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The Quantum Mechanics of Judaism

What Is Kabbalah? What Is Chassidus?

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

  • May 9, 2012
  • |
  • 17 Iyyar 5772
  • Comment

Class Summary:

Judaism contains two parts: The revealed and the hidden. What is the difference between them and why are they both so necessary? 

Dedicated by David Eda Schottenstein

In the Beginning

A man comes to the psychiatrist, shouting that he is in dire need of help. The psychiatrist attempts to calm him down but to no avail. The man is in a state of panic, screaming that it is an emergency and he must be helped immediately. 

The psychiatrist informs him that if he continues hollering this way, he won't be able to help him. "Please sit down and tell me the whole story from the beginning." The patient finally gives in. He sits down, and starts talking silently: "In the beginning," he says, "I created heaven and earth."

The Birth of Jewish Mysticism

This Friday, known in Hebrew as Lag B'Omer, the thirty-third day of the omer[1], is the anniversary of the passing of one of the greatest sages and spiritual giants in Jewish history, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Rabbi Shimon, who lived in Israel under Roman occupation around 165 CE (approximately one hundred years after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.), was an extraordinary scholar[2] and author of the Zohar, the most basic work of Kabbalah.

Kabbalah is the official theology of Judaism, its inner spiritual meaning, and Reb Shimon was responsible for revealing the wisdom of the Kabbalah. The Zohar relates, how the most significant revelation came about on the day of Rabbi Shimon's passing, on which he expounded for many hours on the most intimate secrets of the Divine wisdom before he passed on. That day was Lag B'Omer.

Centuries were to pass before the great Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), would proclaim, "In these times, we are allowed and duty-bound to reveal this wisdom." More than a century later, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760) and his disciples were to make them accessible to all via the powerful teachings of Chassidus, while other great masters of Kabbalah would teach Jewish mysticism in their own unique way, like Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746) and the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), and many others. But Lag B'Omer remains the day on which "Jewish mysticism" made its first emergence from the womb of secrecy and exclusivity.

Before his passing, Rabbi Shimon instructed his disciples to observe his yahrzeit (the day of his death) as a time of joy and festivity[3], since the day of a person's death marks the culminating point of all that he achieved in the course of his life on earth[4]. Since then, Jews the world over, especially at his resting place in Meron, Israel, celebrate this day with singing, dancing, Torah study, and an increase in acts of love and unity.

Playing with the Bow

One particular custom practiced on the day of Lag B'Omer is unique: Children go to parks and fields to play with bows and arrows.

What is the reason for this peculiar custom? One well-known explanation[5] is that during Rabbi Shimon's lifetime, no rainbow ever appeared in the sky[6]. The Torah states[7] that the rainbow represented G-d's covenant never to destroy the world again even humanity is corrupt. But as long as Rabbi Shimon was alive, his merit and piety alone were enough to ensure that G-d would not regret His creation, with no need for the rainbow.

On the day of Rabbi Shimon's passing, however, the world was in need of the rainbow. So each year on that day we recall this man's greatness by playing with the bow[8].

Why Focus on the Negative

Yet, this explanation is enigmatic. First, it seems far-fetched to associate the archer's bow with the celestial rainbow, just because they both include the word 'bow' in English and share the same term in Hebrew, "keshes." Second, according to this interpretation, playing with bows and arrows on the day of Lag B'Omer constitutes a negative symbol, reflecting the tragic potential of humans to destroy the world.

Yet, on the day of Lag B'Omer, we ought to focus on the life of Rabbi Shimon, not on his death! Especially that he himself requested it to be a day of joy, not melancholy. Why would we institute a custom that might hamper the intense joy of the day? 

There is another way to explain this interesting tradition. The bow and arrow represent a positive symbol, one that fits into the joyous nature of the day, celebrating the life and vision of Rabbi Shimon. Indeed, Rabbi Shimon's book, the Zohar, states[9]: "Do not anticipate the coming of Moshiach (Messiah) until you see the shining colors of the rainbow." From the Zohar's perspective, the bow represents a powerfully positive symbol.

