Sunday, 13 February 2022

371) ‘Tikla’ and the zoharic concept that sin can bring redemption


The potter's wheel gives shape to a lump of clay.


This article, based extensively on the research by Dr Ruth Kara-Ivanov Kaniel[1] as well as Rabbi Moshe Miller[2], deals with the fascinating yet paradoxical notion in the Zohar of sin as a harbinger or precursor of redemption. The discussion revolves around the Aramaic word Tikla, which appears on two occasions in the Zohar.[3]


The word Tikla (טקלא) has the meaning of a potter’s wheel or a water-meter (טקלא). Kaniel (2012:113) explains:

Both times its appearance is linked to feminine heroines of the Davidic dynasty and their acts of seduction, committed in order to bring forth redemption and the birth of the Messiah.”

Just prior to the appearance of the Zohar in thirteenth century Spain, there were two earlier mystical groups, namely Chassidei Ashkenaz[4] in Germany and circle of the Sefer haBahir in Provence, southern France. These groups began to develop the idea of the Sefirot (Divine spheres) which was soon to be perfected by the Zohar. With the Zohar’s elaboration and expansion of the notion of Sefirot, humans could now influence and affect the spiritual realms.

Kaniel (2012:113) maintains that it is no coincidence that with the idea that the heavenly realms could be manipulated in an almost theurgical (magical) manner, as it were, we find the expression Tikla which implies that messianic redemption can be brought about by the transformative action of humans and is not solely dependent upon G-d.

Tikla in the Zohar

The first time the word Tikla appears in the Zohar is in Parashat Vayera. It is used in the contexts of both the daughters of Lot, the arch-matriarchs of the Davidic dynasty as well as of Ruth the Moabitess, the maternal ancestor of King David.

Tiqla appears for the second time in the section Sabba deMishpatim (Zohar II 95b), which discusses the reincarnation of souls, the mystery of the levirate marriage (the laws surrounding marriage to a deceased brother’s widow), and the accounts of the messianic genealogy” (Kaniel 2019:114).

The daughters of Lot, according Genesis 19: 29–38, slept with their father, and gave birth to Ammon and Moav. This act of incest between Lot and his daughters is really the beginning of the story of the Davidic dynasty because later Ruth the Moabitess emerged from that nation of Moav and she was the great-grandmother of David. Thus, in dramatic mystical terms, the sin of the daughters of Lot began a chain of events that was to culminate, after Ruth seduced Boaz upon the threshing floor, in the ultimate redemption of the Jewish people.

The story of Ruth and Boaz was not just an innocent romance because as Moshe Miller following Rashi, explains, Boaz was the judge, the leader of the generation, the Head of the Sanhedrin, and:

Boaz is concerned about their reputation. It would be embarrassing, to say the least, if people found out that a man of his stature had spent the night with a woman he was not married to” (Miller 2015:266).

According to Torah law, Moabite was not permitted to enter the community of Israel, so Ruth, in theory, should not have been permitted to convert to Judaism. The loophole was that a Moabite (male) cannot convert but a Moabitess (female) can. The problem was that until that time this distinction had not been made and:

“[p]eople would have been cynically convinced that Boaz was bending halakha under the influence of his relationship with Ruth” (Miller 2015:269).

Another biblical story relating to the messiah’s ancestry and also involving some form of feminine seduction, is the episode of Yehuda and Tamar. Tamar was Yehuda’s daughter-in-law and she dressed up like a prostitute along the road and seduced him. She gave birth to his two twin children Zerach and Peretz[5]. Tamar thus becomes the ancestress of much of the tribe of Judah and, in particular, of the house of David. 

These three incidents, involving incest, prostitution and seduction all prepared the way for messianic redemption. Why were these deviant methods required for creating something so pure as the messianic line?

Sin and redemption were inextricably bound together because from these liaisons began the story of the genealogy of the messianic dynasty of King David which, surprisingly:

is characterized by a list of sexual transgressions committed by its maternal figures” (Kaniel 2012:115).

The Zohar uses similar words and expressions in describing both the activity of Lot’s daughters and Ruth, creating a parity of sorts between the two sinful events and:

[b]y using the term Tiqla, the Zohar demonstrates how these female sexual sins transform into tools of divine empowerment and repair (Tikkun)”.

