FROM TREE OF SOULS: THE MYTHOLOGY OF JUDAISM
By Howard Schwartz
Oxford University Press, 2004
FROM BOOK ONE, MYTHS OF GOD
3. GOD’S THRONE OF GLORY
God sits in the center of a high and exalted throne, exceedingly majestic, suspended in the
highest heaven, Aravot. Some say that one-half of the throne is made of fire, and the other half
of snow. Others say that the entire throne consists of fire. A resplendent crown of glory rests
upon God’s head, and upon His forehead are written the four letters of His Name, YHVH.
God’s eyes overlook all of the earth; on His right is life, on His left, death. In His hand
is a scepter of fire. Fire surrounds the Throne of Glory, and beneath it sapphires glow. The
throne stands upon four legs, with four holy creatures attached to it. On each side are
four faces and four wings. Clouds of glory surround the throne, filled with six-winged
seraphim singing praises to the Lord.
God’s Throne of Glory is fused with a chariot of fire. It has never set foot on the floor of the
seventh heaven, but hovers like a bird there. Each day the Throne of Glory sings a hymn
before God, and thrice daily the throne prostrates itself before God, saying, “God of Israel, sit
upon me in glory, for Your burden is most dear to me and does not weigh me down.”
Rivers issue forth from under the Throne of Glory: rivers of joy, rivers of rejoicing,
rivers of jubilation, rivers of love, rivers of friendship. They strengthen themselves and
pass through the gates of the seventh heaven.
While God sits upon His throne, high and exalted, and looks down upon the earth, the
wheels of the chariot roll through the heavens, causing lightning and thunder, as well as
earthquakes. The chariot is led through the heavens by a swift cherub, who flies upon
wings of the wind.
This is one of many rabbinic myths that elaborates on Isaiah’s vision of God seated
on a heavenly throne (Isa. 6:1-8). Here the description of the throne adds four holy
creatures (hayyot) attached to it. The throne itself is said to be moving through the
heavens as if it were some kind of fiery chariot. This image is one of the central paradoxes
of Jewish mysticism—that God’s throne is also such a Merkavah, a fiery chariot,
both fixed in place in the highest heaven and also traveling through heaven like a
comet at the same time. This comes directly from the vision of Ezekiel (Ezek. 1:1-28).
God is described in elemental terms, seated on a throne half fire, half snow. According
to one version, the snow beneath the Throne of Glory was used by God to
create the Foundation Stone; according to another version, it was used to create the
whole earth. See the note to “The Work of Creation” p. 90.
In Masekhet Hekhalot, one of the Hekhalot texts describing heavenly journeys, the
size of the throne is given in physical terms: “Its length is 800,000 myriads of parasangs,
and its width is 500,000 myriads of parasangs, and its height is 300,000 parasangs, and
it reaches from one end of the world to the other.”
In the hymns of Hekhalot Rabbati, one of the most important of the Hekhalot texts,
God’s Throne of Glory is personified, singing a creation hymn before God and prostrating
itself before God three times a day.
Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 3, 6; Sefer ha-Zikhronot 1:11, 1:6; Midrash Tehillim 4:12; Hekhalot
Rabbati 8, 10; Masekhet Hekhalot in Beit ha-Midrash 2:40-47; Midrash Konen in Beit
ha-Midrash 2:25; Sefer ha-Komah, Oxford Ms. 1791, ff. 55-70.
The Faces of the Chariot by David J. Halperin.
70. THE SACRED BEDCHAMBER
On the very day King Solomon completed the building of the Temple in Jerusalem, God
and His Bride were united, and Her face shone with perfect joy. Then there was joy for
all, above and below.
As long as the Temple stood, it served as the sacred bedchamber of God the King and
His Bride, the Shekhinah. Every midnight She would enter through the place of the Holy
of Holies, and She and God would celebrate their joyous union. The loving embrace of
the King and His Queen assured the well-being not only of Israel, but also of the whole
The King would come to the Queen and lie in Her arms, and all that She asked of Him
he would fulfill. He placed his left arm under Her head, His right arm embraced Her, and
He let Her enjoy His strength. Their pleasure in each other was indescribable. He made
His home with Her and took His delight between Her breasts. They lay in a tight embrace,
Her image impressed on His body like a seal imprinted upon a page, as it is written,
Set me as a seal upon Your heart (S. of S. 8:6).
As long as the Temple stood, the King would come down from his heavenly abode
every midnight, seek out his Bride, and enjoy her in their sacred bedchamber. But when the
Temple was destroyed, the Shekhinah went into exile, and Bride and Groom were torn apart.
This explicit myth portrays the interaction of God and His Bride as a highly eroticized
coupling, a sacred copulation (zivvug ha-kodesh). This is a primal image of the
sacred marriage (hieros gamos). In Zohar 1:120b, this is referred to as “the one total
coupling, the full coupling, as is proper.” Zohar 3:296a expands on this: “The Matronita
(the Shekhinah) united herself with the king. From this, one body resulted.” This illustrates
the strong sexual dimension of kabbalistic thought, especially in the Zohar. It
also demonstrates the direct correlation between the unity and union of God and His
Bride and the existence of the Temple in Jerusalem. The destruction of the Temple
brings about the separation of God and the Shekhinah and sends the Shekhinah into
exile. All of this comes about because of the sins of Israel. When Israel sins, these sins
give power to the forces of evil, preventing the Shekhinah from uniting with Her husband,
and forcing the divine couple to turn away from each other. When Israel repents,
God and the Shekhinah turn back to each other.
So important is the coupling of God and the Shekhinah that in Zohar 3:296a, Rabbi
Shimon bar Yohai, the principal speaker in the Zohar describes it as the deepest of all
According to B. Ta’anit 16a and Song of Songs Rabbah 1:66, one of the names for the
place where the Temple was built was “the bedchamber.”
Zohar 1:120b, 3:74b, 3:296a; Zohar Hadash, Midrash Eikhah, 92c-92d.
78. LILITH BECOMES GOD’S BRIDE
After God dismissed His Bride, the Shekhinah, from His presence, at the time of the destruction
of the Temple, God brought in a maidservant to take Her place. Who is this
maidservant? She is none other than Lilith, who once made her home behind the mill,
and now the servant is heir to her mistress, as it is said, A slave girl who supplants her
mistress (Prov. 30:23). She rules over the Holy Land as the Shekhinah once ruled over it.
Thus the slave-woman has become the ruler of the House, and the true Bride has been
imprisoned in the house of the slave-woman, the evil Lilith. There the Bride is held in
exile with her offspring, whose hands are tied behind their backs, wearing many chains
and shackles. That is a bitter time for the exiled Bride, who sobs because Her husband,
God, does not throw His light upon Her. Her joy has fled because She sees Her rival,
Lilith, in Her house, deriding Her. And when God sees his true Bride lying in the dust
and suffering, He, too, will become embittered and descend to save Her from the strangers
who are violating Her.
So it is that in the days to come news will come to God’s consort, Lilith, that the time
has come for her to go. Then she who plays the harlot will flee from the sanctuary, for if
she were to come there when the woman of worth was present, she would perish.
Then God will restore the Shekhinah to Her place as in the beginning, and God and His
true Bride will again couple with each other in joy. As for the evil slave-woman, God will
no longer dwell with her, and she will cease to exist.
This startling myth describes the ascent of the demoness Lilith, in which she becomes
God’s consort after His separation from his Bride. It is based on an interpretation
of the verse A slave girl who supplants her mistress (Prov. 30:23). The identification
of Lilith as once living behind a mill is based on the verse about the slave girl who is
behind the millstones (Exod. 11:5). In folk tradition, Lilith was especially likely to be
found in places such as a ruin or behind a mill. Here a strong contrast is made between
her low beginnings and her ascent to become God’s consort.
This myth represents the apex of Lilith’s ambitions, but it is also understood that
her position is only temporary—until God’s true Bride, the Shekhinah, returns at the
time of the coming of the Messiah. The ruling presence of the demonic Lilith over the
Holy Land, as she takes the place of her predecessor, is offered to explain the long
exile of the Jews that followed the destruction of the Temple and subsequent exile.
Note that in this version of the separation of God and the Shekhinah, God is described
as having dismissed Her rather than an alternate version, also found in the
Zohar (1:202b-203a), in which the Shekhinah and God have a confrontation about the
fate of the Temple and the children of Israel sent into exile, and she decides to leave on
Her own. See “The Exile of the Shekhinah,” p. 57.
It is impossible to read this myth without seeing a parallel to the story of Abraham
and Hagar. Hagar was Sarah’s maidservant, but when Sarah remained barren, Abraham
conceived Ishmael, his first child, with Hagar, And when she saw that she had conceived,
her mistress was lowered in her esteem (Gen. 16:4). The enmity between Sarah and her
maidservant is thus parallel to that of God’s Bride and the maidservant Lilith.
The Zohar (3:97a) adds a fascinating explanation for the link between Lilith and the
Shekhinah: “This recondite mystery is that of two sisters.” In kabbalistic mythology, the
Shekhinah represents the feminine aspect of the side of holiness, while Lilith represents
the feminine aspect of the side of evil. Thus they are tied together, like two sisters.
The myth ends by predicting the reunion of God and the Shekhinah and the end of
Lilith’s existence. It is unstated but understood that this will take place at the time of
the coming of the Messiah.
Zohar 2:118a-118b, 3:69a, 3:97a; B’rit ha-Levi 7; G. Scholem, Tarbiz, vol. 5, pp. 50, 194-95.
The Hebrew Goddess by Raphael Patai, pp. 96-111, 221-254.
FROM BOOK TWO, MYTHS OF CREATION
90. PRIOR WORLDS
Before the world was created, God alone existed, one and eternal, beyond any boundary,
without change or movement, concealed within Himself. When the thought arose in Him
to bring the world into being, His glory became visible. He began to trace the foundations
of a world before Himself, and in this way God brought a heaven and earth into
being. But when God looked at them, they were not pleasing in His sight, so He changed
them back into emptiness and void. He split and rent and tore them apart with his two
arms, and ruined whole worlds in one moment. One after another, God created a thousand
worlds, which preceded this one. And all of them were swept away in the wink of
God went on creating worlds and destroying worlds until He created this one and
declared, “This one pleases me, those did not.” That is how God created the heaven and
the earth as we know it, as it is said, “For, behold! I am creating a new heaven and a new earth”
The verse These are the generations of the heaven and the earth when they were created
(Gen. 2:4) suggested to the rabbis the creation of prior worlds, while the verse You
carry them away as with a flood (Ps. 90:5) was also interpreted to refer to the destruction
of these prior worlds. The Zohar (1:262b) suggests that God did not actually build
these prior worlds, but only thought about building them.
That this world was not the first that God created was believed to be indicated by
Isaiah 65:17: “For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth and the former shall not be
remembered nor come to mind.” Zohar Hadash identifies the prior worlds as totaling 1,000,
as does Or ha-Hayim 1:12, which states that before God created this world, He created
a thousand hidden worlds. These hidden worlds were created through the first letter,
aleph. That is why the Torah, in the report of the Creation of this world, commences
with the second letter, bet. The existence of the 1,000 worlds is linked to the verse You
may have the thousand, O Solomon (S. of S. 8:12).
Other sources, such as Midrash Tehillim 90:13, give the number as 974 worlds, which
were said to have been created and destroyed over 2,000 years. Sefer ha-Zikhronot 1:1
suggests that when it entered God’s mind to create the world, He drew the plan of the
world, but it would not stand until God created repentance. Thus repentance is the
key element that made our world possible.
Rabbi Yitzhak Eizik Haver (1789-1853) found evidence of prior creations in the fact
that the Torah starts with the letter bet, the second letter, rather than with an aleph, the
first letter. “The verse begins with the letter bet to hint that Creation was divided into
two realms—that God created two beginnings.”
Although a great many prior worlds are said to have been created and destroyed,
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev insisted that “Everything God created exists forever,
and never ceases to be.” And in Esh Kadosh, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira identifies
the creation and destruction of the prior worlds with the Shattering of the Vessels.
Furthermore, he states that God made the present universe out of those broken vessels.
See “The Shattering of the Vessels and Gathering the Sparks,” p. 122.
The belief that God destroyed the prior worlds implies that God’s creations of these
worlds was somehow in error. Some Christian apocryphal sources, such as The Gospel
of Philip 99a, describe even the present world as an error: “The world came into being
through a mistake. For he who created it wished to create it imperishable and immortal.
He did not attain his hope.”
Genesis Rabbah 3:7, 9:2, 28:4, 33:3; Exodus Rabbah 1:2, 30:3; B. Hagigah 13b; Midrash
Tehillim 90:13; Midrash Aleph Bet 5:5; Eliyahu Rabbah 2:9; Zohar 1:24, 1:154a, 1:262b,
3:135a-135b, Idra Rabbah; Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 3; Sefer ha-’Iyyun Ms. Hebrew
University 8330; Zohar Hadash; Sefer ha-Zikhronot 1:1; Rashi on Shabbat 88b; No’am
Elimelekh, Bo 36b; Kedushat Levi; Or ha-Hayim 1:12; Esh Kadosh; Otzrot Rabbi Yitzhav
Yitzhak Eizik Haver, p.1.
The Holy Fire: The Teachings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the
Warsaw Ghetto by Nehemia Polen.
103. WHAT DOES THE EARTH STAND ON?
Once, when Aaron the Priest, brother of Moses, was offering sacrifices on Yom Kippur,
the bull sprang up from beneath his hands and covered a cow. When that calf was born,
it was stronger than any other. Before a year was out, the calf had grown bigger than the
God then took the world and stuck it on one horn of that bull. And the bull holds up the
world on his horn, for that is God’s wish. But when people sin, their sins make the world
heavier, and the burden of the bull grows that much greater. Then the bull grows tired of its
burden, and tosses the world from one horn to the other. That is when earthquakes take
place, and everything is uncertain until the world stands secure on a single horn.
