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Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Emor 5759/1999

Lag Ba-Omer and the Study of the Mystical

Motti Ephrati

Ministry for Religious Affairs

Studying the literature of the Kabbalah and turning to the teachings of mysticism and the Zohar puts off many excellent people. This distrust is quite understandable, in light of the generation and particularly the academic society in which we live, where rationalism and a scientific approach predicated upon the five senses prevail; hence anyone who delves into another dimension is viewed askance.

In addition to this point there are other arguments to justify the negation of the Kabbalah. Below I shall present the major ones, along with the counter-arguments that justify the study of Kabbalah in our time.

The first argument asks, "Why Kabbalah?" Is there any halakhic obligation to study the mystical?

Rabbi Moses Cordovero (Remak), in Or Ne'erav (p. 17ff.) bases this halakhic obligation on Maimonides' understanding of the mitzvah implicit in the First Commandment, "I, the Lord, am your G-d." These are Cordovero's words:

One of the things commanded by the Torah is that a person apprehend his Maker to the best of his intellectual ability, as it is said, "I, the Lord, am your G-d..." (Ex. 20:2). Maimonides explains this commandment at the beginning of his book [Mishne Torah, Book of Knowledge, I, 1] as follows: "The foundation of foundations and firmest pillar of wisdom is to know that there is a First Being, that He caused all beings to be." Maimonides undoubtedly meant that this commandment includes apprehending the order of the beings that stem from Him... And so he included this in his concise language: "to know that there exists a first cause and that He brings into being all else that exists." Thus he meant to include in this commandment the need to know also how He causes all things to be.

Remak maintains that the commandment means actual knowledge and apprehension of the Deity to the extent that one's subjective intellectual ability allows, for otherwise how are we to interpret Maimonides' words "to know" and the positive obligation that follows from the commandment, "I, the Lord, am your G-d"? It turns out, however, that one need not go so far. In the opinion of R. Hayyim Vital, in his introduction to his work, Etz Hayyim, the obligation to study Kabbalah stems from the commandment to study Torah:

In the plain sense of the Torah [peshat], its narratives, laws and commandments as plainly written, there is no recognition of any obligation to apprehend their Creator, may He be blessed. Moreover, there are commandments and injunctions that the intellect cannot countenance ... and nearly most of the Torah's commandments, especially their detailed laws, the rational mind does not tolerate; so, wherein lies the glory of the Torah, its beauty and greatness?

Elsewhere (Sha'ar ha-Gilgulim, preface 11), R. Hayyim Vital says quite clearly and explicitly: "'Studying Torah counterbalances them all,' and it has four interpretations, their anagram being PaRDeS: peshat, the plain sense; remez, allusion; derash, homiletical interpretation; and sod, the mystical; all of them must be studied,... and if one of these four is lacking to the best of a person's ability, his soul will transmigrate on account of this."

These words are perhaps based on the particular way the Zohar views the Torah in its entirety. The Zohar (Be-Ha'alotkha 152) perceives the Torah on several levels, just as one could see and relate to a person only superficially, on the level of his clothes, or one could look deeper at the person's body, or even deeper at his character, into his soul. With the Torah, the superficial vision, of the clothes alone, is the narrative aspect. Looking deeper, at the body, reveals the commandments and precepts. Looking deeper still, one reaches the soul-the mystical. Thus studying the mystical is an integral part of studying Torah, hence the basis for this obligation and its importance.

The second argument is: Danger, Kabbalah!

The Sages were notedly dubious about studying Kabbalah, saying among other things, " 'Do not delve into that which is too wondrous for you' (Ben Sira)-- You have no business dealing with hidden secrets" (Hagigah 13a).

Rabbi Isaac De Latash responds to this argument in his preface to the Zohar (pp. 1-4):

To resolve this difficulty, let me inform you that there is no contradiction in what has been said. For the kabbalistic study of the Torah is the quest for true knowledge of the Creator, known through his deeds, and the knowledge of how He created the world through His glory-and this is the study of the ten spheres [sefirot], except that we have no business looking into the highest sphere, the supreme crown (keter) and that which is above it, which is the highest of high, called the En Sof ... but investigating the other spheres, ... that which has been revealed to us of Him, ... is for us and our offspring, ... for here contemplation and education were permitted.

In other words, "that which is too wondrous for you"-the essence of the Creator-is not for us to investigate, but His actions-His impact on the world through the angels and the sefirot-are permissible, indeed are our duty to study and try to understand.

The third argument is: Kabbalah, only after all else! It has been ruled on the basis of the words of the Sages (Hayyei Adam, 10.12; Rema, Yore De'ah 246.4), that a person should not study Kabbalah until he has filled himself with the study of gemara and the posekim, as Rema said: "Until he has filled himself with meat and wine ... prohibitions and waivers, and the laws on the commandments." In addition, Kabbalists wrote that one should not study Kabbalah until one has reached the age of forty, for it says, "By age forty one acquires wisdom" (Ethics of the Fathers 5, 21).