Promiscuous events such as these, had a direct effect on the Tikla, and according to the Zohar Vayera, I, 109b–110a:

רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר אָמַר וְהוּא מְסִבּוֹת מִתְהַפֵּךְ. הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מְסַבֵּב סִבּוּבִין וְאַיְיתֵי עוֹבָדִין בְּעָלְמָא לְאִתְקָיְימָא, וּלְבָתַר דְּחֲשִׁיבוּ בְּנֵי נָשָׁא דְּיִתְקָיְימוּן אִנּוּן עוֹבָדִין, קוּדְשָׁא בְּרִיךְ הוּא מְהַפֵּךְ לוֹן לְאִנּוּן עוֹבָדִין מִכְּמָה דְּהֲווּ בְּקַדְמִיתָא. בְּתַחְבּוּלוֹתָיו. בְּתַחְבּוּלָתוֹ כְּתִיב כְּהַאי אוֹמָנָא דְּעָבִיד מָאנִין דְּחַרְסָא. בְּעוֹד דְּהַהִיא טִיקְלָא אִסְתַּחֲרַת קַמֵיהּ. חָשִׁיב לְמֶעְבַּד כְּגַוְונָא דָּא עָבִיד. חָשִׁיב לְמֶעְבַּד כְּגַוְונָא אָחֳרָא עָבִיד. מְהַפֵּךְ מָאנָא דָּא לְמָאנָא דָא, בְּגִין דְּהַהוּא טִיקְלָא אִסְתַּחֲרַת קַמֵּיהּ. כָּךְ קוּדְשָׁא בְּרִיךְ הוּא מְהַפֵּךְ עוֹבָדוֹי דְּאִיהוּ עָבִיד.

Like an artisan fashioning pottery: as long as that kick-wheel [Tiqla] keeps spinning in front of him, he can fashion as he imagines—this way or that, turning one vessel into another—since the wheel [Tiqla] is spinning before him.” (See full translation below[6])

If I understand this correctly, the image of a spinning wheel, such as a potter’s wheel, is used to show that an input at the right time creates the correct form. One needs to be proactive in the creation process, knowing just when and how to intervene and the spinning wheel responds by producing the correct shape of the finished product. Lot’s daughters, Tamar and Ruth knew just when and how to step in and affect the Tikla, and their devious seductions shaped the future messianic line – in other words, redemption through sin. Kaniel writes:

sexual deviation propels the Tiqla’s movement. This deviation characterizes the acts of women who seduce men who do not understand what is being done. Lot is drunk when his daughters seduce him in the Tzoar cave (Gen. 19); Judah did not recognize Tamar, because she is masked when she seduces him in petach-enayim (Gen. 38); and Ruth walks toward Boaz on the night of the graining, leaving “before one person could recognize another” (Ruth 3:14). The women’s initiatives are seen as a singular power in keeping with the divine plan that spins the cosmic wheels” (Kaniel 2012:123).

This notion of a great wheel of destiny in the sky, with different rotational patterns, is again emphasised further in the same Zohar:

All this, according to human deeds: if they act well, that kick-wheel spins them to the right, so events in the world come about for them favorably, fittingly. The wheel spins constantly to the right, never dragging, and the world revolves accordingly. However, if humans begin to do wrong, the blessed Holy One spins His constantly spinning device—which had maintained a rightward spin —to the left, rotating wheels and previously fashioned vessels leftward. Then the potter’s wheel spins and events in the world come about harmfully for humans. The wheel keeps spinning in that direction until people return to acting well” (Zohar ibid.).

The daughters of Lot according to the Zohar

Regarding the daughters of Lot, the verse in Genesis (19:33) reads:

וַתַּשְׁקֶ֧יןָ אֶת־אֲבִיהֶ֛ן יַ֖יִן בַּלַּ֣יְלָה ה֑וּא וַתָּבֹ֤א הַבְּכִירָה֙ וַתִּשְׁכַּ֣ב אֶת־אָבִ֔יהָ וְלֹֽא־יָדַ֥ע בְּשִׁכְבָ֖הּ וּבְקוּׄמָֽהּ׃

That night they made their father drink wine, and the older one went in and lay with her father; he did not know when she lay down or when she rose.”

In the original Torah text, there is a dot on top of the word “uvekuma”, or “when she rose”:

According to the Zohar, this dot alludes to the following:

Come and see, First it is written: “He was unaware of her lying down or her rising (u’Bekuma)”, [“or her rising”]—spelled with [the letter] vav dotted above, [because] supernal assistance attending that act, from which King Messiah was destined to issue, so here vav is included.

This means that regarding the incestuous incident with Lot’s daughters there was “supernal assistance attending that act” indicating the divine plan which mystically required and sanctioned sin to bring about messianic redemption.