So it is that the bull tosses the world from time to time from one horn to the other,
causing earthquakes and other catastrophes. And if people only knew of the danger, they
would recognize how much they are dependent on God’s mercy. For if they would only
observe the commandments and sanctify God’s name, the bull would stand still and the
world remain quietly on its horns.
This Moroccan myth about God putting the world on one horn of a giant bull demonstrates
that myths, as well as folktales, can be found among the abundant tales
collected orally in Israel by the Israel Folktale Archives. While many of these myths
are found in earlier texts, sometimes, as here, a myth is passed down orally and is not
to be found in the written tradition. This myth reminds us of myths from other cultures
about what the world stands on, such as the widespread belief in South Asia and
among North American Indians that the earth rests on the back of a turtle. Not only
does this myth explain what the world stands on (since it appears to be standing still),
but also provides an explanation for earthquakes and other disasters. Note the genesis
of the bull that grows to be bigger than the world—it is born from the unplanned
copulation of a bull about to be sacrificed on Yom Kippur. What the myth does not
address is the obvious contradiction that the world already existed at the time of Aaron,
brother of Moses, the first High Priest.
159. ADAM THE GOLEM
When God decided to create Adam, He gathered dust from the four corners of the earth,
rolled it together, mixed it with water, and made red clay. Then God shaped the clay into
a lifeless body, the first golem, stretching from one end of the world to the other, and
brought it to life. So large was it, that God’s hand rested upon it. So large was it, that
wherever God looked, He saw it. That is the meaning of the verse Your eyes saw my golem
(Ps. 139:16). So huge was it, that the angels mistook it for God Himself, and they wanted
to say “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts.” So God caused sleep to fall upon him, so
that all knew he was but a mortal man.
While the golem of Adam lay sleeping, God whispered in his ear the secrets of Creation,
and showed Adam the righteous of every generation, and the wicked as well, until
the time when the dead will be raised. Indeed, God showed him every righteous man
who would ever descend from him, every generation and its judges, scribes, prophets,
and leaders. So too did God show him every generation and its saints and sinners. And
as God spoke, Adam witnessed everything as if he were there. Some of the righteous
hung on Adam’s head, some hung to his hair, some to his forehead, some to his eyes,
some to his nose, some to his mouth, some to his ears, some to his teeth.
And later, when Adam did come to life, he dimly remembered all that God had revealed
when he was only a golem. And at night, in his dreams, he still heard God’s voice
recounting mysteries, and telling of all that would take place in the days to come. In
those dreams Adam would travel to those places and see the events firsthand, as a witness.
And since there is a spark of Adam’s soul in every one of his descendants, there are
a few in every generation who still hear the voice of God in their dreams.
“Golem” means “a formless body.” In shaping Adam’s body out of clay, God created
the first golem. There are stories in the Talmud and medieval Jewish lore that describe
the creation of golems, one a calf that was eaten on the Sabbath, one a man of clay
animated by the fourth century Rabbi Rava, and one a woman golem that Ibn Gabirol is
said to have made out of wood. Later the famous legend of the golem of the Maharal
recounted how he created a man out of clay in much the same way that God did, using
the powers of what is known as practical kabbalah. The fact that the golem of the Maharal
is mute and cannot reproduce demonstrates that man’s creation is less perfect than God’s.
It also demonstrates man’s desire to take on the powers of God and act in a godlike
fashion. The righteous who cling to the golem of Adam represent the qualities that the
each of the righteous emphasized. See “The Golem of Prague,” p. 281.
According to Midrash ha-Ne’elam, Zohar Hadash 17c-d, God gathered the dust for
Adam’s body from the site where the Temple in Jerusalem would be built in the future,
and drew down his soul from the celestial Temple.
One of the important questions about the creation of Adam asks whether God created
Adam by Himself, or if the angels played a role in his creation. Many midrashim
describe Gabriel’s role in gathering dust from the four corners of the earth. In contrast,
4 Ezra insists that God created Adam entirely by Himself: “Adam was the workmanship
of Your hands, and You breathed into him the breath of life, and he was made alive in
Your presence. And You led him into the garden which Your right hand had planted
before the earth appeared” (4 Ezra 3:4-6).
Midrash Tanhuma, Bereshit 28; Genesis Rabbah 8:1, 8:10, 24:2; Exodus Rabbah 40:3;
Ecclesiastes Rabbah 6:1, 10; 4 Ezra 3:4-6; Avot de-Rabbi Natan 31; Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer
12; Pesikta Rabbati 23:1; Eliyahu Rabbah 1:3; Midrash ha-Ne’elam, Zohar Hadash 17c-d.
“Imagery of the Divine and the Human: On the Mythology of Genesis Rabbah 8:1” by
David H. Aaron.
The Idea of the Golem by Gershom Scholem.
Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid by Moshe Idel.
FROM BOOK THREE, MYTHS OF HEAVEN
199. TREE OF SOULS
God has a tree of flowering souls in Paradise. The angel who sits beneath it is the Guardian
of Paradise, and the tree is surrounded by the four winds of the world. From this tree
blossom forth all souls, as it is said, “I am like a cypress tree in bloom; your fruit issues forth
from Me.” (Hos.14:9). And from the roots of this tree sprout the souls of all the righteous
ones whose names are inscribed there. When the souls grow ripe, they descend into the
Treasury of Souls, where they are stored until they are called upon to be born. From this
we learn that all souls are the fruit of the Holy One, blessed be He.
This Tree of Souls produces all the souls that have ever existed, or will ever exist. And
when the last soul descends, the world as we know it will come to an end.
Rabbinic and kabbalistic texts speculate that the origin of souls is somewhere in
heaven. This myth provides the heavenly origin of souls, and in itself fuses many traditions.
First, it develops themes based on the biblical account of the Garden of Eden. It
also builds on the tradition that just as there is an earthly Garden of Eden, so is there a
heavenly one, as expressed in the principle, “as above, so below.” Just as there is a Tree
of Life in the earthly garden, so there is a Tree of Life in the heavenly one.
Had Adam and Eve tasted the fruit of the earthly Tree of Life, they would have been
immortal. But once they had tasted the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, immortality was
closed to them. Therefore He drove the man out, and stationed east of the garden of Eden the
cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the Tree of Life (Gen. 3:24).
As for the Tree of Life in Paradise, its blossoms are souls. It produces new souls,
which ripen, and then fall from the tree into the Guf, the Treasury of Souls in Paradise.
There the soul is stored until the angel Gabriel reaches into the treasury and takes out
the first soul that comes into his hand. After that, Lailah, the Angel of Conception,
guards over the embryo until it is born. Thus the Tree of Life in Paradise is a Tree of
Souls. See “The Treasury of Souls,” p. 166. For an alternate myth about the origin of
souls, see “The Creation of Souls,” p. 163. For the myth of the formation of the embryo
see “The Angel of Conception,” p. 201.
Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed, known as the Ari, believed that trees were resting places
for souls, and performed a tree ritual in the month of Nisan, when trees are budding.
He felt that this was the right time to participate in the rescue of wandering spirits,
incarnated in lower life forms. The Ari often took his students out into nature to teach
them there. On one such occasion, upon raising his eyes, he saw all the trees peopled
with countless spirits, and he asked them, “Why have you gathered here?” They replied,
“We did not repent during our lifetime. We have heard about you, that you can
heal and mend us.” And the Ari promised to help them. The disciples saw him in
conversation, but they were not aware of with whom he conversed. Later they asked
him about it, and he replied, “If you had been able to see them, you would have been
shocked to see the crowds of spirits in the trees.”
The core text of this myth comes from Ha-Nefesh ha-Hakhamah by Moshe de Leon
(Spain, 13th century) who is generally recognized as the primary author of the Zohar.
It is possible that de Leon symbolically identified the Tree of Souls with the kabbalistic
“tree” of the ten sefirot. Tikkunei Zohar speaks of the ten sefirot blossoming and flying
forth souls. (See also the diagram of the sefirot on p. 529.)
Not only is there the notion of a Tree of Souls in Judaism, and the notion that souls
take shelter in trees, but there is also the belief that trees have souls. This is indicated
in a story about Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav found in Sihot Moharan 535 in Hayei
Moharan: Rabbi Nachman was once traveling with his Hasidim by carriage, and as it
grew dark they came to an inn, where they spent the night. During the night Rabbi
Nachman began to cry out loudly in his sleep, waking up everyone in the inn, all of
whom came running to see what had happened. When he awoke, the first thing Rabbi
Nachman did was to take out a book he had brought with him.Then he closed his eyes
and opened the book and pointed to a passage. And there it was written “Cutting
down a tree before its time is the same as killing a soul.” Then Rabbi Nachman asked
the innkeeper if the walls of that inn had been built out of saplings cut down before
their time. The innkeeper admitted that this was true, but how did the rabbi know?
And Rabbi Nachman said: “All night I dreamed I was surrounded by the bodies of
those who had been murdered. I was very frightened. Now I know that it was the
souls of the trees that cried out to me.”
B. Sanhedrin 98a; B. Yevamot 62a-63b; B. Niddah 13b; Hagigah 12b; B. Avodah Zarah 5a;
2 Enoch 5-6. 3 Enoch 43; Genesis Rabbah 24:4; Midrash Tanhuma-Yelammedenu,
Pekudei 3; Pesikta Rabbati 29/30A:3; Zohar 1:12b, 1:47a, 2:96b, 2:149b-150a, 2:157a,
2:174a, 2:253a.; Battei Midrashot 2:90-91; Zohar Hadash, Bereshit 10b-10c, Noah 21b;
Ha-Nefesh ha-Hakhamah 2; Raya Mehemma, Zohar 1, Hashmatot 38; Midrash ha-
Ne’elam; The Visions of Ezekiel; Sefer Etz Hayim 2:129-130; Likutei Moharan 1:7; Sefer
Toledot ha-Ari. Sefer Orah Hayim, Birkat ha-Ilanot 6.
240. THE ANGEL OF CONCEPTION
Among the angels there is one who serves as the midwife of souls. This is Lailah, the Angel
of Conception. When the time has come for a man and his wife to conceive a child, God
directs Lailah to seek out a certain soul hidden in the Garden of Eden, and command it to
enter a drop of semen. At first the soul refuses, for it still remembers the pain of being born,
and it prefers to remain pure. But Lailah compels the soul to obey, and that is when God
decrees what the fate of that sperm will be, whether male or female, strong or weak, rich or
poor, and so on. Then the angel turns around and places the soul in the womb of the mother.
While the infant grows in the womb, Lailah places a lighted candle at the head of the
unborn infant, so he can see from one end of the world to the other, as it is said, His lamp
shone above my head, and by His light I walked through darkness (Job 29:3). For nine months
Lailah watches over the unborn infant, teaching him the entire Torah as well as the history
of his soul. During this time, the evil inclination has no power over him. And before he is
born, he is given an oath to keep his soul pure, lest God take it back from him. Then Lailah
leads the child into the Garden of Eden, and shows him the righteous ones with crowns on
their heads. So too does Lailah lead the child to the netherworld and show him the punishments
of Gehenna. But when the time has come to be born, the angel extinguishes the
lamp, and brings forth the child into the world. The instant the child emerges, Lailah lightly
strikes the newborn above the lip, causing it to cry out. And at that instant the infant forgets
all it has learned. That is the origin of the mark on the upper lip, which everyone bears.
Indeed, Lailah is a guardian angel, who watches over that child all of his days. And
when the time has come to take leave of this world, it is Lailah who comes to him and
says, “Do you not recognize me? The time of your departure has come. I have come to
take you from this world.” Thereupon Lailah leads him to the World to Come, where he
renders an accounting before God, and he is judged according to his merits.
This myth describes the formation of a child. The soul is here revealed to have been
drawn from on high and sent to this world reluctantly. Such a myth affirms the rabbinic
belief in the essential purity of the human soul, which is subjected to the power
of the Yetzer ha-Ra, the Evil Inclination. This myth of conception is also a reminder of
God’s powerful role in every stage of our lives. A famous passage in Pirke Avot 3:1
says: “Know where you came from, where you are going, and before whom you will
in the future have to give account and reckoning. Where you came from—from a fetid
drop; where you are going—to a place of dust, worms and maggots; and before whom
you will in the future have to give account and reckoning—before God, the Supreme
King of kings.”
According to Rabbi Meir ibn Gabbai in Avodat ha-Kodesh, “Before a soul descends
to this world, it recognizes the Oneness of God and grasps the secrets of the Torah.”
He links this intrinsic knowledge of the soul with the verse Open my eyes that I may
perceive the wonder of Your teachings (Psalms 119:18). These are the wonders that were
apprended before the child was born.
Although angels are generally regarded as sexless, and some rabbinic sources say
they do not procreate, almost all of them bear male names such as Michael or Gabriel
and they have male characteristics. In addition, the noun, malakh (angel) is grammatically
masculine. However, there is one angel, the angel Lailah, who has distinctly feminine
characteristics. This angel is responsible for the fetus, for assisting at birth, and for
guiding the soul from this world to the next. In many ways Lailah is the polar opposite
of Lilith, who wastes seed, is not maternal, and is bent on destruction, not creation.
While the word Lailah, meaning “night,” is masculine, the name Lailah is feminine, and
the name of this angel does not end in the usual “el,” representing God’s Name. Thus,
even though there is no direct evidence that Lailah is a feminine angel, the name Lailah
and the role of the angel strongly indicate feminine characteristics.
Lailah, the angel’s name, likely derives from a rabbinic discussion in B. Niddah 16b,
where conception is described as taking place at night. There the name of the angel in
charge of conception is identified as “Night” (lailah). This angel takes a drop and places
it before God. B. Niddah 30b adds important details about the formation of the embryo
and the role of Lailah. It explains that a light shining above the unborn infant’s head lets
the child see from one end of the world to the other. At the same time, the angel teaches
the unborn child the Torah. But as soon as the child is born, the angel strikes it on the
upper lip, causing the infant to forget all he has learned. The full myth of Lailah and the
formation of the embryo is found in Midrash Tanhuma Pekude 3. For more on the tradition
of guardian angels in Judaism, see “Guardian Angels,” p. 202.
