Chokhmah (Spiritual Wisdom) And The Scary Jerusalem Syndrome – Receiving Lights Greater Than The Vessels Can Hold

The famous concept of the “breaking of the vessels” is a very real and practical thing. In a nutshell, it happens when a person receives too much Chokhmah (spiritual wisdom) without creating the proper vessels.

The Holy Rashash (Rabbi Shalom Sharabi) already taught us the spiritual principle of “relativity”. In practical terms, this could mean that ideas that may be basic for someone may be an incredible spiritual wisdom for others. Consider the Torah most people can grasp. This perhaps may be second nature to great Tzadikim and not even be located in the Mokhin (Keter, Chokhmah, Binah and Da’at), but may be in their Middot (Chessed, Gevurah, Tiferet, Netzach, Hod, Yesod and Malkhut).

Years ago, when I was in Yeshiva, my good friend and mentor warned me not to go berserk when studying. As I was just starting, it was important for me to go easy and know when to stop and take breaks. Then, later on, I could add more hours. He related to me that some people he knew who had just started Yeshiva went to study 16 hours a day and ended up insane. The stress and mental overload literally broke their minds and they ended up barely functional. One guy, he related, could barely say Tehilim after such an episode.

This is a perfect example of acquiring spiritual wisdom without having the proper vessels. They just break. Sure, we are meant to “study Torah as much as we can”, but if we jump right in without preparation the result can range from anywhere between migraines to breaking oneself.

Chokhmah (spiritual wisdom) that goes to the other side.

The Breaking of the Vessels

According to Etz Chaim, before Hashem created our physical world and the spiritual worlds, there were 3 primordial worlds that came before called Akudim, Nekudim and Berudim (this last one essentially became Atzilut).

When the lights of Nekudim were being emanated to enter their vessels, they ended up breaking this worlds’ lower 7 Sephirot (Chesed, Gevurah, Tiferet, Netzach, Hod, Yesod and Malkhut). The upper 3 suffered some damage, but not as much and therefore did not break.

This is one of the reasons why Tikkun HaMiddot (rectifying character traits) is so difficult.

The Jerusalem Syndrome (Messiah Madness)

The more visitors show up, the more this weird condition grabs them.

Over the past few decades, a small but steady bunch of visitors to Yerushalayim have caught what we casually call the Jerusalem syndrome. Somehow, being in this holy city triggers a feeling in people’s minds like they’re some integral part of its history, and sometimes it even gives them the itch to fast-track its Messianic future.

It’s usually no big deal, but you might remember that guy dressed like King David with a crown and harp, giving a warm welcome at the Kotel.

But there was this one time when this syndrome could’ve set off World War III.

Cerebral Overload

Psychologically speaking, this syndrome is tied to delusional grandiosity. Oddly enough, it seems to spare Jews and Muslims, but Protestants, on the other hand, walk into the city expecting a spiritual high and end up getting hit with it.

How long has Jerusalem been causing the Jerusalem Syndrome, the Messiah Madness? No one can say for sure. Back in the 1930s, Dr. Heinz Herman, the OG of Israeli psychiatry, first clinically described it, giving it the mysterious name “Jerusalem fever.” Digging through the archives of Holy Land pilgrims, researchers found two key moments hinting that this syndrome has been around for ages.

The first incident goes back to the 14th century in the story of Margery Kempe, an Englishwoman who spent her neurotic years trotting around Europe and Asia on pilgrimages. While in Jerusalem, she had a hysterical episode that haunted her for life. Her story goes something like this:

“They went forth into the Holy Land till they might see Jerusalem,” her tale records. “…She fell down, not able to stand or kneel but wallowed and wrestled with her body, spreading her arms abroad. She cried with a loud voice as though her heart would burst asunder. And this was the first cry she ever cried in any contemplation.

This crying thing lasted for many years after that. Some folks thought it was a wicked spirit; others said it was a sickness or blamed it on too much wine. People had all sorts of opinions – from banishing her to wishing she were in heaven or at sea in a bottomless boat. Everyone had their opinion. Some even loved and supported her.”

