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Shomer Emunim #18-19

18 Feb

Shealtiel: You have won me over with your words. You solved the problem I brought up about the Kabbalah being tainted because of the arguments among the later Mekubalim. However, I will be honest with you. I am still not at peace with the ways of the Mekubalim. I will set my problems before you so that you might resolve them.


My first problem: They say that all the words of the Torah and the stories that are written in it contain great secrets. This appears to be untrue. I’ll give them that there are secrets and reasons behind the divine commandments. But as to the stories containing hidden secrets- this is not apparent at all. It seems very clear that they are meant to be taken at face value only.


Yehoyada: So do you think that the Bible stories were written for no reason other than to be a book of records, to be read like chronicles? Heaven forbid someone should believe that. This was the mistake of Menashe son of Chizkiah [1] who would sit and lecture about false interpretations of stories. He said, “Moshe should have only written, ‘The sister of Lotan was Timnah, and Timnah was the concubine of Elifaz’, ‘Reuven went, in the wheat harvesting season, and found mandrakes in the field’ [2].


And not only this. Even if you say that there is a point to the Bible stories- for their life lessons, and moral and corrective teachings, as we find Chaza”l sometimes teaching lessons from the stories- however, you say that this is the only reason for them. Then our holy Torah is no different than any other book of chronicles. They were also not written aimlessly. They too were written to warn and guide and advise.


The complete truth is that these stories weren’t written only with the intention of being guide books, like all other chronicles. It must be that there is also a much deeper purpose in writing them. That is, they hint to great secrets and to all true knowledge. Because our holy Torah, in order to be the Torah of God, and the entire word of God from beginning to end; must contain everything, as is the nature of the word of God. That’s why King David said, “The Torah of God is complete” [3]. Because it is complete, lacking nothing, encompassing all true knowledge and secrets of existence. As Chaza”l say in a Medrash, “The meaning of the verse, ‘The King brought me into his chambers’ [4]: these are the rooms of the Torah. ‘He told you his treaty’: this is the book of Genesis, which is the beginning of his creation of the world. ‘That He commanded you to do the 10 things’: these are the 10 commandments. How else could Elihu son of Barachel come and reveal to them the secrets [5] of the Behemoth, and the secrets of the Leviathan? How else could Ezekiel come and reveal to them the secrets of the Merkavah? That’s what it means when it says, ‘The King brought me into his chambers.” We see that everything can be learned out of the Torah.


The Ramban already went on at length about this in his introduction to his commentary on the Torah. He says, “…If this is so, then everything that was said through prophecy, from Maaseh Merkavah and Bereishis, and that which the wise men of the world speak about, i.e. the 4 forces in the world, mineral, plant life, animal spirit, and human spirit, all of this was said to Moshe. All of it: how they were created, their powers, their makeup, their actions, the limbs that were excluded from them. And all of this is written in the Torah either outright or through hints. Chaza”l have already said, “50 gates of understanding were created in the world. All were given over to Moshe, except for one. As the verse says, ‘And you lessened him a little bit from God’”. And they also said, “At the creation of the world, there were 50 gates of understanding…and everything of the gates of understanding that was given over to Moshe was written down either outright or through hints. Either in the letters; or through numerical calculation (Gematria); or in the form of the letters when written according to the Halacha; or through the changes in the shapes of the letters, such as the winding or crooked ones, etc.; or through the tips of the letters and their crowns. As Chaza”l say in Menachos 29b, “When Moshe went up to heaven, he found God attaching crowns to letters. He said to Him, ‘What are these for?’ He replied, ‘In the future, a man will expound hills upon hills of laws from these.’ ‘Until then, what do they mean for us?’ ‘They will simply be a law passed down from Moshe on Sinai, of which no explanation will be understood unless it was heard mouth to mouth all the way back to Moshe at Sinai.’ See this explained further ibid.


In summation, there is no saying of Chaza”l that isn’t hinted to in the Torah. Whether we are speaking about the explanation of the laws and commandments or the secrets of Maaseh Bereishis and Maaseh Merkavah, they are all either written out plainly or hinted to. A proof of this is how hard we see Chaza”l working to show hints from the Biblical texts to the teachings they received from their masters. They do this by both the laws and the homiletic teachings (Aggadah). Because everything is hinted to and included in the Torah. This is what the Mishnah means when it says, “Search in it, and search in it, for everything is included in it”[6]. It encompasses everything, and lacks nothing of the laws, ideas and all true knowledge. They said in the Zohar on Parsha Beha’aloscha, 149b, “Israel was fortunate to have been given the heavenly Torah, the Torah of truth. The one who says that the Biblical stories were simply stories, should have his breath blown out of him…” See ibid, and also page 152a, where they go on longer about this.


It’s clear from all this that the Bible stories, while certainly literally true, were not written by God to be mere chronicles, God forbid. They main purpose is for the essential secrets that were enclothed in them. By way of example: the section that reads, “And these were the kings that ruled in the land of Edom” [7]. Certainly this story happened as it was written. However, it was written in the Torah in order to encase the secrets of the world of ‘Tohu’ [8]. And since the true purpose is for the secrets, therefore the story is written with many different details. For example, some verses say, “And the name of his city was X”, and some don’t mention his territory at all. Some include the father’s name, and some write only the King’s own name. The last verse mentions the King’s wife, and the rest don’t. Along with many other details that don’t help the story at all, but contain wondrous secrets, as is known from the books of the Ariza”l. And the story of Laban and Jacob (Yaakov), with the striped, speckled and grizzled sheep [9]. The main reason why the story was written in the Torah was for the wondrous secrets about the creation of the worlds that are enclothed in it, as is known to the scholars of the truth.


