Friday, February 18, 2011

The Dove of War

Over at VosIzNeias there is a report of a dove that flew into the Kaminetz Yeshivah and wouldn't be dissuaded from returning every day. Inevitably, people are talking about it being a gilgul.

I'm not going to denounce this belief. There are many bloggers who see it as their "holy" mission to criticize or mock other people's beliefs which they see as irrational or otherwise mistaken. But although people certainly differ in the extent to which they are rational, everyone in the world has some irrational beliefs, be it in the sphere of religion or elsewhere. Furthermore, personally I rarely see any constructive purpose in criticizing or mocking the beliefs of others; such pursuits are usually just about putting others down to make oneself feel big. So if people want to believe that the dove is a gilgul, then, as we used to say, gezunte heit! Live and be well. I don't think that people are harmed by such things.

But in the comments section of the ViN post, the argument about gilgul turns ugly. After one person mentions that Chazal and the Rishonim did not believe in such things, another person responds that the Zohar mentions it and anyone who denies the Zohar is a heretic. And actually the first person already raised the stakes to kefirah, quoting Saadiah Gaon as maintaining that belief in gilgulim falls into that category.

Why can't we all just get along? As is well known, there have been many rabbinic authorities who subscribed to belief in gilgulim. On the other hand, there have also been numerous opponents to this belief, including Rav Saadiah Gaon (Emunos v’Dayos 6:8); Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam (see R. Margoliyos, in his introduction to Milchamos Hashem p. 19 note 11); Rabbi Avraham ibn Daud (Emunah Ramah 7); Rabbeinu Yitzchak ben Avraham Ibn Latif (Rav Poalim, p. 9 section 21); Rav Chasdai Crescas (Ohr Hashem, ma’amar 4, derash 7); Rav Yosef Albo (Sefer HaIkkarim 4:29); and Rav Avraham Bedersi (Ktav Hitnatzlut leRashba). See too Rashash to Bava Metzia 107a (I am told that certain Chassidim will never study Rashash because of his comments on this topic). Also see Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, commentary to Genesis 50:2. For further discussion, see Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, “Body And Soul: Tehiyyat ha-Metim and Gilgulim in Medieval and Modern Philosophy,” The Torah u-Madda Journal vol. 10 (2001).

If someone does not share your belief regarding the existence/non-existence of gilgulim, just let them be! Is it really necessary to denounce other people as heretics or fools? Just be aware, and politely inform others, that there have been many Torah authorities on both sides of this issue.

On a lighter note, I was told a terrific story by someone who studied at Gateshead yeshivah in England. A bird once flew into the Beis HaMidrash, and someone approached the Rosh Yeshivah and said, "Efsher it's a gilgul?"

Replied the Rosh Yeshivah, "Efsher it's a feigel?"


  1. It is well known (don't ask me how) that the Ba'al-Shem-Tov said he was a Gilgul of Rav Sa'adyah Gaon.
    Serves him right!

  2. that there have been many Torah authorities on both sides of this issue

    Yes. I see this as really the purpose of your blog - to show precisely this. Too often we're only given half the picture.

    Is it really necessary to denounce other people as heretics or fools?

    Exactly. Which is the challenge both of this blog and its readers - to be able to engage in passionate discourse without coming across as condescending, hypercritical, etc.

    Nice post! (Though I had to look up "feigel" - which I got confused with "feigele" :-)

  3. Good post- but I think you spend way too much time reading blogs and articles on the internet!

  4. It take a large mind to balance the intolerance we must feel for certain things (avodah zarah, for example) with the tolerance with must feel for others (eilu v'eilu, for example).
    Further, a well-read person is not necessarily a wise person, hence we ask for chochmah, bina and daas, not just one or the other.
    When you combine a well-read person with a lack of wisdom to differentiate between tolerance and intolerance, you get this kind of close-mindedness.
    It's easier to denounce than to defend one's opinion while respecting your opponents.

  5. My favorite comment in VIN:

    "Rabbi Ariel Bar Tzadok said that the Rav Saadia Gaon zya only wrote against gilgul neshamos because he lived in a Muslim country and it was dangerous to write something so radically against Islamic doctrine.

    It is well known that the Baal Shem Tov zya was a gilgul of Rav Saadia Gaon zya to make a tikkun for the fact that he taught against gilgul neshamos - even though he had to because of pikuach nefesh."

