History Crash Course #51: The Kabbalists

In the 16th century, the Israeli mountaintop town of Tzfat became the center of Jewish mysticism.

In the past few installments, we have been relating the events in the history of the Jews that happened during a period known as the Renaissance (1350 to 1650).

During this time we saw: a resurgence of classical knowledge and the waning power of the Church; the advent of the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews from various countries; the growth of Protestantism as a new offshoot of Christianity; the Golden Age of Polish Jewry and the Ukrainian massacres of Bogdan Chmielnicki. (See Parts 48, 49, and 50.)

Where was the Jewish world as the Renaissance was drawing to a close?

Geographically, about half the Jewish population was located in the Middle East, with a high concentration in Turkey and the lands of the Ottoman Empire. And about half in Europe, with a high concentration in Eastern Europe (Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania.)

That is not to say that all the Jews lived there. In fact, there were Jews literally the world over, including India and China. But for the purposes of a Crash Course in Jewish History, we are focusing on the large Jewish population centers.

Ottoman Empire

From the year 638 (six years after the death of Mohammed) when Caliph Omar invaded Jerusalem, the Land of Israel had been in Muslim hands ― with the very short exception of the Crusades (1099-1187) ― and would continue to be until the end of World War I in 1917.

During the years of the Renaissance ― from 1516 onward ― that Muslim power belonged to the Ottoman Empire based in Istanbul. It is important to note that although they were Muslims, the Ottomans were not Arabs ― they were Turks.

The Turks were traditionally good to the Jews. We already saw how following the expulsion from Spain, Jews were welcomed into Ottoman lands by Sultan Bayezid II, who declared: “They tell me that Ferdinand of Spain is a wise man but he is a fool. For he takes his treasure and sends it all to me.”

As the Ottoman Empire spread, the Turks came to Israel, and it was the greatest of the Ottoman sultans, known as “Suleiman the Magnificent,” who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem.

It is fascinating that Suleiman is Arabic for Solomon ― and that it is his walls that define the Old City of Jerusalem to this day.

At this time many Jews started to return to the Land of Israel, and particularly to the city of Tzfat (sometimes spelled Safed). In less than 100 years the population of Tzfat grew from a mere 300 families to 10,000 people thus making it the largest Jewish population in Israel at that the time .

And during this time Tzfat gave birth to some amazing contributions to Jewish scholarship.

First, we must mention Rabbi Jacob Berav (1475 to 1546). He’s very significant because he tried to do something which had not been done in the Jewish world for well over 1,000 years. He tried to re-institute semichah, “rabbinic ordination.” Semichah is a “proper” rabbinic ordination which would come in a direct line from teacher to student traceable all the way back to Moses. It had been interrupted during Roman persecutions. Rabbis were still “ordained” but these ordinations were neither “proper” nor “official” in the way Jewish law intended them to be.

Based on a statement of Maimonides, Rabbi Berav thought it could be done properly again if it was supported by all of the Rabbis in Israel He ordained himself and a few other scholars, but his attempt at re-instituting semichah was not successful. The rabbis in Jerusalem didn’t recognize it, and, to this day, rabbinical ordination is symbolic only.

One of the few people that Rabbi Berav ordained was Rabbi Joseph Karo. Rabbi Karo (1488 to 1575) was among the Jews expelled from Spain, and he had made his way through Europe and Turkey and finally ended in Tzfat. There he wrote one of the most important books in Judaism ― the Shulchan Aruch “The Prepared Table” ― and it is a code of Jewish law which is followed to this day.

Before him, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, (know as the Tur) had attempted to organize Jewish law in a book called the Arba Turim (“Four Sections). Rabbi Joseph Karo took the Arba Turim and spent 32 years writing a commentary to it, which he called Beit Yoseph, “House of Joseph,” and which he later condensed into the Shulchan Aruch.

Rabbi Karo was Sephardi, and Rabbi Moses Isserles (known as Ramah), a Polish rabbi from Krakow, wrote an Ashkenazi commentary to the Shulchan Aruch (see Part 49). To this day, the Shulchan Aruch by Joseph Karo, as amended by Moses Isserles and with its later commentaries, dictates Jewish law.

While Joseph Karo is today most famous for his book of law, he was a mystic. And it is no coincidence that he made his home in Tzfat, because in his day Tzfat became the center of Jewish mysticism.

Jewish Mysticism

What is Jewish mysticism?

