Here's a great tip:
Enter your email address and we'll send you our weekly magazine by email with fresh, exciting and thoughtful content that will enrich your inbox and your life, week after week. And it's free.
Oh, and don't forget to like our facebook page too!
Printed from
Contact Us
Via modern theater, we can gain insights into the nature of the infinite.

Kabbalah of Fiddler on the Roof

Kabbalah of Fiddler on the Roof

Beginner Beginner
Kabbalah of Fiddler on the Roof
Via modern theater, we can gain insights into the nature of the infinite.
Lord who made the lion and the lamb
You decreed I should be what I am
Would it spoil some vast eternal plan
If I were a Wealthy Man?

Philosophical profundity crops in up in funny places. Fiddler on the Roof is a sentimental, feel-good, dollop of schmaltz that has warmed Jewish hearts for decades. Its enormous popularity has nothing to do with metaphysical content. The video cassettes are not rented by scholars in quest of ontologic truths. Nonetheless, there it is, put into the mouth of Tevye the milkman by an unwitting lyricist, garnished with "yubba buhs" and accompanied by an antic little jig: "Would it spoil some vast eternal plan / if I were a wealthy man?"

What, if anything, is the meaning of finite physical existence?

Tevye is no theologian. He is obviously not interested in discerning the Almighty's ways. The question is rhetorical, intended merely as a little dig at G‑d for His apparent indifference to Tevye's poverty. The proposition that the foundation of the cosmos would be shaken in some way if Tevye should come into a few rubles is clearly absurd, or so it would seem. In fact, Tevye has raised one of the most enigmatic and recondite issues in religious thought: What, if anything, is the meaning of finite physical existence? The impecunious milkman would undoubtedly be shocked to learn that the answer to his question is yes, it would spoil some vast eternal plan if he were a wealthy man.

Tevye's query is really the following: I inhabit a minuscule particle situated somewhere in an endless universe teeming with countless stars, galaxies, and planets of mind-boggling proportions. I share this tiny speck with six billion fellow humans. I will live for no more than 80 or 90 years, which in cosmic terms is less then a blink of an eye. I am utterly dwarfed by the endlessness of time and the boundlessness of space. How is it conceivable that what I do or what happens to me is of any consequence whatsoever?

In order to address this question, we must first deal with a misconception that is deeply ingrained in the human psyche: the size fallacy. For example, a child stubs his toe getting out of bed in the morning and cries in pain; on the same day a bomb scare at Kennedy International Airport delays flights and inconveniences thousands of travelers. Which of these two stories is likely to make the front page of the New York Times? Since, in either case, nothing of any lasting consequence occurred, why is the airport closure news and the toe stubbing beneath notice? Why does the conquest of Mount Everest still excite the imagination, whereas the scaling of half a dozen more challenging peaks attracts no attention at all? Why are the Eiffel Tower, the Rock of Gibraltar, and the Empire State Building in New York major tourist attractions? Why should anyone spend time and money in order to see a stack of girders, a stone, or an office building? The answer is that all of the above are big, and people instinctively (and mindlessly) equate size with significance.

If bigger is better, infinite is best….

If bigger is better, infinite is best. In the presence of the infinite, anything limited by dimensions, regardless of magnitude, is of no account. A galaxy and a speck of dust are indistinguishable before the endless expanse of the universe. Since Tevye is finite, neither he nor his circumstances make a dent. Whether or not he were rich could no more botch up G‑d's vast eternal plan than would the removal of a drop of water from the Pacific ocean.

Tevye's first mistake is shackling G‑d with the limitation of infinitude. The term "infinite" defines a property, and it is, therefore, no less restrictive that its antonym, "finite". The concept of properties or characteristics is inapplicable to G‑d . He is not infinite nor finite nor anything else. There is nothing within the realm of created being that applies to G‑d and no term can describe Him. The names that we ascribe to G‑d do not denote His essence, but rather attributes through which he reveals Himself and with which He interacts with creation. Terms such as "HaKadosh Baruch Hu" ("the Holy One Blessed Be He") and "Hamelech Hamromam" ("Exalted King") define transcendent (infinite) manifestations of G‑dliness, whereas "Shechina" (the Divine Presence) and "Av Harachamim" ("Merciful Father") define immanent (finite) modes of expression.

