Kabbalah’s Golden Age–In Its Golden City: Tzefat
By Rabbi Harold Rabinowitz.
Rabbi Abraham Lieberman, noted historian and Dean of YULA Girls High School on Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles, delivered the third of his series on “The History of the Kabbalists” at Maayon Yisroel Chassidic Center, 140 N. La Brea Ave., in Hancock Park, on Wednesday evening, December 25 (Tevet 22). The subjects of the final lecture was the outpouring of spiritual insight and Kabbalistic genius that took place in the city of Tzefat (Safed) in northern Israel in the 16th century. Earlier Lectures dealt with the beginnings of Kabbalstic writings in Spain and other European countries, with the second lecture focusing on the genius and importance of the Zohar.
Following the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, a great many talented and learned rabbinic minds sought a new place where they could study and develop their understanding of the Kabbalah, its relationship with Jewish Halachah and Talmudic teachings—and especially to understand and decipher the newly publicized body of Kabbalistic knowledge made available in the text of the Zohar. Two other events (besides the Spanish expulsion) had a great impact on the flourishing of rabbinic and Kabbalistic study during this period. One was the invention and development of printing. The Jews of Europe became deeply involved in publishing Jewish texts and treatises—comparatively far greater than the general population—and in spite of restrictions on Jewish printing enterprises imposed by the Church in many countries.
There developed in the remote hilltop city of Tzefat in northern Israel—overlooking the Kinneret (Lake Tiberias)—a remarkable group of scholars and mystics who not only turned the city into a remarkable place where Jewish thought and practice could flourish, but a body of literature that has influenced Jews and the world ever since—and arguably as much or more today than ever in history. Rabbi Lieberman listed a roster of great rabbinic personalities whose names have become synonymous with great spirituality and with high (and deep) understanding of the teachings of the Kabbalah.
That list includes such luminaries as: Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522–1570)—known by the acronym, the Ramak; Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz (1500–1580)—author of the universally chanted song, Lechah Dodi, that has welcomed the Sabbath Queen in Jewish Friday night Shabbat services around the world for more than 500 years; Rabbi Yosef Karo (188–1575), expelled from Portugal—author of the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law that has been the definitive guide to Jewish observance for centuries, but who also taught mysticism and wrote the Kesef Mishnah, a critically important commentary on Maimonides’ Code; Rabbi Ya’akov Bei-Rav (1474–1546)—a Talmudic sage who attempted to reintroduce Mosaic ordination (Semichat Moshe) and subsequently attempted (unsuccessfully) to reinstitute the Sanhedrin; Rabbi Eliyahu De Vidas (1518–1592)—a disciple of both the Ramak and the Ari-Zal, whose work, Reishit Chachmah (“The Beginning of Wisdom,” from the verse in Mishlei, 9:10: “The beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord.”) introduced the Kabbalah to many European Jews through a Mussar vocabulary, one that emphasized how Kabbalistic teachings can be used to improve one’s character (the book was reprinted 40 times during the 20 years after its composition); and Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543–1620)—student of the Ari and largely responsible for the dissemination of the Ari’s teachings to the world in the form of the Shemonah She’arim (“The Eight Gates”—a voluminous collection of Vital’s notes on the Ari’s discourses, later abridged to create the Etz Chaim (“Tree of Life”) the most influential work in teaching and spreading the ideas and insights of the Ari-Zal throughout Europe—and to Jews in all corners of the globe to this day.
But the most illustrious and luminous Kabbalist of this era—one who would exercise an immense influence on the hearts and minds of Jews of all schools for centuries—no less today than in medieval Tzefat—was Rabbi Isaac (ben Solomon) Luria Ashkenazi (1534–1572)—who ironically spent very little of his short life (passing away at the age of 38) in Tzefat, but whose acronym, The Ari-Zal (“The Lion, of Blessed Memory”) is only a small indication of the great veneration his teaching and his memory—in fact the shadow and presence that he casts over all of Jewish spirituality since he lived, prayed and taught in Tzefat some 500 years ago. The Ari came to Tzefat in 1570 and departed in 1572, after spending 15 years in Egypt in seclusion, studying the Zohar with the great Talmudic authority, the Radvaz—flourishing, one may say, for only two years. Yet, his influence and inspiration is inestimable.
