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Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Are you Earth, Fire, Wind, or Water?

Daf Yomi Gittin 8


As our patriarch Yaakov lay on his deathbed, he called over his sons to bestow his final blessings upon them.  A father knows his children and it is clear from Yaakov’s blessings how different each of his children were.  The key to an effective blessing is to harness the Divine flow of energy towards the specific strengths of the individual who is being blessed.  In our forefather’s blessings, we discover the unique nature of each of his sons.

According to Kabbalah, everything in this world consists of the four basic elements of earth, wind, fire, and water.  These elements are not like those found on the periodic table, the elements of which may of course be broken down much further into molecules, atoms, protons, and neutrons.  These ‘elements’ are the most basic building blocks of matter in this universe, whether tangible or intangible.  Intangibles are things like character traits.

When Yaakov blesses his children, he singles out their primary elements and blesses them accordingly.  Reuven, he says, had “water-like impetuousness.”  The deeper meaning of the blessing was that he channel his natural desire to make things right for the good.  Shimon and Levi had “rage that was intense.”  That’s the element of fire.  Yaakov’s blessing here too was that they channel it for the good.  Zebulun should “settle by seashores” utilizing his element of water to practice international commerce and support Torah scholars; while Yissachar saw that “the earth was pleasant.”

A plant that grew on soil from outside of Israel but sprouted whilst on a boat in Israeli waters is subject to the laws of maaser (tithes) and sheviis (the sabbatical year).   Rabbi Yehuda says: When is this so?  Only when the boat is touching the riverbed, but if it is not touching, it is exempt from the laws.
Rabbi Zaira suggests: Concerning a perforated pot sitting atop a tripod, we could apply the debate of Rabbi Yehuda and the Rabbis.
Rashi explains: According to the Rabbis, if it is in the air, it is just like it is resting on the ground; whereas according to Rabbi Yehuda, it is not biblically subject to maaser and sheviis unless it is actually resting on the ground.
Rava responds: Perhaps the comparison is not accurate.  Over there, the Rabbis stated their position regarding a plant that is directly on top of the ship with no air intervening, for the water is like thick earth (and so it is as if the plant were directly on the earth of the seabed).  But concerning a perforated pot on a tripod where the air intervenes between the plant and the ground, they would not maintain their position.


Interestingly, one of the earliest books of Kabbalah, the Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation), which was penned by our patriarch, Avraham, does not mention the element of earth.  The great Kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, explains in the Pardes Rimonim that, on a certain level, water and earth originate from the same spiritual source, ultimately manifesting that union in the physical.  He offers the example of the limescale one finds on a tea kettle after a period of time boiling water.  ‘Earth’ appears to be deposited by the ‘water,’ demonstrating that they emanate from the same source.  Essentially, we could say that “water is like thick earth!”

Just like every physical creation consists of the four elements, every human being’s character is made up of these four elements.  However, every individual has some elements more pronounced than others.  Before getting into the elements of character, let me just say that a good way of determining which element you are is to think about where you would most prefer to live, if the choice were completely up to you.  That’s how Yaakov described it to his children.

If you’re a mountains kind of person, your element is air.  If you prefer the beach or lake, your element is water.  Like living in the country or on a farm?  Your element is earth.  And if you must have the fast pace of city-life, you’re a fire-man (or woman!) 

How do the elements play out in character?   The key is to first realize that every element has both positive and negative aspects.  No element is better than another; it all depends on how you channel your primary element.

Fire people are very passionate, eager, enthusiastic, zealous.   Those attributes may be positive or negative.  If you’re passionate and eager to do mitzvos, you’ve channelled your fire for the good.  But if you’re passionate about running out to party on a Friday night, then obviously your fire has taken the wrong direction.

Water people are easy-going and go with the flow.  That could be a good thing, especially when you’re dealing with difficult people or challenging situations.  But it could also be a bad thing.  Sometimes when everyone around you is on the wrong path, you shouldn’t just go with the flow and participate.  Or it might even be your own temptations that you don’t stand up to – when anything goes, water is not the ideal attribute.

Earth people are obstinate and unchanging.  That too may be good or bad.  On the one hand, when everyone around you is adopting the latest trends in defiance of tradition, you stand up for what is right.  On the other hand, when you’re not right, you may be stubborn and unwilling to bend to the will of others.  The element of earth also manifests itself in terms of laziness, sitting around lacking the passion and drive to do anything positive.

Wind or air people are creative.  They might be artistic or musical or great orators.  Those are certainly great attributes to possess.  But, at the same time, sometimes if you lack groundedness, your head might be ‘in the clouds’ and nothing is ever achieved.  And so you see how each of these elements may be found in different people’s character types.

It is important to note that every individual is combination of all four elements.  Nobody has just one single element at the exclusion of the other three.  But most people have a dominant element or two that tend to outshine the other elements of their character.  So while you certainly consist of all four, you need to figure out what your primary element is, so that you can make sure you’re channeling it to its positive side.

We mentioned earlier than, in a certain way, water is like thick earth.  How so?  Originally, in the Creation story, Hashem separated the upper waters from the lower waters.  In other words, all there was in the beginning of the world was water.  Each morning, we make the bracha, “Blessed are You, Hashem, Who places the earth above the water.”  In this sense, water and earth are working at odds, but at the same time in conjunction, with one another.  Water creates life; earth limits that flow.

And so while it may feel like earth and water are opposites, you really need both in this world.  Too much life – too much flow – would mean there would be no dry land, i.e. nowhere to walk and live.  But if it would all be dry, there would be no life at all!  That’s the meaning of earth and water being from the same original element-source and the Gemara’s teaching that water is like thick earth.  Water represents life, but without the limits placed by earth, the water would be overly abundant and ultimately, ineffective.

What that means character-wise is that if you are a water person or an earth person, the best way to achieve success is to strive to embody that opposite element.  Earth people are stubborn; water people go with the flow.  Each of these attributes may be good, but may also impede your success.  How do you overcome the negative aspects?  If you’re earthy, try to be watery.  If you’re watery, try to be earthy.  Don’t worry that you’ll go overboard and adopt the negative aspects of the alternate element, because you can never lose your primary element.  Simply work on the opposite attribute, and everything will fall into place.


Just like no two individuals have the same face, no two individuals have the same character.  We are all complex combinations of earth, fire, wind, and water.  May you discover your primary element and work to bring out only the positive aspects of your complex character!