Sunday 20 January 2019


Bar Kochba's orders to his subordinates during the last year of the Rebellion.  [Found by archaeologists in the Cave of Letters in the Judean desert.]


It is strange that one of the most fundamental concepts of Judaism remains essentially undefined:
What is the nature of Judaism’s relationship to this physical world?
That’s obvious, one might say – but this is one of those areas of Jewish theology where it really depends upon who you ask, and therefore it is often skewed towards one or other extreme position.
In this article, we shall explore some very different points of view on the matter.
Firstly, we will look at two supposedly ‘mainstream’ positions, namely that of the Mussarist[1] R. Eliezer Papo (1785-1828, also known as Pele Yoetz) and the Kabbalist R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746, also known as Ramchal). According to both these views, this physical world is to be shunned in favour of the next world.
A short biography on each of these rabbis will be provided to show a particular personality profile to help us understand their views.
Then we will hint at another position where the physical realm is to be used and enjoyed and not simply regarded as a means to an end.
And finally and most importantly: we shall try to understand the context behind their source texts to see how reality on the ground, particularly during the early Talmudic period, informed perceptions of Heaven and Earth which were later assumed to be the final word on the matter.
R. Eliezer Papo was born in Sarajevo, and later became the rabbi of Silistra in Bulgaria which was then a part of the Ottoman Empire.
He is best known for his work, Pele Yoetz, meaning Wonderful Advice. The book is more than just a work on Mussar (ethics) but a practical guide to all sorts of human issues including relationships between a parent and a child, a husband and wife, and an employer and employee.
He emphasises that Jews need to spend their time observing the commandments without worrying about, or placing too much emphasis on the physical existence in this world.
It was the World to Come, which was the ultimate purpose - to the extent that worldly matters were to be shunned.
He teaches acceptance of everything as being for the ultimate good, as everything is G-d’s will. Suffering and travail are to be embraced.
It is wrong to be overly concerned with worldly pursuits such as earning a living. Income is directed by G-d. If G-d wants one to be wealthy, one will be so without having to work hard. And if G-d wants one to be poor, one will be so - no matter how hard he or she works.
R. Papo encourages one to have faith in the Sages and to submit to their authority. In fact, he teaches that one must practice intellectual subservience to anyone greater than himself.
According to the OU Biography on Rabbi Eliezer Papo:
Rabbi Papo advocated a tradition-bound, static Judaism. He called for a life of piety and acceptance of G-d. He demanded total allegiance to rabbinic tradition, stressed the need to live according to traditional patterns and preferred the traditionalism of Moslem lands to the modernity of Europe. His ultimate focus was not on life in this world, but on the world to come.”
About half a century earlier, Italian born R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, was writing in a similar manner that based on certain rabbinic teachings, this world was a mere prelude to the World to Come.
When the Ramchal was about twenty years old he claimed to have been called upon by an angelic being, known as a maggid. He began to record these spiritual encounters many of which were of a messianic nature.
[For more on the notion of a maggid, see A Mystical side to R. Yosef Karo.]
It is said that he identified one on his students to be the Messiah and that he claimed that he himself was an incarnation of the biblical Moshe.
This, naturally, raised the suspicions of the Italian and German rabbinate which feared another false messiah.  – It was only a century after the great false messiah debacle surrounding Shabbatai Tzvi.
The Ramchal only escaped threats of excommunication by agreeing to no longer teach mysticism or write about his encounters with his maggid. He also signed a document testifying that those teachings were false.
He then moved to Amsterdam where he found a more liberal community and was able to pursue his study of mysticism unhindered.
Ramchal wrote in his magnum opus Mesilat Yesharim:
Man was not created for his place to be in this world, but rather for his place in the World to Come, which is his ultimate purpose.
Thus one finds many statements from our Sages, all along similar lines, comparing this world to a preparation (for the next world)...
For example, the Sages said (Avot 4:16): ‘This world is like a corridor leading to the next world'...

