While the tradition of Jewish mysticism has been said to originate with the patriarch Abraham and to have flourished in the Land of Israel during the Mishnaic period among leading tannaim—e.g., Nehunya ben HaKanah, Akiva ben Joseph, Ishmael ben Elisha, Shimon ben Azzai, Shimon ben Zoma, Elisha ben Avuyah, and Shimon bar Yohai—its strand of esotericism known as “kabbalah” (“reception”) was specifically a medieval European phenomenon that first emerged in 12th century France (Provence, Languedoc) then in 13th century Spain (Catalonia, Aragon, Castile).
Building upon earlier esoterica such as Seifer Yetzirah (traditionally ascribed to either Abraham or Akiva ben Joseph), the Heikhalot/Merkavah literature (c. 200–700 CE), and Shi’ur Komah (probably dating to the Talmudic era), the kabbalists adopted and adapted existent recondite concepts and ideated innovative conceptualizations of the Divinity and of the universe. Over the centuries, kabbalah itself developed discrete streams, including theosophical-theurgical kabbalah, prophetic-ecstatic kabbalah, Cordoveran kabbalah, Lurianic kabbalah, and the practical kabbalah of Hasidism.
The kabbalists commonly constellated in small, exclusive fraternities comprised of elite initiates (e.g., the Iyun circle, the Gerona circle, the Zoharic mystical fellowship, the Ahavat Shalom group) and centered on leading sages who inculcated disciples. They produced influential esoterica in the form of exegetical midrashim, whose manuscripts were sometimes published pseudepigraphically and circulated in booklets or quires, such as the literary compilations Seifer HaBahir (a.k.a. Midrash Rabbi Nehunya ben HaKanah) and the Zohar (a.k.a. Midrash D’Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai).
Ultimately the most influential of these circles of mystics was the Zoharic fraternity, which inevitably evolved during the key period of the Zohar’s creation and compilation (1270–1330 CE) and which likely comprised the likes of Todros ben Joseph HaLevi Abulafia, Moses de León, Isaac ibn Sahula, Joseph Gikatilla, Meir ibn Sahula, David ben Judah HeHasid, Joseph ben Shalom Ashkenazi, Joseph Angelet, Joseph of Hamadan, and Bahya ben Asher, etc.
What follows is a survey of key kabbalists of the medieval and early modern periods:
A disciple of Isaac ben Reuven al-Bargeloni, Judah ben Barzillai al-Bargeloni (HaNasi) (c. 1070–1140 CE) was a native of Barcelona, Spain, and a scion of a prominent rabbinical family. He earned a reputation for his Talmudic erudition and as a codifier. He also amassed a wealth of ancient speculative theological material, and his library included many sources later lost. He indited a mystical-philosophical commentary on Seifer Yetzirah. He had a public dispute with his rabbinical colleague Abraham bar Hiyya regarding postponing a wedding for astrological reasons, which Judah strongly opposed since he deemed astrology contrary to halakhah. His writings proved profoundly influential for later sage Abraham ben David, and his descendants included Moses ben Nahman.
Abraham ben David (Rabad of Posquières/Rabad II) (1125–1198 CE) was a native of Narbonne (France) and lived variously in France: Lunel, Montpellier, Nîmes, and Posquières, where he finally settled. He earned his livelihood in textiles and became wealthy, serving as patron for the indigent disciples of his academy. Abraham became most famous for his critiques of the halakhic codes by Isaac Alfasi (Seifer HaHalakhot) and Moses ben Maimon (Mishneh Torah). For his acute animadversions Abraham earned the epithet “Ba’al Hassagot” (“Master Critic”). Abraham was also a mystic who believed divine secrets were disclosed to him via a holy spirit during his intense studies. His erudition was greatly admired by later sages Moses ben Nahman and Solomon ibn Aderet. His son Isaac the Blind also became a Talmud scholar and a kabbalist.
