Exodus - ShemotKi Tisamain posts

Parashat Ki Tissa: Aliyah by Aliyah

כֹּ֗ל הָעֹבֵר֙ עַל־הַפְּקֻדִ֔ים מִבֶּ֛ן עֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וָמָ֑עְלָה יִתֵּ֖ן תְּרוּמַ֥ת י־הוה (תשא ל, יד)

First Reading: Two Types of Responsibility

Parashat Ki Tissa starts with the commandment to give a Half Shekel, “This they shall give, everyone who passes among them that are numbered, half a shekel of the sacred shekel…. Whoever passes through those counted, twenty years old and over, shall give the contribution for God.”[1] There is a difference of opinion amongst Medieval commentators as to what age one becomes obliged to perform this commandment, which is the obligation to give charity to the Temple. The verse’s plain meaning seems to indicate that the obligation only begins “from twenty years old and above.” This means that when a boy turns 13 years old and becomes Bar-Mitzvah, he is responsible for keeping all the commandments, but to perform this mitzvah specifically, he must wait until he is twenty years old.

What exactly is the significance of the age of twenty in the Torah? Later, the Torah states that age twenty is the age when one is ready for “the army.”[2] Yet, age twenty, as noted, first appears in relation to the mitzvah of the Half Shekel, and the principle is that everything follows the inception.

Age Twenty or Thirteen

So why is this commandment, unlike all other Torah obligations, only obliging “from twenty years old and above!?”

As stated, there is a difference of opinion among the commentaries. According to Maimonides and Nachmanides (in his commentary on the Torah), even though the Torah writes explicitly that this commandment obliges “from twenty years old and above,” the commandment for all generations, like all other commandments, obligates every thirteen-year-old. Also, though a minor under the age of Bar-Mitzvah is certainly not obligated, however, the mishnah in Shekalim states that if the father began to give a Half-Shekel on behalf of his minor child, the father must continue giving annually until the boy is old enough to give on his own. Once the child turns thirteen, he is required to give of his own accord.


The Vilna Gaon does not rule like Maimonides and Nachmanides, but rather follows Sefer HaChinuch, the Bartenura, and the Roke’ach. He writes that he found this ruling explicitly stated in the Jerusalem Talmud. The other commentators do not quote the Jerusalem Talmud as their source, but the Vilna Goan asserts that from there we learn the commandment obligates “from twenty years old and above” for all of time.

The Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds

What is the special meaning of the age of 20? What happens when a person becomes 20 and can become part of the army?

The Arizal writes that only at age twenty does a person attain the mindset of the Father Principle (Mochin of Abba). In other words, it is only then that the individual can understand the consciousness of wisdom. Thus, if the Jerusalem Talmud—as the Vilna Gaon writes—argues that the Half Shekel is a mitzvah that starts at age twenty, we can then guess that the Babylonian Talmud rules that the age of obligation is thirteen and not twenty, like all the commandments. This is because as a general rule, the Jerusalem Talmud expresses the mindset of the Father Principle, while the Babylonian Talmud expresses the mindset of the Mother Principle, as follows.

It is at the age of thirteen that according to Kabbalah, one acquires the mindset of the Mother Principle (Mochin of Imma), or the consciousness of the sefirah of understanding. This mindset and consciousness are associated with the tefillin written according to Rashi’s ruling—the most common type of tefillin. Because of this, the custom among the Chasidim used to be that at one’s Bar-Mitzvah one would start donning a pair of tefillin made according to Rashi, and at the age of twenty, start donning a pair of tefillin made according to Rabbeinu Tam and corresponding to the consciousness of wisdom, the mindset of the Father Principle. Later, some began donning the Rabbeinu Tam tefillin from the age of eighteen, since the sages say that “at 18 to be wed.”[3] However, if one holds that the Rabbeinu Tam tefillin are a halachic obligation (and not only the Rashi tefillin), then he would start donning them at his Bar-Mitzvah (as is the Chabad custom).

Two Types of Responsibility

What is the main idea to be gleaned from all of this? It is written that only from age twenty is a person fit to serve in the army and to be counted in a “quorum of men,” as well as to serve in any other position of public leadership. This leads to one very clear difference between the ages of thirteen and twenty that will help us to understand the difference between the consciousness of understanding (age thirteen) and the consciousness of wisdom (age twenty).

