cohen gadol





Rabbi Aharon Halevi Horowitz of Staroshelye (1766-1828), was the eminent disciple of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Habad Hasidism. Rabbi Aharon studied under the master for thirty years. The Alter Rebbe (“Old Rabbi”) referred to his dearly beloved disciple as “Doreshei Yihudekha” (“Seeker of Unity”). Rabbi Aharon authored works of Hasidism known for their depth: Sha‘arei ha-Yihud ve-ha-Emunah; Sha‘arei ‘Avodah; and ‘Avodat ha-Levi (on the Pentateuch). The reading below is taken from the last-mentioned work (‘Avodat ha-Levi [Lemberg, 1861-1862], Aharei, 35d-36c).

In the twentieth century, the study of Rabbi Aharon’s works was revived by Rabbi Abraham Dov Baer Hakohen Levin of Kurenets, leader of a splinter group of Habad, known as the “Mal’akhim.”

Recently, the final resting place of Rabbi Aharon was located in Staroshelye, Belarus.

For Further Reading:

  • Rachel Elior, The Theory of Divinity of Hasidut Habad: Second Generation [Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1982)
  • Louis Jacobs, Seeker of Unity: The Life and Works of Aaron of Starosselje (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 1966)


In the following derush, the Staroshelyer explains why Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aharon, failed to achieve their goal, and why that goal can be achieved only by Aharon. The goal they sought, is actually the reason that the world was created: that the divine unity be realized through all the details of Being (Yesh). This unity comes under the rubric of Imma (Mother). But in order to come to that unity, there must precede the realization of the divine unity at the level of Nothingness (Ayin). That unity is referred to as Abba (Father). By offering incense (whose eleven ingredients encompass the Other Side), the sons of Aaron hoped to achieve the unity of Being—for that after all, is the true purpose of Creation. But because that unity was not preceded by the unity of Nothingness, they failed in their mission. Only Aharon—who comes from a place of MaH (“Va-Nahnu mah?” / “What are we?”)—can successfully achieve the sought divine unification.

This Torah of the Staroshelyer (zekhuto tagen ‘aleynu) is being offered in honor of the hillula (yahrzeit) of Aharon Hakohen:

Rosh Hodesh Menahem Av.                                                                                                                                                                                          BN


Rabbi Aharon Halevi Horowitz of Staroshelye,

‘Avodat Halevi

Introduction, Translation and Notes © 2017 Bezalel Naor


Aharei Mot

The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron… (Leviticus 16:1)

We must first understand the significance of [the two divine names] MaH and BaN.[1]

MaH is an expression of essence (mahut ve-‘atsmut). It is also an expression of nullification (bittul) and nothingness (ayin).[2] It is the aspect of Abba (Father).

BaN is the aspect of revelation of all the essence, and its extension. And it is the aspect of Imma (Mother).[3]

Let us illustrate this with a parable (mashal). When it comes to nullification (bittul) before a mortal king, there are two methods of nullification:

1) from the perspective of the king’s essence; and

2) from the perspective of his revelation and extension, namely that several states and princes efface themselves before him.

Now in one respect, the nullification that proceeds from the essence of the king is superior, for [the subject] feels nothing except the very essence of the king. Yet in another respect, the nullification that proceeds from the extension of the king is superior, for the more one meditates on the greatness of the king as manifested through his extension, the more exalted the essence of the king becomes in [the subject’s] eyes.

By the same token, when it comes to service of the Lord, in one respect the aspect of Abba (Father)—which is the nullification itself, beyond meditation and intellect, i.e. from the perspective of His essence, blessed be He, inasmuch as He alone exists and none other, Heaven forbid—is superior to the nullification that proceeds from the aspect of Imma (Mother), which derives from meditation upon the Yesh (Being) and the worlds; upon the fact that all the worlds are insignificant [compared to Him].

The reason [that it is superior] is that in the act of meditation one is self-conscious; one is conscious of the fact that one is in love with the Lord[4]—though one nullifies one’s ego to the En Sof (Infinite), blessed be He. This is not the case when the nullification is from the perspective of Abba (Father); from the perspective of His essence. Then one experiences no ego.

Yet in another respect, the nullification from the perspective of Imma (Mother) is superior to that of Abba (Father), as explained in the parable above. This should suffice for the wise.