In summation: the entire Torah is written in lower speech, and hints to the higher secrets, as is known to those who are proficient in the Wisdom.





[1] Tractate Sanhedrin 99b.

[2] Menashe was saying that these verses are unnecessary.

[3] Psalms 19:8.

[4] Song of Songs 1:4.

[5] ‘Secrets’ is written as the word ‘chambers’ in the Hebrew.

[6] Tractate Avos 5:25.

[7] Genesis 36:31- 36:39.

[8] In the Kabbalah, an early step in the chain of creation.

[9] Genesis, Chapter 31.

Shomer Emunim #16-17

7 Feb

Shealtiel: My point isn’t that the unintelligibility of the details of the Kabbalah makes the whole branch unintelligible. I also understand that anyone who begins to learn any new branch of wisdom, will come away with many problems and confusions, which will be enough to make him think that the entire subject is false. I’m saying that the general principles of Kabbalah are strange and contradictory to logic. I’ll explain what I’m saying so that you’ll understand what I’m referring to.

But before that, I want to ask you about the many arguments that are found between the Mekubalim about basic principles. If the whole subject was passed down to them, how can there be any arguments?

Yehoyada: I have actually not found that the Mekubalim argue with the Sefer Yetzirah, Sefer Bahir, Pirkei Heichalos, Sefer Zohar, on fundamentals or any other matter. There are arguments in the Zohar between the students of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai regarding the interpretation of specific Biblical verses. One student interprets it following one principle, and another interprets it following another. They are both valid interpretations [1] because there are 70 faces to the Torah [2]. This in no way damages the principles of the Subject.

If you are referring to the arguments found in the later books of the Mekubalim- these arguments don’t invalidate the claim that they Kabbalah was handed down to them. There are many arguments regarding the Talmudic laws, both in the Talmud and amongst the later scholars deciding the laws. Yet we don’t question whether there was an real tradition of Oral Law passed down, or say that the Talmudic Sages came up with these laws on their own, God forbid. Whoever says that becomes separated from the congregation of Israel.

I will tell you the reason for the arguments found amongst the later Mekubalim, and how they were dissolved when we merited the holy writings of the Arizal. The arguments among the Mekubalim started after the Ramban za”l. The reason this happened is that from the times of the Gaonim until the Ramban, the did not write down the ideas of this Wisdom fully. They only wrote down hints to the ideas. They did this so that the only people who would understand them were those who had received the keys from someone else, face to face. The Ramban writes about this at the end of his introduction to Genesis, and on the words “In the beginning”. He explains that the word hints to the emanation of God called “Wisdom”, and finishes off with the following: “And it is impossible to continue to explain this concept in writing. And hinting will cause greater damage than benefit, because people will think up ideas that are devoid of truth, etc.” See there. And the Rashba says in letter #423, “And the secret of ‘The great, the strong, and the awesome’, is awesome indeed. Who knows it? And that man definitely won’t say it, and even more so, will not write it in a book.” We see that they didn’t want to explain it in writing. You can find similar things in the other books of the earlier Mekubalim. They didn’t write out their words explicitly; rather, they wrote in hints and with much concealment. It’s written in such way as to make it impossible for the reader not to become confused, unless he has received the tradition of the Wisdom from mouth to mouth.

Therefore, after the time of the Ramban, when the mouth to mouth teaching declined, people ideas about the words of the early Mekubalim became confused. Each person wrote what he decided to be the explanation. It came out then, that their ideas didn’t match up with each other. These are the arguments that are found amongst the later Mekubalim. This is the reason for the teaching we received from the our master the Arizal that all the books of Kabbalah after the Ramban aren’t entirely accurate. They are built upon human thoughts, not received from the early generations, and not received from on high.

However, after all of them came the holy Rabbi Moshe Cordovero za”l [3] who read through, searched, and fixed their writings to minimize the arguments. He was a great, intelligent scholar, full of the wisdom of the Torah, very humble and pious, who had access to hidden archives containing books of the early Mekubalim za”l. At first he planted his ‘Orchard’ [4], which put the Kabbalistic ideas in order, according to their intended reasoning. He brought the words of the Gaonim, and explained them in an open and full way. He considered and debated the words of the later Mekubalim, picking out the good from the bad. After that, he wrote the book, ‘Ohr Yakar’, which is a large commentary on the Zohar, Tikunnim, Ra’ayeh Mehemnah, and Sefer Yetzirah. And his last, and best, book is the ‘Sefer Alimah’. It is said in the name of the Arizal, “Moshe is true and his Torah is true in the world of Belimah [5]’. See what Rabbi Menachem Azariah writes in his introduction to his book, ‘Pelach Harimon’.

