The Fall of Babylon: A Reassessment

By Rabbi Steven Fisdel (26th December 2018)

 One of the most pivotal points in ancient history is the fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire[i]. Its demise was sudden and unexpected. It changed the reality and the very trajectory of civilization. Since the fall of Babylonia helped ensure and consolidate the establishment of the Persian Empire under Cyrus II[ii], it is of considerable importance that as accurate an assessment as possible be made to understand exactly what happened that changed things so profoundly. In this brief paper, the intention is to reconstruct as effectively as possible the actual circumstances of Babylon’s fall by reviewing and reassessing the materials that we have available to us from antiquity.

The contention that we are working with here is that to understand the dimensions of this epic series of events, it is necessary to view the information that we have primarily from a political perspective, which means taking into account the practical nature of political struggle, its complexity and the attending intrigue.

I feel the best way to approach this whole subject is as a narrative centering on the reign of the sixth ruler of the 11thDynasty, the last king of Babylon, Nabonidus[iii]. As background, it is important to note that the Neo-Babylonian Empire only lasted 87 years, from 626 to 539 BC. The first Neo-Babylonian ruler of the 11thdynasty was Nabopolassar (626 -605 BC), an Assyrian official who rebelled and set himself up as king in Babylonia, who ejected the Assyrians in 616 BC and then proceeded in destroying the Assyrian Empire. His son, Nebuchadnezzar, sent an army (possibly more than once) west toward Egypt, conquered Judah destroying the Jerusalem Temple in the process and incorporated both Phoenicia and Cilicia into the empire.

Amel-Marduk, the third king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, reigned only two years before being murdered by Nebuchadnezzar’s son-in-law, Neriglissar, who was a capable official and good businessman. His son, Labashi-Marduk, however, was killed within a year by a group of senior officials, who saw him as absolutely unfit to rule. Labashi-Marduk was seen as a child who was cruel and evil. After 9 months, he was tortured to death. In his place, Nabonidus was named to be king. Remarkably, his reign lasted 17 years. On the whole, though, it seems that the whole tenor of the 11th dynasty was not particularly stable.

Upon taking the throne, Nabonidus was 60 years old. He was from a noble family, but not the royal family. He had held important posts under both Nebuchadnezzar and Neriglissar. One of the most noticeable traits of Nabonidus was that he was a great devotee of the god Sin[iv], whose central shrine appears to have been in Harran. He seems to have made it his mission to promote and elevate the worship and position of Sin within the empire as a whole. It is important to remember that Sin, the moon god, was central and pivotal in the Assyrian pantheon. This would not make Nabonidus popular, since the Babylonians suffered for a very long time under the Assyrian yoke.

Moreover, Harran was the strategic city commanding the roads from Northern Mesopotamia to Syria and Asia, therefore possessing as a result, a hugely important marketplace. This is certainly a prime reason why Nabonidus would lavish great attention on its god. However, Nabonidus by no means restricted the promotion of Sin to just Harran. He rebuilds the Temple to Sin there, which was destroyed by the Medes in the process of overthrowing Assyria. It is stated in the Nabonidus Cylinders[v]that the god Marduk commanded him to rebuild the sanctuary of Ehulhul and specifically establish the god Sin there. In doing so, Nabonidus marched from Gaza with numerous troops and rebuilt Ehulhul anew on the foundation of Assurbanipal, who had built on the foundation of Shalmaneser III. He refers to Sin as the Creator and King of the Gods[vi].

Apparently, there was a great deal of discontent and opposition against Nabonidus in the first half of his reign. In the stele called the Verse Account of Nabonidus[vii], the statement is made that the country had descended into lawlessness. The king listened to no one. As a result, the common people perished through hunger. Trade was interfered with and prosperity ruined. The nobility was decimated, killed in war. Farmers were ruined, because the country’s arable land was not being protected. This was complicated by the confiscation of property (probably illegally or wantonly). The accusation is leveled that the king has defied the gods and established Sin as lord of the gods. The stele also laments that a cessation of the New Year festival has occurred.

The Nabonidus Chronicle states that the king went into self-imposed exile in Arabia for a period of 10 years. It would seem that he really had no other viable choice under the circumstances, if he wished to save his crown. However, due to Nabonidus’ decade long absence, the New Year’s Festival[viii]ceased. It could not be held, since the presence and participation of the king was central to this vital ritual. In Babylonian belief, the order of the universe had to be restored every year in order to prevent the cosmos from devolving back into chaos.

During the New Year Festival, the critical rituals were done to maintain order and ensure blessing and prosperity. The rituals revolved on reestablishing the proper relationship between the people, represented by the king and the gods, represented by the chief god, Marduk.

The welfare of the nation and its structural coherence, as well as the natural hierarchy of the universe was seen to be totally dependent on the precise rituals that had to be carried out during the New Year Festival.  The rituals revolved around the re-creation of the World, the Defeat of Chaos, the Restoration of Order, the Forgiving of the Past and the Determination of Destiny. The King was the representative of the country. It was he who faced Bel and then installed Marduk.

Any cessation of the New Year Festival would have been devastating, let aside one that lasted a full decade. The practical and psychological trauma this induced must have been enormous. Moreover, it comes on the heels of a period of time in which the country had deteriorated into lawlessness.

The Verse Account indicates that Nabonidus entrusted the army to his son, Belshazzar[ix]and entrusted kingship to Belshazzar and himself. It appears then that Belshazzar was empowered to run the government, while Nabonidus moved to Arabia for political refuge and for purposes of political maneuvering. It seems that one of Nabonidus’ aims was to build up the Arabian Peninsula as buffer against possible Persian expansion. It is also interesting that the god Sin was a very prominent deity in the Arabian pantheon.

It is important to note that in the Nabonidus Cylinders from the great city of Ur, Nabonidus fervently prays to Sin that he not sin against the god and that he fulfill all the rituals without any errors or mistakes. He makes a point of praying that Belshazzar show the same reverence and care, so that as a result both he and Belshazzar are rewarded for their piety. This indicates that divine rituals had to be completed fully and meticulously in order to bring harmony and blessing. More importantly, it is clear that Nabonidus, at the time of his departure from Babylon, understood he and Belshazzar to be completely on the same page. Nabonidus at that time had total confidence in Belshazzar and felt comfortable leaving him as his agent in the capital and in effective administrative and military control.

The famous authority on Ancient Mesopotamia, Georges Roux, asserts that Belshazzar was put in charge of the country, because he had a record of being an able soldier and administrator and that he respected and revered the ancient traditions, thus restoring and renovating the Temples of Marduk, something erroneously attributed to Nabonidus.

The Chronicle of Nabonidus states that from the seventh up to eleventh year of his sojourn in Arabia (meaning the seventh through tenth year) Nabonidus was in the oasis of Tayma. Inscriptions from Harran note that Nabonidus wandered from oasis to oasis as far as Yathrib. This would accord with the Biblical evidence that Nabonidus went through a period where he completely lost his mind and his mental faculties.

Upon arriving in Tayma, Nabonidus kills the ruling prince. He and the army then take up residence there and proceed to literally work the people to death building a replica of his palace in Babylon. This very possibly indicates that he was in permanent exile and could not return to Babylon.