Moreover, our Sages taught (Avot, 4:22): ‘Against your will you were created and against your will, you were born.
The soul does not love this world – rather, it despises it...[2]

There is no doubt that our two examples - from R. Papo and R. Luzzatto - are typical of much of rabbinic literature where we see that this world is not the focus. On the contrary, it is to be despised and only becomes meaningful when used as a preparation for the World to Come.
This is often perceived as a mainstream view - to more or less of a degree - from across the spectrum of the Torah world.
However, upon further study, one will find other rabbinic statements praising this world and the potential that it offers. We are told that: “G-d wanted His dwelling place to be in this nether world.”[3]
Our Sages also say that “One will have to give an accounting of every pleasure his eyes saw in this world and did not partake of.[4]
There are many stories which tell of great Sages not wanting to die because only in this world can one perform mitzvot.
Chassidic philosophy extols the virtues of a ‘soul within the body’, over a soul bereft of the body albeit in the spiritual realms.
There are also schools of thought that encourage Torah Jews to get involved in worldly matters and to study secular knowledge and actively participate in the mechanics of this world (obviously in conjunction with Torah study).
This was possibly best encapsulated by R. Shimshon Refael Hirsch (1808-1888), who spoke of Torah Im Derech Eretz, or Torah together with the ways of the World

Rav Kook similarly spoke of the need for Jews to become 'more physical'. 
One fascinating and insightful examination of this split-issue in the traditional sources regarding the spiritual status of this world can be found in the teachings of R. David Bar-Hayim (b. 1960).
He refers to the abovementioned section of Mesilat Yesharim where the soul is said to ‘despise’ of this world (based on Talmudic sources which refer to this world as being a mere ‘corridor’ to the next and that the soul is born to this world ‘against its will’).
R. Bar-Hayim[5] says:
I believe that it can lead people to view life in a very negative can even lead to depression...and a lack of any sense of fulfilment, joy and purpose in this world.”
Then he goes on to give a fascinating historical analysis as to why we find an emphasis on such negative world-views in certain Talmudic references:
Again Mesilat Yesharim is quoted, where (based on a Midrash from Yalkut Shimoni) Jacob and Esau were said to have made a pact – Jacob would inherit the World to Come while Esau would inherit this world. Jacob, of course, represents the Jews - while Esau represents Rome.
R. Bar-Hayim says:
In my view, such a Midrash cannot and must not be understood in an absolute sense – as if it is the be-all and end-all of what Judaism has to say about this world.
If one does take that attitude - and that is apparently the attitude the Ramchal takes - then one reaches the conclusion that [as] he himself writes that this world is ‘aino chelkeinu’ [not our portion]... we don’t really belong to this world and therefore it is difficult to find any great purpose, pleasure and meaning in this world.
- I view such a Midrash in a historical context;
Many such statements of the Chachamim [Sages] were made in the wake of the disastrous end result of the Bar Kochba Revolt.”
The Bar Kochba defeat (132-136 CE) signalled the end of any significant Jewish settlement in the Holy Land. The defeat itself was described as a genocide[6] and according to Roman sources, 580 000 Jews perished with a few thousand more sold into slavery and over a thousand Jewish settlements destroyed.
He suggests that in relative terms this devastation may even have been greater than the Holocaust.
The despair felt by the Jewish People would have been tangible. The Talmud records a common sentiment from those times:
“...we ought by rights to issue a decree not to marry and have children, so that the seed of Avraham our father would come to an end of itself.”[7]
As a result of this absolute devastation to Jews and to Judaism, the Sages felt the need to quell any stirrings of further revolt or uprising against the powerful Roman Empire.
R. Bar-Hayim says that the Sages in the post Bar Kochba era believed that:
“...we must [now] train and educate the Jews...that it is not our purpose and it is not the time to try and revolt against the Romans...
And the purpose of the Chachamim in that situation was to tell the Jews: Do not be envious of the Romans and what they have – their wealth and their luxury... do not try and emulate them.
We have to concentrate on the spiritual... and we must learn to distinguish ourselves from them as separate and higher and better than they are.
- It is from that historical perspective, I believe, that one has to view those statements [which shun the physical world].”[8]
To expand on this interpretation, one could add that it was not only the Bar Kochba revolt which sparked such a response from the Sages, because there was actually a series of three devastating Jewish-Roman wars.
Ken Spiro points out that although Jews generally have an image of scholars and not fighters, these were times when Jews were fierce warriors “like Japanese fighters during the Second World War.”
The first war or revolt took place between 66-73 CE which culminated in the Second Temple being destroyed, a mass suicide at Masada in 72 CE and the beginning of a great exile. This period was known as haMered haGadol or Great Rebellion.
The second was the Kitos[9] War or Mered haGaluyot (Rebellion of the Diaspora) which occurred between 115-117 CE. This was an extremely violent revolt on the part of the Jews until it was finally put down by the Romans.
It was fought in places like Libya and Cyprus and many would be surprised by the following historical accounts:
According to Orosius[10] the Jews originally annihilated Libya (particularly the province of Cyrenaica) to such an extent that Hadrian had to embark on a campaign to repopulate the area:
"The Jews ... waged war on the inhabitants throughout Libya in the most savage fashion, and to such an extent was the country wasted that, its cultivators having been slain, its land would have remained utterly depopulated, had not the Emperor Hadrian gathered settlers from other places and sent them thither, for the inhabitants had been wiped out."[11]
According to the account of Cassius Dio:
"'Meanwhile the Jews in the region of Cyrene [Libya] had put one Andreas at their head and were destroying both the Romans and the Greeks. They would cook their flesh, make belts for themselves of their entrails, anoint themselves with their blood, and wear their skins for clothing. Many they sawed in two, from the head downwards. Others they would give to wild beasts and force still others to fight as gladiators. In all, consequently, two hundred and twenty thousand perished. In Egypt, also, they performed many similar deeds, and in Cyprus under the leadership of Artemio. There, likewise, two hundred and forty thousand perished. For this reason no Jew may set foot in that land, but even if one of them is driven upon the island by force of the wind, he is put to death. Various persons took part in subduing these Jews, one being Lusius [Quietus or Kitos], who was sent by Trajan."[12]
Considering the savage violence and utter devastation, one begins to understand why the Sages may have been so intent on discouraging further revolution at that time.