Two Types of Weapons

The first weapons devised by man were designed for hand-to-hand combat: the sword, the spear, the ax, and the like. But a person's enemy or prey is not always in arm's-length, or even within sight; soon the warrior and hunter were inventing an array of weapons capable of reaching targets that are a great distance away or that are invisible. Chief among these new weapons was the bow and arrow, invented early on in human history. (The Torah, too, speaks of the bow as a weapon: Isaac and Jacob both discuss it with their sons[10].) For many countries and cultures, the bow and arrow have served as the main projectile weapon for a long time.[11]

The person who invented this weapon had to grasp the paradox that the arrow must first be pulled back toward one's own heart in order to strike the heart of the enemy; and that the more it is drawn toward oneself, the more distant it can reach[12]. Indeed, virtually all long-range weapons (including the rocket) operate on this principle: they cause an action by the means of an opposite action; they impel up and away by means of a force that is exerted down and back toward the launch point.

Two Types of Adversaries

One of the fundamental ideas in Kabbalah is that every physical invention and phenomenon originates in the realm of spiritual consciousness. The two types of weapons, the sword and the bow, designed for two different types of foes, exist also on a psychological and spiritual plane. 

Every one of us has two types of adversaries: The exposed challenges, those behaviors and emotions that overtly threaten our well-being and happiness. Immoral and hurtful words and deeds, the expression of negative emotions, and outbursts of anger and animosity are openly destructive. But we also possess an entirely different array of skeletons: Our subliminal paradigms and feelings invisible to the conscious brain. 

To confront my invisible adversary, the "sword" won't do the trick. I need a new style weapon: the bow and arrow. To confront and conquer my unconscious traumas, pain, and brokenness, I need to pull back and retreat to the core of my soul; I need to open myself to trailblazing pathways that have never been charted. I must discover what I look like on the inside[13].

Two Aspects of Torah

Judaism contains these two types of weapons. The Torah, the body of Jewish wisdom transmitted and developed over 3300 years, is generally comprised of two parts, the "niglah" and the "nistar," the revealed Torah, and the concealed part of Torah. The former can be compared to the "sword," the latter to the "bow." 

The first stream of Torah, Jewish law and ethics, is like the close-range weapon that could confront the obvious enemy. It delineates for me right from wrong, moral from immoral, holy from profane, good from bad. It teaches us to distinguish between the desirable and the disgraceful, between noble and coarse behavior. It is the foundation of living a moral, meaningful, and good life. 

But how about confronting the pain and trauma in the depth of my being? What about the chaos at the core of my consciousness? How about facing my existential loneliness and angst? How about confronting my inner toxic mindset and paradigms? How about my questions about ultimate purpose, meaning, and truth? How about dealing with my inner confusion, anxiety, insanity, and uncertainty? How about the profound pain of life and being? 

This is where the "hidden" part of Torah becomes a life-saver. The teachings of Kabbalah and Chassidus are the "quantum mechanics" of Judaism, where infinity and finiteness merge, where paradoxes abide side by side, and where G-d and the human person stand face to face with each other. Just like the bow, the Kabbalah and Chassidic teachings guide the person toward the quintessence of his or her consciousness, uncovering the "fragment of G-d" that constitutes the core of my soul, teaching me how the complex notes of the human psyche are a Divine symphony, and how the entire universe is pulsating infinity.  

Both parts of Judaism make up its divine mosaic. People who only learn mysticism, are often disconnected from the concrete, pragmatic and authentic expression of Torah. Conversely, the exclusive study of Jewish law may leave you with the lingering question, what is this all about? How do I find real joy and passion in my life? Can I learn to love freely? 

A Complicated World

There was a time in history when the revealed part of the Torah sufficed. The Kabbalah remained concealed from most of the people and only a select few passed it on from generation to generation. But as the world became a much more complicated place, and as the consciousness of redemption and full healing become more manifest, we must extricate the last traumas hidden inside of us, obstructing our full alignment with the Divine. Hence, Divine providence sent the great mystical masters, chief among them Rabbi Shimon, to teach us how to open windows to the super-conscious forces of our soul; how to discover the oneness in all of reality, how to perceive your darkness as a manifestation of infinite light, how to see yourself as an ambassador of love, light, and hope.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai gave the Jewish people and the world the bow and arrow.

