We Shape Our Own Heaven or Hell
Our Gemara on Amud Beis delves into the matter of payment and the varying forms it can take depending on the nature and circumstances of the obligation. It teaches us that someone who causes damage and is required to pay from their land assets must pay from the best of their land. However, a debtor who utilizes land may use land of medium quality.
In a metaphorical and spiritual sense, mystics discuss how one should perceive sin and its consequences: Is it payment for damages or payment for debts?
For instance, the Chida (Nitzavim 2) applies this concept to explain the following verse (Devarim 29:18):
“When such a person hears the words of this curse, he may fancy himself immune, thinking, ‘I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart’—thus adding drunkenness to thirst.”
The Chida wonders how someone could rationalize that they will not be punished for their sinful behavior and that the admonitory curses will not be fulfilled. While I personally do not find this to be a profound question (as the saying goes, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt”), the Chida considers this line of reasoning preposterous. Consequently, he proposes a deeper understanding regarding the mindset of the sinner:
The sinner believes that sins and their resulting punishments are comparable to debts, implying that payment will not be extracted from the highest quality land, but only from the middling quality. In this case, it means that the sinner will not suffer themselves, but rather their family members or possessions. However, God’s response is that sins are not merely debts, but they are, in fact, damages (ניזקין), and the payment will be extracted from the highest quality real estate—the person themselves.
Continuing along this line of reasoning, let me add another dimension. It is typical of sinners to view their sins and punishment as transactional. Their relationship with God is reduced to a mere business transaction. Perhaps they believe that if they perform a mitzvah, they will receive a reward as payment, and if they choose to sin, they will pay the price of punishment, akin to a debtor repaying a loan. However, this way of thinking is distorted. Punishment is not God “paying you back”; rather, it is the unfortunate consequence of the damage inflicted upon one’s own soul through their actions.
In his introduction to Perek Chelek, the Rambam explains that both reward and punishment are simplistic explanations provided to the unsophisticated, similar to how we give lollipops or spankings to little children. The truth of the matter is that the consequences of sin are far greater than the fires of hell, and the reward for mitzvot is far greater than any imaginable physical bliss. These experiences involve the attachment or detachment of the soul to God, which can be agonizing or blissful in ways that we cannot comprehend in the physical world. Rav Chaim Volozhin goes further (Nefesh HaChayyim 1:12) by stating that we shape our own heaven and hell moment by moment, as our sins either draw us closer to or distance us from God. Although we may not sense it in the physical world, this process is ongoing, and we will only fully realize it in what we refer to as the world to come. In reality, it is happening right now.
Rav Chaim Volozhin (Nefesh HaChayyim, near the beginning of Gate One) offers a unique perspective on being made in the image of God. Humans, to some extent, share a similarity with God in that their actions have a profound effect on the entire creation. Whatever humans do carries significant implications for all the universes.
The sages expressed this idea in Eikha Rabba (1:33, on verse 1:6): “Rabbi Azarya said in the name of Rabbi Yehuda, the son of Rabbi Seemon: ‘When Israel performs God’s will, the Almighty’s power increases,’ as it is written (Tehillim 60:14): ‘Through Elokim we will make valor.’ And when Israel does not perform God’s will, it is as if they weaken the great power of heaven, as it is written (Devarim 32:18): ‘Rock, your children weaken You.'”
The simple interpretation of the verse צ֥וּר יְלָדְךָ֖ תֶּ֑שִׁי (tzur yeladecha teshi) is “You forgot the one who formed you,” but the derash (homiletic interpretation) suggests that it means “you weakened God’s ability to have an impact in this world.” The point is that we are made in the image of God, and our actions have cosmic implications.
Therefore, it is characteristic of sinners to be shortsighted and perceive their sins or rewards as mere transactions. However, in reality, they are not mere transactions. Each sin inflicts catastrophic spiritual damage, while every mitzvah creates unimaginable spiritual attachments and reverberations throughout creation. Thus, a sinner is not merely a debtor, but rather a mazik, a vandal inflicting damage.
