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The significance of the kevess ( sheep).

Based on a Chasidic discourse by the Tzemach Tzedek (1789-1866).[1]


The Midrash records a debate between Beis Hillel [the school of thought founded by the Mishnaic sage Hillel] and Beis Shammai regarding the significance of the sheep used in the daily offering brought in the Temple. Beis Shammai maintains that the Hebrew word for sheep, kevess, denotes “suppression,” meaning that the daily offering causes G-d to suppress the sins of Israel.

This idea is reflected in a verse

[read during the Tashlich service on Rosh Hashanah.[2] On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, it is customary to go to a pool of water that contains fish and recite various prayers. The first prayer consists of several verses from Micah and Psalms that allude to the 13 Divine attributes of mercy. One of the verses recited then is a verse]

that reads, “He will suppress our iniquities and cast all of our sins into the sea.”

[Symbolically, the Tashlich service represents the casting of all sins into the water. (The service is done at a body of water because water is kabbalistically associated with kindness. The presence of fish, whose eyes are constantly open, signifies the ever-open eye of G-d.)]

Beis Hillel, however, says, “Whatever is suppressed must eventually float to the surface.” In their opinion, therefore, kevess denotes cleansing [by exchanging the final letter of kevess, sin, with a samech], meaning that G-d cleanses the sins of Israel. They cite the verse, “Though your sin be like scarlet, they will be white like wool.”[3]

But if Beis Hillel is right, if suppression of sin is not full proof, why do the 13 attributes of mercy contain an allusion to the suppression of sin? And what is the rationale of Beis Shammai?

The answer is as follows. The Zohar[4] calls the 13 attributes of mercy the 13 strands of the supernal “beard.” Now the source of the supernal beard is Gevurah of Atik, which manifests in the supernal brain.

[Atik refers to the divine realm of Ketter, crown, which stands above the supernal brain. Atik, literally, can mean “ancient” as well as “removed” or transcendent. Thus it refers to the highest level in the hierarchy of the sefirot, which is inherently beyond and removed from the lower sefirot. Gevurah, meaning strength, refers to the attribute of judgment, severity and restraint.]

That is why the human beard begins to grow [significantly] when one reaches the age of 20, since 20 is the age when one’s brains, the source of the beard reaches its complete form.

[Although one is considered to have reached adulthood at the age of thirteen, one’s brain is not completely formed until the age of 20. For example, the Talmud[5] states that an orphan cannot sell his deceased father’s property until he reaches the age of 20. At age 20 one attains what is called mochin d’gadlut “brains of expansiveness.” It is a time when, according to the Mishnah,[6] one is ready to enter the real world to pursue a livelihood. One has already spent 15 years of Torah study, five years of Scripture, five of Mishnah, and five of Talmud. It is also a time when one is susceptible to abusing one’s new depth of perception by inventing one’s own erroneous methods of serving G-d because of a new sense of independent thinking. Sarah the Matriarch is thus praised[7] that she was as free of sin at 20—when she had reached intellectual maturity—as she was at seven, an age of simple-mindedness.[8]]

This results in the growth of the beard, which stems from the brain.

The hairs of the head, by contrast, stem from Chesed (kindness) of Atik, as the Zohar[9] says, “The beard hairs are harsh while the hairs of the head are soft.”

The reason for this is that the 13 attributes of mercy come to suppress Judgement and sweeten the severities. Therefore, their source is also from the realm of Gevurah, severity and limiation.

[The rectification of a thing is achieved through a more refined element of its own realm. In the words of the Talmud[10]: “From the forest itself is taken the axe with which to fell it.” Thus, for example, when a person is under the influence of negative gevurah, stemming from his body and animal soul, he is advised to utilize a tool of holy gevurah, namely to be brutally honest with oneself, which will lead to contriteness of heart. The person thereby uses the element of gevurah, in its positive form, to ameliorate and “sweeten” its lower manifestation.[11]] They therefore are limited to achieving a measured effect. Thus the term “suppression of sin” is alluded to in the 13 attributes of mercy, since it is not its capacity to entirely erase the negative effect of sin.      