(This essay is based on a talk delivered by the Lubavitcher Rebbe on Lag B'Omer, 5711, May 24, 1951[14]).


[1] The forty-nine-day Omer count begins on the second night of Passover and culminates in the festival of Shavuos.
[2] Almost every one of the Talmud's 523 chapters contains at least one law cited in the name of Rabbi Shimon (see Likkutei Sichot, vol. 12, p. 194).
[3] See Zohar vol. 3 p. 287b; p. 291a. Pri Aitz Chaim Shaar Sefiras Haomer chapter 7; Shaar Hakavanos Sefiras Haomer Derush # 12. Mishnas Chassidim (by Rabbi Amnuel Chei Riki) Mesechte Iyar 1:6.
[4] See Tanya Igeres Hakodesh sections 27-28.
[5] B'nei Yissaschar, Maamarei Chodesh Iyar 3:4.
[6] Jerusalem Talmud, Berachos 9:2.
[7] 9:11-17.
[8] In Hebrew, the word for a bow, "keshes," refers to all bows and arches, including the rainbow and the archer's bow.
[9] Zohar, vol. 1, p. 72b; Tikkunei Zohar, Tikkun 18.
[10] Genesis 27:2; Ibid. 48:22.
[11] In his work "The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State," Friedrich Engels comprehensively covered the subject of the bow, the conditions under which it was invented, and the value of its invention. Engels wrote: "The bow was already a very complex weapon representing a long period of accumulated experience, refinement of mental power and the coordinated understanding of the relationship between a range of other inventions. Even at its simplest, the bow is rather complex in its overall constitution, combining as it does the bow itself, the string, and the arrow shaft, which must interact mechanically in a complex fashion... The bow and arrow became the decisive weapon in an epoch of savagery. Their appearance heralded a high level of development, and through them, hunting for game became one of the normal branches of labor."
[12] Torah or Hosafos Vayechi 103a; 104d. See also references noted in Toras Menachem Hisvadooyos vol. 3 p. 79 footnote #54. 
[13] This presents a deeper insight into the striking story about David and Jonathan's secret encounter, where the latter shot bows and arrows, to notify David if his life was in peril (I Samuel 20:18-22), see Toras Menachem ibid. pp. 57-58 and references noted there.
[14] Published in Toras Menachem Hisvadooyos vol. 3 p. 77-81. For the preparation of this essay and its footnotes, I used another rendition of this talk by the Rebbe, edited by Rabbi Yanki Tauber: https://www.meaningfullife.com/long-range-missile/

Please leave your comment below!

  • A

    aland -6 years ago


    amazing history

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • SL

    Shmuel Lemon -7 years ago

    Excellent explanation of the bow and arrow.

    I’ve a problem in understanding why it wasn’t revealed from day one.

    You mention that there was a time in history when the revealed part of Torah sufficed. But as the world became a much more complicated place and humans became much more complex we needed to learn about the nature of the soul of man and the soul of all existence in order to teach us; how to open windows to the super-conscious forces of our soul to enable us to tackle the subconscious ills of the spirit, the ambiguities of intent and motive, the subtleties of love and awe, the multitude of undisclosed demons that attempt to extinguish the light of G-d in his soul and his world and the deeply embedded demons beyond the conscious reach.

    Correct the world became a “much more” complicated place and we are “more” complex today. But why as humans, being just plain and simple complex (not more) living in a world that is just plain and simple complicated (not much more) didn’t we need Kabalah to teach us all the above-mentioned issues?

    Is there an answer to that?

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

Essay Lag Baomer

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • May 9, 2012
  • |
  • 17 Iyyar 5772
  • |
  • Comment

Dedicated by David Eda Schottenstein

Class Summary:

Judaism contains two parts: The revealed and the hidden. What is the difference between them and why are they both so necessary? 

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