Three Crowns: Interpreting Oxford's Coat of Arms through Jewish Theology

Friday, 11 August, 2017 - 8:14 am

Coat of arms.jpg

Oxford University’s coat of arms consists of three crowns - two above and one below - surrounding an open book with an inscription in two columns of the motto Dominus Illuminatio Mea. The origin of the motto is from Psalms “The Lord is My Light”[1], however the origin of the three crowns is a matter for speculation. Some suggest that it comes from the three crowns on the arms of Thomas Cranley (c.1337–1417), who was a Fellow of Merton College in 1366, Warden of New College in 1389 and Chancellor of the University in 1390, and is buried in the grounds of New College.[2] In this essay, I will explore the plausibility of a Hebrew context to the crowns on Oxford’s coat of arms and present interpretations to the idea of three crowns in Jewish theology.


The university’s coat of arms is a product of the second half of the 16th century when Christian humanists had a particular interest in understanding the Bible and rabbinic texts in the original Hebrew, a process that began with Erasmus (1466-1536) in the Netherlands and spread to England. The significant collections of Hebraica held at Oxford’s Bodleian Library and individual college libraries, bequeathed by Christian scholars, show evidence of considerable interest and expert knowledge of original Hebrew texts in the 16th century at Oxford. These collections were catalogued by Adolf Neubauer, reader in Rabbinic Hebrew at Oxford University, and published in 1886 after 18 years of preparation. This Hebrew collection includes Hebrew Bible codices, as well as a wealth of classic rabbinic texts including Mishne, Talmud, Midrash, Zohar, Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah and Moreh Nevuchim, David Kimchi, Ibn Ezra, Kabbalistic texts, as well as other rabbinic and liturgical works.[3]


Oxford’s Christian Hebraists


A brief survey of the history of Hebrew studies at the university during the 16th century will help demonstrate the idea that Oxford’s 16th century scholars would have known about the content of the rabbinic works and were not just interested collectors. Hebrew studies at Oxford began with Robert Wakefield (d. 1537/8), who played an important role in its establishment in Tudor England. He was appointed Regius Praelector of Hebrew in 1529, a position established by Henry VIII, before the Regius professorship in Hebrew was established in 1546. Wakefield was knowledgeable in Jewish teachings and was recommended by diplomat and humanist Richard Pace to Henry VIII to help find support for his divorce from Catherine of Aragon from Rabbinic sources. Wakefield held the works of Ibn Ezra, David Kimchi, Maimonides, Nachmanides and Rashi in high esteem[4] and wrote extensive annotations in the margins of his copy of Rashi’s commentary, which made its way to Corpus Christi College.[5] His younger brother Thomas Wakefield, who inherited his older brother’s works, was also a Hebraist and his knowledge of the texts is evident from his many notes in the margin of the Hebrew collection.[6]


A further important Hebraic figure is the Puritan Dean of Christ Church, Thomas Sampson, appointed in 1561. Sampson studied Hebrew with Italian Jewish convert to Christianity Immanuel Tremellius (1510-1580), and was involved with the translation of the Geneva Bible. A 1545 Daniel Bomberg edition from Venice of Midrash ha-Mekhilta by Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha, currently at Lincoln College, came from Sampson’s collection and has his signature on the title page. Hebraist Richard Kilby (1560/1-1620), Rector of Lincoln College, had Sampson’s Midrash ha-Mekhilta bound in Oxford together with two other Rabbinic works, Midrah Rabot and Biur al Ha’Torah by Nachmanides, both printed in Venice 1545 by publisher Marco Antonio Giustiniani. Both contain Kilby’s signature and the work by Nachmanides contains marginalia in Kilby’s own handwriting.[7]


Another Hebrew scholar at Oxford was Richard Braurne (1519-1565), who studied at Lincoln College and was appointed in 1548 Regius Professor of Hebrew. He was appointed Canon of Christ Church under Mary I and took part in the disputation that led to the burning of the three Anglican Bishops, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer in 1555. Braurne owned a 13th century Hebrew codex of the Pentateuch in Ashkenazi script,[8] as well as a nine-volume folio comprising the first and second edition of the Talmud published by Daniel Bomberg in Venice in 1519 and 1525 respectively and Sefer Akedat Yitzchak by Isaac Arama, also published by Bomberg in Venice. This collection bound in Oxford with Braurne’s initials (RB) on the cover made its way to Westminster Abbey.[9]


A further major Hebraist in Oxford was Sir Thomas Bodley (1545-1613) who studied Hebrew in Geneva under Antoine Chevalier, while Bodley was in exile from England under Mary I. Bodley became a Fellow at Merton College in 1564 where he taught Greek. His expertise in Hebrew in the 16th century is evident from his translation of the Hebrew title deed (starr) in Merton’s archive of the purchase of the original building for the establishment of the college from Jacob the Jew of London. Bodley’s involvement in the establishment of the Bodleian Library with Warden of Merton College, Sir Henry Saville, together with the significant Hebrew collections donated, took place later in the 17th century.[10] Considering the level of Hebrew scholarship that these Hebraists displayed, it becomes more plausible that there may be Hebrew influences behind the three crowns. Regardless whether there were Hebrew influences, it is interesting to examine the meaning of three crowns in Rabbinic literature, and I will first look at an example of this from the same time period, 16th century.


