Between the Tower and the Sea

V’yachanu … Bein Migdol U’vein Hayam (Beshalach 14:2)

Twelve Shevatim — Twelve Paths

L’gozer Yam Suf l’gezarim — He split the Yam Suf into segments” (Tehillim 136:13). The Midrash Tanchuma says (Beshalach 10) that one of the miracles of Krias Yam Suf is that the sea divided into 12 strips of dry land — separate paths for each one of the 12 Shevatim (see sidebar).

The obvious question is: Why?

Why separate paths for each shevet? Why should there be an emphasis placed on each one’s “separateness”?

But there is an even more fundamental question: Why is the retzon Hashem that there be Shevatim in the first place?

Yaakov Avinu, unlike his father and grandfather, had only righteous, holy children. Why was it not His will to stop right there and declare a single tribe or nation under Hashem, indivisible for all time, simply called “Yisrael”?

The Tower — Nine Pesukim in Parashas Noach

A major event took place 542 years before Krias Yam Suf: the mysterious story of Migdal Bavel. Why “mysterious”? Because studying those nine verses in Parashas Noach (Bereishis 11:1-9), we are really left without clarity as to what actually took place. The commentaries and Chazal have explanations, but just looking at those words in their simplest, basic meaning — ein hamikra yotzei miyedei peshuto — it is impossible to discern whether the builders of the city and the tower were evil or good. Ibn Ezra even posits that Avram Avinu, at the age of 48, actively participated in the building of the tower (Bereishis 11:1).

The Radak and the Chizkuni propose that the problem was that humanity refused to spread over the world as Adam and Noach had been told to. Using this approach, let us examine what took place. The story begins with a description of an idyllic post-Mabul world. It was a world of safah achas and devarim achadim — unity in language and thought. No conflict and no arguments, only peace and harmony. No one wanted it otherwise. The only fear anyone had was that this cozy way of life would be doomed as human population increased and was forced to disperse throughout the earth.

How to avoid such a scattering? Build a city, build it up — high up. Build towers, build skyscrapers. Build them higher and higher, faster and faster. Heaven is the limit. This was the only way a peaceful, loving yet burgeoning humanity could continue their blissful coexistence in one geographic place, never becoming estranged from each other.

It sounds like a utopia, doesn’t it? However, Hashem was not at all satisfied with this man-made utopia. He would not allow the building to continue. The last of those nine verses describes confusion and dispersal. It also designates this city-state as Bavel, which means divisiveness and disagreement.

Why? What went wrong?

In the Image of Hashem

When man was created, he was created b’tzelem Elokim, in G-d’s image. What can be the image of a Being that has no image? An image is a perception, so Hashem’s image means the way that we perceive Him. That can be only through the attributes that He chooses to use when revealing Himself to us. What are those attributes? In the beginning, there was only vayaas, vayivra, and vayitzer — He made, He created, He fashioned. When Adam and Chavah were put on Earth, Hashem was in the mode of making, creating, fashioning. He could be perceived only as the ultimate Creator. Man was thus intended to be a being with the ability, and with the foremost Divine purpose, to become like that image — a creative being.

Creativity, at the human level, can never be fostered in an atmosphere of complacency. Only measured tension and competition can bring out the best in us.

Remember color war in summer camp? Friends in joyous camaraderie and fellowship became, overnight, fierce rivals on opposing teams. Ingenuity went into high gear. Dormant talents in art, music, theater, management and teamwork came to the fore. All of us discovered creative abilities we never knew we had. A few days later when color war ended, the friendships returned. But while it was on, our creative juices went into overdrive.

Creativity thrives in an atmosphere of intellectual tension. So many great ideas spring forth from conflicting opinions, from the dialectic. If everyone in the world would subscribe to “devarim achadim — identical ideas,” creativity would disappear.

When Hashem made man, He commanded him to “milu es haaretz,” fill the world, spread out. He repeated this commandment to Noach after the Mabul (Bereishis 1:28; 9:1).