In summary, our Gemara explores the concept of payment and its relation to obligations. Metaphorically, mystics contemplate the nature of sin and punishment, whether they are payments for damages or debts. The Chida suggests that sinners may falsely believe their punishment will be limited to secondary aspects of their lives, failing to realize that sins cause damage to their own souls. The Rambam and Rav Chaim Volozhin further elaborate on the profound consequences of sin and the spiritual impact of actions, emphasizing that reward and punishment go beyond simplistic explanations. Our actions have cosmic implications, shaping our connection to God and affecting the entire creation. Therefore, it is essential to understand that sin is not a mere transaction but a destructive force, while the fulfillment of mitzvos creates powerful spiritual attachments.
Unconventional Justice: The Case of the Temple Ox
The Gemara on Amud Aleph examines the unique and counterintuitive status of an ox that belongs to the Temple. The verse in question is Shemos 21:35:
“When one person’s ox injures another’s, so that it dies, they shall sell the live ox and divide its price; they shall also divide the dead animal.”
The term “רעהו” or “neighbor” emphasizes a peer-to-peer relationship, indicating that there is no financial liability when causing damage to possessions belonging to the Temple’s treasury.
Rav Hirsch provides insightful commentary on this verse, offering several analyses to explain the existence of this counterintuitive law. One might assume that if one has to compensate for damage done to ordinary objects, they should certainly have to pay for damage to holy objects belonging to the sacred treasury. Rav Hirsch suggests that perhaps it is to emphasize that nothing humans do or don’t do can truly affect God, and that He can never actually suffer damage at the hands of humans. Alternatively, it may be to emphasize that one cannot easily escape the consequences of disrespecting God’s “possessions” and that true forgiveness requires more than mere payment. (Both of these ideas relate to our previous discussion on the Psychology of the Daf, Gittin 48.)
Regardless of the exact explanation, Rav Hirsch adds the following observation: Throughout Jewish history, even if individuals, whether deranged or not, attempted to destroy a part of the Temple, including the Holy of Holies, there would be no enforcement by a physical judicial court. He suggests that this strongly contradicts the claim made by those who suggest that the Torah was fabricated by a group of priestly royalty in an ivory tower, seeking rituals and injunctions to bolster their power among the superstitious masses. Why would they create a law that exempts people from any damages inflicted on the temple treasury? If anything, one would expect them to increase the penalties. Therefore, this unique law serves as a novel proof for the divinity of Torah law.
Intuition Versus Logic
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph delves into the complex topic of guarantees in Jewish monetary law. It presents a scenario where a person who volunteers as a guarantor on a kesuba (marriage contract) is exempted from financial responsibility. Typically, a guarantor assumes a commitment due to their respected and wealthy status (See Bava Basra 173b where the prestige of becoming a guarantor and the exchange of money creates an obligation based on receipt of benefit.). However, in the case of a kesuba, where there is no direct financial loss (as the woman did not lend money per se,) the rabbis consider the guarantor’s role more as a gesture of encouragement than a binding legal obligation.
This exception arises because the woman, as the recipient of the kesuba, did not contribute any of her own money. The reassurance provided by the guarantor serves as an incentive for her to agree to the marriage. While the guarantor should still keep his word, the rabbis did not see it as creating a legal contractual obligation. It is important to distinguish between the moral obligation to honor one’s word and the strict financial liability.
To illustrate this point, imagine a scenario where friends are about to have dinner, and one casually says, “Don’t worry, I’ll pay for dinner.” At that moment, there is no direct benefit incurred that would create a legal obligation. However, once they start eating and the person hosting the dinner receives the benefit of the food and the prestige of hosting, an obligation is created. Similarly, in the case of the kesuba guarantor, they were making a gesture to promote a positive outcome but were not fully committed financially.
The Gemara explains the reasoning behind this distinction: the intention of the guarantor is to facilitate a mitzvah by encouraging the woman to consent to the marriage. However, the guarantor does not genuinely intend to obligate himself, and the woman does not suffer any loss that would justify the guarantor accepting responsibility. Therefore, the Sages established that the guarantor does not become personally responsible for payment.
