Author Archives: Rabbi Miles Krassen

Rabbi Miles Krassen

About Rabbi Miles Krassen

Rabbi Miles Krassen, PhD., is a teacher, author, scholar in the fields of comparative mysticism and the World's Wisdom Traditions, and musician. He serves as Rabbi of Rain of Blessings, a non-profit organization for disseminating mystical Jewish teachings based on the spiritual insights of early Hasidism and Kabbalah.

Kabbalistic Tu Bishvat Seder: Part 2

In this discussion of the kabbalistic seder, the author addresses the mystical view of the source of evil in the world. The first humans disobeying God’s command and eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden brought evil into the world. In mystical beliefs, humanity has the ability to reestablish the cosmic balance shattered at Eden. All this is contemplated as part of the mystical seder.

It should be noted that in his discussion of "external forces," the author is referring to the Aramaic term sitra akhra. This is a basic Judaic term that understands evil as function, not as objective reality.

This article, the second of a three-part article, is excerpted from a longer, footnoted work. (Read Part 1 here.) It is reprinted with permission of the author from Trees, Earth, and Torah: A Tu B’Shvat Anthology, edited by Ari Elon, Naomi Mara Hyman, and Arthur Waskow (Jewish Publication Society).

We have thus far been considering nature as source for divine knowledge. There is another aspect of the kabbalist’s view of nature that is equally fundamental. This is related to the question of humanity’s relation to nature.

The kabbalistic cosmos in its present state, especially according to the School of Isaac Luria [also known as the Ari, 1534-1572], is dualistic. Evil as well as good is present in some sense and to some degree in each of the worlds that exist below the world of divine emanation itself.

Evil in the World

Indeed, the way in which evil is present in each world is symbolized in the seder by the classification of fruits, according to the location of their shells, skin, or rind. Thus the presence of evil in our material world is also a reflection of conditions in the higher worlds, which themselves reflect the state of things in the theosophical realm. There, however, evil by definition cannot exist, although its roots, or potential for existence, are located in the highest ontological levels of divinity.

Nevertheless, while evil is external to the divine realm of holiness itself, it is located in proximity to its tenth sefirah [emanation], Malkhut [kingdom]. Thus, as long as evil has not been entirely vanquished, it has the capacity to threaten the tenth sefirah and to separate Her from the higher sefirot. The ascendancy of evil above is reflected by various conditions in the material world that are characterized by injustice. In terms of the sacred history of Judaism, the disruption of the divine realm is represented by Israel’s exile among the nations, which symbolizes the absence of God’s Kingdom on earth.

The duality of good and evil is also symbolically present within nature. Sources of life, such as food, represent the powers of holiness. That which may not be eaten symbolizes the external evil forces. The edible portion of wheat, for example, symbolizes the tenth sefirah, while chaff represents the external forces. The edible portion of fruit is associated with forces of holiness, while its shell represents the forces of evil. Here we should note that the symbolism compels us to recognize that the "external forces" have an important role to play. They are not evil in an absolute sense. Indeed, the examples from nature teach us that when the cosmos is in a harmonious state, the "external forces" perform the positive function of acting as guardians that protect the more vulnerable manifestations of holiness.

However, it is obvious that nature alone is not sufficient for maintaining a harmonious state. Just as evil may assail the tenth sefirah above, those aspects of nature that should protect its life-giving elements can, under certain conditions, overrun them. As a result, the forces of holiness in nature can be cut off from the sources of life that sustain them, just as Malkhut can be separated from the higher sefirot.

Humanity Maintains Cosmic Harmony

If, then, neither the divine realm nor nature can be counted on to maintain a state of cosmic harmony, what factor remains which might act to fulfill this function? For the kabbalist, the answer is humanity. Indeed, according to kabbalistic exegesis, the separation of the tenth sefirah was first caused by the sin of Adam. Symbolically, through eating the fruit in direct violation of the divine command, Adam separated the forces of holiness in nature from their divine source, thus empowering the external forces. As a result, the Edenic state of harmony was broken and humanity and nature became adversaries. Thus, from the kabbalistic point of view, the sin of Adam testifies to the awesome power that humanity possesses. It is humanity that is primarily responsible for the state of nature and the cosmos.