The daughters of Lot according to the Talmud

It is significant to note that the Talmud (Nazir 23a) has a very different take on this matter:

לָמָּה נָקוּד עַל וָיו וּבְקוּמָהּ שֶׁל בְּכִירָה לוֹמַר שֶׁבְּשִׁכְבָהּ לָא יָדַע אֲבָל בְּקוּמָהּ יָדַע וּמַאי הֲוָה לֵיהּ לְמִיעְבַּד מַאי דַהֲוָה הֲוָה נָפְקָא מִינַּהּ דִּלְפַנְיָא אַחֲרִינָא לָא אִיבְּעִי לְמִישְׁתֵּי חַמְרָא

Why is there a dot in a Torah scroll over the letter vav of the word “uvekumah,” with regard to Lot’s elder daughter, in the verse: “And he did not know when she lay down and when she arose [uvekumah]” (Genesis 19:33)? This dot serves to say that when she lay down he did not know; however, when she arose he knew what she had done, as he later understood what had happened.

The Gemara asks: And what could he have done about it? What has happened has happened; i.e., Lot could not change the past. The Gemara answers: The difference is that on the other, following, night, he should not have drunk wine again. By allowing himself to get drunk a second time, he showed that the end result, engaging in sexual intercourse with his younger daughter, was something he desired.

One notices that the antinomian lesson taught by the Zohar, which appears to sanction redemption through sin, is completely reversed by the ethical lesson emphasised by the Talmud. The Talmud rebukes Lot, while the Zohar implies divine sanction of incestual deeds because the messianic future is at stake.

The wheel in the sky keeps on turning

Tikla, the wheels of the universe, turn in the strangest of ways. Kaniel (2012:116) explains:

According to the Zohar, through the seduction of their father and the subsequent birth of their sons, Lot‘s daughters set in motion the Tiqla’s wheels. By their acts of transgression, they alter the swaying of the Tiqla from the side of Judgment (Sefirat Din) to the side of Mercy (Sefirat Hesed), and bring about the messianic salvation. Thus, the idiom Tiqla expresses the dialectical relationship between the worlds; just as the lower reality derives from the divine world, human beings also have the capacity to influence and modify what is done in the higher realms.”

This idea of humans being able to directly influence the divine world, while very empowering and enticing, is risky and dangerous because the end justifies the means:

Human deeds, female seduction in particular, have mystical implications for the godhead, while the use of sin and “demonic powers” for theurgical purposes creates bonds between good and bad, heaven and earth.”

According to this theology, sometimes dubious and questionable moral means can and must be used to bring about the desired result of messianic redemption. By describing destiny as relating to a spinning wheel, one begins to understand the notion (or motion) of redemption through sin. Because a spinning wheel is involved, the end result does not always resemble the initial input.

מְהַפֵּךְ מָאנָא דָּא לְמָאנָא דָא

It sometime turns this way and sometimes that way” (Zohar ibid.).

The spiritual realm is thus described as a topsy-turvy space where cause and effect are sometimes distorted. Based on this idea, certain practitioners throughout history, who understand these rotational forces, know just when to act (almost like knowing when and how to throw the ball onto a roulette wheel) and questionable acts can be transformed into meritorious deeds.

The Sabbatian notion of redemption through sin

One area of immense interest is the Sabbatian movement of Shabbatai Tzvi, the seventeenth century false messiah who engineered the largest messianic movement in Jewish history - yet his story is often ignored by Jewish history. Around the year 1666, the followers of Shabbatai Tzvi were probably the majority of the Jewish population and endorsed by probably the majority of the respected rabbis at the time. The Sabbatians brought back to life the zoharic notion of redemption through sin (Kaniel, however, does not mention Sabbatians).

According to Sabbatian Kabbalah, if Shabbatai Tzvi (before he became discredited after his conversion to Islam) was the messiah then he did not have to follow Jewish law. He could follow the Torah chadasha or new Torah of messianic law instead. Shabbatai Tzvi taught that one can, and should actively break the law when he famously uttered the morning blessing Baruch…matir asurim (which generally means that G-d is to be blessed for loosening those who are bound, i.e., captives, or those just rising from sleep). But Shabbatai Tzvi had a novel interpretation of that blessing – it meant that now, because he was the messiah, all the issurim or forbidden practices of the past particularly those related to sexual morality, were mutar or permissible. He even married Sara, a woman of ill repute.

