Freedom of Choice – Part 2/3

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From Rabbi Akiva to the Hebrew Calendar

What we have seen so far is that the four parts of Rabbi Akiva’s statement beautifully and easily correspond to the four letters of Havayah, God’s essential Name.

As always, we would like to uncover deeper levels of meaning in whatever we are studying. One of the most powerful tools that Kabbalah offers us in expanding our grasp of a topic is the possibility of comparing and interpolating between different models that share the same basic structure. In our case, we are going to be comparing Rabbi Akiva’s four-part model we already have to the twelve-part model of the Hebrew calendar. As we will see, this comparison is made possible by an important principle taught by the early Kabbalists. But, first a few words of background about the Hebrew calendar are necessary.

Unlike non-Jewish calendars, which are technical, the Hebrew calendar, in its ideal form, is dynamic and ever changing. The Hebrew calendar is primarily lunar. Its 12 annual months are based on the revolution of the moon around the earth. So the first day of each month is defined as the day on which the new moon appears. But, the Torah commands the high court (Sanhedrin) to define and sanctify the first day of each month only after receiving testimony from witnesses who physically saw the new moon. When the calendar was dynamically defined by testimony, every new month carried with it a sense of renewal and the entire calendar was computed only one month in advance. Such was the youthfulness present in the Jewish demarcation of time through the first few centuries of the Common Era. It is not surprising therefore, that one of the richest topics in Torah is the study of the calendar.

Eventually, the high court lost its judicious power and its dispersal forced the sages of the time (about the 6th century CE) to resort to computing the calendar for centuries in advance, with only the approximate time computed for the beginning of each month.

In the Torah, each of the 12 months has a psychological sense associated with it. In addition, the months correspond to myriad models that also include 12 elements. We have written a great deal about these senses in other contexts. For our purposes let us simply write out the months with a few of their corresponding models in chart form:1

month sense tribe letter
Nisan speech Judah


Iyar thought Yissachar


Sivan progress Zebulun


Tamuz sight Reuben


Av hearing Shimon


Elul action Gad


Tishrei touch Ephraim


Cheshvan smell Menasheh


Kislev sleep Benjamin


Tevet indignation Dan


Shevat consumption Asher


Adar humor Naftali


Freedom of Choice and the Month of Iyar

Our first step in corresponding Rabbi Akiva's mishnah with the calendar is to find a common point of reference. Focusing on the second part of the mishnah, “Yet, freedom of choice is given,” recall that we have explained how it corresponds to the first hei ofHavayah and the sefirah of understanding, or the mother principle, one of the three powers of thought in the soul. Among the 12 psychological senses that correspond to the months, the equivalent of understanding is the sense of thought associated with the month of Iyar. This will serve as our initial common point of reference from which we will interpolate Rabbi Akiva's saying onto the Hebrew calendar.

The implication of finding this point is that freedom of choice corresponds to the sefirahof understanding, which in turn corresponds to the month of Iyar. Let us delve further into this new level of correspondence.

The tribe associated with Iyar is Yissachar.2 Yissachar is noted throughout the Bible as the people possessing a special ability to understand measures of time, which is why they had a special expertise in organizing the calendar, a special role that they played on the high court. In Hebrew, the relationship between thought and the calendar is much clearer than in English because both “computation” or “mathematics” (חֶשְׁבּוֹן ) and “thought” (מַחְשָׁבָה ) stem from the same verb (חשב ). The idiom used to denote preparing a calendar is “computation of time” (חֶשְׁבּוֹן תְקוּפוֹת ). There are many types of thought. The type of thought needed to compute the calendar (which depends on observing nature with a mathematical eye) is the analytical type of thought associated with the sefirah of understanding.

One of the most explicit verses describing Yissachar’s special gift says, “And from the sons of Yissachar, those who understand time”3 thus explicitly connecting the tribe of Yissachar (and the month of Iyar) with the sefirah of understanding. Indeed, as we saw earlier, free choice corresponds to the sefirah of understanding, the main seat of thought.

