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Fifty Gates of Understanding

People have a tendency to look at events of the past through eyes of the present. They often make an assumption that all knowledge is accumulative, and therefore, that previous generations could not have been wiser than subsequent ones. They assume that, just as in the world of technology where today's invention is better and more sophisticated than yesterday's, so too must it be with societies; that is, if we don't know about an idea, then certainly previous societies weren't aware of the idea either.

The world of Torah knows otherwise. Torah knowledge is accumulative, but the essential body of Torah is not. This is because in the year 2448 (1313 BCE), the entire Torah was given over to man by God Himself, and it has been our struggle, the struggle of the Jewish people, to hold onto that body of knowledge. However, laxity, persecution, and assimimilation have caused us to "forget" much.

Hence, unlike secular knowledge, which builds upon the successes of previous generations, and grows with each passing generation, Torah knowledge can become less known. Unlike secular knowledge, which becomes known to more people as time passes, Torah knowledge can become known to less people with each passing generation, as history has proven well. In Torah-language, this phenomena is known as yeridos hadoros-the decline of the generations.1

For this reason, it is not surprising to find out that much of Judaism has become over-simplified with the passing of time. Twentieth Century reasoning has been applied to much of Torah, with disasterous and even heretical results. This is especially so when it comes to the Jewish holidays that commemorate events of the past, particularly the holiday of Purim and the story of its miraculous redemption.

Twentieth Century secular man's own lack of spiritual sophistication has caused him to assume that the same lack of spiritual sophistication existed in previous generations too. Our tradition tell us otherwise. On the contrary, even the non-Jew and our nemesis of old often had greater knowledge of Torah and a appreciation of its authenticity than many Jews in recent times. The Talmud even speaks of non-religious Romans who could quote possukim from the Torah by heart.

In other words, Haman was no fool.

On the contrary, he was aware of just who the Jewish people were, of their history, and of their relationship to God. It was this knowledge that empowered him to take the bold step of trying to annihilate the Jewish people. Just like it was Hitler's knowledge of history and of societal development that inspired him to devote so much time, effort, and money, and eventually his nation to obliterating the Jewish people.2

So, as much as history would like to paint tyrants in the color of insanity, the truth is, many of them were geniuses-evil geniuses. To assume otherwise is to greatly imperil mankind; it is to negate our responsibility to deal with the causes that give rise and opportunity to such evil geniuses who wreak havoc on the world. It is to endanger the Jewish nation.

It is no coincidence that Haman built his gallows to hang Mordechai fifty amos high (approximately 75 feet3). The number "fifty" in Judaism usually alludes to the Nun Sha'arei Binah-Fifty Gates of Understanding, which played a very significant role in the story of Purim. Haman identified Mordechai with the Fifty Gates of Understanding (and rightly so), and it was his intention to hang both, so-to-speak, from his fifty-amos high gallows.4

What are the Fifty Gates of Understanding?

On a simplistic level, the Fifty Gates of Understanding represent a progression of knowledge from the mundane to the most sublime, with the fiftieth level being the highest ...

    The world was created with Fifty Gates of Understanding ... (Rosh Hashanah 21b)5

In the desert, after the Jewish people left Egypt, they traveled for forty-nine days until they received the Torah from God-on the fiftieth day.6 This too was an allusion to the Fifty Gates of Understanding, as is the counting of the omer performed by subsequent generations of Jews during the same period of time each year.7 The goal of life is to "pass through" as many of the fifty gates as possible, which is synonomous with achieving closeness to God; the learning of Torah and the performing of mitzvos are meant to facilitate such spiritual growth.

All knowledge changes the way one views reality, and oneself within that reality. However, the Fifty Gates of Understanding provide an awareness that transforms the person's whole perspective of life; they reveal the hand of God in every aspect of existence. They vanquish the illusion of a Godless world, and provide access to the most important, yet hidden aspects of man's potential.

