Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ekev 5761/2001

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 Ekev 5761/ August 10, 2001

"I Stayed on the Mountain Forty Days and Forty Nights" (Deut. 9:9)

Prof. Yosef Rivlin

Department of Talmud

The description of the time Moses spent on Mount Sinai raises several questions, the central one being the purpose of his prolonged stay there. In discussing the length of Moses' stay, Abarbanel rejects the argument that he was detained on the mountain in order to receive the tablets of the Covenant.

For they were not made by natural means, specifically requiring a long time to be made. For they were made miraculously, and miraculous deeds and Divine actions are not rooted in time and can come into being at once.

He concludes with wonderment:

If the entire world was created in six days, how can one say that the tablets required forty days and forty nights to be made?

Likewise he opposes the suggestion that Moses remained on the mountain to learn the Torah and its commandments. The Holy One, blessed be He, could have taught Moses in a few days, "for there was nothing to prevent the Lord, blessed be He, from teaching him the Torah while standing on one foot."

Abarbanel's explanation brings us to the topic of this essay: Moses was busy acquiring Divine wisdom and learning about the higher spheres:

It turns out that he did not remain on the mountain on account of the tablets, ... nor solely to learn the commandments; rather, to attain perfection in all knowledge and understanding, from the lowest to the highest.

Acquiring this type of esoteric knowledge, unlike the mitzvot, requires preparation and training over an extended period of time. This is the reason, says Abarbanel, why Moses refrained from eating and drinking for the entire forty days. Likewise, he included kabbalistic elements to explain the significance of the number forty in this context.[1]

Our subject is not Abarbanel but rather the Vilna Gaon. An integral part of the teachings expounded by the Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, 18th century) is that this higher knowledge of the secrets of the Torah must come to light before Redemption can take place; hence studying these mysteries in the proper way, by those who have been trained to delve into this area, is one stage on the way to Redemption.[2]

During the "seven weeks of consolation" following Tisha B'Av which began last week, the haftarah portions are taken from the prophecies of consolation and redemption in the book of Isaiah. As they relate to redemption, we should pay special attention to the Gaon's idea. According to the his theory of Redemption, the role of the Messiah son of Joseph, who will precede the Messiah son of David, is not limited to proclaiming that Redemption is near; rather, he is to play an active and significant part in laying the ground for Redemption.

The Messiah son of Joseph is mentioned as early as the writings of the amoraim[3]. Following the Book of Splendor (Zohar), which refers to the Messiah son of Joseph as the first Messiah,[4] the Vilna Gaon also said that "the first Messiah is the Messiah son of Joseph."[5] Like his approach in many other matters, the Vilna Gaon relied on Jewish mysticism or kabbalah, the Book of Splendor, and Tikkunei ha-Zohar, to which he added his own interpretation in an attempt to elucidate the essence of the Messiah son of Joseph. The Vilna Gaon contributed the idea that in addition to a heavenly Messiah son of Joseph, Metatron (archangel of the Minister of State), and the earthly Messiah son of Joseph, of whom there is one in every generation, there exists a Messiah son of Joseph in each and every Jew. These are the sparks of the heavenly Messiah son of Joseph embedded in those Jews who are privileged to actively help bring Redemption.[6]

One of the roles of the Messiah son of Joseph is to reveal the secrets of the Torah. In the book Kol ha-Tor this special task of the Messiah son of Joseph is tied to the name Zaphenat Paneah (solver of hidden secrets) that was given to Joseph. The name indicates that solving the secrets of the Torah - for those who merit an understanding of the occult - is a sign that Redemption is imminent and this understanding itself has the power to bring the Redemption. As the Vilna Gaon himself said in his commentary on Tikkunei ha-Zohar, "When one does not study this sphere of knowledge, it [Redemption] is delayed" (71a). Kol ha-Tor mentions other comments of the Gaon which point to this idea: "A garden locked is my own, my bride, a fountain locked, a sealed-up spring" (Song of Songs 4:12), is explained by the Vilna Gaon as follows: "The locked garden refers to the occult, and the Holy One, blessed be He, asks us to open it," i.e., one is supposed to open the locked garden as complete Redemption approaches.[7]

The Vilna Gaon left this heritage to his disciples. He himself was occupied with explaining the Zohar and Tikkunei ha-Zohar, often relying in his interpretations on kabbalistic notions and commentaries on the Zohar. He advocated a combination of all the methods of interpretation in the anagram Pardes (peshat, the plain sense; remez, the hints at other levels; derash, the homiletical interpretation; and sod, the occult), since these methods are not detached one from another; rather they constitute an integral approach. Thus the Vilna Gaon understood "a phrase well turned" (Proverbs 25:11) in the following way: "One whose words revolve around the Torah is like an orchard (heb. pardes). When he says something according to the Peshat, it is also true according to the sod; thus it is truly like a golden apple which is covered with silver." Likewise, he wrote in his commentary on Proverbs (5:18): "When you understand the occult, you see how correct and true the plain sense is."[8] Often the Vilna Gaon used this integral approach to interpret a point that proved difficult for many commentators.