Bragadin’s printer’s mark


Coincidentally, around the same period, one can find the depiction of three crowns being used as a printer’s mark by non-Jewish printer Alvise Bragadin in Venice.[11] It can be found in his 1550 and 1574 printed edition of Maimonides’ legal compendium Mishneh Torah, [12] Shulchan Aruch by Rabbi Joseph Karo (1488-1575), printed in 1565, among his numerous other Hebrew works that he printed, some of which are extant at the Bodleian Library.[13] Bragadin was an Italian nobleman who printed in Venice from 1550 onwards, and was one of the most important printers of Hebrew books in 16th century Italy, alongside Daniel Bomberg.[14] It was difficult for Jews to obtain permission to print in Italy as Jews were subject to restrictions, including trade, residence and freedom of press, whereas gentile printers could more easily obtain permission to print Hebrew books. This was also a lucrative business, since Jews, more than the wider society, were highly literate and in need of books. As a printer of Hebrew books for the benefit of the Jewish community, using the three crowns as his printer’s mark may have been a way to represent his publishing house to a Jewish audience. I will thus explore in this essay the meaning of a crown in general and three crowns in particular in Jewish tradition.


Three interpretations


I will proceed to present three interpretations of the concept of the crown in Jewish thought. The first is the concept of a crown as virtue that man may attain. The second is the splendour of G-d that may be bestowed upon man. The third is in relation to the Divine will that remains transcendent and concealed from existence.


Crown as virtue


The idea of crown as virtue may be traced through various layers of Jewish thought from the Torah to a number of rabbinic texts, including Ethics of the Fathers, Midrash and 9th century work Avot D’Rabbi Nathan. The first reference to the three crowns can be found in the Biblical text pertaining to the construction of the Tabernacle in the book of Exodus. Regarding the altar it states:[15] “You shall overlay it with pure gold, its top, its walls all around, and its horns; and you shall make for it a golden crown (zer) all around.” About the ark it says:[16] “They shall make an ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits its length, a cubit and a half its width, and a cubit and a half its height. You shall overlay it with pure gold; from inside and from outside you shall overlay it, and you shall make upon it a golden crown all around.” Similarly, relating the table of the showbread, it states:[17] “You shall make a table of acacia wood, two cubits its length, one cubit its width, and a cubit and a half its height. You shall overlay it with pure gold, and you shall make for it a golden crown all around.”


The three crowns of the Tabernacle are alluded to in the 3rd century Mishnaic work Ethics of the Fathers:[18] ‘Rabbi Shimon says: There are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of kingship - but the crown of a good name outweighs them all.’[19] In some copies of the Mishneh Torah printed by Bragadin this reference is inserted next to the crowns. In this early rabbinic source about the three crowns, the meaning of a crown is a diadem, which is a sign of distinction, virtue or royalty. The three crowns thus represent the three distinctions or virtues a person may possess: Torah, priesthood and kingship.


Fourth crown - application of virtue


In this early source it enumerates also a fourth crown – the crown of a good name that is above the other three. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi (1040-1105), and Rabbi Simcha of Vitry (d. 1105), explain that the fourth crown is not akin to the other three crowns but a higher crown that is achieved through any of the three. Similarly, Rabbi Jonah of Gerondi (1180-1263) explains that the sage of the Mishnah is saying that the distinction of a good name must accompany all the three crowns. Germane to the virtue of Torah, priesthood and royalty is the fourth crown: the need to apply virtue by showing concern for the wellbeing of others. The three crowns are thus intrinsically four crowns: attainment of knowledge, for example, is considered a virtue when it is imbued with social justice and charity. The authenticity of all virtue is determined by its application: how one acts towards the other.[20]


Democratisation of knowledge & source of all virtue


A further idea in the three crowns is expressed in the 2nd century work of the Midrash, the work of the Talmud around the 6th century and elaborated further in the 9th century during the Gaonic period. In all the above works the teaching about the three crowns is to highlight the preeminence of Torah study above the other two virtues of priesthood and kingship. This is due to two reasons: a. Torah being the underpinning and source from where all other virtues are derived. b. The democratisation of knowledge of the Torah, [21] whereby knowledge of Torah, unlike priesthood and kingship, is accessible to anyone who wishes to engage in it.[22]


I will present three texts that convey these two ideas.