The Fifty Gates of Understanding are the "keys" to rising above mundane reality in order to transcend it, to live as a Tzelem-Elokim-in the image of God. They are the basis of kedushah-holiness-which means that they are central to fulfilling the mandate of being Jewish, for the Torah advocates that we, as a nation, must be holy.8

Thus the Fifty Gates of Understanding represent the Jewish people's most formidable weapon against evil, which is why Haman felt compelled to "shut-and-lock" those gates from the Jewish people once-and-for-all. For, to achieve those levels of knowledge means to banish evil from the world; it means to reach a level of cognitive intellectual and spiritual awarness that will usher in the true Messianic era, one that will finally see the end of all evil within creation ...

    And so, too, the righteous will see and be glad, the upright will exult, and the devout will be excited with glad song. Iniquity will close its mouth and all wickedness will disappear like smoke, when You remove evil's domination from earth. (Machzor for Rosh Hashanah, Shemonah Esrai)

Therefore, Haman's battle against Mordechai and the Fifty Gates of Understanding was a war waged to save his own life. He understood that, as long as the Jewish people survive and have access to such spiritual knowledge, to such a high level of da'as, then the destruction of evil is imminent.

Balak and Bilaam, Haman's predecessors by 920 years, had also understood the same message, and had tried to interfere with the process. They knew that Eretz Yisroel, the ultimate destination of the Jewish people,9 was a major factor in gaining access to the Fifty Gates of Understanding and in ushering the Messianic Era.

The Jewish people were on their final approach to Eretz Yisroel.10 They had successfully overcome Sichon and Og, the two giants charged with being the outer perimeter of security for the nations of Canaan. The Jewish nation miraculously smashed through their defence shield, and were on their way in. What could Balak and Bilaam hope to accomplish in the face of such strength?

The answer is, they had never expected in their wildest dreams to overcome the Jewish nation; that realistic they had been. What they had attempted to accomplish (and they had been partially successful) was to prevent the nation from entering the land of Canaan. For, they understood that such a historical crossing at such a historical moment would have also spelled the end of all evil, leaving no room in history for the likes of the Balaks and Bilaams.11

What was, is, so special about Eretz Yisroel that Balak and Bilaam had felt so threatened?

Eretz Yisroel is a land unlike any other, as the Torah points out;12 but not just because its sustenance depends upon direct Divine Providence.13 Rather, Eretz Yisroel is unique because the essence of Torah Sh'b'al Peh (the Oral Law14) is within it.15 The goal of inheriting a portion of Eretz Yisroel was to help each Jew find his own portion within Torah Sh'b'al Peh (Purim celebrates a victory of Torah Sh'b'al Peh).16 No wonder the midrash says, "there is no wisdom like the wisdom of Eretz Yisroel,"17 to which the Talmud adds: even the air of Eretz Yisroel makes a person wise.18

Thus Balak's and Bilaam's attempt to deny the Jewish people access to Eretz Yisroel was also an attempt to deny them access to the Fifty Gates of Understanding, just like Haman himself, and, as we will see, all Amalekians.19 In fact, the Zohar points out, in the names of Balak and Bilaam is an allusion to Amalek:

Balak (bais, lamed, kuf)- Bilaam (bais, lamed, ayin, mem)

Amalek (ayin, mem, lamed, kuf) - Bavel (bais, basi, lamed)20

Curiously enough, after constructing the name Amalek from the two names, the remaining letters spell the word bavel, the Hebrew name for Babylonia, the location of the exile that subjected the Jewish people to Haman, and which ended in the miracle of Purim!

Inasmuch as Eretz Yisroel is immersed in Torah Sh'b'al Peh, which, as will become evident, is closely related to the Fifty Gates of Understanding, it must also possess a tremendous unifying quality. For, da'as is the koach hachibur-the power of unification, as we learn from Har Sinai and Kabbalos HaTorah:

    They traveled from Refidim and came to the Sinai Desert, and they camped in the desert; they (written: he) camped opposite the mountain. (Shemos 19:2)

    He camped opposite the mountain: k'ish echad, b'leiv echad-like a single person with a single heart-Rashi

The fact that the Torah referred to the entire Jewish nation in the singular, Rashi says, was to allude to the tremendous unity inspired by the awesome event of Kabballos HaTorah. But why here? Why did the Torah feel compelled to inform us of this phenomenon here? The reason is because such unity is not merely a measure of social harmony-it is also the measure of objectivity, an imperative for receiving Torah ... the way God wants it to be received.