This legal principle has implications beyond guarantees in loans. The Sefer Dover Yesharim raises a question about Yehuda’s promise to his father to bring back Binyamin from Egypt. Yehuda’s statement is framed as being a guarantor, and the Gemara sees it as proof that one can create an obligation by agreeing to be a guarantor. The Gemara (Bava Basra 173b) states:
אָמַר רַב הוּנָא מִנַּיִן לְעָרֵב דְּמִשְׁתַּעְבֵּד דִּכְתִיב אָנֹכִי אֶעֶרְבֶנּוּ מִיָּדִי תְּבַקְשֶׁנּו
Rav Huna said: From where is it derived that a guarantor becomes obligated to repay a loan he has guaranteed? As it is written that Judah reassured his father concerning the young Benjamin: “I will be his guarantor; of my hand shall you request him” (Genesis 43:9). This teaches that it is possible for one to act as a guarantor that an item will be returned to the giver.
However, Dover Yesharim questions why Yehuda’s assurance should be legally binding since the risk involved in his case is not comparable to that of a lender. The entire family faced starvation, and the guarantee did not expose Binyamin to additional risk. Hence, according to strict legal reasoning, Yehuda’s obligation should not be binding.
Dover Yesharim suggests that Yehuda’s obligation arose due to Reuven’s prior statement, where the food had not yet run out. By offering to be a guarantor at that time, Reuven had set a precedent, and Yehuda’s assurances would naturally be no less. The logical conclusion is that they needed to provide additional assurances to convince their father to allow Binyamin to go with them.
Moreover, I would like to suggest a different answer. We can draw a distinction between Yehuda’s case and the kesuba guarantor in our Gemara. While both scenarios lack a direct loss to the party being guaranteed, there is a crucial difference. In Yehuda’s case, their entire family faced the imminent threat of starvation, creating a life-threatening situation. Thus, Yehuda’s assurances carried greater intensity and sincerity, akin to the case of Sikrikon (which we see on 55b), where a forced acquisition is considered valid due to the extreme circumstances of mortal danger. The absence of such circumstances in our Gemara leads to a different legal outcome.
Reflecting on Yakov’s seemingly irrational refusal to send Binyamin can be seen as an example of intuition clashing with logic. While Yehuda presents a logical argument, Yaakov’s intuition, fueled by his subconscious awareness of his sons’ past actions, prevents him from easily accepting the proposed solution. Yaakov cannot bring himself to believe explicitly that his sons had homicidal tendencies, yet deep down he knew it. The verse states (42:36):
“וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֲלֵהֶם֙ יַעֲקֹ֣ב אֲבִיהֶ֔ם אֹתִ֖י שִׁכַּלְתֶּ֑ם יוֹסֵ֤ף אֵינֶ֙נּוּ֙ וְשִׁמְע֣וֹן אֵינֶ֔נּוּ וְאֶת־בִּנְיָמִ֣ן תִּקָּ֔חוּ עָלַ֖י הָי֥וּ כֻלָּֽנָה׃
Their father Jacob said to them, “It is always me that you cause to bereave: Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you would take away Benjamin. These things always happen to me!”
Does this sound like somebody who is afraid that an accident will happen? His words betray more. He all but accuses the brothers of causing him to lose two children (Yosef and Shimon), and now he is incredulous that they want to take a third child?
It is important to recognize that intuition, although often difficult to articulate or rationalize, can provide valuable insights and guide our decision-making processes.
In our own lives, there may be instances where we feel strongly about a particular course of action, even if it goes against conventional wisdom or logical reasoning. While it is essential to exercise critical thinking and consider all available information, we should also acknowledge the power of intuition. Sometimes our gut feelings, informed by our subconscious mind, can alert us to potential risks, hidden truths, or underlying motives that may not be immediately apparent.
In the pursuit of balance between intuition and logic, it is crucial to cultivate self-awareness and emotional intelligence. By paying attention to our instincts and carefully examining our thoughts and feelings, we can develop a more comprehensive understanding of ourselves and the world around us. This self-awareness enables us to make better decisions and navigate complex situations with greater clarity.
