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Part 7: The Soul Electric: Unveiling The Psycho-Spiritual Meanings of a Biblical Word

Click here for the other fascinating chapters in this series

A mysterious word in the Bible encodes a profound formula for self-rectification, which became a foundation of Chasidic thought.

For over a hundred years, we have been living in the age of electricity: we use electricity all the time, everywhere, and in almost every aspect of our lives; every wall in our homes has several electrical outlets, into which we plug a vast array of devices; if there is a power outage, we suffer, and we make sure to pay our electricity bill on time so that we are not disconnected from the current. More than anything else, electricity is the core of the technological age.

Most of us are so therefore surprised to discover that the Hebrew word for “electricity”, chashmal (חַשְׁמַל), is ancient, originating thousands of years before the discovery of electricity and the electromagnetic force.[1] It is a biblical word, appearing only three times in the Bible, all in the same place, in the mysterious prophetic visions of the prophet Ezekiel, where it describes a kind of Divine, wondrous fire. Here is its first appearance:

And I looked, and behold, a stormy wind came from the north, a great cloud, and a fire flashing forth continually, and a bright light around it, and in the midst of it something like the appearance of chashmal in the midst of the fire.[2]

There it is, a word so familiar to the modern Hebrew speaker from signs and electricity bills—familiar, yet so foreign. What does this mysterious word mean in its original, ancient, prophetic context? Stripped of its modern associations, the very word evokes a kind of electric thrill in us. What was the original electricity, before it flowed through the wires of history and became the synthetic light now illuminating at you from your screen?

At Times Silent, At Times Speaking

The sages of the Talmud dedicated their lives to interpreting every word in the Bible, and the word chashmal is no exception. However, as is their way, since there are “seventy faces to the Torah” and there is no one definitive interpretation of words, they did not settle on a single absolute meaning. Instead, they explored the word, turning it over and over in their unique Jewish intellect in search of fragments of meaning from which they could construct an interpretation. Here are their conclusions as they appear in the Talmud[3]:

What is chashmal? Rabbi Yehudah said: Creatures of fire that speak [chayot esh memalelot]. In a Tannaic source, it is taught: At times they are silent [chashot], at times they speak [memalelot]; when the speech goes forth from the mouth of the Holy Blessed One, they are silent, and when the speech does not go forth from the mouth of the Holy Blessed One, they speak.

Two interpretations are offered for the word chashmal. The first, by Rabbi Yehudah, uses the word’s consonants to divide it into three parts, and as described in Ezekiel’s vision: chashmal hints at CHAyot eiSH meMALelot, which means “creatures of fire that speak” and referring to the heavenly creatures seen by Ezekiel in his vision, from whose mouths fire emerges as they speak.[4] The second interpretation, from the Tannaic source, divides the word into two parts with exactly opposite meanings: chash (silent) and mal (speaking).

We now want to focus on the second interpretation, which has two advantages over the first one. First, it divides the word in a more symmetrical and elegant manner. And second, it is from the Tannaim, the sages of the Mishnah, whose interpretations are considered superior to those of the Amoraim—the sages of the Talmudic period—from whom came the first interpretation.

Run and Return

From the second interpretation, it emerges that the word chashmal expresses a paradoxical connection between silence and speech, in that order. The so-called holy creatures, or Chayot HaKodesh (חַיּוֹת הַקֹּדֶשׁ), are silent “when the speech goes forth from the mouth of the Holy Blessed One,” and speak “when the speech does not go forth from the mouth of the Holy Blessed One.” This implies a kind of dialogue between the God and the angels, in which first God speaks, and they are silent, and then the roles reverse.

This interpretation has turned the word chashmal into a kind of code name in Judaism for a profound spiritual insight, which, simple as it may sound, is not easy to implement: One should be silent before speaking. Praises of silence are scattered throughout the Rabbinical writings. Some of these notable aphorisms are: “Say little and do much,”[5] “I have found nothing better for the body than silence,”[6] and “A fence for wisdom is silence.”[7] In addition, a famous verse in Ecclesiastes even clearly hints that silence should precede speech: “A time to be silent and a time to speak.”[8] But the word chashmal expresses this idea most succinctly: First chash, be silent, then mal, express your words.