At thirteen, with the advent of understanding, or the Mother Principle in one’s consciousness, the individual can take responsibility, but only over himself. But at twenty, when wisdom, or the Father Principle, enters one’s consciousness, the individual can begin to take responsibility for the community, for society, even for the entire Jewish people.

So, becoming Bar-Mitzvah means taking self-responsibility (for a girl this stage begins at Bat-Mitzvah, at the age of twelve). Until that age, the child cannot yet be responsible for himself since he does not yet have enough of the sefirah of knowledge (דָּעַת) which is the psychological faculty needed to take responsibility. The faculty of knowledge is situated in Kabbalah in the brain’s rear lobe (מֹחַ אֲחוֹרִי), which in Hebrew is cognate with the modern word meaning “responsibility” (אַחְרָיוּת). By taking responsibility, a person merits to continuously elevate until he reaches the aspect of Godliness known as, “the Primordial One of Creation” (קַדְמוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם). Indeed, this is hinted to in the verse, “You have formed me with a frontside and a backside, You have placed Your hand upon me”[4] (אָחוֹר וָקֶדֶם צַרְתָּנִי וַתָּשֶׁת עָלַי כַּפֶּכָה), with the word “Your hand” (כַּפֶּכָה), literally meaning, “Your [letter] kaf,” i.e., the letter kaf whose gematria is twenty. From this verse, the sages learnt that Adam was created as a twenty-year-old man, making him ready to take responsibility for all of Creation.

So, what happens when a person reaches the age of thirteen, the age at which he is obligated by the commandments? The Torah tells him—hence, God is telling him—from now on, you need to take responsibility for your life. Until now, you were in the hands of your parents. But now that your father has made the blessing “Blessed is He who has freed me from [responsibility for] the punishments of this one,” from now on, you are responsible for yourself.

What then happens at the age of twenty? It is then that the consciousness of wisdom, the Father Principle, enters and he can now take responsibility for others, for society. To take responsibility for the community, one must commit himself to community needs. The best example of this can be seen in a soldier. That is why the age of twenty is defined as the age at which one can become part of the army and contribute to society.

Responsibility and Pursuit

The sages tell us that, “At twenty, pursuit.” The plain meaning of this statement is that at age twenty, one begins to pursue a livelihood. Since they also say that “At eighteen, to marry,” by the time a young man has reached the age of twenty, he is married and perhaps even has one or two children. So it is only natural that he needs to pursue a livelihood in order to provide for his young family. Thus, at the age of twenty, he takes responsibility for his family, the most basic unit in society. Moreover, pursuing a livelihood also refers to whatever is needed to sustain society. Something unique to making a living is that it is not an individual’s needs alone but includes the needs of society as a whole. Just as there is a Ministry of Defense, there also needs to be a Ministry of Economy. Once a person enters the marketplace, he begins to become aware of the needs of society and what is happening in their surroundings amongst the people. This is part of taking responsibility for society, and not just for oneself. All this is what we call the “mindset of the Father Principle.”


(from a shiur given on 18 Adar 5773)


וַיִּקַּ֣ח מִיָּדָ֗ם וַיָּ֤צַר אֹתוֹ֙ בַּחֶ֔רֶט וַֽיַּעֲשֵׂ֖הוּ עֵ֣גֶל מַסֵּכָ֑ה (תשא לב, ד)

Second Reading: What is a Calf?


Let us look at the different meanings of “calf” (עֵגֶל), in Hebrew.

Loving-kindness: Circle

The word “calf” (עֵגֶל) comes from “circle” (עִגּוּל), which alludes to nature and “circles” (עִגּוּלִים) in Kabbalah, which represent a state of equality. There is negative equality, like false democracy. This was also the sin of Korach and his people, who wanted everyone to be equal. What complements the “circles” is the “straightness” (יֹשֶׁר), which alludes to hierarchy and order.

And so, the Golden Calf implies a state of equality and nature without hierarchy and order. The circle must be contained in a square (straightness). You need both. The Torah is likened to a square: the laws, the Shulchan Aruch. but the rectification of society, which corresponds to the sefirah of kingdom requires circles. “Circle” (עִגּוּל) has the same numerical value as “King David” (דָּוִד הַמֶּלֶךְ). Kingdom expands and extends in circles. It is said that Creation was created like a cube that expands. This is the mindset of the Book of Formation. But kingdom expands like circles in the water after a stone is thrown. It expands until 10 circles are formed and then the construction of kingdom is complete.