The son of Abraham ben David and a native of Provence (France), Isaac the Blind (Sagi Nahor) (1160–1235 CE) was apparently born blind and earned the epithet “Sagi Nahor” (“of great light” in Aramaic, a euphemism for his disability). He earned a reputation as an eminent kabbalist and was the first to name the 10 divine emanations (sfirot) and to adopt the concept of metempsychosis (gilgul). He indited a commentary on Seifer Yetzirah; a commentary on Midrash Konen; and an epistle to Moses ben Nahman and Jonah Gerondi. Isaac was referred to as “HeHasid” (“the Pious”) and called the “father of kabbalah” by Bahya ben Asher, and was also highly admired by later kabbalists Joseph Gikatilla, Menahem Recanati, Isaac of Akko, and Shem Tov ibn Gaon. It was said of Isaac that he possessed mystical powers including the ability to sense whether a person would live or die and whether a person’s soul was new or had transmigrated. His disciples included Ezra of Gerona and Azriel of Gerona.
Ezra ben Solomon of Gerona (c. 1160–1238/1245 CE) was a leading disciple of Isaac the Blind. A native of Gerona (Spain), he moved to Provence (France), where he studied kabbalah. He subsequently repatriated to Spain and returned to his hometown, where he transmitted kabbalistic teachings amid a circle of mystics. His friend and fellow kabbalist Jacob ben Sheshet Gerondi referred to him as “the sage Rabbi Ezra”. He indited Peirush Shir HaShirim, a commentary on Song of Songs; a commentary on Seifer Yetzirah; a commentary on the Talmudic aggadot; and various epistles. His writings proved profoundly influential for Azriel of Gerona, Jacob ben Sheshet Gerondi, Moses ben Nahman, Isaac of Akko, Bahya ben Asher, and Joshua ibn Shuaib. There are also indications of the influence of Peirush Shir HaShirim discernible in the Zohar. For centuries he was erroneously conflated with his fellow resident Azriel of Gerona due to their similarities, and some scholars speculated that they were brothers, although most likely he was the father-in-law of Azriel.
Azriel ben Menahem of Gerona (1160–1238 CE) was another leading disciple of Isaac the Blind. A native of Gerona (Spain), he moved to Provence (France), where he studied kabbalah. He subsequently repatriated to Spain, throughout which he propagated kabbalah. His campaign to persuade philosophers of the superiority of mysticism was unsuccessful because his logically minded counterparts were only convinced by apodictic propositions, and his broader dissemination of kabbalistic doctrines was strongly opposed by his master Isaac. He eventually returned to his hometown, where he established an academy. Azriel accented the primacy of the divine will as the utmost attribute impelling Creation, and his theosophical speculations were profoundly influenced by the Neoplatonism of Solomon ibn Gabirol. He indited Sha’ar HaSho’el (Gate of the Inquirer), a catechismal exposition of the 10 divine emanations (sfirot), with supplementary commentary; a commentary on Seifer Yetzirah; Peirush HaAggadot, a supercommentary on Ezra of Gerona’s commentary on the Talmudic aggadot; a liturgical commentary with meditation instructions; a kabbalistic epistle sent from Gerona to neighboring Burgos; Sod HaKorban (Secret of the Sacrifice), a treatise on the mystical import of oblations; a large section of Derekh HaEmunah V’Derekh HaKfirah (The Way of Belief and the Way of Heresy); and essays on the mysticism of prayer. For centuries he was erroneously conflated with his fellow resident Ezra of Gerona due to their similarities, and some scholars speculated that they were brothers, although most likely he was the son-in-law of Ezra. His disciples included Moses ben Nahman and the poet Meshulam ben Solomon de Piera.