The Torah’s inner dimension of study delves into the idea of the silence and speech of chashmal by linking it with another phrase found nearby in Ezekiel’s vision (and expounded in the Talmud immediately after our earlier quote): “And the creatures were running and returning [ratzo va-shov]”[9] (וְהַחַיּוֹת רָצוֹא וָשׁוֹב). In modern Hebrew, we usually understand this phrase as referring to cyclical movements in general, but according to Kabbalah, it mainly expresses a cycle of spiritual ascent and descent: “running” signifies rushing upward to God, and “returning” signifies coming back down to earth. These two movements exactly parallel the cycle of silence and speech between God and the holy creatures: The rush to God is silent self-nullification to hear His word, and the return to our reality is our speech when God is silent. The phrase “the creatures were running and returning” is further interpreted in Chasidut by changing the pronunciation of the word “creatures” (הַחַיּוֹת) to “vitality” (הַחַיּוּת), from HaChayot to HaChayut. Thus our vitality is a cycle of running and returning. We discover that the inner beat of life is a cycle of ascent and descent, silence and speech, retreating inwards and expressing ourselves outwards.

Above all, the explanation of the word chashmal sharpens and clarifies the nature of the silence that should be imposed before speaking. It is not just any silence, not the silence experienced when facing an empty void, but a silence that awakens “when the speech goes forth from the mouth of the Holy Blessed One.” The silence of chashmal is the silence that comes from listening to God, a silence that seeks to detect the “still small voice”[10] of God within us, i.e. the sound of our soul. This is felt in the fact that the word chash means not only to be silent but also “to sense,” and that the letters of chash (חַשׁ) are the two-letter root of “thinking” (חָשַׁב). The silence is meant to give us time and patience to sense what it is that our soul is saying before we express it with our mouths. Speech that arises from sensing God’s still small voice within will also succeed in audibly conveying it.

From Cycle to Process

Many generations after the Talmud was finalized, there lived a unique Jew named Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, who charted a new path in studying the ancient sources of the sages. In many places, the Ba’al Shem Tov proposed the development and refinement of the sayings of the sages, and one of these is the sages’ interpretation of the word chashmal.[11]

The silence and speech hinted at by the word chashmal, explained the Ba’al Shem Tov, are only a framework. Silence curbs our natural tendency to think of ourselves as all-knowing, but something additional must happen before we can go on to proper speech. To fill this gap, the Ba’al Shem Tov pointed to a second meaning embedded in mal, the second half of chashmal: he explained that mal can be understood not only as referring to speech but also to “cutting” especially in the sense of “circumcision” (milah). Between silence and speech, a deep internal clarification process must occur, allowing us to carefully weigh and select our words. This middle stage is akin to circumcision and transforms the entire process into one that is similar to a spiritual circumcision.

By adding this interpretation, the Ba’al Shem Tov transformed the word chashmal from a two-stage cycle, as it was with the sages, into a three-stage process, known as chash-mal-mal: chash for silence, mal for circumcision, and finally a second mal denoting verbal speech.

Although at first, the image of circumcision may seem foreign to the original chash-mal pair of silence and speech, it actually fits very well. According to Kabbalah, there is an inner connection between the organ of circumcision and the tongue: They constitute the two organs of procreation in a person—the one for physical procreation and the other for spiritual procreation.[12] Just as we must circumcise the lower, more physical organ, so too we must “circumcise” our tongue, clarify and purify our speech. This inner circumcision comes on the heels of the silence phase that preceded it and leads up to the stage of speech that follows it.

Submission, Separation, and Sweetening

The Ba’al Shem Tov also gave new names to the three stages of chash-mal-mal. He called them “submission” (hachna’ah, הַכְנָעָה), “separation” (havdalah, הַבְדָּלָה), and “sweetening” (hamtaka, הַמְתָּקָה), additionally explaining that they characterize every genuine process of self-improvement:

  • Submission: The first stage corresponds to chash meaning silence. This stage signifies calming the urge for self-expression and externalization—a prerequisite for stepping out of our boundaries and learning something new. In fact, submission is the subjugation of the ego itself, which normally maintains that we already know everything and are perfect in everything. The submission stage opens us up to new perspectives and new possibilities, which are not natural to us.
  • Separation: The second stage corresponds to the first meaning of mal—circumcision. Separation is an internal clarification process where we cleanse and separate ourselves from all the negative elements within us and simultaneously strengthen our identification with the good. The separation stage is possible thanks to the submission that preceded it and is conducted within the space of silence we imposed on ourselves. That this stage is called mal just like the third stage, hints that already now self-expression begins to reemerge, but only inwardly, in the form of the reemergence of our Divine essence and our identification with it.
  • Sweetening: The third stage corresponds to the second meaning of mal—verbal speech. At this stage, we can once again express ourselves outwardly, this time from a rectified and purified place. This stage is called sweetening because it sweetens the sense of bitterness that accompanied the submission and separation stages, when we had to restrain ourselves from coming to full and free expression.

