Chassidutmain postsThe Ba'al Shem Tov

The Ba’al Shem Tov on Aesthetics

Keter Shem Tov, Section 76

All that we have discussed regarding aesthetics relates to the central innovation of a teaching from the Ba’al Shem Tov. Let’s first in its entirety, and then return to explain each part:

I heard in the name of my teacher the secret of the eiruv (boundary) of two thousand cubits, etc. For God has nothing in His world but the four cubits of halachah. The matter is that in everything in the world, there are three [holy] Names Adni (אֲ-דֹנָי), Havayah (הוי'), and Ekyeh (אֶהְיֶה). This is like a house, which is called Adni, and what emerges from it, for example, the pleasure derived from a decorated house and the like, is called Havayah, and the surrounding light that protects the house from impurity is called Ekyeh.[1]

In this Torah, there is a marvelous novelty that touches upon the subject of aesthetics. We should note that a few years ago, Keter Shem Tov was published with a commentary (כתר שם טוב המפורש), which in principle does a good job explaining and expanding the sources referenced and comparing to similar teachings. Nevertheless, many times it is impossible to find in the commentary the inner, essential “feeling” that the teaching is meant to elicit; for this central innovation a special “sense” related to Chasidut is required. This sense is what we are primarily trying to add in these classes. Here too, the general explanation offered by the commentary is excellent and clear, but the point of innovation that captivated us is not mentioned.

The Domain of Holiness

We are fortunate to learn these teachings on Shabbat, and this particular one deals with an explanation of a topic related to Shabbat—the Shabbat domain or limit (תְּחוּם שַׁבָּת):

I heard in the name of my teacher the secret of the eiruv (boundary) of two thousand cubits, etc. For God has nothing in His world but the four cubits of halachah.

About Shabbat it is written “Let every person remain where they are; let no man leave his place on the seventh day.”[2] From this verse, we learn the laws of the Shabbat domain or limit. The first part of the verse, “Let every person remain where they are” refers to the four cubits. The second part, “Let no man leave his place” refers to the two thousand cubits.” There is holiness in the four cubits surrounding a person and on Shabbat this holiness extends out to two thousand cubits. It is forbidden to go out on Shabbat further than two thousand cubits so as not to exit the domain of holiness, not to reach a place where the impure forces can draw energy. If a person did go further than two thousand cubits, then he is still left with a personal space extending four cubits around him. The individual’s personal four cubits are considered his personal extension, even on a weekday, something that is also expressed in the law that a person’s four cubits is the area that effects his ownership over physical objects.[3]

The faculty of the soul that extends four cubits, manifesting the statement “Let every person remain where they are” (שְׁבוּ אִישׁ תַּחְתָּיו) is lowliness. This is the special trait of the Mashiach, about whom it is said “His name is Tzemach and he will sprout from where he is”[4] (צֶמַח שְׁמוֹ וּמִתַּחְתָּיו יִצְמָח). Let us add a numerical allusion regarding the secret of “two thousand cubits” (אַלְפַּיִם אַמָּה). The numerical value of “two thousand” (אַלְפַּיִם) is 161 (which in Kabbalah is the value of the name called קסא—the yud filling of the Name Ekyeh, אלף הי יוד הי), or 7 times 23, where 23 is the value of “the living one” (חַיָּה) and of “joy” (חֶדְוָה), and of “radiance” (זִיו). But the value of “cubit” (אַמָּה) is also a multiple of 23: 2 times 23. So, the numerical value of “two thousand cubits” (אַלְפַּיִם אַמָּה) is 207, the value of “light” (אוֹר), which is 9 times 23, as well as “infinity” (אֵין סוֹף) and “mystery” (רָז)—in short, the power of the spreading of holiness.

What the Ba’al Shem Tov will now explain the relationship between the smaller, more limited domain of four cubits, which, as implied by the statement regarding “four cubits of Jewish law” includes the main extension of holiness and the more extensive space of two thousand cubits.

Three Names

To explain the matter, the Ba’al Shem Tov introduces a fundamental concept in Kabbalah:

The matter is that in everything in the world, there are three [holy] Names Adni (אֲ-דֹנָי), Havayah (הוי'), and Ekyeh (אֶהְיֶה).

This is another example of what we have recently noted, that the novelty of the Baal Shem Tov’s kabbalah is the conversion of details found in the Kabbalah that preceded him, especially those of the Arizal and the Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, into general principles. He takes a detail written in a specific context and turns it into a matter that relates to every person, in every place, and at every time. The secret of the three Names, Adni, Havayah, and Ekyeh appears as an intention in several important places, but the Baal Shem Tov turns it here into the greatest general principle applicable, “to everything in the world.”

What is the inner meaning of these three Names? The Name Adni belongs to kingdom (malchut), Havayah belongs to beauty (tiferet), and Ekyeh belongs to understanding (binah) and sometimes to all the intellectual faculties, wisdom, and understanding, as we will see in this case. These three sefirot are alluded to by the acronym, “with earnestness” (בַּתֹּם) appearing in the verse, “He who walks earnestly walks securely”[5] (הוֹלֵךְ בַּתֹּם יֵלֶךְ בֶּטַח). The unification of Havayah and Adni—the union of beauty and kingdom—is the unification of the Holy Blessed One and the Shechinah (the Divine Presence). In Tanya, this unification is interpreted as the union of the infinite light that surrounds all worlds (סוֹבֵב כָּל עָלְמִין) with the infinite light that fills all worlds (מְמַלֵּא כָּל עָלְמִין). It follows then that the Name Ekyeh refers to the revelation of that which is above these two aspects (the surrounding and the filling) that are limited to the worlds, in other words to the revelation of God’s essential being. These are thus indeed the three greatest general principles of Divine revelation, suitable to make them a general principle of “everything in the world.”

