Rav Kook Torah

Purim: Mystical Scythes and Guardrails


Rabbi David Cohen, Rav Kook’s devoted disciple, affirmed that he would visit his teacher every day. On Purim, however, there were many visitors at Beit HaRav, and he did not want to squeeze among the crowd. Afterwards, however, Rav Kook indicated his disappointment on Rabbi Cohen’s absence. “On Purim, I say special things — things which I am not accustomed to say during the rest of the year.”

Rabbi Shimon Glitzenstein, Rav Kook’s secretary during his years in London, also noted the unique atmosphere in Rav Kook’s presence on Purim.

There were two days in the year when the splendor of the Rav’s greatness was fully revealed. Throughout the year, his genius did not hide his personality; but on two days the spiritual flow of his overflowing wellspring [of creativity in Torah] was revealed in its full intensity - on Purim and on Shavuot night. It is not easy to record on paper and describe what the holiday of Purim was like with the Rav. It was so rich in its spirituality, it is difficult to confine to the narrow framework of an article. For this subject, one must dedicate an entire volume!

A stunning example of Rav Kook’s special outpouring of Torah on Purim may be found at the end of the first volume of his commentary on the siddur, Olat Re’iyah. With a breathtaking collage of Talmudic quotes, Kabbalistic allusions and Gematrias, and a dizzying array of topics, leaping from Amalek, Agag and Haman, to Bilaam, Korah, Saul and Esther, the article is difficult to analyze. It typifies Rav Kook’s unique Purim Torah, deviating from his usual literary style.

Below is an attempt to explain some of the concepts which Rav Kook discussed in the article. Due to its explicit Kabbalistic references and use of Gematria calculations and manipulations of Hebrew letters to develop the central ideas, this article is especially challenging to render in English.

The Mystical Scythe of the Kabbalists

One of the central themes of Purim is 'hester' — God’s hidden Presence in history.1 God’s name does not appear — not even once — in the entire Book of Esther. The miraculous deliverance of the Jews of Persia is a neiss nistar, as there are no explicit miracles in the story. The very name of the leading protagonist — Esther — means ‘hidden.’ The Sages noted:

“Where is Esther alluded to in Scripture? In God’s statement, ‘I will completely hide — hasteir astir — My Presence, because of all the evil that they have done’ (Deut. 31:18)” (Hullin 139b).

The central theme of Purim, then, is revealing God’s Presence and discerning His providence even in the darkest of times. The letters of the word Megillah — a rolled-up scroll, hiding its inner contents — can be rearranged to form the words magal (מגל) Yud-Hey — a “scythe of God.” This refers to a spiritual scythe, used to uncover the world’s hidden Divinity.2

This scythe is a tool of “those harvesting the field.” Who are these “harvesters”? They are the Kabbalists, learned in the secrets of Torat HaNistar, who labor to uncover God’s hidden Divinity in the world.

The letters מג"ל of the word Megillah can also be rearranged to form the word גמל (gamal) — a camel. The camel is not a kosher animal. It has only one of the two signs of kashrut; it chews its cud but does not have split hooves. And yet the Sages taught that seeing a camel in a dream is a good sign. A camel is a symbol of deliverance, as it says, “And I will also bring you up” (Gen. 46:4) — God’s promise to Jacob to return his descendants to the Land of Israel. (The words “gam alah” — “also bring up” — sound like gamal, camel.)

This teaching hints to a future era, when the camel will ascend and become pure. Unlike the pig, which bears only the external sign of purity (split hooves), the camel’s sign of purity is on the inside, chewing its cud. The camel’s inner purity will one day be revealed. Like the story of Purim, its inner holiness will be uncovered and elevated.

We similarly elevate the physical acts of eating and drinking through the mitzvah of feasting on Purim. The letters megilah can once again be rearranged to the word 'legimah,' the imbibing of strong drink, an act which is elevated on Purim through the mitzvah of becoming inebriated.

A Guardrail Against Falling

With all of this elevation of the material world, however, we require clear, normative boundaries. Recognition of future holiness does not have practical ramifications for how we relate to its current state. Not everything is holy, certainly not yet.

This was the fatal error of King Saul, who took pity on Agag. Saul perceived a spark of holiness hidden deep inside in the soul of the Amalekite king.3 Saul’s viewpoint was from an elevated position. The Jewish king had heard Samuel’s prophecy and was anointed king while he stood on the roof (gag) (I Sam. 9:25-10:1). According to the Malbim, the prophet Samuel revealed to him Divine secrets from those spiritual heights.

But such an elevated position requires a guardrail, a boundary to protect one from falling — physically and spiritually. “You must place a guardrail (ma’akeh) around your roof” (Deut. 22:8).

In fact, the word ma’akeh is almost the same as Amalek; the words share three common letters. The numerical difference between the two words is 25. If we add כ"ה (25) to ma’akeh — if our guardrail has only approximate instructions (כה means “like this”) — this can lead to Amalek, a state which allows doubts and spiritual missteps. This is the essential danger of Amalek, who attacked the Israelites when they doubted God’s providence:

“They had asked, ‘Is God with us or not?’ And Amalek arrived and attacked Israel” (Exod. 17:7-8).

The assurance against this situation is the crystal-clear prophecy of Moses. Moses spoke in exact terms — “This is the matter that God commanded” (Exod. 15:15). Therefore, God informed Moses, “As for you — you will stand here with Me” (Deut. 5:28). The Torah of Moses is stable and secure, not like the faltering prophecy of Balaam, the source of curses, who would fall to the ground when he received prophecy.

Over time, Saul’s error was rectified through his descendant Esther. Esther defeated Agag’s evil descendant, Haman. Despite our intellectual mistakes, time will overcome all failings. With a complex bit of numerical juggling, Rav Kook demonstrates that the three-letter root of the word Gevurah, the sephirah of Divine judgment, corresponds to three words which conclude with the letters שנה – meaning ‘year’ or ‘time.’ Over time, the root of Gevurah is sweetened by the inner power of God’s Divine light (the minor Gematria of גב"ר is 26, the numerical equivalent to God’s Name).

The letters כ"ו (corresponding to 26) are also the two inner letters of the word shikor (שכור), meaning ‘inebriated.’ As the Sages noted, “Wine enters, secrets emerge” (Eiruvin 65a).

(Adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. I, p. 437-439. Background information from Mo'adei HaRe’iyah, p. 251, 258. Explanation of sources from Ma’amar Mehatzdei Hakla by Yonatan Raziel)

1 Even the word ‘history’ appears to share the root hester.

2 The Divine Name Yud-Hey is the first half of the Tetragrammaton. The Kabbalists explain that this holy Name corresponds to the alma d'itkasya, the higher, hidden realm of God’s holiness, the inner Divine soul that gives life to the world.

3 The name Agag is like gag (roof), indicating some elevated spark of holiness.