Nonetheless, the meaning of the Golden Calf as related to “circles” does not correspond to kingdom, but rather to the sefirah of “loving-kindness” (חֶסֶד). The equality found in loving-kindness is to have true love for every Jew regardless of whether he is a tzaddik or a consummately wicked person. This equal love to all is the root of where Moses is entrenched in the previous shemitah (7000 year cycle) of loving-kindness.

A round circle is also called a segol (סֶגוֹל). In the ancient Hebrew script, the round letter was the letter ע, not the letter ס as it is in our script. These two letters interchange. Even though the ancient script is not holy, it is not without meaning. Apparently, this was the script that was related to the kingdom then. Thus, the two words, “circle” (עִגּוּל) and “segol” (סֶגוֹל) have the same meaning. To be a chosen people (עִם סְגֻלָּה) is to be a round people, which means that everyone is equal—we are all chosen, and we are all priests. We are all inter-included within each other, that is what it means to be a holy people.

Might: A Calf

Next, we have the obvious meaning of calf. The calf is a young ox, which in the Divine Chariot is situated on the left axis. According to the Zohar, the two sorcerers—Janus and Jumbrus—who tagged along with the mixed multitude of nations that came out with the Israelites from Egypt, were the ones who made the Golden Calf. It describes that they took the face of man from the Divine Chariot and brought it down on the ox. The ox referred to is not only the ox in the Divine chariot, but also the ox, which is the first of the four primary agents of damage[5] (the ox, the pit, the grazing animal, and the unprotected fire). According to the Zohar, the most central of the four primary agents of damage is the ox, and it is this ox that engarbs man and pulls him down into “the other side.” Thus, the two sorcerers had the power to take any person—not only someone from the mixed multitudes—even an Israelite and drag him down to become an agent of destruction. This was the essence of the Golden Calf.

The Zohar continues to explain that within the other three agents of damage, there is an aspect of the ox and the ox itself contains several primary agents of damages. One should therefore contemplate how the ox is found in the other three: the pit has an ox in it, the fire is called הֶבְעֵר which is cognate with the Aramaic word meaning “cattle” (בְעִירָא), and the grazing animal is of course connected with the ox.

This is the essence of the Golden Calf through its etymology as an “ox.” It becomes the root of the four primary agents of damage and that is why the sorcerers chose it as the shape of the idol.

Beauty: Earrings

The meaning of “calf” (עֵגֶל) that matches the sefirah of beauty (tiferet) is earrings (עֲגִילִים). Aaron said to the people, “Remove the gold rings in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”[6]

In Hebrew, an earring can be either a נֶזֶם or an עֲגִיל. The verse explicitly uses the first form, which can designate either a nose ring or an earring.  The second form is only used for earrings. If the Torah would have used the second word, it would have been too explicit that they were going to produce a gold calf.

The word for ear in Hebrew, אֹזֶן is an acronym for “ear, gold, ring” (אֹזֶן נֶזֶם זָהָב). “Ring” (נֶזֶם) can be permuted to spell “time” (זְמַן), alluding to the delay in Moses’ return from the mountain, which was the supposed reason for the sin of the Golden Calf.

The Aramaic translation of נֶזֶם throughout the Bible is קָדָשָׁא,[7] stemming from the root “to sanctify.” What this implies is that just as we today consecrate an engagement (kiddushin) with a ring that goes on the finger, in ancient times, they did so with a nose ring. The connection to the sefirah of “beauty” (tiferet) should be clear; all jewelry corresponds to beauty.

Victory and Acknowledgment: Camp

The next meaning of the word for “calf” (עֵגֶל) is a military camp (מַעְגַּל). We find this usage in for example the following verse, “David went at once to the place where Saul had encamped, and David saw the spot where Saul and his army commander, Abner son of Ner, lay asleep. Saul lay asleep inside the camp and the troops were posted around him.”[8]

The Name of God associated with the two sefirot, victory (netzach) and acknowledgment (hod)  is “Hosts” (צְבָאוֹת), which in Hebrew also literally means “army” (צָבָא).

Foundation: Way

The word we just saw in victory, מַעְגַּל, also means “a way” or “a path,” as in the well-known verse, “He [God] leads me in the paths of justice”[9] (יַנְחֵנִי בְמַעְגְּלֵי צֶדֶק) Many times a path or way is related in Kabbalah with the sefirah of “foundation” (yesod).