According to Rabbi Menashe ben Israel in Nishmat Hayim 2:18, God breathes the
soul into a person at conception, much as He did with Adam, when He blew into his
nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being (Gen. 2:7). This appears to be an
alternate explanation for the version portrayed in the myth of Lailah, where the angel
orders the soul to enter the seed.
B. Niddah 16b, 30b; B. Sanhedrin 96a; Midrash Tanhuma-Yelammedenu, Pekudei 3; Zohar
Hadash 68:3; Sefer ha-Zikhronot 10:19-23; Be’er ha-Hasidut 1:216; Aseret ha-Dibrot 79;
Avodat ha-Kodeah, Introduction; Nishmat Hayim 2:18; Anaf Yosef on B. Niddah 30b;
Amud ha-Avodash 103b; Avkat Rakel in Beit ha-Midrash 1:153-155; Likutei ha-Pardes
4d-5c; IFA 4722, 18976.
Legends of the Jews by Louis Ginzberg, note 20, vol. 5, pp. 75-78.
243. THE ANGEL OF FRIENDSHIP
Everyone has a light burning for him in the world above, and everyone’s light is unique.
When two friends meet, their lights above are united, and out of that union of two lights an
angel is born. That angel has the strength to survive for only one year, unless its life is renewed
when the friends meet again. But if they are separated for more than year, the angel
begins to languish and eventually wastes away. That is why a blessing over the dead is made
upon meeting a friend who has not been seen for more than a year, to revive the angel.
According to the Talmud (B. Berakhot 58b) two friends who have not seen each
other for a year say the blessing: “Blessed is He who revives the dead.” The explanation
for this strange blessing is that an angel comes into existence when two people
become friends, but the angel dies if they go more than a year without meeting. This
tradition about the Angel of Friendship has been attributed to Reb Pinhas of Koretz,
Reb Shmelke of Nicholsberg and Reb Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apta.
Another tradition about the creation and transformation of angels is attributed to
Reb Pinhas of Koretz: “Every good deed turns into an angel. But if the deed is imperfect,
so is the angel. Perhaps it will be mute. What a disgrace to be served in Paradise
by such an angel. Or it might have an arm or leg missing. And these imperfections can
only be repaired by the repentance of the one who brought the imperfect angel into
being.” This kind of transformation is known as tikkun or repair, and it is parallel to
the mystical cosmology of the Ari, where every good deed is said to raise up a fallen
The theme of good deeds in the transformation of the angels is common in kabbalistic
and Hasidic lore. The key passage is Mishneh Avot 4:2: “He who does a mitzvah
acquires an advocate. He who does a sin acquires an accuser.” This notion is further
developed in Exodus Rabbah 32:6: “The angels are sustained only by the splendor of
the Shekhinah, and you are their means of sustenance,” meaning that a good deed
creates an angel. Rabbi Hayim Vital confirms this meaning in Sha’arei Kedushah, where
he writes that “the diligent study of the Law and the performance of the divine commandments
brings about the creation of a new angel.” This serves as an explanation
for the existence of the maggidim, the angelic figures who are said to visit sages and
bring them heavenly mysteries. Joseph Karo (1488-1575), author of the Shulhan Arukh,
the code of Jewish law, was famous for being visited by such a maggid. See “The Angel
of the Mishnah” in Gabriel’s Palace, pp. 112-113.
Another source echoed here is found in Ma’asiyot Nora’im ve-Nifla’im concerning
the gaon Rabbi Yehezkel of Prague (1713-1793). He was said to have stated that “The
angels that are found in the upper world were created by the deeds of the Tzaddikim.”
Note that Reb Pinhas has the angel that comes into being as a result of friendship, or,
by implication, love, function as a symbolic child. This expands the circumstances for
the creation of an angel to include angels created by human interaction.
B. Berakhot 58b; Orhot Hayim 1:82b; Sefer Ta’amei ha-Minhagim; Devevt Brán by Jirí
FROM BOOK FOUR, MYTHS OF HELL
256. THE UNFINISHED CORNER OF CREATION
All of Creation had been completed except for the north corner of the world. God began
to create it, but left it unfinished, saying, “Whoever declares himself to be God, let him
come and finish this corner, and then all shall know he is a god.” There, in that unfinished
corner, demons, winds, earthquakes, and evil spirits dwell, and from there they
come forth to the world, as it is said, From the north shall disaster break loose (Jer. 1:14).
When the Sabbath departs, great bands of evil spirits set out from there and roam the
Because of the cold north wind, the north was identified as the abode of evil spirits.
This myth explains why—because that part of creation is unfinished. Here God
makes a challenge to those who assert that they are divinities. The true test for a divinity
is the ability to create a world. So God left one corner of the world unfinished,
with the challenge that anyone who could finish it would indeed be a true god. Of
course, the clear implication is that such a creation would be impossible.
Rabbi Moshe Hayim Luzzatto offers a different perspective about unfinished creation:
“God began Creation but left it unfinished so that man could eventually bring it
to completion” (Adir ba-Marom).
The Kotzker Rebbe said of this unfinished corner of creation: “One little corner—
God left one little corner in darkness so that we may hide in it!”
Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 3 ; Midrash Konen in Beit ha-Midrash 2:30; Sefer ha- Zikhronot 1:7;
The Book of Jubilees 2:2; Zohar 1:14b; Siah Sarfei Kodesh; Or ha-Ganuz.
279. WHEN A MAN DIES
Two angels watch over a man at the moment of his death, and they know whether he has
ever been a thief, for even the stones and beams of his house witness against him, as it is said,
For a stone shall cry out from the wall, and a rafter shall answer it from the woodwork (Hab. 2:11).
Then the soul of the man who has died is brought before the patriarchs and they say to
him, “My son, what have you done in the world from which you have come?”
If he answers, “I have bought fields and vineyards, and I have tilled them all my life,”
they say, “Fool that you have been! Have you not learned that The earth is the Lord’s and all
that it holds” (Ps. 24:1). Angels then take him away and hand him over to the avenging
angels, who thrust him into Gehenna.
Then angels bring another before the patriarchs. They ask the same question, and if he
answers, “I gathered gold and silver,” they reply, “Fool, have you not read in the books of
the prophets, Silver is Mine and gold is Mine—says the Lord of Hosts (Hag. 2:8). Likewise, he
is turned over to the avenging angels.
But when a scholar is brought before them, they ask the same question, and if he
answers, “I have devoted my life to the study of the Law,” the patriarchs say, “Let him
enter into peace” (Isa. 57:2), and God receives them with grace.
This account of what happens to those who die emphasizes the importance of the
study of Torah in the eyes of the patriarchs, who are said to serve as judges, and in the
eyes of God. The two angels who watch over a man at the time of his death are identified
as the Angel of Death and the Angel who counts a man’s days and years.
Gan Eden ve-Gehennom in Beit ha-Midrash 5:48-49; Orhot Hayim.
304. HOW THE DEAD SEE THE DEAD
The day a person dies is the day of his judgment, when the soul parts from the body. A
person does not leave this world until he sees the Shekhinah, accompanied by three ministering
angels, who receive the soul of a righteous person. These angels examine a person’s
deeds, and insist that a person confess to all that the body has done with the soul in this
world. After this confession, the soul of a righteous person rejoices in its parting from
this world and looks forward with delight to the world to come. For when God takes the
souls of the righteous, He takes it with gentleness. But when He takes the souls of the
wicked, He does so through cruel angels, as it is said, Therefore a cruel angel shall be sent
against him (Prov. 17:11).
After a man dies he can be seen by all the others who are dead. To each of them he
appears as they last saw him alive: some see him as a youth, others as an old man. For the
angel who guards the dead makes his soul assume these various forms so that all should
recognize him by seeing him just as they saw him in life.
However, if a man is condemned to punishment in Gehenna, he is enveloped in smoke
and brimstone, so that none of those being punished can see the punishment of any
other. Thus none are put to shame, except for those who have put others to shame.
This description of a man seeing the Shekhinah as he dies is based on Exodus 33:20:
No man shall see Me and live. The three angels who accompany the Shekhinah are identified
as the three angels who visited Abraham in Genesis 18:2.
It is characteristic of Jewish myth to describe in great detail unknown realms, such
as heaven, hell, or what comes to pass when a person leaves this life. Here the dead
are said to see each other exactly as they appeared when they last saw each other
alive. This explanation of how the dead see and recognize each other solves the problem
of a person’s changing appearance by aging.
Sifre on Deuteronomy 357; Midrash ha-Ne’elam in Zohar 1:98a; Sefer ha-Zikhronot 11:6.
FROM BOOK FIVE, MYTHS OF THE HOLY WORD
315. THE BOOK OF RAZIEL
The Book was revealed to Adam while he was still in the Garden of Eden, to show him each
generation and its sages, each generation and its leaders. How did God show him generations
that did not yet exist? Some say that God cast sleep upon him and showed him, while
others say that Adam saw them all with his eyes, for whatever he read in that book he saw
with his own vision. For since the time the world was created, all of the souls of those yet to
be born stand before God in the very same form in which they will live in this world.
God sent the angel Raziel, the Angel of Secrets, to read the Book to Adam. But when
Adam heard the first words issue from the mouth of the angel, he fell down in fear.
Therefore God let Raziel leave the Book with him so that he could read from it on his
own, and in this way Adam came to know the future and was made wise in all things.
Some say that book was written on parchment, while others say it was engraved on a
sapphire. How was that sapphire read? Adam held it up to his eyes, and the flame burning
inside that sapphire took the form of the letters, so Adam could read them there. So
too there are those who say that the true text of the Book of Raziel was the Torah, for the
Torah was one of the seven things created before the rest of Creation, and this way its
wisdom was transmitted even to the first man.
Contained in the Book was a secret writing that explained seventy-two branches of
wisdom, mysteries which had not been revealed even to the other angels. So too did the
Book contain the entire history, past and future, of mankind. Whenever Adam opened
the Book, angels gathered around him to learn all the mystical secrets it contained. Then
the angels made a plea to God, saying, “Impart the mystery of Your glory to the angels,
not to men.” Instead, the angel Hadarniel was secretly sent to Adam and said: “Adam,
Adam, do not reveal the glory of your Master, for to you alone and not to the angels is the
privilege given to know these mysteries.”
After that Adam kept the Book concealed, and read it in secret. In this way he learned
mysteries not even known by the angels. But at last the envy of the angels became so
great that they stole the Book and threw it into the sea. Adam searched for it in vain, and
then fasted for many days, until a celestial voice announced: “Fear not, Adam, I will give
the Book back to you.” Then God called upon Rahab, the angel of the sea, and ordered
him to recover the Book from the depths of the sea and to give it to Adam, and so he did.
When Adam transgressed, the Book flew away from him. But Adam begged God for
its return, and beat his breast, and entered the river Gihon up to his neck, until his body
became wrinkled and his face haggard. Then God made a sign for the angel Raphael, the
Angel of Healing, to heal Adam and bring the book back to him. After that Adam studied
the book intently, and bequeathed it to his son Seth. So it went on, through successive
generations, as it is said, This is the book of the generations of Adam (Gen. 5:1).
In this way the book was handed down from Seth to Enosh to Kenan to Jared, and in
this way it reached Enoch. It was from this Book that Enoch drew his vast knowledge of
the Mysteries of Creation. Before he was taken up into heaven and transformed into the
angel Metatron, Enoch entrusted the book to his son, Methuselah, who read the Book
and transmitted it to his son Lamech, and from there it reached Noah, Lamech’s son, who
made use of its instructions in building the Ark. Indeed, there are those who insist that
the book was revealed to Noah by the angel Raziel. They say that Noah heard the book
from the mouth of Raziel and later the angel wrote it down for him on a sapphire stone.
By reading this book it was possible for Noah to penetrate great secrets of knowledge,
hierarchies of understanding, and ideas of wisdom, to know the way of life and the way
of death, the way of good and the way of evil, and to foresee the concerns of each and
every year, whether for peace or for war, for plenty or for hunger, for harvest or for
drought. By gazing there the destinies of the stars were revealed, as well as the course of
the sun and the names of the guardians of each and every firmament. Revealed as well
were the secrets of how to interpret dreams and visions, and how to rule over all of a
man’s desires, as well as how to drive away evil spirits and demons. Happy was the eye
that beheld that book, and happy the ear that listened to its wisdom, for in it were revealed
all the secrets of heaven and earth.
Noah placed the Book into a golden box and it was the first thing he brought into the
ark. In this way it came to be revealed to Abraham, whose knowledge of it permitted him
to gaze upon the glory of God. And from Abraham it was passed down to Isaac and to
Jacob and to Joseph, who consulted it to discover the true meanings of dreams. The book
was buried with Joseph, and in this way it was preserved when his coffin was raised by
Moses from the Nile and carried beside the Tabernacle throughout the wandering of the
Israelites in the wilderness.
In this way the Book came into the possession of King Solomon, who made good use
of its wisdom, and also sought its assistance in constructing the Temple. Some say that
the book was lost again when the Temple was destroyed, its letters soaring on high as
flames approached the Sanctuary in which it was hidden. Yet there are others who say
that it was saved from the flames, and has been secretly passed down ever since. In this
way it was said to have reached Rabbi Adam, and from Rabbi Adam it was passed down
to the Ba’al Shem Tov, who learned the supernal mysteries from reading it and in this
way became the Tzaddik of his generation.
This is the most famous of all the chain midrashim, a linked set of myths. It tells the
story of how God sent the angel Raziel to reveal this book to Adam, and how Adam
came into possession of it. Subsequent myths describe how the book was passed down
from Adam to Noah, following the genealogy in Genesis 5, and later reached the patriarchs
and kings. The book that the angel Raziel left with Adam has two names: it is
known as The Book of Raziel and as The Book of Adam. Raziel ha-Malakh explictly records
the transmission of the book from Adam to Enoch to Noah to Abraham, Isaac, Levi,
Moses and Arron, Pinhas, and so on down the generations.
