Alef yantra 2

“[Rebbe Nachman of Breslav (1772-1810)] greatly derided [Maimonides’ rationalistic] explanations of the [sacrifices and incense]…saying:
‘…So great are these practices that even the mere recital of the Torah passages describing them has the power to bring about awesome tikkunim in all the worlds’.” [1]

The “recital of the Torah passages describing them” refers, at least in part, to the “Korbanot” section of the Shachrit service, which includes the above paragraphs (“Parshat Ha-Tamid” and “Parshat Ketoret”) that describe in brief the procedures for offering the Daily Burnt Offering and the Incense.

The Parshat Ha-Tamid (Daily Sacrifice) is:

Ha-Shem spoke to Mosheh, saying: Command the B’nai Yisrael and say to them:
“Be watchful to offer to Me My offering, My food for My fires, My satisfying aroma, in its appointed time.” Say to them: “This is the fire-offering that you are to offer to Ha-Shem:numbers-28-1-8 two male lambs in their first year, unblemished, each day, as a continual offering. Do the first lamb in the morning and do the second in the afternoon, with a tenth-ephah of fine flour as a meal-offering, mixed with a quarter-hin of crushed olive oil. It’s an offering like the one done at Har Sinai for a satisfying aroma, a fire-offering to Ha-Shem. Its libation is a quarter-hin of wine for the first lamb, poured on the Holy Altar; an intoxicating libation for Ha-Shem. The second lamb your shall do in the afternoon; Do it like the meal-offering and its libation of the morning, a fire-offering for a satisfying aroma to Ha-Shem.” [2]

The Parshat Ketoret (Incense) is:

“Ha-Shem said to Mosheh: Take yourself spices — balsam, onycha, galbanum, (as well as other specified) spices, and pure frankincense — equal amounts of each. (Grind each spice ex-30-34-36separately and then) blend (them together as) a ketoret compound, the work of a master perfumer, well blended, free of all impurity, and holy. Pulverize a small portion of (the Ketoret daily) and place it (on the Golden Altar) before the (Ark of ) Testimony in the Communion Tent where I commune with you. It shall have the highest degree of holiness for you.” [3]
“It is also said: ‘Aharon must burn the Ketoret spices on [the Golden Incense Altar] early eachexodus-30-78 morning when he cleans the (Menorah) lamps. Aharon must also burn the Ketoret when he lights the lamps towards evening. It is a perpetual Ketoret offering before Ha-Shem throughout all your generations’.” [4]

The editor of the text cites the Zohar discussing the value of the mere reading of these passages (based on the Talmud). The reference seems to be to the following:

“Rav Kruspedai said ‘[For] One who mentions with his mouth [recites], in shuls and study-houses (Batei Knesset and Batei Midrash), the korbanot and how to sacrifice them, a covenant has been struck: the angels who were previously mentioning his sins to discredit him will [then] only speak well [of him]’… Rav Pinchas was once traveling and he met Elijah the Prophet. He asked him to share something that was of benefit to mankind. So Elijah said ‘G-d made a covenant. He gathered all of the angels who are in charge of mentioning the misdeeds of man, and told them: When people recite the sacrifices that Moshe wrote in Torah and they focus their hearts and desires in this, all of these angels should only mention goodness and kindness.’ In addition, Elijah told him ‘At a time that there is a plague among men, G-d made a covenant and He announced it among the hosts of Heaven (so that all of the avenging angels would hear it), that if the children of G-d in the lower world would enter their synagogues and study-houses and read [recite], with a desire in their heart, the section in Torah regarding the Ketoret (incense) which the Jewish people burned in the Bait HaMikdash, that the plague would cease.’
[For example]
…Rav Acha came to the city of Terasha. The people came and told him that there had been a plague raging in the city for seven days. Rav Acha asked for 40 of the tzadikim of the city. He divided them into four groups of 10 and he sent each group to one corner of the city. He instructed each group to recite the verses about the ketoret (incense) and the korbanot (sacrifices) with kavana (concentration). They did this three times. He then instructed them to repeat these verses in the houses of the sick people and to then recite the verse ‘and Moshe told Ahron take the firepan… and go stand between the living and the dead… and the plague stopped.’ Indeed, when they did this, the plague ceased.” [5]

What does Rebbe Nachman mean by tikkunim? The Zohar speaks of the angels saying only good things of the person who recites the Parshat Ha-Tamid and the Parshat Ketoret. Rebbe Nachman elsewhere calls this “sweetening the judgements” — something that is otherwise the special provenance of the Hasidic Tzaddik. “Tikkunim,” based on the Ari’s use of the word, implies returning something to its original state of harmony with God as was intended in the Divine act of Creation. 