Kabbalistic Tu Bishvat Seder

The kabbalistic seder text known as Peri Eitz Hadar was originally popular in Sephardic (Spanish and Mediterranean) communities and unknown in the Ashkenazic (Eastern European) world. According to the author, this is due to the fact that in the Ashkenazic community, the eminent halakhic authority Jacob Emden (1697-1776) attributed Peri Eitz Hadar to Nathan of Gaza, a theologist who considered himself a prophet of Shabbetai Tzvi, the 17th-century pseudo-Messiah. Jewish authorities reviled Shabbetai Tzvi as a heretic because of his conversion to Islam. This material, therefore, was condemned by Emden as a heretical Sabbatean text.

While Emden was eager to discover Sabbatean influences in many works, modern scholarship does support his contention regarding Hemdat Yamim, the Sabbatean anthology that contains Peri Eitz Hadar. Nevertheless, this seder is a pure kabbalistic text of the Lurianic school, despite its inclusion in the controversial anthology Hemdat Yamim.

The author goes on to state that in modern times, with the mutual influence of Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities–especially in Israel–many kabbalistic works, including Peri Eitz Hadar, have increased in popularity in Ashkenazic communities as well.

This article is excerpted from a longer, footnoted work, and is the first of a three-part article. It is reprinted with permission of the author from Trees, Earth, and Torah: A Tu B’Shvat Anthology, edited by Ari Elon, Naomi Mara Hyman, and Arthur Waskow (Jewish Publication Society).

The notion of a Tu Bishvat seder, that is, a ritual involving the eating of specific fruit, drinking wine, and studying or reciting specific selections from the sacred literature of Judaism, does not seem to have been known before the late 17th century. Until the 16th century, most kabbalists [mystics] were more concerned with providing mystical bases that would strengthen the motivation for observing the laws and traditions of classical Judaism than with creating new rituals. At that point, the kabbalists of Tzfat [the city of Safed] did create some new rituals, most notably the Kabbalat Shabbat service.

The kabbalistic Tu Bishvat seder seems to have been created sometime later, in the wake of kabbalistic creativity in 16th-century Tzfat.

Peri Eitz Hadar: A Book for Insiders

The text of the seder, which has come to be known as Peri Eitz Hadar, is essentially the same as the section on Tu Bishvat which appears in the Sabbatean-influenced anthology of kabbalistic customs, Hemdat Yamim (Izmir, 1731-1732).…

Formally, Peri Eitz Hadar contains four basic sections. After an introduction that explains the basis for the Tu Bishvat seder, there is a prayer to be said before the actual seder begins. This is followed by a description of the order of the fruit to be eaten and the way wine should be blended in each of the four cups. However, the bulk of the seder consists of selections from the Bible, early rabbinic texts, and the Zoharic [kabbalistic] literature. In fact, the greatest portion of this material is taken from the Zohar [a mystical commentary on the Torah that is the major text of Jewish mysticism].

As a result, the Peri Eitz Hadar is essentially a kabbalistic work, meant to be read and applied by a reader thoroughly schooled in the outlook of the kabbalah, particularly as it developed in the school of Isaac Luria. This fact renders the text, even in translation, virtually incomprehensible for a modem reader. This is due to several factors. First, the text does not explain the rather complex basic principles of kabbalah as they developed since the late 12th century. In particular, the text assumes that its reader is familiar and comfortable with the kabbalistic classic, Sefer ha-Zohar, an esoteric work characterized by obscure allusions and highly symbolic language.