An instructive example of the Vilna Gaon's technique of combining kabbalistic elements in order to disclose the secrets of the Torah and resolve exegetical difficulties can be found in this week's reading. With regard to the verse, "Give thought to Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and pay no heed to the stubbornness of this people, its wickedness, and its sinfulness" (Deut. 9:27), the Vilna Gaon says that the merit of the patriarchs atones for sins. However, there are various levels of wrongdoing: the least is sinfulness, the next more serious is wickedness, and the most severe is stubbornness. The seven upper sefirot are for the ancestors of our people, the first three being for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Abraham is on the right, and his trait is that of kindness (hesed).[9] Isaac is on the left, and his trait is that of heroism (gevurah),[10] while Jacob is a combination of these two, his trait being that of glory and mercy.[11]

With these elements he explains all the components of this verse. Only Jacob, whose trait is glory and mercy, can defend the people when it comes to their stubbornness. Abraham, who stands for kindness, can defend them when it comes to their wickedness; and Isaac, who stands for justice, defends against sinfulness. The Vilna Gaon points out the connection between these levels and the names of the patriarchs. The third Hebrew of letter of Abraham's name is resh, alluding to the cancellation of wickedness (resha). The third letter of Isaac's name is het, alluding to the cancellation of sinfulness (het), and the third letter of Jacob's name is kof, alluding to the cancellation of stubbornness (koshi). The Vilna Gaon also ties in their initials, which tradition claims were written on the flags of the camps.[12]

This interesting interpretation was ascribed in the literature of past generations to the Vilna Gaon[13], although recently scholars have begun to cast doubt on this attribution.[14] Let us review the developments concerning this interpretation. At first, scholars had difficulty finding the source indicating that the initials of the fathers appeared on the tribal flags. This gave legitimacy to their claim that the remark was an "incomprehensible matter" that was totally unfounded and which led them to doubt its attribution to the Vilna Gaon. In truth, however, this idea goes back to Sefer ha-Shelah ha-Ka(Rabbi Isaiah ben Abraham ha-Levi Horowitz, 16th century), who in turn relied on an earlier Rabbi who preceded him:

Further, I quote the words of Ha-Ziyoni, which clarify all that I have said. According to a tradition that was handed down from one to another, going back to Moses, the flag of the tribe of Reuben bore a human figure and the three letters of the ancestors of the world: bet from Abraham, tsadeh from Isaac, and ayin from Jacob; and on the flag of Judah was the form of a lion and the letters aleph yod yod [Abraham Isaac Jacob], of the three patriarchs, ... the flag of Ephraim had the figure of an ox and three letters of the patriarchs resh het kof, ... the flag of Dan had the figure of an eagle and the three letters of the partriarchs mem kof bet...


Ha-Shelah himself went further in this matter, elaborating on the three traits of kindness, heroism and glory. Now for those who would deny the attribution it only remains to reverse the arguments: we are not dealing with an "incomprehensible matter," but rather with one of the marvels of interpretation, that both commentators referred to the same idea, notwithstanding their great separation in time.

Let us take a closer look at the "identity" of these commentaries. We have already seen that the Vilna Gaon's explanation of the verse incorporates details that were not mentioned by his predecessors, both in specifying the three letters resh-het-kof (evilness, sinfulness, and stubbornness) and in joining these notions with the patriarchs and their traits. Now, even if we were to hypothesize (which still needs to be proven) that the Vilna Gaon knew of the writings of Ha-Ziyoni and Ha-Shelah, is not the Vilna Gaon's original way of developing the ideas fully justified? As is typical for him, the Vilna Gaon relied on kabbalistic ideas[16] from knowledge of the divine, expanding on them and explaining them. The Vilna Gaon's remarks do not conclude with this elaboration, rather continue further, explaining:

Therefore the following letters were on the flags: aleph-yod-yod, bet-tsadeh-ayin, resh-het-kof, mem-kof-bet,[17] because the first letters are the three [Holy] names in the Shema,[18] for the recitation of the Shema. And the second letters are for the prayers, which are recited evening (erev), morning (boker) and noon (tsohorayim),[19] the third letters are as mentioned above, and the fourth are for the three sanctifications - kadosh, barukh, yimlokh - in the kedushah,[20] all these being comprised by the patriarchs through whom atonement is brought....

Thus we see that the Vilna Gaon relied on the work of earlier kabbalists, but added a new dimension. As we said, this role of disclosing the secrets of the Torah is a step towards Redemption. Through his numerous interpretations, the Vilna Gaon put his theory into practice.

[1] For greater detail see Abarbanel al ha-Torah, Jerusalem 1984 (on Deut. 10:10), pp. 101-102.

