Re-visioning Sifra di-Tsni’uta: a basis for understanding universal reality and personal Kabbalah

Every day the news media bring us a never ending sequence of terrible scenes of both large and small scale violence; disgusting examples of political, financial and moral corruption; and shameful revelations of callus and cruel human activities against our fellow human beings and the natural world we live in.

It seems as though this has been the situation since the earliest times of human society. Not even the flood in Noah’s era could permanently wash away away the scum of worldwide violence, cruelty and corruption.

In India, most religious thinkers and sages accepted this universal reality; and sought to find the wisdom and the ways for individuals to escape this world of continual suffering and pain.

In the Near East, religious thinkers with the benefit of monotheistic prophets, sought to reconcile their belief that the one and only God who had created both the heavens and the earth, expected humans to be able to live kind, modest and loving lives; and to create just, moral and reverent human societies.

As Prophet Micah (6:8) says: “Mankind (Adam) , He (God) has told you what is good and what the LORD requires of you: to act justly, to love kindness, and to walk modestly (HaTsnay’ah) with your God.”

So why is it so difficult for human beings to live as God wants us to live, and how almost all of us say we ourselves want to live?

And why do so many people have such difficulty with contending forces within our own family and even within ourselves?

A very small and ancient book (only six pages in five chapters) that is included in a much larger book of medieval Jewish mysticism (the Zohar) contains answers to these conundrums..

Sifra di-Tsni’uta (The Book of Modesty, Caution or Discreetness) dates back to the same era as Sefer Yetsirah, a book Jewish mystics felt came from Abraham, the father of Jewish, Christian and Muslim monotheism.

The teachings of Sifra di-Tsni’uta were referred to by Prophet Micah in the verse quoted above when Micah speaks of walking with God: modestly, cautiously or discreetly.

Religious people, especially religious leaders, need to walk with the One who created this complex, conflicted world; modestly, cautiously and discreetly; avoiding the arrogant pride of thinking that they, or their own religious community, have the all the answers for life’s questions.

The false reasoning of Greek philosophy, with it’s mathematical belief in the Universal Truth of either/or logic, must be subjected to the higher, yet more modest spiritual understanding of God’s creation of a universe of many kind and loving inclusive truths of both/and.

Since most people were not yet ready for these complex multivalent concepts, Rav (a great third century Babylonian sage) taught that God’s 42 letter name should be transmitted only to those who are HaTsnay’ah; modest, cautious and discreet walkers with God. (Talmud Kiddushin 71a)

Thus, this profound knowledge has been concealed under metaphoric distractions like God’s beard and the metaphysical framework of the ten Sefirot (emanations of Divine energy) that occupy most of the Zohar and other Kabbalistic writings.

Rabbi Moses de Leon (1250-1305) assembled a collection of venerable mystical texts, that could be traced back to Rabbi Shimeon bar Yohai and his teacher Rabbi Akiba ben Yosef the convert, into an extensive commentary on the weekly readings of the Torah.

The Zohar itself, and the Tikunay Zohar additions, also includes many independent ancient mystical midrashim: Idra Raba, Idra Zuta, Safra de Tzniuta, Raza de Razin, Tosefta, Raya Mi’emna, Ashmatot, Sitrey Torah, Sitrey Otiot, and Midrash Ha Ne’elam; a commentary on the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, as well as some Torah verses.

Sifra di-Tsni’uta itself appears in the Zohar right after an extensive commentary to the Torah portion of Terumah, and is preceded by a parable about a man who lives simply by subsistence wheat farming; eating his crop raw.

Once, when he visits a distant village for the first time he tastes bread and learns it was made from wheat. He tastes cakes and learns they were made from wheat. He tastes pastries and learns they were made from wheat.

Then he said “I am the king (master) of all these since the raw wheat I eat is the bases for all of these.”

Due to that opinion, he knows (learns) nothing of the world’s delights, which are lost on him. So too with everyone who grasps an abstract generality, but is unaware of all the (tasty) delights emerging and diverging from the basic general theory, miss out.

In other words, he is like someone who believes only in the literal words of revelation, and is ignorant of the many other ways of understanding holy scriptures; or someone who cannot grow in personal wisdom beyond the fixed literal education, experiences and internalized desires of his or her childhood.

The first chapter of Sifra di-Tsni’uta begins, “It has been taught: The Book of Concealment is a book balanced on scales. For until there was a balance; they (the unequal forces) did not gaze face to face, and kings died, their weapons faded, and the earth was nullified. Until the chief of Desire of all Desires arranged and bestowed garments of glory. ”

To understand the opening of Sifra di-Tsni’uta we must refer to Midrash Bereysheet Rabbah (3:7) which states: “God kept creating worlds and destroying them until God created this one” These worlds may have been on other planets, or more likely they probably existed here on earth in prehistoric times.

Nothing of these prehistoric society’s religious or cultural values have come down to us except very indirectly through their artifacts like rock art, jewelry and figurines.

Their religious leaders (kings) died and were forgotten; their weapons (spiritual teachings) faded away over the millennia; and only their artifacts remained under the earth.

Then, almost 6,000 years ago, God, the chief yearning of all yearnings, bestowed consciousness of the need for personal, social and ecological balance, (garments of glory) upon Eve (who chose to eat/internalize the “fruit of the morality tree) and Adam (who followed her) and they could begin to live in equilibrium; face to face.

A balance scale in equilibrium (face to face) is a horizontal image and not a vertical image like Shepard and sheep or king and subject.

The balance scales tells us that pairs in general, should not be seen as vertical i.e. light and dark, heaven and earth, good and evil or soul/mind and body.

God’s creation of our universe is a balance between: justice and mercy, plants and animals, male and female, science and arts, reason and emotion, material and spiritual, good and evil, carnivores and herbivores, and dozens of other pairs that are not balanced due to equal weight but by complimentary interactions like human lovers, who are not equal opposites, but are mutually and uniquely engaged in an ongoing loving and holy relationship in order to produce a greater good. Then they are face to face.

When individuals or groups are too logical or emotional, too religious or materialistic, too vegetarian or callus of animals or too gender unbalanced, their personal and interpersonal forces do not gaze face to face; and spiritual kings die out, their weapons (religious energies and institutions) fade away and the earth becomes debased, polluted and nullified.

“The chief of desire of all desires”; desires and even blesses (Genesis 1: 27-8) desires, attractions, attachments and achievements in the natural and spiritual world, as long as they are balanced and compassionate, because the Creative One created a universe that is “very good” (Genesis 1:31) and filled with holy “garments of glory” like empathy, wisdom, love and kindness.

This is why the Sifra di-Tsni’uta text contiinues: “This balance scale hangs in a place that is not; upon its scales were weighed those who did not (yet or any longer) exist. The balance scale stands on its own, ungrasped and unseen. Upon it rose, and will rise those who were not and who were and will be.”

The balance scales hang in no specific existing place; because they are in every place sacred scriptures are studied and followed.

This refer to the gifts of spiritual and moral revelations, God has bestowed through various religious leaders, who have proclaimed the requirement for human self consciousness of our need for personal, social and ecological balance.

The balance stands on its own because it is much more than great insights human beings have grasped. The balance scales determine who will or will not be born; who will be resurrected; and for those who follow scriptures teaching reincarnation, who will or will not be reborn.

To be continued.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.