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