Elsewhere, we discussed the 7 Hebrew synonyms for the word “way” (דֶּרֶךְ). In that partzuf (model), we placed the synonym מַעְגַּל in kingdom because the idiom in this verse from Psalms is “paths of justice” (מַעְגְּלֵי צֶדֶק), and the word “justice” (צֶדֶק) relates to kingdom. But just מעגל by itself, without the additional “justice,” would correspond to the crown of foundation, thus retaining the association with kingdom (crown) and the association with foundation.

Kingdom: Wagon

There is one final meaning connected with the word for “calf” (עֵגֶל) and that is “wagon” (עֲגָלָה). The wagon is associated with kingdom; let us see how.

In the rabbinic idiom, the wagon’s driver is known as a “leader” (מַנְהִיג). In more modern usage, a wagon driver is also known as a “wagon owner” (בַּעַל עֲגָלָה). The one who leads the people is of course a king. Interestingly, the righteous King of Israel is considered a rectification of the seventh King of Edom whose name was Ba’al Chanan (בַּעַל חָנָן), whose gematria is the same as “wagon owner” (בַּעַל עֲגָלָה).


(from a shiur given on 11 Adar 5772)



וְהָיָה֙ בַּעֲבֹ֣ר כְּבֹדִ֔י וְשַׂמְתִּ֖יךָ בְּנִקְרַ֣ת הַצּ֑וּר וְשַׂכֹּתִ֥י כַפִּ֛י עָלֶ֖יךָ עַד־עָבְרִֽי.

וַהֲסִרֹתִי֙ אֶת־כַּפִּ֔י וְרָאִ֖יתָ אֶת־אֲחֹרָ֑י וּפָנַ֖י לֹ֥א יֵרָאֽוּ. (תשא לג, כב-כג)

Fourth Reading: Seeing Godliness


In the Cleft in the Rock

We encounter the cleft in the rock (נִקְרַת הַצּוּר) in Parashat Ki Tissa, which is always read during the month of Adar. God placed Moses in the cleft of the rock so that he would merit to tranquily experience God passing by his face.

The etymology of the word “cleft” (נִקְרַת) in Hebrew stems from the verb meaning “to peck” (lenaker) or make a hole. Similarly, it can mean “to remove,” primarily when referring to the removal of the sciatic nerve when an animal is prepared according to the laws of Kashrut. We recall that the sciatic nerve was prohibited after the archangel of Esau injured it in its battle with Jacob. Thus, the sciatic nerve represents the root of Esau in corporeality. This root of Esau originates from the side of might (gevurah).

The cleft in the rock is clearly a parable for the Kabbalistic secret of the contraction (tzimtzum). Within the void, seemingly empty of God’s revelation, created by the contraction and symbolized by the cleft in the rock, there is room for placing the worlds of Creation. This space is where Moses stands and where he comes to “know” God. The Komarna Rebbe “criticized” the Alter Rebbe for removing the appellation “the Rock of Israel” from his compilation of the Siddur. After all, the Arizal included this phrase in his compilation of the prayers, the Baal Shem Tov included it, and everyone included it. How was it possible that the Alter Rebbe removed it from his Siddur?

One might say that the Alter Rebbe pecked or removed the rock out of the prayer book for a reason known to him! Again, the root to peck or remove (lenaker) corresponds to the sefirah of might, as does the expression appearing earlier, “You will see My backside, but My frontside shall not be seen.”

“And you shall see My backside”

Every Jewish soul contains a spark of Moses, as written and explained in the Tanya. Everyone has a spark of Moses in addition to their unique individuality and also in addition to their general comprehension of reality. Moses prophesies with the phrase, “this is the thing that God commanded” (זֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה י־הוה) because he sees through “a translucent pane of glass” (אַסְפַּקְלַרְיָה מְאִירָה). What is the “translucent pane of glass?” It is written that it refers to Moses seeing reality from Above, as if through the eyes of God, from God’s perspective!

There is a verse that says about Moses, “and the picture of God, he sees”[10] (וּתְמֻנַת י-הוה יַבִּיט). How can one see God when it is written regarding even the Giving of the Torah, “You saw no form?”[11] We did not see a form, God has no form. What then does “and the picture of God, he sees” mean? Rashi explains: “This refers to a view of the backside, as in what was said ‘and you shall see My backside.’”

When Moses requests to see the glory of God, God responds, “And you shall see My backside, but My frontside shall not be seen.” This too is difficult to understand, what does “a view of the backside” mean? Does God have a frontside or a backside? As Maimoinides writes, “He has no body, nor the form of a body,” at all!