After this, a great light shone, a stronghold and a tower, holy as the ministering angels, Cmoh”r Yitzchok Luria, za”l, who is called the ‘Ari’ [6]. Through his great knowledge and holiness, he merited to have a revelation of the prophet Elijah (Eliyahu) za”l whenever he wanted; just like the Tannaim and Amoraim, of which there are many cases in the Gemara. He revealed to him Sisrei Torah and deep secrets which hadn’t been revealed in the world since the times of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai za”l. The Ari dissolved all of the arguments and problems of the later Mekubalim. At times he showed a way to meld two views, showing that they are both correct. At other times, he picked one over the other. From his time until now, you will not find anyone who argues with him at all. Everybody knows that the spirit of God spoke through him. All testify that the holy spirit of God was in him, and that from the days of the Tannaim there existed no-one who knew the Wisdom as true as he did. The writings of praise for the awesome deeds he did in the city of Safed, tova”v [7] have already been published in the books, ‘Emek Hamelech’, and ‘Taalumas Chochmah’, in Rabbi Moshe Alshich’s [8] introduction to his commentary on the Torah, and in other books.

It comes out that now, after we merited to have the holy works of the Arizal, there’s no room to argue that we aren’t obligated to learn the Kabbalah. You can’t say anymore that because there are arguments between the later Mekubalim on certain things and we have no way to decide which way is correct that therefore there is a great danger that we might start believing in false ideas. This argument has been totally dissolved through the Ari’s writings. We have merited, through these writings, the light of the Sisrei Torah, the ancient words which are sweeter than honey, sweet to the listener and life-giving to the finder. He revealed secrets that he merited to receive from heaven. As the commentaries prove, and anyone who reads them can see: words like these are impossible for any creature to reach through any form of intellect or knowledge. They are reached only through the shining of the holy spirit upon him.





[1] The text says, “Both these and these are the words of the living God”, which is a principle found in Tractate Eruvin 13b.

[2] This phrase has become the most common way of referring to a principle found in the Gemara. Rabbi Yishmael in Tractate Sanhedrin 34a explains that it is learned out of the words in Jeremiah 23:29, “And like a hammer shatters rock.” He explains, “Just as a hammer explodes into many sparks when striking a rock, so too one verse can be explained in many ways”.

[3] Safed, Israel; 1522-1570.

[4] His book titled, ‘Pardes Rimonim’, or ‘Pomegranate Orchard’.

[5] A Kabbalistic play on the word ‘Alimah’.

[6] Although this is an abbreviation of the words ‘Eloki Rav Yitzchok’, the word ‘Ari’ also means lion in Hebrew.

[7] “It shall be rebuilt quickly in our days”.

[8] Safed, 1508-1593.

Shomer Emunim, #14-15

31 Jan

Shealtiel: But the books of the Mekubalim also contain many strange, illogical things. I’ve asked the Mekubalim about this, but haven’t received any satisfactory answers. At times, their answers just cause the questions to grow larger, and to even add other questions!

Yehoyada: It’s true that are things that can’t be understood unless you delve deeply into the real essence of the Wisdom. The Zohar says, “Not all intellects can carry this, only those that are wise and holy”. But most of the rest of the topics that are dealt with can be understood normally, as long as you make the effort. And if they seem foreign or odd to one who has never studied this wisdom intently, that’s his fault for not studying the introductory frameworks. Certainly if this same man – even if he is wise and learned in Halachah- would look at a random book of Kabbalah, he wouldn’t be able to understand what it’s really talking about. And even if he asks about what he learns, nobody would be able to explain them to him on one foot (ie, right there). He first has to learn the subject matter in the proper order. If he wants to ask before he learns the basics and the frameworks, he’ll never be able to understand.

This idea isn’t only applicable to Kabbalah. It applies to any subject. The Rambam writes in the ‘Moreh’, Part 1, Chapter 34: If someone learns any of the branches of Wisdom without learning the frameworks first, many new questions and problems will arise which will be unanswerable. He will end up confused, with false ideas. [See there, where he goes on at length about this.] And in his introduction to his commentary on the Mishnah, he brings a good parable to explain this. Say there was an intelligent man who was knowledgeable in Medicine, Logic, Music, and Natural Science, but had no knowledge of Math or Astronomy. Now let’s say we would say to this man, “What would you say about a man who claims that the body of the sun that we see as a small circle, is actually a ball 166 and 3/8ths times the circumference of the earth. The body of the earth, on which we’ve based all these measurements, is a ball whose circumference is 24,000 miles. Through measuring the earth, we have come to know the size of the sun.” [1] There no question that this man, as keen as his intellect is, who has mastered all of the other subjects we’ve mentioned above, will still not be able to find within himself room to accept this belief. These new ideas are unfathomably foreign to him. He’ll think, “How can a man standing on the space of one hands-breadth of earth, know the exact measurement of the sun, as if he were measuring a plot of land? Also, the sun is exceedingly far away. We can’t even see it’s true size, we can only feel it’s rays. So how can a man reach it in order to measure it, and to the precision of 3/8’s of a size? This is the most inane thing in the world.” He won’t even have a question as to whether the idea is stupid and impossible.