Rather, it has a measured effect depending on the extent of the repentance of the sinner. Of this it is written, “He suppresses our iniquities,” meaning that they are hidden beneath the Throne of Glory, but are not erased entirely.

Thus we see a correlation between the holy of holies and the Throne of Glory. Our sages say, “The holy of holies [the holiest section of the Temple, which housed the Ark and was entered once a year, on Yom Kippur, by the high priest] parallels the Throne of Glory.”[12]

“Holy of holies” corresponds to the realm that is beyond the root for mitzvot. The realm of mitzvot is referred to as “holy,” as in the blessing recited before the performance of a mitzvah: “Blessed is G-d…Who has made us holy with his mitzvot….” The greatness of Teshuvah [repentance] is that it brings the person to the level of holy of holies that is beyond the realm of mitzvot and where his sin is no longer a sin. Thus the holy of holies parallels the Throne of Glory, where sin is “hidden” as mentioned above.

Nevertheless, on this level, the sin has not been transformed to goodness, it has only been suppressed. This is all from the perspective of Beis Shammai, whose root is from the realm of Gevurah. Thus the word shammai connotes measurement and limitation. [Furthermore, in all of their debates throughout the Mishnah, Beis Shammai virtually always take the more stringent opinion.[13]]

Beis Hillel, however, whose root is from the realm of kindness, maintain that kevess connotes complete cleansing. This is alluded to in the wool of the sheep, which alludes to the abundant hairs of the head, in which is manifest Chesed of Atik, as mentioned above. (The “hair of the head” of Atik is described as “pure wool.”[14])

Of this Israel says,[15] “My head is filled with dew….” As our sages say,[16]Israel asked poorly but G-d responded well.”

[In Hosea[17] Israel asks that G-d be to them like rain. G-d responds to them that He will be to them as dew.[18] The Talmud comments that rain is not always a good thing, while dew is always welcome. Kabbalistically, the difference between dew and rain is called itaruta dileila and itaruta dilitata, awakening from above and awakening from below. Rain is produced by moisture that rises from below and therefore corresponds to Divine light that descends as a result of the efforts of man. Dew, in contrast, corresponds to the Divine energies that we receive as an “awakening from above,” unsolicited, as it were, and therefore not limited to our reality.]

It is from the level of “dew” that the cleansing of sin is derived, where the sin is cleansed as one would cleanse a garment so that no remnant of the stain remains. As King David says, “Cleanse me and I shall be whiter than snow.”[19] Snow refers to the level of the 13 attributes of mercy, which are compared to snow, as the Zohar says, “His garment is like white snow.”[20] “The hair of his head,” however, “is like pure wool,” and is beyond the level of the 13 attributes of mercy.

[Therefore David asks to be whiter than snow, since snow is only the level of the 13 attributes of mercy, where the sin is merely suppressed.]

Thus Beis Hillel, who stem from the attribute of Chesed, maintain that kevess connotes cleansing, [and that the wool of the sheep alludes to the verse] “the hair of his head is like pure wool,” which is the level of Chesed of Atik, which is manifest in the skull, and therefore: “Though your sin be like scarlet, they shall be white like wool…”

[1] Ohr Hatorah Bamidbar, 6:1921.

[2]  Siddur Tehilat Hashem p. 295.

[3] Isaiah 1:18.

[4] Nasso 131a.

[5] Bava Batra 156a.

[6] Avot 5:22.

[7]Rashi on Genesis 21:1.

[8] Likutei Sichot 2:462.

[9] Ibid. 131b.

[10] Sanhedrin 39b.

[11] Tanya chapter 31.)

[12] See Rashi on Exodus 15:17 and Mechilta ad loc.

[13] For a lengthy treatment of the Shammai vs. Hillel perspective, see Beyond the Letter of the Law (Tauber, VHH) pp. 269-285.

[14] In Daniel’s vision, Daniel 7:9.

[15] Song of Songs 5:2.

[16] Taanit 4a.

[17] 6:3.

[18] Ibid. 14:6.

[19] Psalms 51:9.

[20] Daniel ibid.



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