Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Terumah (Zohar)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog at February 2006.

The Secret of Shabbat

The passage we shall bring this week may be well-known to those readers familiar with Hasidic custom, being that part of the order of prayers marking the transition from Kabbalat Shabbat to Ma’ariv. It is well-known that the Hasidic prayer liturgy created a sensation in its day by departing from the traditional Ashkenazic custom and adopting Nusah Sefarad, the order of prayer of Spanish and Oriental Jewry. But the Hasidic rite for Shabbat also contains two additional prayers, found neither in Nusah Ashkenaz nor in Nusah Sefarad: namely, reciting Psalm 107 (Hodu) before Minhah on Friday afternoon, and inserting the Zoharic passage known as Kegavna between Kabbalat Shabbat and Ma’ariv. The former custom was evidently introduced by the Ba’al Shem Tov himself, who also wrote a Kabbalistic commentary on this psalm, known as Sefer Katan. Indeed, this is one of the handful of writings extant from the Ba’al Shem Tov; almost everything we know of his teachings is taken from his words as quoted by his disciples in their books.

The origin of the practice of reciting Kegavna after Lekha Dodi and the two psalms for Shabbat is slightly more ambiguous, but to the best of contemporary scholarship it originated in the circle sometimes referred to as “pre-Hasidic Hasidim,” the Kabbalists who gathered, early in the 18th century, in the kloiz in the Galician city of Brody or Broide. Moshe Halamish notes that clear references to this passage in connection with Kabbalat Shabbat appear in Yesod ve-Shoresh ha-Avodah, Hemdat Yamim and R. Immanuel Hai-Riki’s Mishnat Hasidim. In any event, by the second or third generation of Hasidism the custom seems to have spread to all Hasidic circles and the passage is printed in all Hasidic prayer books.

The connection of this passage to this week’s parasha is indirect and highly associative. The Torah reading begins with a list of the various types of stuff—precious metals, fabrics, jewels, spices, and more—the people were commanded to bring as gifts for the construction of the Tabernacle in the desert. The Zohar goes on to associated the first six of these with the six central sefirot or “upper sides” (sitrin ‘ilain), which are in turn associated with the six festival days during the course of the year (Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Pesah, Shavuot, and, rather bizarrely, Tu b’Av), while another nine items correspond to the nine days of Repentance, which are all “united” in Yom Kippur. All these are united “up above,” perhaps on the Shabbat itself (does time exist at all in the heavenly realms? The Zohar seems to think so), in a manner corresponding to the “lower unification” that is embodied in the Shabbat. In what follows, Shabbat is depicted as the great unifying principle. Zohar II: 135a-b:

Just as [or: When] they are united above, so does She unite below in the mystery of One, to be with them above, One corresponding to One. The blessed Holy One, one above, does not sit upon His Throne of Glory until She becomes, by mystery of One, like Him, to be one with one.

Mystery of Sabbath: She is Sabbath—united in the mystery of one, so that mystery of One may settle upon Her. Prayer for the entrance of Sabbath: then the Holy Throne is united in mystery of One, arrayed for the supernal Holy King to rest upon Her. When Sabbath enters She unites, and separates [herself] from the Other Side, all judgments removed from Her. And She remains unified in holy radiance, adorned with many crowns for the Holy King. All powers of wrath and masters of judgment all flee (and pass away from her) and no alien power reigns in all the worlds. Her face shines with supernal radiance, and She is adorned below by the Holy People, all of whom are adorned with new [or: joyous] souls. Then, beginning of prayer, blessing Her with joy and beaming faces, saying: “Blessאת (et) YHVH who is blessed!”

—Translation based upon that of Daniel C. Matt, in a pre-publication version of the Pritzker Zohar graciously provided me by Prof. Matt. An earlier version appears in his The Essential Kabbalah, 80.

The central image here is of unification, both above and below. The supernal unification of the various sefirot represented by the stuff taken for the Sanctuary and by the various holy days of the year is identified with the simple unity of the light of the Infinite, prior to the process of differentiation and separation involved in the process of Creation. Below, however, it corresponds to Shabbat , which in Kabbalistic thought is also equivalent to Malkhut = Shekhinah = Knesset Yisrael, all of which unify below.