Source 1. The 2nd century Midrashic text highlights the virtue of the Torah, suggesting that its democratisation allows one to achieve through study the equivalence of the virtues of both priesthood and kingship:[23]


We find that there are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of kingdom. The crown of priesthood was merited by Aaron the High Priest and he took it. The crown of kingdom was merited by King David and he took it. The crown of Torah is left (vacant), so that those who enter the world be given no pretext to say: If the crown of kingdom and the crown of priesthood were left (vacant), I would merit them and take them. The crown of Torah is left (vacant) for all who enter the world. For whoever merits it, I account it to him as if all three were left (vacant) to him and he merits all of them. And whoever does not merit it, I account it to him as if all three were left (vacant) for him and he did not merit any one of them. And if you would ask: Which is the greatest of all? R. Shimon b. Elazar was wont to say: Who is greater, the crowner or the king? Certainly, the crowner. The maker of officers or the officers? Certainly, the maker of officers. All that inheres in these two crowns, comes through the power of Torah. And thus is it written:[24] "Through me (Torah) do kings reign … Through me do princes rule." And, (in reversion to "This is the Torah of man"), "The end of the matter, all has been heard. Fear G-d and follow His mitzvot (commandments). For this (Torah) is all of man."[25]


Source 2: The Talmud highlights the importance of the democratisation of the Torah, as opposed to the other two virtues that are not obtainable by everyone:[26]


Rabbi Yochanan said: There were three crowns that adorned the appurtenances of the Temple:[27] the crown of the inner altar, of the ark and of the table. The crown of the altar, Aaron merited and took it, the crown of the table, David merited and took it but the crown of the ark is still available. Anyone who wishes to take it may come and take it.[28]



Source 3: The commentary to Ethics of the Fathers, Avot d’Rabbi Nathan, from the 9th century highlights, similar to the Talmudic text, the democtrisation of ‘labour’ of the Torah (Amala shel Torah) as opposed to the other virtues that are not obtainable. It states:[29]



Rabbi Shimon says: There are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of kingship - but the crown of a good name outweighs them all. How is it so? The crown of priesthood: even if one gives all the gold and silver in the world, we do not give him the crown of priesthood, as it states:[30] “It shall be for him and for his descendants after him as an eternal covenant of priesthood.” Crown of kingship: even if one gives all the gold and silver in the world, we do not give him the crown of kingship, as it states:[31] “My servant David shall be their prince forever.” However, the labour of Torah, anyone who wishes to take it may come and take it, as it states:[32] “Ho! All who thirst, go to water.”


The latter two sources, while implying the democratisation of knowledge, acknowledges the exclusivity to the other two crowns of priesthood and kingship. The first source however implies the democratisation of not just knowledge but also of priesthood and kingship - that one can obtain equivalence to priesthood and kingship through knowledge of the Torah, thus giving a context to the common use of three crowns. We have thus so far three concepts relating to the three crowns: a. the importance of the application of the virtue of knowledge for the betterment of society, b. the importance of the democratisation of knowledge, and c. the idea that through the virtue of knowledge one can in fact also obtain the equivalence of the virtue of both priesthood and kingship.


Crown – Divine radiance in relation to man


A further concept of the crown in Jewish thought is the Divine radiance that may rest upon man. This can be found in the context of a reward attributed to man for accepting the covenant with G-d. This is found in the following Talmudic teaching:[33]


Rabbi Simai taught: When Israel accorded precedence to the declaration “We will do” over the declaration “We will hear,” 600,000 ministering angels came and tied two crowns to each and every member of the Jewish people, one corresponding to “We will do” and one corresponding to “We will hear.”[34]


The meaning of crowns in this context is splendour[35] or glory of G-d in relation to man.


Crown - in relation to G-d


The third idea of a crown is in relation to the Divine. This is indicated in the Midrashic text:[36]


Rabbi Avin observed that it is like a case where the citizens of a province made three crowns for the king. What did the king do?  He placed one on his own head and two on the heads of his sons. Similarly, every day the celestial beings crown the Holy One, blessed be He, with the three sanctities of ‘Holy, Holy, Holy. What does the Holy One do? G-d places one on His own head and two on the head of His people Israel. But is not G-d’s holiness unlike ours? The commandment “You shall be holy, for I, the L-rd your G-d, am holy” might reasonably lead us to think that we are able to be like G-d. For this reason the text says, “I, the L-rd your G-d, am holy” meaning My G-d-like holiness is utterly beyond your holiness.”


There are two further sources that are interpreted as referring to the idea of a crown in relation to G-d. In Esther it states:[37] “Let them bring the royal raiment that the king wore and the horse that the king rode upon, and the royal crown should be placed on his head.” The Midrash interprets the king in the Book of Esther as referring to G-d. Similarly, in Song of Songs it states: “Go out, O daughters of Zion, and gaze upon King Solomon, upon the crown with which his mother crowned him on the day of his nuptials and on the day of the joy of his heart”.[38] The Talmud interprets this crown as referring to a crown that G-d is adorned with on the Day of Atonement when G-d gave the Jewish people the Torah with the second tablets and the building of the tabernacle.[39]


Surround all worlds


There are three ideas that explain the concept of a crown in relation to G-d: [40] a. Divine radiance that surrounds the world, as opposed to a radiance that is imminent, b. Divine knowledge, c. Divine will. All the above are referred to as the crown (Keter). 17th century Kabbalist Rabbi Moses Cordovero (1522-1570) presents three translations to the word Keter:[41] a. wait, as in Job:[42] ‘Wait (ktar) awhile for me and I will tell you, for G-d has more words’; b. a crown that sits on a person’s head; c. that which surrounds. In all the above translations, the meaning is something that remains apart or above. In this context the Kabbalists identified two radiances of the Divine: an imminent radiance and a concealed radiance. They referred to these two radiances  as alma d’isgalya - revealed worlds and alma d’iskasya - concealed worlds.[43] 19th century founder of Chabad philosophy Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1740 - 1813) referred to these two concepts as memale kol almin – the Divine life force that fills all the worlds and sovev kol almin – the Divine life force that surrounds all the worlds. The former is revealed, while the latter remains concealed and transcendent. [44]