The following story appears in the fourth chapter of the Book of Daniel. A dream that Daniel interprets for the king prophesizes that because of the king’s iniquities and arrogance, he will be driven away from men and live like a beast in the field, eating grass and being washed only by the dew of heaven[x]. Only through generosity to the poor, can his sins be redeemed.

The king did not heed this advice, he remained self-referenced and arrogant. As a result, twelve months after the prophecy, the king is driven away and for seven seasons, lives in the fields with the animals, eats grass and drinks the dew, his hair growing as long and thick as eagle’s wings and his nail resembling the talons of a bird.  When the allotted time is up, the king regain his senses and his faculties return. He gives thanks and admits there is a greater power in the world than he is.

In the Biblical story, the king named is Nebuchadnezzar. However, in the same account found in the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q242), the king is Nabonidus. This accords with many of the ancient assertions that Nabonidus was insane. It seems that in general, Nabonidus was very self-referenced (possibly narcissistic), arrogant and unconcerned about the welfare of others. However, at some juncture during the years he was in Tayma, Nabonidus apparently had a complete nervous breakdown and/or a psychotic break. In the cuneiform text, the Verse Account of Nabonidus, he is called a liar, claiming victories he never won. The stele asserts that Nabonidus claimed triumphs that were either not his or never occurred. He would also claim to see visions and those would provide him with access to secret, esoteric knowledge. Such knowledge led him to lecture the priests on holy matters and rituals. He was branded as a heretic.

This raises the possibility that Nabonidus did not necessarily go into exile completely of his own volition. He may have been under considerable pressure to do so by the nobility, facing mass discontent from the general population and the specter of possible internal, civil violence. He was at direct odds with the established priesthood in the service of Marduk. The ancient record does indicate that he was not very well liked. Moreover, the exile in Arabia seems to have exacerbated matters and pushed him over the edge completely.

A more important point is that for ten years, Belshazzar ran the empire pretty much on his own. Much of the army and all of the administration were left in his hands, while Nabonidus was driven away (according to Daniel) and preoccupied with establishing control over Arabia. The fact that Nabonidus built an exact replica of the royal palace of Babylon in Tayma, may well be that he did not believe he could ever return or at least would be in exile for a very long time, if not permanently.

It is quite likely that Belshazzar did keep Nabonidus responsibly updated on what the situation in Babylonia was, on a regular basis. Belshazzar had a great respect for tradition, family and duty. Whether Nabonidus responded or not, or even cared that much is another question, considering he had his own agenda and focus.

Cyrus II ascended the throne of Persia, 3 years prior to Nabonidus’ ascension in Babylonia. During the years Nabonidus was in Arabia, Cyrus was establishing his own empire. He conquered Ionia, Asia Minor, Parthia, Sogdia, Bactria and part of India. In response, Nabonidus raised troops in Syria and subsequently, invaded Arabia.

According to the Book of Daniel, it was the king’s conviction that his sanity was restored to him in its entire splendor specifically for the glory of Babylonia. After completely recovering his faculties, it says that at that juncture, Nabonidus was sought out by the court and the nobility and that he was reestablished in the kingdom with even more greatness. This would indicate that several crucial realities were emerging as a result of his recovery. Upon regaining his sanity, Nabonidus believed that he had been brought back to life and elevated to an even higher level of competence and grandeur than he previously exhibited. With this greater power, he felt that he was destined to expand the glory and power of the empire.

At this point, Nabonidus is contacted by the nobility who want to reestablish him in Babylon and are willing to give the king substantial support. This does not mean that all of the nobility was reaching out to Nabonidus. The biblical text refers to “companions” and “nobles.” That presumably means close friends and supporters of noble rank. The increasing success of Cyrus may have been the pivotal, if not the most salient and pressing, reason for turning to the king, i.e. the defense of the empire.

It is now that we need to examine the position that Belshazzar was in, so as to understand the dynamics of what actually transpired and how the Neo-Babylonian Empire was brought to an end.

What is most important to bear in mind, is that while the archeological and historic records all blame Nabonidus with causing economic ruin[xi], social turmoil, injustice and heresy, no such complaints or allegations were made throughout the 10 years that Belshazzar was effectively the ruler. It seems fairly apparent that Nabonidus’ push to promote Sin as the prime deity of Babylon and the empire caused very fundamental and practical ruptures within the daily life of the people and the government. It was also a direct assault on the power and prestige of the central priesthood that served Marduk.

The ardent desire of Nebuchadnezzar (and his successors in all likelihood) was to model the Neo-Babylonian Empire socially, politically and economically along the lines of the laws, policies and culture of the early Babylonian dynasties. The focus was on reviving all of the elements that had made Old Babylonia great in the more distant past. This policy reflects a society that was very mindful of tradition. The religion of Mesopotamia was astrologically based. So a large function of the priesthood was to determine what the gods were planning to do, what fate they were ordaining,  so that they knew how to proceed. That way, they could propitiate the gods and beg for forgiveness if the gods were unfavorable or angry. Alternately, they could offer praise and lavish offerings to the gods if they were well disposed.

By promoting Sin as the central deity, not only was the divine order being massively disrupted, much of practical life and society was directly affected by the commotion. Not only were the temples the cultic centers, they were also the major economic and financial centers. Nabonidus’ policies undermined the system, throwing much of the society and the economy into deep uncertainty and subsequent chaos. This would appear to be the cause of the distress and commotion that forced Nabonidus to flee or be exiled to Arabia. It would also be the root conflict between Belshazzar and Nabonidus.

No one accuses Belshazzar of ever being lawless, arrogant or of being a heretic. Nabonidus was preoccupied by the subjugation of Arabia, while Belshazzar ran the governance of the empire. Belshazzar continued to operate as the sole ruler effectively during the years that Nabonidus lost his mind altogether.

We do not know exactly at what point in time Nabonidus recovered from his debilitating condition. We do know, however, that the New Year Festival[xii]was resumed during the 17thyear of Nabonidus’ reign. This means it was at that time, the last year of his reign, that Nabonidus returned to Babylon per se. Whether or not he returned to Babylonia in general, earlier than his entrance into the capital, is another question.

In psychological terms, a person coming out of a coma, an emotional trauma or an emotional breakdown often experiences personality and/or behavioral changes. Sometimes, these changes manifest as the intensification of certain already active beliefs and behaviors. At other times, the experience can activate latent or dormant ones.

When Nabonidus ‘reclaimed’ his sanity, he had to have realized that Belshazzar had become the sole ruler of the empire during this whole period of time, and easily have come to the paranoid conclusion that Belshazzar had usurped the throne. His son, in his mind, had become his biggest enemy. If he wished to regain the throne, Nabonidus would need a strong ally and a covert plan of operation.

It would appear that Nabonidus, upon returning, set about exercising his authority. This normally would have had to be done gradually and discreetly. However, under the threat of an imminent war with Persia, the process could be moved along much faster. Under the urgency of these circumstances, it would also be easier to marginalize Belshazzar. This could be reinforced by slandering Belshazzar to his subordinates, spreading calculated falsehood about his son. In the ancient records, Nabonidus was accused of lying as well as taking credit for achievements that were not his. Slandering an opponent in order to undermine his credibility and thus isolate him is a critical step in the process of destroying him. It is all the more effective, if the statements are coming from a clear authority figure, particularly, one that abuses his title for self gain.