[2] For greater detail see: J. Rivlin, Sefer Kol ha-Tor, Benei Berak 1994. This is not the place to get into the argument concerning this book's attribution to R. Hillel of Shklov, a disciple of the Vilna Gaon. This edition contains references to interpretations by the Vilna Gaon whose attribution is not in doubt.

[3] On the verse, "Then the Lord showed me four smiths" (Zech. 2:3), the gemara lists among these four the Messiah son of Joseph and the Messiah son of David (Sukkah 52b). In later midrashim and variant texts he is called "the anointed for war," destined to fight in the war of Gog and Magog (Song of Songs Rabbah 2.28). Sometimes he is called the Messiah son of Ephraim: "And the Messiah son of Ephraim, who descended from him [from Joshua], by whose hand the House of Israel is destined to defeat Gog and his followers at the end of days" (Targum Jonathan on Ex. 40:11). And in Midrash Shoher Tov (ch. 60): "Gilead is Mine; but in days to come I shall deliver you by the hands of the Messiah son of Ephraim and the Messiah son of David of the tribe of Judah." In Pesikta Rabbati (ch. 8, ve-haya ba-eit ha-hi) it says about the verse, "with two olives upon it": "These are the two Messiahs, one anointed for war and the other anointed to be king over Israel."

[4] "The distant Redeemer is the Messiah son of Joseph, who will come first," Zohar Hadash, Ruth, 107b; " ‘When no shrub of the field [was yet on earth]' - this refers to the first Messiah, and ‘no grasses of the field had yet sprouted' - this refers to the second Messiah," Zohar 1.25b.

[5] Beur ha-Gra Likutim me-Zohar Hadash, 27a.

[6] Kol ha-Tor, loc. sit., pp. 35-36.

[7] Ibid., pp. 47, 69.

[8] Sefer Se'arat Eliyahu says: "It is written, 'I will plant cedars in the wilderness, acacias and myrtles and oleasters,' because the educated are divided into four groups studying the Torah in an orchard (pardes). Those who study the peshat, the plain sense, are like cedars, which resist rot. A similar allusion is made to the acacia, which is very fine and of which the Tabernacle was built. Those who study derash, homiletical interpretations, are like myrtles, which are fragrant; and kabbalah, which is the occult, is like oleasters, which have an oiliness to them."

[9] Zekhor le-Avraham, אנימי אעורד אד, Zohar, 2.190b; Hesed, אנימי אעורד, Ibid., 1.27b/

[10] Gevurah de-Yizhak, Ibid., 3.31a; הרובג והיא אלאמשד ארטסמ, Ibid., 179a.

[11] Yaakov אתיעצמאד אדומע >והיא, Ibid., 2.169b; Yaakov de Tiferet, Ibid., 1.157b.

[12] See below.

[13] Collected sources from the end of Sefer Devar Eliyahu, Kol Eliyahu; S. Rivlin, Or Shmuel, Ramat Gan 1984, p. 275; D. Eliakh, Peninim mi-Shulhan ha-Gra, Jerusalem 1997, p. 209.

[14] There are two diametrically opposed views regarding attribution of the Vilna Gaon's commentaries. One ascribes every brilliant refinement to him, and the other denies him any interpretation that has the slightest spark of anything attributable to someone else. The one is based on the fact that there are hardly any extant manuscripts of the Vilna Gaon's commentaries written by his own hand; most of his work was written down by his disciples and published after his death. The other approach seeks to shatter the myth surrounding the Vilna Gaon and sweepingly denies any saying or commentary attributed to him, calling these "false attributions," "an incomprehensible matter," or "second hand." I hope to publish a comprehensive study of this question elsewhere.

[15] Sefer Shnei Luhot ha-Brit, Parshat Be-Midbar, citing Sefer Zioni le-R. Menahem b. R. Meir Zioni (a 15th century kabbalist from Ashkenaz), צ"ודהמ, Jerusalem 1964, 58c.

[16] Cf. J. Rivlin, Sefer Yonah im Beur ha-Gra, Benei Berak 1995.

[17] The initials of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob; regarding the letter heh in Abraham's name, see Behar Hibah in Sefer ha-Shelah , loc. sit.

[18] In the Shema, the names of G-d begin with the letters aleph-yod-yod.

[19] Abraham instituted the morning service, therefore the second letter of his name is bet (for boker= morning); Isaac instituted the afternoon prayers, therefore the second letter of his name is tsadeh (tsohorayim=noon); Jacob instituted the evening service, therefore the second letter of his name is ayin (erev=evening), all the initials together forming bet-tsadeh-ayin.

[20] Kadosh kadosh kadosh, etc. ("Holy, holy holy! The Lord of Hosts! His presence fills all the earth!") for kedushah, holiness; barukh kevod ado-nai mi-mekomo ("Blessed is the Presence of the Lord, in His place")for brakha, blessing; and yimlokh ado-nai le-olam elokayikh Zion le-dor va-dor haleluyah ("The Lord shall reign forever, your G-d, O Zion, for all generations. Hallelujah") for melukha, kingship; the first letters being mem kof bet.