Since divine powers of transcendence and infinitude delineate G‑d's essence no better than those of immanence, our erroneous tendency to identify G‑dliness with infinitude simply reflects a natural human bias. Significance, therefore, is determined not by size nor by any other property, but rather exclusively by the will of the Almighty. That is, an entity is significant if the Almighty so chooses. There is, accordingly, no basis for Tevye to assume that he plays a negligible role in G‑d's vast eternal plan simply because he is small. On the contrary, the fact that the Almighty has chosen to create, sustain, and relate to a puny, frail, mortal creature such as Tevye, indicates that he is of great importance to G‑d, if to no one else.

Tevye's second error is his assumption that the "vast eternal plan" is modular, consisting of interchangeable, disposable parts. This misconception follows naturally from the observation that when a prime minister dies or a multinational corporation collapses, celestial orbits continue unperturbed, the laws of nature remain in force and the world goes on pretty much as before. The totality of being is unaffected by individual occurrences, regardless of their local importance. To put it another way, the world appears to comprise a multiplicity of autonomous, self-sustaining components engaged in an endless variety of unrelated events. Thus, replacing Tevye the pauper with Tevye the magnate would have no impact outside of Anatevka and should easily be accommodated by the vast eternal plan.

Creation is a form of language….

What Tevye does not understand is that creation is a form of language. The symbols of language, the letters and words, are chosen and arranged in such a way as to capture and reveal a thought or a feeling. Every word in a sentence, as well as its relative position, contributes to the intent and to the clarity of expression.

Consider the verse "Hear O Israel, G‑d is our Lord, G‑d is One". It is well known that this ultimate statement of Jewish faith expresses the unity of G‑d, that He is the only true existence and that all other apparent existence is merely a reflection of His true being. Suppose a scribe made a small error and substituted the letter alef for the letter ayin at the end of the word for "Hear", "Shma". Since the other 24 of the 25 letters (in the Hebrew version) are written correctly, 96% of the verse is just fine and the inadvertent substitution should have a minimal effect. In fact, this little alteration not only changes the meaning of the verse, it perverts it entirely. The word "Shma" with an alef means "perhaps", so instead of "Hear O Israel, G‑d is our Lord, G‑d is One" the verse now translates into "Perhaps O Israel G‑d is our Lord, G‑d is One". Thus this little isolated change has transformed the great statement of faith into a great statement of doubt. Although substitution of other letters of the Shma may not result in such a dramatic distortion in meaning, transposition, substitution, elimination, or deformation of any individual letter is sufficient to render tefillin, a mezzuzah, or an entire Torah scroll invalid.

Just as every letter of Torah captures an essential aspect of divine will and wisdom, so is each detail of Creation a vehicle or a "letter" through which a facet G‑d's will and wisdom, as expressed in Torah, is embodied, objectified and introduced into our physical world. In the words of the holy Zohar, "He looked into the Torah and Created the world". This explains why Torah Law governs every minute detail of life in this world, and why no object, act, or event is beneath consideration by the vast corpus of oral Torah known as the Talmud. Inasmuch as each particular of Creation is mandatory for the realization of G‑d's "vast eternal plan", Tevye has no case. He and the details of his life are critical to the purpose of creation. He is not only important, but in a very real sense, the very fabric of the cosmos depends upon him.