But there is more. The purpose of the Creation is precisely that there be revealed His perfection, blessed be He. And that revelation can be only to another. In other words, [the purpose is] that He manifest in infinitely many details, and that through the service of Israel the manifest reality be nullified to the En Sof (Infinite), blessed be He. In truth, His perfection encompasses all—from the beginning of all levels to the end of all levels—equally (be-shaveh mamash).[5] Since in truth none other exists but Him, it is inappropriate to refer to Him, blessed be He, as “Ayin” (No-Thing), for the contrary, He, blessed be He, is the source and root of Being (Yesh) in all its details. Thus, it is written “to bequeath to My lovers Yesh” [Proverbs 8:21]. However, Being (Yesh) is not separate [from Him] and corporeal, Heaven forbid, as it appears to our fleshly eyes. As it says, “Behold, there is a place with Me” [Exodus 33:21]; and “I am the first and I am the last” [Isaiah 44:6]. That means that even what is drawn down below so that it appears as “Being” (Yesh)—all is but the power of His essence, blessed be He.

At it is known, the revelation of ‘Atik (the Ancient of Days) is in [the sefirah of] Binah.[6] For the aspect of Binah exists to raise up all the details of the Yesh (Being) to the En Sof (Infinite), blessed be He. Its root is from the aspect of ‘Atik, which is His essence, blessed be He, that is removed (ne‘etak) beyond any apprehension or cognition at all. So the Yesh (Being) too is not outside Him, as explained above. This should suffice for the wise.


But Imma (Mother)—“from her judgments are aroused.”[7] This means that since the meditation is from the perspective of the Yesh (Being) and the worlds—as opposed to the ‘Etsem (Essence)—there can ramify from this “dinim” (judgments), which is to say, yenikah la-hitsonim (nourishment for the outsiders, i.e. the forces of evil). This would entail reckoning the Yesh (Being) as a separate entity (outside of En Sof). Even in the very act of nullification there can be self-consciousness that he is the one who is serving the Lord. Therefore, one must first activate the light of Abba (Father), i.e. the nullification from the perspective of His Essence, whereby the Yesh (Being) is totally insignificant, as mentioned above. Then, even in the light of Imma (Mother), i.e. in the meditation upon the Yesh (Being), the nullification will be clean of any admixture [of ego]. One will totally nullify the Yesh (Being) to His Essence, blessed be He. This is the saying, “Abba (Father) and Imma (Mother) are two companions that are inseparable. They proceed as one and rest as one.”[8] For Supernal Abba (Father)—source of the Ayin (No-Thing)—and Supernal Imma (Mother)—source of the Yesh (Being)—from the perspective of His Essence, blessed be He, are equally (be-hashva’ah) one.[9] The two [i.e. Abba and Imma] are in a state of true bittul (nullification), free of admixture [of ego]. This will be explained below in regard to Aaron.


This brings us to the matter of the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. It is seemingly incomprehensible why the Tree of Knowledge was ever created, since the Holy One, blessed be He, never commanded that it be eaten.[10]

However, the Tree of Life represents the aspect of Hokhmah, which is to say bittul (nullification) from the perspective of the Essence (as explained above). [On the other hand,] the Tree of Knowledge represents nullification—intellectual and emotional—precisely from the perspective of the Yesh (Being), for this was the purpose of Creation (as explained above). As the saying of the Zohar: “One must know good and one must know evil, and return oneself to good.”[11] What that means is, that the nullification must come through the evil, which is exactly the revealed Yesh (Being).

The sin of Adam consisted in his sense of self in the act of nullification, and reckoning Yesh (Being) as a reality. For this reason, it is stated before the Sin: “The two of them were naked.”[12] Naked refers to bittul (nullification), devoid of any cloak or concealment. In that state, they did not reckon the Yesh (Being) as a separate reality. And after the Sin, it is written: “They knew that they were naked.”[13] They knew means that they sensed themselves in the act of bittul (nullification).


It is written in the sacred books that the sons of Aaron sought to rectify the sin of Adam. For this reason, it is written, “when they approached before (lifnei) the Lord.”[14] And it states in the Zohar that wherever it is written “lifnei” (“before”), it refers to [the sefirah] of Malkhut (Royalty) as it exists at its source, which precedes [the name] Havayah. It is known that Malkhut symbolizes His extension, blessed be He, in a revealed manner, in order to vivify the Yesh (Being). The sons of Aaron wished to raise up the Yesh (Being) to its root; to His essence, blessed be He. And that is the level of Binah, as mentioned above.

This is also the meaning of the [earlier] verse. When they offered the incense, it says: “They offered before the Lord a strange fire.”[15] Strange refers to the Yesh (Being). The symbolism of the incense is known. The eleven ingredients [of the incense] represent the eleven sparks that enliven the Other Side.[16] The sons of Aaron’s intention was to achieve bittul (nullification) precisely through the Yesh (Being)—as was explained above at length.