However, when this man starts learning the books of measurements, and the branch of wisdom regarding the construction of spherical objects and the mathematical relationships between different shapes; and then goes onto the next step, which is the book on the construction of the heavens ie, ‘The Almagest’ [2]; then the truth of this claim will become clear to him, and he will have evidence for it. There will be no difference to him between the claim that the sun exists, and that it has this precise measurement. His mind will believe in the thing that was at one point the furthest thing imaginable, with total faith. This scenario is very possible to happen, even with an intelligent man of character who knows all the different branches of knowledge that he does, and even with a question about plain science, not Godliness. So most certainly this will be the case if we ask a totally uneducated man -who hasn’t trained in the ways of knowledge, who has gone from his mother’s wisdom straight to his wife’s- a question on the topic of Godliness. There’s no question that they will be as far-off in his eyes as the heavens are from the earth, and his mind will fall short of understanding a single thing. [See there, where he goes on at length.]

Now since this is all speaking about human wisdom [3], we can be doubly certain when we are speaking about this lofty Wisdom. How is it possible for someone who is ignorant of this topic, to immediately understand deep things like this? Therefore, don’t wonder if you see things in the books of the Mekubalim that look strange to you. And don’t become suspicious of this knowledge and these scholars who’s wisdom and understanding have been verified, and to who’s ankles you do not reach. Because the hearts of the early sages were as wide as the entrance to a great hall, while the hearts of the later ones are as wide the eye of a small needle [4]. Be careful with their coal, lest you be burned. If you want to understand the books of the Mekubalim, learn the basics and foundations of this Wisdom, in steps and in the logical order. Then you will come to understand the ideology, and the words will not be strange to you.


[1] These numbers are off by modern calculations, but were accepted science at the time of the Rambam. They are based on the works of the 2nd century Roman mathematician Ptolemy.

[2] Influential astronomical treatise written by Ptolemy.

[3] As he has noted before, the author sees Rambam’s study of Godliness as being based on Western, Aristotelian, Metaphysics.

[4] Paraphrasing Tractate Eruvin 53a.

Shomer Emunim #12-13

27 Jan

Shealtiel: If the Gaonim had the Sisrei Torah through kabbalah, how is it possible that the Rambam, who an encyclopedic knowledge of everything else about Judaism, didn’t know about it? And if the Sefer Yetzirah, Sefer Bahir, Pirkei Heichalos, and Sefer Zohar were written by the Tannaim, why didn’t the Rambam know about them or even mention them in his books- at all?

Yehoyada: It shouldn’t be a cause for alarm that the Rambam didn’t know about them, because not all people know every single branch of wisdom. Even the Godly names of 12 and 42 letters, which are mentioned in Tractate Kiddushin page 71 (and where they argue about the greatness of one who knows the aforementioned 42 letter name), were hidden from the Rambam, who mastered the entire Talmud. He himself admits this in his ‘Moreh’, in Part 1, Chapter 62. This is true even though Rabbi Hai Gaon (who preceeded the Rambam) had a kabbalah about them, as the Rashba writes in letter 220 of his responsa. Still, the Rambam simply hadn’t heard about the details of these things.

It’s also possible that the Rambam had indeed seen the Sefer Yetzirah, etc., but couldn’t understand what was written there. Anyone who hasn’t received the keys and introductions to these works from a Mekubal can’t understand what they are talking about. Look at what the Ramban writes at the end of his introduction to his commentary on the Torah: “I am bringing, with a true covenant, intrinsically verifiable, a good piece of advice to anyone who looks in this book. He should not think up an explanation, or think thoughts, about any of the hints that I wrote about the Sisrei Torah. Because my words won’t reach him, or enlighten him at all, with any amount of knowledge or understanding, unless they are from a wise Mekubal, into the ears of an understanding student of Kabbalah.” And this is certainly true of the Sefer Yetzirah, Bahir, Pirkei Heichalos, and Zohar. One who hasn’t received the Kabbalah from a Mekubal definitely can’t understand them.

Furthermore, anyone who hasn’t received this wisdom through a teacher (as the Rambam testifies about himself to not receiving the explanation of the Sisrei Torah through a teacher) and reads what is written in the Zohar, will find many words that seem to ascribe physicality to spiritual ideas. Such as a “wheel”, a “gate”, a “separation”, “ears”, “faces”, and the like. The reader will definitely speak out against the Sefer and it’s author. Even if he’s sure that Rashbi (Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai) wrote it, he won’t accept what’s written in it. I’ll prove it: It’s known to us, and explained in many places in the Gemara and Midrash that there is a power in names of God and amulets to work wonders. The Gemara in Shabbos page 61 says, “One may go out with an expert’s amulet”. And it says in Tractate Yevamos 49b that Moshe killed the Egyptian by using a name of God. And that Isaiah said a name of God and was swallowed by a tree [1]. And when David dug the pits for the altar in the Temple, he wrote a name of God onto pottery and threw it into the deep water [2] (Tractate Succah 53a). There are many more like these in the words of the Sages, as the Rashba writes in letter 220.

The Rambam, however, dismissed all this, and made fun of people who believe that there is any power in using Names to do anything, as you can see in the ‘Moreh’, Part 1, end of Chapter 61-62. The testimony of the Gemara about these stories using Names wasn’t enough to convince him.