Shabbat is thus the mystery of oneness. This is also seen in terms of sexual imagery, as unification of the Holy King and the Shekhinah (=Tiferet & Malkhut). Moreover, later on in this same passage, in a section that we have not brought, this is seen as being acted out by the pious who unite conjugally with their wives specifically on the Shabbat night. Thus, what is already cited in the Talmud in halakhic terms as being the most proper time for sexual congress of talmidei hakhamim, here assumes a supernal, almost cosmic significance. (The Zohar also adds that the ideal time for this union is midnight, which we already know is in itself a time symbolic of union or merging of opposites).

The Shabbat as time of unity is also marked by cessation of all the inner conflicts and tensions within the universe. “All powers of wrath and masters of judgment flee… and no alien power reigns in all the worlds.” The world, which is ordinarily a field of conflict between the powers of love and graciousness and those of wrath, is for one day ruled completely by harmony and love—a kind of foretaste of the Messianic future. This idea also finds liturgical expression in the universal custom of omitting the verse והוא רחום, Psalm 78:38, ordinarily recited just before Barkhu on weekday evenings, which mentions sin and transgression. The mere mention of sin, even in the context of its forgiveness by a merciful and compassionate God, is banned on Shabbat!

A word about these “powers of wrath.” The Kabbalah is not dualistic. Some scholars (among others the late Yosef Ben-Shlomo, from whom I first heard this idea) indeed assert that one of the important factors that went into the creation of Kabbalistic thought was its unique fusion or synthesis of Neo-Platonic and Gnostic conceptions. It took the sharp dichotomies and splits existing in the world between the almost evenly balanced powers of good and evil, which in Gnostic and Manichean thought are attributed to warring cosmic forces (the good, transcendent God, and the Demiurge who created the material world), and naturalized them within a unified world-view. In the Zoharic scheme love and compassion, on the one hand, and “masters of wrath” and “powers of judgment,” on the other, both stem from the same one god. This is, I think, the answer to those who criticize Kabbalah for its alleged multiplicity of divinities.

At the end of this passage, there is a reference to the call to prayer known as Barkhu (ברכו את ה' המבורך). When read in Hasidic synagogues, this leads directly to the congregational response (ברוך ה' המבורך לעולם ועד) and the beginning of Ma’ariv. The Zohar goes on here to interpret this call and response as symbolizing various Divine names, again, representing the “marriage” of Tiferet and Shekhinah.

I will conclude with a comment I once heard from Rav Soloveitchik—possibly in the eulogy he delivered for his in-law, the Talner Rebbe. He said that the difference between the Mitnaggedic and Hasidic approach is epitomized in the texts read at this point in the Shabbat service. Mitnaggedim read Bameh Madlikin, a chapter from Mishnah listing various kinds of wicks and oils permitted and proscribed for use in the Shabbat lamps, and related rules. It is technical, formal, rooted in the rule of law and symbolizing, if you will, holiness acquired through halakhic discipline. Hasidim, by contrast, read Kegavna—a poetic invocation of Shabbat as a time of unity, of harmony, of banishment of all negative forces, a world-view which for a moment transcends and nullifies all differences—all united in an intense longing for kedushah, for holiness.

Parable of the “Master of Wheat”

A second, very brief passage from this week’s Zohar passage serves as a parable for the nature of esoteric teaching. This passage serves as a bridge or introduction to Sifra de-Tzeniuta (”the Book of Concealment”), one of the most esoteric and difficult sections of the Zohar, which appears at the very end of this week’s portion. According to ancient tradition it was written by none other than the Patriarch Abraham; the Gaon of Vilna was fascinated with this short work, and wrote a commentary on it. Like other passages, it begins with a mystical interpretation of a seemingly mundane verse, describing the hooks and loops used in supporting the Tabernacle. Zohar II: 176a-b:

Rabbi Yitzhak said: “The hooks of the columns and their bands of silver…” (Exod 27:10)…. What are the vavim? Six within six, united and watered by the spine standing above them. And in the Book of Concealment it is taught: “Vavim above, vavim below, all evenly balanced.” What is the concealment of the book? Rabbi Shimon said: There are five chapters contained in a great palace and filling the whole earth. Rabbi Yehudah said: If they are composed so, they are the most valuable of all! Rabbi Shimon said: So it is for one who enters and emerges; but for one who does not enter and emerge, it is not so.