In addition, the author’s outlook involves certain fundamental notions about nature, the cosmos, and the spiritual role that human beings are meant to play, which may be unfamiliar and even strange to a contemporary reader. Such notions, moreover, are not defended or justified, but are implicit in the author’s and the intended reader’s worldview.

The Kabbalistic View of Nature

The Tu Bishvat seder celebrates an important moment in the yearly cycle of nature, the appearance of fruit on trees. In the Land of Israel, this stage occurs during mid-winter. In order to understand how the Peri Eitz Hadar approaches this celebration, it is necessary to gain some understanding of how the kabbalists viewed nature. In general, the kabbalistic view shared many traits that were typical of other pre-modern cosmological systems, which tended to regard nature as in some sense sacred.

This approach to nature is in marked contrast to those that have become typical of the modern period. For the kabbalist, nature is neither a source to be exploited for utilitarian benefits nor a sentimental vestige of the past to be romanticized by poets and naturalists. It is rather an ultimate link in a chain of divine manifestation that directly emerges from the divine source of life.

Implicit here is a notion of sacred cosmology, which is not limited to material existence. The kabbalists’ faith involves a hierarchy of worlds that are ontologically higher than the material world. These worlds are populated by angels and spiritual forces that span the ontological regions that separate humanity and the material world from God. Moreover, the forces in these worlds serve as conduits and Sources for the divine energy that becomes manifest in nature and in Creation in general.

Although each world is characterized by an increasing degree of opacity that veils its divine root, all worlds share a common underlying structure. Thus contemplation of any world can lead to knowledge of the structure of the ultimate theosophical realm. This realm is the world of the ten sefirot [emanations], which is composed of the ten divine qualities and aspects that constitute the inner life of God, insofar as it is accessible to human imagining. This principle is no less true of nature. Indeed, nature (along with the human body) is, in a sense, the most available arena of divine revelation, since the higher worlds are not apparent to the senses. As such, nature may serve as a mirror in which all of the mysteries of the concealed Godhead are reflected.

Nature is Like Torah

This fundamentally sacred view of nature renders it comparable to the Torah itself. For the kabbalist, the Torah is not merely an account of the sacred history of Israel and its divinely mandated laws. It is a primary manifestation of divine revelation. All of the secrets and mysteries of the cosmos and the inner workings of the Godhead are somehow contained within it. However, it is a cipher, which only yields its concealed meanings to those who hold the keys of divine gnosis, the kabbalists, who through contemplation and mystical experience have gained access to the symbol system that opens the Torah’s deeper levels of meaning.

For the kabbalist, nature parallels the Torah. The very same secrets that are concealed within the quintessential sacred text may be learned through directly contemplating aspects of nature. The structure of different kinds of fruit, the growing patterns of trees, the habits of birds, indeed all natural phenomena are, in essence, aspects of a divine epiphany that proclaims the truth of God’s existence.

However, here it should be added that the kabbalist’s position is not identical to that of medieval religious philosophers, like Maimonides, who also viewed nature as a source for knowledge of God. In their view, the knowledge of the wondrous construction of nature and its laws led to an appreciation for its Creator. Here, knowledge of God is theosophical. It regards nature as a symbolic representation of the hidden divine realm and not merely as an immaculately designed product of divine engineering.

Kabbalistic Tu Bishvat Seder: Part 3

In the kabbalistic seder text, Peri Eitz Hadar, Tu Bishvat is associated with God’s potency. Since human behavior can influence the cosmic balance, Tu Bishvat was viewed by mystics as a time for atoning for male sexual improprieties. In this manner the holiday–and the mystics who take part in the seder- play a crucial role in maintaining both earthly and cosmic bounty. This article, the last of three, is excerpted from a longer, footnoted work. (Read Part 1 or Part 2). It is reprinted with permission of the author from Trees, Earth,and Torah: A Tu B’Shvat Anthology, edited by Ari Elon, Naomi Mara Hyman and Arthur Waskow (Jewish Publication Society).