By this time, Cyrus had extended his empire all the way to the Arabian Gulf and the two empires were bordering each other. Cyrus crossed the Tigris River in 539 BC and attacked the Babylonian forces at Opis. We have no direct information about who the Babylonian commander was or what the casualty figures were. However, the people of Opis and/or elements of the army revolted and it was Nabonidus who quashed the rebellion. This would indicate that it was Nabonidus at the head of the army. The sources report that the Persians massacred the Babylonian forces and that the governor of Gutium (Assyria) with his forces changed sides and defected to Cyrus.

This fiasco could be understood in two different ways, either that Nabonidus was old and incompetent at this juncture. After all, he was in his late 70’s and had recently recovered from a major psychological breakdown in the not too distant past. The other possibility is that Nabonidus was secretly working with Cyrus in order to regain his throne. This is suggested by both Cyrus’ and Nabonidus’ cylinders referencing each other in a manner that implies complicity[xiii]. In that case the army at Opis, as well as the population, realized from Nabonidus’ behavior that something was very seriously wrong and that the king was either endangering their lives or betraying them. When they rebelled, he ruthlessly cut them down. In this scenario, he would have also ordered the Assyrian forces to defect. This would leave Babylonia highly, but not completely, vulnerable.

To prepare for the takeover of Babylonia, there was already fierce psychological warfare being waged by the Persians depicting Cyrus not as a conqueror, but as a liberator and savior. He was heralded as a very wise, humane and enlightened ruler who freed peoples from corruption, crisis and oppression and was actually benevolent and merciful.

After the Battle of Opis, Cyrus takes a circuitous route before he reaches the very important city of Sippar, which he conquers without any resistance. After the surrender of the city, Nabonidus, who was there at the time, exits and heads directly to Babylon itself. Two factors are worth considering here. One is why was Nabonidus in Sippar without an army? The second question would be; is it possible that it was not the bulk of the Babylonian army that was defeated at Opis. Perhaps, that is why Cyrus approached Sippar cautiously. However, if Nabonidus did have a sizable army at hand, why would he avoid facing the Persians?

It is worth seriously considering that in order to regain his throne from Belshazzar, Nabonidus  worked out an arrangement with Cyrus to facilitate a takeover, in exchange for making the Babylonian empire an ally of the Persians or for ruling Babylonia as a coregent in a united empire. Both Cyrus’ and Nabonidus’ cylinder transcripts may infer as much.

Before going into the fall of Babylon itself, it is important to discuss the significance of the Jews, their position in the empire and their relationship to the court.

The status of the Jews in the Neo-Babylonian Empire was very favorable as can be deduced from the biblical material. In the first chapter of the Book of Daniel it states that Nebuchadnezzar specifically took talented men from among the Judean captives and had them trained in Aramaic, and in the literature and culture of Babylonia. Then, he  incorporated them into the court as officials and administrators. When Meshach, Shadrach and Abed-Nego survived the ordeal of the fiery furnace, the king made them administrators of the province of Babylonia. For his service, Daniel was appointed the prefect of all the wise men of Babylon and appointed governor of the province.

In the Book of Ezra, Chapter 1, it lists the names of the prominent men and their families that were returning to Judea to resettle under Cyrus’s edict. The amount of wealth that they carried with them was substantial, apart from the Holy Vessels of Jerusalem and the monetary donations collected from the Jewish community. It is stated that priests, prophets, heads of the clans and even Nehemiah, who Cyrus appointed as governor of Judea, went. The Book of Ezra puts the number at over 42,000[xiv]. In accord with Biblical reckoning, this number in all probability only includes the important families, not necessarily the ordinary people who chose to return as well. One way or the other, in spite of the intense emotional pull and the joy of being repatriated in their homeland, the number of people returning by no means is anywhere near the total Jewish population. The vast majority of the Jews in Babylonia chose to stay, which strongly suggests that they had found a comfortable place in Babylonian society.

Their acceptance and success may be the reason why on one hand, Meshach, Shadrach and Abed-Nego and later, Daniel, are denounced by some nobles and why, on the other, that Darius is so relieved and happy that Daniel survived the lions’ den. Daniel remained a prominent figure from the time of Nebuchadnezzar until the ascension of Cyrus, which means that he had to have had a similar relationship to Belshazzar. In other words, the Jews remained valuable assets and loyal servants of the crown throughout the existence of the empire.

In Mesopotamian belief, an idol was not a statue. It was the god or goddess incarnate. The god or goddess inhabited the image and operated from their temple to dwell amidst people of the city, so as to watch over them and rule. When the hostilities first started with the Persians, Nabonidus had the gods from many of important cities removed from their sanctuaries[xv]and brought to Babylon. This would frighten and demoralize the population, since in times of danger the people looked to the gods for protection and solace. Nabonidus’ move rendered the populous helpless and terrified. The gods had left them abandoned. In essence, Nabonidus was holding the gods captive, thereby removing any aid and protection.

According to Herodotus, shortly after Nabonidus went into exile, the queen Nitocris (most likely with Belshazzar’s help) built fortifications in defense of Babylonia. Since Belshazzar was in constant communication with Nabonidus[xvi], it is almost certain that he had a fair working knowledge of the whole system. That would mean Nabonidus was in a position to provide Cyrus information vital for bypassing Babylon’s defenses and taking the city by stealth and surprise. The Persians knew to dig canals to divert the river water that ran under Babylon’s walls, so as to lower the water level and allow troops into the city. Who fed them the schematics of the defense system, if not Nabonidus?

This brings us to the issue of the feast[xvii]taking place in the palace, the coup de grâce. With the loss of a substantial part of the army during the battle of Opis and the surrender of Sippar, the last step in the process of bringing down Belshazzar and regaining control of the country was the capture of Babylon itself. With knowledge of the empire’s defenses, the Persians could infiltrate the city. However, it was not in Nabonidus’s interest to have his forces slaughtered,

if his aim was to effectively govern. They needed to be neutralized, not killed.

At the time of the assault on Babylon, there was a great feast occurring in the palace. This feast is stressed in the Book of Daniel and in the writings of Herodotus and Xenophon. At such a time, this makes no sense whatsoever. During a major war which threatens Babylonia’s empire, if not her independence, why have such a huge feast at such an inappropriate time?

In the 5th chapter of Daniel, it states that Belshazzar organized the feast and was present. It also points out that the feast was attended by 1000 of his nobles. In other words, a very large number of those present were supporters of Belshazzar, as opposed to those nobles who were allied more directly to Nabonidus.

In Daniel, mention is made that during the course of the feast, everyone got very drunk and that not only were the nobles there, but so were their consorts and concubines. Herodotus describes the feast as being filled with debauchery. Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that Babylon fell without a struggle. It was not because the population was looking to be liberated from traumatic conditions, as Persian propaganda claimed. Rather, the “peaceful takeover” was due to the fact that the city was invaded by stealth, while the nobles were conveniently all gathered together in the same place. Drunk and exhausted, they were not in any mental or physical shape to think clearly, let aside to fight.