It’s also known that the Sages accepted as fact the existence of demons and witchcraft, as evidenced by the widespread talk of these things in the Talmud and Midrashim. The Rambam, though, says these things aren’t real. He says anyone who believes that these things exist, but were prohibited by the Torah is an idiot, simple minded, and in the category of women and children. See Hilchos Avodah Zarah, end of Chapter 11 [3]. Even though the Torah itself speaks of the magicians in Egypt, and what they did with their magic. And the story of the witch [4]. And many other verses that show that these things exist. Even with all this proof, the logicians dismiss them and think up far-fetched, strange interpretations for these verses, so that they do not conflict with their ideas. They don’t accept the words of the Sages who say explicitly, in many places, that demons and magic exist, because according to these people, it’s impossible for things like that to exist. They do this with many things. This is the way of logicians and rationalists. They don’t accept the words of the Sages where they conflict with what they’ve concluded to be true through their own reason.

Now, since there are many things in these works of the Tannaim that, taken literally, are foreign to human intelligence, and are ridiculous to one has not received the keys to these things, it is therefore possible that they didn’t even consider what’s written in them, even though they’re written by Tannaim. This is because it is foreign to them, being as they have not received the kabbalah mouth to mouth, (ie from a Mekubal). Knowing all this, it’s no wonder that the Rambam didn’t bring down in his books anything written in the Sefer Yetzirah, Sefer Bahir, Pirkei Heichalos, and Sefer Zohar.

If you want to believe what’s written in the later Meforshim’s works, the Rambam did merit to receive the Kabbalah from a Mekubal at the end of his life. One of the commentaries on the Ramban writes in Parsha Shelach, “And this Rabbi Yaakov went to Egypt and gave over the Kabbalah to the Rambam za”l. And because he was so happy with it, he praised it to his students. However, he didn’t merit this until the end of his days.” Also the wise Rabbi Yitzchok Abarbanel [5] writes in his book ‘Nachalas Avos’, at the end of Chapter 3, “I also heard that the great rabbi Maimonides wrote in his letter these words, ‘Near the end of my life, a man came to me and told me interesting things. If I wasn’t at the end of my days, with my works spread over the world, I would have retracted many things that I wrote in there.’ Now, there’s no doubt that the words he heard at the end of his life were words of Kabbalah.”

The Mahara”m Alasker za”l writes at the end of his book of responsa [number 117, middle of the letter] in his notes on the Rasha”t, “I see fit to write down here the words that the Rambam za”l wrote in confidential letters which he sent to his respected student. These regard deep subjects and hidden secrets from the true kabbalah, knowledge and actions, which he wrote to show this man (ie, the aforementioned Rashat) that all of his words were not intelligent. Our rabbi (the Rambam) wrote in the letter mentioned, ‘And because of the love that exists between me and you, and between your holy ancestors, I am telling you that most of my time teaching you I was confusing you by figuring out the creations and trying to know their true nature following the outcome of the philosophical methods of inquiry and their teachings. It appears that what they said was without merit unfortunately. Because they don’t have proof to what they say, it comes to them through their own rational processes. Their ways tax the mind and confuse it. But the way of the true Kabbalah is cleared of stumbling blocks, and everything that is possible to understand about it is understood quickly. The prophets followed this path, and grasped what they did of future events, and performed strange, supernatural deeds. I learned a few of these ways of understanding the nature of the created world and all of my questions were answered. The way of perplexed people was cleared up for me. The keys of of wisdom were given over to me, and all things hidden from me were explained. Now behold, I am making you swear that you will not reveal the subtle secrets, and wondrous insights, except to someone who has a refined intellect and character, and is pure in his deeds and thoughts, and walks in the path of learning and knowledge…Know my brother, that the holy names are too numerous to count, etc.’ Look and see if he went in the way of the Kabbalah or not.” This confidential letter is in my possession in manuscript form, and is word for word as the Maharam Alasker writes, along with other Kabbalistic things.

At the end of the day, whatever the case is, we don’t need the Rambam to testify to the veracity of the Kabbalah. We have many other trustworthy witnesses, as smart and great as the Rambam who had a kabbalah, supported it, and passed it down to us, generation after generation. We have the Ravad, the Rokeiach, the Ramban, the Rashba, and the Ritva who testified that the Kabbalah that we have was received by them down from Moshe who received it from God, as they wrote in their books (that I mentioned in #11). Their testimony is more than enough. God forbid we should think that these wise and holy men, pillars of knowledge, made up on their own words about Godliness that is impossible to arrive at through rational inquiry. And that they testified that these things were given over to them. Even the most wicked man in Israel wouldn’t do that. Certainly then, these wise Mekubalim who testified about these things, wouldn’t do that.

Besides all this, any honest scholar can see that the Torah, books of the Prophets, and sayings of our Sages are witnesses to the truth of the Mekubalim’s ideas. They are very much in sync with each other, unlike the ideas of the Philosophers. Because, firstly, Philosophy is taken from a nation who did not believe in the Torah of Moshe, and is entirely conjecture, as the philosophers themselves freely admit. Therefore, each generation changes it’s ideas, the later ones arguing on the earlier. One generation can think there is proof to one idea, and the next will think there is proof to the opposite idea. The Rambam in Moreh, Part 2, Chapter 22 admits to the weakness of their findings. He says, “However, anything that Aristotle speaks about, from the sphere of the moon and above is entirely based on theory and logic, except for a small part. And this is certainly true in the field of intelligence.”. The Sefer Kuzari, Teaching 4, end of Number 25, writes, “But I will tell you these ideas so that the philosophical ideas don’t confuse you into thinking that if you go after them, you are putting yourself on a sure, proven path. You can’t hold all of these ideas in your head at once. They don’t stand up to a comparison with each other. Further, no two philosophers agree totally with each other on this, unless they both follow the same teacher.” See there.

