The Theory of Everything

By Leibel Estrin


Towards a Theory of Everything: Understanding the Differences between Sfard-Chassidic and Ashkenaz minhagim (customs).

In the field of physics, one of the great issues is the search for the so-called theory of everything (TOE), a formula that explains strong and weak electromagnetic forces, nuclear, and gravity.  So far, no one has been able to account for gravity in the relationship.  But the Lubavitcher Rebbe MHM has indicated that gravity, too, will be fit the Theory of Everything, and the right calculations are just waiting to be uncovered.

The question is, can there be a similar theory to unify many, if not most of the differences between Sfard-Chassidic and Ashkenazic minhagim?  In other words, can one theory explain why Ashkenazim start the main part of the morning prayers with Baruch SheAmar and Sfardim-Chassidim start from Hodu; why Ashkenazim wind the Tefillin straps from outside in, and Sfardim-Chassidim wind the straps from the inside going out.  Why, in many non-Chassidic shuls, only the Rav wears a talis over his head and out of respect for the Rav, the rest of the congregation does not, while in Sfard-Chassidic shuls, the congregants all wear the tallis over the head.  Why Chassidim wear a gartel and why Ashkenazim typically do not have a special belt.  There are dozens of differences, depending as much on local custom as on ancient tradition, and most of us proudly follow one set of minhagim to the exclusion of others.

If such a theory of everything could apply to minhagim, perhaps it can explain other divisions in Jewish tradition, for example, between Yosef and Yehuda, between Hillel and Shammai, Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiva, and Moshiach ben Yosef and Moshiach ben Dovid.

Let’s take one difference and explore it—the order of the terms used in prayers of Kiddush Levana (the service sanctifying the new moon).  In Sfard-Chassidic siddurim, the nusach (wording of the prayer) is Boruch-Blessed is Asaich-He who made you, Yotzraich-He who formed you, Bareich– He who created You and Konaich– He who is your Master.

Ashkenazim have a different order Yotzraich, Asaich, Konaich, Bareich.  They are the same words. What difference does the order make?  Similarly, what difference does it make whether you start with Hodu or Baruch ASheAmar?

It makes all the difference to the people who daven these particular words in their particular way.

In the Sfard-Chassidic nusach, the words Asaich, Yotzraich, Bareich, and Konaich follow the order of the spiritual worlds from the lowest Asiya-Action to the highest Atzilus– Emanation.

In the Ashkenazic nusach, the rosh hateivos (initial letters) of the four words spell Yaakov. Yotzraich, Asaich, Konaich, Bareich.)  Yaakov represents consistency from beginning to end, which in our case means from the highest levels to the lowest.

At this point, we have one nusach (Ashkenaz) that goes from top down and another (Sfard-Chassidic) that goes from bottom up. Can we apply the paradigm elsewhere?

Ashkenazim begin the morning service with prayer Baruch SheAmar-Blessed is He who spoke which contains the word Baruch 13 times.  This could refer to the 13 Attributes of Divine Mercy, from which derive all the worlds, in other words, from the Creator to Creation.

The Sfardim-Chassidim start with Hodu-Offer praise which starts with the recognition that Hashem is the source of all—bottom – up. Creation to Creator.[1]  What does all this mean?

Starting from the top means that the focus of the action is on the will of Hashem as it comes to us through Torah and mitzvos in general and halacha specifically.  What does Hashem want from me? He wants me to daven, wear tefillin, etc.  How do I fulfill His desire in the best, most precise way possible?

Sfard-Chassidic communities focus on the relationship. How do I connect to G-d starting with the six constant commandments brought by the Rambam (Maimonides): Knowledge of Hashem; Not to believe in any other power; Unity of Hashem, Love of Hashem, Fear of Hashem, and Not to follow after your heart or eyes.

In other words, both groups want to express their souls’ desire.  Yet each starts from a different “place.”

This difference, whether the focus is on the Will of Hashem or the relationship to Hashem, could explain many of the differences between the customs of Ashkenazim and Sfardim-Chassidim, between positions Hillel and Shammai, between the experiences Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiva, between the approaches Moshiach ben Yosef and Moshiach ben Dovid, ultimately, the relationship between Olam Hazeh, Yemos HaMoshiach, and Olam HaBa (Techias HaMesim).

We all know the story of the man who wanted to convert on one leg.  Hillel told him to focus on the relationship, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others.” Yet Shammai drove him away with a builder’s measuring stick.  In essence, Shammai was saying, “If you want to serve Hashem as a Jew, you must start by learning the rules (i.e., details)!  There is no other way.”

Similarly, when the Torah was given, Rabbi Yishmael rules that the Jews heard the sounds and saw the lightning on Har Sinai.  In other words, G-dliness appeared to them within the confines of this world.

Rabbi Akiva said that the Jews heard “the lightning” and saw the words of Hashem.  In other words, the reality of G-d speaking to each person was so overwhelming that the physical world was relegated to the level of hearing.