Why the feast was held at all is a matter of conjecture. However, a couple of logical possibilities come to mind. Belshazzar was an effective and intelligent ruler. It is not likely that he came up with this idea on his own. Ordinarily, having a great feast at this time would not make sense, either logically or militarily. The order to have such a lavish celebration had to have come from elsewhere. That would be Nabonidus, who could act through his supporters at court without being there himself. Nabonidus was in the country, though not in Babylon proper. This would allow him to issue orders, marginalize Belshazzar and set him up to take the fall.

The two strongest possibilities for explaining why the feast was held when it was are; Nabonidus ordered it on the pretext that he was returning to the capital and that reconciliation was about to take place, or that word had been spread deliberately that the Persians had suffered a massive defeat and a celebration was in order.

This ‘celebration’ tactic would include Nabonidus demanding the sacred vessels from the Temple in Jerusalem be used in the feast. The use of the sacred vessels is stressed in Daniel and mentioned as a serious issue in both Herodotus and Xenophon. The primary reason for such mention and emphasis is that this kind of action constitutes an act of wanton and deliberate sacrilege.

Jeremiah had prophesied at the time Jerusalem was destroyed, that the exile would be over in 70 years time. The Jewish community in Babylonia, as well as the government, was very aware of this fact. Nebuchadnezzar, Nabonidus and even Darius the Mede, had direct experiences with the God of the Jews and respected His power.

The Jews were longing to go back to Judea, reestablish the homeland and to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. Both, symbolically and practically, this meant that they would be returning with the Temple vessels. However when some of the vessels were used in the feast under Nabonidus’ order, they were defiled ritually and could never, under biblical law, be used again in the Temple. The political message that this transmitted was that the government, ostensibly under Belshazzar, had no intention of ever repatriating the Jews to Judea.

The objective of this move by Nabonidus was to drive a huge wedge between the Jews and Belshazzar, thus depriving him of a strong base of support. The feast, then, had a double-edged purpose. On one hand, it neutralized the nobles who supported Belshazzar and turned them over to the Persians ‘without a struggle’ and also caused a tremendous breach between the Jews and Belshazzar.

In one fell swoop, two of the central pillars upon which Belshazzar depended were torn away, completely destroying his position and laying the blame for Babylon’s fall squarely on his shoulders.

It is emphasized in Cyrus’ cylinder material that Sippar and Babylon were taken without a fight. Nabonidus was present in or around both locations at the time they ‘welcomed’ the Persians. It would seem that in all probability, Nabonidus pulled off the same type of deceit and betrayal in Sippar as he did in Babylon. There was a close relationship between what happened in both locales, probably because there were close connections between the two cities. An indication of this is the fact that when Nabonidus removed the gods from most of their sanctuaries and brought them to Babylon, Sippar was one of the few cities that was exempted.

Belshazzar seems to ask for Daniel’s help. When Daniel was able to interpret the vision that Belshazzar had at the feast, of the writing on the wall[xviii], the message made known was that the kingdom was falling to Cyrus. The message states, “your kingdom is divided” in present tense. It was not a prophecy of future events, but rather a notice stating the current facts on the ground with its premeditated intentions. Belshazzar’s knees knocked. He was terrified when realizing the full truth of how he was manipulated and deceived, what his father’s agenda really was and the extent of the betrayal.

Prior to translation, he offers Daniel the position of third in the kingdom. This means that Daniel was being invited to join a triumvirate. The first in line would be Nabonidus, who regardless of all the treachery was still the lawful king. Belshazzar would remain as second and Daniel would be the third in command. With that constellation of power, tradition would be respected and upheld and the combination of Belshazzar and Daniel working together would hold Nabonidus in check. Belshazzar was hoping to reverse the unfolding situation and save Babylon.

What he did not realize was that it was already too late. Within hours, the nobility would be captured and he himself would be killed. It is noteworthy that he is the only one that dies.

This would support the assumption that Belshazzar was ultimately the target. He had to be overthrown and eliminated because he effectively held the real power on the throne. It was in the interest of both Nabonidus and Cyrus to have Belshazzar killed.

Nabonidus returns to Babylon immediately after its fall, in anticipation of being placed on the throne by Cyrus, only to be double-crossed. When Cyrus enters the city a couple of weeks later, Nabonidus is arrested[xix]. Instead of killing him, Cyrus rewards his assistance by making Nabonidus the governor of Carmenia in Persia itself. This worked for Cyrus on two counts.

He was being honorable enough by acknowledging Nabonidus’ enormous contribution in facilitating the incorporation of the Babylonian Empire, and he was furthering a wise political policy of treating conquered people humanely and compassionately.

This policy was well thought out and very effective politically. It established Cyrus’ reputation as one of being a merciful ruler, not only deeply concerned about the welfare of his own people, but also responsive to the needs and sensitivities of even subject peoples. In the Bible, Cyrus is highly regarded and described as sent by God to restore the Jews to their homeland. Even Herodotus saw Cyrus as the model of a true ruler.

In addition, it should be pointed out that this policy also had tremendous propaganda and public relations value. It set forth the feeling that Cyrus was not a ruthless enemy, rather that he was a man with a wide perspective and enlightened viewpoint. He might even be considered a potential liberator from injustice, oppression and chaos. Moreover, his policy of working to restore the fortunes of conquered peoples, treating them with dignity and understanding went a long way in co-opting subject peoples and creating a strong bond of loyalty.

Though Cyrus did not punish and destroy former enemies, it seems that his deference to the sensibilities and needs of captured peoples, the handling of matters with kid gloves, though common, was not a universal policy. Cities and countries that Cyrus was concerned about “courting” and co-opting, generally, were named specifically in the records. These were usually peoples or places that were of strategic and economic importance.

It is of interest that one of the first things Cyrus did after capturing Babylon was to make an edict allowing for the restoration of Judea[xx]. It is one thing to rebuild a fallen city, to protect the rights of a subject people and to integrate them into the empire. However, the Jews were already integrated, not only into Babylonian society, but holding high ranks within the government itself as well.

The intention here of the edict was to reestablish a strong Jewish presence in Judea. Cyrus allowed aristocracy, the heads of the clans, the priests and prophets as well as officials and administrators to return. They were encouraged to solicit contributions for the Temple’s rebuilding from all over the empire. When they arrived in Judea, the families settled in their original towns. Obviously, the plan was to rebuild and empower a strong Jewish presence in the province, in Judea, which would be loyal to Persia. This would solidify Persia’s hold on the land bridge between Asia and Africa. It both held Egypt in check and subsequently opened the door for its eventual conquest.

Since Belshazzar was well aware of the anticipation around the possible fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy, it is quite conceivable that in order to secure Babylonia’s future, protect it from the Persians and the Egyptians and expand the empire, Belshazzar was planning to utilize the Jews in very much the same way. Cyrus being alerted of this by Nabonidus may explain why he attacked Babylonia when he did. He may have felt that he had to preempt or face a stronger enemy in Babylon.

The tragedy is that Babylonia could have regained its former glory or possibly surpassed it under an unencumbered reign of Belshazzar. Instead, the Neo-Babylonian Empire was short-lived due to Nabonidus’ insanity, sabotage and betrayal. Rather, Belshazzar, the king who could have laid the foundations for a resurgence of Babylonian culture and influence was marginalized, slandered, and murdered. This was one of the greatest moral tragedies to play out in the ancient world.