Ultimately, the interplay between intuition and logic is a dynamic process that varies from person to person and situation to situation. Both intuition and logic have their strengths and limitations. By acknowledging and integrating both aspects into our decision-making processes, we can enhance our ability to navigate life’s challenges and make choices that align with our values and goals.
The Process of Realizing the Truth
Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses the psychology of why there is an obligation to make an oath when there is partial admission, even though if there is total denial, there is no obligation. At first glance, this does not make sense. Why did somebody who is decent enough to make a partial admission be less credible than a person who totally denies? But of course, human behavior does not follow logic; it also follows emotions. Therefore, the reasoning is as follows:
אָמַר רַבָּה, מִפְּנֵי מָה אָמְרָה תּוֹרָה: מוֹדֶה מִקְצָת הַטַּעֲנָה – יִשָּׁבַע? חֲזָקָה – אֵין אָדָם מֵעִיז פָּנָיו בִּפְנֵי בַּעַל חוֹבוֹ;
Rabba says: For what reason did the Torah say that one who admits to part of the claim brought against him takes an oath with regard to the rest of the claim, which he denies, whereas one who denies the entire claim is not required to take an oath? Rabba answers: The oath of partial admission is based on a presumption with regard to the defendant’s behavior. There is a presumption that a person would not be so brazen as to stand before his creditor and deny his debt when his creditor knows that he is lying.
וְהַאי, בְּכוּלֵּיהּ בָּעֵי לְמִכְפְּרֵיהּ לֵיהּ, וְהַאי דְּלָא כַּפְרֵיהּ – מִשּׁוּם דְּאֵין אָדָם מֵעִיז פָּנָיו בִּפְנֵי בַּעַל חוֹבוֹ; וּבְכוּלֵּיהּ בָּעֵי דְּלוֹדֵי לֵיהּ, וְהַאי דְּלָא אוֹדִי לֵיהּ – אִישְׁתְּמוֹטֵי הוּא דְּקָא מִשְׁתְּמִיט לֵיהּ – סָבַר: עַד דְּהָווּ לִי זוּזֵי וּפָרַעְנָא לֵיהּ; וְאָמַר רַחֲמָנָא: רְמִי שְׁבוּעָה עִילָּוֵיהּ, כִּי הֵיכִי דְּלוֹדֵי לֵיהּ בְּכוּלֵּיהּ.
Rabba continues: And this one who admits to part of the claim would want to deny all of it, and the only reason he does not deny all of it is because a person would not be so brazen before his creditor. And in fact, he would want to admit to all of the claim to him. And the reason that he did not admit the whole claim to him and say that in fact he owes him the entire sum is that he was evading his obligation temporarily. The debtor is short of money and he thinks: I will pay my creditor as much as I can afford now, and I will evade paying the rest until I have enough money, and then I will repay him the rest, to which I have not yet admitted. Therefore, the Merciful One states: Impose an oath on the debtor in order to induce him to admit all of the debt to the creditor.
In other words, really the fellow is fully obligated, but he does not have the money, and out of guilt he makes a partial admission. This alone is suspect, and therefore to flush him out, we force him to make an oath. Since he is not a brazen thief or liar, once he has to make an oath, he will be induced to come clean.
There is a Chassidic metaphor derived from this legal ruling (see Likkutei Halakhos Choshen Mishpat, Laws of Loans 3:4.) The Torah takes an understanding and merciful approach toward a person tempted by circumstances toward dishonesty. Instead of calling him a liar, we actually believe that he wants to tell the truth. We surmise that his partial admission is his own the way of trying to rationalize his conflict between his shame of being unable to pay his debt while also his shame in denying the debt. So instead of completely mistrusting him, we will get an oath because deep down we do trust him and we know that if he is lying, he will now come forward.
Rav Nachman says this is also true in regard to our sins. Sometimes we are not able to fully admit to God (and maybe ourselves!) Our sin. We will rationalize and make partial admissions. Even so, God accepts this partial admissions as part of our process toward recognizing the full truth that we need to face.