Secondly, besides for all this, it is impossible to mesh their views with the Sages’. Because of this, followers of philosophy have been forced to make a mockery of the Scripture with their strange interpretations of the pure Torah of God. See for example: Since it was a postulate among them that an angel is separated and impossible to materialize, they denied Abraham’s (Avraham) sighting of the angels in Elonei Mamre, and explained it as a prophetic vision. And also by the story of Jacob (Yaakov) (Gen. 32:25), “And a man wrestled with him.” It wasn’t while he was awake, it was in a prophetic vision. And the story of Balaam (Bilam). The donkey didn’t actually speak; it was a prophetic vision (see ‘Moreh’, Part 2, Chapter 42). All of these things aren’t Sisrei Torah, they are contradictions to the text [6]. It is prohibited to hear them, as the Ramban says in a lengthy piece in Parsha Vayera.

Similarly, regarding the words of the Sages, and their Aggados (stories) which are passed down from the Prophets. They falsely ascribe invented designs and intentions for them in order to make them agree with their own ideas and thoughts which are based on the wisdom of he philosophers. At times, they simply disregard the words of the Sages by saying that we don’t have to worry about them since they are only the words of an individual person. This is even though we don’t find any Tanna or Amora (Mishnaic or Gemaraic scholar) who disagrees with him! [7]

A few of the Jewish philosophers decide the Law for themselves, based on which Talmudic Sage agrees with Aristotle or disagrees with Plato. There is no agreement among them, since one decides one way, and another thinks it should be something else. Each one makes his own Torah and his own theology, and decides what he will or will not believe in (See Rashba’s Responsa, letter 9, on this). Will you then say that these are the secrets of the Torah that were given by God? God forbid someone would believe something like that.


[1] To hide from King Menasheh.

[2] Which was coming up through the hole that he dug.

[3] Rambam’s theory of the nature of women seems to be based on Aristotle, although there are many Talmudic sayings that can be seen to support his position as well.

[4] 1 Samuel, Chapter 28 tells a detailed story of King Saul visit to a witch.

[5] Portugal, 1437- Italy, 1508.

[6] ‘Sosrei Hakasuv’ in Hebrew.

[7] Many take the position that, when learning the Talmud, if there is a disagreement between two Sages concerning matters of theology, it is permissible to choose whichever one makes the most sense to you. However, if there is no dispute, the matter is seen to be universally agreed upon. (Note that this principle does not apply as simply to the Halacha, the practical religious laws.)

The Rambam, however, disagrees, and says (Moreh Nevuchim, section 3) that theological Talmudic sayings are not binding, even if there is no dispute. He is amongst a small minority of Rishonim who hold like this. Rabbi Ergas obviously disagrees with him.

Shomer Emunim, #10-11

20 Jan

10. Shealtiel: Well, perhaps the Sisrei Torah, Maaseh Bereishis, and Maaseh Merkavah aren’t what either side claims them to be. Not like the Rambam, who holds that the ideas of our prophets and Sages are the ideas of Aristotle, and not like the Mekubalim either. Rather, they were forgotten and lost during the length of our exile.

11. Yehoyada: This is an empty claim as well. The Sefer Yetzirah, Sefer Bahir, Pirkei Heichalos, and Sefer Zohar, which are all books written by Tannaim on the Sisrei Torah, are found in our hands through a tradition of transmission, according to the Mekubalim. And even the camp of Jewish philosophers agree that are the work of the Tannaim.

For example, the Kuzari, in Teaching 4, Paragraph 55, quotes a few passages from Sefer Yetzirah, which he ascribes to our forefather Abraham (Avrohom), peace be on him. And in Teaching 3, Paragraph 65, he mentions Rabbi Yishmael son of Elisha, the high priest, and says, “He wrote Sefer Heichalos, and knew Hakaras Panim (Physiognomy, or ‘face-reading’) and Maaseh Merkavah because he knew their secrets so well until he was on a level close to prophecy”.

Rabbi Chasdai Crescas also mentions the Sefer Yetzirah in his book “Ohr Hashem”, and ascribes it to our forefather Avrohom, peace be on him. And Rabbi Avrohom Ibn Ezra [1] mentions Sefer Heichalos in his commentary on Parsha “Ki Sisa”, and various other places. Rabbi Moshe Narboni [2], quoted by Rabbi Shem Tov in his commentary on Part 1, Chapter 62 of the ‘Moreh’, mentions the “Sefer Bahir of our Sages”. The author of Sefer “Derech Emunah” in Teaching 20, Gate 3 [3], after giving a lengthy argument to prove that Chaza”l were proficient in all branches of wisdom, writes, “And in the true Godly wisdom, they compiled great works and books, for example Sefer Heichalos, the books of Shiur Komah, and the Sefer Bahir, which contain Godly wisdom that can’t be measured against gold, and can’t be understood by any intellect alone, no matter what method is used.” Also Rabbi Yosef Albo [4], in his “Sefer Haikarim” mentions the Sefer Zohar in Teaching 2, end of Chapter 9, and warns, “Not to read it or any other of the books of the Mekubalim, unless it is from the mouth of a sage who is a Mekubal. Because this wisdom is called ‘kabbalah’ (reception), and is learned in the manner it’s name indicates.

