Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Crown and the Beard

The Breslov Pirkey Avot (Breslov Research Institute), translated and annotated and with introductory essays by Dovid Sears; edited by Avraham Sutton

The Kabbalists teach that the human form reflects the inner order of creation.[i] This inner order animates a series of four parallel spiritual structures called “worlds,” extending from the Infinite Light of God (Ohr Ein Sof) to the physical reality of our experience. These worlds are: Atzilut (“Emanation”), Beri'ah (“Creation”), Yetzirah (“Formation”) and Asiyah (“Action”). The point of origin of all the worlds is Adam Kadmon (literally, “Primordial Man” or “Primordial Adam”); however, this term must not be misunderstood as referring to any corporeal entity, even of the subtlest nature. Rather, it is a symbol of the very root of creation, so sublime that we cannot speak of its true essence. Adam Kadmon represents the Divine will to create the universe at the very “moment” it issued forth from the Infinite One. In terms of the Ten Sefirot, this point of origin corresponds to Keter, the Divine “Crown.”[ii] More precisely, Adam Kadmon is the partzuf (“persona”) that represents the root of Keter.

Why do we refer to the sefirah of Keter as a “crown?”

This must be understood as part of a larger anthropomorphism. Given the parallelism between the human form and the metaphysical order, the various limbs and parts of the body have specific correspondences to the Ten Sefirot of each “world.” The skull and the beard in particular are associated with different aspects of Keter. Just as the physical beard flows from the face down toward the torso, the “beard” of Keter represents that sefirah’s influence on the other nine sefirot.

According to Jewish law, the beard has five “corners” which one is forbidden to destroy.[iii] Kabbalistically, however, the beard is understood as a thirteen-fold structure. These thirteen aspects of the supernal beard—called tikkunim (“rectifications”)[iv]—are related to the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy which God revealed to Moses, and which Moses invoked when he interceded for the Jewish people after the sin of the Golden Calf (Exodus 34:6-7). Therefore the beard symbolizes the absolute mercy of Keter.[v]

The number thirteen is significant. It is the numerical value (gematria) of echad (“one”)—for on the plane of Keter, everything is one, beyond all dualism. Thirteen is also the numerical value of ahavah (“love”)—for in Keter, there is only compassion and love, with no admixture of harsh judgment. These concepts are implicit in the following teaching by Reb Noson.

Furthermore, in Kabbalistic thought, hairs are conceived as conduits. Reb Noson invokes the idea that hairs represent tzimtzumim, or constrictions of the Divine light. As such, the hairs are associated with the forces of harsh judgment, which are an inevitable by-product of constricting the light. But this is not true of the hairs of the beard,[vi] which represent tzimtzumim for the sake of a subsequent illumination. These tzimtzumim cause the light to be reduced in intensity so that it can be transmitted to the lower levels.

Reb Noson’s teaching mentions the term shev ve-al ta’aseh, derived from the Talmudic phrase shev ve-al ta’aseh adif, “sitting and not acting is better” (Eruvin 100a). In its primary context, this term applies to situations of legal uncertainty in which it is better not to act than to risk error. In his teachings on the laws of Shabbat, however, Reb Noson discusses the concept of shev ve-al ta’aseh be-machshavah, or “sitting and not acting in thought.”[vii] In this context, the term refers to a method of stilling the activity of the mind.

Transcendence of thought, too, is a quality of Keter. It is the “ultimate knowledge that is ‘not-knowing’”[viii] and the intuition of a unity that is beyond process or change. This intuition may even reach the most sublime Divine will; it is associated with the Shabbat because, in the Zohar’s phrase, “On Shabbat, the ‘will of wills’ is manifest” (Zohar II, 88b).

Polishing the Mind

There are four types among those who sit before the Sages: a “sponge,” a “funnel,” a “strainer” and a “sieve” … A “strainer” is one who lets out the wine but retains the dregs. And a “sieve” is one who lets out the coarse flour but retains the fine flour (Avot 5:15).

Reb Noson: The Omer offering of barley was sifted thirteen times, to show that it is necessary to purify the mind with many refinements until it is well-polished.

This polishing of the mind is called “sifting.” As the Mishnah states: “There are four types among those who sit before the Sages: a ‘sponge,’ a ‘funnel,’ a ‘strainer’ and a ‘sieve’ … A ‘sieve’ is one who lets out the coarse flour but retains the fine flour.” Rashi and other commentators explain that the sieve is the most excellent of the four because its main purpose is to retain in the mind the good and the pure—which is the “fine flour”—and to expel the rest.

These thirteen siftings correspond to the thirteen principles of Rabbi Yishmael by which the Torah is expounded. They represent the entire Torah, which we receive anew every year on the festival of Shavuot through the mitzvah of counting seven weeks from the day of the annual Omer offering in the Holy Temple [or nowadays, through the mitzvah of commemorating the Omer offering by counting the corresponding days and weeks].