Continuing along similar lines, Bar-Hayim offers another example of this type of thinking on the part of the later Sages. The Torah tells of Moshe killing the Egyptian taskmaster who had smitten a fellow Hebrew slave, and then burying him in the sand before fleeing.
While the story in the Torah appears quite literal and clear, the Midrash of Shemot Rabbah, chooses a very different tack. It says that Moshe, instead of actually killing the Egyptian, enunciated the holy name of G-d and the Egyptian died.
Again, the rabbinic inference is that to survive, the Jew must remain physically passive while spiritually active.
The Sages, therefore:
“...wanted to deter the Jews from attacking Romans and they painted the picture of Moshe Rabbeinu killing the Egyptian by using some mystical device.”
Interestingly, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks[13] makes a similar point. He brilliantly compares statements of the Sages from around the first century to their conversations three hundred years later. He notices that - with regard to the laws of carrying on Shabbat - in the first century it was considered normal for Jews to wear swords and carry weapons.
Technically, R. Eliezer is of the opinion that a weapon is like a normal item of clothing and may, therefore, be carried on Shabbat. The majority of other rabbis disagree because Shabbat is compared to ‘messianic times’ when swords become plough shears and therefore they are not ‘in the spirit of Shabbat’. So - although common - they may not be carried on Shabbat.

However, three centuries later during the Gemara period, when a proof-text from Psalms is found to support R. Eliezer: “Gird your swords upon your sides...”[14] – suddenly that verse is interpreted as assuming a metaphorical meaning where ‘swords’ now become sharp ‘words of Torah’.
Thus, over the course of three centuries, the literal meaning of a weapon is now foreign to the Jew. A debate cannot even take place over carrying a sword on Shabbat because a sword is no longer a sword!

The politically inspired physical passivity encouraged by the Sages has now become the norm for the Jew.
Rabbi Sacks writes:
“Something has happened to Jewish life between first-century Israel and fourth-century Babylon.”
He continues:
“By the time we reach forth century Babylon...A war is still being fought for the survival of Judaism, but it is no longer physical but cultural. What must be protected are the boundaries, not of a country but an identity.”
Notwithstanding the accounts of terrible devastation and destruction which help us comprehend why the later Sages would rather emphasise the spirituality of the World to Come, Rabbi Bar-Hayim makes the following important point:
“But that does not mean that it is the comprehensive view of the Torah on such matters!
Thus, having understood the historical context for the paradigm shift resulting in the emphasis on the spiritual word over material reality, it must be remembered that each extreme view is probably skewed. 

Somewhere between those two points must lie the essential, balanced and comprehensive Torah view on the true nature of our relationship with the physical world.
The role and function of this physical world have confounded and mystified theologians of all descriptions since time immemorial. Judaism, as we have seen, has not been spared from this agonising dilemma either.
No one text or teaching will resolve the issue to the thinking student who is aware of conflicting textual and hashkafic (philosophical) discrepancies on the matter.
Perhaps the closest we can get to the truth is to acknowledge that this relationship between the Jew and the world is shrouded in politics, paradox, ambiguity and agenda.
I would be very wary of anyone who claims to have the definitive answer as to the intrinsic nature of that complicated relationship.