After World War I, a tourist boom brought more cases of Jerusalem Syndrome, and in recent times, the number of sufferers has hit about a hundred a year. It got so serious that the police formed a special unit to handle the syndrome in 1986.

The late Dr. Yair Carlos Bar-El from Yerushalayim’s Kfar Shaul mental hospital broke down the syndrome into three types:

  • Type I is a manifestation of a previously diagnosed psychosis
  • Type II isn’t necessarily a mental illness but an expression of extreme personal beliefs
  • Type III is a temporary psychosis lasting a few weeks.

This third type, the classic Jerusalem syndrome, involves folks donning long garments, shouting verses or religious songs, and delivering wild sermons.

hivartei human wisdom concept showing a wise man thinking on a 2d48dd57 c9fc 412a 8a5a 0b048cb1b6bf

Voyager Syndrome

Psychologists have compared Jerusalem syndrome with similar disorders from different cities, labeling them all under the umbrella term of “Voyager Syndrome”

Take, for instance, the Stendhal syndrome, which hits people who visit breathtaking spots of art or nature. It’s named after French author Marie-Henri Beyle, aka Stendhal. During his 1817 visit to Florence, Italy, he wrote about his experience in his book “Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio”:

“Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty, I could perceive its very essence close at hand; I could, as it were, feel the stuff of it beneath my fingertips. I had attained to that supreme degree of sensibility where the divine intentions of art merge with the impassioned sensuality of emotion.

As I emerged from the porch of the Santa Croce, I was seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart, the same symptom referred to as an attack of the nerves in Berlin; the well-spring of life was dried up within me, and I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground.”

Then there’s the Paris Syndrome, an exotic condition striking visitors to the City of Light, with the Japanese being particularly susceptible. The local Japanese consulate notes that about twenty Japanese tourists each year catch the temporary “Paris Syndrome,” bringing on unpleasant symptoms like anxiety, hallucinations, and sweating.

The Jerusalem, Florence, and Paris syndromes, collectively known as Voyager Syndrome, share a common thread—they plunge individuals into psychic distress triggered by aesthetic, social, or spiritual experiences beyond their norm. As psychologist Bar-El aptly puts it, “Those falling into type III of the Jerusalem syndrome can’t cope with the concrete reality of Jerusalem today. A gap appears between their subconscious idealistic image of Jerusalem and the city as it appears in reality.

One of the most notorious incidents tied to Jerusalem syndrome happened in 1969 when a 28-year-old schizophrenic Australian, Denis Michael Rohan, believed it was his duty to speed up the Temple’s rebuilding by setting fire to the Al Aqsa Mosque on Har Habayis.

This sparked citywide rioting and international uproar. Arabs still cite this incident as evidence of “Zionist aspirations to destroy their mosque”, even though Arafat claimed it as motivation for attacks against Israel. Ironically, his organization’s first raid on Israel occurred four years earlier in 1965, with an abortive attempt to bomb a water canal in the Galilee.

The Temple Mount Fire and Chokhmah – Spiritual Wisdom

Denis Michael Rohan landed in Haifa on March 24, 1969, hanging out at Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon for three months before making his move to Jerusalem. His notebook bluntly details how he set the mosque ablaze after a botched first attempt:

“The accused checked out the inside of the Mosque and noticed the pulpit’s steps (the Minbar) were made of easily flammable wood. So, he picked that spot to kick off the fire. Between the eighteenth and twentieth day of August 1969, or thereabouts, the accused went shopping for the tools of his fiery plan: two plastic containers, three and five liters each, a haversack, four liters of benzene, and three liters of kerosene.

“On the twenty-first day of August 1969, around 7:00 a.m., the accused strolled into the Mosque through the main entrance. Inside, he positioned the containers of benzene and kerosene below the pulpit’s steps, soaked a woolen scarf with kerosene from the water flask, laid one end on the steps, and the other on the petrol containers. Then he set the scarf ablaze.

“The fire tore through the southern wing of the Mosque, wrecking its contents and scorching part of the roof.”