The thirteen principles by which the Torah is expounded apply to every person at every time. For the main point of the Torah is deed, as the Mishnah states: “Study is not the main thing, but action” (Avot 1:17). Therefore, to fulfill the Torah, we need to fulfill all thirteen principles. That is, we need all sorts of advice in order to stand up to the challenges that we must confront in our lives. And all true and complete advice that may be derived from the words of the true tzaddikim is included in the thirteen principles by which the Torah is expounded.

These thirteen principles are elicited from the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy, which correspond to the thirteen points of the beard, as Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai revealed. They are the “holy hairs” of the supernal beard, where everything is pure compassion and kindness, and they suppress and subjugate all harsh judgments associated with the other “hairs.”

God’s true tzaddikim personify the holy beard (ZaKaN), for each embodies the “elder (ZaKeN) full of compassion.”[ix] Through the tzaddikim, God confers upon us wondrous and holy instructions elicited from the supernal holy hairs of the beard, in which these instructions are bound up with the thirteen principles by which the Torah is expounded.

In this way, we may overcome all harsh judgments that derive from the rest of the “hairs.” We can banish and destroy all evil thoughts and guide the mind back to pure thoughts through the power of the holy hairs of the supernal beard. From there, all true advice is elicited, enabling us to cope with all negative thoughts by cultivating a mentality of inner tranquility (Likutey Halakhot, Tefilin 6:34).


[i] See Zohar II, 75b and III, 141b; Zohar Chadash, Shir HaShirim 90b; Rabbi Chaim Vital, Etz Chaim II, Heikhal A-B-Y-A (Hakdamah, Sha’ar Tziyur Olamot); Sha’arei Kedushah 3:2, s.v. Ve-od yesh chiluk, and 3:5 (beginning); Rabbi Avraham Azulai, Chesed LeAvraham 4:1; Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polonoye, Toldot Yaakov Yosef, Kedoshim; Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudylkov, Degel Machaneh Ephraim, Bereshit; et al. Thus the Ten Sefirot are depicted as corresponding to the human form in Tikkuney Zohar, Hakdamah: “Patach Eliyahu.”
[ii] In certain contexts, Keter is not counted as one of the Ten Sefirot because it transcends the rest. When Da’at (“Knowledge”) is counted, Keter is not; see Rabbi Chaim Vital, Etz Chaim 23:5, 8, passim.
[iii] Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Dei’ah 181:11. If one removes the beard by other means than shaving with a razor—for example, by using a depilatory cream or certain electric shavers with a scissors-like action—there are halakhic leniencies. Kabbalistic sources prohibit removing the beard by any means (e.g., see Zohar III, 48b; Zohar Chadash 42b).
[iv] Rabbi Chaim Vital, Etz Chaim, Heikhal HaKetarim, Sha’ar Arikh Anpin 5; Mevo She’arim 3:2:11; passim.
[v] Accordingly, from a Kabbalistic point of view, removing the beard is comparable to cutting off the flow of Divine mercy and compassion into the world.
[vi] The peyot ("sidelocks") are also free of this negative association. Thus the Torah forbids a man to shave the peyot, just as it forbids shaving the beard (see Yoreh Dei’ah 181). Again, there is a discrepancy between the halakhic definition of the peyot and the Kabbalistic definition. The former amounts to a small area near the upper corner of the ear, while according to the Siddur HaAri (Hanhagot Erev Pesach), the peyot should be the same width as the forehead. In practice, the length of the peyot is a matter of custom, ranging from the least discernable amount of hair to the long, flowing peyot worn by many Chassidim and Yemenite Jews.
[vii] Rebbe Nachman mentions “sitting and not acting in thought”  in Likutey Moharan II, 49. Reb Noson explains the term in a broader sense in Likutey Halakhot, Shabbat 6:5-8; also cf. ibid., 7:43. The latter teaching contemplates the mystery of how the true son of the king rectified the haunted garden in Rebbe Nachman’s "Tale of the Exchanged Children," op cit.
[viii] Bechinat Olam 33:13, cited in Likutey Moharan I, 24:8; ibid., II, 7:6; ibid., II, 83; Tzaddik #282.
[ix] Rashi on Exodus 20:2, citing the Mekhilta that at the Red Sea, God appeared as a “mighty warrior,” whereas at Mount Sinai, He appeared as an “elder full of compassion.” All such anthropomorphisms allude to the various Divine attributes. For example, Keter, being the highest sefirah, may be symbolized as an “elder.” Because it transcends the sefirot associated with strict judgment, Keter is also the locus of the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy mentioned above.

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