof of the fact, it is proof that Rabbi Yose thought this was true.


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