In his commentary on this week’s Torah Portion, Yitro, Rabbi Chayim Vital, writing in the name of his teacher, the Ari-zal, states that Abel was punished for gazing at the Shekhinah—the divine presence.[1] But what relevance does this have to the Torah portion retelling the greatest event in Jewish history (and, indeed, the history of human civilization)—the Sinaitic epiphany—the giving of the Torah? This is the Torah portion, where we read the Ten Commandments. What is the relevance of the sin of Abel to the Ten Commandments?

More generally, what is Abel’s connection to this Torah portion? That is easy to understand. The Torah portion Yitro starts with the story of Jethro (Yitro), Moses’s father-in-law, coming to Moses in the Sinai desert with his daughter—the wife of Moses—and her two children. Rabbi Chayim Vital explains this by revealing that Moses was the reincarnation (gilgul) of Abel and Jethro was the reincarnation of Cain. This is hinted at in the verse:

And he said unto Moses: “I thy father-in-law Jethro am coming unto thee, and thy wife, and her two sons with her.”

Exodus 18:6

In Hebrew, the three words “I thy father-in-law Jethro (Yitro)” (Ani Chatanecho Yitro) form an acronym—achy (“your brother”). According to the Ari-zal, Jethro was informing Moses, the reincarnation of Abel, that his brother Cain, reincarnated as Jethro, was coming to him with brotherly intentions to atone for his sin of killing Abel. By killing Abel, Cain committed three additional sins— (1) he renounced justice by claiming that “there is no justice and no judge”; (2) he deprived Abel of his would-be wife by taking Abel’s sister as a wife for himself, and (3) he deprived Abel of his future children by killing him. Jethro atoned for these sins of Cain by (1) convincing Moses to appoint judges and create a justice system, (2) restoring to Moses his wife, Tzipora (Jethro’s daughter), and (3) bringing to Moses his two sons. Ultimately, Jethro completed the tikun (“rectification”) of Cain’s soul by accepting the Torah and converting to Judaism. As the Zohar states, Jethro’s conversion was a necessary prerequisite to giving the Torah (see my essay “Convergence of Science and Torah.”

But what does any of this have to do with Abel? How does he get in the picture? Rabbi Chayim Vital writes in the name of Ari-zal that Abel deserved to be killed because he incurred the death penalty by gazing at the Shekhinah. Why do we need to know that before reading the Ten Commandments?

The Shekhinah is the divine presence—the manifestation of godliness. As we discussed many a time on this blog, in Judaism, G‑d is perceived as a self-contradictory construct—nimna hanimna’ot (literally “restricting [all] restrictions”), that is, the “paradox of paradoxes.”[2] As I previously wrote in my essay, “Physics of Tzimtzum II — Collapse of the Wave Function,” this can be metaphorically described as G‑d being in the superposition of all possible and impossible states,[3] as it were.

As we discussed many times on this blog, the superposition of states refers to the phenomenon in quantum mechanics where a quantum system can exist in multiple possible states simultaneously, rather than being limited to a single definite state. This arises from the wave-like properties of quantum particles, which allow a quantum system to be in a superposition of multiple wave states at once. A simple example is an electron, which can be in a superposition of multiple locations or energy levels at the same time, until it is measured and “collapses” into a single definite state. The possibility of superposition is a major departure from classical physics and leads to many of the strange and counterintuitive properties of quantum systems.[4]

According to quantum theory, particles like electrons and other quantum objects are described mathematically by the wave function. This wave function describes the various probabilities and properties of the particle. However, a measurement or observation of the particle forces the wave function to “collapse” from this superposition of multiple states into a single, definite state consistent with the observation. Essentially, the act of measurement or observation forces the quantum system to choose and select one outcome out of the range of probabilities described by its wave function. The mechanism behind wave function collapse remains mysterious, and it fundamentally limits our ability to know the precise properties of a quantum system prior to measurement. Observing a quantum system disturbs its superposition and forces it to assume the observed properties.[5]

Now we can understand the meaning of Ari-zal’s teaching that by gazing on the Shekhinah, Abel incurred the death penalty. Based on the Kabbalistic principle ohr me’ein hama’or (the light is just like the luminary),[6] we can say that, just as G‑d is in a superposition of all possible and impossible states, as it were, so too is the Shekhinah is in a superposition of all possible and impossible states. This imposes a strict limitation on the knowability of godliness. Metaphorically speaking, Abel collapsed its wave function by gazing at or observing the Shekhinah, forcing it to take a definitive state. This is an avodah zorah—an act of idol worship.

We can understand that by considering how our brain recognizes images. One would think that the brain is waiting for sensory input from our eyes to start recognizing the image it receives, but this is not how it works. Neuroscience discovered that the brain works like a Bayesian prediction machine.[7] Instead of waiting for visual input, it hypothesizes what it will see; in other words, it projects its expectation of reality. After it receives the sensory vision from the eyes, it computes the difference between its original expectation and what it sees and revises its hypothesis, projecting its new expectation on reality. This process is repeated many times until the difference function is minimized so that the image projected by the brain closely matches the image received from sensory input—the eyes.