In Yehezkel (37:16), G-d commands the prophet to take two sticks; one representing Ephraim and one representing Yehuda and join them.  If you look closely, the Novi uses two expressions, the House of Ephraim and the Children of Yehuda. The idea of a house (Yosef) is top down.  The idea of children (Yehuda) is bottom up.  Moshiach ben Yosef represents the relationship from top down, from Creator to Creation.  He is the completely righteous person who fulfills the will and decrees of Hashem as expressed in the Torah and Jewish law.

Yehuda is the baal teshuvo (returnee) who admits that “she (Tamar) is more righteous than me.”  Yehuda is willing to sacrifice his future so that his brother Binyamin can go free. Ultimately, Yehuda brings Yosef the tzadik to discard his external identity and reveal his essence, i.e., “Ani Yosef.”

These two paths, from the bottom up and from the top down, appear to correspond to the two types of service required of a Jew, ben-son and eved-servant.  The son wants a relationship with his father. The servant seeks to fulfill his Master’s desires.  We find the same relationship expressed in the well-known prayer, Avinu-Malkeinu, “Our Father, Our King.”

[A similar approach is offered by HaRav Yitzchak Meir Morgenstern, who quotes Rav Moshe Dovid Walli zy”a (a student of the Ramchal) in the Likutim, that Sefardim are from the aspect of Chochma. And therefore, they love Bekiyus (bredth of study) and obtaining vast knowledge in all of Torah, like the Rambam. Whereas Ashkenazim love depth and Pilpul, like the Ba’alei Hatosafos, because they (Ashkenazim) are from the aspect of Bina.  He goes on to tie Chochma/Sefard-Chassidic and Bina Ashkenazic approaches with male and female.[2] ]

In a sicha, the Rebbe notes that the twin paths of top down and bottom up are taught in the Oral Law.  As a result, both paths are required of every Jew.  He writes[3], “One should endeavor to elicit G-dliness from “above to below,” and elevate and uplift the G-dliness within the world to reunite it with its source above.”

Continuing, the Rebbe quotes the prophecy of Yeshaya (5:12) “And I shall make your windows from the kadkod, a precious gem.”  The Talmud presents two opinions about the identity of the gem.  On is that the gem is an onyx.  The other opinion is that it is jasper.  However, the Talmud explains that the word, kadkod hints to the phrase kedain and kedain, meaning “it is like this and like this.”

The Rebbe concludes by explaining that the two gems are the two modes of service, from “above to below” and “below to above.”   In Likutei Torah (25d, 27d), the Alte Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi connects the two modes to the service of the tzadik and baal teshuva.

Ultimately, this may explain the difference between Olam HaZeh-this world, Yemos HaMoshiach-Messianic Eraand Olam HaBa-Time of the Resurrection.

Currently (Olam Hazeh), each of us has a path.  The fact that there remain differences in custom (not to mention emotional attitudes) indicates that, while both modes of service are expected from each of us, the majority of us haven’t perfected them.  Perhaps the paths will converge in the Messianic Era.  Ashkenazim will also serve Hashem in an all-embracing manner marked by self-nullification.  Sfardim-Chassidim will also serve Hashem through the punctilious observance of Jewish law.  In light of this, we can understand the Alte Rebbe’s unique effort to unite precision in practice with keeping the focus on the Nosain HaTorah.  Once the Ressurection occurs, it may well be that our service will integrate both aspects of son and servant, tzadik and baal tseshuva automatically.

Interestingly, our sages state that the mitzvos will be abolished at this time. The reason is that a Commandment links the Commander with the one who has been told to follow.  In the Messianic Era, there will be no need for a Commander-Commanded relationship.  Everyone will naturally be connected by virtue of his or her G-dly spark.  Jewish law, halacha, will remain. We will all follow halacha in a manner of halicha, proceeding higher and higher.  In the Time of the Resurrection, our apparently independent world will fade before the ultimate reality of G-d, when (Isaiah 11:1-9) “the world will be filled with Divine knowledge as waters cover the sea.”  May we see this era immediately.

Leibel Estrin has been writing about Jewish topics for four decades. He is working as a Jewish chaplain for the Aleph Institute. Leibel has recently published a work on Jewish perspectives and values entitled “Judaism From Above The Clouds.” To read more of Leibel’s writings and to purchase his book click here

[1] This direct and simple pattern cannot be applied in all cases, simply because the world is not that simple.  For example, the halacha-Jewish law usually follows the opinion of Hillel; in some cases however, it follows the opinion of Shammai.  Now we know that Hillel is typically associated with chesed-kindness), Shammai is associated with gevurah-strength/strictness).  There are times when an act that appears to be gevurah is actually an act of chesed.  If a little kid takes a knife off the table, and you grab it away, are you exhibiting chesed or gevurah?  The outer manifestation is gevurah—you grabbed the knife away from the kid. But the inner intent is chesed—to keep the kid from hurting himself.


[3] In Likkutei Sichos, vol 6, pp. 119-129, as quoted in Chassidic Perspectives, Rabbi Alter B. Metzger, Kehot Publication Society, New York, 2002.


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