Two lights of creation


The two lights of the Divine are indicated also in the interpretation of the two lights mentioned in Genesis. On the first day of creation it states: ‘And G-d said, "Let there be light," and there was light.’ On the fourth day it says: ‘And G-d said, "Let there be luminaries in the expanse of the heavens, to separate between the day and between the night.’ The Talmud reconciles the two lights by explaining there are two categories of light: one that was too radiant and was therefore concealed – ‘separated for the righteous in the future.’[45] 17th century Kabbalist Rabbi Naftali Hertz[46] argues that this first concealed light refers to the all-encompassing light of the Divine (ohr makif - keter).


The connection between the light on day one of creation and the crown is also indicated in the Gematria that calculates the numerical value of Hebrew letters of particular words that finds meaning through commonality with other words with the same numerical value. In our case, the numerical value of the Hebrew word for crown - keter - is 620 which is the same as the numerical value of the Hebrew words ‘on the first day’ b’yom harishon. This subtly alludes to the above idea that the radiance of the Divine that remained concealed on the first day of creation is what is referred to as the crown (keter).[47]


An additional passage that refers to the all encompassing light of G-d is in Deuteronomy:[48] “The skies are the abode for the G-d Who precedes all, and below, are the mighty ones of the world.” The Midrash interprets this verse to indicate the following notion: G-d encompasses (lit. is the place of) the world but the world does not encompass (lit. is not the place of) G-d. According to Jewish mysticism this verse is referring to the concealed radiance of the Divine that encompasses both the ‘skies’ above (i.e. that which transcends the world) and the ‘world below.’[49]


Crown - knowledge


The idea of a crown is also referred to as knowledge in the context of free will. The perennial question in Jewish philosophy is if G-d is omniscient[50] then how can there be free will – a fundamental principle in Jewish theology? The common Jewish philosophical view is that Divine foreknowledge and free will are compatible. This is the view of Maimonides and Ra’avad who maintain that G-d’s knowledge is not the same as our knowledge. Divine knowledge is detached from and has no impact on reality, where human knowledge is derived from reality. Thus, G-d may have foreknowledge but since that knowledge is detached from reality it does not determine the course of events. This knowledge of G-d that is distant from reality and therefore does not impact man’s free will is synonymous with the idea of the crown – Keter.[51]


Crown – will


A further idea of the crown is the faculty of the will. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in his works Torah Ohr and Likutei Torah explain that the metaphor of the idea of the crown is the supernal will of G-d. As opposed to wisdom that differentiates the will defies differentiation; if there is a will for a particular action, it will override one’s natural sentiments and emotions that may be in opposition to the particular behaviour.[52] We have thus explained that there is a concept of a crown in Jewish theology that represents the will of the Divine to create and that transcends and is concealed from any actual form of existence. The work of the Tikkunei ha-Zohar refers to the crown when it states: “You are One - but not in counting. You are higher than the high, concealed from the concealed.”[53]


Two sets of crowns


While the above idea of a crown as the Divine will is generally understood to be of a singular entity, the light of the Divine that is all encompassing, as opposed to imminent, Jewish mysticism recognises in fact two sets of crowns of G-d:[54] general crowns (makifim klolim) and three detailed crowns (makifim peratim). The three detailed crowns correspond to the three spiritual worlds detailed in the Kabbalah: creation (briah), formation (yetzirah) and action (asiyah). The metaphor to explain the need for three further crowns is the construction of a building that is first conceived in general terms and then designed in detail when the plan come closer to reality.[55]


Three crowns


In the final analysis, in Jewish teaching there is not only the three detailed crowns but, according to Jewish mysticism, three sets of crowns. This idea is developed[56] by Rabbi Shalom Dovber of Lubavitch (1860-1920),[57]known as Rashab,[58] in a lengthy series of 144 discourses,[59] encompassing 421 chapters,[60] entitled B’sha’a Shehikdimu 5672,[61] commonly known as Ayin Beis,[62] after the year in which the series began to be written in 1912[63] until winter 1914[64] (published in 1977).[65] I will aim to present an outline of this concept through the lens of this 20th century work.


Three sets of three crowns


Based on the idea of the crown (keter) as the will of G-d, there is identified thirteen crowns in detail. [66] However, in summary, the Rashab details three categories, two sets of three general crowns and one set of three detailed crowns: [67] The first (general) category is: a. The source of the will. b. The plain will (ratzon pashut). This will transcends the will to create. c. The initial carving out a will to create. This will is without any reason or purpose as of yet but contains within it all of the intended existence.[68] The second (general) category is: a. The primordial thought (decision) there should be a will of creation.[69] b. The will of an ultimate purpose (based on desire, not yet rational).[70]  c. The rational will to bring a world into existence (Atzilut). The third (detailed) category is:[71] a. The will to create the spiritual world of creation (Briah). b. The will to create the spiritual world of formation (Yetzirah). c. The will to create the world of action (Asiyah). In summary, the Rashab configures the above general into three crowns: a. The initial carving out a will to create. b. The primordial thought (decision) there should be a will of creation. c. The rational will of creation (Atzilut).