Prophetic Dreams and Their Limitations
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses a situation where Rabbi Meir made a halakhic ruling, but then was confronted in a dream that he was an error. He stuck to his original logical analysis, and disregarded his dream:
הָהוּא אַפּוֹטְרוֹפּוֹס דַּהֲוָה בְּשִׁבָבוּתֵיהּ דְּרַבִּי מֵאִיר, דַּהֲוָה קָא מְזַבֵּין אַרְעָתָא וְזָבֵין עַבְדֵי, וְלָא שַׁבְקֵיהּ רַבִּי מֵאִיר. אַחְווֹ לֵיהּ בְּחֶלְמֵיהּ ״אֲנִי לַהֲרוֹס וְאַתָּה לִבְנוֹת?!״ אֲפִילּוּ הָכִי לָא אַשְׁגַּח, אֲמַר: דִּבְרֵי חֲלוֹמוֹת לֹא מַעֲלִין וְלֹא מוֹרִידִין.
It is related that there was a certain steward who was in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood who was selling land belonging to the orphans and purchasing slaves with the proceeds, and Rabbi Meir did not allow him to do this, as the practice is contrary to halakha. They showed him in his dream the words: I wish to destroy and you build? He understood this as a sign that God wanted the orphans to suffer financial collapse, and therefore it would be preferable to allow the steward to continue his practice. Even so, Rabbi Meir paid no heed to his dream, and said: Words appearing in dreams do not bring up and do not take down; they should not be taken into consideration. (Bava Metzia 86b)
It is a fascinating topic of discussion how sometimes in Rabbinic literature dreams are taken as ominous portents and other times not taken seriously. Aside from our Gemara we have other incidents in the Talmud where financial obligations were not impacted, regardless of how powerful the evidence is from a dream. In fact, it is codified in Shulkhan Arukh (CM 55:9) that even if one has a dream telling him where, in certain amount of money is hidden from his father‘s estate, and it actually is an unpaid debt, even if the location and the amount turns out to be uncannily accurate, he has no obligation legally to turn this money over to whom ever the dream said it is owed.
On the other hand, in Gemara Nedarim (8b), oaths and excommunications that occur during dreams are to be taken as valid. This suggests that certain types of dreams hold significance and are treated as credible sources of information. The Torah Temimah (Bereishis 37:9) explains that dreams often reflect a person’s preoccupations and thoughts during the day. Therefore, if someone is genuinely concerned about an oath or the possibility of being excommunicated, their dream relating to these matters is given weight and considered seriously. That is, his spiritual concerns while possibly not totally accurate, have significance. However, in regard to monetary matters, there can be enough inaccuracies to suspend obligation. (Note: This is my interpretation of the Torah Temimah. It is ambiguous so check it out yourself and draw your own conclusions.)
The idea of dreams being prophetic and their intersection with our unconscious imaginative faculty encompasses a complex spiritual, theological, and psychological interaction. Maimonides, in his work “Guide for the Perplexed” (II:41), delves into this topic, acknowledging the intricate nature of dreams and their potential prophetic qualities employing aspects of human imagination as it encounters divine stimuli.
This symbolic, non-cognitive part of ourselves possesses an astounding capacity for attunement and recognition of vast patterns and data. It can manifest in the conscious mind through symbols, imagery, or sudden thoughts. This aligns with the teachings of the Talmud (Berakhos 57b), where Rabbi Yoḥanan states that if a person wakes up in the morning with a verse on their lips, it is considered a minor form of prophecy. Additionally, the Talmud suggests that a dream is 1/60th of prophecy, highlighting the potential significance of dreams as sources of divine communication.
The phenomenon of prophetic experiences extends beyond the Gemara. Many great Rabbis throughout the Middle Ages spoke of experiencing Ruach Hakodesh, divine inspiration. For instance, Rav Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulkhan Arukh, documented his encounters with a personal maggid, an entity that appeared to him and conveyed teachings. His Sefer, called Magid Mesharim, provides insights into the divine teachings he received.