The myth of the Book of Raziel grows out of a midrash attempting to explain the
verse, This is the book of the generations of Adam (Gen. 5:1). In B. Avodah Zarah 5a, Resh
Lakish is quoted as saying: “Did Adam have a book? This implies that God showed to
Adam every generation that would ever exist, every generation with its sages and its
leaders. When Adam reached the generation of Rabbi Akiba, he rejoiced at his teaching,
but was grieved about his death.”
While most accounts of this heavenly book assume that the book had already been
written and that Adam heard it for the first time when the angel Raziel read it to him,
the Maharal proposes an alternate scenario in which Adam had all future events revealed
to him in a vision, and later they were recorded in this book. That the angel
leaves the book for Adam to read later indicates that books are so important in Jewish
tradition that even the first man could read.
The earliest mention of the angel Raziel is in the Book of Enoch. Raziel ha-Malakh,
first published in Amsterdam in 1701, claimed to be the book that the angel Raziel
gave to Adam. It largely consists of the names of God and of the angels, and the texts
of amulets. The book itself was believed to have talismanic powers, especially the
ability to ward off fires and other disasters. For this reason it was commonly found in
many Jewish homes.
The angel Raziel, who delivered The Book of Raziel to Adam, plays a role in Jewish
mythology equivalent to Hermes in Greek mythology. That is, he serves as a messenger
of God, while Hermes (Mercury) is a messenger of the gods. Rahab, the Angel of
the Sea, is the Jewish mythic equivalent of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea.
B. Avodah Zarah 5a; Genesis Rabbah 24:4; Leviticus Rabbah 15:1; Avot de-Rabbi Natan
56a; Midrash Tanhuma Bereshit 1:32; Midrash Tehillim 139; Zohar 1:37b, 1:55a-b,
1:58b, 1:90b; Sefer ha-Razim 65-66; Raziel ha-Malakh 2, 4.
Kabbalah by Avraham Yaakov Finkel, pp. 23-30.
325. DEATH AND REBIRTH AT MOUNT SINAI
Moses brought forth the people to meet God. Yahweh came down upon Mount Sinai, on the
top of the mountain (Exod. 19:20). In that hour the world was completely silent. No one
dared to breathe. No bird sang, no ox lowed, the sea did not roar, and no creature uttered
a sound. Then God opened the portals of the seven firmaments and appeared over them
eye to eye, in His beauty, in His glory, in the fullness of His stature, with His crown and
upon His Throne of Glory. When He began to speak, thunder and lightning issued from
God’s mouth, and all of Israel flew back in horror at the sound of the awful voice. They
ran without stopping for twelve miles, until their hearts gave out and their souls fled
from them. All of them lay dead.
Then the Torah turned to God, saying, “Master of the Universe! Are You giving me to
the living or to the dead?” God replied, “To the living.” The Torah said, “But they are all
dead.” And God said, “For your sake I will revive them.” So God let the dew of life fall
from heaven, and as soon as it touched the people, they were restored to life, and they
became strong and of good courage. That is why, at the resurrection of the dead in the
End of Days, the Torah will stand up for the restoring of people’s lives.
Still, the people trembled mightily, even more than before. Nor were they brave enough
to look up and gaze upon the Lord. They were not even strong enough to stand on their
feet. God saw that their hearts would give out again, so He sent to earth one hundred and
twenty myriads of ministering angels, so that there were two angels to every one of them,
one to lay his hand on the heart of each one, to keep his heart still, and one to lift each
one’s head, so that he might behold the splendor of his Creator.
In this way, awestruck but comforted by the angels, they each beheld the glory of God.
Then God asked, “Will you accept the Torah?” And they all answered together, “Yes!”
At that moment God opened up the seven heavens, as well as the seven earths, and all of
Israel gazed from one end of the universe to the other. And God said, “Behold that there is
none like Me in heaven or on earth.” And they saw with their own eyes that it was true.
This haunting myth recounts that when God appeared on Mount Sinai, the shock
of His voice caused all of the people to drop dead. God then revived them and gave
each of the 600,000 Jews assembled there two angels, one on his right hand and one on
his left. The function of the angels was to calm the people enough for them to stand in
the presence of God without having their souls flee from their bodies in terror. Each of
the angels is said to have quoted a verse of the Torah. One angel said: “It has been
clearly demonstrated to you that Yahweh alone is God; there is none beside Him” (Deut. 4:35).
And the other angel said: “Know therefore this day and keep in mind that the Lord alone is
God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other” (Deut. 4:39).
The myth of the two angels at Mount Sinai is found in Midrash Aseret ha-Dibrot
(Midrash of the Ten Commandments), where it is a commentary on the first commandment,
I am the Lord your God (Ex. 20:2). Each of the stories in the collection is linked to
one of the ten commandments. Midrash Aseret ha-Dibrot, dating from around the ninth
century, is regarded as the first story anthology in Jewish literature.
B. Shabbat 88b; Midrash Aseret ha-Dibrot on Exodus 20:2; Exodus Rabbah 29:4, 29:9;
Song of Songs Zuta 1:2, 4; Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 20:4; Midrash Tehillim 19:13, 68:5,
68:7; Pesikta Rabbati 20:4; Otzrot Hayim.
330. GOD OFFERS THE TORAH TO ISRAEL
Some say that from the time of Creation until Israel went out of Egypt, God went around
offering the Torah to each and every nation, but they all refused to accept it. That is when
God offered it to Israel.
Others say that God created the world with a stipulation: “If Israel accepts the Torah
when it is offered to them, all of creation will continue to exist. Otherwise I will return the
world to chaos and void.”
So when the children of Israel had gathered at Mount Sinai, And they took their places at
the foot of the mountain (Exod. 19:17), God overturned the mountain like an inverted barrel,
and held it above their heads and said: “If you accept the Torah, all will be well. If not,
you will be buried here.”
That is when Israel declared its willingness to accept the Torah.
This midrash emphasizes the utterly essential role of Israel in God’s plan of Creation.
Here God declares at the beginning of the time of Creation that it is contingent on
Israel’s acceptance of the Torah. This leads to the grotesque image of God forcing Israel
to accept the Torah by holding Mount Sinai over their heads. This account derives from
a very literal interpretation of the verse And they took their places at the foot of the mountain
(Exod. 19:17). In some versions, God first offers the Torah to every other nation, and
each one turns it down. When He comes to Israel, the last nation to be asked, and holds
the mountain over their heads, of course they say yes. What they actually say is “We will
do and we will listen” (Exod. 24: 7). “We will do” refers to following God’s commandments,
the 613 mitzvot of the Torah. “We will listen” refers to studying the Torah with
great intensity. This myth, then, personifies the “yoke” of the Law: it illustrates the compelling
nature of Jewish law to those who observe it. According to B. Shabbat 88a, as a
reward for saying “We will do and we will listen,” 600,000 angels descended from heaven
and tied two crowns, one for “do” and the other for “listen,” to the head of every Jew.
Still, some commentaries attempt to reinterpret this midrash where the mountain
held over the head of the people serves as a metaphor for the revelation of God’s
infinite love for them (Likutei Torah). At the same time, if God forced Israel to accept
the Torah at Mount Sinai, it was indeed an agreement made under coercion, and it
was not until the time of Mordecai and Esther that the Jewish people truly accepted
the Torah of their own free choice: The Jews undertook and irrevocably obligated themselves
and their descendants, and all who might join them, to observe these two days in the
manner prescribed and at the proper time each year (Esther 9:27).
The giant Og is also said to have uprooted a mountain and held it over the heads of
the Israelites (B. Ber. 54b). See “The Giant Og,” p. 461.
Hakham Yosef Hayim of Baghdad, known as Ben Ish Hai, links this midrash with
the Oral Torah. In his view, the Israelites had already accepted the Written Torah when
they said, We will do and we will listen (Exod. 24:7). But God had to coerce them to
accept the Oral Law. That is why He held the mountain over their heads. Further, God
hollowed out the mountain like a barrel to teach them that each letter of the Written
Torah contains innumerable interpretations in the Oral Law, just as a barrel contains
innumerable drops of wine. Thus God was demanding that their acceptance of the
Written Law include their acceptance of the Oral Law. This is an interesting and original
interpretation of this bizarre midrash about God offering the Torah to Israel.
The continued existence of the world was dependent on Israel’s acceptance of the
Torah. God said, “If Israel accepts the Torah, the world will continue to exist. But if
not, I will reduce the world to a state of chaos” (B. Avodah Zarah 3a). According to this
myth, not only the continued existence of Israel was at stake, but the continued existence
of the world. Nor, according to Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin, must the study of the
Torah around the globe ever cease, even for a split second. If this should happen, all
the worlds above and below would revert to nothingness (Nefesh ha-Hayim 4:1).
B. Shabbat 88a; B. Pesahim 68b; B. Avodah Zarah 2b; Exodus Rabbah 28; Midrash Tanhuma-
Yelammedenu, Bereshit 1; Midrash Tanhuma-Yelammedenu, Yitro 14; Eliyahu Zuta 11:192;
Zohar 3:7a; Nefesh ha-Hayim 4:1; Likutei Torah, Re’eh 22a; Otzrot Hayim; IFA 8415.
FROM BOOK SIX, MYTHS OF THE HOLY TIME
380. THE SEVEN SHEPHERDS
It is known that on the first night of Sukkot a mysterious guest sometimes appears in the
booths of the righteous. This is none other than Abraham, who is the first of seven guests
to appear, one on each night of the festival. On the second night Isaac appears, and on the
third, Jacob. Joseph appears on the fourth night, Moses on the fifth, Aaron on the sixth,
and King David on the last night of Sukkot. Blessed, indeed, are those who receive these
guests, who are known as the Seven Shepherds. Every day of Sukkot one of these seven
shepherds arrives at the sukkah as a guest.
Before these celestial guests can appear, they must be invited with the following words:
“Let us invite our guests. Let us prepare the table. You shall live in booths seven days (Lev.
23:42). Be seated, guests from on high, be seated! Be seated, guests of faith, be seated!”
Some say there is another visitor who is present for all seven days of the festival. That
is the Shekhinah, who dwells in the sukkah of each righteous man as She once dwelled in
the Temple in Jerusalem. She spreads Her wings over him from above, and Abraham and
the other holy guests make their dwelling with him inside it. And one should rejoice on
each of the seven days, and cheerfully welcome these guests to stay.
All the other days of the year, the Seven Shepherds are not able to descend to the lower
world. This happens only in a sukkah, when air from the upper worlds is drawn down,
and the sukkah becomes the Holy of Holies, and the Shekhinah dwells in it. Only then can
the Seven Shepherds descend and enter this world. Therefore, everyone who fulfills the
mitzvah of the sukkah becomes a partner with God in the work of Creation. Through the
making of the sukkah and making a place for the Shekhinah to rest, one fulfills God’s intention
to make a dwelling place below.
Blessed is the portion of those who have merited all this. For it is said that those who
welcome the celestial guests into their sukkah will rejoice with them both in this world
and the next.
The festival of Sukkot derives from a biblical injunction: You shall live in booths seven
days (Lev. 23:42). Jews observe this holiday by building sukkot—booths—which have
leaves and branches for a roof. During Sukkot Jews eat all their meals in these booths.
There is a widely known tradition that the Ushpizin, literally, “guests,” who consist of
seven patriarchal figures, come to visit the booths (sukkot) of righteous Jews during
the festival of Sukkot, one on each night of the festival. These guests are known as the
Seven Shepherds. When Jews leave their homes and enter the sukkah they receive the
Shekhinah as a guest, along with one of the Seven Shepherds. Every night of Sukkot
the prayer is recited that invites the guest to enter. They are invited with the words,
“Be seated, be seated you exalted guests.” The patriarch Abraham is invited on the
first day, and on subsequent nights Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joseph, and David are invited
with the words “May it please you, my exalted guest, that all the other exalted guests
dwell here with me and with you.”
There are varying lists of the Seven Shepherds. According to Micah 5:4 and B. Sukkah
52b, they are Adam, Seth, Methuselah, David, Abraham, Jacob, and Moses. According
to the Zohar (3:103b-104a), they are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, together with Moses,
Aaron, and Joseph, plus King David.
Among some modern Jews there is a new custom of also inviting the four matriarchs,
Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, along with Miriam, Deborah, and Esther, or
other female leaders of the Jewish people, to visit in the sukkah.
For more background information about Sukkot, see the commentary to “Dwelling
in Exile,” p. 300.
Zohar 3:103b-104a; Sefer Netivot ha-Shalom.
383. THE BODY OF MOSES
Rabbi Hayim Vital once dreamed that it was the ancient custom of Israel to bring the
body of Moses to the synagogue on Simhat Torah. The reason for this custom is that
Simhat Torah is the day of rejoicing with the Torah that had been given through Moses.
Furthermore, on this day the Torah portion that is read from Deuteronomy recounts the
death of Moses.
Now the day of the festival had arrived, and they brought the body of Moses to the
synagogue in Safed. It took many men to carry the body inside the synagogue, for it was
at least ten cubits long. Then the body, wrapped in a white robe, was placed on a very
long table that had been prepared in advance. But as soon as the body of Moses was
stretched out on the long table, it became transformed into a scroll of the Torah that was
opened to its full length, like a long letter, from the first words of Genesis to the end of
Deuteronomy. And in the dream they began to read the words of the Torah, starting with
the creation, and they continued until they reached the last words, displayed before all
Israel (Deut. 34:12).
All this time the rabbi of Safed sat at the head of the table, and Hayim Vital sat at the
foot. And in the dream it occurred to Hayim Vital that while the rabbi of Safed sat closest
to the account of creation, he himself was closest to that of the death of Moses. And when
the scroll of the Torah had been completely read, the scroll of the Torah became the body
of Moses once again, and they clothed it and set a girdle around it. That is when Hayim
Vital awoke, and for hours afterward it seemed to him as if the soul of Moses was present
in that very room.
