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The Book of Light

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Lag B’Omer—the thirty-third day of the forty-nine-day “omer count” from Passover to Shavuot[1]—is the day most associated with the teachings of Kabbalah. It is the anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, author of the most basic Kabbalistic work, the Zohar (lit., “luminance” or “radiance”; commonly translated as “The Book of Splendor”). Rabbi Shimon instructed his disciples to celebrate the date of his passing, going so far as to refer to it as his “wedding day” (yom hillula). For the day of a person’s passing is the culmination of his life on earth; in the case of a righteous individual, it is also its highest point—the point at which a perfectly fulfilled mission in life attains its ultimate realization.[2]

Kabbalah is the mystic soul of Torah, the element of Torah that most intimately relates to its divine essence. All of Torah, including the Talmudic passages dealing with the laws of “two people holding on to a garment”[3] or “one who trades a cow for a donkey,”[4] are the wisdom and will of G-d, and the mind that contemplates them and integrates them into itself thereby cleaves to their divine conceiver[5]; but there one apprehends the divine wisdom as it is clothed in mundane “garments,” as it has invested itself within worldly, commonplace matters.[6]

On the other hand, in the soul of Torah, the form, as well as the essence, is divine: Kabbalah discusses not financial disputes and livestock trades, but spiritual worlds, supernal attributes and forms of divine energies. If the student of Talmud knows that the temporality of his subject matter is but a shell that hides the divine essence implicit within it, the Kabbalist’s mind ingests the G-dly wisdom in a more translucent capsule, in a vessel aglow with the spirituality and divinity of its content.

Sight and Hearsay

When the Talmud cites a proof to decide a dispute between two sages or to resolve a question of law, it often introduces it with the phrase Ta shema—“Come, hear” or “Come, understand” (the Hebrew word shema means both “hear” and “understand”). In contrast, the common opening phrase in the Zohar is Ta chazi—“Come, see.” For the difference between these two forms of Torah is akin to the difference between sight on the one hand, and hearing and comprehension on the other.

While sight and hearing are both tools of perception, absorbing stimuli and conveying them to the mind to interpret, there is a major difference in the manner in which they impress their “findings” upon us. Sight is the most convincing of faculties: once we have seen something with “our own eyes,” it is virtually impossible for other sensory evidence or rational proofs to refute what we now know. On the other hand, hearing and comprehension are far less vivid impressers of the information they convey. They will convince us of certain truths, but not as unequivocally as do our eyes. What we hear and understand are facts that have been “proven” to us; what we see is reality.

One who contemplates the “body” of Torah gains knowledge of the divine reality. But this remains “hearsay”—second-hand information conveyed via the medium of its mundane subject matter. Only by studying the soul of Torah does one come to “see” G-dliness, to perceive its reality in the most immediate and unequivocal manner.

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Lag B’Omer 5711 (1951)[7]

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[1]. Lag is the abbreviation of lamed gimmel—thirty three; b’omer means “of the omer”—i.e., the forty-nine-day count that begins on the second day of Passover, the day on which an omer (a measurement equivalent to the volume of 43.2 eggs) of barley was brought as an offering in the Holy Temple

[2]. Thus Rabbi Shimon referred to the day of his passing as his “wedding day,” since physical life is a marriage of male spirit and female matter—see first essay, Means of Marriage.

[3]. Talmud, Bava Metzia 2a.

[4]. Ibid. 100a.

[5]. “When a person understands and comprehends… any law in the Mishnah or Gemara… this particular law is the wisdom and will of G-d, for it was His will that when, for example, Reuben pleads in one way and Simeon in another, the verdict between them shall be thus and thus. And even if such a litigation never was and never will present itself for judgment… nevertheless, since it has been the will and wisdom of G-d that in the event of one person pleading this way and the other pleading that way, the verdict shall be such and such, it follows that when a person knows and comprehends with his mind such a verdict in accordance with the law as it is set out in the Mishnah, Gemara, or the Codes, he has thus comprehended, grasped and enclosed in his mind the will and wisdom of the Holy One, blessed be He, Whom no thought can apprehend, [neither Himself] nor His will and wisdom—except as they are clothed in the laws that have been set out for us… This [integration of the human mind with the divine wisdom] is a wonderful union, the likes of which there is none other, and which has no parallel anywhere in the material world, whereby complete oneness and unity, from every side and angle, could be attained” (Tanya, ch. 5).

[6]. “The Torah is compared to water: just as water descends from a higher place to a lower place, so the Torah has descended from its place of glory, which is the will and wisdom of G-d… Thence it has progressively descended through hidden steps, step after step, with the evolution of the worlds, until it clothed itself in physical things and in matters of this world, which comprise virtually all of the commandments of the Torah and their laws” (ibid., ch. 4).

[7]. Torat Menachem—Hitvaaduyot 5711, vol. III, pp. 73-74.

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