Preeminent sage and advocate of Judaism Moses ben Nahman (Ramban/Nahmanides) (1194–1270 CE) was a disciple of Judah ben Yakar, Nathan ben Meir of Trinquetaille, and Azriel of Gerona; a descendant of Isaac ben Reuven al-Bargeloni and Judah ben Barzillai al-Bargeloni; and a cousin of Jonah Gerondi. A native of Gerona (Spain), he earned his livelihood as a physician. Moses became the leading rabbi of Gerona then chief rabbi of Catalonia (northeastern Spain). He indited a Talmud commentary and soon was recognized as the foremost Talmudist of Spain. In 1238, he addressed an epistle, Igeret HaHemdah, to French rabbis in defense of Moses ben Maimon, and attempted to conciliate Maimonists and anti-Maimonists, though both parties rejected his proposed compromise. Moses’ great respect for Moses ben Maimon did not inhibit him either from countering, in his Hassagot, the latter’s criticisms of Shimon Kayyara’s Halakhot Gdolot, or from criticizing him in other areas of clear disagreement. Unlike Moses ben Maimon, for example, Moses had no particular appreciation for Greek philosophy or Aristotle. As a proponent of kabbalah, Moses strongly opposed the strict rationalism of Abraham ibn Ezra, despite their shared philological approach to biblical exegesis. He earned the epithet “HaRav HaNe’eman” (“The Trustworthy Rabbi”) among the sages of Spain. In 1263, Moses was challenged to a public disputation by Jewish apostate Pablo Christiani, which occurred over four days in neighboring Barcelona in the presence of King James I of Aragon and church dignitaries, including leaders of the Dominican and Franciscan Orders. He subsequently wrote in Hebrew Seifer HaVikuah, an account of this momentous event that resulted in total triumph for Moses, who earned the king’s high regard and was awarded 300 dineros. While he had been guaranteed immunity, he was ultimately tried for blasphemy at the instigation of hostile Dominican adversaries, and after the intervention of Pope Clement IV he was sentenced to exile. After sojourning in Castile or southern France, he immigrated to the Land of Israel in 1267. He sojourned in Jerusalem, where he founded the extant Ramban Synagogue and revivified the Jewish community, before settling in Akko, where he further wrote his masterwork, a Torah commentary combining rational and mystical exegesis and stimulating numerous supercommentaries, as well as Igeret HaRamban (Igeret HaMussar), an ethical will (tzava’ah) sent as an epistle to his son Nahman in Catalonia. His disciples included his cousin Jonah ben Joseph, Solomon ibn Aderet, Isaac ben Todros, and Isaac of Akko.
A native of Gerona (Spain), Jacob ben Sheshet Gerondi (c. 1200s CE) studied kabbalah. He indited Sha’ar HaShamayim, a kabbalistic essay (published first in Likutim M’Rav Hai Gaon then in Otzar Nehmad); Meishiv Divarim Nekhohim, a defense of kabbalah refuting Samuel ibn Tibbon’s Ma’amar Yikavu HaMayyim; and HaEmunah V’HaBitahon (published first in Arzei Levanon then in Kitvei HaRamban). Jacob strove to counter what he deemed heresies in philosophy, namely its denials of the Torah’s true essence, Creation, Providence, and retribution. His theosophical cosmogony posited a continuous emanation from the divine realm to the material realm wherein a hylic mix of heavenly and earthly substances evolved and culminated in the physical world. His writings proved profoundly influential for later kabbalists Todros ben Joseph HaLevi Abulafia, Menahem Recanati, Isaac of Akko, and Bahya ben Asher.
Jacob ben Jacob HaKohen (c. 1220–1275 CE) was a native of Soria (Spain), and moved to neighboring Segovia. He studied kabbalah and was profoundly influenced by the pietism and mysticism of the Hasidei Ashkenaz, especially Elazar of Worms. With his brother Isaac, he roamed among the Jewish communities throughout Spain and Provence (France) on a quest to discover kabbalistic writings and traditions before finally settling in Béziers (France). He claimed to have experienced numerous revelatory visions regarding the angel Metatron. In depicting his epiphanies, he further obscured their meaning by veiling his words using combinations of letters or divine names (tzeirufim). He earned a reputation as one of the principal kabbalists of Spain, and his theosophical kabbalah proved profoundly influential for later kabbalists Abraham Abulafia, Joseph Gikatilla, Menahem Recanati, and Isaac of Akko. He indited his masterwork Seifer HaOrah (Book of Illumination), a compilation of his visions with explications of their revelations (including Peirush Yediat HaBoreh, Sod HaLevanah, etc.); Peirush Tzurot HaOtiyot, a treatise on the forms of Hebrew letters; a commentary on Seifer Yetzirah; a commentary on Merkevet Yehezkel (partly published in Kitvei Yad B’Kabbalah B’Yirushalayim); and “Tfilat Rabbi Ya’akov MiSegovia”, a kabbalistic prayer. He died in Béziers and was buried in Segovia. His disciples included Moses of Burgos.