Jewish mysticism is more popularly known as Kabbalah.[1]Because it is by definition esoteric, no popular account (including this book) can provide a complete, precise, and accurate explanation of the Kabbalah. Because of the great difficulty involved in … Continue reading

Kabbalah (“that which was received”) is an interpretation of the Torah that focuses on the deepest, esoteric teachings of Judaism. According to Jewish tradition, this level of understanding of the Torah was revealed at Mt. Sinai, but because of its complexity, it was reserved for only a few initiated few. With time, that secret interpretation became more widely known and finally published and disseminated generally (though few could understand it).

The key work of Kabbalah is the Zohar ― the “Book of Splendor.” The contents of this book were first revealed by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in approximately 100 CE, while he lived in a cave, hiding out from the Romans.

Rabbi Moses de Leon (1240-1305), a Spanish rabbi, was the first to publish the Zohar, though he never claimed to be the author. Furthermore, the teachings which he published were not organized into a coherent whole and, as before, few could understand them.

Then Rabbi Moshe Cordevero of Tzfat (1522-1570), better known as the Ramak, entered the picture. The Ramak rationally systematized all of Kabbalistic thought up to his time, in particular the teachings of the Zohar. In his work, Pardes Rimonim, “The Pomegranate Orchard,” the Ramak demonstrated the underlying unity of Kabbalistic tradition by organizing the various, often seemingly contradictory, teachings into a coherent system.

The core of the Ramak’s system consisted of a detailed description of how God created reality through the ten sefirot ― channels of Divine energy. Understanding these ten forces is key in the study of Kabbalah today. (See Kabbalah 101 Series)

But perhaps the most famous figure in the development of Kabbalah as we know it today was Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), popularly called the Ari.

The Ari was born in Jerusalem but subsequently relocated to Tzfat, arriving there on the day of the Ramak’s funeral. He lived there only two years, dying at the age of 38, but in that short period of time he revolutionized the study of Kabbalah. In fact, his teachings ― which were chiefly recorded by his disciple Rabbi Chaim Vital ― virtually dictate the study of Kabbalah.

The Ari’s system was different from that of the Ramak in that, rather than seeing the sefirot as one-dimensional points, he saw them as dynamically interacting partzufim, “personae,” each with a symbolically human-like character.

In his understanding, human actions can impact on the sefirot ― which channel Divine energy into the world ― and can either facilitate or impede the advancement of creation toward its intended state of perfection.

The Ari also advanced the study of reincarnation, which he explained in Sha’ar He Gilgulim “The Gate of Reincarnation.”

During this period of time, many people came to study Kabbalah in Tzfat and legends are told of the Kabbalists, all dressed in white, walking out in the fields on the evening of Shabbat, singing the song welcoming the Shabbat Queen: Lecha Dodi Likrat Kallah, “Come My Beloved to Greet the Bride.” (This famous song/poem was written in the 16th century by Rabbi Solomon HaLevi Alkabetz.) The Kabbalat Shabbat service to welcome the Shabbat on Friday evening was created in Tzfat in the 16th century.

Shabbetai Tzvi, The False Messiah

Mysticism, because it often attempts to explain the deeper meaning behind the events of history, is often associated with Messianic expectation. But Messianic expectation ― which is one of the Thirteen Principles of Faith as outlined by Maimonides ― can sometimes be misplaced and lead to big problems for the Jewish people.

This happened in the late 1600s and Jewish history of the previous 150 years ― the expulsions, the Inquisition, the Chmielnicki massacres ― set the scene. Jewish morale was low. It seemed that things could not get any worse. Surely, the time had arrived for the Messiah to come to the rescue.

At this time, a so-called mystic named Shabbetai Tzvi became prominent. Born in 1626 in Smyrna, Turkey, he was by all accounts a brilliant, charismatic if emotionally volatile man. By the age of 20, he was already given the title of chacham, “wise man,” by the members of his community, though not too long after ― when his behavior became erratic and people come to realize that though brilliant, he was also mentally unstable ― he was thrown out by them.

He started to wander the Middle East, and in 1651 he made his way to Israel, specifically to Gaza. There he met another so-called mystic by the name of Nathan of Gaza, who became his promoter. It was Nathan who convinced Shabbetai Tzvi that he was the Messiah, and he started sending letters to all Jewish communities that the Messiah had come to Israel.