Author: Rabbi Steven Fisdel is the founder of the Center for Jewish Mystical Studies in Albany, California. Rabbi Fisdel has firsthand experience with both the esoteric and practical sides of Kabbalah, studying the original texts, clarifying the ideas and subsequently teaching the traditional doctrines to people of all spiritual backgrounds. Rabbi Fisdel served for 12 years in the congregational rabbinate in California. He served as a core faculty member of Chochmat HaLev, a center for Jewish meditation and spirituality, from its inception and was for many years a visiting scholar at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. He is the author of two books, “The Practice of Kabbalah” and “The Dead Sea Scrolls: Understanding Their Spiritual Message.” He has written and produced two CD sets, Meditations on the Tree of Life and The Katriel Deck: The Original Kabbalist Tarot. His current work in progress is an in-depth explanation of the fundamental principles of Kabbalist thought and practice.

Rabbi Fisdel received his BA at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and both his BHL and MA at Spertus College of Judaica in Chicago. He was trained and received rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement.

Reference sources:

[i]Wikipedia Fall of Babylon

[ii]Britannica Cyrus The Great

[iii]Livius Nabonidus

[viii]New Encyclopedia Nabonidus (3rdparagraph ‘Reign’)

[ix] Belshazzar

[xi]Cambridge University Press Neo-Babylonian Society and Economy (‘summary’ footnote) Also note JSTOR’s ‘abstract’ citing Nabonidus additionally collapsing the Iron Age polity of Edom

[xii]World History Akitu – The Babylonian New Year Festival (second and last paragraphs)

[xv]Nabonidus The Mad King Page 139

[xvi]Nabonidus and Belshazzar – the Neo-Babylonian Empire by Raymond Philip Dougherty

[xix]Encyclopedia Nabonidus

[xx]My Jewish Learning Palestine Under Persian Rule

Meditation and the Moral Compass

Begin analyzing the structure of Biblical Law and you will find that the nature of all of the Commandments is predicated on morality. When you boil down the essence of Biblical Law, you are dealing with a universal, divine imperative. God speaks to us with the direct intention of imparting to us, specifically what He wants from us. From the biblical standpoint the very law of the universe that governs humanity is based squarely on the importance of moral behavior.

The covenant at Mount Sinai sets down in terms of our relationship with the divine. Not only is that relationship worked out directly with God, but also involves to an even more explicit extent how we interact with each other. In short, our relationship to God and our relationship to mankind are two sides of the same coin. Therefore, the Commandments are meant to be an intricate fabric of moral instruction.

On the practical level, all of the Commandments found in the Bible are meant to be a training process for the soul. The objective is twofold. First, by following the Commandments one is trained spiritually on how to approach God.  Drawing close to God involves reverence and devotion. By being able to sense the holy, we are imbued with an abiding sense of reverence. With a deepening of reverence comes the growing desire to serve with devotion. These are the keys to an expanding experience of the divine.

Second, the Commandments are designed to instruct us as to how to interact with one’s fellow man. Communication and interchange with other human beings requires moral consciousness. From the biblical vantage point, the entire universe is governed by the laws that God has set down.  In regard to the cosmos as a whole, the law of God is understood as natural law. The counterpart of natural law as it applies to humanity is moral law. It is a specific application of universal law.

Because humanity is endowed with both high intelligence and free will, there is a great capacity within human experience to move away from the divine toward self-aggrandizement and self-interest. Therefore, God articulated the Commandments as a system of moral instruction. The objective of this instruction is to move the soul consciously and deliberately toward holiness and a deeper connection with the divine.

In communicating with us at Mount Sinai, God was setting down a behavioral pattern that is to regulate human interchange along moral lines, which parallel universal law. Hence, the injunctions regarding the approach we need to take with the divine are designed to bring the soul into more direct experience of the holy and the Holy One.

Moreover, the divine imperatives that underlie the Commandments are also designed for the spiritual development of the soul. This is accomplished by setting specific, moral guidelines for ones interaction with others that train the soul in the behavioral imperatives that are essential for peace, harmony and alignment with the divine will.

One way of understanding this concept simply is to understand that service to God comes primarily through action. How we relate to the world is also how we relate to God. Morality has to be understood as an absolute. It is universal law as applies specifically to human beings. In other words, morality is righteousness.

It is through the process of moral behavior that we walk in the path of righteousness. Righteous conduct honors God as creator. Righteousness produces, as well, continual benefit and great blessing specifically for others. In Jewish tradition it says that throughout his whole life Noah strove to help and enlighten all those around him. That is why the Bible states clearly that Noah was a righteous man that walked with God.

Righteousness is the realization that every soul, as a created being, is interconnected as part of the divine fabric that constitutes humanity. By following a righteous path, a soul is affirming its connection to God through acting in accord of the divine will as laid out through the moral instruction revealed at Mount Sinai.

The reality of our sojourn on earth is that we are continually navigating life and the  lessons that the experience imparts. Righteousness is the compass that allows the soul to navigate one’s lifetime successfully. On the path of life, one has to have faith both in God and in one’s own divine spark in order to fulfill the mission of one’s life purpose. Righteousness and the moral law that underlies it is what guides our steps and makes them steadfast.

The road of life is always one of trial and error. If we are walking in the world  consciously, we’ll learn from both our successes and our mistakes. With an operative moral compass, we are much more likely to be aware of our mistakes and confident of our successes. We become eager and willing to learn from them both. It is also likely that we will be much more appreciative of the wisdom we’ve gained from our overall experience and willing to model it behaviorally and spiritually.

Walking the path of righteousness leads to a practical crescendo. By strengthening our moral compass, we deepen our connection to spiritual life and to the higher worlds. When we do this, we gain access to increasing light within the soul. The more light the soul has the more we are in line with righteousness, which in turn allows us to continue to evolve more efficiently. As we evolve, we succeed in improving the accuracy and the calibration of the compass itself.

The moral compass is internal and reflects a direct connection to higher consciousness. If we err and transgress the boundaries set by God, our compass can be repaired through repentance. If we acknowledge and regret what we have done, we are acting consciously and therefore in a position to know what needs to be done by way of rectification both with others and with the divine. Once that is done, our inner compass is more directly aligned to the higher and higher realms as well as our own  reservoir of inner wisdom.

Calibration of the moral compass of righteousness is most effectively accomplished through meditation. Since meditation allows us to move inwardly, to initiate the introspective process and elevate consciousness, it is a superb tool not only for self-enrichment, but also for aligning the soul with the divine will.

In Kabbalist meditation, there is always a conscious focus. There is an aim and goal to any specific meditation. However, the objectives are generally always the same. They include subordinating the ego, so as to move into deeper levels of self, to open doors of perception, to explore the structure and reality of creation and one’s relation to it as a creative being and to allow for the ascension of consciousness in order to encounter and experience the Divine.

All of these facets of meditative experience have the effect of strengthening the soul by expanding consciousness. The result is a direct increase in the light of the soul and a subsequent refinement of the moral compass. Increased experience of higher consciousness through meditation leads to a deeper connection to moral law, which results in a strengthening of not only ones moral fiber, but of one’s moral sense as well.