This astonishing dream of Hayim Vital shows the close link in the Jewish mind between
the Torah of Moses and Moses himself. In the dream the body of Moses is brought
to the synagogue on Simhat Torah, which follows the seventh day of Sukkot and is a
day of rejoicing. On Simhat Torah the year-long reading of the Torah comes to an end
with the last few verses of the Book of Deuteronomy and starts again with the first
verses of the Book of Genesis. This explains Hayim Vital’s focus on the end of
Deuteronomy and the beginning of Genesis. Note that the death of Moses is part of the
Sephardic liturgy for Simhat Torah, and this may have inspired Hayim Vital’s dream.
Once the body of Moses, which is of gigantic proportions (as Moses was a giant
among prophets—B. Berakhot 54b recounts that the body of Moses was ten cubits tall), is
carried inside and put on a long table, it turns into the scroll of the Torah. Hayim Vital
sits closest to the end of the Torah, where the account of the death of Moses is found. He
assumes that because he is closest to this end, he is the closest to Moses. Once the Torah
has been read from beginning to end, it turns back into the body of Moses.
Hayim Vital had one of the richest religious imaginations in all of Jewish history,
and in his dreams and visions the line between mythology and religion is completely
erased, as here, where the Torah and the body of Moses are one and the same. In his
writings he strongly hints that his master, the Ari, had a messianic role, and in his
dreams, visions, and other writings he likewise attributes such a role to himself. In
fact, he makes this connection explicit in his comments on the dream: “This indicates
there was a cleaving and connection between my soul and that of Moses.”
Sefer ha-Hezyonot 2:50; Shivhei Rabbi Hayim Vital. The dream took place on 20 Tevet
Jewish Mystical Autobiographies, edited by Morris M. Faierstein.
387. THE WEDDING OF GOD AND THE SHEKHINAH
When they are first engaged, God sends His betrothed nuptial presents and a meal of
celestial bread. So too does He make preparations for the wedding feast. On the eve of
Shavuot, before the wedding takes place, the members of the heavenly household remain
with the Bride all night, and rejoice in the preparations for the wedding. They study
Torah, progressing from the Five Books of Moses to the Prophets, and from the Prophets
to the Writings, and then to the midrashic and mystical interpretation of the text, for
these are the adornments and finery of the Bride.
Throughout the night, the Bride rejoices with Her maidens and is made ready by them.
And in the morning She enters the bridal canopy, illumined with the radiance of sapphire,
which shines from one end of the world to the other. Shining in all Her finery, she
awaits each of those who helped to prepare Her. And at the moment when the sun enters
the bridal canopy and illumines Her, all Her companions are identified by name. And
God inquires after them, and blesses them, and crowns them with bridal crowns, and
blessed is their portion.
Then the Bridegroom enters the bridal canopy, and He offers the seven nuptial blessings
and unites with His Bride, joining with the Queen in perfect union, and the heavens
declare the glory of God (Ps. 19:2).
This Shavuot myth describes the wedding of God and the Shekhinah. Since Shavuot
commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, it is the appropriate time for
the wedding of God and the Shekhinah. The night of Shavuot is traditionally devoted
to Torah study, including study of the mystical texts, and here that study is identified
as the adornments of the Bride. Thus the scholars who study on the night of Shavuot
are identified here as members of the heavenly household who remain with the Bride
all night and assist Her in preparing for the wedding.
The myth that follows, also a Shavuot myth, describes the wedding of God and
Israel. Both versions are quite common, although the wedding of God and Israel, because
of its appearance in the Sephardic Mahzor (holiday prayerbook), is the betterknown
Note, as well, a remnant of a sun myth—the entrance of the Bride of God into the
bridal canopy is described in terms of the sun rising. Thus the Shekhinah is also linked
to the sun, as well as to the moon. Other remnants of sun myths can be found in the
transformation of Enoch into Metatron, where Metatron is described in terms identical
to the sun.
Zohar 1:8a; Or Zaru’a Ms. JTSA ff. 39b/54b.
The Sabbath in Classical Kabbalah by Elliot Ginsburg.
FROM BOOK SEVEN, MYTHS OF THE HOLY PEOPLE
428. ABRAHAM’S GLOWING STONE
Abraham wore a glowing stone around his neck. Some say that it was a pearl, others that
it was a jewel. The light emitted by that jewel was like the light of the sun, illuminating
the entire world. Abraham used that stone as an astrolabe to study the motion of the
stars, and with its help he became a master astrologer. For his power of reading the stars,
Abraham was much sought after by the potentates of East and West. So too did that
glowing precious stone bring immediate healing to any sick person who looked into it.
At the moment when Abraham took leave of this world, the precious stone raised
itself and flew up to heaven. God took it and hung it on the wheel of the sun.
This talmudic legend about a glowing stone that Abraham wore around his neck is
a part of the chain of legends about that glowing jewel, known as the Tzohar, which
was first given to Adam and Eve when they were expelled from the Garden of Eden
and also came into the possession of Noah, who hung it in the ark. See “The Tzohar, p.
85. This version of the legend adds the detail that the glowing stone was also an astrolabe,
with which Abraham could study the stars.
B. Bava Batra 16b; Zohar 1:11a-11b, Idra Rabbah.
The Jewish Alchemists by Raphael Patai.
434. GOD BEGAT ISAAC
One of the most sacred mysteries of the Torah concerns Isaac’s true father. Although
Abraham rejoiced when he learned that he was to become a father, the truth is that it was
the Lord who begat Isaac. For the Lord visited Sarah and did to her as He had spoken,
and she conceived. That is why God said, “I gave him Isaac” (Josh. 24:3) and formed him in
the womb of her who gave birth to him.” Nevertheless, Isaac resembled Abraham in
It is said that Sarah was accustomed to bring forth children for God alone, restoring
with gratitude the first fruit of all the blessings she had received, since she was a virgin
when God opened her womb (Gen. 29:31). For it does not say that Sarah did not give
birth at all, only that she did not bring forth for Abraham, for she told him, “The Lord has
kept me from bearing” (Gen. 16:2).
So too is it said that Sarah herself was not born of a human mother, but that she was
born of God, the Father and Cause of all things. Indeed, she transcended the entire world
of bodily forms and exulted in the joy of God.
Others say that Sarah’s conception and the birth of Isaac took place on the same day, as
it is said, Sarah conceived and bore a son (Gen. 21:2). For unlike others, the soul of Isaac was
not conceived at one time and born at another. A heavenly light appeared at his birth, as
happened with Noah.
So too was it God who named Isaac when He said, “But My covenant I will maintain with
Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year.” (Gen. 17:21). For his name was
ordained and written in the heavenly tablets. This was the only time that God named a
child before he was born. Isaac was conceived on Rosh ha-Shanah, the New Year, and his
birth book place on the first day of Passover. On the day of Isaac’s birth the sun shone with
a splendor that had not been seen since the sin of Adam and Eve and will only be seen
again in the World to Come. So too did all creation rejoice: the earth, the heavens, the sun,
the moon, and the stars. For had Isaac not been born, the world would have ceased to exist.
Here Philo brings yet another perspective to the story of Isaac by revealing “one of
the most sacred mysteries”—that it was God, not Abraham, who begat Isaac. Philo’s
belief in this strange interpretation of the conception of Isaac appears in at least six
texts where Philo suggests that God was the true father of Isaac. Philo’s interpretation
perhaps influenced Christianity. Just as Jesus was said to be the son of God, so too is
Isaac identified as a son of God. How does Philo arrive at this explanation? He interprets
Sarah’s comment that “God has caused me laughter” (Gen. 21:6) to mean that the
Lord has begotten Isaac. He interprets “has caused” to mean “begotten,” and he substitutes
Isaac for “laughter,” since “Isaac” means “laughter,” referring to Sarah’s laughter
in Genesis 18:12, when the angel said that she would have a child even though
Sarah was 90 years old.
Philo apparently wrote a now-lost text on Isaac, entitled De Isaaco. Goodenough
speculates that “De Isaaco developed as its central theme the fact that Isaac was so
completely at one with the power behind the cosmos that he typified joy” (By Light,
Light p. 154).
The Christian parallel to this interpretation of Philo is obvious: God begat Isaac
through Sarah just as God begat Jesus through Mary. Sarah herself is a kind of virgin
in that she is childless. Did Philo mean to suggest a Jewish version of the myth of the
birth of a Jewish savior? Not necessarily, in that Philo is quick to reduce the myth to
allegory, by describing God as “perfect in nature, sowing and begetting happiness in
the soul.” So too does Philo insist that Isaac was not born a man, but as a pure thought.
As a result, some readers might consider Philo’s interpretation pure allegory, but Philo
cannot escape the implications of his commentaries, making the mythic explanation
of Isaac’s birth unavoidable.
In addition to the obvious Christian parallel, there are also parallels from Greek
myth, where Zeus takes many mortals as lovers.
There are other instances of supernatural conception found in Jewish tradition.
The verse in which Eve says, “I have received a man from God” (Gen. 4:1) is interpreted
to mean not that God fathered Cain, but that the serpent begat Cain. See “How Cain
Was Conceived.” p. 447. Also, there is the myth of the conception of Rabbi Ishmael,
the High Priest, whose true father was said to be the angel Gabriel. See “How Rabbi
Ishmael was Conceived,” p. 201.
B. Berakhot 1:6; B. Bava Metzia 87a; B. Bava Batra 17a; Bereshit Rabbah 61:6; Midrash
Tanhuma-Yelammedenu, Toledot 2; Midrash ha-Gadol on Genesis 17:22; Targum
Yonathan on Genesis 22:10; Shoher Tov 90:18; The Book of Jubilees 16:3, 16:12; Philo,
Legum Allegoriarum 3:218-19; Philo, De Somniis 2:10; Philo, De Congressu
Eruditionis Gratia 1:7-9; Philo, De Cherubim 43-47; Philo, De Fuga et Inventione 166-
168; Philo, De Ebrietate 56-62; Zohar 1:60a.
By Light, Light: The Mystic Gospel of Hellenistic Judaism by Erwin Ramsdell
Goodenough, pp. 153-166.
2 Enoch in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, edited by James Charlesworth, p. 204,
The Last Trial by Shalom Spiegel.
470. JACOB THE ANGEL
Jacob was no ordinary man. If the truth be known, his true name was Israel, and he was
an angel of God, the very archangel of the power of the Lord and the first minister before
the face of God. Indeed, he was the first living being to whom God gave life, with the
beauty of Adam.
When the angel Israel descended to earth and became Jacob, he forgot his divine origin.
God tried to remind him when He sent him the dream of the ladder reaching from
earth to heaven, so that he might glimpse the celestial world he had left behind.
In the dream angels of God were ascending and descending on it (Gen. 28:12). For the angels
who had accompanied him from his father’s house went up to heaven to announce to the
angels on high: “Come and see Jacob the pious, whose image is fixed upon the Throne of
Glory, the one you have longed to see.” Then the rest of the holy angels of the Lord came
down to look at him. That is why the angels went up and down the ladder, for they ascended
to see the face carved on the celestial throne, and they descended to see the face of
Jacob as he slept, whose features were identical to those carved on high.
In the dream Jacob heard the voice of God say, “You, too, Jacob, climb up the ladder.”
For God was trying to remind Jacob that he was an angel, and that the time had come for
him to return to the heavenly realm. But Jacob said, “Master of the Universe, I am afraid
that if I climb up I will have to come down.” Nor did he ascend on high. Indeed, it is said
that if Jacob had climbed up the ladder, he would not have had to come down again, and
Israel would have been spared great suffering.
Thus when Jacob wrestled with the angel at the River Yabbok, the struggle was not
that of a man and angel, but that of two angels—Uriel and Israel. Some say that Uriel had
been sent to remind Jacob of his divine origin, saying, “Know that you were once an
angel, who descended to earth and took up dwelling among humans and your name
became Jacob. Now your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel” (Gen. 32:29). Others
say that Uriel wrestled with Jacob, saying, “My name will take precedence over your
name and the names of every other angel.” At first Jacob did not understand, but suddenly
he remembered that he once was an angel. And Jacob said, “Are you not Uriel?
Have you forgotten that I am Israel, the chief commander among the heavenly hosts?”
And Jacob called out God’s secret Name and thus defeated him.
Still others insist that Jacob did not become an angel until after his death; only then
did he become an immortal angel.
Sometime before or after his death, Jacob himself said, “For I who speak to you, I
Jacob-Israel, am an angel of God and a ruling spirit, the first servant before the presence
of God. It was God who gave me the name Israel, which means, ‘the man who sees God,’
because I am the firstborn of all living beings that God brought to life.”
Of the many theories about the meaning of Jacob’s struggle with a mysterious figure
at the River Yabbok (Gen. 33:25-31), one of the most interesting is that Jacob was
not only wrestling with an angel, but that he himself was the angel Israel. This explains
why the angel with whom he wrestled tells Jacob Your name shall be called Jacob
no more, but Israel (Gen. 32:29). This suggests that the reason the angel Uriel had been
sent was to remind Jacob of his true identity as an angel, something he had apparently
forgotten during his foray among humans.
This myth grows out of an extensive, if somewhat obscure, tradition that identifies
Jacob as an angel or some other kind of divine being. It is primarily found in magical
and mystical literature, and in these texts Jacob’s identity as the angel Israel sometimes
converges with that of the nation of Israel. Such identification grows first out of
the fact that Jacob is also known as Israel. Thus, just as Abram became Abraham and
Sarai became Sarah, so the angel with whom he wrestled announced to Jacob that his
name would now be Israel. Of course, this is also the name of the nation of Israel.
Thus the special traditions linked to Jacob may derive from this identification of man
In addition, Jacob is often identified as the ideal man, who represents the human
race (much as does Adam), and whose face appears on the divine throne (see Ezek.
1:10, 1:26). Further, it is suggested several times that Jacob was made wholly of fire,
and that his ability to withstand the power of the angel demonstrated his divine nature.