As mentioned, the Ba’al Shem Tov emphasized that any complete spiritual process must go through these three stages. They must come in this order, and none can be skipped. In any situation, we must first submit our ego and remember that we are far from perfect; then we must separate ourselves from all the negative elements in our attitude towards this matter and reveal and identify with the essentially positive core within us; and, only then can we achieve a rectified and perfected state, and the sacrifices we made in the previous two stages will be sweetened for and in us.

From Angel to Human

The ability to stop, be silent, and carefully weigh one’s words and deeds is the main marker of inner work. Therefore, it should also be the main trait we look for when seeking a rabbi or teacher. When the Ba’al Shem Tov explained the stages of submission, separation, and sweetening, he quoted a saying from the sages (found in the same Talmudic tractate where chashmal is explained, a few pages later), which says: “If the rabbi resembles an angel of the God of Hosts, seek Torah from his mouth; if not, do not seek Torah from his mouth”[13]. The Ba’al Shem Tov points outs that the Hebrew word for “angel” (מַלְאָךְ) is the reverse of the word for “as a mute” (כְּאִלֵם): Angels are silent and modest creatures who do their work quietly and discreetly. Likewise, the quality of an “angelic” rabbi is that he initially resembles a mute. He does not hasten to speak or answer, but carefully selects his words in silence and then expresses himself.

As we recall, the whole idea of chashmal was born from Ezekiel’s prophetic vision of angelic “creatures of fire.” The idea of the muted angel we just presented suggests that, among the two aspects of chashmal, silence and speech, it is mainly silence that is angelic. This makes speech more of a human trait. Indeed, in the description of the creation of man we find that, “He [God] breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul.”[14] The term “a living soul” (נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה) is translated into Aramaic as “a speaking spirit.” Perhaps inspired by this, the classical definition of humankind from antiquity (adopted by the Rabbis) in relation to the mineral, vegetable, and animal kingdoms below it, is surprisingly “speaker” (medaber) and not, for example, “thinker,” as in the Latin homo sapiens. The silent “running” movement towards God is relatively angelic, but the “returning” movement expressed here on earth as speech is quintessentially human.

The secret of chashmal, therefore, alludes to a sort of transformation process from angel to human. More precisely, it can be seen as embodying a kind roundabout evolution from an animal to an angel and finally to a human: Submission subjugates our animalistic side (the ego’s basis), turning us into a sort of angel; separation is the discovery of the elevated human soul within us thanks to our “angelic” silent inner work; and sweetening is the expression of our human soul outwards. The human level may seem lower than the angelic level, and a kind of anticlimax, but in truth it is explained that the root of the human soul is higher than that of the angel, since, unlike the angel, a human has free choice between good and evil.

What does this developmental path offer us? Often, to justify human weaknesses, people use the common expressions “it’s only human” or “I’m only human.” What these expressions mean is that, unlike angels, humans have an evil inclination and are therefore are prone to sin. However, the thought “I’m only human” can easily degrade into the thought, “I’m nothing but an animal with impulses and needs.” To balance the picture, we need to add another reference point to humanity, which is the animals. True, we are not angels, but neither are we animals: We can master our impulses and choose good. But now a new problem arises: Overemphasizing our superiority to animals might lead us to the illusion that we are angels without any animalistic inclinations.

Understanding the secret of chashmal as an animal-angelic-human developmental path offers us a way to be balanced humans, to acknowledge our non-angelic nature without descending into animality. This process teaches us to not immediately say at the outset, “I am not an angel, I am only human.” If you do so, you will not rectify your animal nature, but rather deteriorate into it. Instead, first strive, within yourself, to be like an angel, to do everything to subdue your inner brute and separate yourself from it. In this way, you will merit to be a true human being, standing with your feet on the ground while speaking heavenly words.

Click here for the other fascinating chapters in this series

[1]. In fact, it seems that the modern word “electricity” originates from the Latin translation of this mysterious word, “electrum.”

[2]. Ezekiel 1:4.

[3]. Chagigah 13a.

[4]. Rashi on loc. cit.

[5]. Avot 1:16.

[6]. Ibid. 1:17.

[7]. Ibid. 3:13.

[8]. Ecclesiastes 3:7.

[9]. Ezekiel 1:14.

[10]. 1 Kings 19:12.

[11]. Keter Shem Tov §28.

[12] Sefer Yetzirah 6:8.

[13]. Chagigah 15b.

[14]. Genesis 2:7.

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