Rashab concludes his thesis of the three crowns by arguing that the three above-mentioned translations of the word keter as presented byRabbi Moses Cordovero in fact correspond to the three above summarised categories of crowns. a. Wait or silence suggests complete separateness: The initial carving out a will to create but completely separate from an actual will to create; b. a crown that sits on a one’s head signifies the primordial thought there should in fact be a will of creation, and c. ‘that which surrounds’ signifies the rational will of an actual process of creation.[72]




I have demonstrated that the idea of three crowns may be understood in the context of Jewish thought on more than one level of interpretation. [73] With the three crowns appearing on the coat of arms of the University of Oxford – a place for the pursuit of knowledge, the ideas expressed in Jewish thought relating to knowledge as a means to obtaining virtue and the democratisation of knowledge would have been resonant. The idea of the three crowns is further developed in the Kabbalah, reflecting the three levels of transcendence in the Divine will. I have also put forward the argument that based on the expert knowledge of Hebrew texts by Christian Hebraists of the 16th century at Oxford when the Coat of Arms was introduced they would have likely been familiar with not only the Talmudic and Midrashic interpretations of the three crowns but possibly also concepts within Kabbalistic thought.




[1] 27:1.

[2] Other uses of three crowns include Sweden’s three crowns, representing the union of Denmark, Norway and Sweden in 1397.

[3] See Adolf Neubauer’s “Catalogue of the Hebrew Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library and in the College Libraries of Oxford.” Many of the collections are due to the benefaction of or purchases from Oxford’s Christian Hebraic scholars. The earliest collection of Hebrew manuscript at Oxford is in 1601. IN the catalogue of 1605, 58 Hebrew titles are listed (, accessed 29 Aug, 2017). The Hebrew collections include from: Thomas Bodley (1545-1613), Richard Kilby (1560-1620), William Laud (1573-1645), John Selden (1584-1654), Edward Pococke (1604 – 1691), Thomas Marshall (1621-1681),[3] John Fell (1625-1686), Robert Huntington (1637–1701), Narcissus Marsh (1638-1713), among others. Collections from non-Oxford sources include: Venetian Jesuit, Matteo Luigi Canonici (1727-1805), bought in 1817, David Oppenheimer (1664-1736), bought in 1829, Heimann Joseph Michael (1792-1846), bought in 1848, and Cairo Genizah in 1890.

[4] Fronda, Rahel “Jewish Books and their Christian Readers - Christ Church Connections” p. 13.

[5] Ibid, p. 24.

[6] Ibid, p. 12-13.

[7] Ibid, p. 16-18.

[8] This work is known currently as Westminster Abbey manuscript 1. Unlike other codices this work does not have any interlinear Latin translation.

[9] Fronda, Rahel ‘Jewish Books and their Christian Readers - Christ Church Connections’ p. 25. The Talmud was subsequently acquired in the 20th century by the Valmadonna Trust in exchange for a medieval copy of the charter of Westminster Abbey, before being sold to a private collector in the US in 2015.

[10] Fronda, Rahel ‘Jewish Books and their Christian Readers - Christ Church Connections’ p. 26-29.

[11] In Bragadin’s Mishneh Torah and Shulchan Aruch printed in Venice the crowns are arranged with one above and two below, as opposed to two above and one below, as found in Cranley’s and Oxford’s coat of arms.

[12] Edited by Rabbi of Venice Meir ben Isaac Katzenellenbogen, known as Maharam of Padua (c. 1482 – 12 January 1565).

[13] See Sha’alot uTeshuvot Rabbi Yehudah of Mintz and Rabbi Meir of Padua (pub. 1553).

[14] Published the Talmud in 1520 and 1523. The first printed Talmud, though not a complete set, came from the Soncino family press in 1483 – the first to have the commentaries of Rashi and Tosafot alongside the Talmud. Another 16th century printer of Hebrew books was Yitzchak Prostitz of Crakow, Poland, who was the first to print the Shulchan Aruch with the glosses of Rabbi Moses Isserles (1520-1572), known as the Rema, in 1570 (Orach Chaim) and 1578 (the remaining sections).

[15] Exodus 30:3.

[16] Exodus 25:10-11.

[17] Exodus 25:24.

[18] 4:13.

[19] There is also a statement about ten crowns: Rav Ḥavivi from Ḥozena’a said to Rav Ashi: Come and hear a different proof from the following verse: “It came to pass in the first month in the second year, on the first day of the month, that the tabernacle was erected” (Exodus 40:17). It was taught: That day took ten crowns. It was the first day of Creation, meaning Sunday, the first day of the offerings brought by the princes, the first day of the priesthood, the first day of service in the Temple, the first time for the descent of fire onto the altar, the first time that consecrated foods were eaten, the first day of the resting of the Divine Presence upon the Jewish people, the first day that the Jewish people were blessed by the priests, and the first day of the prohibition to bring offerings on improvised altars. Once the Tabernacle was erected, it was prohibited to offer sacrifices elsewhere. And it was the first of the months. And from the fact that the New Moon of Nisan of that year was on the first day of the week, in the previous year, it was on the fourth day of the week.