Fire of Chokhmah (spiritual wisdom)

The smoke from the blaze was visible for miles, and it took hours to quell the flames. Despite Israel’s hands-off stance, Arabs hit the streets immediately, pelting stones that injured several Israelis and tourists. Soldiers had to wound at least nine rioting Arabs, and the Supreme Muslim Council slapped on an almost total strike. Rumors of a “holy war” floated around, and Rohan’s torching of what Muslims hold as their third holiest site had the potential to kick off World War III.

Understanding the Sephira of Chokhmah

The light of Chokhmah is one of the most difficult to attain. We already have Binah by default, and Keter is given at the end of the work for rectifying the Partzuf (spiritual system) we are in, as a gift from Hashem. So, technically only Chokhmah is necessary to complete the Avoda in most cases.

The Sephira of Chokhmah is also related to the spiritual experience that follows a trance state, and shares intriguing parallels in their profound exploration of Hashem’s wisdom and transcendent consciousness. This is knowledge that can only be grasped without words, like most pleasures in the world or being an expert in something. In other words, subjective experience.

Chokhmah, often translated as spiritual wisdom, represents the second emanation on the Tree of Life, following Keter (Crown). It symbolizes the first spark of conscious awareness, the primal flash of inspiration that precedes comprehension. In the context of spiritual exploration, Chokhmah can be seen as the gateway to higher knowledge, offering a direct connection to Hashem, the source of wisdom.

Similarly, the spiritual experience following the trance state involves a journey beyond ordinary consciousness. It involves an openness to divine inspiration and a willingness to transcend the limitations of ordinary perception. Through meditation, we can return to that pristine state (not very easily though), and acquire wisdom that transcends that which we acquire through books.

The trance state which requires silence, feels like the emanation of Chokhmah which is achieved through silence, and facilitates a direct channeling of the spiritual worlds. This state (trance) allows individuals to tap into the wellspring of Hashem’s wisdom, gaining insights that go beyond rational understanding.

The problem, of course, is when individuals get this hype without grounding themselves in Torah, Mitzvot and Mussar. Though, of course (again), it could happen to those who are completely religious (maybe even more so).

Concluding remarks

Building the vessels mean working on one’s Middot, praying and doing Avodat Hashem. There are countless stories of great Tzadikim praying they should get spiritual wisdom to understand the Torah. I don’t need to tell you that having bigger and stronger vessels makes one more capable of receiving more.

And remembering what my mentor said: There’s no lack in Hashem’s light, it’s all up to us to make the vessels.

As I mentioned, the Jerusalem Syndrome and the Sephira of Chokhmah share very interesting parallels in their exploration of transcendent experiences and altered states of consciousness. Afflicting individuals visiting Jerusalem, the Jerusalem Syndrome manifests as a sudden and intense spiritual experience, leading to behaviors perceived as unconventional, driven by a fervent belief in a “divine mission” or connection to the city’s spiritual significance.

The powerful spiritual light of Jerusalem triggers this altered state of consciousness. Jerusalem has, after all, a greater level of holiness as we find in the Mishnah in Kelim (1:6). We can suggest that both the Jerusalem Syndrome and Chokhmah involve a deep connection to higher realms, symbolic actions expressing a perceived spiritual mission, and a transformative impact on an individual’s psyche.

The former is a psychological phenomenon influenced by a specific location, while the latter is a mystical concept within the Kabbalistic tradition, both emphasizing the profound influence of spiritual experiences on human consciousness.

While only a few individuals are affected, this is serious stuff. Hashem expects us to come closer to Him and enjoy the light of Chokhmah, and part of this effort is studying Kabbalah. Yet, we should at the same time take precautions not to break midway.

The day is short, and the work is long. And may we see the day when the gates of spiritual wisdom will flood the world and we will be constantly perceiving Hashem, with the Third Temple.

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Chaim Apsan

Chaim is a teacher and Kabbalah enthusiast. He loves helping Jews connect with true Torah teaching and enhancing their spiritual growth. With a focus on meditation, he guides individuals on transformative journeys of prayer, contemplation, and connection with Hashem. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and kids, and is committed to sharing the wisdom and power of Kabbalah in a genuine way.

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