    Now go argue with that.

  6. "But in the comments section of the ViN post, the argument about gilgul turns ugly. ... Why can't we all just get along?"

    Well, spend enough time on ViN (like 20 minutes) and you'll see that flamewars are a way of life in those comment threads. "We all" can get along, but those who refuse take their fightin' over there. I don't know if we can draw conclusions from the mi`ut who flame there. It certainly is inflammatory and doesn't look good, though.

  7. "Replied the Rosh Yeshivah, "Efsher it's a feigel?"

    The story is related in a "Collectors Collection"(Feldheim), by R. Chaim Orange, albeit not about any particular yeshivah.

    (Admittedly, I suggested a similar metaphysical explanation to my chavrusah when some type of wildlife entered the Beis Midrash, and he just smiled, and tried to straighten me out. )

  8. Other than Saadya Gaon, who are these other people? Maybe that's why most of us DO believe in such things, and don't consider all these obviously minor opinions who I'm sure most have never even heard of. Rambam's son is not even close to being a major opinion. Quite the opposite.

  9. This reminds me of the story from R. Avigdor Miller (who, by the way, some say did not believe in kabalah).
    Somebody's car was stolen after he left it unlocked overnight. He approached Rav Miller asking "what is Hashem trying to signal me with this incident?"
    Rav Miller answered: "To lock your car every night."

  10. Where can one get a copy of Rabbi Blau's article?

  11. Unless we reduce Judaism to orthopraxy the subject of gilgul is important. To determine weather it's an authentic Jewish concept we need to know its mesorah. The concept itself is certainly no chidush and was a popular belief among idol worshipers all over the world from ancient times. When did it make its appearance in Judaism? It happened at the time of the 'revelation' of the Zohar, which is tantamount to saying that it has no mesorah and is not an authentic Jewish concept. The belief in gilgul is not a stand alone belief but is part and parcel of a kabbalistic teaching that doesn't have a mesorah and is thus not obligatory on anyone to accept. This is important to point out to people who think that it's Torah misinai. It is part of teaching the truth. I know, I was one of those naïve believers. Only in my mid-forties did I discard the false beliefs of Kabbala and Chassidus. If there were more people openly exposing the Kabbalistic fraud I could have made the transition sooner and not wasted years of my life trying to make sense of the kabbalistic heresy. I certainly never miss an opportunity to enlighten others. Let them learn the facts, let the facts speak for themselves and people make their own choice. Many would not go of the derech if they we aware that there is a completly different Judaism of Rambam and Rav Saadia out there.

  12. It is well known (don't ask me how) that the Ba'al-Shem-Tov said he was a Gilgul of Rav Sa'adyah Gaon.
    Serves him right!

    Where did you hear this? They claim he is the neshoma of Ari, Rabbi Shimon etc... But Rav Saadia? I never heard this one before. It doesn't make sense because Besht is supposed to complete the mission of the great kabbalistic figures that preceded him.

    By the way, can anyone quote ONE substantive Torah thought of Besht? Not a remez, a 'sod', vertel or a dreidel? I am all ears.

  13. While I admire your restraint, I'm not sure why you find belief in gilgulim less topical for your blog than any other irrational belief in orthodox Judaism. If Rav Saadiah Gaon calls it kefirah, maybe it is. At least, it seems more religiously relevant than the age of the universe or the nature of the firmament.

    I think any sort of rank superstition drives rational people away from Judaism; gilgulim shouldn't get a pass for the sake of a peace that was shattered years ago now. I don't want to fight with any gilgulists, either, but I am curious what the sources you listed had to say about this very popular brand of irrationality.

  14. Nachum,

    I would tell him that Rav Saadia didn't have to denounce it; he could have just ignored the issue. Also, what is the source for muslim persecution of believers in gilgul at the time of Rav Saadia?

  15. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems that opposition to belief in gilgulim is almost all from rabbis before the Zohar was revealed and accepted, and since that time it has been extremely rare for any well-known rabbinical figure to oppose the belief. For that matter, can anyone name any Orthodox rabbi today who would publicly say they don't believe in it, or that the belief is wrong? Despite the lack of opponents to the belief (other than semi-agnostic or "post Orthodox" bloggers), on a personal level it may be that a lot of Orthodox Jews either don't believe in it or don't have a strong opinion about it.