One account of what happens next comes from a primary source, a Jewish woman living in Germany named “Gluckel of Hamelin” whose memoirs give us insight into the life of European Jewry in the 17th century. She writes:

“About this time people began to talk of Shabbetai Tzvi but woe unto us that we have sinned and never lived to see what we heard and I believed. Throughout the world servants and children rent themselves with repentance, prayer and charity for two, yeah for three years my beloved people Israel sat in labor but there came forth naught but wind.”Our joy when the letters arrive from Smyrna is not to be told. Most of them were addressed to Sephardim. As fast as they came they took the letters to the synagogue and read them aloud. Young and old the Germans too hastened to the Sephardic synagogues.

“Many sold their houses and lands and all their possessions for the day they hoped to be redeemed. My good father-in-law left his home in Hamelin, abandoned his house and lands and all of his goodly furniture. Full well we know the Most High has given us word and were we not so wicked but truly pious from the bottom of our hearts, I’m certain God would have mercy on us. If only we kept the commandment, ‘thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,’ but God forgive us for the way we keep it. No good can come from the jealousy and thoughtless hate that rules our lives…”[2]See: The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln, (Schocken Books, 1977), pp. 46-47.

From this account, we see how eager Jews were for the Messiah to come after the many persecutions, and how easily they were swept up by Messianic fervor.

It must be noted however, that even though Shabbetai Tzvi had a huge following in the Jewish world (much more than Jesus ever had), the majority of the European rabbis, who saw how Shabbetai Tzvi was changing, deviating from or violating Jewish law, were not fooled and warned against him.

Meanwhile Shabbetai Tzvi, believing his own story, went to pay a call on the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire to demand recognition as the Messiah. He also wanted the Sultan to hand over the Land of Israel to him.

The Sultan, not impressed, promptly threw him in jail and then threatened to torture him to death if he did not convert to Islam.

So Shabbetai Tzvi converted. For his cooperation, he was even given a royal title, Aziz Mechmed Efendi, and a position, “Keeper of the Sultan’s Gate.” He continued to claim that he was the Messiah and the Sultan eventually exiled him.

Of course, as soon as he converted to Islam, the Jewish world stopped believing that he was the Messiah. Some Jews though wouldn’t admit they were fooled ― they converted to Islam along with him. This group ― the Doenmeh ― survived as a special Muslim sect within Turkey until World War I when the Ottoman Empire fell.


As a result of what happened with Shabbetai Tzvi, there was a backlash that continued for many years after his death. The opponents of the Sabbatean movement (the followers of Shabbetai Tzvi during his lifetime and after his death), to whom no one had listened when Messianic fervor swept world Jewry ― particularly Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi of Amsterdam, who was known as the Chacham Tzvi and his son, Rabbi Yaakov Emden ― came out blaming Jewish mysticism for the fiasco. This time people listened to them.

As a result of this backlash, some brilliant Kabbalists were unfairly condemned, hounded out of town and their books burned.

One of those was the Italian rabbi, Moshe Chaim Luzatto, known as the Ramchal (1707-1747). A great Kabbalist and a brilliant profound thinker, he wrote a book which is still intensely studied today, Mesilat Yesharim, “The Path of the Just.” But because he his mystical inclinations aroused fears of more false messianism, he was hounded out of Italy, and he came to Israel where he died at age 40.

His contribution to Jewish studies was not appreciated until after his death. Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman, the Vilna Gaon (“Genius of Vilna”), later said about the works of the Ramchal that his understanding of Judaism was perfect, and that if the Ramchal were alive in Vila Gaon’s time, he would have walked from Vilna to Italy to sit at the Ramchal’s feet and learn.

However, the Vilna Gaon, while praising the Ramchal, condemned another brilliant rabbi whose teachings were based on Kabbalah ― the famous founder of the Hassidic movement, the Ba’al Shem Tov. That story follows.


1 Because it is by definition esoteric, no popular account (including this book) can provide a complete, precise, and accurate explanation of the Kabbalah. Because of the great difficulty involved in truly mastering Kabbalistic text, study of Kabbalah has traditionally been limited to older scholars who have already mastered the study of the Written and Oral Law. Because Kabbalah is associated with Jewish mysticism it has always been an alluring subject to the masses as we see today. The problem is that to truly begin to understand Kabbalah one must have significant knowledge of the entire corpus of all of Jewish learning: The entire Hebrew Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash etc.(and it goes with out saying a mastery of Hebrew and Aramaic). Modern, attempts to spread the study of Kabbalah amongst the masses of poorly educated Jews and even non-Jews are often ill-conceived, ineffectual and misleading. Trying to seriously study Kabbalah without having first mastered the rest of the Torah would be equivalent to trying to study advanced astrophysics before mastering basic addition and subtraction.
2 See: The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln, (Schocken Books, 1977), pp. 46-47.
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