Furthermore, we find that in the times of the Gaonim [5], the Sisrei Torah were not forgotten or lost. For the Ramban writes on Parsha “Bereishis” on the verse, “This is the book of the generations of Adam…” (Genesis 5:1), “Rabbi Sherira Gaon [6] writes that the Sages gave over, one man to his friend, the secrets of Hakaras Panim, and Sidrei Sirtutin (Palm reading), some of which are said in this verse, and some in the next one, ie ‘Male and female He created them…’. One cannot give over Sisrei Torah and mysteries, except to one who shows signs of being worthy for them.” We see that in the days of Rabbi Sherira Gaon, Sisrei Torah and mysteries were known. Also Rabbi Hai Gaon [7] wrote letters of Sisrei Torah to Rav Palti Gaon, and Rav Chamai Gaon authored the “Sefer Haiyun” and “Sefer Hayichud”; all of which are borrowed from in Rabbi Shem Tov’s “Sefer HaEmunos”. You can also find passages in many Gaonim’s writings that regard the secrets of Kabbalah.

In addition, after the times of the Gaonim, many books were found that written by famous Rabbis who testified that they knew the Sisrei Torah through kabbalah (the chain of transmission) [8]. For example, the Ravad, in the introduction to his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, writes, “But all of these words, and their secrets, I’ve already hinted to you, one on one. So I decided to help and enlighten you by giving you a little snippet of what I’ve received from the hidden words of this holy book.” Also, the Ramban in his books, testified on himself to receiving the Sisrei Torah from his teachers. See also his introduction to his commentary on the Torah.

The Rashba also knew Sisrei Torah through kabbalah, as he writes in his responsa, letter #423, when speaking about the explanation of the verse, ‘Because in 7 days, God made…’ (Exodus 20:10), “According the tiny imprint my ears received from the masters of wisdom, this verse contains a very deep secret, with no comparison to what you might think about it. These ‘days’ are written about in a few places, scattered throughout the Torah and by some of the Mitzvos, the 7th day being one of them. The secret is hinted to by ‘Remember the Sabbath day…’ (Ibid 20:7). And the words of the Torah are like a hammer that shatters stone, and is divided into many different topics, revealed and hidden, said outright and hinted to. Praised is the one whom God has granted the merit of standing amidst their sanctified secrets, which incorporate the mountain of God and the Temple… And about what you said regarding the instituting in the prayers to say, ‘The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’, and not, ‘The God of heaven, and the God of earth’. And about why they put the words, ‘The great, the strong, and the awesome’, near each other. In truth, there is a great fundamental principle in this regarding the topic of prayer, and the meditations to keep in mind (Kavanos), known to those whom God graced with the ability to understand the true intention of it… And the secret of ‘The great, the strong , and the awesome’, is in itself very awesome. How many people know it? And whoever does know it, will he speak of it? Will he then write it down?” [9] Also see letter 94.

Also in the Kabbalistic books of Rabbi Elazar of Garmiza, and Rabbi Yehuda the pious, and the Rokeiach, and in the book ‘Bris Menuchah’, and in Sefer ‘Hakaneh’, and Sefer ‘Hapliah’, and Sefer ‘Temunah’, and in many other works from many wise and holy men, too exhausting to list. All of them agree and testify that they received the Sisrei Torah from their teachers. It’s clear from all this that the words of the prophets and the Sisrei Torah still remain in our hands.


[1] Spain, 1089-1164.

[2] Narbonne, France, 1300-1362.

[3] Gates, Teachings, etc. are just different titles for organizational structures in each book.

[4] Spain, 1380-1444.

[5] End of 6th century till 1038.

[6] Babylonia, 906-1006.

[7] Babylonia, 939-1038.

[8] The word “kabbalah” literally means reception, or chain of transmission and reception. To avoid confusion, when the text refers to Kabbalah, the body of knowledge, I will write the word capitalized, and when it refers to the process of transmission, I will leave it in lower case.

[9] These questions are rhetorical. The Rashba is saying that these are meant to be kept secrets.

Shomer Emunim, #8-9

19 Jan

8. Shealtiel: You’ve spoken well, and proven logically that there are secrets and hidden parts to the Torah. And that they were known to the Talmudic Sages (Chaza”l), who called them ‘Maaseh Bereishis’, and ‘Maaseh Merkavah’. But we aren’t forced to believe, based on that, that the ideas of the Mekubalim are those same secrets and Sisrei Torah. After all, the Ramba”m [1], a tremendously wise man and an expert on the entire Talmud, explains to us in the first four chapters of his book “Yad Hachazakah” [2], what Maaseh Merkavah and Maaseh Bereishis are [3].