Judaism forbids even making a picture of angels, let alone of G‑d or Shekhinah. One obvious reason is that G‑d or Shekhinah do not have a body that would have any shape, form, or image. Another reason may be that making a picture would choose one possible “image” (whatever the word “image” means with respect to G‑d, who is above spatial limitations; let us say it means a “conception”) from an infinite number of possible “images” or conceptions of G‑d. That is a definition of idolatry. Moreover, it would falsely purport that we know what G‑d is when, in truth, G‑d is unknown and unknowable.

Staring or gazing at the Shekhinah, as Abel did, causes the brain to generate a hypothetical image proactively—its expectation of what it is going to see. However, Shekhinah has no image, so Abel saw nothing that would make his brain adjust or correct his hypothesis. As a result, Abel was left with whatever image his brain first conjured in his mind. He mistakenly thought that he saw G‑d, when what he saw was nothing more than an illusion—the fruit of his imagination. In doing so, he committed an idolatrous act and incurred the death penalty.

Now, we can see that connection with the Ten Commandments. The First Commandment starts with Anokhi Y-K-W-K (“I am the Lord”). In Hebrew, there are two words for “I”—anokhi and ani. The Izhbitza Rebbe[8] interprets the word anochi as ani-kh, where kh (the Hebrew letter kaf) is kaf hadimayon, which means “as,” “like,” or “as if.”[9] This prefix is commonly used in Hebrew to convey nuances of uncertainty. In this interpretation, the first words of the First Commandment mean “I am like the Lord” (or “I am [something] like [what you call] the Lord.” Kaf hadimayon introduces an approximation in a sentence. The first Commandment may be viewed as an introduction: “I am the Lord thy G‑d, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” By introducing Himself using the grammatical device of kaf hadimayon, G‑d is introducing Himself as unknowable G‑d. This device imposes the epistemic limit on our knowledge—just as the superposition of states in quantum mechanics.

In this light, the Second Commandment reinforces this uncertainty through the injunction, “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image…” A graven image has precise shape and dimensions, falsely implying that we know exactly who or what G‑d is, in contravention to the First Commandment, which sets the limitation on the knowledge of G‑d.[10]

This was the sin of Abel. By observing the Shekhinah, Abel collapsed, so to speak, the wave function of the Shekhinah, implying the knowledge of G‑d, which no human being has. Furthermore, by gazing at the Shekhinah, he conjured an image of the divine violating the Second Commandment.

Perhaps this is why Rabbi Chayim Vital speaks of the sin of Abel in the Torah portion Yitro. As was mentioned in the beginning, Moses was the reincarnation of Abel. He rectified Abel’s sin when, upon chancing on the burning bush, he fell on his face not to see the Shekhinah. Maybe this is why he was chosen to receive the Ten Commandments.


[1] Rabbi Chayim Vital, Sefer Halikutim, Parshat Yitro. See in English, Rabbi Moshe Wisnefsky, Apples from the Orchard: Mystical Insights on the Weekly Torah Portion (Malibu, CA: Thirty Seven Books, 2008), p. 367.

[2] Responsa of the Rashba (Shu”t HaRashb”a), Vol. I, sec. 418; see also Sefer HaChakirah by the Tzemach Tzedek, p. 34b ff.

[3] Poltorak, Alexander, “Physics of Tzimtzum II — Collapse of the Wave Function,”, 2020, footnote 46.

[4] I discussed it in greater details in many of my posts. See, for example, “The Tree of Knowledge as a Quantum Mechanical Metaphor,” “The Flood—a Quantum Metaphor,” “Collapse and Revelation,” and “Physics of Tzimtzum II — Collapse of the Wave Function.”

[5] To learn more about the collapse of the wave function, in addition to the essays mentioned above, see “Towards Reconciliation of Biblical and Cosmological Ages of the Universe” and “Wigner’s Friend Receives a Death Threat.”

[6] See Rabbi Schneur Zalman, Tanya, Igeret HaKodesh, 20; see also Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn (Rebbe Rashab), Yom Tov Shel Rosh HaShanah (Samach Vav).

[7] For more on the Bayesian mechanism of imager recognition, see my essay, “The Meaning of Life as Taught by Bayesian Angels.”

[8] Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner (1800-1854)—the Izhbitza Rebbe, the founder of Chasidic dynasty in Izbica, Poland.

[9] Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, Mei HaShiloah on Yitro.

[10] Rabbi Herzl Hefter, “The Theological Uncertainty Principle,”, See also, Alexander Poltorak, “Thou Shall Not Collapse G‑d’s Wavefunction,”, 2013,