A disciple of Moses of Burgos and a nephew of Meir ben Todros HaLevi Abulafia, Todros ben Joseph HaLevi Abulafia (c. 1220/1225–1283/1288/1298 CE) was a native of Burgos (Spain). He was a scion of a prominent rabbinical family and became wealthy and influential. He befriended fellow kabbalist Moses of Burgos, who transmitted to him the kabbalistic teachings of the brothers Jacob ben Jacob HaKohen and Isaac ben Jacob HaKohen. Like his uncle before him, he became head of Castilian Jewry and opposed certain tenets of Moses ben Maimon, whom he otherwise highly esteemed. He moved to neighboring Toledo, where he was welcomed into the royal court of King Alfonso X the Wise of Castile and León. In 1275, he joined the royal retinue accompanying the king to France; he stayed in Perpignan (France)—then still within the Crown of Aragon—with Alfonso’s wife, Queen Violant (Yolant/Yolanda) of Aragon, perhaps serving as her physician, and in Perpignan he met the poet Abraham Isaac Bedersi, who composed verses in his honor. He earned a reputation for his wisdom, modesty, and rectitude. As a mystic, he strove to fuse the discrete strands of Castilian kabbalah and Catalonian kabbalah. He indited Sha’ar HaRazim (The Gate of Secrets), a kabbalistic construal of verse 19 of Psalms; Otzar HaKavod (The Treasury of Glory), kabbalistic explications of Talmudic aggadot; and Zikaron L’Yehudah, a homiletic collection. He died in Toledo. His son Joseph befriended Moses de León, and was one of the first to receive pericopes of the Zohar.
The brother of Jacob ben Jacob HaKohen, Isaac ben Jacob HaKohen (c. 1225–1285 CE) was a native of Soria (Spain). He studied philosophy and kabbalah, and was profoundly influenced by the pietism and mysticism of the Hasidei Ashkenaz. With his brother Jacob, as well as on his own, he roamed among the Jewish communities throughout Spain and Provence (France) on a quest to discover kabbalistic writings and traditions before finally settling in Béziers (France). He innovated a speculative and abstruse mystical system of hierarchical worlds, and formulated the kabbalistic doctrine of left emanation. He earned a reputation as one of the principal kabbalists of Spain, and the epithet “Paragon of the Generation”. He indited a Torah commentary; a treatise on emanation (atzilut); a commentary on Merkevet Yehezkel; Ta’amei HaNikkudot V’Ta’amei HaTi’amim, a tract on Hebrew vowels and accents; Inyan Gadol Meva’er Kitzat Ma’aseh Merkavah, an exposition of the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the divine chariot (merkavah); and a Neoplatonic exposition of the 10 divine emanations (sfirot). His writings proved profoundly influential for Jewish philosopher and translator Isaac Albalag. His disciples included Moses of Burgos.
Moses ben Solomon ben Shimon of Burgos (c. 1230/1235–1305 CE) was a disciple of the brothers Jacob ben Jacob HaKohen and Isaac ben Jacob HaKohen. Around 1260, he became chief rabbi of Burgos (Spain). He befriended fellow kabbalist Todros ben Joseph HaLevi Abulafia, to whom he transmitted the kabbalistic teachings of his masters Jacob and Isaac, and also met with Abraham Abulafia and later with Isaac of Akko. Concerning the comparison between philosophers and kabbalists, he averred: “The position attained by their heads reaches only the position of our feet.” He indited a commentary on Song of Songs; a commentary on Esser HaSfirot HaSmaliyyot (Amud HaSmali); a commentary on the 42-letter divine name; commentaries on Merkevet Yeshayahu, Merkevet Yehezkel, and Mareh HaMenorah Shel Zekharyah; a commentary on Shiur Komah, Sod Shlosh Essrei Midot U’Peirushan; and various other kabbalistic compositions. His disciples included Todros ben Joseph HaLevi Abulafia and Isaac ibn Sahula.