To sum up; If we move into ourselves and thereby expand to higher consciousness we not only come to understand ourselves more deeply, but also what God is instructing us to do. Aligning to the divine will and evolving as souls is predicated both on understanding the deeper nature of moral imperatives through meditation and study on one hand and the righteous action taken at the behest of ones moral compass on the other.

When we internalize the principles God is imparting either through the Commandments or through our Higher Self we become more aligned with divine wisdom, which is the basis for both natural and moral law. This alignment between our Self and the divine imperative, in turn, places us more firmly on the path of righteousness. Whereby, we are led to increased wisdom and connection with the divine will as a result.


Shedding Light on the Centrality of the Heart: Part Two

Tiferet, the Heart Center, stands not only in the middle of the Tree of Life, but as such it also acts as the fulcrum, the middle balance point between the right and left pillars of the Tree. The right and left sides represent our life experience in motion. On one hand, our energy moves out into the world and on one hand then it moves back into ourselves. So, the heart regulates the countervailing forces of expansion and contraction, not just physically but psycho-emotionally as well.

The expansive force of Hesed (love) and the contractive force of Gevurah (courage) are held in a constant interactive relationship by Tiferet, the heart center. This balancing act between giving of one’s light and crafting the energy received in return creates the push-pull effect within us that generates both movement and synergy.

Functioning as “the heart”, Tiferet brings the whole structure of our life experience into clear focus though its act of pulsation. Its ability to pulsate creates not only energy, but produces motion as well. The heart’s ability to love motivates us and its capability to achieve harmony brings peace and spiritual development. The initiated movement created by Tiferet, in turn, brings down and manifests the cycle of light and dark, of activity and rest. If we remain balanced and compassionate, the interplay of our light and dark sides allows us to effectively express ourselves and our creativity. Hence, our ability to fulfill ourselves in life is the result of the unfolding of the heart through progression of time.


Rabbi Fisdel, Practicing Kabbalist

Tiferet is the Mystery of the Heart. It is one worth pondering deeply and very carefully.


Rabbi Fisdel is a Kabbalah scholar who uses its deep wisdom in his Spiritual Counseling practice in Albany, CA


Shedding Light on the Centrality of the Heart: Part One

In the Kabbalah, there are ten Sefirot or dimensions to the Tree of Life and therefore, our experience of it. The Sefirah (or level) of Tiferet occupies the very center of the whole system. It is here, at the hub of our experience, that heart energy is placed. Heart energy is located at this juncture, in the middle of the Tree of Life, for several profound and important reasons.

Let me address one that is quite significant for our understanding of ourselves.

As the sixth Sefirah of the ten that comprise the Tree of Life, Tiferet stands at center stage, at the very core of the entire pattern of human experience. This means that all of our experience in life and our ability to handle it effectively has everything to do with heart. Much of the movement of energy within the Tree centers on Tiferet and its heart energy. Our lives are very dependent, in more ways than we generally realize, on the various functions heart energy actually performs. For the Sefirah of Tiferet is in many ways the driving force of the whole paradigm of how our lives are structured and operate.

Rabbi Steven FisdelTiferet is the balance point between the Sefirah of Hesed (love) and the Sefirah of Gevurah, (strength). Tiferet (heart) draws on both forces and integrates them. This means that

the heart melds together both our ability to love and our spiritual strength. Heart, then, represents a fascinating equation. That is; Heart on a deep human level is our love being actualized by our inner sources of strength on one hand as well as our power in life being predicated on our capacity to access and manifest love. Heart is the energy of this profound synthesis. Heart is our love manifesting in life because we have spiritual power to draw on and our strength comes online because we can love.

Rabbi Steven Fisdel

Rabbi Fisdel is a Master Kabbalist with 35 years of experience, doing spiritual counseling, teaching and public speaking in Albany, CA.

Suffering as Retention of the Past: Part 2

If you study Kabbalah carefully, one of the things that becomes immediately apparent is the reality that the Tree of Life, the very structure of our experience of life, is constantly in movement. It’s to be remembered that movement is the sign of life itself. Motion within the Tree of Life is everywhere. The whole structure of life emanates one level from the previous one. The Sefirot are constantly unfolding and then interacting with each other. There are multiple interactions between the levels and within the Sefirot themselves. Time and Space are in constant motion. The Kabbalist Tree of Life, the whole of reality, then, is the continuing experience of the Present.

The Past, from a Kabbalist perspective, is the record of how reality has been experienced already through the actualization of the choices we have made and the repercussions that have emerged from those very decisions. The past is a very vast, rich and important archive of information, which is meant to be used as a tool for learning and for soul development. It is not, however, a living reality and should never be confused with or allowed to interfere with the Present. The present, to be clear, is life experience itself, not the record of how it was lived and what the ramifications of our actions were. 

The great danger in doing so, in being overly fixated on the past, is that you can get overly identified with what was reality at the expense of what is actually happening now. To be caught in the past or worse, to be living in the past, is to be experiencing life through a merciless and unchanging filter.

The Kabbalah teaches that the past is unchangeable as a reality. It functions as a record and its job is simply and effectively to preserve experience and information. It is essentially a closed book, a chronicle and an archive. The Past is to be studied and learned from. It cannot be relived or worse lived in, because it only represent life as it was, not as it is. Therefore if you are overly focused on the past, your perception of life is being filtered through a lens that is projecting onto your life a picture of what has been, not what is. It is doing so at the expense of objectively seeing what is actually transpiring. Your life experience is being colored and distorted by a non-reality.

What one learns from the Kabbalah is that focusing on the Past only perpetuates what was. If you are  living in the past, the problem is often that you are trying to alter or heal negative and damaging experience by dwelling on it. You may be ruminating about it in order to try and effect a meaningful change. The reality here is that you cannot impact or alter the unchangeable. Fixation on the past only reinforces and perpetuates old patterns. So, if the old patterns were painful, damaging and destructive, then by holding on to the past reality only adds energy to the filter and exacerbates matters considerably.

From the Kabbalist perspective, suffering in our lifetime is often caused by this continual distortion of our present life experience due to the imposition of old psycho-emotional patterns from the past. If we are seeing and feeling what was over and over again in our lives, we are not able to see or feel what is truly happening now, in present time. The clear reason is that the past model, being constantly maintained, is overriding much of what could be seen and felt that is generated by current life circumstances.

Stuck or fixated in the past reality totally eclipses being in and experiencing the Now.  You cannot be truly present and creatively, vibrantly alive, if stuck in the immutable past. This is because your energetic focus is tied up, continually recreating and reinforcing what was. All you are doing is regenerating trauma and trying to animate and change a frozen emotional reality by accepting it as the constant.

What picture is in front of the lens is what appears on the screen. If your focus is in the past that is continually what will be on the screen of your life. It will never change. Like a slide in a projector, the past is static. As the Kabbalists

Studying Kabbalah

Working with the Kabbalah for Over 30 Years

say, “Consider this point well.”

Suffering as Retention of the Past: Part 1

In Kabbalist thinking, one of the most pervasive means of creating suffering, particularly for oneself, is to become or remain focused in the past. Extensive preoccupation with what was or what has been creates an enormous distortion in our perception of life. We end up seeing the events around us in a way that is generally inappropriate and deceptive; therefore in a manner which can be very destructive.

