December 12th, 2018

Inspired Living

Gates of Understanding

Rabbi Nosson Scherman

By Rabbi Nosson Scherman

Published Nov. 10, 2017

Gates of Understanding

JWR presents an absolutely fascinating weekly series on the Book of Genesis. In it, we will mine "myths" to reveal timeless teachings.

The author is one of the most influential thinkers and disseminators of unadulterated Biblical Truths -- capital 'T' -- and titles.

The prose will be masterful and the intended audience is people of ALL faiths --- or none.

Feedback is appreciated, as is the sharing of the links via social media.

It is true that Torah ( Bible) is the blueprint of creation, as we discussed last week. But that is only a small part of the total truth: the Bible remains the key to all the secrets and resources of creation.

When Adam was created, the Divine placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and guard it. (Genesis 2:15). Upon this, the Midrash comments: to work it through the performance of positive commandments, and to guard it through the observance of negative commandments.

The garden was real and so were its trees and their fruits. But there are tools better than plows and rakes, protection safer than fences and shotguns.

Man in his most exalted form can grasp that the true essence of all his earthly endeavors is the extent of his service to his Maker.

Plows and fences are the tools of blindness, the implementation of a curse that robs man of his spirituality and blinds him to the truth of his mission. Let us attempt to understand -- at least imperfectly -- how Torah permeates every molecule of the universe. If we succeed, we will have found the first marker on the road to fulfillment as the Creator intended it.

Fifty gates of understanding were created and all were transmitted to Moses, save for one (Talmud, tractate Rosh Hashanah 21b).

What were these "gates of understanding"? Ramban (d. 1270), in his Introduction to Torah, explains that each order of the universe was created according to a plan, and its content, growth, function, and all other of its aspects are determined according to the plan.

To enter into the mysteries of this plan and to comprehend it is to be admitted into its "gate of understanding." The lowest order of creation is inanimate objects like rocks, sand, water. Above it comes simple plant life, trees; then the various living creatures; until, as one goes higher and higher on the ladder of the universe, he reaches man --- the only creature possessing the power of intelligent speech, and a human soul.

The knowledge of man is the forty-ninth gate of understanding, the ability to know the complexities of the human mind and personality.


Above that gate is the fiftieth --- the knowledge of the Divine.

Forty-nine gates were presented to Moses; the fiftieth was denied even him, for no mortal being can attain the understanding of the Almighty. Thus, in the truest sense, Ramban continues, the fiftieth gate was never "created," for the term creation implies that it was part of heaven and earth --- part of the handiwork of the Six Days of Creation that is within the realm of human dominion and understanding.

But that gate, the ability to comprehend and understand the essence of God, was never created in the normal sense, because it is beyond the scope of man.

[Chidushei HaRim (d. 1866), in a piercing insight, suggests that not only was the "fiftieth gate" created, as implied by the above Talmudic text, but it was even transmitted to Moses! The very fact that a human being can conceive the Divine's greatness to the extent that he can say, "If all the seas were ink and all the heavens parchment and all the trees quill I could not begin to write Your greatness" --- this in itself is a glimmer of the glories within the fiftieth gate of understanding.

This barest breath of the last gate was transmitted to man; otherwise, how could he ever imagine that the unimaginable exists, how could his soul soar in futile yet fruitful quest of the infinite riches of His wisdom and spirituality?]


excerpted from at a discount by clicking HERE. (Sales help fund JWR.).

With mastery of the forty-nine gates, Moses could understand the complexities of every aspect of creation and the workings of every human mind. He could look at a person and perceive his sins and merits, his flaws and virtues.

Indeed, as Ramban comments in the Book of Numbers, when the Jews were counted, each would pass before Moses and Aaron so that those two spiritual giants could gaze upon him and, perceiving his deepest needs, bless him according to what was truly best for him.

Thus the wisdom of the forty-nine gates was more than theoretical. It enabled its possessor to know all the secrets of any aspect of creation to whose "gate of understanding" he was privy. He could unlock the hidden recesses of the human mind as Moses could; he could even know the working of animal life and the earth.

The master of terrestrial understanding could know without Geiger counters and divining rods where mineral deposits were located and what veins of land were suited to the production of exotic plants. He could know the "speech" and behavior of animals and the secrets of human healing.


It is illustrative that the foremost commentator, Rashi (d. 1105), in his first comment on Genesis, asks why the Torah did not begin with the commandment that Israel proclaim the New Moon. That the first commandment concerned Israel's ability to inject sanctity into the calendar is no accident!

Mortal man is subject to many self-imposed pressures and tyrannies, but probably none is more universally pervasive than the tyranny of the clock. Time controls man's life, time is symbolic of the unyielding sway of nature over man. Its requirements, its limitation, its animal desires, its denial of spirituality --- all combine to overwhelm him. But the Torah has a different standard. He gave sanctity to the Sabbath from the seventh day of creation and He continues to sanctify it every week. But Israel alone sanctifies the New Moon, and through it the festivals.

Without the New Moon, there is no calendar and there are no festivals, as Jewish calendar is lunar-based. That these "meeting places in time" provide annual, seasonal rendezvous between the Divine and Israel is the eternal testimony to the fact that He did not mean man to be enslaved by time, but to breath holiness into time --- to be its master (Pri Tzaddik, Rabbi Mordechai Gifter [d. 2001]).

Through this mastery over time -- the unforgiving, unyielding symbol of nature's power -- Israel has the power to assert its freedom from, even its domination over, nature.

To the great people of Israel, whose very being was a proclamation of there is nothing except for Him, opposing forces vanished and lost all power and validity (Maharil Bloch, d. 1938).


According to the Sages, King Solomon was the possessor of all wisdom, but the wise king did not request encyclopedic knowledge --- he asked only for the wisdom of Torah so that he could judge his people wisely and justly! [See Overview, ArtScroll edition of Ecclesiastes.] True. He wanted knowledge of the Torah and it was knowledge of the Torah and nothing more that the Divine gave him.

For the forty-nine gates of understanding are all in the Torah. The man who can decipher the depths of the Torah's wisdom knows the secrets of agriculture, mining, music, mathematics, healing, law -- everything! -- because nothing was built into heaven and earth unless it was found in the Torah. The question is not whether the Torah is the source of all wisdom, the question is only how one interprets the Torah to unseal its riches.

The man who cannot find the key to a treasure chest, and comforts himself in his frustration by proclaiming that the ancient chest contains nothing but useless curiosities and moldy rags, goes away not only foolish but poor. Every aspect of the wisdom transmitted to Moses and presented to Solomon -- and shared by the great figures of biblical Israel -- is contained in the Torah. One need only know how to find it.

Yet we peruse the verses and study the commentaries and do not find the wisdom of Solomon, just as we might survey an unappealing natural setting and not find the diamonds, platinum, gold, or petroleum locked beneath its surface. This is because we, in our spiritual poverty, lack the keys to the gates of understanding.

The Torah commands us in laws of agriculture --- but how does this tell us how to make farms more productive? We are permitted to seek medical help --- but how does this teach us to conquer disease? We are commanded to seek the benefit of our fellow men --- but how does this show us the way to teach in a jealous, fractious, selfish world?

Rabbi Nosson Scherman is, among many other life achievments, the general editor of ArtScroll, the world's most successful and influential publisher of Judaic titles.

Comment by clicking here.