    Personally, I believe in gilgulim very strongly. Just because a belief did not become widespread until a millenium ago doesn't mean it's not true!

  16. Yishai, a belief that doesn't have a mesorah and is irrational is false. Gilgul has a negative mesorah.why would you believe in it?

  17. The author of "Life Before Life" Jim Tucker (a psychiatrist) examines many case reports of children claiming knowledge of prior lives, and feels that, based on empirical investigation, belief in reincarnation is reasonable. Of course case reports, even a tremendous number of them, can be a by product of fraud, but, well, there we have it.

    Carol, it seems to me that in order to completely invalidate Kabbalah, the "fraudulent" origin of such works as the Zohar, Sefer Yetzirah, Bahir, as well as the random allusions to Kabbalistic concepts by folks like the Ramban, and R'Bachya, would have to be conclusively demonstrated. I don't see how that's possible, particularly since an occult oral tradition, that was subsequently written down, is often postulated as the origin of these views.

    Another approach: you could try to amass halachic proof that Kabbalah/Chassidus is heresy. Obviously there are many poskim, past and present, that would disagree with such a position, in spite of the greatness of the Rambam, and R'Saadia. What would be your basis for making the assertion of heresy?

    Even if you're right, unfortunately, I think the same problem of individuals leaving Judaism would still exist. I have met individuals who claim that they are only religious because of Chassidus, and that's what keeps them going. So if their beliefs constitute heresy, a workable solution would have to be offered to these folks.

  18. Sholom, I have to read "Life Before Life" to have an opinion. Be it as it may, until the revelation of the Zohar gilgul was not an operational concept in Jewish thinking and has a negative mesorah.

    Why is it heresy? Here is the most basic argument. Are the ten sfiros elokus or are they nivroim? Mekubolim disagree on this issue. Where is their kabbolah in the sense of authentic tradition if they cannot agree on something so fundamental? It is undisputed that they address the sfiros in prayer. Therefore they either pray to multiple gods or to the nivroim. As I had quoted from Rabbeinu Bachia that the 'sod' of the name Elokim is 'elu hem yud'. Not ONE almighty G-d but ten! This is the 'sod' of the mekubolim!

    Rambam write in the Guide that the authentic mystical tradition has been lost. There was a tradition but it is not the present day Kabbolah.

    Chassidus keeps people going because they believe it's the truth. I was in that camp for many years. They have to be given a chance to learn the facts. The truth is what should keep us all going. This is our 'lech lecha'. I would've like to answer more fully but I am in a rush. Please excuse me.

  19. Carol, I don't see where you presented any reason why gilgul is heresy.

    If you used to be in that camp, then I can understand the "born-again" desire to purge it, but that doesn't mean that it's all heresy.

  20. It take a large mind to balance the intolerance we must feel for certain things (avodah zarah, for example) with the tolerance with must feel for others (eilu v'eilu, for example).

    Garnel, please explain how you straddle avodah zarah with eilu v'eilu.

  21. You are correct, I do not have a proof that gilgul in and by itself is heresy. It wouldn't have legs to stand on by itself without Zohar. All we have is negative messorah.

  22. > For that matter, can anyone name any Orthodox rabbi today who would publicly say they don't believe in it, or that the belief is wrong?

    That's an unfair thing to expect, because there is tremendous religious and social pressure not to specifically and publicly contradict what are considered to be long-cherished and widespread beliefs. You could, for example, criticize the idea of hashgacha klalis, because it wasn't long-cherished and widespread, but not hashgacha pratis, which is.

    You also can't openly criticize foundational ideas which if they are false would essentially mean that especially great men were wasting their time at best, if not simply delusional, by devoting so much time to these ideas. Critizing gilgul is to criticize, for example, the Arizal, is it not? Can this be done?

    Even if one were to try to interpret gilgul metaphorically so as not to implicitly criticize someone like the Arizal, that's still a far cry from what you are asking, which is does anyone openly say it is a false doctrine. No one would do that - but since we know that there are reputational consequences for doing it, I don't think we can say it means too much that no one would say it publicly.