It is hard to imagine that such a complex and abstruse concept as man's place in Creation emerged fortuitously from a Broadway Musical. In fact, Tevye's query did not originate with Tevye. As is the case with any matter of substance, the source is the Torah. The Talmud (tractate Taanit) relates that Rabbi Elazar ben Pdat, who was exceedingly poor, once fell ill and required bleeding, a common medical treatment in ancient times. Following the procedure, he wished to strengthen himself by taking nourishment, but he was so poor that all he had was a garlic peel. He ate he garlic peel and fell into a faint during which he had a vision of the Divine Presence. He inquired of the Divine Presence how long he was to be subjected to such grinding poverty. The Divine Presence answered, "Elazar my son, do you wish that I destroy the universe and reconstruct it so that you can perhaps be created in a time favorable to prosperity?"

The writer of Fiddler on the Roof could very well have recreated Tevye a wealthy man, but then he would no longer have a play….

The implication is obvious. Rabbi Elazer's penury is essential to the vast eternal plan. Since Rabbi Elazer plays an integral role in the divine scheme, were his situation to change, the macrocosm would have to be redesigned so as to conform to his new standing. In other words, the "story" of Creation would have to be rewritten so as to square with Rabbi Elazar's altered situation. Similarly, the writer of Fiddler on the Roof could very well have recreated Tevye a wealthy man, but then he would no longer have a play, and a new story would have to be devised in which Tevye's affluence is meaningful.

Where then, does all of this leave Tevye, and for that matter, the rest of us? Must we live lives of rigid predestination, locked into roles demanded of us by the vast eternal plan, prisoners of our own indispensability? We can not, after all, expect the Almighty to restructure creation in order in order to adjust to our individual desires, or can we?

Consider prayer. If a friend lacks a livelihood (G‑d forbid), we pray that he be helped. In view of the implications of Tevye's query, prayer is really nothing less then a request to the Almighty to reconstruct the universe. What we are saying to G‑d is that we are dissatisfied with a cosmic order in which our friend is destitute, so would the Almighty be so kind as to scrap it and invent a new one in which his circumstances include a reasonable income.

We are not only characters in the divine Drama, we are co-authors….

Although this outlandish request seems like the ultimate in chutzpah, we are not only entitled, but obligated to submit it. Praying for those in need is not optional, it is a mitzvah, which is to say that G‑d commands us to do it. Moreover the Torah assures us that prayer does not go unanswered, although the results may not be readily apparent. It would appear, then, that we are not only characters in the divine Drama, we are co-authors.

Although, as presupposed by Tevye's query, we are puny, feeble, vulnerable, fallible mortals, there are universal consequences to everything that we do. Every prayer, every mitzvah, every act of kindness, every attempt at self-improvement, redefines an individual's role in life, and necessitates a corresponding refinement in the cosmos consistent with his or her new status. The divine plan is thus constantly being amended to adjust to the improvements introduced by ourselves, and we are, therefore, truly partners with the Almighty in the progressive ongoing process of creating a perfect world. With each positive act and subsequent revision of the "divine script", we advance ever closer to the final draft.

Several years ago I asked a noted Kabbalist why Torah assigns the term "nature" to the workings of the physical world whereas the higher spiritual realms, antecedent to the physical universe, are considered above the natural order. Are not these "worlds" also orderly, consistent, and governed by immutable laws of cause and effect, and do they not, therefore, run according to a type of nature? He smiled and answered that every time someone puts a coin in charity box, or dons tefillin, or lifts someone's spirits with a kind word or a smile, angelic vehicles of divine grace are created and new channels of G‑dly effulgence are opened in these worlds. Since every mitzvah produces radical innovations, higher worlds are in a constant state of reorganization and they have no stable nature. On the other hand, in this "natural" world the revolutionary changes brought about by performance of Torah, mitzvot and prayer are concealed by the coarseness of material existence and, although very real, they are not apparent, at least not yet.

It is, therefore, clear that not only do our actions effect changes in the vast eternal plan, we have been placed here specifically for that purpose.

[From; first published in Di Yiddishe Heim.]