Any statement of truth subjectively "filtered" results in distortion. Sometimes the distortion is without malice: the person unconsciously and instinctively distills what his ears hear. But the result is still distortion, a perversion of the word of God. The Torah is commenting that, at least at the beginning of the history of Torah, at the time of Kabbalos HaTorah, the Torah had to be received free of distortion.

Hence, the Torah is not merely telling us that the Jewish people achieved a sublimely harmonious state; it is telling us that each and every Jew rose above his or her subjective concerns, and was thus able to objectively hear Torah, as much as was humanly possible.

The Jewish people reached this illustrious state on the first day of the month of Sivan, forty-five days after leaving Egypt. Over the next five days, until the fiftieth day, they perfected this state as a final preparation for receiving Torah. The revelation at Har Sinai, and the extraordinary awareness and connection to God that resulted, all of which are synonomous with the Fifty Gates of Understanding, resulted in the absolute unification of the Jewish people with God, among themselves, and with all of creation. This is the power of da'as: it has the ability to unify the entire Jewish nation on the level of k'ish echad b'leiv echad.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise to find out that Haman was also bothered by Jewish aloofness, which is symptomatic of an internal unity, at least on some level:

    Haman told Achashveros, "There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your realm. Their laws are different from every other people's. They do not observe even the King's laws; therefore it is not befitting the King to tolerate them." (Esther 3:8)

That fifty is a number that suggests unity we can see from the Mishkan:

    You shall make 50 loops on the end of the one curtain that is the outermost in the joining, and 50 loops on the edge of the curtain that joins to the second. You shall make 50 catches of copper, and put the catches into the loops, and join the tent together, that it may be one. (Shemos 26:11)

This is also why the courtyard in front of the Mishkan was fifty amos in length and fifty amos in width. It is this area that provides the halachic parameters for an eiruv, which, on Shabbos, is the amalgamation of many private and individual domains into one unified area for the purpose of carrying on Shabbos.21

One would expect the Fifty Gates of Understanding to be associated with such unity. True Godliness leads to true selflessness, not simply because of fear of punishment, but because spirituality elevates a person out of the mundane world of pettiness. Pettiness can be the greatest obstacle to unity, and to da'as.

Hence, the Fifty Gates of Understanding are a vision that helps a person to better organize his or her priorities in life, because they represent a view of creation as God wants it to be seen, not as it merely appears through the physical eyes, the "eyes" of the yetzer hara, the heart's eyes-the eyes of Amalek:

    Don't go spying after your hearts and your eyes ... (BaMidbar 15:39)

Understanding all of this, and overcoming it is a function of the

Fifty Gates of Understanding, as the prophet alluded:

    Who (mi-mem, yud) is the wise person who understands these ... (Hoshea 12:1)

    To know the ways of God and His Providence, and all aspects of Godliness ... (Malbim)

The Hebrew word for "who" (h"n) has a gematria of fifty (40+10), alluding to the Fifty Gates of Understanding, proving that it is only with this da'as that one can achieve the sublime vision of a God-filled world. This is also why the Fifty Gates of Understanding are associated with tshuva, alluded to in the possuk:

    If You preserve transgression Hashem, God, who (mi-mem, yud) could survive? (Tehillim 130:3)

Again, the gematria of the Hebrew word for "who" (mi-mem, yud) is fifty, once more alluding to the Fifty Gates of Understanding.22 After all, what is tshuva but the end result of an intellectual clarity that reveals the true spiritual damage caused by transgression? The Talmud states that the whole point of wisdom is to bring a person to tshuva.23 This is why the completely righteous cannot achieve the same spiritual level as ba'alei tshuva,24 for:

    The level of the Fifty Gates of Understanding is the level of knowledge given to the ba'al tshuva. (Pri Tzadik, Tu B'Av, 6)

    Understanding (Bina) is tshuva! (Leshem Shevo V'Achlama, Dayah, 1:1:1)

Understanding this, it becomes clear why the Talmud places Eretz Yisroel on par with Torah and Olam HaBah (The World-to-Come),25 and why the Talmud concludes:

    One who lives in Eretz Yisroel is from those who inherit The World-to-Come. (Pesachim 113a)

    One who lives in Eretz Yisroel lives without transgression. (Kesuvos 111a)