The Alter Rebbe explains that Moses was granted levels that no mortal has ever achieved! He was privileged to see reality from above to below, as if through the eyes of God. Moses looks at the image of the world as God sees it! Seeing the world as God sees it – and this itself is called “a view of the backside.” God and the world—it is all one, but so to speak, how God looks at reality—this is referred to as, “God’s backside; this is what is meant by, “and you shall see My backside.” Regarding this, it is written, “and the picture of God, he sees.” Thus, this is what it means that Moses merited seeing through a translucent pane of glass.

Seeing the Countenance of God with the Eye of Intellect in the Heart

The holy Zohar describes how Moses lamented that his request “Please, show me Your glory” (the request to see the Fiftieth Gate of Understanding) was not fulfilled, and he was only allowed to see God’s backside, i.e., the way God’s Providence orchestrates reality. The Zohar goes on to say that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai consoles Moses and tells him that although he did not see God’s frontside with his eyes, “with the eye of understanding in your heart, you can see everything,”[12] including God’s frontside. The power to see Divinity is specifically related to the sefirah of wisdom (chochmah) because all the other sefirot represent the way God’s Providence over reality functions. Thus, apart from wisdom, all the sefirot reflect God’s backside. Only within the inner aspect of the sefirah of wisdom does “the true One”[13] dwell, revealing God’s countenance. In the merit of this aspect of seeing the countenance in the sefirah of wisdom, Moses was privileged to have his face shine; “A man’s wisdom makes his face shine.”[14] The inner dimension of the sefirah of wisdom is the power of nullification, the faculty attributed especially to Moses who said, “And we are nought.”[15] Sight induces awe, specifically the awe that corresponds to wisdom, which is known as supernal awe,[16] the awe of embarrassment.

The uniqueness of seeing Divinity in this manner follows “a long and short path.”[17] Through the direct (and relatively short) sight of his eyes, Moses did not merit seeing the countenance of God and reached only the backside—an external aspect of revelation. But with the inner eye in his heart, Moses merited following the long path, a path based on thought and contemplation, and thus, ultimately reached his destination (when he merited to see and recognize God’s countenance out of his knowledge of His backside).

Typically, the phrase “a long and short path” describes the method by which one can rectify the heart’s exterior, namely by embarking on the long journey of first rectifying the mind, which will swiftly and surely reach the goal of rectifying the heart (this method makes use of the dictum that “the mind controls the heart”[18]).

However, in what we have just described, the expression “a long and short path” is interpreted in an additional manner: after correcting the heart’s exterior, it is possible to penetrate the heart’s interior. It is from there that one embarks on a long journey to seeing God (a path of contemplation and deep thought, which is not as quick and direct as seeing with the eyes). Yet this long journey reaches the inner goal of seeing God’s countenance by means of seeing His backside, quickly and surely.

By binding himself to Moses, every Jew can achieve this power of seeing Godliness, i.e., the ability to truly meet God and see Him with the mind’s eye in the heart, through devoted contemplation. It should be added that this connection to Moses also endows a person with the proper motivation to see God.

Moses requests, “Pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor.”[19] His reason for wanting to know God is to love Him more, to find favor in His eyes, and to fulfill His will in the world. The inner Jewish desire to see God is filled with self-nullification to Divinity. A Jew wishes to decrease his own honor to increase the honor of Heaven[20] (and not, God forbid, to receive personal satisfaction and honor from the merit of seeing God). Only such humility and self-nullification, characteristic of Moses, the humblest of all men, can serve as vessels for seeing the inner essence of Godliness in the heart.

(from Mivchar Shi’urei Hitbonenut vol. 11, pp. 55-56, Ibid. vol. 13, pp. 150-151, and Ma’ayan Ganim – Shemot, pp. 147-150)


כִּ֛י לֹ֥א תִֽשְׁתַּחֲוֶ֖ה לְאֵ֣ל אַחֵ֑ר כִּ֤י יְהוָה֙ קַנָּ֣א שְׁמ֔וֹ אֵ֥ל קַנָּ֖א הֽוּא (תשא לד, יד)

Fifth Reading: Ensuring God is Not the Other, the Stranger, or a Foreigner


The Blemish of the Ear

The Ba’al Shem Tov has an astonishing insight on the verse, “You shall not bow down to another god”[21] (כִּי לֹא תִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה לְאֵל אַחֵר). First let us mention that there is a similar verse in Psalms, which reads, “There shall not be among you a strange god, nor shall you bow down to a foreign god”[22] (לֹא יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֵל זָר וְלֹא תִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה לְאֵל נֵכָר) This presents a very interesting phenomenon where idolatry is referred to using three conjunctions, all involving the name of God, Kel, and three synonymous words: “other” (אַחֵר), “strange” (זָר), and “foreign” (נֵכָר).