    I put no stock in the weight of the following, but since it seems to address what you asked, I'm told that Rabbi Avigdor Miller had a policy of openly ignoring giglulim, stories, etc. and did refer to its absence in the Talmud as the reason. I agree that one does not form an entire doctrine around R. Miller (God forbid), and it is telling that only a maverick type like him would go so far as he did toward publicly disbelieving. Any other rabbi who is normal and cares and fears other people would just not say it even if he thought it.

  23. Soul Searching by R' Yaacov Astor (who has published various other books and articles, some of which have appeared on, sums up the scientific evidence for different aspects of the afterlife, including reincarnation. There is enough compelling material in the literature by reincarnation researchers and past-life therapists for a rational person with no pre-existing agenda to adopt a belief in reincarnation (after all, it seems extremely unlikely all the cases would be just fabricated by so many people). For example, Weiss, one of these therapists discussed in Soul Searching, had a patient before Weiss believed in reincarnation, who under hypnosis gave huge amounts of detail about the life of a woman who seemed to be living in the 19th-century US. The woman whom he had under hypnosis had no substantive knowledge of history, and herself didn't believe in reincarnation. There was enough detail (names and such, I believe) for him to search the historical record for the person and find out this person really did exist. That was how he began doing past-life regression therapy.

    The R' Miller story is interesting, but even if it is true is not that unusual since many rabbis completely omit any discussion of gilgulim -- it's mainly chassidim and kabbalists who mention the topic today (despite the fact that the Gra wrote on the subject!). This may be because the Yeshivish and Modern Orthodox are just not that interested in mysticism.

    There is apparently one line of commentary (from the last two or three centuries), by whom I don't remember, which is included in standard editions of the Talmud, which casts doubt on reincarnation. This kind of thing, and the anti-gilgulim statements of pre-Zohar rationalists, at least give people license not to believe in it, which from my perspective is good because it makes people with different tastes more comfortable.

  24. I have to add that as someone who spent numerous years studying the works of the Ari, including shaar hagilgulim, that the common conception of gilgul is not the same as what the Ari was talking about. What he wrote about and explained in great detail is not the same mechanism as Eastern religions' conception of re-incarnation, which is really what most people are familiar with.

    Of course when it comes to the concept of gilgulim (just like any number of 'isms) you can take it or leave it, but to invalidate what the Ari was talking about based on R' Saadia Gaon's objections to reincarnation is to a large degree pitting apples against oranges.

  25. Found this pertinent & interesting

  26. 'but to invalidate what the Ari was talking about based on R' Saadia G
    aon's objections to reincarnation is
    to a large degree pitting apples
    against oranges.'

    Why? R' Saadia is saying that the concept of gilgul is not Jewish. We have a negative messorah here. Ari is mechadesh his teaching and has no messorah. He doesn't claim to have one nor does anyone else. It's all done with ruach hakodesh.

    Gufa. When Jews wrap their heads around gilgul it will look different from Hari Krishna. But what is the substantive difference in your opinion between hindu reincarnation and kabalistic gilgul?

  27. 'There is enough compelling material in the literature by reincarnation researchers and past-life therapists for a rational person with no pre-existing agenda to adopt a belief in reincarnation (after all, it seems extremely unlikely all the cases would be just fabricated by so many people).

    I am not familiar with the study. However, I think it cannot support itpashtuta deMoshe bekol dara or that the victims of the holocaust were gilgulim of the neshomos from the second temple period. Look, for a Jewish concept I go to Jewish sources. Even if there is something out there we don't know its nature, how it operates or have a messorah.

  28. Student V, the link is good but a crucial point is missing - the concept of reincarnation was a well known ancient belief. Chazal were aware of it and chose to ignore it. This constitutes a negative messorah.

  29. Carol,

    It seems he disagrees with you on that point and holds that it was "not known by chazal." In other words, even if this is an ancient idea, whatever religions chazal were familiar with at that time must have been religions that did not utilize this concept because they were not aware of this concept. I don't know if you are right or he is, I think I would need a degree in ancient near east religions. I suspect that if they were aware of the belief they would have negated it as they do with other things. Why no mention one way or the other? I think that's a good question.

    However, you both seem to agree on the concept of a 'negative mesorah' for it because he asserts from the very fact that chazal do not mention it, the conclusion that it is a foreign belief, and he calls it pernicious.