We can now identify the month of Iyar as the month of free will. As such, Iyar is the month of awakening from below, because as we see in a moment, freedom of choice represents an awakening of the mundane to change its course. We can capture the essence of this point as: Initiative begins with the sense of free thinking.

Indeed, of all of Jacob's children, Yissachar was the one who conception involved the most initiative. His mother, Leah out of her tremendous desire to increase the number of Jacob's offspring (and the number of tribes), gave her maidservant, Zilpah, to her husband as his fourth wife. For a woman, to consciously introduce another woman into her house is a very difficult thing, all the more so when until then, Zilpah had been her servant. Now, Zilpah had become equal to her former mistress. Leah who now had trouble of her own conceiving was given mandrakes by her son Reuben. Mandrakes are known to increase fertility, and Leah gave them to her sister Rachel, her husband's most beloved wife, who until then had had no children, in order that that night she send Jacob to her. Shortly thereafter, Yissachar was born and Leah called him by this name which means, “there is a reward,” expressing her thanksgiving to God for having rewarded her for her initiative.

Moreover, in Kabbalah, Leah is considered the archetypal soul related to the sefirah of understanding.

This sentiment is found later in relation to the tribe of Yissachar, the tribe associated with the month of Iyar. When the Jewish people went out of Egypt, the leader or prince of the tribe was Netanel ben Tzu’ar. Netanel, means “God gave,” or “Godsend.” His father's name Tzu’ar comes from the word meaning pain or hardship. Thus, the full name, Netanel ben Tzu’ar, relates to the sages' saying that, “the reward is according to the pains taken….” (לְפוּם צַעַרָא אַגְרָא ). In other words, God gives (Netanel) reward (Yissachar) based on the pain (Tzu’ar) that was endured in order to achieve a goal.

Finally, let us add that every month also has a permutation of Havayah associated with it. Since the Name Havayah has four letters, they can be permuted 24 ways. But, because one of the letters, the hei, repeats, only 12 permutations are unique. These 12 permutations of Havayah correspond one-to-one to the 12 months. It is customary to have this permutation in mind when saying the blessing of the new month in the musafservice of rosh chodesh. The permutation of Havayah corresponding to Iyar is יההו .

Our tefilin contain the text of the four paragraphs in the Pentateuch that mention the commandment of tefilin. There are two methods for ordering these paragraphs, one according to the opinion of Rashi, the other according to the opinion of his grandson, Rabbeinu Tam. For this reason, many Jewish men own and don two pairs of tefilin—one of each kind. Without getting into the details, יההו , the permutation of Havayahassociated with the month of Iyar, corresponds to the order of the paragraphs in the Rabbeinu Tam tefilin. Rabbeinu Tam tefilin are considered to be “the tefilin of the World to Come,” which as we noted earlier, is a synonym for the sefirah of understanding.

Freedom of Choice Year-round

Now that we have identified the month of Iyar with the second part of Rabbi Akiva's saying, we can interpolate backwards and forwards. The month before Iyar, the month of Nisan, then corresponds to the first part of the mishnah, “Everything is foreseen.” And the third and fourth parts correspond to the months of Sivan and Tamuz, respectively. Let us explore this correspondence too.

As already noted, the exodus from Egypt, which occurred in Nisan is an example of an awakening of God above. God redeemed us from exile not in merit of our past deeds – we had no merits to entitle us to be redeemed – but only because He foresaw our future, our willingness and devotion to receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai and to be His chosen people. So clearly Nisan corresponds to “All is foreseen.” And then comes the month of Iyar, which as explained corresponds to free choice, it is up to us to act properly – “Yet freedom of choice is granted.”

The month of Sivan corresponds to “The world is judged by goodness.” The good is of course the Torah (as the sages say “’Good’ is the Torah,” based on the verse “I have given you a good teaching, do not forsake My Torah”4). All of reality is judged according to the law of the Torah, which is called “the good.” Of course, Sivan is the month of the giving of the Torah.