A disciple of Hillel ben Samuel and Barukh Togarmi, Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia (1240–1291 CE) was a native of Zaragoza, Spain, and moved with his family to neighboring Tudela. In 1260, he journeyed to the Land of Israel in search of the legendary Sambatyon River beyond which the Ten Lost Tribes purportedly endured. He reached Akko, but ventured no further due to the ongoing wars and desolation of the land wrought by the Crusades. Instead, he returned to Europe, where he married in Greece, studied Maimonidean philosophy under Hillel ben Samuel in Capua (Italy), and studied kabbalah in Barcelona, Spain under his master Barukh. In 1271, while in Barcelona, he preoccupied himself with studying Seifer Yetzirah and began to experience what he considered to be prophetic visions. In 1273, he journeyed anew through Italy and Greece and propounded his mystical notions, which were influenced by the German mystic Elazar of Worms, the kabbalah of Moses ben Nahman, and perhaps Judah HaLevi’s Seifer HaKuzari. In 1280, Abraham led a scholarly circle in Capua, and that same year went to neighboring Rome either in the hope of converting Pope Nicholas III to Judaism or of entreating him to meliorate the situation of European Jewry. The pontiff received word of Abraham’s mission and ordered him burned at the stake. In the event, neither did Abraham meet the pontiff, nor was he burned, as a result of the fatal stroke the pontiff suffered just prior to Abraham’s arrival. He returned to Rome, where the Minorites incarcerated him for a month. Thereafter he resurfaced in Sicily as a prophetic and messianic figure, though his alleged pretensions were denounced in a condemnatory epistle from Solomon ibn Aderet to the Jews of Palermo. Abraham retreated to the Maltese island of Comino, where he wrote V’Zot L’Yehudah, a reply to Solomon’s assault. He indited a Torah commentary, Mafteah, and a commentary on Seifer Yetzirah, Gan Na’ul. He also composed Sitrei Torah, a commentary on Moses ben Maimon’s Moreh Nevukhim; the autobiographical Otzar Eden Ganuz; and the kabbalistic tracts Seifer HaYashar, Get HaShmot, Or HaSekhel, Seifer HaOt, Sheva Netivot HaTorah, Seifer Hayyei HaOlam HaBa (Seifer HaShem/Seifer HaIggulim), and his masterwork Imrei Shefer, considered the most intelligible of his obscure writings. Abraham is credited as the founder of prophetic kabbalah, which accented prophetism by means of numerology (gematria) and acrosticism (notarikon) with the aim of divine communion. Prophetic kabbalah proved influential centuries later for Joseph Taitatzak and the kabbalists of Tzfat before the introduction of Lurianic kabbalah; it was, however, strongly opposed by the kabbalist Judah Hayyat yet accepted by the philosopher Abraham Shalom. His disciples included Joseph Gikatilla and Nathan ben Sa’adiah Harar.
The ingenious and controversial Moses ben Shem Tov de León (c. 1240/1250–1305 CE) was a native of León (Spain). He studied philosophy and kabbalah, and moved to neighboring Guadalajara then Valladolid. He befriended Isaac ibn Sahula, Joseph Gikatilla, and Joseph ben Todros Abulafia (son of Todros ben Joseph HaLevi Abulafia, who proved profoundly influential for Moses). In his later years he wandered for a time before finally settling in neighboring Avila. He indited 24 works, including: Shoshan Eidut; Seifer HaRimon, a kabbalistic treatise explicating ritual law; Or Zarua, a tract on Creation; HaNefesh HaHakhamah, a kabbalistic polemic against philosophers of religion; Mishkan HaEidut (Seifer HaSodot), a treatise on the afterlife based on the apocryphal Book of Enoch; Maskiyot Kessef, a commentary on the prayers; Sod Esser Sfirot Belimah, a commentary on the 10 divine emanations (sfirot); Sha’arei Tzedek, a commentary on Ecclesiastes; a commentary on Song of Songs; Shekel HaKodesh; Seifer Pardes; Mashal HaKadmoni; and various responsa. He also published a kabbalistic Torah commentary in a cryptic Aramaic (with an admixture of Hebrew), the Zohar (Midrash D’Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai), a multilayered and multivolume compilation depicting the theosophical epiphanies of peripatetic Galilean mystics in search of God and ascribed to the tanna Shimon bar Yohai. From the outset the mysterious appearance of the Zohar, ostensibly a work some 1,150 years old yet thitherto unknown, generated controversy. By his own account, the