Further evidence is found in Jacob’s ability to cause Laban’s flocks to bring forth
streaked, speckled, and spotted young (Gen. 30:39). For this reason Midrash Tehillim
interprets the verse You have made him little less than divine (Ps. 8:6) as referring to
Jacob, “thereby proving that Jacob was less than God only in that he had not the power
to put the breath of life into them” (Midrash Tehillim 8:6).
Further, according to Midrash Tehillim 31:7, Jacob was said to have been one of the
two to whom God revealed the time of redemption. The other was Daniel. (See Daniel
10:14). Jacob’s divine knowledge is said to have been revealed by his final words to
his sons, where he says, “Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you what shall befall
you in the end of days” (Gen. 49:1). This phrase, “the end of days,” became the primary
term for the messianic era which was so eagerly awaited. In fact, Midrash Tehillim 14:7
suggests that Jacob alone, among the patriarchs, will be invited to the feast of redemption:
“When the Lord brought His people out of captivity, then Jacob will exult, Israel
will rejoice (Ps. 14:7). Of all the patriarchs, why is it that Jacob is named as rejoicing? R.
Shimon ben Lakish answered: ‘When the children of Israel sin, only Jacob in the Cave
of Machpelah feels defiled. So when the gladness of redemption comes, Jacob will
rejoice in it more than any of the other patriarchs. For he alone of the patriarchs will be
called to the feast, as it is said, Listen to me, O Jacob, Israel, whom I have called (Isa. 48:12).
What does ‘Israel whom I have called’ mean? It means Israel, who will be called to the
There is also a legend that Jacob is the man in the moon, which probably derives
from the myth that Jacob’s face appears on the divine throne. See Louis Ginzberg,
Legends of the Jews, vol. 5, p. 305, note 248.
In identifying Jacob as the “first minister of the face of God,” Jacob is given the role
traditionally played by Metatron, the angel of the Presence. This is the only angel who
is said to be permitted to see God face to face. It would seem likely that there were
early mystical circles in which Jacob played a Metatron-like role as the primary angel.
But all that remains of the evidence of these circles are pseudepigraphal fragments,
especially the Prayer of Joseph. See also the Wolfson article listed below.
All of these traditions concern the divine origin or divine nature of Jacob. In some it
appears that Jacob was originally the angel Israel (Prayer of Joseph), while others suggest
that Jacob’s soul made a heavenly journey through the palaces of heaven (“Blessed are
you ... for you entered the palace above and remained alive.”—Midrash Avkir). See “Jacob’s
Ascent on High,” p. 361. Jacob is also identified as the human face that Ezekiel saw on
the Divine Chariot (Merkavah) (Ezek. 1:10, 1:26). This reference, Targum Neophyti, says
about Jacob that his “likeness is set upon the divine throne.” A similar tradition is also
found in Genesis Rabbah (68:12) where it is said about Jacob that “You are the one whose
features are engraved on high.” In the same source God is said to have shown Jacob a
throne of three legs, and God said to him: “You are the third leg,” i.e., Jacob is the third
The primary sources of this unusual interpretation of the account of Jacob wrestling
with the angel are two pseudepigraphical texts, Prayer of Joseph and The Ladder of
Jacob. Prayer of Joseph, a fragment, begins: “I, Jacob, who am speaking to you, am also
Israel, an angel of God.” This fragment also recounts that “I am the firstborn of every
living thing to whom God gives life.” This suggests that Jacob was a kind of protohuman,
an Adam-like figure, or even something similar to the kabbalistic figure of Adam
Kadmon, whose creation was said to have preceded that of the earthly Adam.
While most texts link Jacob’s face with the face carved on the throne on high, Pirkei
de-Rabbi Eliezer 35 has the ministering angels say, “This is a face like the face of the
holy beast on the Throne of Glory.” This identifies of Jacob with one of the hayyot, the
celestial beasts, who are said to reside in the highest heavens. Thus while most texts
identify the face of Jacob with the mysterious human face on God’s throne—a face
that is intimately linked to God Himself—the text from Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer avoids
this direct link with God.
The identification of the angel with whom Jacob wrestles as Uriel also derives from
Prayer of Joseph 1:5-9, which supplies the reason for the wrestling—jealousy on the
part of Uriel: “He envied me and fought with me and wrestled with me, saying that
his name and the name that is before every angel was to be above mine. I told him his
name and what rank he held among the songs of God. `Are you not Uriel, the eighth
after me? and I am Israel, the archangel of the power of the Lord and the chief captain
among the songs of God. Am I not Israel, the first minister before the face of God? I
called upon my God by the ineffable Name.’ ”
The model for an angelic descent into this world is found in the midrashim concerning
Genesis 6, the Sons of God and the daughters of men. Here two angels, Shemhazai
and Azazel, are said to have convinced God to let them descend to this world to demonstrate
that they would not be swayed by the Yetzer ha-Ra, the Evil Inclination. See “The
Star Maiden,” p. 455. The fragment in Prayer of Joseph suggests a similar scenario, with
the angel Israel having descended to earth to become the patriarch Jacob.
The cult of Jacob worship extended beyond the Jews. It is a theme found in Gnostic
and Manichean texts; in the latter, it is stated that “we worship the Lord Jacob, the angel.”
It is interesting to note that there is an apocryphal Christian tradition about Jesus
being an angel. According to The Gospel of the Ebionites, Jesus was not begotten of God
the Father, but was created as one of the archangels, and he rules over the angels and all
the creatures of God (Epiphanius, Haer. 30.16.4f). See “Jacob the Divine,” following.
Targum Pseudo-Yonathan on Genesis 28:12; Targum Neophyti, Fragment Targum (Ms. P)
Gen 28:12; Prayer of Joseph, Fragment A; Philo, De Somniis 1:150, 153-156; B. Hullin
91b; Genesis Rabbah 68:12; Hekhalot Rabbati 9; Midrash Tehillim 78:6; Pirkei de-Rabbi
Eliezer 35; Midrash Avkir; Sha’arei ha-Gilgulim, Sha’ar ha-Shorashim 24.
“Jacob as an Angel in Gnosticism and Manicheism” by Alexander Bohlig.
“The Face of Jacob in the Moon: Mystical Transformations of an Aggadic Myth” by
Elliot R. Wolfson.
“The Image of Jacob Engraved upon the Throne: Further Reflections on the Esoteric
Doctrine of the German Pietists” by Elliot R. Wolfson.
Along the Path by Elliot R. Wolfson, pp. 1-62.
FROM BOOK EIGHT, MYTHS OF THE HOLY LAND
532. THE CELESTIAL TEMPLE
God’s dwelling place above is directly opposite His dwelling place below. Just as there is
an earthly Jerusalem, so too is there a celestial Jerusalem; just as there was an earthly Temple,
so there is a celestial Temple located in the most sacred part of the heavens, not far from the
Throne of Glory. The stars are its ornaments, and the angels serve as its priests.
This is the Temple of God, standing on the summit of the firmament, its brilliance
illuminating all the rooms of heaven. A thousand hosts stand before the Shekhinah in the
celestial Temple, calling “Holy, holy, holy.” And every host consists of many thousands
of ministering angels.
Some say that the celestial Temple existed on high even before the world was created,
as it is said, O Throne of Glory exalted from the first (Jer. 17:12). Thus the upper Temple
existed first, and God commanded that the lower Temple be made according to the secrets
of the upper one. Others say that God began the creation of His world at the foundation
stone, and built the world upon it. Then He created the Celestial Temple, as it is said,
The place You made to dwell in, O Yahweh (Exod. 15:17).
Just as there is a High Priest in the Temple below, so there is a High Priest on high.
Some say that Logos, the divine word, the first angel, serves as the heavenly High Priest.
Others say that it is Metatron, while still others say that it is Michael, the prince of Israel,
who serves as the High Priest, and offers sacrifices on the altar every day. What does he
offer up? The souls of the righteous.
When the earthly Temple still existed, the High Priest would make sacrifices and burn
incense below, while Michael would do the same on high. After the earthly Temple was
destroyed, God said to Michael, “From this time forward you shall offer me the good
deeds of My children, their prayers, and the souls of the righteous, which are hidden
beneath the Throne of Glory.”
Others say that since the heavenly Temple and the earthly one were built as counterparts
as long as the one stood, the High Priest offered up sacrifices and burnt incense,
and the angel Michael offered up the souls of the righteous who dwell beneath the Throne
of Glory, and all the angels came to the altar with incense, and they burned it until the
cloud of incense covered the canopy of heaven. But once the earthly Temple was destroyed
and the sacrifices abolished, the offerings on high came to an end as well. But in
the future God will restore them.
At the End of Days, when the time has come for the earthly Temple to be rebuilt, the
heavens will open up, and the glory of the Temple’s holiness will be revealed. Then God
will bring the heavenly Temple down to the earthly Jerusalem, and the footsteps of the
Messiah will be heard by one and all.
Working on the principle of “as above, so below,” Jewish lore postulates the existence
of a heavenly Jerusalem that is the mirror image of the earthly one, except that
the heavenly Temple still stands, while that in this world has been destroyed. As is
apparent from the large number of sources that refer to the celestial Temple, this was
a widely recognized tradition.
Isaiah 2:3 suggests the existence of the heavenly temple: “Come, let us go up to the
Mount of Yahweh, to the House of the God of Jacob” (Isa. 2:3).
Philo offers an allegorical interpretation of the two temples: “There are, it seems,
two temples belonging to God, one being this world, in which the High Priest is the
divine word (Logos), his own firstborn son. The other is the rational soul, the representation
of the universal heaven.”
See “God Builds the Heavenly Temple,” p. 412.
1 Enoch 14:16-20; 2 Enoch 20:1-4; B. Hagigah 12a; Y. Berakhot 4:5; Genesis Rabbah 1:4,
55:7, 69:7; Numbers Rabbah 12:12; Midrash Tanhuma, Naso 19; Midrash Tanhuma-
Yelammedenu, Pekudei 3; Midrash Eleh Ezkerah; The Testament of Levi 3:4-6, 5:1-2,
18:6; The Book of Jubilees 31:14; Philo, De Specialibus Legibus, 1:966; Philo, De
Somniis 1:215; Aseret ha-Dibrot in Beit ha-Midrash 1:62; Alpha Beta de-Ben Sira; Pirkei
Mashiah in Beit ha-Midrash 3:68; Wisdom of Solomon 203-205; 2 Baruch 4:3-5; The
Apocalypse of Moses 33; Midrash ha-Ne’elam in Zohar Hadash 24d-25a; Sh’nei Luhot
ha-B’rit 2:48b; Em ha-Banim S’mehah.
“The Celestial Temple as Viewed in the Aggadah” by Victor Aptowitzer.
“The Angelic Liturgy at Qumran” by John Strugnell.
“The Temple Within: The Embodied Divine Image and Its Worship in the Dead Sea
Scrolls and Other Early Jewish and Christian Sources” by C.R.A. Morray-Jones.
538. THE CREATION OF THE TEMPLE
At the beginning of the creation of the world, God foresaw that the Temple would be
built, destroyed, and rebuilt. None shared in this secret, until God showed Jacob, asleep
at Beth El, a vision of the Temple being built, destroyed and rebuilt again.
Since King David desired to build a Temple to God, he entreated God to show him a
place for the altar. So an angel appeared to him in a vision standing over the place in
Jerusalem where the altar should be located. However, the angel commanded David not
to build the Temple because he had been defiled with human blood through the many
years he had spent fighting wars. The angel commanded him to turn the construction
over to his son, Solomon, but directed David himself to prepare the material needed for
the construction—gold, silver, copper, stones, cypress and cedar wood. This David did,
and when the time came for Solomon to construct the Temple, the materials he needed to
build it were already in his possession.
Then King Solomon called everyone together—the rich and the poor, the princes and
the priests—and he said: “People of Israel, let us build a splendid Temple in Jerusalem in
honor of God. And since the Temple will be the holy place of all the people, all of the
people should share in building it. Therefore you will cast lots to decide which wall you
So King Solomon prepared four lots. On one he wrote North, on another South, on the
third East, and on the last West. Then he had each group choose one of them. In this way,
it was decided that the princes would build the northern wall as well as the pillars and
the stairs of the Temple. And the priests would build the southern wall and tend the Ark
and weave its curtain. As for the wealthy merchants, they were to build the eastern wall
as well as supplying the oil that would burn for the Eternal Light. The job of building the
western wall, as well as weaving the Temple’s curtains, fell to the poor people, who also
were to pray for the Temple’s completion. Then the building began.
The merchants took the golden jewelry of their wives and sold it to pay workers to
build the wall for them, and soon it was finished. Likewise the princes and the priests
found ways to have their walls built for them. But the poor people had to build the wall
themselves, so it took them much longer.
Every day the poor came to the site of the Temple, and they worked with their own
hands to build the western wall. And all the time they worked on it, their hearts were
filled with joy, for their love of God was very great.
At last the Temple was finished, as beautiful as the Temple on high. Nothing in the
world could compare with it, for it was the jewel in the crown of Jerusalem. And after
that, whenever the poor people went to the Temple, fathers would say to their sons, “Do
you see that stone in the wall? l put it there with my own hands.” And mothers would
say to their daughters, “Do you see that beautiful curtain in the Temple? I wove that
Many years later, when the Temple was destroyed, only the Western Wall was saved,
for the angels spread their wings over it. For that wall, built by the poor, was the most
precious of all in the eyes of God.
Even today the Western Wall is still standing. Now it is sometimes known as the Wailing
Wall, for every morning drops of dew can be seen on its stones, and it is said among
the people that the wall was crying at night for the Temple that was torn down. And, as
everyone who has been there can testify, God’s presence can still be felt in that place.
Although King Solomon had the first Temple in Jerusalem built, the idea of creating
the Temple was said to have been King David’s. But because of the blood on King
David’s hands, he was not considered pure enough by heaven to build the Temple.
Therefore the responsibility fell on his son, King Solomon. The description of King
David’s role in conceiving the Temple comes from a fragment of Eupolemus. This is
followed by a folktale about the building of the Temple.
According to Zev Vilnay, the primary folklorist of the Land of Israel, he collected
this story about the building of the Temple from a Jewish youth in Jerusalem in 1922.