The linguistic allusion here is found by taking the initials of these three synonyms (אַחֵר זָר נֵכָר), which spell “ear” (אֹזֶן). Indeed, in Kabbalah the blemish of bowing down to anything but the One God is causes damage at a very high level known as the ear of the partzuf of Primordial Man.

What is bowing down, in general? In both verses, there is a prohibition against bowing. There are two states a person can be in: vertical and horizontal. In other words, one can stand upright which designates a hierarchical state since the head is above the shoulders, above the torso, and so on. One can also prostrate with one’s arms and legs extended, designating a state of equilibrium or equality since all the body’s parts, regardless of relative importance, are at the same level.

In Hebrew the word for “vertical” (אֲנָכִי) is spelled the same as the first “I” (אָנֹכִי) in the Ten Commandments: “I am Havayah your God” (אָנֹכִי י-הוה אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ), meaning that the Giving of the Torah is meant to introduce a rectified hierarchy into reality.

This is not the place to elaborate, but the right axis of the sefirot, especially the sefirah of loving-kindness (chessed) is considered to represent an upright, hierarchical state. The ultimate rectification of the left axis of the sefirot is to reach a state of stable and balanced equality, which is also very positive.

The sense of balance is in the ears, which is why in Hebrew, the words for “horizontal” (מְאֻזָּן) “balanced” (מְאֻזָּן), and “ear” (אֹזֶן) all come from the same root. To prostrate with arms and feet extended represents a state of nullification of being. If it is directed towards holiness, prostration is a horizontal holiness. If it is not directed towards the holy, as we said, it constitutes a blemish in the ear of the partzuf of Primordial Man.

This is precisely the blemish of someone who is not circumcised. The covenant of circumcision is for the sake of horizontal holiness—for the purpose of procreating in holiness. Likewise, the organ of procreation, which corresponds to foundation, leans to the left, whose rectification we said is associated with the horizontal.

Let us now articulate the remarkable teaching from the Baal Shem Tov. He elucidates that the verse in Psalms, “There shall not be among you a strange god” (לֹא יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֵל זָר) should not be understood in its simple sense, where the term god refers to a false god. Instead, it can be interpreted as referring to the Holy Blessed One, the true God. What the verse then conveys is that “There shall not be in you a God”—i.e., sacred God—“who is strange.” In other words, God should not be a stranger to you. For a Jew, God must be the most intimate, inherently relevant, and precious entity. God should never be something you consider strange.

Following the Ba’al Shem Tov’s teaching, the other two expressions can be interpreted in the same manner. “You shall not bow down to another god,” would now mean that you should not bow down—i.e., nullify your being—before God when you treat Him as an “other,” when you do not identify with Him. Your nullification in this case is superficial and unfit. “Nor shall you bow down to a foreign god” then means that if God is foreign to you, once again, your nullification before Him is invalid.

The rectification for all of these is to be found in circumcision, as above.

There is much to contemplate. Since we have three synonyms—other, strange, and foreign – and we wish to say that circumcision rectifies all of them, we need to begin by asking: What is the common denominator between these three (apart from their meaning, which we have already considered)? In Hebrew, they all end with the letter reish (אַחֵר זָר נֵכָר). In Bati Legani, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s seminal essay based on the Frierdiker Rebbe’s essay by the same name, the letter reish is described as the one letter that is most associated with the “other side,” the side of impurity, exactly because it is what differentiates between “other” (אַחֵר), as in “An other god” (אֵל אַחֵר), and “one” (אֶחָד), as in “God is one” (י-הוה אֶחָד).

Correspondence with the Intellectual Powers

We can also contemplate how these three negative synonyms (אַחֵר זָר נֵכָר) correspond to the three intellectual sefirot, Chabad: wisdom, understanding, and knowledge.

