Rejecting Sheetoof  —  No Intermediaries Between Us and G-d

Hasidic Insights ∨∨ 

By the grace of G-d 
Copyright © 2014 Nathaniel Segal 

“The L-rd is close to all those who call out to Him, to all who are calling out to Him in truth.”
— King David in Psalm 145, verse 18    

Noahites are not supposed to worship G-d through an intermediary.  They aren't supposed to believe that G-d has a junior partner, either.

However, no law law court, neither a Noahide court nor a court of Jewish law,* is permitted to deal with this issue.  Sheetoof is a personal shortcoming, but it is not actual idol worship. It is actual idol worship that is prohibited by one of the Seven Noahide Commandments and is especially against their spirit.

Those who worship the One and Only G-d, Creator of heaven and earth, through an intermediary are still worshiping G-d.  In contrast, idol worshipers have a multitude of gods.  They also have fanciful creation myths where one or more gods is primarily responsible for creation.  Even when idolators maintain that one in their pantheon of gods is the creator, the other gods either participate in finishing creation, or they try to undermine the efforts of the creating god(s).

In such religions, as in ancient Egypt, Greece, and still in India, the gods have a full extent of human characteristics.  They are jealous of each other.  They are masters of trickery.  They posses weaponry, and sometimes ride horses.  They eat and drink, sometimes to excess just like humans.

Even if one god reigns supreme, he (or sometimes she) often needs to fight its enemy gods to retain supremacy.  Furthermore, these gods sometimes despise humans!  At times, a god will mingle with people to cause mischief or even to steal from them.

Idol worshipers themselves are often fickle.  They change their allegiances according their situation.  For example, in ancient Mesopotamia, each city-state had its own supreme god.  When in that city, one worshiped that god – even if the person intended to return to their own city.

In contrast, Noahites believe, at the very least, that G-d Almighty is the ongoing "Prime Mover." * The design of the Cosmos is His.  The initiation of Creation is His alone.  But, for example, we cannot visualize the moment of creation since, unlike all other moments in time, the beginning moment is a moment that has no moment before it.  So how does a human being relate to something that is outside our experiences?  We relate to something or someone who is more like we are.

Astrology began this way.  According to astrology, what happens in our lives on Earth comes about through the intermediate influence of the Sun, Moon, planets, and constellations.  Noahites know Who created these particulars of the Cosmos.  And of course, Noahites know that G-d designed the laws of nature, the rules for the behavior of heavenly bodies and their interactions.

Astrology, though, is so oversimplified * that it hardly gives us any information about our lives.  Its value was only in inducing a careful study of the sky – astronomy.

Sheetoof as a personal shortcoming is understandable.  As I asked before, "How does a human being relate to Someone Who is outside our experiences?"  Education is an answer.  This web site tries to provide as much educational material as possible.  Maimonides is a prime source for much of the material in this web site.

With G-d's help, I, Nathaniel, am making my small contribution.  At the very least, I pray that I am doing no harm.

A fundamental tenet of Christianity as taught by its clergy is that one must pray "in the name of Jesus."  The accepted theology of Christianity calls for an intermediary by the name of Jesus, the central personality of the Gospels.

As I wrote above, this is not idol worship.  Accordingly, Jews are not restricted from doing business with Christians or entering into a business partnership with them.  A Jew need not hesitate to help a Christian earn a living even though he or she may turn over a tithe of their income to their church.

This is normative Judaism as codified in Jewish Law – Halacha.*  See the Code of Jewish Law – the Shulchan Aruch * – as annotated by Rabbi Moses Isserles and completed in 1570.  He lived in the region of Poland or Bohemia where it was vital for Jews to see a definitive ruling concerning doing business with Christians.  This ruling is in the first part of the Shulchan Aruch, Chapter 156.*

At the bottom of this page, I'll present a story to illustrate that we Jews trust practicing Christians.  On the other hand, we fear for our lives from someone who professes to be a Christian but demonstrates that he is not sincere.

The Hasidic Approach

With the advent of the Hasidic, pietist movement a couple hundred years ago, this ruling was affirmed in their conduct and practices.  The Hasidic approach to Judaism, to put it succinctly, is to live a life above and beyond the letter of the law, one that is more strict in some ways than what is required or permitted by Jewish Law.  Nonetheless, in the area of business relations with Christians, Hasidism subscribes to the centuries-old rulings about Christians without any sense of needing to be more strict.