[20] The Talmud (Yoma 72b) points out that the Torah uses the word Zer for crown instead of the word Keter. The reason for this is since one can read the word without vowelsin two ways: zeir (crown) or zar (stranger), suggesting that if one is deserving of the distinction it becomes a crown; if one is not deserving, it will become estranged from him and the person will forget what one has leaned.

[21] See lecture on this subject by Rabbi Professor Naftali Rothenberg (Van Leer Institute, Jerusalem): (accesses 13 Aug, 2017).

[22] A teaching in the Mishnah puts the virtue of Torah study succinctly in the following statement (Horayot 3:8): “A mamzer (illegitimate child) who studies Torah is more virtuous than a high priest who does not.”

[23] Sifrei Bamidbar 119. Maimonides in Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Shemitah Veyovel, end of final chapter, presents the democratisation of the concept of the priesthood in the form of total devotion to G-d. See also Biurim Pirkei Avot by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn, 1:209.

[24] Proverbs 8:15-16.

[25] Ecclesiastes 12:13.

[26] Yoma 72b.

[27] Exodus 30:3, 25:24, 25:11.

[28] See similar statement in Kiddushin 66a.

[29] Ch. 41 in version (nusach) A and chapter 48 in version B. In version B it states as follows: Rabbi Shimon says: There are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of kingship - but the crown of a good name outweighs them all. The crown of Torah, this is the crown of Moses, as it states: “Keep in remembrance the teaching of Moses, My servant” (Malachi 3:22); the crown of priesthood that one can not touch it, as it states: it is like an eternal covenant of salt before the Lord” (Numbers 18:19); Crown of kingship, this is the crown of David, as it states: “Should you not know that the Lord, the God of Israel, gave the kingdom to David“ (II Chronicles 13:5). The crown of a good name outweighs them all. Whoever merits to the Torah may come and take it. Aaron did not merit to priesthood other than because of the merit of the Torah, as it states: “For a priest's lips shall guard knowledge, and teaching should be sought from his mouth” (Malachi 2:7). David did not merit to kingship other than because of the merit of the Torah, as it states: “This came to me because I kept Your precepts” (Psalms 119:56).

[30] Numbers 25:13.

[31] Ezekiel 37:25.

[32] Isaiah 55:1. See Rashi commentary that water is a metaphor for the Torah. Bava Kama 82a.

[33] Shabbat 88a.

[34] Exodus 19:8; 24:3.

[35] Rashi commentary on the Talmud (Shabbat 88a): ‘M’Ziv Hashechina’ - from the splendor of the Divine. Tosefot translates it as ‘Hod’ glory. The Biblical term for the idea of the crowns is as indicated in the following two verses following Mount Sinai: “So the children of Israel divested themselves of their finery from Mount Horeb” (Exodus 33:6), and “And it came to pass when Moses descended from Mount Sinai, and the two tablets of the testimony were in Moses' hand when he descended from the mountain and Moses did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant while He had spoken with him” (Exodus 34:29).

[36] Leviticus Rabbah 24:8.

[37] Esther 6:8. Likkutei Torah, Esther, “yaviu levush malchut”.

[38] Song of Songs 3:11; Ta'anit 26b.

[39] Ta’anit 26b. Rashi.

[40] These three categories answer the problem of anthropomorphisms in the Divine (Guide for the Perplexed vol. 1).

[41] Pardes Rimonim 23:11.

[42] 36:2, Metzudat David.

[43] Zohar Vayetze.

[44] An exploration of the idea of the crown may also be found in “Keter: The Crown of God in Early Jewish Mysticism” by Arthur Green.

[45] Chagiga 12a. Ayin Beis ch. 48. Rashi commentary to Genesis 1:4. Zohar 3:204b. Ayin Beis ch. 48.

[46] Author of Emek HaMelekh (Valley of the King), a commentary on Lurianic Kabbalah, published in 1648, Sh’ar 6, ch. 9. Ayin Beis ch. 48.

[47] Ayin Beis ch. 48. Other references to the idea of the crown in relation to G-d is indicated in the interpretation of the verse in Song of Songs (3:11): “Go out, O daughters of Zion, and gaze upon King Solomon, upon the crown with which his mother crowned him on the day of his nuptials and on the day of the joy of his heart,” and Esther (6:8) “Let them bring the royal raiment that the king wore and the horse that the king rode upon, and the royal crown should be placed on his head.” See discourse in Torah Ohr entitled “Let them bring the royal raiment”.

[48] Deuteronomy 33:27.

[49] Sefer Rabot, beg. Vayetze. Ayin Beis ch. 59.

[50] Maimonides writes in Mishneh Torah, Yesodei HaTorah 2:9: All existence, aside from the Creator - from the first form down to a small mosquito in the depths of the earth - came into being from the influence of His truth. Since He knows Himself and recognizes His greatness, beauty, and truth, He knows everything, and nothing is hidden from Him.

[51] Likuttei Torah, Behar 44:2. Ayin Beis ch. 60. This explanation is also presented by Maimonides, Ra’vad (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 5:3), Tosafot Yom Tov commentary on Ethics of the Fathers (3:15) citing Rabbi Shmuel Uceda (c. 1575) in his work Midrash Shmuel.