Dr. Yaakov Brawer is Professor of Anatomy and Cell Biology at McGill University Faculty of Medicine. He is the author of two books of Chassidic philosophy, "Something From Nothing" and "Eyes That See".

Dr. Yaakov Brawer is Professor Emeritus of the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University. He is the author of two books of Chassidic philosophy, Something From Nothing and Eyes That See
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with's copyright policy.
Join the discussion
1000 characters remaining
Email me when new comments are posted.
Sort By:
Discussion (49)
January 31, 2014
Some western QBL stuff for you I noticed
"The Fiddler on the Roof"

Note that the First path, that is, Alef, linking Keter and Chokmah, equates to "The Fool", which is both ATU 0 and 1 by Gematria-- is this the "Fiddler (that is, fool) on the "roof" of the Tree?

June 12, 2011
Crime and Punishment
I do not think it is over by any means. I am reminded of the story of Esau, Jacob, the Blessing from Isaac, and the fact that Isaac knew, the smell of Jacob to be the sweet aroma of the Garden of Eden. Adam....

This biblical tale, deep in meaning, reminds me deeply of today. The Blessing. There is going to be an answer to the Holocaust, and continued Holocaust thru the World because the actions are committed by Esau, but Esau's blessings were of this world, not the next and not above, like Jacobs were.

Hashems time is not our time. He abandoned no one, and they stand with Him in Eden now. Hashem personally retrieved the victims of the Holocaust.

Jacobs blessings are now, it is HIS turn, and Nations will fall, because Jacob is ready to act on his note, from Isaac his Father. Change is inevitable and in the process for more than 60 years, and it will be a heavenly restitution. Perfectly complete in every detail. Baruch Hashem!
June 8, 2011
The Milkman
There is a limit. I learned as a child to not ask of Hashem personal things for myself. Never thought it was about me, but about others. One time, before I realized this, I asked Hashem for something for myself and when I received what I asked for, I was not happy.

I do what I do for the Great One. But others, who are supposed to do but don't, should not be made obscenely wealthy for my mitzvah. That is when enough was enough. For me and from my perspective.

Yet, I was made to do what I do for the Great One, and that has not changed. My unwillingness to corrupt this gift is also for the Great and Holy One.

There has to be a balance somewhere, somehow. So I decided to write my own book, to take responsibility of the atrocities other subhumans do, rather than have the victims or families of murder or violence blame Hashem.

Einstein once said the world was a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but for those who do nothing!
June 8, 2011
Crime and Punishment
Ruth, the questions surrounding 1939-1945 are indeed difficult to place in a world view consistant with Judasim. I tend to view the events of the area in terms of teshuva. Since teshuva can be performed without having to have sinned against G-d, then the question of punishment never comes up and the purpose of punishment is still accomplished.
Whether punishment or not is then not the question, the purpose of either is teshuva and coming near to G-d.
We do not need to understand G-d role in this if we only underwstand our role is that of coming nigh unto theEternal One.

If the eternal plan of things was punishment, then teshuva is our reponsibility. If the plan was for another reason, then our responsibiliy is the same-teshuva.
The purpose of the shoah is not our focus or resonsibility. Ourfocus is our reaction. Our reaction is to stay night to our G-d and to be a lamp unto all nations-no matter what the circumstances or difficulties.
I say this only as an outsider student.
June 7, 2011
not over....mercy\merci ... Thanks
I have a deep feeling we came back and that souls do return, in different garb, and also by some alchemy identity, is somehow retained. This is what I mean I am saying there are recent discussions on line about what is Infinite, and that's hard to fathom, and yet, this to me, means the story is never over. We continue, as souls, and by some alchemy of mercy, because I do deeply trust and believe in a G_d of infinite mercy, we continue on.

We all have our epiphanies in life, and we all have the most amazing stories, of survival, hope despair and transcendence. i deeply believe G_d is the author, the final authority, behind all stories. I am seeing G_d does not play dice with the universe. We are co-creators, and gifted a ladder of compassion.