These contentions, as well, can reasonably be rebutted. To begin with, R. Hayyim Vital (in his preface to Etz Hayyim) cited the Ari, R. Isaac Luria, to the effect that one should not learn from or rely on kabbalistic works written after the time of Nahmanides (except for: Etz Hayyim, Mavo She'arim, and Shemona She'arim), which apparently include the source prohibiting the study of Kabbalah before age forty. Furthermore, the Ari, the greatest of all Kabbalists, did not impose such a restriction nor did he set any time limit or quota on studying Kabbalah. With regard to the argument about "filling oneself with the study of gemara" before entering the world of Kabbalah, we cite the response of Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac of Ziditchov, (mentioned in the essay, "Kol Omer Kera" by R. Isaiah Zelig Margalit):

Did not the Sages say (Kiddushin 30a), "A person should always divide his years in three, one third to Bible, one third to Mishnah, and one third to Talmud?" The gemara raises the question, "But does a person know how many years he will live?" ... Therefore, it appears that this should be interpreted as applying to one's days, dividing one's time each day in three. This is what we do when we study Kabbalah: each day we fill ourselves with Mishnah and posekim, and then we devote ourselves to Kabbalah. For if one has to wait until one is filled with Mishnah and posekim, who knows if one will live that long? Thus it can mean nothing other than each day, individually, as interpreted by Tosafot (Gittin 9).

In other words, each day one is to fill oneself with Mishnah and posekim, in a relative, not absolute, way. This seems quite reasonable, in my humble opinion, since the definition of "filling oneself" is not quantifiable; and even if so, that is only for the very privileged few. It is inconceivable that such a considerable portion of the Torah--the mystical side-- of which it is said, "Let all who wish come and partake" (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai 19,2), should be reserved only for the few and not for the entire people.

The fourth argument is: Kabbalah is only for the genius! The Kabbalah deals with things that are beyond the intellectual capabilities of the average person, and any attempt to study it can only lead to error and heresy.

The first part of this argument stems from ignorance, for anyone who has hasome exposure to Kabbalah knows that one need not be a genius in order to have the intellectual level required to understand it. Quite the contrary, studying gemara, and especially understanding its logic, is far more difficult and demands greater analytical ability and power of concentration.

As for the danger of mistaken perceptions, Hida (Hayyim Joseph David Azulai) wrote (Etzba Moreh 44): "Studying the Zohar is the most elevated of studies, even when one does not comprehend what it says and even if one reads it wrong." This is apparently based on the Zohar (3.85), freely translated as follows: "A person who wishes to study Torah and has found no one to teach him, yet nevertheless studies Torah out of love for the Torah but mumbles it for lack of knowledge-each and every word of his ascends on high, and the Holy One, blessed be He rejoices in each word ... and they are called arvei nahal [lit. willows; a pun on arev, meaning pleasing" (cf. Remak [R. Moses Cordovero], Be-Or Ne'erav, p. 14, for further explanation).

The fifth argument is: Why Kabbalah in our generation? Our parents and grandparents managed without Kabbalah, so who are we in an era that is based primarily on material achievement to enter the deep spiritual dimension of the Torah?

That is precisely the reason. Many of the things said in the Zohar and in kabbalistic literature stress that precisely as the messianic era approaches one has more need of studying Kabbalah, and that only this study will "hasten the redemption of Israel." The best known are the words of the prophet Elijah to R. Simeon bar Yohai (cited in Tikkunei ha-Zohar, at the end of the sixth tikkun): "How many people will be nurtured from your work, when it becomes clear in the last generation at the End of Days; and by virtue of it 'you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land' (Lev. 25:10)." Liberty, or Redemption, will come about in the land by virtue of the Zohar.

A broad explanation of this approach is provided by the words of Tel Aviv's former Chief Rabbi, R. Hayyim David Halevi (in his preface to his work, Maftehot ha-Zohar ve-Ra'ayonotav):

Apparently ideas based on plain sense and exegesis will not suffice to nurture "the last generation" [based on Deut.29:21] and occupy their minds... Precisely this last generation, that will reach the greatest heights in its scientific education, soaring to the heavens in its wisdom, is likely to become giddy and lose its spiritual balance... In a time when the plain sense of the Torah and its commandments do not suffice, then the secrets of the Torah will come to nurture one's thoughts. If one thinks that one's ostensibly "great" intelligence cannot fathom the commandments of levirate marriage and halizah in their plain sense, then the teachings of the mystical will come and disclose before him mysterious worlds, remote and obscure realms, that no living person will ever be able to comprehend without these disclosures... and hidden inner worlds within one's own soul, vast spiritual resources that include the living and the dead, and only then one will understand.

In the light of this we can now understand the words of Rabbi Kook (Orot ha-Kodesh, I, p. 141):

Revealing the mystical in "the last generations" to purify the hearts and occupy the minds with sublime thoughts whose origins are in the secrets of the Torah, will become, in the last generation, utterly essential to the preservation of Judaism. The descent of the generation, which led to the necessity of employing this lofty means, is itself the ascent.

Now let us return to Lag Ba-Omer, a holiday which has its origins in the Kabbalah. Every year there are increasingly more bonfires and increasingly more people from all parts of the spectrum who are drawn to bonfires. Each year many people are drawn into the circle that is attracted to the light of the fire-testimony to the redemption of Israel that is occurring before our eyes.

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