Because of the kabbalistic [mystical] perspective, Tu Bishvat takes on a significance that goes beyond a simple celebration of an important stage in the cycle of nature. For one thing, the symbol of the cosmic tree is so central to kabbalistic thinking that any dramatic change affecting trees in the material world must be seen as a reflection of a cosmic event of the greatest importance. Thus Tu Bishvat represents not only the New Year’s Day for trees in this world, but even more importantly, for the kabbalist, the time when the cosmic tree becomes fecund.

Since nature and all of creation is directly dependent on the spiritual bounty that is received from the cosmic tree, the kabbalistic perspective of the Peri Eitz Hadar [the book containing the kabbalistic seder] considerably magnifies the importance of Tu Bishvat. Indeed, one may say that the day becomes associated with a cosmic myth of divine potency and fertility. Thus the introduction to the Peri Eitz Hadar indicates that the central focus of the tikkun [ceremony]is the ninth sefirah [emanation]–Yesod [foundation]–which represents the divine phallus, or male generative principle within God. An emphasis is placed on contemplating the relationship between Yesod and Malkhut [kingdom], the female principle, which "bears fruit" as a result of being impregnated by Yesod.

Tu Bishvat and Divine Potency

The mythological perspective is complemented by a theurgic practice. As is often the case, kabbalistic practice involves numerical correspondences between words, or gematria. In this case, the letters of the Hebrew word for tree, ilan, have the same value as the sum of the letters that spell two divine Names, YHVH and ADoNaY. This indicates that the New Year’s Day for the ilan involves the union of the two Names. Moreover, in kabbalistic tradition, these two Names represent the male and female divine principles. When the letters of these two Names are combined to form YARDVNHY; they become an object on which a kabbalist can meditate in order to bring about the actual union of the corresponding sefirot. This meditation is appropriate for Tu Bishvat.

As a result of the association of the tikkunof Tu Bishvat with divine potency, an additional motive is discussed in the introduction to the Peri Eitz Hadar. It is assumed that the harmony of the relationship between Yesod and Malkhutis adversely affected by human sexual improprieties. Thus Tu Bishvat, with its emphasis on rectifying the sefirahYesod, becomes an occasion for correcting, or atoning for, the damage that was done to Yesodby impropersexual behavior. This introduces another mythic and magical element, the tendency to view nature’s bounty as related to, and even dependent upon, human sexuality. However, this motive is addressed through the theurgic, contemplative focus on Yesod and devotionally, through adopting an attitude of atonement.

The pietistic element, which seems to conflict to a certain extent with the otherwise celebratory character of the seder, may be a compensation for the fact that Tu Bishvat occurs during a penitential period. This period, called Shovavim, is otherwise characterized by fasting and penitential acts. The weeks of Shovavimare explicitly connected in Hemdat Yamim with correction of "damage to the [sign of the] covenant," i.e., male ejaculation in halakhically [according to Jewish law] unacceptable circumstances (shikhvat zera le-batalah).

Atoning for Sexual Misdeeds on Tu Bishvat

It is important to note the chain of associated symbols here that must be connected. Tu Bishvat is associated with trees. The cosmic tree is nourished by the sefirah Yesod. Yesod is identified with the divine phallus. The functioning of the divine phallus which impregnates Malkhut(the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil) is affected by male sexuality. The time of year during which Tu Bishvat occurs is appropriate for atoning for male sexual misdeeds.

To sum up, the Tu Bishvat seder, which is presented in Peri Eitz Hadar, essentially views Tu Bishvat as part of a penitential season when atonement can be made for male sexual impropriety. As such the seder is a kabbalistic tikkun for the sefirah Yesod. As a result of this tikkun, the fertility of the cosmic tree is enhanced. This ultimately results in nature’s receiving the vitality required in order to bring forth its bounty. The tikkuninvolves three types of activity: blessing fruit, eating fruit, and meditating on the kabbalistic symbolism of the fruit. This latter activity primarily involves the contemplative study of selections from the Zoharic literature