In the Torah portion of Beha'alotcha, a group of Jews somewhat ungratefully complains to Moses that they miss the meat they used to eat in Egypt; all they get now is manna. (Num. 11:4-6) In response, G‑d tells Moses to inform the Jews that they will be given not just enough meat for a meal or two, but a full thirty-day supply.

Moses protests: "From where am I [to get] meat"?! (ibid.11:13) and later, "[There are] six hundred thousand footmen in the nation in whose midst I am, and You have said, 'I will give them meat and they will eat [for] a month of days.' Should [entire herds of] sheep and cattle be slaughtered for them, would it find them [satisfied]? Should all the fish of the sea be gathered for them, would it find them [satisfied]?" (ibid.11:21-22)

A person ignorant of Torah is forbidden to eat meat….

What did Moses mean by his protests? After all, the world is full of nations much more numerous than the Jews, and they all seem to have enough to eat - yes, there would seem to be even more than enough if G‑d gathered together all those sheep and cattle, or "all the fish of the sea". And, in any event, who said anything about fish? It was meat the Jews asked for; they never mentioned fish at all, so what was Moses alluding to?

Now, on the one hand, the Talmud teaches that a person ignorant of Torah is forbidden to eat meat; (Pesachim 49b) such a person is incapable of the holy intentions necessary to elevate the meat to its spiritual source (a concept to be discussed below). This implies that it is the person who elevates the meat - as we would expect, since humans are superior to animals and lower forms of existence. Elsewhere, however, the Talmud teaches, "The fruit which Adam ate [from the Tree of Knowledge] was wheat [since wheat enlightens a person]." (Berachot 40a) This implies that, to the contrary, it is the food which benefits the person - not just in a physical sense (for this is obvious), but spiritually as well.

The flavors of plants and fruit…are actually rooted in a higher plane of spiritual existence than is humankind….

In reality, both perspectives are valid. Jewish philosophy teaches that the flavors of plants and fruit, and the physical substance of foods like meat, are actually rooted in a higher plane of spiritual existence than is humankind. In a nutshell, the meaning of this derives from the fact that G‑d is infinite and this physical world is finite; there is quite a distance, in a manner of speaking, in between. In a very broad and general sense, we may speak of a state of existence in which G‑d's creative energy, the life force he bestows upon creation, is manifest fairly uniformly with respect to the creations brought into being by that life force. By contrast, a "lower" plane of spiritual existence would be one in which the G‑dly life force has begun to be sorted out and differentiated, such that some creatures receive more and some less - a circumstance which defines the relative superiority or inferiority of those creatures.

To be more specific: the former spiritual scheme of existence is known as Olam haTohu, the realm of chaos or void; the latter, Olam haTikun, the realm of repair or rectification. These are both spiritual realms of existence; however, the end result of this progression from higher degrees of spirituality to lower is this physical world. The entities of this world may be said to be physical manifestations of their counterparts in the spiritual realms, similar to the manner in which a physical object reflects the intention of its designer - which in turn was motivated by some inner feeling or need for expression, etc. Theoretically, one could trace the progression of some physical item back through successively more subtle levels of planning and motivation within its creator, until the ultimate "source" of that object is found to be virtually indistinguishable from the creator's innermost self. In G‑d's inscrutable wisdom, he saw fit to create the universe along similar lines, and, with respect to the vast progression between G‑d's very "Self", as it were, and this world, we may point to specific spiritual levels (themselves rooted in even higher levels, and so on) as the roots, or sources, of physical items. Thus, meat is said to stem from Olam haTohu, while humanity derives from Olam haTikun.

The manner in which G‑d manifests His life force in the spiritual roots is mirrored in the physical items derived from them. As noted above, in Olam haTikun - the spiritual source of humankind - the G‑dliness is invested to a greater degree in certain elements within that realm, and to a lesser extent in other elements. In humans, too, we therefore find that our life force is apparent to different degrees within the body: the soul is primarily manifest in the intellectual faculty; to a somewhat lesser extent, in the emotions; and less so with respect to one's capacity for action. (Intellect is associated with the Hebrew letter alef. Thus, the Hebrew word for "Mankind" is "adam", spelled with the letters alef, dalet and mem, since these three letters stand, respectively, for the Hebrew words for thought, speech ("dibbur", with begins with dalet) and action ("ma'aseh", beginning with mem).

Jewish mysticism speaks of ten principal degrees of divine manifestation….