Diversity, variety, mixture are crucial for man to realize his most important potential, that very purpose of his existence, to become a creative being — that achievement of a primordial tzelem Elokim as it was perceived those first days of Bereishis. By building the city and the tower, man was rebelling against this crucial imperative of spreading out, diversifying. It was a failure in man’s mission to nurture creativity. This is the powerful message of the Migdal Bavel.


The fact that this momentous event happened in this very place that came to be called “Bavel” has a profound prophetic element. The story of Migdal Bavel was included in the Torah because it also sends a message to Am Yisrael. Just like creativity and diversity are essential for humanity in general, the sacred words of the Torah also require creativity. The Torah was given to us not as a dry set of rules, but as something to creatively study, delve into, interpolate and extrapolate — indeed, to argue about. It took 2,000 years for the ultimate realization of that powerful prophecy, when Bavel became the venue of the most creative — yet most sacred — literary work ever produced by mortals: the Babylonian Talmud — Talmud Bavli.

A short time ago, we experienced the Daf Yomi Siyum celebration of Talmud Bavli. The 2,711 pages of Talmud Bavli are replete with squabbles and sometimes vehement arguments between our greatest Sages in interpretation, derivation and implementation of the words of our Torah Hakedoshah. Indeed, there is hardly a page without a disagreement. To an outsider, it could seem sacrilegious. So much fighting, so much discord. Can these be holy writings? Moreover, if it took place centuries ago, why record it with such exacting detail and enshrine those arguments with distinction in our sacred books?

But we know that this tension is the will of Hashem. This tension is our path to the truth (see Mishnayos Eduyos 1). The place was named Bavel, which means divisiveness and disagreement — yet when used properly, as in the compilation of the Talmud Bavli, this divisiveness is a positive quality, essential to creativity. We celebrate that spirit of Talmud Bavli in our yeshivos and our batei midrash to this very day by continuing in the same tradition. In fact, strangers visiting our halls of learning are often incredulous at the sight of grown men engaged in boisterous quarreling over the meaning of a few lines of an ancient Aramaic text that themselves so often record the arguments and quarrels, millennia old, of our exalted Sages.

Twelve Paths in the Yam Suf

The crossing of the Yam Suf is mentioned in Parashas Chukas (Bamidar 21:14), 40 years after that event, as follows: “Al kein ye’amar b’sefer milchamos Hashem es vaheiv b’sufah… – Therefore, it says in the book of Hashem’s Wars: the hurling into the [Yam] Suf…”

The Gemara (Kiddushin 30b) presents a homiletical interpretation of this verse: The word vaheiv can be read ahavah — love — and suf can be read as sof — end — as each pair shares the same shoresh.

A beis medrash can sometimes look like war, a battlefield brimming with shrill argumentation. These are the milchamos Hashem, the “wars” that provide the Ribbono shel Olam with nachas from us and that endow us with nachas from our children and our students.

Rabi Chiya bar Abba continues, “A father and son or a teacher and student studying Torah together often become fierce adversaries. But in the end (b’sof), there is only love (ahavah).”

This interpretation suggests that for Klal Yisrael, the diversity and the arguments that can develop from our different mesoros are key. When we crossed the Yam Suf, it was to be in 12 distinct, diverse, but parallel paths — all headed in the same direction.

The will of Hashem is to have only one nation as His. It is also the will of Hashem for this nation to diligently keep the Torah and its 613 mitzvos. At the same time, this nation was decreed to have a robust measure of diversity. That is why it was important for it to consist of different tribes — meaning different approaches, different flavors, and different nuances — a distinct path for each shevet.

Furthermore, the Ari Hakadosh revealed that there are 12 nuschaos tefillah — twelve liturgies of prayer — each one specifically attuned to one of the 12 Shevatim (see sidebar). The beautiful tribute of “Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov — How splendid are your tents, O Yaakov” was uttered by Bilaam after observing our nation – “shochen l’shvatav — discreetly encamped in tribal distinction” (Bamidbar 24:5, 2).