“Foreign” (נֵכָר) represents a flaw in the sefirah of knowledge (da’at), since the root of this word in Hebrew is also the root of “recognition.”[23] We learn this from the verse in the Book of Ruth, “Why have I found favor in your eyes to recognize me, though I am a stranger?”[24] (מַדּוּעַ מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ לְהַכִּירֵנִי וְאָּנֹכִי נָכְרִיָּה). Ruth was saying to Boaz: Why do you recognize me, i.e., draw me close—the essence of the sefirah of knowledge—“though I am a foreigner.” The linguistic similarity between “recognize” and “foreigner” is a play on words.

Similarly, there is a verse regarding Joseph and his brothers that involves the same play on words, “Joseph saw his brothers and recognized them, but he made himself foreign to them”[25] (וַיַּרְא יוֹסֵף אֶת אֶחָיו וַיַּכִּרֵם וַיִּתְנַכֵּר אֲלֵיהֶם). From here we learn that someone who is “foreign” is one who is distant from my knowledge, someone I am not connected to, since knowledge implies connection and attachment.[26]

“Other” (אַחֵר) as noted is the opposite of “one” (אֶחָד). Thus, “You shall not bow down to another god” means that you should not confuse “other” with “one.” The true One dwells within the inner aspect of wisdom, as the Alter Rebbe writes in Tanya, citing the Maggid of Mezritch. Thus, “other” represents the external aspect of wisdom, the impure husk of wisdom, the husk that corresponds to the people of Midian, who have no self-nullification and therefore bicker and fight amongst themselves constantly, as explained in the essays titled Hechaltzu.

Finally, “strange” (זָר) refers to something peculiar, something I do not understand, I cannot grasp intellectually. This corresponds to the intellectual power of understanding (binah). The phrase that “strange” appears in is different than the other two, as it does not mention bowing down. Instead, it says, “There shall not be in you a strange God”; “In you” suggests “in your mind,” in your capacity for comprehension and absorption, which relates to the sefirah of understanding.

Thus, the order of the three phrases, one from the Torah and the two from Psalms exactly follow the order of the intellectual faculties, Chabad: “You shall not bow down to another god,” “There shall not be in you a strange god,” and “Nor shall you bow down to a foreign god.”


(from a class given on 9th of Shevat, 5776)


וְחַ֤ג שָׁבֻעֹת֙ תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה לְךָ֔ בִּכּוּרֵ֖י קְצִ֣יר חִטִּ֑ים וְחַג֙ הָֽאָסִ֔יף תְּקוּפַ֖ת הַשָּׁנָֽה (תשא לד, כב)

Sixth Reading: From Shavu’ot to Sukkot and the Torah of Ba’alei Teshuvah


What do We Celebrate on Simchat Torah?

A question frequently revisited in Chasidic thought is why Simchat Torah is celebrated at the conclusion of Sukkot, rather than on Shavu’ot—the time of the giving of our Torah. The explanation is that Simchat Torah is not a joyous celebration of receiving the first set of Tablets, which occurred on Shavu’ot, but rather a commemoration of the joy of receiving the second set of Tablets Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai on Yom Kippur.

The first set of Tablets represents the Giving of the Torah to the righteous, while the second set of Tablets represents the Giving of the Torah to Ba’alei Teshuvah (those who have returned to observance). Simchat Torah specifically celebrates the second set of Tablets with all their positive traits. There are also positive traits in the first set of Tablets that cannot be found in the second, but overall, the conclusion is that there is a preference for the second Tablets, and it is them we rejoice over. This is particularly relevant to our generation, which is a generation of Ba’alei Teshuvah, which as we have said, “the Ba’alei Teshuvah will take control of Israel.”

The Delay of Simchat Torah

Indeed, Chasidut asks: if Simchat Torah is about the giving of the second set of Tablets on Yom Kippur, why wait until Shmini Atzeret, the eighth day of Sukkot (or the following day, in the Diaspora), and not celebrate immediately the day after Yom Kippur? The answer provided by Kabblaah is that we wait until the Torah given on Yom Kippur is absorbed internally. It is on Shmini Atzeret, that the inner union between God and the Jewish people occurs, and so it is only at the end of the Tishrei holidays that we can rejoice.

At a deeper level, delaying Simchat Torah from Yom Kippur to Shmini Atzeret expresses a fundamental difference between a tzaddik (righteous person) and a ba’al teshuvah. For a tzaddik, everything proceeds smoothly. When he receives the Torah, on Shavuot, it is immediately absorbed internally. That is why it is customary on Shavu’ot for us to wish each other “reception of the Torah with joy and interiority.” In contrast, for a ba’al teshuvah, everything seems to be stuck. Even when he receives the Torah, on Yom Kippur, its content is not yet absorbed and settled within him, and he needs more than ten additional days until “he gets it,” so to speak. However, conversely, when a ba’al teshuvah does end up absorbing something, he or she rejoices with a much greater joy over the Torah he receives.