Although one could suppose that for Hasidim (Hasids), as with other Jews, the necessity of earning a living overrode any consideration to be stringent.  This is not so, as witnessed by explanations from Hasidic Grand Rabbis – Rebbes – over the last century and a half (at least).

I was educated in the Habad Hasidic philosophy with its approach to understanding the underpinnings and secret dimensions of Judaism.  Among the texts which I have studied, I've repeatedly found explanations of what constitutes sheetoof, why Jews are not supposed to chastise Christians over this issue or engage in debate, and why some non-Jews would succumb to an idea that they need an intermediary between themselves and G-d.

Before actually entering the world of Hasidic teachings, let me mention that I feel that when each Rebbe brings up the subject of how Jews are absolutely forbidden to use or seek an intermediary, the Rebbe is also reminding his flock not to let themselves be tempted to consider the Rebbe as an intermediary for worship.  He is, among other things, an accomplished teacher and mentor par excellence.  He does pray for the welfare of a Hasid, all Jews, and the entire world.  Besides this, though, a congregation and its individuals, especially family and friends, have also been praying to G-d for this person.  It should be clear that anyone who prays for the welfare of another person is in no way acting as an intermediary, regardless of their role in a community.

Hasidic Insights —

Lessons from the Lubavitcher Rebbes

Our Rebbe, His Holiness, Grand Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, published one of his earliest lessons of 1953.*  He writes that everyone can be aware that G-d and G-dliness fill the entire world.

We can learn this by looking at the relationship between our bodies and their life force.  It seems that each limb or organ has its own tailor-made life force.  One source of evidence for this is that any one organ might become diseased although he rest of the body is essentially healthy.  A doctor prescribes a remedy to treat the single organ while trying to do no harm to the rest of the body.

Similarly in our relationship with G-d.  We believe that He is the life force for the Universe even though we cannot imagine how, from His exalted position, He is directly involved, directly relating to us and each and every component of Creation.

So why do some people turn to the idea of an intermediary – sheetoof?

Absentee landlords and their "supers" (a New York expression);
Managers standing between workers and executive officers of a corporation

Consider the situation of an absentee landlord.  You know that there is a landlord.  You also know that he has hired an on-site manager, a supervisor.  The manager follows the instructions of the landlord.  The landlord originates all policies and makes all rules.  You the tenant are not supposed to approach the landlord directly.  On the other hand, the landlord is more than satisfied when every tenant follows the rules which the manager presents to tenants.

Although a tenant in this situation has no direct relationship with the landlord, he or she is a good tenant because they follow the rules and maintain a good relationship with the manager.  A bad tenant can be seen as a "rebel."  The manager, according to policy, evicts the bad tenant.

Another situation that we can relate to is working for a large corporation.  The board members and executives stay away from their stores or factories.  In fact, it's not unusual for corporate headquarters to be far removed from where the corporation actually does its business.  Employees answer to local managers.  A good employee follows the rules and maintains a good relationship with management.  But, managers don't make policies or rules.  Each employee is really working for those who design the business model at their offices at the headquarters.

Whether a tenant or an employee, their situation is along the lines of the verse, "The L-rd is high above all nations.  His honor is above the heavens" (Psalms 113:4-6).  The landlord or the executives are high above employees – at a remove from them.  Power and prestige are beyond access except through managers.  The managers are the intermediaries.

In terms of a relationship with G-d, we call a "rebellious" tenant a "sinner."  From the metaphor of a business, we also call a bad employee a "sinner."  Adam and Eve were the first to disobey a Divine rule, and then they were evicted from the Garden of Eden.  Scripture records a verbal contract between G-d and Adam and Eve.  We understand how that contract contained an eviction clause.  In terms of a busin4ess, there is a termination clause.

Feelings and instincts – recognition and knowledge

A more sophisticated understanding comes from the unconscious – sometimes we feel anxious or depressed, for example.  We feel these states but have no idea why, what could be causing our bad mood.  Eventually, if we are fortunate, we recognize what bothers us and can address the underlying situation.  The first state is pure feeling, as an animal has.  Recognition and insight are exclusively human qualities.

Animals have no real recognition of what bothers them.  They function on a level of instinct.  In contrast, we humans have feelings that seem like instincts although they are not.  We might feel fear before we can recognize an imminent danger.  Often, what is dangerous to us is buried in the subconscious.  We feel a general impending doom. But, we can analyze our situation.  An animal, on the other hand, responds to such a feeling only instinctively.