But the sons of Aaron erred in this respect. The responsibility of raising up the Yesh (Being) and nullification through the Yesh (Being), was not assigned to them. The reason for that, was that there did not shine in their souls the bittul (nullification) that proceeds from the light of supernal Abba (Father), namely essential bittul, from the perspective of His essence, blessed be He. Rather, [there shone in their souls] solely the light of Imma (Mother), and “from her judgments are aroused,” i.e. there is yenikah la-hitsonim (nourishment for the outsiders), whereby the Yesh (Being) is reckoned as a separate reality (as explained above at length).

Therefore it is said of them, “They died.”[17] Which is to say, there occurred the removal of the light from the vessel, because their intention surpassed the capacity of their vessels. As it is known in regard to the Primordial Kings, who[se vessels] shattered because the lights were many and the vessels few.[18] A word to the wise is sufficient.

Only through Aaron [could this rectification come about]. In his soul, there shone the bittul (nullification) that proceeds from the light of supernal Abba (Father), as it is written: “What (Mah) are we?”[19] After one is nullified from the perspective of His essence, blessed be He, before Whom the Yesh (Being) poses no concealment, for He is the Creator of all; of all the details of Being (as stated above)—then it is within the power of the soul to raise up and to nullify precisely through the Yesh (Being). Then there will be in the bittul no admixture of sense of self.

It is in this context that the Zohar refers to Aaron as the “Shushbina de-Matronita” (“Bridal Escort of the Queen”).[20] Just as the Bridal Escort conveys the Queen to the palace of the King, so Aaron’s variety of bittul (nullification) was from the side of the Yesh (Being), to raise it up to the source of all: His essence, blessed be He.

This is what is written “after the death of the two sons of Aaron…he may not enter at any time…,”[21] only on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), for then it is a propitious time, [a time o] complete refinement of the material, as the Rabbis observed: “On Yom Kippur there is no eating or drinking…”[22] Then it states: “Before the Lord you shall be purified.”[23] I.e., the aspect of Malkhut at its source, referred to as “before Havayah” (as explained above), is purified and uplifted to the source and root of all. This [comes about] inasmuch as on Yom Kippur [the Day of Atonement] there shines Imma ‘Ila’ah (Supernal Mother),[24] which is to say, the bittul (self-nullification) that proceeds from the Yesh (Being) undergoing nullification to His essence, blessed be He. A word to the wise is sufficient.

And therefore we also read the portion of the ‘Arayot (incestuous relations) on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement),[25] for ‘ervah is an expression for revelation, also an expression for shame. The meaning [of this coincidence] is that if one considers the Yesh (Being) a reality—even in one’s service of the Lord, if one experiences one’s self in the act of bittul (self-nullification)—it is a great shame, and the opposite of His unity, blessed be He. For His true unity is that no other exists but He, blessed be He. This is [the meaning of the verse] “The nakedness of your sister…whether born at home, or born abroad, you shall not reveal their nakedness…”[26] Born at home or born abroad, i.e. both internally and externally, if one feels one’s self, it is a great shame. A word to the wise is sufficient.

Even though the divine intention [in creating the world], as it were, was that bittul (self-nullification) would derive precisely from the Yesh (Being)—the bittul (self-nullification) must be clarified and clean of any admixture of ego, God forbid. One must nullify oneself to the Lord alone. And this aspect shines on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).

Now even though the sons of Aaron did not rectify this aspect and it was not raised up as they thought, nonetheless, through them was effected the preparation for this raising up. And the rectification comes about precisely through Aaron in the course of the service of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). For this reason it states: “With this (bezot) shall Aaron enter.”[27] Be-Zot refers to the revelation of the Yesod (Foundation) of Abba (Father) in the aspect of Nukva (Female), i.e. there shall shine the bittul (nullification) that proceeds from Abba (Father)—from the perspective of His essence, blessed be He—in the aspect of Nukva (Female), that is the revelation of the Yesh (Being) below. A word to the wise is sufficient.



[1] Both names are “milu’im” of the Tetragramatton, YHWH. MaH is the “miluy de-alphin.” By spelling out the four letters Yod He Wow He using alephs, the numerical value achieved is 45 or MaH. BaN is referred to as the “miluy de-hehin.” By spelling out the four letters Yod Heh Wow He using the letter he, the numerical value becomes 52 or BaN.

[2] The Hebrew word “Mah” means “What?” In terms of the sefirot, MaH would be associated with “Hokhmah” (Wisdom), the primal, seminal, undifferentiated thought. The verse in Job 28:12 states: “Ve-ha-hokhmah me-’ayin timatse…” Simply, this is an interrogative statement: “And wisdom, from where shall it be found?” However, the kabbalists turned it into a statement of fact: “And wisdom is found from ’ayin [nothingness].”

[3] In terms of the sefirot, BaN would be linked to “Binah” (Understanding), whereby the germ of an idea (Hokhmah) is spun out and unpacked.