Our consciousness is in the World of Action (assiyah). Relative to our consciousness, the kingdom of the World of Emanation (atzilut) is the infinite light that fills all worlds, the beauty of Emanation is already the infinite light that surrounds all worlds, and the understanding of Emanation is already what is above the surrounding and filling. This is how Rabbi Isaac of Homel explains it, and this is the explanation in general in Chasidut, when they take concepts in the spheres of Atzilut and turn them into an expression of much greater things – they take the unification of Kudsha Brich Hu and Shechinatai, which was always understood as the unification of Zeir Anpin and Kingship in Atzilut, and explain that it is the union of the surrounding and the filling. We have expanded on this explanation, because we will later try to take what the Baal Shem Tov says here and consider it as it appears at the root, at levels higher than what is explicit here.

The sum of the gematria of these three Names, Adni (אֲדֹנָי), Havayah (הוי'), and Ekyeh (אֶהְיֶה) is 112, the value of the word Yaboq[6] (יַבֹּק), used as an acronym for the words, “unification, blessing, holiness” (יִחוּד בְּרָכָה קְדוּשָׁה). According to the explanation in Chabad, holiness is in the mind, corresponding to the name Ekyeh, blessing is in the heart, corresponding to the name Havayah, and unification corresponds to foundation and kingdom, corresponding to the name Adni.

The Sanctuary of Adni

Now, the great principle that the Ba’al Shem Tov presents here is demonstrated through the example of a “home”:

This is like a home, which is called Adni

The Baal Shem Tov does not choose an arbitrary example here. The home is the place of a person. It is the permanent location of his “four cubits” (and “the entire home is considered like a person’s four cubits”[7]). The word “home” (בַּיִת) appears in the middle letters of the phrase, “Let every person remain where they are” (שְׁבוּ אִישׁ תַּחְתָּיו), from which we learned about a person’s four cubits, as mentioned above.


A home, in particular, also has a special connection to God’s Name Adni, the name of the sefirah of kingdom. First, “’His home’ is his wife”[8] and “Rabbi Yossi said, ‘I never referred to my wife as my wife… rather I referred to her as my home.’” Thus, the home is associated with the feminine, with kingdom.

Where is it written that one should think of the Name Adni? Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk writes in his Tzetil Katan that when one sees a woman, one should visualize the name Adni, and from this it is understood that when one sees a man, one should visualize the name Havayah.

The most important home or house that in exile is substituted for by the “four cubits of halachah is the Holy Temple, the “dwelling place in the lower realms” in which God desires to dwell. About it, it is said, “the sanctuary of Adni, Your hands established.” Earlier in the same verse, it states, “A place for Your dwelling, You, Havayah, have made.”[9] Immediately afterward it concludes the Song at the Sea with “Havayah shall reign forever and ever” (הוי' יִמְלֹךְ לְעֹלָם וָעֶד) whose gematria is “peace” (שָׁלוֹם).[10] But the Temple itself, the body of the Temple that is built and established by two hands, belongs to the name Adni, except that in it and with it, the name Havayah unifies.

Pleasure from a Decorated House

The main novelty in this teaching from the Ba’al Shem Tov appears in the next statement:

and what emerges from it, for example, the pleasure derived from a decorated house and the like, that is called Havayah,

This is truly wondrous. The Ba’al Shem Tov is saying that the name Havayah refers to “what emerges [מִתְהַוֶּה] from it” and specifically he says that it is not the house’s utility that emerges from it, nor is it the commandments fulfilled therein, but rather it is the aesthetic pleasure derived from the house that the Name Havayah refers to. When a man builds a house with his wife (and as we said, his wife is his home) his wife will decorate it. The woman, who has a sense for aesthetics, beginning with her “bridal adornments,” likes to decorate the house so that it will be beautiful and pleasant. And incredibly, the Ba’al Shem Tov says that the delight derived from the home’s beauty is the secret of the name Havayah.

Indeed, we should add that the gematria of “delight” (הֲנָאָה) is the same as “I” (אֲנִי). Thus, delight alludes to the subjective “I” that relates to the objective object. In holiness, this is expressed with the words, “I am Havayah” (אֲנִי הוי').

We see here a direct connection to the law of aesthetics we mentioned. Aesthetics are not connected to the practical utility found in things, but to the pleasure found in their beauty.

Encompassing Protection

Now we come to the end of this teaching from the Ba’al Shem Tov:

and the surrounding light that protects the house from impurity is called Ekyeh

When we enjoy the house, an aesthetic pleasure and not something utilitarian-necessary, either for the sake of bodily health or for the sake of fulfilling the commandments of the Torah, the external impure forces can suck on our energy. This is because this type of pleasure belongs to the realm of those things that are permissible (and not those things that we are obligated to do). To be protected from the impure husks one needs the encompassing light related to the name Ekyeh (which itself is the secret of holiness, as mentioned in the secret of unity-blessing-holiness, above). Here it is expressed with the domain of the two thousand cubits that surround the four cubits that is the house, thus protecting the home from the impure forces that lurk from a distance.

[1]. Keter Shem Tov §76.

[2]. Exodus 16:29.

[3]. Bava Metzia 10a-b.

[4]. Zachariah 6:12.

[5]. Proverbs 10:9.

[6]. See Genesis 32:23.

[7]. Eiruvin 42b.

[8]. Mishnah Yoma 1:1.


[10]. Moreover, this is the 358th instance of God’s essential Name, Havayah in the Pentateuch. 358 is the value of “Mashiach” (מָשִׁיחַ).

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