    The main reason I wanted to post this link was because there was disbelief among the comments that any Orthodox rabbi would ever publicly express disagreement with this notion. I don't see why it should be out of bounds to assert one's hashkafa and reject another. In fact, those discussions should be made more prevalent so people can stop thinking there is one single solitary view and everyone follows some hashkafa pope like robots or else.

  30. You can add to the list R. Aryeh DiModena who wrote an entire sefer called Ari Nohem against kabbala and gigul. It can be found here

  31. Carol--

    have you read the Etz Haim and Shaar Hagilgulim/Sefer Hagilgulim or are you relying on 2nd or 3rd hand information?

    As far as your question-- yes, there are very significant differences.
    Therefore, it is less an issue of a negative mersorah as one of a lack of a clear mesorah.

  32. In short, Eastern systems posit that the soul that returns is the same that lived before. It's a direct continuation.

    The Ari talks about supersouls. One gilgul is a manifestaion or is associated with that supersoul. Those elements or sub-components that are not properly dealt with-- another gilgul comes down which encapsulates them. Those elements THAT soul doesn't deal with properly, another gilgul comes down which is assocated with them, And so on and so on, until the entire supersoul (or partsuf in the Ari's terminology) is "rectified". Thus each gilgul is really an entirely individual person who will have his own tehiath hamethim, and yet they are all expressions or manifestations of various elements/sub-components of a super-soul/partsuf. It's not the sort of direct, linear reincarnation of Eastern systems.

  33. Sorry for my english I am French talking.People who remember things from hundreds years ago is not a proof of gilgul it is simply because the mesora say that when a child is born there are 3 shutafim.Hashem, the father and the mother.So in a soul ther is 1/3 of the the father who has 1/3 of his father etc...( collective memories ). Be well. Patrick

  34. Carol:

    I will add that I am much like you in that I have tried to figure out how gilgul can be an authentic view despite it not being part of the "mesorah." However, it is not that simple to simply throw away the mekuaballim. Additionally, I have read the book mentioned by a commenter and a much better book describing the travels of a very respected doctor named Ian Stevenson who traveled to many countries and conducted interviews with children, parents, and relatives of children who had knowledge of past lives. It is a facinating read and does not use past life regression hypnosis as proof, but rather relied on detailed studies and interviews done by Stevenson. As a rationalist, it is easy to simply dismiss gilgul, but as an honest rationalist, it behooves us to study the matter in depth before dismissing this belief.

  35. Micha look, the part of the parzuf that comes down in a gilgul has been here before. This soul splitting is not substantivly different from Hinduism. They believe that a person by living a virtuous life in his present form will be reincarnated in a higher state. If he is not virtuous a lower state reincarnation will await him. Hinduism is pretty straight forward but the idea behind it and Kabbolah is essentially the same: you do good and you go up, you do bad and down you go. Jews just make things very complicated until nobody knows what they are talking about.

    I haven't read Etz Haim and Shaar Hagilgulim/Sefer Hagilgulim, but I've learned tons of Chassidus which would be 2nd and 3rd hand information.

  36. Burnett, I have to read the stuff before I can be specific. There is one thing that I find striking: why is it always children? why not adults? Was there a follow up done when they became adults?

    Well, there is a story about the Tzanzer that he used to show a bruise mark on his foot and tell his chassidim: 'Zeide Yankev hot mich git gesmaissen!' (Forfather Yakov beat me good). Meaning to say that when his neshoma was misgalgel in a sheep of Yakov Avinu, Yakov Avinu was him mesaken. Pretty awesome stuff to remember!

  37. Carol-

    it's important not to let ideological heat get in the way of being open to nuances which color the whole picture.

    I wrote clearly how in the Ari's understanding, re-incarnation is not a linear, direct continuation. In general in this system gilgulim are derived from the same overall super-soul. But they are different souls, not the same soul. This is very different from Eastern systems.

    The principle is not very complicated at all. I explained it one paragraph!

    Again, take it or leave it, but let's be honest with the facts.

