In this cycle through the Torah we will be taking a mystical journey. Our guide will be Rabbi Larry Tabick’s book, The Aura of Torah, published in 2014 by the Jewish Publication Society and the University of Nebraska. Translations of kabbalistic texts are by Rabbi Larry Tabick. Translations of the Torah and other commentaries are from Sefaria, except where otherwise noted. Translations of the Talmud are the Steinsaltz, William Davidson Talmud, on Sefaria.
Last week the Torah shifted from narrative to halacha. Here, the Torah returns to narrative, concerning itself with the building of the Mishkan — the Tabernacle, or portable Temple. That begins the Torah’s description and rules for ritual.
Encountering ritual — its objects, architecture, activities, and cycle — the mystics seek to find its spiritual meaning and purpose.
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts [תְּרוּמָ֑ה] ; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.
Sanhedrin 39a:14-15 (Ein Yaakov)
A certain heretic said to Rabbi Abbahu: Your God is a priest, as it is written: “That they take for Me an offering [teruma]” (Exodus 25:2), and teruma is given to the priests. He asked, sarcastically: When He buried Moses, in what ritual bath did He immerse? A priest who contracts impurity from a corpse must immerse in order to be able to partake of teruma. And if you would say that He immersed in water, but isn’t it written: “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand” (Isaiah 40:12), that all waters of the world fit in the palm of God, so He could not immerse in them.
Rabbi Abbahu said to him: He immersed in fire, as it is written: “For, behold, the Lord will come in fire” (Isaiah 66:15). The heretic said to him: But is immersion in fire effective? Rabbi Abbahu said to him: On the contrary, the main form of immersion is in fire, as it is written with regard to the removal of non-kosher substances absorbed in a vessel: “And all that abides not the fire you shall make to go through the water” (Numbers 31:23), indicating that fire purifies more than water does.
This text in the Talmud appears among a series of incidents were heretics or philosophers attempt to show the foolishness of Judaism through logical absurdities. In this particular case the philosopher attempts to apply the rules of priests to God, who surely must at least be as pure as a priest. The result of applying those rules is a logical contradiction. Rabbi Abbahu shows that the Scripture accounts for this case and is able to resolve the contradiction.
Is Rabbi Abbahu’s explanation successful for you? Is the purpose of this passage simply to show Rabbi Abbahu’s cleverness? Or is there more going on? What might you ask Rabbi Abbahu? What might you ask the philosopher?
Ze’ev Wolf of Zhitomir, 18th century, Ukraine
This is a great principle of the Torah and of the service of God: that within everything in the universe there is a hint of wisdom, so that enlightened people can awaken their hearts within them to the service of their of Creator, even when eating and drinking, and buying and selling. This is what the previous scriptural [verse] alludes to: “From everyone whose heart encourages them shall you take My offering” – that is, not just then, at the moment the command of the section of the terumah was given, or of the building of the Tabernacle, for in truth the Torah is eternal and exists in all times. Hence, “from everyone whose heart encourages them” toward the service of their Creator, from this time on, until the arrival of our Messiah, “shall you take My offering” – you are allowed to take the aspect of “My offering,” for matters regarding the Israelites’ service is ongoing.
You shall make the altar of acacia wood, five cubits long and five cubits wide — the altar is to be square — and three cubits high.
Is there anything odd in the plain meaning of the text?
Zevachim 59b:5-6 (There is no Ein Yaakov for this verse.)
Rabbi Yehuda says: It is stated here that the altar built in the time of Moses was: “Square” (Exodus 27:1), and it is stated there, in Ezekiel’s prophetic description of the altar, that it is: “Square” (Ezekiel 43:16). Just as there, in Ezekiel’s vision, he was measuring the distance in each direction from its center, so too here, the verse was measuring the altar that Moses built from its center. Accordingly, the altar built by Moses was ten cubits by ten cubits.
The Gemara asks: And from where do we derive that the altar mentioned there, in Ezekiel, was measured from its center? The Gemara answers: As it is written: “And the hearth shall be twelve cubits long by twelve wide, square, to its four sides” (Ezekiel 43:16). The Gemara asks: Does the verse mean twelve cubits in each direction from the center of the altar, so that in total it was twenty-four by twenty-four cubits? Or perhaps the altar was only a total of twelve by twelve cubits. The Gemara answers: When the verse states: “To its four sides,” it teaches that Ezekiel was measuring from the center of the altar.
There is debate among the rabbis on what the measurement five long and five wide means: is five measured on the outer edges of the altar or from the center to the edges?
Hayyim Yosef David Azulai (The Chida), 18th century, Jerusalem
The altar is a hint that you should prepare your body as a great altar for the sacrifice of your inclination toward evil. Vain thoughts should be burnt with the fire of the exalted Torah. It is a mitzvah to bring self-afflictions and fasts from ordinary people, and immediately an exalted fire is given by heaven, crouching like a lion in your heart. The heart is purified, and you can sacrifice upon it the inclination toward all evil thoughts, and they will be burnt up. Those who offer sacrifices [of this kind] love their fellow human beings, and draw them closer to Torah, righteousness [and] deeds of lovingkindness. The dimensions of the altar are perfect: five [cubits] in length, five in width, and three in height, which add up to thirteen, the same as the numerical value of eCHAD [one], for all your intentions should be to unite the “lovers.” Every day it is a mitzvah to “raise up the ashes,” to remove the remnants of evil thoughts.
Our body can be an altar by adopting ascetic practices according to Rabbi Azulai. These practices can burn up — sacrifice — our negative intentions.
Rabbi Tabick notes:
- “Uniting the lovers” refers to unifying the masculine and feminine in ourselves. Or to bring together parts of our personality that are in conflict.
- “Raising the ashes” could mean bringing our lower intentions to higher purposes — “righteousness [and] deeds of lovingkindness.”
Fasting is used in many religions as a means of altering our awareness. There is also the idea here of giving up, or sacrificing, something our body craves.
Could you reframe kashrut in those terms — as a sacrifice — by adopting limitations and restrictions on appetite?
The latter part of Rabbi Azulai’s passage suggests transformation rather than elimination? What might be examples of that? How could eating become a means of performing a deed of lovingkindness?