The Sabbatians adduced much Kabbalah to support this notion: They explained that from the time preceding the creation of the universe, during the Tzimtzum process (when the divine light is said to have been withdrawn into G-d Himself to make ‘space’ for the physical creation) the soul of the messiah has been confined within the lower realms of the Tehiru (this newly vacated space) and it merged with Kelipah (negative energies). The messiah’s soul has been held captive by the Kelipot and has been struggling ever since to escape. If the messiah was confined within the Kelipot, the only way to release him was to adopt a Trojan Horse approach, go straight into the sin, and thereby release him.

And the sin was not such a problem because the soul of the messiah was never under the authority of the Torah (being confined within the Kelipot), so he cannot be “measured by common concepts of good and evil” but instead acts according to his own law, which will become the future law of the utopian state of messianic redemption.[7]

This was how the Sabbatian kabbalists were able to explain away all the ’strange acts’ and the promiscuity of Shabbatai Tzvi, their messiah. This was also how Shabbatai Tzvi became a symbol of the biblical red heifer (Num.19) which is said to spiritually cleanse while itself becomes contaminated by sin. It was also the distortion of the notion that later was to become a cornerstone of the Chassidic concept of yeridah tzorech aliya, or descent for the sake of ascent.[8]

But, the Sabbatians expounded, this promiscuity was not for everyone. The traditional holy souls of the community had to keep the Torah and were thus protected by the law of the Torah, but the souls of the messiah and his messianic followers had to find a different, if not spiritually deceptive, way. The Sabbatians had good precedent, or so they imagined, for this idea, based on ideas like the zoharic notion of the spinning wheel or Tikla, representing redemption through sin:

“as long as that kick-wheel [Tiqla] keeps spinning in front of him, he can fashion as he imagines—this way or that, turning one vessel into another—since the wheel [Tiqla] is spinning before him” (Zohar ibid).

Maimonidean counterwieght

As a counterweight and contrast to these ideas, it must be noted that Maimonides (1135-1204) completely rejected the Kabbalistic notion of expedient messianic ideology which was brewing during his time just prior to the publication of the Zohar (1290). For him the messianic age was simply a slow but natural progression of humankind towards perfection without the need to resort to the Tikla or ‘spinning wheels’ of the Zohar or ‘deceptive acts’ of the later Sabbatians.  

[For Maimonides’ view of messianic times, see Kotzk Blog: 226) MASHIACH - A NATURAL OR SUPERNATURAL EVENT?].

[1] The Enigma of the term "Tiqla" in the Zohar, ELN 50.2, “Scriptural Margins: On the Boundaries of Sacred Texts,” University of Colorado at Boulder, (2012), pp. 113-126. [English]

[2] Miller, M., 2015, Rising Moon: Unraveling the Book of Ruth, Renana Publishers, Jerusalem, 266.

[3] The Zohar is the foundational work on Jewish mysticism, traditionally believed to have been written by the second century tannaic sage, R. Shimon bar Yochai, but published for the first time only in 1290).



[4] Chassidei Ashkenaz was the mystical, ascetic movement in the German Rhineland during the 12th and 13th centuries. See Kotzk Blog: 228) CHASIDEI ASHKENAZ – ‘THESE ARE NOT SUPERSTITIONS’!.

[5] The ancestral line between Peretz and King David spans ten generations: Peretz, Chetzron, Ram, Aminadahav, Nachshon, Salmon, Boaz, Oved, Yishai, David.

[6] Rabbi El’azar said “He revolves wheels”—The blessed Holy One spins revolutions, bringing about enduring phenomena in the world, but when people suppose that those phenomena will endure, the blessed Holy One transforms them. “By His devices”—Like an artisan fashioning pottery: as long as that kick-wheel [Tiqla] keeps spinning in front of him, he can fashion as he imagines—this way or that, turning one vessel into another—since the wheel [Tiqla] is spinning before him. So the Blessed Holy One Transforms His activity—“by His device,” Who is that? Lower Court of Justice, a potter’s wheel [that is the “Tiqla”] spinning in front of Him, so He transforms vessels, turning one into another . . .The blessed Holy One revolves the turn of events in the world, to arrange everything fittingly, all issuing from a supernal source and root … Come and see: From Lot and his daughters issued two separate nations, linked to the side befitting them. So the blessed Holy One revolves revolutions, rotates rotations in the world, so that all will turn out fittingly, all linked to its site . . . 

[7] Scholem, G., 1987 (1974), Kabbalah, Dorset Press, New York, 271.

[8] Torah Or, Bereishit 30a. This term, however, is taken from the Talmud, b. Makkot 7b, where in a different and more legal context (someone was climbing a ladder and a rung fell of and killed another below) ירידה שהיא צורך עליה is discussed.

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