Jewish mysticism speaks of ten principal degrees of divine manifestation, known as the ten sefirot, which can be divided into groups described as corresponding to intellect, emotion and action. The degree of G‑dliness manifest within the highest of these spiritual levels, the "intellectual" attribute of chochma, is greater than that manifested within the relative lowest, the "practical, creative, actuating" attribute of malchut. All of the ten sefirot (which, in the context we are discussing, are elements of the spiritual realm of Atzilut), are arranged in an order paralleled by our own human makeup - intellectual sefirot highest, emotional sefirot lower, and so on. This is the sense in which G‑d, as He manifests Himself through the ten sefirot of Atzilut, is mystically referred to as the Supernal Man (Adam haElyon), mentioned in Ezekiel's vision of the heavenly realms, "…and on the likeness of the throne was a likeness similar to the appearance of a Man…." (Ezekiel 1:26)

The above scheme of G‑dly manifestation, reflected in the physical universe by humankind, is the state of affairs in Olam haTikun. The higher spiritual level of Olam haTohu may be thought of as "closer" to G‑d, nearer to the Divine Source of all, and in this realm the G‑dly revelation is so potent that it does not divide into subtle degrees. It is as though, so close to the Source, the Divine life force rushes mightily forth, suffusing everything equally. This is, as stated above, the mystical root of the animal kingdom, which is why animals reflect something of this scheme: unlike humans, their heads and their bodies are on the same plane, symbolic of the equal measure of life force in each. Likewise, animals possess a greater degree of raw strength ("animal strength") than do humans, indicative of the potency of the life force at their spiritual root.

In Ezekiel's vision, this, too, is alluded to. We read (Ezekiel 1:5 and 1:10) of four heavenly creatures (chayot), each of which had faces reflecting not only humanity, but "the face of a lion … the face of an ox … [and] the face of an eagle." Wild animals (chayot) are mystically descended from their spiritual source in "the face of a lion"; domestic animals (beheimot) from "the face of an ox"; and birds from "the face of an eagle." These spiritual beings are described as being beneath the heavenly throne referred to above. (See Ezekiel 1:22 and 1:26)

Animals can be thought of as both inferior and superior to humanity….

Now, paradoxically, animals can be thought of as both inferior and superior to humanity. In the physical realm, people eat meat, and it gives them life and strength. In this sense, the people depend upon and are supported by the animal kingdom; that is, the animal elevates the human. On the other hand, in a more subtle sense, once a person has eaten something, that food is assimilated and literally converted into a part of the person's body. Thus, if the person uses the energy he or she gained from the food - in this case, meat - for holy, spiritual pursuits (e.g. Torah study and performance of mitzvot, like prayer or acts of kindness), that meat (which previously had no link to such holiness) is itself elevated, along with the person, to a higher spiritual level. In this respect, the human elevates the animal.

This is the esoteric meaning of the Midrashic teaching, "the chayot [heavenly creatures in Ezekiel's vision] carry the throne." (Shmot Rabba, end of chapter 23) That is, just as we are uplifted by the nourishment we derive from physical meat, so too, in a mystical sense, is our spiritual source - the "Heavenly Man on the throne" of Olam haTikun - borne up by the heavenly creatures beneath the throne - the spiritual source of animals - to their own source in Olam haTohu. On the other hand, as the meat a person eats is absorbed within the person and thereby attains the superior status of the speaking being, humankind, so are the heavenly creatures likewise absorbed into and elevated together with the "Supernal Man".

Now, animals are associated with strength, which reflects their spiritual source (represented by the lion and the ox), also associated with the attribute of strength (gevura). For this reason, meat is red, a color that symbolizes gevura, and its effect on a person (even after it has been elevated by the person's spiritual intentions) is to increase their fervor and fiery, passionate dedication to G‑d - qualities that derive from the holy aspects of the attribute of gevura. Yet all this potency and strength is not without danger: the increased vitality could conceivably be usurped by unholy forces, causing the person to misdirect all that passion and zeal and fall into sin (G‑d forbid).

A Torah scholar…may eat meat, for such a person is capable of separating out and elevating the good….

A Torah scholar (in Hebrew called a "talmid chacham"), as the Hebrew term implies is someone who derives spiritual influence from the attribute of chochma - the source of the wisdom of the Torah. A defining characteristic of chochma is that it has the power to discriminate, to distinguish good from bad, desirable from undesirable. Thus, a talmid chacham may eat meat, for such a person is capable of separating out and elevating the good aspects to be derived from it, while rejecting the possible negative influence of inflamed passion and fervor. However, an unlearned person should not eat meat, for there is too great a danger of their being pulled down, G‑d forbid, of succumbing to worldly temptations.

When told by G‑d of His intention to give the Jews meat, Moses protested. That is because Moses himself was on such a supremely lofty spiritual level that he was superior even to the spiritual state attained by elevating meat to its heavenly source. From Moses' perspective, it would be a descent, not an elevating experience at all, to come to that level, for the fiery passion for G‑d that one achieves through successful elevation of meat still leaves the person conscious of his or own independent existence from G‑d. If the person feels anything - even love and fear of G‑d - they are, by definition, not at the point of utter nullity before G‑d in which they lose all sense of self.