The point of the tale is that everyone participated in building the Temple, confirming
its role as a temple of all the people.
Genesis Rabbah 2:5, 119:7; Eupolemus, Fragment Two; Aggadot Eretz Yisrael no. 193.
548. THE HAND OF GOD
The Temple in Jerusalem had been set on flame, and the moment of destruction had
arrived. The High Priest went up to the roof, the keys of the Temple in his hand. There he
called out: “Master of the Universe! The time has come to return these keys to You.” Then
he threw the keys high into the air, and at that instant a hand reached down from above
and caught them, and brought them back into heaven.
The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem brought an era of Jewish life to an end.
None of the rituals connected to the Temple could be performed any longer. Therefore
this talmudic legend recounts how the High Priest returned the keys to the Temple to
God, and in a strongly anthropomorphic image, a giant hand reaches down from
heaven to retrieve them. The theological implications of this legend are considerable.
It presumes that heaven was both well aware of the destruction of the Temple, and
that it was no accident, but was God’s intention. Of course, it also is a tragic event.
From this perspective, the act of the High Priest in returning the keys to heaven is one
of great despair. Nevertheless, even at this tragic moment in Jewish history, the link
between God and His people, Israel, remains intact in the act of God accepting the
keys to the Temple. The motif of returning a precious gift to heaven is found in the
talmudic tale of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa returning the leg of a golden table to heaven
(B. Tan. 24b-25a) and “The Soul of the Ari” in Gabriel’s Palace, pp. 258-259. In 2 Baruch
the High Priest casts the temple vessels to the earth, which opens, swallowing them
Pesikta Rabbati 26:6; Y. Shekalim 50a; B. Ta’anit 29a; 2 Baruch 6:8-9
FROM BOOK NINE, MYTHS OF EXILE
572. HOW CAIN WAS CONCEIVED
Samael was the great prince in heaven. After God created the world, Samael took his
band of followers and descended and saw the creatures that God had created. Among
them he found none so skilled to do evil than the serpent, as it is said, Now the serpent was
the shrewdest of all the wild beasts (Gen. 3:1). Its appearance was something like that of a
camel, and Samael mounted and rode upon it. Riding on the serpent, the angel Samael
came to Eve in the night and seduced her, and she conceived Cain. Later, while Eve was
pregnant by the angel, Adam came to her, and she conceived Abel.
Others say it was the serpent himself who seduced Eve, for after he saw Adam and Eve
coupling, the serpent conceived a passion for her. He even imagined killing Adam and marrying
Eve. So he came to Eve when she was alone and possessed her and infused her with
lust. That is how the serpent fathered Cain, who was later to slay his own brother. And that is
how Eve was infected with his impurity. As a result, all of Israel was impure from that time
until the Torah was given on Mount Sinai. Only then did Israel’s impurity cease.
When Cain was born, Adam knew at once that he was not of his seed, for he was not
after his likeness, nor after his image. Instead, Cain’s appearance was that of a heavenly
being. And when Eve saw that his appearance was not of this world, she said, I have
gained a male child with the help of Yahweh (Gen. 4:1).
It was not until the birth of Seth that Adam had a son who was in his own likeness and
image. From Seth arose all of the generations of the righteous, while all the generations
that descended from the seed of Cain are wicked, until this very day.
This myth is a response to the enigmatic verse in which Eve says, I have gotten a man
with the aid of Yahweh (Gen. 4:1). Targum Pseudo-Yonathan translates this verse as “I
have acquired a man, the angel of the Lord.”
One reading of this verse in the Talmud (B. Shab. 146a) suggests that Eve had intercourse
with the serpent: “When the serpent consorted with Eve, he cast impurity into
her.” This interpretation is echoed in the Zohar: “From the impurity with which the
serpent infected Eve emerged Cain.” Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer builds on the talmudic interpretation,
but changes it in an essential way. Here the true father of Cain is the
angel Samael, who came to Eve riding on the serpent. Indeed, in this passage the
angel and serpent are closely linked, creating a satanic figure and suggesting that Eve
had intercourse with the serpent, a powerful phallic symbol.
In Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, the Torah upbraids Samael as he rides upon the serpent
like a camel: “The Torah began to cry aloud, saying, ‘Why, O Samael, now that the
world is created, is it time to rebel against God? Is this the time to lift yourself on
high? God will laugh at the horse and its rider.’” This establishes the role of the Torah
as the defender of the human race against the evil intentions of Samael.
Zohar 1:36b explains that two came upon Eve, the serpent and Adam, and that she
became pregnant from both of them, and bore two sons. The son of the serpent is, of
course, Cain. In order to explain why Cain was evil and Abel was good, Zohar 1:54a
explains that Cain was conceived from the side of unholiness and Abel from the side
of holiness. As a result, Abel was in the likeness of God’s image, as stated in the verse
And God created man in His image (Gen. 1:27). But Cain was of the likeness of the nether
image. Just what this is isn’t clear, although one commentary, Ziv ha-Zohar, identifies
the nether image as that of an ape. Because Cain was from the side of the Angel of
Death (another possible explanation of the “nether image”), he killed his brother.
The idea that Eve was infected by the impurity of the serpent when she had intercourse
with it attempts to portray women as not only impure, but also untrustworthy. It
is part of an extensive antifeminine bias found in some rabbinic texts. However, in other
texts, Eve is portrayed in a very favorable manner. She is regarded as the mother of all
generations, and she is called a life-giver, who nursed the whole world (B. AZ 43a).
The serpent of Genesis becomes transformed in kabbalah into a principle of evil,
the primal serpent who makes its home in the darkness of the Sitra Ahra, the Other
Side. It is a serpent by the road, a viper by the path (Gen. 49:17). It comes down from
above, swims across bitter waters, and descends in order to deceive, lying in wait to
ambush mankind with sins. The Sitra Ahra is the realm of evil. It is said to be ruled by
Samael and Lilith. The primal or primordial serpent is an archetype of evil, based
upon the serpent in the Garden of Eden. In this realm it functions as a force of evil, an
exaggerated version of the Yetzer ha-Ra, the Evil Impulse in every person. Here this
impulse is understood to be an underlying principle in the concept of an evil realm.
Evil, however, flourishes only in the absence of good. The Zohar describes this serpent
as “eternal death, on the left side, that enters into a man’s innermost secret parts”
See the closely related myth, “The Seed of Cain,” p. 448. For a Hasidic tale about
the primal serpent, see “Reb Shmelke’s Whip” in Gabriel’s Palace, p. 226.
Targum Pseudo-Yonathan on Genesis 4:1; B. Shabbat 145b-146a; B. Sota 9b; B. Yevamot
103b; B. Avodah Zarah 22b; Genesis Rabbah 18:6; Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 13, 21, and
22; Zohar 1:28b, 1:36b-137a, 1:54a, 1:55a; 1:243b, 2:52a; Magen Avot 53.
581. THE STAR MAIDEN
When the generation of the Flood went astray, God began to regret having created humans.
Then two angels, Shemhazai and Azazel, reminded God that they had opposed
the creation of humans, saying, What is man, that You have been mindful of him? (Ps. 8:5).
God replied: “Those who dwell on earth are subject to the Evil Inclination. Even you
would be overpowered by it.” But the angels protested, saying: “Let us descend to the
world of humans, and let us show You how we will sanctify Your name.” And God said:
“Go down and dwell among them.”
So the two angels descended to earth, where they were certain they could resist the
power of the Evil Inclination. But as soon as they saw how beautiful were the daughters
of men, they forgot their vows and took lovers from among them, even though they were
defiling their own pure essence. So too did they teach them secrets of how to entice men,
as well as the dark arts of sorcery, incantations, and the divining of roots.
Then the two angels decided to select brides for themselves from among the daughters
of men. Azazel desired Na’amah, the sister of Tubal-Cain, the most beautiful woman
on earth. But there was another beautiful maiden, Istahar, the last of the virgins, whom
Shemhazai desired, and she refused him. This made him want her all the more.
“I am an angel,” he revealed to her, “you cannot refuse me.”
“I will not give in to you,” Istahar replied, “unless you teach me God’s Ineffable Name.”
“That I cannot do,” Shemhazai replied, “for it is a secret of heaven.”
“Why should I believe you?” said Istahar. “Perhaps you don’t know it at all. Perhaps
you are not really an angel.”
“Of course I know it,” said Shemhazai, and he revealed God’s Name.
Now as soon as she heard the holy Name, Istahar pronounced it and flew up into the
heavens, escaping the angel. And when God saw this, He said: “Because she removed
herself from sin, let Istahar be set among the stars.” And Istahar was transformed into a
star, one of the brightest in the sky. And when Shemhazai saw this, he recognized God’s
rebuke of his sin and repented, hanging himself upside down between heaven and earth.
But Azazel refused to repent, and God hung him upside down in a canyon, bound in
chains, where he remains to this day. That is why a scapegoat is sent to Azazel on Yom
Kippur, the Day of Atonement, bearing the sins of Israel.
Others say that when the two angels, Shemhazai and Azazel, came down to earth, they
were still innocent. But they were corrupted by the demonesses Na’amah and Lilith. The
children they bore were the giants of old, known as the Nefilim, or Fallen Ones. They bore
six children at each birth, and in that very hour their offspring stood up, spoke the holy
language, and danced before them like sheep. There were said to be sixty in all. These
giants had such great appetites that God rained manna on them in many different flavors,
so that they might not eat flesh. But the Fallen Ones rejected the manna, slaughtered animals,
and even dined on human flesh.
Still others say that the offspring of the fallen angels were tall and handsome, and had
greater strength than all the children of men. Because of the heavenly origin of their
fathers, they are referred to as “the children of heaven.”
The primary mystery of Genesis 6 is the identity of the Sons of God. Anthropologists
have suggested that they may have been a tribe of exceptionally tall and handsome
men who appeared and were irresistible to women. But the ancient rabbis were
certain that the Sons of God were angels, although an alternate version in Aggadat
Bereshit identifies them as the Sons of Cain. As a model, the rabbis drew on the prologue
to Job, where God and Satan agree to test Job to see if he is truly righteous. Here
God has a dialogue in heaven with two angels, Shemhazai and Azazel, who condemn
the corrupt ways of men. God argues that if they lived on earth they would behave
the same way, because everyone on earth is subject to the Yetzer ha-Ra, the Evil Inclination.
The angels insist that they would remain righteous, and they convince God to let
them descend to earth (in some versions, by Jacob’s ladder). When they do, they are
immediately filled with lust for the beautiful daughters of men, and use their heavenly
powers to satisfy their desires. And the offspring of these unions are described as
the Nefilim, which has been interpreted to mean giants. Thus the account in Genesis 6
also provides the origin of giants.
In some versions of this myth, the two angels end up coming down to earth not to
demonstrate their ability to resist the Evil Inclination, but because God cast them out
of heaven for opposing the creation of man. According to Zohar Hadash, Ruth 81a, the
angels acquired human form as they descended from on high. When they mated with
human women, the “daughters of men,” their offspring were the Nefilim in Genesis
6:4, which literally means “fallen beings.”
There are many variants of the story of the two angels from a wide range of sources,
including The Book of Enoch (1 Enoch) and Yalkut Shim’oni. The best-known of these
stories concerns two maidens, Istahar and Na’amah, whom the two angels sought to
Note that this story, with its fairy-tale quality, manages to explain who the Sons of
God were, how they brought corruption to the earth, and the origin of giants. The
story also demonstrates that no one, not even angels, is immune to the Evil Impulse.
Indeed, so corrupt did the angels become, that it is said that in the end they indiscriminately
enjoyed virgins, married women, men, and beasts. The Sons of God are
also blamed for having invented the use of ornaments, rouge, and multicolored garments
to make women more enticing. The daughters of men are identified as the children
of Seth, Adam’s son, and therefore are human (Zohar 1:37a). The heroine of the
story is, of course, Istahar, the virgin who resisted the advances of Shemhazai, and
was turned into a star. Istahar is a variant name for the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar,
who was equated with the planet Venus, the brightest star. As for Na’amah, the young
woman who is said to have overwhelmed Azazel with her beauty, she is identified as
the sister of Tubal-Cain. In later legends, Na’amah is also identified as a sister or daughter
In most versions of this myth, Istahar demands to be told God’s secret Name, the
Tetragrammaton (YHVH). But in one alternate version in Beit ha-Midrash 5:156, which,
because it mutes the sexual elements of the story, might be described as a midrash for
children, she demands that he let her try on his wings. At first he denies that his wings
come off, but when she insists, he takes them off and lets her put them on and at that
moment she flies off into heaven and is transformed into a star.
In later versions of this legend, the role of Shemhazai is diminished, while the role of
Azazel is expanded, until Azazel is virtually identified with Satan. Ultimately, it is
Shemhazai who repents and Azazel who does not. This leads to subsequent legends
about the evil-doings of Azazel. According to Yalkut Shim’oni, Istahar became a star set
among the seven stars of the Pleiades, while Shemhazai, hung upside down between
heaven and earth, became the constellation Orion. Thus this myth may also be viewed
from an astrological perspective as the origin of the constellations Pleiades and Orion.
There are strong echoes of Greek mythology in the myth of the Sons of God and
daughters of men. In bringing heavenly secrets to earth, the Sons of God function
much as does Prometheus when he steals fire from heaven and brings it to earth. For
more on Prometheus stealing fire from heaven see Graves, The Greek Myths, 39g. There
is also a strong parallel to the fate of Istahar in the story of Zeus setting Callisto’s
image among the stars. See Graves, The Greek Myths, 22h. See also “Adam Brings Down
Fire from Heaven,” p. 137.
Targum Pseudo-Yonathan on Genesis 6:1-4; Yalkut Shim’oni, Bereshit 44; Midrash Avkir
in Beit ha-Midrash, 4:127-128; The Book of Jubilees 4:15, 4:22, 5:1-3; 1 Enoch 6:14;
Bereshit Rabbati 29-30; Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 22; Zohar 1:37a; Zohar Hadash, Ruth
81a; IFA 10856.