Another point to be made is that unlike other mishnah’s that are part of a series of sayings by a sage in the tractate (Avot), our mishnah does not begin with the introduction: “He would say….” A possible reason for this is that our mishnah is the direct continuation of the preceding one from Rabbi Akiva. And, the preceding mishnahstates,

….Beloved are the Jewish people, for a jewel was given to them; how greatly they are beloved is known to them, for they have been given this jewel, as the verse says, “I have given you a good teaching, do not forsake My Torah.”

And then comes our mishnah, implying that it too is on the subject of the Torah and that once the Torah has been given, the world can be judged by it, and again this is merciful judgment because all of the Torah’s laws are merciful.

The month of Tamuz is a month of action, the month to enact/live by the precepts of the Torah that we were given in the previous month of Sivan. The failure to do so in the original Tamuz that followed the Giving of the Torah at Sinai resulted in the sin of the Golden Calf and the breaking of the Tablets of the Torah (which were given on the condition that they be acted upon).

The early Kabbalists5 explain that the 12 months of the year correspond to three Names of Havayah in succession.6 It follows therefore, that we can continue our interpolation of Rabbi Akiva's mishnah to all 12 months. The complete model is then:


letter ofHavayah

part of mishnah



Everything is foreseen



Yet, freedom of choice is given



The world is judged with goodness



And everything is according to the preponderance of action



Everything is foreseen



Yet, freedom of choice is given



The world is judged with goodness



And everything is according to the preponderance of action



Everything is foreseen



And freedom is given



The world is judged with goodness



And everything is according to the preponderance of action

Let us explain in short the correspondence for the rest of the months.

  • Av – "Everything is foreseen": alludes to the destruction of the Temple on the 9th of Av, probably the most foreseen, i.e., prophesized event in the Bible (it was actually foreseen by God from the very day that Solomon completed the construction of the first Temple).
  • Elul – "Yet, freedom of choice is given": And freedom is given to change our ways. The month of Elul is the month of freedom of choice, the month ofteshuvah (return to God and to the path of Torah) before Rosh Hashanah in which we receive the best opportunity of the entire year to choose to fix what needs fixing. In addition, the value of Elul (אֶלוּל ) is 67, the same as the value of “understanding” (בִּינָה ), the sefirah that corresponds to the first letter hei ofHavayah.
  • Tishrei – "The world is judged with goodness"Tishrei, which begins with RoshHashanah, the Day of Judgment is the month of judgment. For this reason the zodiac sign of Tishrei is libra, or scales, symbolizing that all of creation is judged by the Almighty in this month.
  • Cheshvan – "And everything is according to the preponderance of action": And everything follows the preponderance of action. Chassidim especially are familiar with the notion that following the holidays of Tishrei, once Cheshvanbegins, it is time for action. It is customary for chassidim to spend the month ofTishrei by their Rebbe. At the end of Tishrei and the beginning of Cheshvan, the Lubavitcher Rebbe would send his chassidim off with the verse “And Jacob set on his way…,”7 implying that like Jacob it is time to get to work.

Now, looking at the third instance of the correspondence:

  • Kislev – Everything is foreseen: On the 25th of Kislev begins Chanukah, whose candles we gaze at, but cannot use their light for doing anything (a beautiful implication that seeing something does not necessitate action…). We are also taught in Kabbalah that Kislev is the month of dreams, which often foresee events of the future.
  • Tevet – Yet, freedom of choice is granted: But freedom of choice is given: Chanukah is the only holiday on the Jewish calendar that spans two months. It begins on the 25th of Kislev and ends on the 2nd or 3rd of Tevet (depending on the length of Kislev). Thus, Chanukah is the holiday that truly unifies the first two parts of the mishnah (and the intellectual sefirot of wisdom and understanding, which correspond to them). Chanukah is indeed a very intellectual holiday, marking the victory of Torah over Greek philosophy and culture,8 the victory of the Divine paradox – "All is foreseen yet freedom of choice is granted" – over pure human rationality (that can accept one or the other, but not both simultaneously).