Moses, however, was on this lofty level, as expressed by his remark, "What are we [that you should complain to us - Moses and Aaron - rather than to G‑d]" - in Hebrew "v'nachnu ma." (Ex. 16:7-8) This verse can also be understood as: "We are ma ['nothingness'; a state of such nullity it can only be referred to as 'what']." Moses meant that he was utterly transparent, nonexistent as a separate entity from G‑d.

Moses pointed out that "[There are] six hundred thousand footmen in the nation in whose midst I am"; that is, the Jews were all disciples of Moses, and his personal spiritual level imbued them all. Not only did it seem to Moses inappropriate for him to eat meat himself, but also for all of the Jews, since they were all on his level and it would be a descent for them. He could not understand how "You have said, 'I will give them meat.'"

The Hebrew word Moses used in addressing G‑d as "You", "Ata", was a reference to the spiritual level known as G‑d's Infinite Light (Ohr Ein Sof) as manifest within the attribute of chochma. Chochma was Moses' spiritual level, and what he meant was, "How could it be that You - the very spiritual level manifested to me all the way up here - should "give them meat" - that is, should extend so far down as to be manifest within so comparatively low a level as that represented by meat?!" Or, expressed another way, how could the physical expression of the sublime spirituality G‑d wished to bestow upon the Jews be meat, lowly as that is?

Fish derive from an even higher spiritual source than meat.

This also explains what Moses meant by referring to sheep and cattle being slaughtered, or fish gathered, for the Jews. The act of ritually slaughtering animals for consumption as kosher symbolizes the spiritual source of the animals in gevura, strength - the holy benefits of which become available to the Jews through their service in eating meat for holy purposes, as explained above. Yet, compared to the level Moses had instilled within the Jews, even this was a descent, and would not be sufficient. Fish derive from an even higher spiritual source than meat. Fish are the undersea counterparts of animals; the difference being that what is on land is visible but what is undersea is hidden. The denizens of the land derive from the spiritual realm of alma d'itgalya, the Revealed Realm, while the denizens of the sea, such as fish, are rooted in alma d'itkatya, the Hidden Realm, whose level is so lofty it cannot even be perceived. This superior spiritual source of fish is the inner reason why, under Jewish law, fish do not require ritual slaughter: they are essentially higher than the spiritual level which such slaughter represents. Moses observed that the Jews of the desert were so lofty that even the higher level represented by fish would not be sufficient for them.

(It is explained elsewhere that the reason behind the Jewish custom of eating fish before meat is that doing so serves as a stepping stone of sorts on the way to successful engagement with the physicality of meat. Instead of plunging in headlong and attempting to elevate the meat, which would expose one to the risk of being overwhelmed by it and dragged down to a lower level (G‑d forbid), we first tackle the fish course, as this is spiritually more refined and easier to handle. Once we have successfully elevated the fish, which was not so low to begin with, we are spiritually fortified and in a better position to succeed in our encounter with meat.)

Yet G‑d responded, "Is G‑d's hand too short?" (Num. 11:23) This choice of words expresses not merely the plain meaning of "Is G‑d incapable of providing meat for the people", but also the mystical reply to Moses' question. Moses had expressed incredulity that the lofty spiritual level represented by the term "You" could extend all the way down to find expression in such a corporeal thing as meat. G‑d answered his objection exactly: Is G‑d's hand then too short, unable to reach past a certain point? On the contrary, G‑d is utterly unlimited and perfectly capable of manifesting the most sublime and exalted spiritual levels even within the very paradigm of corporeality, meat. Even the consummate bitul, nullity before G‑d - a characteristic of the spiritual level of chochma - can be merged with and expressed within the feeling, the fiery fervor, the out-and-out physicality of meat, deriving from gevura.

This was symbolized by what G‑d actually provided the Jews: quails. Quails, being a species of bird, are rooted, like all birds, in the "face of an eagle" of Ezekiel's vision, which, together with the lion and the ox, symbolizes gevura. Nevertheless, the Talmud teaches (Yoma 75b) that these quails were literally saturated with fat and its oil. Oil, a well-known metaphor in Chasidic philosophy, symbolizes chochma. The oil-laden meat of the quails thus represented the infusion of that lofty level even within the physicality of meat, as G‑d intended.

So-called "opposites" are only in opposition when each is a mutually exclusive entity unto itself. If a higher power renders them both insignificant, they can no longer oppose one another. Chochma's quality of nullity, saturating the gevura of the quail meat, merging it with its opposite, chesed, made even the gevura palatable and "sweet".

[Copyright 2001 Yitzchok D. Wagshul /
Adapted from a discourse in Likutei Torah.]