[52] Torah Ohr, Yaviu l’vush malchut. Likutei Torah, Naso 24:1. Tanya ch. 48. Ayin Beis chapters 49-56.

[53] 17a-b, Patacḥ Eliyahu.

[54] Atik Yomin (ancient of days) and Arich Anpin (elongated faces); Tehiru ila’a (higher light), Tehiru tata’a (lower light); Makif hakarov (closer surround) Makif harachok (distant surround); Igul ha’elyon and Igul ha’tachton; inner will and outer will.

[55] Ayin Beis ch. 63. The three crowns corresponding to the three spiritual worlds is one of the interpretations of the three terms ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole world is full of His Glory’ in Isaiah 6:3. Likkutei Torah.

[56] When the Rashab was travelling from Lubavitch to Warsaw on the first leg of his journey to Menton in the winter of 1912, accompanied by his son Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, he intimated that he hoped to find the time while in Menton to contemplate (ibertrachten) a new deep idea in Chassidic philosophy (Sefer Hasichos 5680, p. 1, and Sefer Hasichos Parshas Noach, 5703). Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok later summarised that the nature of Chassidic philosophy is as Maimonides writes in his opening to the Mishneh Torah (Sefer Hamada 1:1): “The foundation of all foundations and the pillar of wisdom is to know that there is a Primary Being who brought into being all existence”. Essentially, Chassidic philosophy explores the teachings of the Kabbalah and makes it understandable to a person’s ordinary intellect (Igrot Kodesh Rayatz vol. 3. On the study of Chassidus ch. 7-10). The Rashab, in his above statement, thus, does not mean a new philosophical idea but rather his desire to give a previously not-well-understood idea mentioned in the Zohar and Lurianic Kabbalah a proper tangible grasp in intellect.

[57] The author of the work, Rabbi Shalom Dovber Shneersohn, is fifth generation in the Chabad Chassidic dynasty, that began with the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, followed by his son, Dovber of Lubavitch, known as the Mitteler Rebbe, followed by his son in law, Tzemach Tzedek, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, succeeded by his youngest son, Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, the father of Rashab. The Rashab was born in the town of Lubavitch in the Smolensk region of Russia. He resided there until the First World War in 1917, when he was forced to flee to Rostov in Don, Russia, where he lived until he passed away in 1920. His published works include 29 volumes of Chassidic discourses called Sefer HaMa'amarim (Book of Discourses), five volumes of his correspondence titled Igrot Kodesh (Holy Letters), a volume of his public addresses Torat Shalom, two treatise on prayer called Kuntres Hatefillah (Tract on Prayer) and Kuntres Hoavodah (Tract on Worship) and a number of other short treatise on Torah study, concepts in Chabad philosophy and ethics.

[58] The Rashab was also known as Maimonides of Chassidic philosophy, attributed to him by Rabbi Shmuel Betzalel Sheftel, known by his acronym Rashbatz (c. 1829 - d. 1905). He was born into a family of Mitnagdim in Szventzian, and arrived into the circle of Lubavitch Hassidism in 1848 when he came to study at nineteen years old at the Yeshiva in the town of Lubavitch. He subsequently was employed as the personal tutor of the Rashab’s son, the future sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, between 1893 and 1900 and appointed Mashpia (spiritual mentor) of the Tomchei Temimim Yeshiva from 1900 until his passing in 1905. The title reflects the Rashab’s unique ability to convey deep ideas in Chassidic philosophy by subject matter as opposed to scripture based mystical discussions, as well as his clarity of explanation, similar to Maimonides’ legal code Mishneh Torah.

[59] Once the series had been completed and delivered by Autumn 1916 (Vayeira), the Rashab wrote the beginning and ends of the discourse corresponding to the weekly Torah reading in a separate book with a corresponding note for the line and words where the beginnings and ends are meant to fit in into the original work. In addition, in this second work, he added various notes and explanations to be added to the original work. This second work consisted of 45 manuscripts, a total of 343 sides. The original work and ‘beginnings and ends’ was then given to a copier to be incorporated into a single work. The copiers consisted of six people, including Rabbi Schneur Zalman Yehudah Idel Zissel, the Rashab’s son, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, Rabbi Yehudah Eber, Rabbi Chaim Liberman and two unidentified others. The first section of Ayin Beis (B’sha’a Shehikdimu Shavuot 1912-Vayigash 1913) was copied with a mimeograph machine, consisting of 300 pages, and publicised to study.

[60] The chapter and summaries headings were added around 1919 to a copy of the complete work of 144 discourses. A further section of Ayin Beis was written in 1919 but was not recited and also not divided into discourses or chapters.

[61] The series was initially written as a single work broken into just three sections: Shavuot 1913, Shavuot 1914 and Shavuot 1915. Once completed the original work consisted of 22 individual manuscripts containing two folded sheets per manuscript, enabling, with four sides per sheet, 8 sides each manuscript. In total, taking into consideration 3 blank sides, the original work consisted of 173 handwritten sides consisting of 75-80 lines per side.