The prophet Jeremiah says in G-d's name, "I will plant [the Jewish people] as seed of a man and as seed of an animal" (Jeremiah 31:26).  G-d had uprooted the two Jewish kingdoms, Israel and Judah, at the hands of Assyrians and Babylonians during the time of the destruction of the First Holy Temple in Jerusalem.  He sent many – if not most – into exile, the Babylonian Exile and the Exile of the Ten Tribes.  This promise here in the book of Jeremiah is that G-d will replant the Jews in the Holy Land.

Among other things, we see here that G-d distinguishes between two types among His people.  The vast majority of us are "seed of an animal," while a few in every generation are "seed of a man."  This is a lesson from Hasidic teachings that delve into the mystic dimensions of Scripture.

Like animals, our nature is to have no real awareness of why we feel the way we do.  As I wrote before, if we are fortunate, we can learn to recognize what bothers us – we can develop recognition and insight.  But, this comes through training and practice.

In contrast, a few people, "seed of man," have innate knowledge.  In terms of worship and service, these individuals know that everything comes directly from G-d, without an intermediary.  Whereas the rest of us want to believe that this is so, but we attain recognition and knowledge only through education about the Divine.

A deeper understanding for why we honor our parents

Our parents are like intermediaries. An eternal soul will not be born into a body without the material contributions of parents.  Without our parents, we would not be alive.  Knowing this, we honor them.  This is a metaphor for why a person would turn to sheetoof.  Nature and its laws connect the cosmos with the Almighty.  Accordingly, we honor and respect their contributions as we honor and respect our parents.  So, sheetoof is a kind of respect and honor – expressions of gratitude.

Students and teachers

A genuine teacher has a sophisticated knowledge of his or her subject.  In order to teach the rudiments of the subject to their students, teachers hide what they know.  They simplify a subject, bringing it down to the level of the students.  For every sentence that teachers deliver, there are dozens more flashing through their minds.  Teachers are intermediaries between students and the subject matter.  So, it's only right to honor and respect them.  What teachers are hiding resembles G-d's hiddenness, how difficult it is for a human being to relate to something that is outside our experience.

Also adapted from:
• "Mayim Rabim" – 10 Kislev 5717 [1957] from Grand Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (born 1902)
• "Kol haMa'arich b'Echod" – 19 Kislev 5686 [1925], Kuntres 99, from Grand Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe (1880-1950)
[• "Mi Chamocha" – 5637 [1877] from Grand Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn, the Rebbe Maharash (1834-1882)]
[• "Anochi" – 5626 [1866] from Grand Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn, the Rebbe Maharash]
• "Mitzvas Achdus HaShem," Derech Mitzvosecha: Sefer Ta'amei HaMitzvos, pages 59b-60a – from Grand Rabbi Menachem Mendel, the Tzemach Tzedek (1789-1866)


a court of Jewish law - a tribunal which has been duly constituted according to the tradition of Jewish Law – Halacha.  The supreme court of seventy-one Sages is known as the Sanhedrin, which meets in session only in the Land of Israel.  No such court has been convened in about 1,800 years, since a couple of generations after the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in 69 ce.  A future supreme court will be convened when the Messiah comes and he is anointed, which is imminent.  However, this court has no jurisdiction outside the Holy Land.  In addition, no duly constituted Sanhedrin can mete out the death penalty unless the Temple is standing and this court sits in judgment in an adjacent hall.  The Sanhedrin of old ceased trials of capital cases around the year 30 ce when it moved away from the Holy Temple.

Prime Mover - I am not using this expression to refer to the clockmaker who sets his clock in motion and then leaves.  This is a forbidden outlook.  It is a form of idolatry – that G-d has left us in the hands of lesser beings.

I carefully wrote "ongoing."  I mean that G-d is active and interested in His creation at all times.  According to the idea of sheetoof, though, G-d's activity is moment-to-moment toward the intermediary who in turn transfers G-d's influence into a form that we can handle.

Astrology is so oversimplified - We are well aware of the influence that the Sun and the Moon have on earthly life.  The other planets and the constellations have no apparent influence on us except as measures of time.  In the course of a cycle of seasons – a solar year – the constellations that are visible at night also change in a yearly cycle.  Even so, this seeming insignificance of the planets and stars is not the issue here for judging astrology.