[4] In Habad teaching, this peculiar form of egoism is symbolized by the Biblical character Re’umah, concubine of Nahor (Genesis 22:24). This woman’s name is broken down into two words: Re’u mah! (See what!) One boasts that one has achieved a level of self-effacement: “See the mah, the bittul, the self-annihilation that I have achieved!” Rabbi Aharon’s great teacher, Rabbi Shneur Zalman equates Re’umah with Kelipat Nogah de-Atsilut. See Ma’amrei Admor Hazaken—Et-halekh Liozhna (Brooklyn, 2012), pp. 8-9, s.v. U-filagsho u-shemah Re’umah; Likkutei Torah, Tazri‘a 23d; Behar 43a.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s teaching concerning the “yesh mi she-ohev” (“there is someone who loves”) syndrome, is found in Torah ’Or (Hosafot), Vayakhel 114d; and Likkutei Torah, [Ki] Tavo 42c.

[5] This is a central teaching of Rabbi Aaron: Hashva’ah (equality). From the perspective of ultimate reality, Being (Yesh) and Nothingness (Ayin) are equal.

[6] Cf. Rabbi Aharon Halevi, Sha‘arei ha-Yihud ve-ha-Emunah (Shklov, 1820), Gate 1 (Sha‘ar Kelalut ha-Yihud), chap. 5, Hagahah (16a). See further Rabbi Shneur Zalman, Torah ’Or, Lekh Lekha, 11b; idem, Likkutei Torah, Derushim le-Rosh Hashana, 57a.

[7] In Habad literature, the common expression is: “Binah, dinin mit‘arin minah.” (“Binah—from her judgments are aroused”.) See Zohar III, 10b.

[8] See Idra Zuta in Zohar III, 290b; Rabbi Hayyim Vital, Peri ‘Ets Hayyim, Sha‘ar ha-Tefillin, chap. 16.

[9] See note #5 above.

[10] This question was asked by one of the great teachers of medieval Ashkenazic Jewry, Rabbi Judah ben Kalonymus of Mayence (the father of Rabbi El‘azar of Worms, author of Roke’ah). See Levi Yitshak Charitan, “Sha‘ar Simukhim le-Rabbenu El‘azar mi-Germaiza (Ha-Rokeah),” in: Hitsei Giborim, vol. 10 (Nissan, 5777/2017), pp. 370-373, 413-416.

[11] Zohar II, 34a.

[12] Genesis 2:25.

[13] Genesis 3:7.

[14] Leviticus 16:1.

[15] Leviticus 10:1.

[16] See Rabbi Hayyim Vital, Sefer ha-Likkutim, Terumah (Exodus 26:7), s.v. Ve-‘Asita yeri‘ot ‘izim…‘ashtei ‘esreh yeri‘ot; idem, Peri ‘Ets Hayyim, Sha‘ar ‘Olam ha-‘Asiyah, chap. 4, s.v. Pitum ha-Ketoret. And see Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Torah ’Or, Bereshit, 5c; Toledot, 20b-c; Vayyishlah, 25c-d; Esther, 92a; idem, Likkutei Torah, Shir ha-Shirim, 7c-d, 10a.

This concept is dealt with at length in my article, “The Curtains of the Tabernacle: R. Shelomo Zalman of Kopyst” in: Orot: A Multidisciplinary Journal of Judaism, vol. 1 (5751/1991), pp. 33-41. Concerning Rav Kook’s connection to Habad Hasidism, see there p. 35.

[17] Leviticus 16:1.

[18] The Mystery of the Death of the Kings is expounded in the section of the Zohar known as the Idra. Habad explains that this came about due to a preponderance of light together with a paucity of vessels (ribuy ’or u-mi‘ut kelim). The correction (tikkun) is the opposite scenario: A reduction of light and an abundance of vessels (mi‘ut ’or ve-ribuy kelim).

[19] Exodus 16:7. Those words were uttered by Moses and Aaron. Thus, it is established that Aaron reached the level of bittul (self-nullification) referred to as MaH.

[20] Zohar III, 53b.

[21] Leviticus 16:1-2.

[22] Shabbat 119a.

[23] Leviticus 16:30.

[24] On Yom Kippur, Malkhut ascends to Binah. See Peri ‘Ets Hayyim, Gate 27 (Sha‘ar Yom ha-Kippurim), chap 1. ”The main theme of this day is the building of Malkhut (binyan ha-Malkhut) and her correction from her Supernal Mother (Imma ‘Ila’ah)” (Ibid., chap 5).

[25] At Minhah, the Afternoon Service. See Megillah 31a and Tosafot ad loc. s.v. Be-Minhah korin ba-‘Arayot.

[26] Leviticus 18:9.

[27] Leviticus 16:3.

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