Friday, May 06, 2011

From Brain to Semen

Illustration of embryonic development
A saying attributed to Kabbalah says, “a drop exudes from the brain and develops into semen”.

We know full well from Judaic tradition that "the generations are declining", such that a modern-day savant is more akin to a donkey than to any of our sages. So what did they know that we don't know?

Torah needn't apologize to "modern scientific wisdom", when, in fact, the more science progresses, the more it inches closer to Torah truth. The great wisdom of science is, after all, a huge myth. In fact, if you survey the last 100 years, what you'll find is that most scientific discoveries proved to be counter-intuitive! (e.g., see here).

Those who never learned Tanya, chapter 2, will have missed another such reference. There it states clearly, "... the child is derived from its father's brain," meaning to say, "semen, from the father's brain". But since when does semen derive from brain? We, the enlightened generation, are entitled to ask. Does it not, in fact, get manufactured and stored in the testicles (or ovaries)?  Any student of anatomy or embryology would be bewildered to discover semen derives from the brain.

But if Torah-derived sources tell us so, we do not doubt their veracity. For that which manifests in physicality derives from its spiritual configuration. What is down here follows in step from what is up there.

I've read hard-pressed reasons such as - the pituitary gland secretes a hormone to effect testosterone and sperm production, so here we see the brain-semen connection. Perhaps, but the sages do not wish to mislead in their statements. If they say it derives there, that's what they meant.

One could explain the child resulted from a brain-triggered event, after all, because the father thought conjugally of the mother, which aroused him, which eventually led to offspring. Thoughts in the mind initiated the whole matter. But this isn't so because the Tanya specifically uses physical terms -- semen and brain -- rather than "thoughts".

So a strictly cellular, somatic mapping for what the sages meant might be explained as follows:

In my first year of medical school, in '74 I think, I was selected to deliver a lecture on developmental embryology; Particularly, the development of the organism's testicular tissue, from its earliest stages onward.

By divine providence this lecture fell into my lap to deliver, something that perhaps now, decades later, lets me shed light of what I learned back then. Here's what I remember from my presentation. (I was using then a textbook I've since lost. I also failed to find that book in used book stores or on the internet, because I wanted to refresh my memory of it.)

Here's the crux of it: Migration is a ubiquitous feature of primordial development. The embryological cells that become the substrate for testicular or ovarian tissue begin their journey in the mostly undifferentiated embryonic mass from a location that later differentiates into brain tissue. These brain-region cells migrate down through the embryonic tissues, like salmon up a river, until they finally localize in what will develop thereafter into testes and ovaries.

This journey, from the brain area to the seat of sperm or egg cell production, this embryological ontogenesis of the gonads, is what I believe our sages spoke of. There is cell migration from the brain region to the testicle region, a move that happens in an early developmental stage of the embryo.

Doing a Google search shows more references on this topic. Try:
"the origin of the precursors of gametes or primordial germ cells".

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P.S. Speaking of phenomenal medical insight from Torah, I remember visiting a Chabad shul in Israel and seeing high up, atop a high bookcase, two books hermetically placed. I climbed up, took them down and looked into each. My eye caught two items that blew my mind.

One sefer, written by Rabbi Chaim Vital, who transcribed much of the Arizal's teachings, spoke about the 3 layers of membrane over the brain. How he could know this fact stunned me. Surely he did not get his knowledge from having sawed open skulls (a tough job, to be sure, especially if you don't want to destroy these most delicate wrappings of the brain, itself of watery consistency), and surely he hadn't fixed the tissues, stained them and examined them under a microscope.

The other sefer, by the Tzemach Tzedek, made mention of the number of vessels the liver contained. This was flabbergasting. The liver is the largest internal organ of the body, entirely perfused with blood vessels going every which way and how anyone could arrive at a number from this amazingly complex vessel network is outright preposterous! Yet here comes the prince in his generation and states something any modern professor of hematology would simply laugh at. The Tzemach Tzedek, however, will enjoy the last laugh.

I'm sure too the Tzemach Tzedek never owned a microscope, dissected a liver, nor counted vessels to get to his number. Did Moses inspect every mammal in the world before he asserted the pig, and only the pig (from all the animals in the whole universe) has split hooves and chews its cud? Of course not. He got it from Hashem. Similarly, the Tzemach Tzedek,  the Arizal or any other sage got their "scientific" knowledge from special insight into Torah and Talmud.


  1. Meir--Here is the Rebbe's explanation, from Volume 2 of Likutei Sichos, p. 364-5.

    One year, in 1894 or 1895, medical science discovered an artery in the brain, which facilitated memory and concentration. So the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe's brother came into the room and told the Rebbe about the discovery. This Rebbe went into the next room and came back with a small manuscript of Chassidus that was written by his great grandfather the second Lubavitcher Rebbe some hundred years earliier.

    He showed him where in that discourse, there are six or seven lines, where the second Rebbe mentions that in the brain there is this artery that has a variable vapor pressure causing it to shift position thereby stimulating either memory or concentration. When this artery is facing the part of the brain that supports chochma and binah (wisdom and understanding), it helps to remember. When it is directed toward the part of the brain that contains the daas, knowledge, it helps concentration. That's why when a person wants to remember, he looks up, tilting his head upwards, and when a person wants to concentrate, he tilts his head downwards.

    The brother replied to the Rebbe saying that the Mitteler Rebbe must have been a great medical scientist. The Rebbe Rashab said to him, "No. The Mitteler Rebbe knew how the spiritual template of man works in the upper worlds, and therefore he could predict how the physical human being works as well."

    (Translation courtesy of R' Arnie Gotfryd:

  2. Yes, this anecdote reveals how the Rebbeim get their knowledge; From the spiritual realm above, which then may devolve to a physical counterpart below.

  3. Incredible. But I am not shocked at all. I have long believed the truth raishis chachmah yiras Hashem