This last sentence is reminiscent of the story of the “four who entered Pardes,” the world of mystical or esoteric wisdom (in the 2nd chapter of Hagiggah, in both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds). The teachings of Sifra de-Tzeniuta are very valuable, but they are also difficult and obscure, and possibly dangerous, so that one who “enters” into them but does not “emerge”—i.e., who fails to understand them and never “finds his way out”—does not benefit from them. The Zohar then continues with the parable:

This may be compared to a man who dwelled among the cliffs and knew nothing of those dwelling in the town. He sowed wheat, and ate the wheat in its natural condition. One day he went into town and was offered fine bread. The man asked: What’s this for? They replied: It’s bread, to eat! He asked: And what’s it made of? They replied: Of wheat. Afterwards they brought him cakes kneaded with oil. He tasted them, and asked: And what are these made of? They replied: Of wheat. Later they brought him royal pastry kneaded with honey and oil. He asked: And what are these made of? They replied: Of wheat. He said: Surely I am master of all these, since I eat the essence of all of these! And because of that view, he knew nothing of the delights of the world, which were lost to him.

So it is with one who grasps the principle but is unaware of all those delectable delights deriving, diverging from that principle.

Translation from Daniel C. Matt’s pre-publication version for the Pritzker Zohar, courtesy of the translator. An earlier version exists in his The Essential Kabbalah, 134.

This parable may refer specifically to the mystical endeavor, or more generally to the study of Torah. A person may study Torah on the literal level, but if he has failed to take note of its multiple levels of meanings (traditionally, the four levels signified by the four letters of the word Pardes), he has missing entire worlds of manifold intellectual and spiritual delights. And surely he is also missing something more essential. Just as the man from the hills, satisfied with the bland diet of raw wheat berries without even knowing the variety of possibilities available, is barely civilized, let alone cultured, so too the knowledge of one whose comprehension of Torah is limited to peshat is deficient; so long as he is unaware of the multiple levels of meaning, his knowledge is shallow, incomplete, lacking in something essential.

Thus, this selfsame parable could be applied, not only to the secret, esoteric levels of Torah, but also to the contrast between Oral Torah and Written Torah. The literalist, who denies the validity of the hermeneutic interpretations of Torah which is the core of the Rabbinic tradition, is like the man from the hills who has never tasted pastry, or even bread, and thinks that wheat is “the essence” because it is the irreducible source. Even if he is in some sense correct, the “essence” without its numerous branches is a very poor basis for life.

Daniel Matt comments:

“Surely I am master.” The cliff dweller feels no need to taste the ultimate confection since he has eaten the essential ingredient. But by fixating on the raw wheat, he misses out on the spectrum of delight. Similarly with one who knows only the general principles of wisdom (such as those contained in the Book of Concealment) and has not explored how these develop by contemplation and interpretation. The author is apparently alluding to interpretations of the Book of Concealment, such as those appearing in Idra Rabba. One who does not venture beyond the obscure principles of the Book of Concealment never discovers all the delicious meanings and insights that can unfold. More broadly, the wheat may symbolize Torah. (As mentioned earlier, the five chapters of the Book of Concealment might correspond to the five books of the Torah.) The four forms of wheat (kernels, bread, cake, and royal pastry) could then represent four levels of meaning: simple, midrashic, allegorical, and mystical. The man from the mountains claims to have mastered wheat, thinking that because he understands the simplest meaning of Torah he has attained the essence and does not have to delve any deeper. But such learning is superficial, because essence is inadequate unless it flowers into all it can be. Rather than reducing the unknown to the familiar, one should savor the variety of possible meanings.

I will conclude with what is perhaps obvious. To the authors of the Zohar, involvement in the secrets of Torah was the quintessential religious act. It is commonplace to say that the difference between the Mitnaggedim and Hasidim was that the former emphasized the learning of Torah (meaning, essentially: Talmud, poskim, dialectics, etc.) and the latter prayer, as both the focus and the pinnacle of avodah, of religious service. For the Zohar, it was neither; rather, the center of their religious lives, their great innovation, that for which they yearned with all their being, was to engage in the secrets of Torah, the concealed or inner Torah. Thus, most of the scenes in the Zohar show the companions walking here and there and sharing their new insights on Torah, or else studying, often at midnight, the secrets of Torah.


Post a Comment

<< Home