[62] Ayin Beis fits into the category of Chassidic discourses known as Hemshechim (series), first introduced by the Rashab’s father, Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, known as the Maharash (1834-1882), whereby a discourse opens and closes corresponding to an idea in the weekly Torah reading, while the middle section of the discourse continues as a continuous series throughout a given number of discourses covering a comprehensive concept in Chassidic philosophy. Some of the famous hemshechim (series) include: RaNaT, i.e. 5659 (1898-9), Samekh Vav, i.e. 5666 (1905-6), Eter, 5670, (1909-10) and Ayin Bait, 5672, the subject of this essay.

[63] The series developed from its initial conception in 1886 after the passing of his father, began to be written while the Rashab was in Menton in winter 1912. The first step was the conception of the idea to write the lengthy discourse. During the winters of 1912, 1913 and 1914, the Rashab was in the French reverie town Menton resting in a mountainside villa with a view of the sea due to his health. It was during his first visit to Menton in winter 1912 that he worked on the concept of Ayin Bet, seeing the climate and the setting of Menton as suitable for deep contemplation allowing for the development of a new concept in Chassidic philosophy. The mention of this work as an idea occurred when the Rashab was travelling from Lubavitch to Warsaw on the first leg of his journey to Menton, accompanied by his son Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, known by his acronym the Rayatz. He intimated during this journey that he hoped to find the time while in Menton to contemplate (ibertrachten) a new deep idea in Chassidic philosophy. When Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak visited Menton in February 1912 the Rashab mentioned that his desire to develop a new concept in Chassidic philosophy in fact came to fruition. An earlier story about the development of the concept of Ayin Bet is told about when the Rashab was in Vienna, perhaps in 1903, together with his son Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak staying at a hotel in two separate rooms with a shared living area. When Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak entered he noticed the Rashab was sitting on the sofa with his eyes open in a deep trance. He came in a few times over a few hours and the Rashab remained in this deep meditative state to the degree that when he awoke it was obvious he had lost all sense of temporal awareness of time and space. At a later date the Rashab told Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak that he was contemplating the foundations to the discourse Ayin Beis. An even earlier foundation for Ayin Beis is in 1886, before the Rashab officially became Rebbe, though he was teaching Chassidic discourses from when his father passed away in 1883. At that time he invested enormous mental energy to understand the work of the Mitteler Rebbe, Rabbi Dov Ber of Lubavitch (1773-1827), Imrei Binah, Sha’ar Hakriat Shema (chapters 12 and 13). Rashab related that his study of Imrei Binah was with such great depth and effort that ‘he pulled his hair out’, from which, he said, was laid the foundations for Ayin Beis.

[64] Rashab wrote in a letter dated 15 Tevet 5674 / 1914 to his son that from the time he left home in Lubavitch to Menton and Vienna he has been busy completing the work Ayin Beis and will finish in the coming days, G-d willing. Ayin Beis vol. 1 Hosofos, p. 12.

[65] The first section was published by stencil copier and distributed to study during the Rashab’a lifetime. The fact that the work was not subsequently published in full was a matter of distress to the Rashab. In 1946 Chief Rabbi of Beni Brak Rabbi Yakov Landau (1893-1996), who had a very close relationship with the Rashab, wrote to the Rebbe that he personally heard the Rashab express that he wanted very strongly that Ayin Beis should be copied. The Rebbe responded that he would like to publish the work but it would cost $10,000 and who would contribute such funds (Igrot Kodesh, Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn, vol. 2 p. 147). Thirty years later, on the Rashab’s birthday 20 Cheshvan 1977, the Rebbe made a resolution to have the work finally published. This was expressed at a Farbrengen (Chassidic gathering) on 20 Kislev, 1977, the anniversary of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi’s release from prison in 1798. The Rebbe said that it bothered him for many years that Ayin Beis after all these years has not been published. He argued that since his father in law entrusted him a copy of the whole work during his travels knowing full well that he would make a copy for himself, according to Jewish law he was allowed to make a copy of the work. The Rebbe suggested that everyone should contribute one dollar, pound or Shekel, and thereby share the responsibility of its publishing (Sichot Kodesh 20 Kislev, 5737). It was published by Kehot Publication Society for the first time in 1977.

[66] In Ayin Beis ch. 72 it talks of thirteen makifim (crowns), alluded to in the thirteen blessings in the Baruch Sheamar prayer in the morning service.

[67] Ayin Beis ch. 57-72.

[68] This is referred to in the Zohar (Berieshit): לאהעיבטהירו גלופיגליףדמלכא הורמנותאבריש. Etz Chaim (2:1) refers to this idea with the following statement: המציאות כל את ממלא פשוט עליון אור היה הנבראים ונבראו הנאצליםשנאצלו טרם כי.

[69] After the Tzimtzum (contraction of the light).

[70] Ayin Beis chapters 68-73.

[71] See Likutei Torah, Song of Songs p. 37:4.

[72] Ayin Beis ch. 126.

[73] The connection of Henry VIII’s scholars to Christian mystics can be found in Dame Fraces Yates' “The Occult Philosophy in Elizabethan England" (Ch. 3): The Cabalist Friar of Venice: Francesco Giorgi', though does not directly refer to Jewish sources.


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