Just as physically, we cannot be in two places at the same time, on a psychological level the same holds true. The cognitive mind can only be either in one place or another, not in both simultaneously. So, if our primary attention is frequently preoccupied with the past, it is simply not in the present. To be too consciously centered on what was is to be displaced from the reality of present time and experience. This displacement causes great suffering and psycho-emotional anguish from the Kabbalist perspective.

When we think too frequently and too intensely about what has happened to us in our lives, what takes shape subconsciously is the emergence of a specific life picture predicated on the past. This focus on what was, creates within us a fixed way of looking at ourselves and the world, which can become our whole frame of reference in life. By overly focusing on the past, we give more and more energy to creating a specific view of our life based on was rather than what actually is.

The Kabbalah sees the Tree of Life not only as the structure of creation, but also as the process of creation. The two dimensions, process and structure, are two sides of the same reality. What that means simply is that space-time and movement are all the same thing manifesting simultaneously. Without space-time there is no movement. Without motion, there is no time-space. Reality does not occur otherwise. Reality is the Present, no more no less.

The Kabbalist view is that Creation itself is the Now, the Present as we experience it.

The Tree of Life is the Eternal Moment playing itself out. The past and the future are not reality per se, only aspects of the Now. They are not realities in and of themselves, because our experience of life takes place in the present. Past and Future are just dimensions of that experience.

What we experience in life is not only happening to us, but it is also being recorded and internalized within. That process of storing and preserving our experiences is critical in ordering, evaluating and understanding ourselves and our relationship to life.

The problem arises when we move beyond those boundaries and get fixated mentally and emotionally on what has happened, instead of on what is actually transpiring. In Kabbalah, this shift creates great distortion, because what was does not necessarily constitute what currently is.

The present is reality. The past is merely a segment of a much broader picture. To focus on the past is to be centered on a fragment of reality, rather than on the now, reality itself. To do so produces a displacement of consciousness and with it tremendous distortion, damage and suffering that we are creating for ourselves.

Rabbi Fisdel maintains a Spiritual Counseling practice in Albany, CA  working with individuals of all spiritual backgrounds and traditions, both locally and long distance. Steven has been counseling, teaching and writing for over 30 years.

Suffering as Time Distortion

Essentially, what the Kabbalah teaches us about the reduction of suffering is that if one is truly living in present time, the emotional distortion that produces it is minimized or eliminated. Conversely, living our lives outside of the moment invariably creates suffering.

Being in the present means not being fixated in the past nor tied up with the future. When one is living in the moment effectively, there is little or no space for suffering since suffering is most often generated by emotional bonds to the past and/or future.

The Kabbalists emphasize that God creates and sustains the world moment by moment. They talk about the constant renewal of creation as a continual process coming from the Divine Will. The divine intention is always at work. It is ever-present in the manifestation and operation of the universe, quite consistently, at all times. God wills the universe and the laws that govern it and therefore it is.

So, if God is consciously and continually focused on the creation and sustenance of the universe as a whole, then existence and hence reality is solely a reflection of the moment.

It is not that the universe is and therefore continues to exist and function. But rather, it is the other way around. The divine intention is that the world exist and be operational, therefore it is. When the Kabbalah speaks about the world that is, the “Is” referred to is the experience of time as being in the moment.

In Kabbalah, what is consistent in the universe is the divine focus. God centers attention on producing the patterns within creation inside the context of the moment. In other words, what the Kabbalah is saying is that God creates time and then centers the divine intention within time from moment to moment. Within the moment, the pattern of creation, the laws of the universe, manifest and play themselves out. God’s focus holds the pattern we experience as the world, because the divine intention remains consistent.

The message for us, as humanity, is quite clear. If the world is being created, formed, sustained and influenced by God’s focus and intention in the moment, then we as sentient, self-aware beings with free will need to be operating the exact same way. We should be living our lives in the moment, in present time. For present time is reality.

Reality is none other than what is happening around us right now in the moment. By “moment”, the Kabbalists mean within the conscious cycle of a day. When talking about creation, the book of Genesis keeps repeating the concept that there was evening (night) and then morning (daytime) and that constitutes a day (full cycle of consciousness).

What the Kabbalah understands is that, in actuality, experience can only be handled and comprehended in manageable units. So, we need to connect with reality as units of time that we can concentrate our attention on, process through and absorb into our being. That precious unit is the moment, being centered in present time.

Through intention and focus, we add to the moment the dimension of uniformity that forms our experience of life. This unified approach is what makes reality vibrant, meaningful and of immense value.

If we are living in the present, our being in the world is centered and our life experience is vivid, clear and pertinent. We are completely aware of our reality and therefore, empowered fully to deal with it and work with it. We are fulfilling our lives, because we are immersed in ultimately what is truly real; focus and intention in the present.

From the Kabbalist perspective, if you are not centered and operating in the moment, where exactly are you? The answer is that you are dealing with non-reality, which is a difficult and often dangerous place to be. When in non-reality, you are forced to endure a false existence that involves the realms of distortion, illusion, fixation and destruction. The underlying constant of these levels is, uniformly, great suffering.

The question then arises; What, exactly, is the non-reality that produces such enormous suffering and damage? The answer is, in modern terms, time distortion.

Then, what is time distortion? The Kabbalist would say that there are two primary dimensions to time distortion. They are being caught in the past and

Master Kabbalist

being concerned and fixated on the future.


Rabbi Steven Fisdel is a practicing Kabbalist with over 30 years experience in teaching Kabbalah and applying its principles directly to spiritual practice, the expansion of consciousness and psycho-spiritual healing. Rabbi Fisdel maintains a spiritual counseling practice for seekers of diverse backgrounds. (800) 851-2495.

Suffering as An Issue of Focus

The paramount element in the avoidance of suffering from the Kabbalist perspective is being centered in present time. One of the most amazing things about a truly conscious life is the realization that where we focus our attention determines precisely how and what we experience in our life. What we choose to look at creates the reality we become engaged in.

For example, if I am at home with some time on my hands and decide to go over bank statements, balance my checkbook and pay bills, for the next hour or so I am in a specific reality with a certain focus that creates the experience of handling finances. However, if I sit and watch a movie, I find myself transported to a whole other reality with an entirely different feeling and a totally changed experience.

What is the difference? How I have focused my attention. By choosing a different focus, I have shifted the reality I am in. I have moved from one sphere of activity, one world to another.

By selecting or altering my focus, I have placed my awareness, intention and energies into a specific context, be it painting the living room, reading a book, taking a long walk, working on a hobby, etc. Each reality that I focus on has its own purpose, its own rules, it own emotional environment, as well as its own challenges and rewards. Each, in a sense, is a complete world in and of itself.

The way a Kabbalist looks at it, no matter what world you choose to be in, if that is where you are concentrating your energy fully there then you are present. In that case, you will not experience suffering necessarily. Suffering is not normally an automatic part of being actively engaged in something. It is in large part an add-on. 

In Kabbalah, the understanding is that activity and events per se are neutral. However, intention influences events and often affects them considerably. Even more so do our attitudes and our emotional reactions to what is happening. So, our experience of events in life is very much shaped by our thoughts and emotions.

The situations and events of life are objective occurrences. Our experience of life, though, is based on how we respond and focus on them. Kabbalists often see suffering then as a distortion of experience, because it is an element that overlays an event, not the event itself.

