World of the Sages: Overpowering taste of the future

The Talmud provides a list of five items, each of which can be considered 1/60 of another experience.

Our sages tell us that certain worldly experiences are but a hint of other more significant events. In some way, these encounters mirror other special events. The Talmud provides a list of five items, each of which can be considered 1/60 of another experience (B. Brachot 57b). The first item on the list is fire which is 1/60 of the scalding Gehenna, the purging fires to which sinners are subject in the afterlife. This gives a sense of the harshness of Gehenna: If earthly fire burns us, what would the fires of Gehenna do to us? The second comparison is honey, which is 1/60 of manna, that magical desert sustenance with which the Jewish people were nourished during their 40 years wandering in the desert. Indeed, when the Bible attempts to describe this mysterious bread from the sky (Exodus 16:4), it uses honey as a reference point: And the House of Israel called it manna; it was like coriander seed [in appearance], white, and it tasted like tzapihit [a biblical word whose meaning we don't know, perhaps something like a wafer] in honey (Exodus 16:31). The talmudic list continues, noting that Shabbat is 1/60 of the world to come. In the Shabbat liturgy, this special day is often referred to as resembling the coveted world to come. Conversely, in the Grace After Meals, the world to come is called a time that is entirely Shabbat. Moving on to a less savory comparison, our sages tell us that sleep is 1/60 of death; the sleepy state of semi-consciousness is likened to deathly unconsciousness. In this vein, we thank the Almighty for returning our rejuvenated soul when we wake up in the morning. Moreover, waking is compared to the revival of the dead. The list is rounded off with dreams that are 1/60 of prophecy. A significant number of pages of Talmud are devoted to the question of the veracity of dreams, in what way they portend the future and how - in the event of an unpleasant dream - they can be countered. Each of the five listed items is given in the same proportion, that is, they represent 1/60 of another experience; a ratio of one to 59. What is the significance of this ratio? In his commentary to the Torah, Rabbi Uziel Meizlish (1744-1785) related to one of the items in the talmudic list just cited. Rabbi Uziel Meizlish was a student of the famed Rabbi Dov Ber the Maggid (preacher) of Mezritch (1704-1772), the teacher responsible for the spread of Hassidism throughout Eastern Europe. He explained that on Shabbat a person can perceive what will be his portion in the world to come. By taking note of his own excitement and spiritual awakening on Shabbat, and multiplying this feeling by a factor of 60, a person can assess the spiritual joy he will experience. Rabbi Uziel Meizlish continued: Alas, what if a person feels no holy awakening on Shabbat, if he is bereft of all spirituality on this day set aside for the spirit? If this feeling represents zero on a spirituality vector, then multiplying this zero by 60 remains zero. Such a person may sense that he is undeserving of the pleasure of the world to come. To counter this, he urged people, even if they did not naturally feel the sanctity of Shabbat, to try their utmost to sensitize themselves and arouse themselves to perceive the unique quality of this special day. If a person succeeds in connecting to the spirituality of Shabbat, he will merit sixtyfold in the future. Rabbi Uziel Meizlish explained how the proportion cited by the talmudic sages - at least regarding the relationship between Shabbat and the world to come - can have bearing on our lives and can be used to further spiritual goals. The hassidic teacher did not, however, explain the specific proportion given by the Talmud. In the following generation of hassidic leaders, Rabbi Haim Tirer of Czernowitz, who moved to Safed toward the end of his life (ca. 1770-1815), related specifically to the 1/60 proportion. He noted that Shabbat has a fraction of the taste of the world to come, but only a borderline fraction. In Jewish law a taste is no longer discernible when the admixture has 60 parts to one. This statutory benchmark has far-reaching legal implications. For instance, if milk accidentally falls into a pot of meat soup, the question arises as to whether the soup can still be eaten or must be thrown out because it is a forbidden mixture of meat and milk. The answer to this question depends on the ratio of milk to soup. If there are at least 60 parts soup to the one part milk, the effect of the milk is nullified and the soup may still be eaten. Thus Rabbi Haim of Czernowitz explained that if Shabbat was less than 1/60 of the world to come, it would be nullified by the overpowering taste of this material world. This ratio ensures that once a week we can enjoy a taste of the world to come. Perhaps we can continue the line of Rabbi Haim of Czernowitz and explain the flip side: What if the ratio between Shabbat and the world to come was lower, say 1:50 or 1:40? Were this the case, then the taste of the world to come on Shabbat would be palpable to all. The Shabbat experience would be so akin to the world to come that each week we would effectively leave the temporal realm as the overpowering experience of the world to come would envelope us each Friday eve. Once a week we taste the flavor of Shabbat. For connoisseurs, a faint hint of the world to come is detectable to the palate. It is not a brash zest that boldly announces itself. Rather a faint aroma, a delicate allusion, accompanies Shabbat and bespeaks worlds to those who have discerning sensitivity. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.