Freedom of choice, which is in the sefirah of understanding is particularly related to the month of Tevet in which the sages say, “The body enjoys the body,” implying that the warmth experienced by a husband and wife together is most enjoyable in this, the coldest month of the year. In more advanced Kabbalistic models, the body (the tangible form in which the essence of a thing manifests) corresponds to the sefirah of understanding.9In the Zohar, understanding is called “the body” in relation to the sefirah of wisdom (which is called “the life-force”).10 From this correspondence, we learn a very important corollary, that freedom of choice is particularly related to the body! This is true both in God’s freedom to choose his chosen people, the Jewish people, which the Tanya explains was a selection of the Jewish body in particular. It is also true in our freedom of choice, which is manifest particularly because we have a physical body. In other words, God’s freedom of choice focuses on our physical body, and human freedom of choice begins with our spiritual body. The beginning of our freedom of choice is found in our thoughts, represented by the sefirah of understanding.

  • Shevat – The world is judged with goodness: We already mentioned that “the good” refers to the Torah. There are three months in which the Torah was given,SivanTishrei, and Shevat. How so? The Written Torah was given to Moshe Rabbeinu on the 6th of Sivan, which we celebrate on Shavu’ot. After God forgave us for the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe Rabbeinu went up again to receive a second set of tablets. He came down from the Mt. Sinai on the 10th of Tishrei, onYom Kipur. Thus, in Tishrei the Written Torah was given a second time. Finally, before his passing, Moshe Rabbeinu delivered the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Pentateuch, in series of speeches. Moshe began delivering these speeches on the 1st day of Shevat, 37 days11 before his passing. Thus, the month of Shevat is the month of the giving of the Book of Deuteronomy.
  • Adar – And everything is according to the preponderance of action: The well-known description of Adar is “From the outset of Adar, augment your joy.” As the sages tell us, there is no joy like the joy of a mitzvah, i.e., the joy of performing God’s commandments. Thus, the month of Adar is particularly related to action and deed. We are taught that the greatest joy of Purim, the holiday of Adar, is the preponderance of our giving charity, the greatest, all-inclusive deed of the Torah, on that day.

By focusing on the first words of this description, “From the outset of Adar—augment,” the nature of Adar is explained in Chassidut to simply be augmentation, or increase, or preponderance (רִיבּוּי )—the act of augmentation itself cultivates joy and a feeling of the heart’s expansion. This parallels the final part of Rabbi Akiva’s saying so beautifully.

So we have seen how this most central mishnah fills up our entire year.

Based on a lecture given on the 8th of Iyar, 5758 in Jerusalem

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1. See our website for parallel to more models.

2. Note that Iyar is the second month of the year, counting from Nisan, the first month of the Hebrew calendar. Nisan’s sense is speech, or leadership. Thought in some respects precedes speech and leadership.

3. I Chronicles 12:33.

4. Proverbs 4:2.

5Sha'arei Orah, gate 5.

6. These three instances of Havayah represent the three instances found in the Priestly Blessing: May God (Havayah) bless you and guard you. May God make His countenance shine upon you and give you grace. May God turn His countenance toward you and grant you peace (Numbers 6:24-26). These three Havayah’s possess 12 letters together and are known as “the Name of 12 Letters” in the Talmud and in Kabbalah. These 12 letters also permute to spell הָיָה הֹוֶה וְיִהְיֶה , meaning, “He was, He is, and He will be,” one of the most basic meanings of God’s essential Name.

7. Genesis

8. For articles on this topic, see our website.

9. This is the model whose five elements: root, soul, body, garment, and chamber, correspond to the 4 letters of Havayah and the tip of the yud. In this model, the body corresponds to the first hei of Havayah.

10. This is the subject of Igeret Hakodesh 20 in the Tanya.

11. 37 is the numerical value of “Abel” (הֶבֶל ), Adam’s son who was murdered by his brother, Cain.

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