The Delay of Absorption Until Shabbat Bereishit

Indeed, the delay in absorbing the Torah by a ba’al teshuvah does not end with Shmini Atzeret. According to the sages, some women conceive immediately at the time of union, but there are also women for whom the absorption is delayed—a delay that can take up to three days, during which the seed remains vital (as reflected in the laws of separation before the giving of the Torah). Likewise, regarding the absorption of the “seed” on Shmini Atzeret, some absorb it immediately, on the same day, while others experience a delay in absorption.

Even among ba’alei teshuvah who rejoice in the Giving of the Torah of ba’alei teshuvah, there are levels. There are the righteous among the ba’alei teshuvah, who absorb the light and “seed” of Simchat Torah on the same day, and there are the ba’alei teshuvah among the ba’alei teshuvah, who do everything at the last moment and whose absorption itself is “stuck,” coercing them to wait until the third day from Simchat Torah, which some years is Shabbat Bereishit.

The Joy of Giving the Torah on Yom Kippur and the First Day of Sukkot

Beyond this answer, it is possible to contemplate that there is a broader and more complete process here. At first glance, it might have been proposed that Simchat Torah, celebrating the giving of the second set of Tablets, be held on Yom Kippur itself, without waiting for the next day, since Yom Kippur is a day associated with the joy surrounding marriage, as the sages state,

There were no days as joyful for Israel as the Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur… and so it says, “Go forth and gaze, O’ daughters of Zion, upon King Solomon with the crown with which his mother has crowned him on the day of his wedding and on the day of the gladness of his heart.” “On the day of his wedding”—this refers to the Giving of the Torah, and “on the day of the gladness of his heart”—refers to the building of the Temple, may it be rebuilt speedily in our days.

Another stage between the spreading of joy from Yom Kippur, and the day after, to Simchat Torah, is the first day of Sukkot, about which it is said, “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day… and you shall rejoice before Havayah your God." The sages interpret the words, “on the first day” (even though it is actually the 15th day of Tishrei) to mean that it is “first—for the accounting of sins.” What joy could there possibly be when we begin to keep an account for our sins? It is explained in Chasidut that on Sukkot, we reach a state of teshuvah from love (after the teshuvah from fear experienced during the High Holidays), which causes even intentional sins (as opposed to those transgressed unintentionally) to be transformed into merits. Thus, the joy is caused by an accounting of sins that were transformed into merits. This joy, of the first day of Sukkot, is certainly part of the joy of giving the Torah to ba’alei teshuvah on Yom Kippur. And in the “new Torah” given on Yom Kippur is the source for this principle that “intentional sins are transformed into merits.”

(from a class given on the 24th of Tishrei, 5774)

Image by 12019 from Pixabay


[1]. Exodus 30:11-14.

[2]. Numbers 1:3.

[3]. Avot 5:22.

[4]. Psalms 139:5.

[5]. Enumerated in the Torah in Exodus 21:28-22:5.

[6]. Ibid. 32:2.

[7]. See for example Onkelos on Genesis 24:22.

[8]. 1 Samuel 26:5.

[9]. Psalms 23:3.

[10]. Numbers 12:8.

[11]. Deuteronomy 4:15.

[12] Zohar 2:116b. See in length in Likutei Bi’urim (second edition) on Kuntras HaHitpa’alut, at the end of §39.

[13] See note in Tanya, ch. 45 (and in Likuetei Bi’urim, where it is explained that the power of seeing Divinity is associated with the sefirah of wisdom).


[14] Ecclesiastes 8:1.

[15] Exodus 15: 7-8.

[16] Zohar Chadash, Ki Tissa.

[17] The phrase on the title page of the Tanya (as per Eruvin 53b).

[18] Zohar Part III 254, Tanya ch. 12.

[19]. Exodus 33:33.

[20] See Tana D’vei Eliyahu Rabah 14 and Likutei Moharan 6:1.

[21]. Exodus 34:14.

[22]. Psalms 81:10.

[23]. See also Wonders, Issue 87, p. 7.

[24]. Ruth 2:10.

[25]. Genesis 42:7.

[26]. Tanya, chapter 3.

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