An intriguing aspect related to the reliability of these revelations is a conversation between Rabbi Kloft and the Chazon Ish, as recounted by Tzvi Yabrov (Maase Ish, 1998, pp. 119, 187). Rabbi Kloft questioned whether Rav Karo’s halakhic rulings in Magid Mesharim, which originated from supernatural sources, should be exclusively followed. The Chazon Ish responded, “Rav Karo’s Magid is also Rav Karo,” implying that the authority of Rav Karo’s Maggidic rulings carries no more weight than Rav Karo himself.
This statement requires nuanced understanding. The Maggid was a manifestation of a spiritual resource within Rav Karo, suggesting that his prophetic experiences were not mere figments of imagination. To further illustrate this concept, we can consider an opinion presented by Tosafos (Shabbos 87a, Yevamos 62a) regarding Miriam’s and Aharon’s criticism of Moses’ celibacy and separation from his wife. Tosafos suggests that Moses initially made the decision to separate based on his own judgment, and later God endorsed his choice. Miriam and Aharon objected due to the principle that “God leads a person in accordance to his inclination.” This principle is extended even to Moshe’s prophetic permission to separate from his wife. However, this subjective aspect of Moshe’s personal prophecy does not diminish his role as the eternal lawgiver and authoritative prophet when giving prophecy to the Jewish people.
Therefore, we can interpret these instances as instances where individuals communicate or perceive divine will through their own delving into the sense of God within self, decoding God’s message from within themselves. While subjective in nature, they nonetheless bear divine significance.
Distinctions Between Rabbinic and Torah Law
Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses a judicial concept of damage inflicted that is not visible, such as rendering Teruma food impure (טמאה). The damage is invisible and may not technically incur a legal financial penalty, but the rabbis imposed a financial fine nonetheless. This is because allowing such damage to go unpunished could lead to people vandalizing others’ Teruma with impunity. Within this discussion, there is a subset concerning the status of violations committed in error and whether the rabbis impose a penalty retroactively. Rabbi Meir’s opinion is that even the unintentional offender is liable to the penalty, as the rabbis made no distinction.
However, when it comes to unintentional violations of Shabbos, such as cooking, Rabbi Meir imposes a penalty forbidding the consumption of such food for rabbinic violations, but oddly not for Torah violations. The Gemara explains that Rabbi Meir felt it necessary to enforce the penalty for rabbinic violations because one may be tempted to minimize the transgression. However, an unintentional act of cooking on Shabbos that violates a Torah law is not subject to a penalty, since people would naturally do their best to avoid transgression.
The Chasam Sofer points out that, according to Rabbi Meir, the penalty serves as a disincentive and is not related to the intrinsic severity of the sin; in fact, quite the opposite. However, Rabbi Yehuda, who imposes the penalty strictly for a Torah violation, does so as a reflection of the severity of the act. That is, when a Torah law is violated, it is deemed proper to not derive any benefit from the act as a sign of respect.
The way in which a rabbinic violation is viewed has implications in other areas of halakha. There is a famous Nesivos (234) that discusses a scenario where someone sold forbidden food to a person, and the buyer unknowingly consumed it. In such a case, the buyer is entitled to a refund and must also engage in some form of penance. According to Torah theology, sins committed out of lack of knowledge are treated as negligent to some degree. The Nesivos asserts that this is true only when the food was forbidden by Torah law. If it was forbidden by rabbinic law, no repentance is required, and therefore no refund is due. The reason is that the Nesivos holds that rabbinic prohibitions are not intrinsically substantive; rather, transgressing them reflects a form of rebellion and rejection of rabbinic dicta. The directive to obey the rabbis comes from the verse in Devarim 17:11, which obligates obedience to rabbinic law, but disobedience requires knowledge and intent. Thus, if the act had no intention, as in this case where the person did not know the food was rabbinically banned, no sin was committed whatsoever.