9. Yehoyada: If the Rambam would have said that his explanation on these matters was received from his teachers, then we would have a question as to which holy person to follow: Should we follow the Rambam or the Mekubalim who are in sync with the interpretation of Rashi, Tosfos, and the other medieval commentators listed?

But the Rambam doesn’t say this explanation was received from his teachers, rather it was own interpretation. He says this explicitly in the introduction to section 3 of Moreh Nevuchim [4]. He says that what he explains about Maaseh Merkavah, Maaseh Bereishis, and the Sisrei Torah, were not received from any teacher, nor did they come to him through prophecy. Rather, these are his own ideas, using his own logic. Therefore, he says, it’s possible that they are incorrect, and that they mean something totally different.

Since this is the case, how we can grab hold of a possible explanation, and let go of a sure one, i.e. the interpretation of the Mekubalim, who have given it over to us testifying that they received it from their teachers, and all the way back to the Tannaim (the authors of the Mishnah) [5].

In addition, the Rambam’s interpretation has been rejected. All the Commentators [6] push it away with both hands. The Ra”n [7] writes, “The Rambam wrote what he wanted to, but I wish he hadn’t.” The author of the Kessef Mishnah [8] brings this down in the 4th chapter of “Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah” [9]. The philosopher, Rabbi Shem Tov son of Shem Tov, writes in the first Teaching of his book “Ayin Hakoreh”, after a long list of complaints against the Rambam, “And Rabbi Moshe (the Rambam) has many weak, false claims about this. This is because from the day of our exile from the Land of Israel, there hasn’t been found amongst Israel as wise a man as Aristotle in these matters. He has brought the Rambam za”l to think only bad thoughts the entire day. He thought that there was no knowledge outside of what these men (i.e. the philosophers) taught. This brought him to say that the Merkavah of Ezekiel and Isaiah, which we were obligated to keep secret, is nothing but a small portion of the wisdom of Aristotle. If you compare word for word, chapter for chapter, what is written in the ‘Moreh’ to the wisdom of the philosophers, it seems clear that whatever Ezekiel grasped is known to the Christian, Arabic, and Greek philosophers. They know it better and clearer, in fact, than Ezekiel, peace be on him, did. This is clear…” See there, where he expounds on this.

Also, the philosopher, author of the Sefer “Derech Emunah” in Gate 20, Teaching 1; the philosopher Rabbi Chasdai Kreskas in his Sefer “Ohr Hashem”, Teaching 4, Examination 10; the philosopher, author of “Tehillah LeDavid”, in Section 3, Chapter 1; the philosopher, author of “Neveh Shalom”, in Examination 2, Teaching 4, Chapter 1, and Teaching 5, Chapter 5; all write that it is impossible that Aristotle’s Natural Science and descriptions of God are what Chaza”l were referring to when they spoke of Maaseh Bereishis and Maaseh Merkavah, as the Rambam thought. They prove this from the words of Chaza”l.

Rather, Maaseh Bereishis and Maaseh Merkavah deal with topics that are impossible to grasp through deduction. They are Kabbalistic teachings known to those who fear God and respect his name, scholars of the truth, and masters of the Torah out of which comes all of this complete wisdom (ie, knowledge of Maaseh Bereishis, etc.). The proof is that scientists cannot create new beings through natural means. But Rava created a cow, and Rabbi Zeira [10] created a man, using Sefer Yetzirah.

In truth, many, many people denounce the Rambam’s explanation of Ezekiel’s Merkavah, and the reasons he gives for the Mitzvos in his ‘Moreh’. They write that he should keep silent [11]. Because of all this, we don’t need to align our views with his on these matters.


[1] Maimonides, Rabbi Moses son of Maimon. Spain, Morocco, Egypt, 1135-1204. Rabbi, Philosopher, and Doctor. He wrote the first codification of the entire Written and Oral Torah.

[2] Rambam’s 14-book code of Jewish law. Also called ‘Mishneh Torah’.

[3] Rambam writes that they are referring to certain scientific ideas.

[4] The ‘Guide for the Perplexed’. Rambam’s popular work on philosophy and theology.

[5] The Mishnah was the first major written redaction of the Oral Torah, done by Rabbi Yehudah the Prince in 220 AD. Jewish sages of this era were called “Tannaim”. The Gemara was written as an interpretation of this relatively concise work.

[6] The word ‘Meforshim’ is used here, which literally means ‘commentators’. However, the term really only refers to commentators on the Talmud that have been widely accepted by other Jewish scholars.

[7] Rabbi Nissim son of Reuven. Spain, 1320-1380.

[8] Rabbi Yosef Karo, Spain, then Israel, 1488- 1575. Also author of the “Shulchan Aruch”.

[9] A section of the Mishneh Torah.

[10] Two sages in the Talmud.

[11] Paraphrased from Job 13:5.

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 the first comprehensive commentary 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.

[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] This is probably a printing error. He is referring to the book ‘Ein Yaakov’, by Rabbi Yaakov son of Shlomo Ibn Chabib. Spain, then Thessaloniki, 1450-1516.

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

Rashb”a, Rabbi Shlomo son of Aderet, lived in Spain from 1235-1310. It is unclear whether or not he was a Kabbalist. For example, 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. On the other hand, 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.