And knowing the intrinsic connection between Eretz Yisroel and the Fifty Gates of Understanding, we can appreciate better Yehoshua's merit in being Moshe's successor, and the one to lead the Jewish people to their final destination, Eretz Yisroel. After all, Yehoshua was ben nun-the son of fifty (the letter nun equals 50), the one who married Rachav, the woman who converted to Judaism at the age of fifty!26

Perhaps this is why the Talmud is adamant that, for the sake of reading the Megillah on the fifteenth of Adar, a walled city is only compared to Shushan if its walls date back to the days of Yehoshua bin Nun.27 As one opinion holds, would it not have been more logical to date the walls back to the days of Achashveros, during which the story of Purim occurred?

The answer is yes. However, there is a higher logic at work here, one that dictates a connection between Purim and Eretz Yisroel, the Fifty Gates of Understanding, Yehoshua bin Nun, and Torah Sh'b'al Peh, all of which combat Amalek and the yetzer hara:28

    I created the yetzer hara and I created Torah as its spice. (Kiddushin 30b)

    The main "spice" is Torah Sh'b'al Peh ... (Pri Tzadik, Ki Teitzei 1; Nedarim 22b)

In the end, this is why Haman built his gallows fifty amos high:

    Haman sensed that an emanation of Torah Sh'b'al Peh was about to occur, which is the Fifty Gates of Understanding, because understanding means understanding something from chochmah (wisdom) ... And this is why he made an aitz29 fifty amos high, to allude to the fact that he had overcome the da'as (knowledge) of Yisroel since he had built a gallows fifty amos high ... However, just the opposite occurred, since the Jewish people accepted Torah Sh'b'al Peh with love.30 (Pri Tzadik, Purim, 2)

It was a war between Haman's da'as and Da'as Torah, which helps to explain why the Torah's allusion to Haman is connected to the Aitz HaDa'as Tov v'Rah-the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Talmud asks:

    Where is there an allusion to Haman in the Torah? In the verse, "Did you eat from (ha-min; heh, mem, nun) the tree (ha-aitz; heh, ayin, tzaddik)?" (Chullin 139b)

The Torah's "source" for Haman is a play on the word "hamin" (from), which can be read, "haman," and a connection between Haman and the Aitz HaDa'as Tov v'Rah, a tree that comprised both good da'as and bad da'as. However, not only can the "hamin" refer to Haman, but the "aitz" can refer to Haman's gallows, for:

    ... The aitz that Haman built fifty amos high corresponded to the Fifty Gates of understanding that are in Torah Sh'b'al Peh which is of the aspect of the Aitz HaDa'as Tov v'Rah ... (Pri Tzadik, Purim, 2)

But this is only another way of referring to:

    The novellae that the Chochmei Yisroel (wise of Yisroel) produce, actual words of the Living God which He places in their hearts. (Pri Tzadik, Purim, 2)31

Words that He places in their hearts.

From this, it would seem, that "passing" through the Fifty Gates of Understanding requires more than just a commitment to keep learning and probing the depths of Torah. It seems that the acquisition of da'as also requires the direct assistance of God, which, as Dovid HaMelech wrote, has a prerequisite:

    The secrets of God to those who fear Him. (Tehillim 25:14)

    The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God. (Tehillim 111:10)

In conclusion, the Fifty Gates of Understanding, the da'as that emanates from within Torah Sh'b'al Peh and Eretz Yisroel, and which comes to conquer the yetzer hara, also comes to eradicate Amalek, the aweful nation that gave rise to Haman. The Fifty Gates of Understanding are the principle "weapon" used in the war God has waged against Amalek until his final demise:

    Moshe built an altar, and he named it, God-is-My-Banner. He said, "The hand is on God's Throne. God will be at war with Amalek for all generations." (Shemos 17:15)

Is it any wonder then, that the numerical value of the Hebrew word "amalek" is 240, the same numerical value of the word "sufek," the Hebrew word for "doubt":

    sufek (samech, peh, kuf) = amalek (ayin, mem, lamed, kuf)

    (60+80+100) = (70+40+30+100)

Is it any wonder that Purim is a holiday of da'as? Perhaps not-but what does that da'as have to do with wine?


