Monday, March 22, 2010

How did the Kabbalists know what they knew?

That's the question a reader posed in response to my previous blog on “The Two Jerusalems”.

Specifically, the comment was, “Is it really eighteen miles above the 'earthly city'? In fact, the height of Earth's atmosphere is approximately 18 miles above Earth's surface. How did the Kabbalists know?”

I haven't the vaguest idea, other than the obvious.

What's obvious? Read this:

Apart from that, though, the reader raising a number of interesting issues. Pictured above is the cave in Pik'in, Israel, to which, in 160 CE or so, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, escaping the fury of the Bar Kochba Revolt in Jerusalem, fled He and his sons hid in this cave for a dozen years, where by tradition, they composed the Zohar, the Kabbalah.

I once thought I knew something about that period in Shimon Bar Yochai's life. Back in Seattle, the highly esteemed Rabbi Kornfeld was giving a class on the subject of the Zohar. He described in great detail how it was that Bar Yochai and his sons managed to survive in that tiny cave -- and now that I've seen it myself, it IS tiny. In any event, he said they existed on the "fruit of the carob tree and water from a nearby spring."

Except that's not what I heard -- what I heard Rabbi Kornfeld say was that they existed on the fruit of the CARROT tree -- obviously my ears needed cleaning that day. So I went around for years, picturing these holy men existing on carrots -- carrots that they plucked from a tree, yet. (Well, why not? For HaKadosh Baruch Hu, making a carrot grow on a tree is no less a miracle than making one grow in the ground. It seemed perfectly reasonable to me. If He wanted to make a carrot tree, certainly He could do so. Chop-chop.)

So I was pretty surprised when years later, I tried to pass that bit of information on to someone else, that part about the carrot tree. "You mean CAROB tree," the person said. Huh! Really? Well, I rather liked my vision of carrots dangling from the branches of a tree.

In any event, above is a picture of the carob tree that's right outside the cave. (It's probably the descendant of the one Bar Yochai harvested, but indeed, there are any number of thriving carob trees right outside the cave. And yes, there's still a natural spring right there, too.)

But there's still another question comes to mind now that I think about it. The translation of the Zohar that I quoted on that March 17 blog does indeed say that the heavenly Jerusalem exists "18 MILES" above the earth.

Miles? Really? When did the unit of measurment known as a "mile" come into being? I didn't think of that until this reader brought it to my attention. Surely a "mile" didn't exist during the days of Bar Yochai!

But maybe it did.

Thanks to Google, here's what I found:

"The Greeks and Romans inherited the foot from the Egyptians. The Roman foot (~296 mm) was divided into both 12 unciae (inches) (~24.7 mm) and 16 digits (~18.5 mm). The Romans also introduced the mille passus (1000 paces) or double steps, the pace being equal to five Roman feet (~1480 mm). The Roman mile of 5000 feet (1480 m) was introduced into England during the occupation. Queen Elizabeth I (reigned from 1558 to 1603) changed, by statute, the mile to 5280 feet (~1609 m) or 8 furlongs, a furlong being 40 rod (unit)s (~201 m) of 5.5 yards (~5.03 m)each."

The "mile" referred to in the Zohar may have been 5000 feet, not 5,280. But maybe, indeed, the Kabbalists could have used that measurement.

Amazing world we live in. Now I'm wondering if there maybe isn't a carrot tree out there somewhere, too.


  1. If you lend someone $20 and never see that person again, it was probably worth it.............................................

  2. Ah, yeah. I guess. In a Zen sort of way, huh?