We still have our “tribes” today. Litvaks, Yekkes, Chassidim, Moroccans, Syrians, Yemenites, Persians and so many more. These groups make up the wonderful mosaic of Jewish traditions, liturgies and customs. Within each group there are sub-groups and sub-sub-groups. Which shul doesn’t have arguments about “what our custom was” or “what our custom should be”? These squabbles are considered milchamos Hashem and healthy signs of spiritual life. Maintaining our diverse mesoros within the framework of halachah — and fighting to defend them — keeps those traditions alive.

At the same time, we should remember that these paths in the Yam Suf were just that — paths. All paths eventually brought us to Har Sinai — together. We stood there, as one, to receive the Torah, as described in Shemos 19:2: “Vayichan sham Yisrael negged hahar — And Yisrael camped there opposite the mountain.” Rashi explains: “K’ish echad b’lev echad — As one person with one heart.”

As Rabi Chiya bar Abba concludes: “In the end, there is only love.”



The Ari Hakadosh (Shaar Hakavanos), who lived some 450 years ago, revealed that there are 12 nuscha’os of tefillah corresponding to the 12 Heavenly “windows” that, in turn, correspond to the 12 individual city gates in Yechezkel’s prophecy (48:31-34) for each one of the 12 Shevatim.

Today, there are far fewer nuschaos; it is obvious that over the centuries since the Ari, many have faded into oblivion. What were those early 12 nuscha’os?

Harav Aharon Gabbai, shlita, of Ofakim, researched this topic extensively, attempting to determine which were the 12 nuschaos extant at the time of the Ari. In a recent essay based on an earlier article he wrote in Yerushaseinu (vol.7, 5774), this is what he came up with:

The 12 Nuscha’os of Tefillah
in the Era of the Ari Hakadosh (450 Years Ago)

  1. Rambam: as it appears in his Yad Hachazakah, which was used at that time by some groups in Yemen, Persia and China.
  2. Harav Saadia Gaon: one of the shortest nuschaos, used then by some groups in Egypt.
  3. Harav Amram Gaon: several versions of which were still in use in the Middle East.
  4. Italian: used by the Jews of Rome and Northern Italy.
  5. Sephardi: used by most Jews of the Iberian Peninsula. After the expulsion of Jews from Spain, Sephardic Jews settled throughout the Mediterranean basin and parts of Europe. Sephardic liturgy eventually overwhelmed and displaced many ancient traditions almost anywhere these Jews settled.
  6. Ashkenaz: used by all of Eastern Europe and most of Western Europe. (Chassidim in the era of the Mezritcher Maggid about 250 years ago introduced many elements of Sephardic liturgy, creating new nuschaos generally called Nusach Sephard or Nusach Ari, a fascinating topic in itself.)
  7. Provence: used in Southern France, Catalonia and parts of Algeria. (The city of Carpentras in the Provence region of France was the last place in the world using this nusach up until World War II.)
  8. Romaniote: used in Turkey, Greece and parts of Italy until World War II. (See my article, “The Romaniote Jews of Yanina, Greece,” Inyan Magazine, Chanukah 5777.)
  9. Original Moroccan: from before the arrival of Spanish Jews.
  10. Original North African: used in parts of Egypt and the northeastern African coast.
  11. Persian: also originally used in Yemen and India (Cochin).
  12. Eastern: originally used in Baghdad and Syria.

All these nuscha’os, with scores of minor variations, are based on the ancient traditions of the Jews of Bavel. (In addition, there was also the nusach of the Bnei Maarava, the Jews who remained in Eretz Yisrael after the Churban Bais Hamikdash. It was quite different from any of the above. This nusach dwindled away almost 800 years ago and was not around by the time the Ari Hakadosh lived.)

There is also a tradition that the Ari Hakadosh declared that a modified Nusach Sephard, with changes he introduced, is a nusach hakollel – a 13th nusach – that should be used by anyone who does not know which Shevet he comes from. However, there is no written corroboration for such a statement by him. Chassidishe sefarim seem to be the only source, perhaps based on an older oral tradition.

It is not known which nusach the Ari Hakadosh himself used to daven.