Astrology as an idea presumes to inform us about our lives based on the celestial configuration when we were born.  I can show you the primary foolishness of looking at a fortune reading on such a basis.  People at a distance from each other see a slightly different configuration of the sky at the same time of the day.  Consider midnight for example.  If we live far enough apart, the sky looks different.  The ecliptic of the constellations may be lower in the sky in one place and higher in the other.  Even when two people are born at the same time, they could not share the same destiny based on reading a star chart since the actual configuration in the sky is different for each.

Also notice that I wrote "the same time of the day."  I'm not referring to how time on clocks has been standardized.  In any location, we can determine the mid-point of the night, midnight, for example.  But, this midnight is not simultaneous in two places.  Each location has its own midnight.  "Two people having been born at the same time" were not born simultaneously, not born at the same time.

Astrology, though, has standardized time.  Astrologists fit local midnight, for example, into their charts as a standardized time, which is to say non-local.  How can you read an individual fortune – a local one – based on a non-local celestial description.  Of course, you can't.

This is why astrological readings are so vague.  An astrologist has taken a nothing and produced from this a nothing.  This is an early case of "garbage in, garbage out," as those of use who work in data processing are wont to say.

Halacha - literally the "Way to Go";  hah lah KHAH,  hah LŬ khŭ.

the first part of the Shulchan Aruch, Chapter 156 - This ruling reiterates an earlier ruling by Rabbeinu Tam from the 12th century.  His ruling is in his gloss on Tractate Bechorot 2b, "shemmah."  Just as Rabbi Moses Isserles lived in Christian Europe, so did Rabbeinu Tam – in Champagne County, France.

one of his earliest lessons of 1953 - The discourse  "Bosi l'Gani" – 10 Shvat 5713.  This lesson was on the occasion of the third anniversary of the death of his father-in-law, the previous Rebbe.  Anniversary of a death is called a yahrtzeit * in the Yiddish language.

Pronunciation Aid:

sheetoof - shee TOOF (shee TO͞OF),  SHIH toof (SHĬ to͞of)

Shulchan Aruch - shool KHAHN ah ROOKH (RO͞OKH) or SHOOL khahn AW rookh

yahrtzeit - literally "a year's time";  pronounced YAWR tsite.

The Ba'al Shem Tov and the Wagon Driver – a True Story

Rabbi Israel Ba'al Shem Tov (1698-1760) was riding through a forest in a wagon with some of his students.  The Ba'al Shem Tov (his title but not a family name) was the founder of the Hasidic movement.  Without question, the wagon driver, not being Jewish, was a Christian.  Considering where the Ba'al Shem Tov lived, I'm not prepared to guess whether the driver was a Roman Catholic or an Eastern Orthodox Christian.  (Clerical authorities, working with civil authorities, did not permit Protestantism.  They still considered it a heresy in Poland and Ukraine, the region where the Ba'al Shem Tov lived and had grown up.)  Beyond this, free-thinking attitudes would not reach this region of the world for at least a couple of generations.

One way or another, we are certain that the wagon driver professed to being a Christian.

This road, passing through a wooded region, was distant from civilization.  Along the road was a Christian religious shrine.  By habit at least, non-Jews of the region crossed themselves as they passed the shrine.

The Ba'al Shem Tov noticed that the wagon driver failed to cross himself even though this road was a regular trip for him.  This is to say that the driver knew that he was passing the shrine.

The Ba'al Shem Tov told the driver to stop to let them off the wagon.  The Ba'al Shem Tov paid the driver in full and sent him on his way.

His students were astounded.  They were now stranded far away from other people, not to mention from transport out of the wild.

The Ba'al Shem Tov explained to them that they could not entrust their lives with this man.  If he didn't even go through the motions of piety, who is to say that he would listen to the well-known warnings in Scripture – the Ten Commandments.  Would he really hesitate to murder them?  Perhaps he was in league with a gang of thieves and murderers.  Better that they entrust themselves to G-d's nature around them in the woods while waiting for a passer-by.

The Hasidic Approach ~ Hasidic Insights – Lessons from the Lubavitcher Rebbes
Landlords & Corporate Officers ~ Feelings vs. Knowledge ~ Honoring Parents ~ Students and Teachers ~ Sources ~ Notes ~ Top