Though at first a student of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (the Ramak), the Ari soon became master to a school of brilliant rabbis who realized they were in the presence of an incisive, creative, and sanctified mind. Among the ideas that the Ari taught during this period—an idea that has become a cornerstone of Kabbalistic thought and of Jewish spirituality ever since—is the idea that we human beings have the power to influence and shape event and forces in the Olamot HaElyonot—the “upper worlds” of the metaphysical universe that lie between the materiality of the world and the higher spiritual realms that lead to the Almighty. It is an astonishing fact that the only piece of text that we are certain came from the Ari are the verses of song, Askinu Se’udasa, that are sung at the Sabbath meals. All the rest comes from his disciples.
Rabbi Lieberman related the story of how the Reishit Chachmah came into existence: the Ari believed that the essence of Jewish teaching should take place person to person—orally, and not committed to writing, in which form it could easily be misunderstood and lead people astray. During a period of illness of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, a devoted follower of the Ramak and a friend of the Ramak’s younger brother gave him 600 gold coins for the right to peruse the contents a metal chest of the Ramak’s in which he secreted the notes he took of the Ari’s discourses. Thinking that all he would do was study the notes, the brother turned over the chest, without knowing that the friend had assembled in secret 100 soferim (scribes) to copy the voluminous notes during the three days he had them. The disciple returned the notes, and the dissemination of the Ari’s teachings, interpreted through the keen mind and eye of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, began, eventually resulting in the Shemonah She’arim, and later in the Etz Chayim. When the Ramak recovered, he was desolate over the betrayal and ordered that the chest be buried with him when he was laid to rest.
Rabbi Lieberman then painted a vivid picture of what Tzefat was like during this period. In addition to the study of Torah and Rabbinic texts becoming the occupation of virtually every citizen of the town, personal practices that had been taught by the Ari and his disciples became routine in the life of the town. In addition to services being conducted with great solemnity and concentration, the Ari urged everyone to recite Birkat HaMazon (Grace after Meals) with great concentration and very clearly so that children become aware of the presence of the Almighty everywhere in the Universe. In books recounting the daily behavior and customs of both the Ramak and the Ari, all of which the Jews of Tzefat took with great seriousness and resolve, we find such customs as:
• One must never swear an oath—not about a trivial matter, but not about a serious one either.
• One must avoid at all costs telling an untruth, even one calculated to avoid saying something derogatory or unflattering.
• One must review at the end of the day—and at the end of the week before the onset of Shabbat—how one has spent the week, what was the service to Hashem that he or she rendered; and what flaws in one’s personality did one endeavor to correct.
• Mincha (the afternoon service) should be recited wearing a Tallit and Tefillin, as at the Shacharit (morning) service.
• One should not engage in idle conversation or levity; and one should make a charitable dobnation of some kind every day.
Every Jew—and every generation of Jews—must feel, the Ari taught (in accordance with the teaching of the Talmud), that if the Redemption and the Messiah did not occur in their time, they may feel as if they were responsible for the destruction of the Bais HaMikdosh. This created a deep sense of commitment—but also of solidarity, joy and community in Tsefat—a camaraderie that pervaded all of Jewish life in that remarkable city.
Among the important treatises on Kabbalah to emerged from this period, Rabbi Lieberman focused special attention on two works by Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (Ramak): Pardes Rimonim (“An Orchard of Pomeganates”) and the Tomer Devorah (The “Palm Tree of Devorah”)—which present a thorough all-encompassing system of the Kabbalah, and, especially in the latter work, the implications this view of Creation and the Universe of G-d’s creation on the behavior and character of the human being. The classic Rabbinic teaching that, “As He [Hashem] is merciful, so must you [human] be merciful” (known philosophically as imitatio dei—emulating Hashem) is extended to include relating to the constant relationship we humans have with Hashem, who is the source of all power that we use to do right and to do wrong. Imagine, Rabbi Lieberman said, how much patience and forgiveness Hashem must exhibit when He sees His creatures (namely, us) using the power that He bestows on all of Creation being used to perform acts of evil, injustice, and sin. That, too, we must emulate if we are to achieve a godly status.
The Ramak relates that the Ari would delay the Mincha Service in order to repay a worker he owed wages, and Rabbi Lieberman told of how a letter from the Ari found in the Cairo Geniza (scroll storeroom) repaying a loan to a person in Cairo was written on the day before the Ari passed away. Such were the high moral standards of the Ari—and all the more remarkable that this mystic and highly spiritual man was also a businessman (a spice merchant) who saw to it that his debts were paid before he was called to Heaven.
Audios of all three of Rabbi Lieberman’s lectures are available on the Maayon Yisroel website.
Rabbi Harold Rabinowitz is a member of the Touro College-Los Angeles Faculty.