  38. Micha, I don't know enough to respond about Ari's concept of gilgul, but I think it has more to do with his concept of the soul. Do you think that 2500 children's testimonies amassed by Dr. Ian Stevenson over a period of 40 years support his teaching? Did anyone of these children had any recollection of being anything other than a human being? Amnon Yitzhak has a dvd out about a Druze kid being a reincarnation of his uncle. It was pretty interesting, but how far can this take us? Assuming it is all true we have reincarnation but we know nothing about its mechanism. In fact the Druze kid's story is a contradiction of Ari's teaching! The kid's uncle died in Lebanon fighting in the Israeli army. He died as a Jew on kiddush Hashem and should be rewarded with eternal life. Instead, he is reborn as a Druze kid who wants to be a carrier military officer just like his uncle. The story fits perfectly with the Druze concept of gilgul. They believe that everybody is always getting reincarnated. This is the reason that they don't accept converts: if you didn't become a Druze at the time when the faith was founded, you missed your chance because you were alive then. So for a Druze there is always reincarnation. The kid is very nice and he loves his uncle and the state of Israel. But him being from the Druze background should make us very suspicious of his story and of Amnon Yitzhak.
    When I was a kid a used to have a feeling that I had lived before and that I had been to places that I would see for the first time. I spoke about it to my friends and some had similar feelings. I don't have these feelings as an adult. I don't know what all this means.

  39. What disturbs me isn't the irrationality or gullible superstitious nature of the students in the article. I believe with perfect faith that someday the Cubs will win the World Series, the Clippers will take the NBA championships and the US won't lose to Ghana in the World Cup. So I can't throw stones.

    What's troubling is the bochur's immediate reaction to this supposed miracle. Capture the bird and kill it. That's more the sort of attitude I'd expect from my cat than a Torah scholar

  40. Todd, I think there's no way he would've had that reaction if it hadn't been for the kabbalistic teaching that slaughtering an animal elevates its neshama. Of course, there's no teaching that any time someone reincarnates into an animal it needs to be killed! I see the kabbalistic teaching as more of an interpretation of the spiritual significance of eating meat, which frames it as a positive act. On the other hand, changing the topic slightly, the great kabbalist the Ramak says in Tomer Devorah (ch. 5) that we should never harm a living thing unless it is necessary, and clearly eating meat is not necessary, so I think there are kabbalistic arguments on both sides of slaughtering or not slaughtering animals question.

    Carol, thanks for sharing. That's very interesting. I've never had experiences like that, even though I believe in gilgulim.

    As I understand it, your argument is that gilgulim is not an authentic mesorah because of its late date, some rabbis' pre-Zohar denunciations of reincarnation, and Rambam's statement that we have lost the authentic mystical tradition.

    As to the Rambam issue, just because it was lost as far as he knew, doesn't mean it was completely lost. We don't have to believe Rambam was omniscient to recognize his greatness. The gilgulim tradition may have been passed down secretely for generations and then only written down in the Zohar. It is also possible that something akin to Ruach Hakodesh in the post-prophetic era was used to access the original mystical teachings that were lost.

    As I see it, kabbalistic literature has a lot of stuff in it, and saying that it is a legitimate part of the mesorah is not the same as saying that it is all 100% true. Just as some of the sayings in the Talmud are recorded there but are not the final rule, there are so many details in kabbalah, and different versions of things, that it is not necessary, or possible perhaps, to believe that it is all true. For that reason, different individuals can follow different options, all of which are legitimate: ignore kabbalah completely, believe in some general kabbalistic concepts but ignore or disbelieve in some of the details, favor some kabbalistic (or chassidic) approaches over others, etc.

    You may wonder, if hashkafa without gilgulim was good enough for Chazal and the Rishonim, how can it be legitimate to add this "extra" belief? Well, it is possible that "new" beliefs arise at particular times, according to G-d's providence, because for whatever reason people "need" it. For example, Ramban (I believe) and others have mentioned gilgulim as a way to understand why the righteous suffer. So it may have served certain spiritual or theological functions which Hashem knew would be useful beginning in that time period, so it was allowed to be published and disseminated.

    In this way of thinking, theological changes over time, and the resulting diversity of hashkafa that exists today, is an overall positive development -- gamzu l'tovah -- not a wrong turn in Jewish history. Taking from the sociology of religion, scholars have shown that when more than one variety of religion is available, it appeals to more people and more of the overall society ends up being religious. This may explain, for example, why America (with its longstanding freedom of religion) is so much more religious than Europe.


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