The Ramchal (1707-1746) similarly said:

“The readings [of] the sacrifices (Korbanot; i.e. the Parshat Ha-Tamid) are intended to purify the world as a whole, and remove all obstacles and barriers that would hold back the highest sustenance [השפע העליון; the Divine ‘shefa/flow of goodness’].”  [6]

Many rabbis hold that the reference in the midrash to “reciting the verses” means learning their details. Rebbe Nachman, however, following the Zohar, seems to say that merely reading them is beneficial.

I don’t know if the Talmud or Zohar intend to say that this is true regardless of whether we read these passages in Hebrew or in our particular vernacular.

The value of the reading of the passages might be conceptual: It brings the devotional rituals to the mind of the reader and by doing so, accomplishes the same purpose as actually doing them. In this case, it might not matter whether we read the passages in Hebrew or in our vernacular. In fact, the vernacular might be preferable, as it offers us greater comprehension.

If the Zohar and Talmud refer to reading these sections only in Hebrew, it might also suggest that the Hebrew language, independent of its literal meaning, has a beneficial influence. The concept of the sound value of Hebrew is mentioned elsewhere as well:

“In our everyday lives, we use the letters of the English alphabet to form words, much as we might use bricks to build a wall. We think of both the letters and the bricks in practical, rather than spiritual terms. They’re small, inert objects that we use to create larger objects. But the letters of the Hebrew alphabet (used for both Aramaic and Hebrew [and Yiddish and ]udeo-Arabic) are something very different. Kabbalah teaches that each letter is a channel to a unique form of energy –- and this is true whether or not we know how the letter sounds, or how it fits into a given word. As you begin your spiritual work with The Zohar, simply scanning the pages allows you to pass over the words and letters –- opens a direct connection to the divine spark hidden within each of us. The more you bring The Zohar into your life, the stronger your connection to the Light becomes. The kabbalists tell us that just being in the presence of the volumes creates an impenetrable shield of spiritual protection against the forces of chaos and negativity in the world. Scanning the letters is a hugely beneficial next step, and one that anyone can take at any time. The power is always there, for all humanity…” [7]

When I was the cantor in a synagogue in Queens, one congregant who was a Russian-Jewish immigrant, was also a student at the Kabbalah Center (pre-Madonna days) in Manhattan. I remember him moving his hand over a siddur (prayer-book) without touching it, to derive some spiritual information or influence from the Hebrew in it. I understood in a general way what he was doing.

Rebbe Nachman derided Maimonides’ interpretations in part because they were so “earth-bound.” Relying as the Rambam did on rationality and logic, in emulation of Greek philosophy, Rebbe Nachman insisted that Maimonides was losing the essential Jewish spiritual purpose of the very sources he was interpreting. Rebbe Nachman believed that purpose has much more to do with a kind of intuitive or heart-level participation than with rational understanding. The same dichotomy could be said to characterize somewhat the difference between the “Modern Orthodox” (i.e. Hirsch/Soloveitchik) and “Hareidi” approaches to Jewish learning. 

For myself, I think of Jewish tradition as including opposing views and approaches. Together, they all represent a process: our struggle to comprehend our relationship with God. Even if I disagree with a certain approach, the process itself more truly represents our response to Sinai than does any single solution. The Judaism I inherit includes both Rebbe Nachman and Maimonides.

I’m not a kabbalist myself, and I know of no one personally at this time who has received through tradition a reliable, systematic knowledge of the effects of Hebrew sounds. But it’s undeniable that there has been such knowledge and I’m sure there are individuals in both the U.S. and Israel — perhaps elsewhere as well — who have it.

Perhaps this could be a future direction for the renewal of Jewish spirituality in the coming generations.

[1] Rabbi Nathan of Nemirov; The Tzaddik; A Portrait of Rabbi Nachman; A. Greenbaum, trans.; Breslov Research Institute, © 1987, p. 347

[2] Bamidbar/Numbers 28: 1 – 8
The mitzvah to offer the Tamid had been given in Shemot/Ex. 29:38-42. Rashi says that it’s repeated here as a mitzvah to be offered every day, forever.
This also has later ramifications for the Hashmoni’im: Once they’d regained control of the Temple, they had to re-begin sacrifices immediately, in order to conform to this mitzvah.

[3] Shemot/Exodus 30: 34-36

[4] Shemot/Exodus 30:7-8

[5] Luzzatto, Rabbi Moshe Chayim (Ramchal): Derech Ha-Shem/The Way of God, IV: 6:10; Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, trans.; Feldheim Publishers, © 1977; p. (Hebrew — 300; English — 301)
The Ramchal seems to be referring to the same teaching in the Zohar that Rebbe Nachman is mentioning, although he doesn’t cite his source.
For an explanation of the term “שפע/Shefa” in its Kabbalistic context, see:

[6] Zohar, vol. 1; 100a & b (on parshah Va’yera)