From Redemption to Redemption - Copyright © 1998 Rabbi Pinchas Winston


1 See Brochos 20a; Shabbos 112b; Shabbos 138b; Eiruvin 53a; Yoma 38b.

2 It has been said that Hitler understood the essence of the Jew more than most Jews of his time. Many of his writings proved that he knew that Judaism was far more than just an ideology; he saw Judaism to be a spirit that was an integral part of every Jew, something that assimilation and intermarriage could not completely purge.

3 An amah is a Torah measurement equal to about 18 inches.

4 Pri Tzaddik, Purim 2.

5 The Talmud finishes by saying that forty nine gates were given to Moshe Rabbeinu; the fiftieth gate he "passed through" at his death, dying on Mt. Nevo, which, in Hebrew, is nun, bais, vav, which can read "nun-bo" meaning "fifty in it." For a more precise and kabballistic explanation of the Fifty Gates of Understanding, see the Vilna Gaon's description in Safra D'Tzniusa, Chapter One.

6 The number seven represents physical completion; the number forty-nine is seven groups of seven. The number fifty, therefore, represents a departure from the physical realm into the spiritual one, just as does the number eight.

7 To this very day, between Pesach and Shavuos, Jews count the omer each night after three stars come out.

8 VaYikrah 19:2

9 Eretz Yisroel was to have been the forty-secondth stop of the 40 year journey through the desert, corresponding to the forty-secondth letter of the forty-two letter name of God that prophets used to go into a state of prophecy; it was also used to elevate the soul, or, to enter into "Pardes," a euphemism for the four levels of Torah, the highest of which comprises Kabballah (Pri Tzadik, Ma'asei, 1).

10 The account begins from BaMidbar 22:2.

11 If the entire nation had entered the land, and had then performed the mitzvos dependent upon being in Eretz Yisroel, such as Trumos and Ma'aseros (tithes), then the Jewish people would have become completely purified, as would have the entire land. This would have drawn down tremendous holiness from heaven, which would have humbled the entire world. However, Bilaam engineered the spiritual fiasco that ensnared many of the Jewish people at Shittim, which ended with the death of 176,000 Jews, and closed the door on the possibility of ushering in a messianic era at that time (Shem M'Shmuel, Parashas Balak, 5670).

12 Midrash Shachar Tov (Tehillim) says that God uprooted Har HaMoriah, the future location of the Temple in Jerusalem and the location at which Avraham had been prepared to sacrifice Yitzchak, and placed it on top of Har Sinai, and then gave the Torah at the same spot that Ya'akov Avinu slept the night he dreamed of the ladder. Then, God folded all of Eretz Yisroel into that spot! What unity! What holiness!

13 Ta'anis 10a.

14 The Oral Law, which today makes up the bulk of the Talmud, explains in detail how to properly execute the mitzvos, and provides background to many of the stories in Tanach.

15 Pri Tzadik, Parashas Ma'asei, 4.

16 Zohar Chadash 2:137b.

17 Bereishis Rabbah 16.

18 Baba Basra 158b; the reason for this is stated elsewhere: ten "kavin" of wisdom that fell to the world, nine of them were "taken" by Eretz Yisroel (Kiddushin 49b).

19 The Brisker Rav points out that Amalek was more than a people, he was a philosophy. Therefore, even one not born from his tribe could possess his point of view, and act "Amalekian."

20 Zohar 3:194a.

21 Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 358:1.

22 Pri Tzadik, Parashas Balak, 3.

23 Brochos 17a.

24 Brochos 34b.

25 Brochos 5a.

26 Zevachim 116b.

27 Megillah 2b.

28 Pri Tzadik, Parashas Devarim, 6.

29 Literally, "wood," or "tree," but it refers to the gallows Haman built.

30 See Shabbos 88a, where it states that at the time of the giving of the Torah at Har Sinai, the Jewish people only accepted Torah Sh'b'al Peh from fear of God; at Purim time, they re-accepted Torah Sh'b'al Peh out of love.

31 The Pri Tzadik in Parashas Balak explains that this is why Bilaam tried to curse the Jewish People in the Beis Medrash, the place of interpreting Torah Sh'b'al Peh.


 






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