Meshech Chokhma (Shoftim 17a) raises a question about this Nesivos: If there is no intrinsic violation in a rabbinic law, why would Rabbi Meir impose a penalty on unintentional violations? Using the Chasam Sofer’s approach, we can answer this question. The issue for Rabbi Meir was not the severity of the violation but rather deterrence. Therefore, Rabbi Meir’s imposition of the penalty was aimed at maintaining discipline and fidelity to rabbinic law.
This Nesivos opens up a dimension of understanding the metaphysical requirements of rabbinic law and sheds light on certain leniencies in a different light. For example, rules such as “במקום צער לא גזרו” in situations of great pain they did not imply a requirement or “כבוד הבריות דוחה” or in situations of unusual humiliation are now understood differently (for example, see Shulkhan Arukh OC 13:3 and 317:1). It is not that the rabbis made a special dispensation, and there is still some degree of prohibition. Rather, they completely exempted the person who is in distress. This suggests an ethical distinction, namely that a person in such a situation has no obligation to suffer and follow the rabbinic law, not even as an act of extra piety. This has important psychological implications because if one is in a situation of distress and is permitted to suspend a rabbinic requirement, there is no need to be a hero and endure unnecessary pain. The focus shifts from being stringent to prioritizing one’s well-being and minimizing unnecessary suffering.
Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses the unique ritual on Yom Kippur when the Cohen Gadol enters the Holy of Holies. The verse states (Vayikra 16:17):
וְכׇל־אָדָ֞ם לֹא־יִהְיֶ֣ה ׀ בְּאֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֗ד בְּבֹא֛וֹ לְכַפֵּ֥ר בַּקֹּ֖דֶשׁ עַד־צֵאת֑וֹ וְכִפֶּ֤ר בַּעֲדוֹ֙ וּבְעַ֣ד בֵּית֔וֹ וּבְעַ֖ד כׇּל־קְהַ֥ל יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
When he goes in to make expiation in the Shrine, no man shall be in the Tent of Meeting until he comes out. When he has made expiation for himself and his household, and for the whole congregation of Israel.
What is the meaning and significance of no person being present when the Cohen Gadol enters the Holy of Holies?
The Rokeach (Nezikin Horiyos 13) explains that it means no man shall enter, even the greatest figures such as an angel. This area is reserved solely for God and the Cohen Gadol. Yismach Moshe (Acharei Mos) interprets the phrase “no man” to mean no human concern. When the Cohen Gadol enters the Holy of Holies, he must divest himself of all trivial concerns and leave behind human interests and preoccupations.
The Zohar (Acharei Mos 66a) sees this as a metaphor for a deeply intimate act between husband and wife. Just as that level of love and intimacy is conducted in private, so too is this ritual, representing the climax of the Yom Kippur service and the bond between the Jewish people and God.
In Jewish mysticism, we often find that the sexual union symbolizes the union between God and humanity. Most notably, even the Cherubim on the Ark were depicted in an intimate embrace, possibly even a sexual one. The Gemara in Yoma (54a-b) tells us:
אָמַר רַבָּה בַּר רַב שֵׁילָא
Rabba bar Rav Sheila said:
כׇּל מְכַבְּדֶיהָ הִזִּילוּהָ כִּי רָאוּ עֶרְוָתָהּ
“All who honored her debased her because they have seen her nakedness.”
This statement suggests that the Cherubim appeared to be embracing one another. When the gentiles destroyed the Second Temple and entered the Sanctuary, they saw these depictions of cherubs in an intimate embraceand misunderstood their significance. They removed the cherubs from the wall, took them to the market, and criticized the Jewish people for engaging in such matters and creating such images. Consequently, the cherubs were debased and destroyed.
From the way the heathens perceived the cherubim, it appears that the embrace of these male and female angels was highly intimate. This highlights the deeper message that God would not choose such imagery unless sexuality itself was inherently holy, particularly emphasizing the loving bond between husband and wife.
This understanding of the metaphysical significance of holy matrimony aligns with Jewish mystical teachings, which often draw connections between the intimate union of husband and wife and the spiritual union between humanity and the divine. It underscores the sanctity and importance of marital love and intimacy within the framework of Jewish tradition.