Where we choose to center our attention can serious distort our perspective and our emotional response to what is going on with us and around us. What happens, as a Kabbalist would see it, is that our conscious focus can get distracted and pulled away from the immediate present, from the now by an improper focus that creates considerable suffering. Appropriate focus is always in the moment.

What the Kabbalah teaches is that if one is truly living in the moment, suffering, in essence, has little or no room to exist.

Rabbi Steven Fisdel, an author and master teacher of Kabbalah, maintains a Kabbalist based spiritual counseling practice and mentoring program for people of all spiritual backgrounds. Rabbi Fisdel focuses on the application of Kabbalah to the healing of psycho-emotional issues at their spiritual core. Rabbi Fisdel can be reached at

Suffering as External Displacement

In Kabbalah, the essence of a healthy existence on all levels is the maintaining of balance and harmony. This is the function of the middle pillar of the Tree of Life. For any of us to have equilibrium in our lives, we cannot allow ourselves to become too heavily focused either internally or externally. That will throw us out of alignment. To stay balanced, we cannot get too locked into ourselves or conversely too absorbed by the people and events around us. There has to be a balance, an even give and take in both directions.

In discussing the Kabbalist view of some of the primary causes of suffering, I would like to start with the issue of suffering as External Displacement.

External Displacement is when we reference ourselves too much with what is going on around us and it becomes difficult to distinguish who we are from what we are doing and what is happening. The common result of this over-focus on the external is that we lose sight of ourselves and what we are meant to be expressing in our lives. We become over-identified with the drama, with other people’s realities and with the intensity of the energy in general.

It is one thing to be an actor in the play of life and consciously assume a role. It is yet another, to be a member of the audience witnessing and responding to what is taking place. Both of these functions involve balance, when there is parity between inner awareness of self and outer connection with others through self.

However, from the Kabbalist perspective, suffering is induced by imbalance. There is great suffering, if we lose our innate inner sense of our self. Our center of gravity has then shifted to an extreme, if we define ourselves by what is outside of us, what is happening to us. The Kabbalah teaches that neither external reality nor outer events and circumstances is actually us. It is not who we are.

Our external reality constitutes our experience of life, not our being. Neither what we are going through nor what is happening to us is who we are. Who we are has everything to do with our spiritual reality and so; it goes much deeper than the circumstances we have to work with. As the Kabbalah sees it, what happens to us, what we feel about it and how we interpret it are the dimensions of our life experience. Living life is the “what”, not the “who”. The course of our life is the process that the “who” is going through. Who we are is our soul, the divine essence at the core of our being.

The teaching in Kabbalah is that who we are as a soul involves a life purpose. Events on the physical, emotional and psychological levels impact us, but do not constitute who we are. The circumstances and events of our lives are patterns playing themselves out. They are the result of will, not its origin. They may play out our desires and drives, but not always. They may express our life purpose, but often not. Frequently, the events in our life may be expressing a host of other energies and realities being generated by the will and intentions of others.

When we remain connected to our inner sense of self and the integrity of our own uniqueness, then we are rooted spiritually. When so rooted, we can truly express ourselves from a place of purpose. We are then truly and steadfastly balanced. We know exactly who we are and can extend ourselves out into the world from a position of confidence and a place of great joy.

If, on the other hand, we become engrossed and absorbed in the events of our lives, or overly invested in the drama, we are no longer living our lives. We have displaced our conscious existence and have become far too attached and focused on the external; confusing the “who” with the “what”. We have lost our internal frame of reference, forgotten our purpose and surrendered our individuality. In the Kabbalah, this External Displacement is a primary source of pain and anguish that leads directly to tremendous suffering.


Rabbi Steven Fisdel, an active Kabbalist for over 30 years, does spiritual diagnostic and spiritual counseling work professionally with clients from all over the country and from diverse backgrounds. Rabbi Fisdel is a Master Kabbalist author and teacher. He is the director of the Center for Jewish Mystical Studies in Albany, CA.

The Basis of Suffering in Kabbalist Thought

The second significant variant meaning of the verb, SVL which generally means “suffering”, is to transport something. Here suffering is understood to have an important purpose in the course of living one’s life. The Kabbalists see suffering, in its pure form, as the process of moving things in one’s life from one point to the next in order to complete one stage and begin the next. So, suffering has a great deal to do with self-development.

In the view of the Kabbalah, each of us in our lives has specific commitments to work through. Natural suffering, therefore does not involve pain and anguish. Rather, in order to make progress spiritually in our lives, we simply need to assume specific responsibility for all of the different aspects of our life and move them diligently from one phase to the next so as to fulfill our obligations to ourselves and to others.

Suffering, then, takes on the dimensions of pain and anguish when we find ourselves moving around in a circle rather than in a spiral upward. If we are focused on self-development and self-realization,  then we work through the stages of fulfilling our life responsibilities and we progress from level to level in a spiral. That is, one cycle of our life leads immediately to its natural successor. We grow and evolve.

However, if we fixate emotionally on uncertainty, self-doubt or on our fears, we get stuck and move in an endless circle. If we allow others to hand us their issues to solve in order for them to avoid taking responsibility themselves, we are also trapped in a circular movement going nowhere . There is no way to vicariously resolve someone else’s problems or do their work for them.

One way or the other, we end up trapped either within our own inner turmoil or imprisoned in the impossibility of fulfilling another person’s responsibility.

The result of this circular movement is that we are held hostage. We are confined internally by fear and hopelessness. In the prison of such movement, we are not in a position to extend our true inner being out into the world. We, therefore, experience suffering not as the spiral of accomplishment and fulfillment, but rather as pain and torment; neither of which is a necessary component of suffering.

If you understand suffering as integral to self development, as the process of transporting some meaningful part of your life from one important juncture to another, it becomes clear that if one is stuck inside oneself ruminating, you cannot extend yourself to the outside world. There is no forward movement. You cannot, therefore, effectively express your potential, if at all. The denial of potential is the absence of self-fulfillment and that is extremely painful and anxiety producing.

The key to experiencing suffering as the process of personal growth rather than as pain is found in the Kabbalist interpretation of the third related definition of the Hebrew verb, SVL. The verb also has the meaning, “to tolerate”. What the Kabbalah infers at this point is that toleration is not enough if you want to carry your responsibilities forward  and not create anguish and burden. The concept here is that if you are only tolerating something, you are not fully accepting it.

To fully accept something, you must be open to it. You need to be happy with it or excited about it. To be tolerant just means you are willing to acknowledge something, but not necessarily embrace it.

If one simply complies with a commitment and does it perfunctorily, the obligation is met, but there is not necessarily any emotional connection or any spiritual component. There is simply no joy, without which no possibility exists for full self-expression, satisfaction or contentment. The lack of complete acceptance when assuming the legitimate responsibilities of life and the resulting joy of making gradual, tangible progress is recognized by the Kabbalah as another central factor in turning suffering from a process of personal growth into one of constriction and pain instead.




Rabbi Steven Fisdel is  an experienced, practicing Kabbalist for over 30 years, who specializes in Spiritual Diagnosis and Counseling, Life Reading and Life Direction. He works with seekers of all spiritual backgrounds and is the founder of the Center for Jewish Mystical Studies in Albany, CA.