604. THE CITY OF LUZ
The natives of the city of Luz are spared the dangers that confront all other human beings.
The histories of the city, reaching back for centuries, are filled with every detail of
learning and life. Yet these same histories, though complete, do not record a single war, a
single flood or fire, nor the death of a single person. For so safe are the citizens while they
live inside the city, even the Angel of Death can do them no harm.
Some say Luz is so safe because it was built on the spot where Jacob had the dream of
the ladder reaching from earth into heaven, with angels ascending and descending on it.
Others say that the Holy One set aside Luz after the Fall of Adam and Eve, to preserve
one boundary in this world that the Angel of Death could not cross. In any case, not even
the armies of Nebuchadnezzar could disturb the city. Nor do the people suffer from internal
strife. For all who are born inside the city have their names inscribed in the Book of
The precious dye known as tekhelet was made in this city. The Torah commands that
this dye be used in dyeing a thread of the fringes of the tallit (prayer shawl). But no one
knew how the dye was made, or whether it was derived from a snail or shellfish. This
dye was said to be available in the city of Luz, but no one knew how to get there. King
David is said to make his home there, thereby avoiding death for all time. That is why
Jews sing a famous song with words that mean “King David is alive” (David melekh Yisrael
hai ve-kayyam). After learning that Jews sang such a song about King David, the Turkish
sultan accused them of obeying King David instead of him. He demanded a gift from
King David, one that only King David could give him. Messengers were sent on a quest
to the city of Luz. Then reached it through one of the caves that lead directly to the Holy
Land, discovered the secret entrance, and found King David in the city, who rewarded
them with an apple from the Tree of Life. This apple later saved the sultan’s daughter
from a sleeping sickness, and the Jews of the community were suitably rewarded.
The walls that surrounded the city of Luz had no apparent entrance, since the city
would otherwise have been deluged by those seeking eternal life. But there was an almond
(luz) tree that stood before the gates, from which the city is said to have taken its
name, with a hollow trunk, which led to a secret cave that passed beneath the walls and
emerged inside the city. It was this exit that the inhabitants of Luz had to take if they
chose to depart from the city.
Yet despite their safety and the great blessing of immortality, there was one mystery
that absorbed the wise men at night, and one source of sadness that caused the families
to suffer from time to time. For in the course of a life it always happened that very old
people would take leave of their families and walk off alone, to make their way into the
world outside the walls of the city.
Why would anyone, young or old, choose to abandon such a city? And why did these
wanderers never come back? Some are believed to have grown tired of living, others to
have been called by an angel to another place. But when they passed through the hollow
trunk and reentered the mortal world, they are said to have found the Angel of Death
waiting there to take their lives and bury them in the fields beyond the walls.
The earliest references to the city of Luz appears in Genesis 28:19: And he called the
name of that place Beth El, but the name of the city was Luz at first. Thus Luz is identified
with the place where Jacob had his famous dream of the ladder with angels ascending
and descending. What was so special about this place? The myth grew up that it was
the location of a city of immortals, and all who entered there were spared the Angel of
The commandment for the use of the blue dye (tekhelet) derives from Numbers
This legend of a city of immortals is unique in Jewish literature, although the notion
of a boundary that the Angel of Death cannot cross appears in the Zohar (4:151a),
referring to the Land of Israel as a whole rather than to the city of Luz: “It is the
Destroying Angel who brings death to all people, except those who die in the Holy
Land, to whom death comes by the Angel of Mercy, who holds sway there.” The various
strata of legend concerning the city of Luz can all be found in this tale, which
offers an opportunity to study the legendary evolution of a text. It is possible to observe
the expansion of the myth of Luz in the Talmud, B. Sota 46b, and further embellishment
is found in Genesis Rabbah 69:8. In such a case, each given detail becomes
exceptionally significant. Since the literal meaning of luz is an almond tree, the motif
of the tree is drawn upon, and it is said to have been placed at the entrance of the city.
Then the development is taken a step further, embellishing the role of the tree: “This
tree was hollow, and through it one entered the cave and through the cave the city”
(Genesis Rabbah 69:8).
The origin of the immortal nature of the city of Luz is also linked to the bone at the
bottom of the spine known as the luz bone, which survives longer than any other part
of the body.
The legend of the city of Luz is the source of the legend of Shangri-La found in
James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon. Those who left Shangri-La immediately turned old
and gray, just as those who departed from the city of Luz immediately encountered
the Angel of Death. For another tale about the city of Luz, see the following story, “An
Appointment with Death.”
B. Sota 46b; Genesis Rabbah 69:8; Dos Buch fun Nisyoynes.
FROM BOOK TEN, MYTHS OF THE MESSIAH
617. THE PALACE OF THE MESSIAH
From the beginning the Messiah was hidden in a heavenly palace known as the Bird’s
Nest. That is a secret place containing a thousand halls of yearning, where none may
enter except for the Messiah. It is there that the Messiah waits for the sign to be given that
his time has come at last.
The palace is known as the Bird’s Nest because of the wonderful bird of the Messiah,
which has its nest in a tree near his palace.
On New Moons and holy days and Sabbaths, the Messiah enters those halls of longing,
lifts up his voice, and weeps. Then the Garden of Eden trembles and the firmament
shakes until his voice ascends all the way to God’s throne. And when God hears his
voice, God beckons the enchanted bird, and it flies from the Garden of Eden and enters
its nest and begins to sing.
Now the song of that bird is indescribably beautiful; no one has ever heard a music so
sublime. Three times the bird repeats its song, and then the bird and the Messiah ascend
on high, to the very Throne of Glory. There God swears to them that He will destroy the
wicked kingdom of Rome and will give His children all the blessings that are destined
for them. After that the bird returns to its nest and the Messiah returns to his palace, and
once again he remains hidden there, waiting.
The longing and weeping of the Messiah are common images in Jewish lore. The
Messiah weeps out of his own frustration, as well as out of his awareness of the frustration
of the Jewish people that the messianic era still has not come. This mutual
waiting is portrayed in a legend about Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, who is said to have had
an encounter with the Messiah (Ma’aseh de-Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi in Beit ha-Midrash
2:50). The Messiah said to him: “What is Israel doing in the world from which you
came?” He replied, “They are waiting for you every day.” As soon as he heard this, the
Messiah lifted up his voice and cried.
620. THE LADDER OF PRAYERS
The Ba’al Shem Tov was once praying with his Hasidim. That day he prayed with great
concentration, not only word by word, but letter by letter, so that the others finished long
before he did. At first they waited for him, but before long they lost patience, and one by
one they left.
Later the Ba’al Shem Tov came to them and said: “While I was praying, I ascended the
ladder of your prayers all the way into Paradise. As I ascended, I heard a song of indescribable
beauty. At last I reached the palace of the Messiah, in the highest heavens, known
as the Bird’s Nest. The Messiah was standing by his window, peering out at a tree of great
beauty. I followed his gaze and saw that his eyes were fixed on a golden dove, whose nest
was in the top branches of that tree. That is when I realized that the song pervading all of
Paradise was coming from that golden dove. And I understood that the Messiah could
not bear to be without that dove and its song for as much as a moment. Then it occurred
to me that if I could capture the dove, and bring it back to this world, the Messiah would
be sure to follow.
“So I ascended higher, until I was within arm’s reach of the golden dove. But just as I
reached for it, the ladder of prayers collapsed.”
In this Hasidic tale, “The Ladder of Prayers,” the Ba’al Shem Tov ascends into Paradise
on a quest to capture the golden dove of the Messiah, certain that this will cause
the Messiah to follow, initiating the messianic era. The failure of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s
Hasidim to provide the support needed for this great endeavor, as symbolized by the
collapse of the ladder of prayers, causes him to lose the opportunity to bring the Messiah.
That makes this one more tale about why the Messiah has not come. Dozens of
other such tales record lost opportunities to bring about the messianic era, or attempts
to force the Messiah’s hand, and hasten the End of Days.
This tale, and virtually the entire body of rabbinic, kabbalistic, folk, and Hasidic
lore, exists in a mythological framework. The ladder of prayers the Ba’al Shem Tov
ascends was surely inspired by the heavenly ladder in Jacob’s dream. He climbs this
ladder of prayers into Paradise, a mythological realm with its own order, its own
geography, its own history, and its own inhabitants—not only God and the angels,
but the Bride of God and the Messiah as well. It is understood that the Messiah is
waiting for the sign to be given that the time has come for the messianic era. All the
same, Jewish mysticism contains the secret of how to hasten the coming of the Messiah,
secrets that the Ba’al Shem Tov has at his command.
In addition, this tale draws on a rich tradition of tales about heavenly ascent, from
the ascent of Elijah in a fiery chariot to the famous tale of the four who entered Paradise.
Indeed, “The Ladder of Prayers,” a Hasidic tale of eighteenth century origin, is a
direct descendant of the legend of the four sages, which dates from the second century.
As did the four sages, the Ba’al Shem Tov ascends to heaven because he seeks
greater knowledge of the divine realm.
The Zohar tells of a dove that makes its nest outside the palace of the Messiah in
Paradise. That is why the palace of the Messiah is also known as the “Bird’s Nest.”
“The Ladder of Prayers” builds on the earlier legendary accounts of the golden dove,
reporting an attempt by the Ba’al Shem Tov to ascend on the ladder of prayers of his
Hasidim into Paradise to capture the dove. The failure of the Ba’al Shem’s Hasidim to
provide the spiritual support needed for this great endeavor, as symbolized by the
collapse of their ladder of prayers, is offered as the reason for the failure to bring the
Messiah in their generation. Thus the tale illustrates the interdependency of the Tzaddik
and his Hasidim. This attempt to capture the golden dove and its failure marks one of
the basic types of mystical tales, those concerning an attempt to hasten the coming of
the Messiah. Several such tales are found in the Talmud. See, in particular, “Forcing
the End,” p. 496. Subsequently such tales are found in virtually every generation,
explaining that there is a potential Messiah who, had all gone well, would have served
as Messiah ben Joseph, preparing the way for Messiah ben David. In this tale of the
Ba’al Shem, however, he ascends directly to the palace of Messiah ben David, determined
to initiate the End of Days. For a variant of this tale, see “The Messiah and the
Ba’al Shem Tov,” following.
Midrash Ribesh Tov; Or ha-Hokhmah, Parashat Beha’alotekha.
646. THE MESSIANIC BANQUET
In the time to come God will prepare a banquet for the righteous from the flesh of Behemoth,
Leviathan, and the Ziz, as it is said, He prepared a lavish feast for them (2 Kings 6:23).
God will say to them, “Do you want cider or citrus or grape wine?” Then God will leave
His glorious throne, and sit with them. Who will be seated at the table? The Patriarch
Jacob along with scholars and distinguished students. The rest of Leviathan will be spread
on the walls of Jerusalem, and its radiance will shine from one end of the world to the
other. So too will God make a sukkah for the righteous with the skin of Leviathan.
Others say that God will serve the Messiah-ox and messianic wine at the banquet. The
Messiah-ox makes its home in Paradise, where it waits to fulfill its destiny when the
Messiah comes. Then it will be slaughtered and served at the messianic banquet. Then
God will bring the righteous wine that had been preserved from grapes from the six days
of Creation. Only once before has it been served: when Jacob served wine to his father,
Isaac, at the time he brought the food that Rebecca had prepared. Since Jacob had no
wine with him, an angel provided some for him, and the angel brought that messianic
wine. And he gave it into Jacob’s hand, and Jacob handed it to his father, and he drank.
Of all the patriarchs, why is it that it will be Jacob who will join them at the feast?
When the children of Israel sin, only Jacob in the Cave of Machpelah feels defiled. So
when the gladness of redemption comes, Jacob will rejoice in it more than any of the
other patriarchs, for he alone will be called to the feast.
This myth describes a great feast, prepared by God, that will take place after the
coming of the Messiah. It finds its origin in this messianic prophecy in Isaiah 25:6: The
Lord of Hosts will make on this mountain for all the peoples a banquet of rich viands, a banquet
of choice wines—of rich viands seasoned with marrow, of choice wines well refined. Those
most deserving will taste the flesh of Leviathan. Here the righteous are described as
scholars and distinguished students, reinforcing the notion that study of the Torah is
the most important occupation of all. In addition, they will be joined by the Patriarch
Jacob. The inclusion of Jacob alone suggests the tendency to elevate Jacob to great
heights because of the identification of Jacob and Israel. See “Jacob the Angel,” p. 364
and “Jacob the Divine,” p. 366.
The Book of Paradise, a midrashic satire by Itzik Manger, has the blind Isaac, living in
heaven, mark his portion on the Messiah-ox, which will be slaughtered when the
Messiah comes. This satirizes Isaac’s apparent love of the taste of venison. In one
episode, someone plays a trick on the Messiah-ox by telling it that the Messiah has
come—and therefore it is about to be slaughtered. In terror the ox runs out of Jewish
heaven into Christian heaven—heaven consists of three parts, according to Manger,
the third being Muslim heaven—and the Christians refuse to give him back. This requires
a series of messages between King Solomon and Saint Paul, who rule Jewish
and Christian heaven respectively. Eventually, the Messiah-ox is returned in Manger’s
novel, but it is badly underfed, and there is some question about whether it is fit to be
served at the messianic banquet.
In the frame story of Manger’s satire, the angel Shmuel Abba is commanded to be
reborn, and he manages to get the angel who is to deliver him to earth drunk by
giving him messianic wine. On the day the angel is born, he sits up in the cradle and
he tells the history of his life in Paradise to his astounded parents and all those who
assemble to hear him.
Targum Pseudo-Yonathan 27:25; B. Bava Batra 75a; Midrash Tehillim 14:7; Seder Gan Eden
(version B) in Beit ha-Midrash 3:131-140.
From Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism
Copyright © 2004 by Howard Schwartz
All Rights Reserved
None of these myths or commentaries may be reprinted without permission
of the publisher, Oxford University Press.