The Zohar, composed in the late 13th century, is the central text of the Jewish mystical tradition. Woven into its series of homilies on the Torah are many stories and parables. Rabbi Wineman, a specialist in Jewish mystical studies, has translated many of these stories from the medieval Aramaic into English; his translation, together with his own commentary and analysis, make it possible for us to approach this esoteric but very rich material.

A selection from the story

Rabbi Elazar said: "Haverim [friends], let us go in love and in kindness, to a pomegranate[1] ripe and overflowing with juice whose name is Rabbi Yose of Peki'in.[2] For he has departed from this world without anyone coming to be with him and care for him and he is nearby. They turned from the road and proceeded to go there. As soon as the townspeople caught sight of the guests, they all came out to greet them.

The haverim entered the house of Rabbi Yose of Peki'in. The latter's young son allowed no one to approach the bed of his dead father; he himself was right next to him crying, his mouth cleaving to his father's mouth. The child was saying, "Master of the universe, it is written: 'If, along the road, you chance upon a bird's nest (in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledgling or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young), let the mother go (and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life)" (Deut. 22:6-7).[3]

Weeping, he continued, "Master of the universe, fulfill this word written in Your own Torah. My younger sister and I are the two children of our father and mother. It was Your place to take us instead and to fulfill those words of the Torah; and do not object, Master of the World, that it is written 'mother' and not 'father,' for since our mother had died and was taken from her children, our father was as both mother and father to us. And now our father, too, who had been our protector, is taken from his children. Where is justice and where is the law of the Torah?"

Rabbi Elazar and the haverim wept in hearing the lament and the crying of this child. While Rabbi Elazar began reciting the verse, "Like the heavens in their height, like the earth in its depth (is the mind of kings — unfathomable" [Proverbs 25:3], a pillar of fire separated them, the child still cleaving to his father's mouth, and not leaving him even for a single moment. Rabbi Elazar declared, "Whether the Holy One, blessed be He, wishes to perform a miracle or whether He wishes that no one else (but the child) attend to him, the words and the tears of this child are too much for me."

While sitting, they heard a voice announcing, "Blessed are you, Rabbi Yose, for the words and the tears of this young child have ascended to the throne of the Holy King, and judgment has been given; God has designated for the Angel of Death thirteen persons in your place, and twenty-two years will be added to your life that you might teach Torah to this child who is sincere and whole and beloved in God's eyes." Immediately they perceived that the fiery pillar had departed and Rabbi Yose opened his eyes, the mouth of his young son still cleaving to his mouth.

Rabbi Elazar spoke, "Blessed is our lot in that with our very eyes we have seen the resurrection of the dead... The others said, "Privileged is your portion, Rabbi Yose, and beloved is the Merciful One who has brought a miracle to occur in response to the sobbing and weeping of your son; with his lovely words he has forced open a gateway to Heaven...."

They took the child and kissed him and cried this time out of profuse joy....Together with Rabbi Yose they discovered many new ideas in the Torah....


This story is perhaps the most charming of all those found in the Zohar. Beyond this sheer charm, grasping the many allusions to other texts present in the story enhances our appreciation of the narrative. Within this story, two biblical episodes resonate — even though the text nowhere specifically refers to them...

The akedah ("Binding of Isaac," Genesis 22), or more precisely, the akedah as understood in the tradition of midrashic interpretation echoes in several ways in the themes of this story. In our story, Rabbi Yose's son expresses not only a willingness [like Isaac] but a definite request to die in place of his father. Central to the story is the notion that the boy's readiness to die in place of his father is accepted in the higher realms with the result that his father's life is spared. [Isaac's] readiness is identified as the crucial element in the akedah, is fully present in this story in the pleading of the child.

The motif of tears, so significant in this narrative passage, recalls the theme of tears in various midrashic interpretations of the akedah. As Abraham took his knife, tears fell from his eyes into the eyes of his son. The angels, alarmed that Abraham might actually slaughter his son at the altar, cried aloud and wept.[4] In the latter source, angels tears fell on Abraham's knife, blunting its sharpness and rendering it useless for striking his son.

An entire cluster of themes found in the midrashic reading and re-creation of the Binding of Isaac echoes in the story of Rabbi Yose and his son; together they have the effect of depicting the boy as an Isaac-figure. The son in the story is a determined Isaac-figure who knows clearly what he is doing and toward what he is heading, and at the same time he is also a young and tender Isaac-figure likened in the text to a gadya, a young goat or animal.

A more transparent biblical account also resonates in the story. The scene of the young son lying with his mouth upon the mouth of his dead father recalls the story of Elisha and the son of the Shunamite woman.

While the scene in the Zoharic story clearly recalls the story of Elisha, the strength of the similarities subtly points to the difference between the redeeming or healing figures in the two accounts. Elisha was a navi, a prophet, and therefore in his case the reader's expectation are less jarred than in the case of a young child. In the zoharic story it is not a prophet but rather a child who annuls the fact of death; the comparison extols the child and places him on the same level as that of a prophet. The implied comparison brings to mind a statement found elsewhere in the Zohar: "Sometimes prophecy is placed in the mouths of children, and they prophecy even more that did the prophets in their time"[5]

The figure of the child in our story connotes renewal, hope and continuity. The archetypal association of the child with innocence lends still another dimension to the child's role as the redeeming figure in the story: as death has an association with the sin of Adam and with sin itself, the child in his very nature suggests a world of purity and wholeness preceding the introduction of death into the world. The child figure is a kind of personification of Eden, a condition lacking blemish, defilement or moral complexity.

[1] A Jew full of mizvot (good deeds) is likened to a pomegranate full of seeds (Babyl. Talmud Berakhot 57a) [Back]
[2] Peki'in is the village in the Upper Galilee where, according to the Talmud (Shabbat 33b) and the midrash (Kohelet Rabbah 10:11), Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, together with his son Elazar, lived in a cave for thirteen years, hiding from the Romans. [Back]
[3] Bereshit Rabbah 56:8 [Back]
[4] Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, Ch. 31; also Bereshit Rabbah 56:5, 7 [Back]
[5] Zohar 2:170a [Back]
An abridged version of the chapter "A Child's Tears" in Mystic Tales from the Zohar, JPS 1997.



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