I do not believe this is radical thinking but some on line seems to feel it is.

I am not persecuted. I am so fortunate to be here at this time. I say, constantly, "Thank YOU for bringing me to this place at this time". I regret any misconception
ruth housman
marshfield hills, ma
June 7, 2011
Julie, when I came into a small inheritance,
I looked to my future and what would I need as I age without my children able to care for me. So, I got a three wheel scooter (to help me stay mobile), a reclining chair which lifts so when my joints get stiff, I won't have to have pain rising, a car to get me to my doctor's visits, a portable commode (toilet), and such things. I didn't get a house, because as I get old, I wouldn't be able to take care of it. I didn't invest, because I didn't know how many years I had left on this earth. And, I moved away from the city in which I had so many very frightening events happen to me. So, if Tevye was smart, he'd have said, "Look, Go-d, I am poor, but the little I have, please help me to use it wisely", he'd have had better results of his prayer, I am sure. Also, he'd be happier. No?
Riverside, CA, USA
June 7, 2011
Doesn't the Torah say that when the Jews keep the Commandments they will be supported, and, conversely, when they stray they will be persecuted, and their numbers diminished? Is it "terrible" to follow what the Torah teaches? Can someone with knowledge of the Torah please weigh in here? I am not sure which of us is "misguided."
Brooklyn, NY
June 7, 2011
To Karen and Ruth
Hello again Karen! Hope you are well! You post an interesting idea in "Something to think about". I know a lot of people think of G_d that way but I can't. The above article indicates a much larger scheme of things than the human mind can fully grasp and I would tend to agree. My own faith teaches me to bow before G_d (with or without statues!!) and know the frailty of my human mind which persists in thinking in opposites, while G_d transends such thinking. Maybe faith is the way we humans transcend the oposites?
Ruth, what did you mean by "... it's not over yet"? (I hope you are not being persecuted, if you are you should tell someone straight away.)
I have often wondered what it would be like to be rich but my thinking is that it would be a lot of bother and worry - oh how do I invest it? What if I should loose it all? Unlike Tevya I have decided one is rich when one knows one has enough. Thanks be to G_d.
Durham, UK
June 6, 2011
Julie and Ruth, you are so sweet!!!!
I love the hollow cost for holocaust, and I love the "do not lose faith that good will triumph over evil" belief. On another post, someone said they don't ask "why me", but they ask, "Why not me?" I also love that sentiment. One day, I watched a TV show called The Twilight Zone, in which a little child was playing with tiny characters and the child hurt a bunch of them with one sweep while having a temper tantrum. When the camera panned down to the little characters, they were actually humans on this earth. I assume the child was supposed to be symbolic of G-d in the way G-d is sometimes portrayed by humans, with human emotions and angers and characteristics. Something to think about, no?
Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell
Riverside, Ca, USA
June 6, 2011
Crime and Punishment
I think anyone who talks about the Holocaust in terms of a punishment for the Jews is really misguided and saying something quite terrible. I heard a story recently, about how an Orthodox man said those who died in the 911 World Trade Center collapse were being punished justly for being bad people. Now how anyone could arrive at this seems so beyond the bounds of reason to me, and treasonable. The idea itself is evil.

You are right Julie, that around the world there are ongoing atrocities, examples of inhumanity. We do not or should not compare the magnitude of the one to the other, but certainly genocide was part of the Armenian experience too. And Hitler used this as his excuse, saying the Turks got away with it, and so could he.

If there is a cosmic story running here, and in a way, hard to describe, and very difficult to absorb, then we have to ask G_d for the answer. My faith tells me we cannot ever have been deserted, even in the worst of times. Just maybe, it's not over.
ruth housman
marshfield hills, ma

The larger, bold text is the direct translation of the classic text source.

The smaller, plain text is the explanation of the translator/editor.
Text with broken underline will provide a popup explanation when rolled over with a mouse.