[1] Mussar is a system of Jewish ethics. R. Papo was an expounder of the Sefardic Mussar system.
[2] Mesilat Yesharim, Chapter 1.
[3] Midrash Tanchuma, Bechukotai, Section 3.
[4] Yerushalmi, Kiddushin 4:12.
[5] Mesilat Yesharim: Should we Treat the World with Disdain?
[6] According to Taylor, J. E. The Essenes, the Scrolls, and the Dead Sea. Oxford University Press:
“Up until this date the Bar Kokhba documents indicate that towns, villages and ports where Jews lived were busy with industry and activity. Afterwards there is an eerie silence, and the archaeological record testifies to little Jewish presence until the Byzantine era, in En Gedi. This picture coheres with what we have already determined in Part I of this study, that the crucial date for what can only be described as genocide, and the devastation of Jews and Judaism within central Judea, was 135 CE and not, as usually assumed, 70 CE, despite the siege of Jerusalem and the Temple's destruction.”
[7] Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra 60b.
[8]Regarding Ramchal’s quoting from Avot 4:22 that “’Against your will you were created and against your will you were born’, and then immediately adding: “The soul does not love this world – rather, it despises it” -  R. Bar-Hayim suggests that “Ramchal’s interpretation is very dubious.
In other words, Ramchal appears to imply that because the soul despises this world, it did not want to be born into it and it had to be forced to be born against its wish.
However, by reading the entire Mishna of Avot 4:22, it is clear that this is not the implication of the text. The text is referring to one who thinks that in death he can escape accountability for misdeeds committed in this world – and retorts that “against your will, your will you were created... against your will you die, and against your will you are destined to give an account before the King of kings.”
The text is only reminding us that there is no escaping accountability, it is not informing us that the soul despises this world.
Secondly, R. Bar-Hayim points out that, in fact, there is a Midrash which states that this world is better than the World of Souls from which the individual hailed.
The Midrash goes through a long description detailing how a soul is born into this world and joined to its body. The soul is said to be reluctant to be joined to the body as it is perfectly happy remaining where it is. G-d then intervenes and responds to the soul: “The world to which I am introducing you will be better for you than the world you were till now.”
The Angel then reminds the soul that anyway it is not its decision to make because “Against your will, you are born...” (Midrash Tanchuma, Pekudei, Section 3.)

[9] A corruption of Lusius Quietus.
[10] A 4th-century Christian historian.
[11]Orosius, Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, 7.12.6.
[12] Dio’s Rome, Volume V., Book 68, paragraph 32.
[13] The Politics of Hope, Vintage 2000. P. 150
[14] Psalms 45:4.


  1. Hi,
    Firstly, Just wanted to thank you for always providing interesting content. I look forward to each new post every sunday.
    On to my actual comment though: The conclusion i draw out of this post is that opinions presented in the gemara, rishonim and acharonim can be reactive to events that were occurring at the time without being explicitly qualified as being so. Surely then these opinions don't represent a timeless torah perspective but rather a psak given for a certain generation under certain circumstances. We are then presented though with a problem: how are we supposed to genuinely know what's a timeless value/ perspective for all generations and what's essentially a hora'as sha'ah? we end up in a situation where one can cherry pick chazals to fit with their current ideology rather than forming their opinions based on chazal and applying that now. it doesn't sit well with me that we should be able to just say well those circumstances no longer apply etc and therefore neither does this point of view (similar to takanos chazal in general; also, reminds me of sholomo hamelech writing off certain prohibitions because his wisdom would guard him from whatever the prohibition was ultimately trying to stop him doing). I'm not saying that it is strange that we have a wide range of opinions on different matters; what we call chazal spanned across centuries and different parts of the world so it is only natural that they'd view things differently. i suppose my main issue is the attempt to qualify ma'amorei chazal in a historical context rather than through what i suppose is the more mainstream way of qualifying statements through lomdus.
    To qualify my own statement: this is in no way a criticism of the blog post but rather just a desire to further understand the position being presented in it.

    Have a lovely day,


  2. Thank you R. Micha for your very considered comment. I believe your honest expression actually resonates with the point I was trying to make in my analysis. The spectrum wider than many are comfortable with and the difficulty is just where within that range does one position oneself.

  3. Very interesting. Thank you for your research. After the Holocaust by the Germans in world war II, Israel was established and became "militant". Since then has there also been a furious increase in Torah learning? I like carrying my sword by my side, it is a work of art my sword.

  4. In defense of Ramchal. A person working for the physical progress of mankind, seeing the success of human endeaver and human understanding, this person may come to see the Power behind it. From then onwards he concentrates on Him, so much that he can be said to despise the world. But this is a level of spirituality, he can still see the greatness of working successfuĺly towards the progress of mankind. In fact, this is where he came from.