kabbalist Isaac of Akko—a disciple of Moses ben Nahman prior to the Islamic conquest of Akko in 1291—had journeyed after the conquest to Italy, where he learned that his master Moses had previously possessed the Zohar then had sent it by ship to his son Nahman in Catalonia (northeastern Spain), which was then a principality within the Crown of Aragon, but a storm had driven the ship to neighboring Alicante, a port city in southeastern Spain, where the Zohar came into the possession of Moses de León. In 1305, during a visit to Valladolid, the latter confirmed for Isaac that he had acquired the original manuscript of the Zohar, which he had copied and circulated in booklet form from 1280 onward, and even pledged to reveal it to Isaac in Avila; before he could fulfill his pledge, however, Moses died in neighboring Arévalo en route homeward. Thereafter rumors circulated that both his widow and his daughter, upon receiving from the wife of the wealthy Joseph of Avila an offer of a large sum of money for the original manuscript, denied the existence of any such manuscript and instead claimed that Moses had authored the Zohar himself and had employed a pseudepigraphical ploy merely as a means of selling more copies. Aspects of the Zohar evidence the influence of fellow kabbalist Joseph Gikatilla’s Ginat Egoz and of Neoplatonism, lending credence to its medieval origin, and for centuries the work was attributed solely to Moses by medieval, early modern, and modern scholars. The Zohar has most recently been recognized as a kabbalistic compilation, a stratified composition with dozens of distinct literary units; moreover, the text might have been produced by a mystical fellowship (havurah), and might have been developed, supplemented, and edited by multiple generations of kabbalists. Thus Moses ought to be more precisely and more accurately identified as the author, compiler, and redactor of only a significant portion of the extant text, the work’s final shape only having been determined by printers in Italy nearly 300 years later. In its printed edition, the Zohar became a quinquepartite composite work comprising the tripartite Seifer HaZohar Al HaTorah, Tikunei Zohar, and Zohar Hadash. At some point, Moses might well have become head of a fellowship (rosh havurah) in Castile, and in all likelihood devoted himself to the Zoharic corpus to counteract the rationalism and philosophy prevalent among Spanish Jewry in his era. Despite its dubious and disputed provenience, the Zohar attained widespread acceptance and became the basis of all subsequent kabbalah, and as Scripture ranks in importance just after the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and the Talmuds. It is now acknowledged as the masterpiece of kabbalah and as a classic of world literature. Moses is remembered today as an esoteric mystic and as the foremost promulgator of Judaism’s secret tradition.
Perhaps a grandson of Moses ben Nahman, and a descendant of Judah ben Samuel HeHasid, David ben Judah HeHasid (c. 1240–1320 CE) was a native of Spain. He studied kabbalah and immersed himself in the rich mystical traditions of both Catalonian kabbalah and Castilian kabbalah, and of the Hasidei Ashkenaz. He became close colleagues with his kinsman Joseph ben Shalom Ashkenazi. He indited Seifer HaGvul, a commentary on the Zoharic section Idra Rabba (the first known instance of the latter section being quoted); Mar’ot HaTzov’ot, a Torah commentary and a compendium of kabbalah, based on the Zohar (which he quotes in his own Hebrew translation); Or Zarua, a kabbalistic commentary on the liturgy; and various other mystical treatises. Certain works published under his name were in fact authored by others, such as the Zoharic commentary Seifer Livnat HaSappir (composed by Joseph Angelet in 1326). His writings proved profoundly influential for later kabbalists, including those of Tzfat.
Isaac ben Solomon ibn Sahula (1244–c. 1284 CE) was a disciple of Moses of Burgos. A native of Guadalajara (Spain), he moved to neighboring Burgos and studied rabbinics as well as philosophy and medicine. Thereafter he returned to his hometown, where he earned his livelihood as a physician and befriended his fellow resident Moses de León. In 1281, he journeyed to Egypt, where he resolved to devote himself to moralistic writing. He indited his masterwork Mashal HaKadmoni (The Ancient Fable), an illustrated Hebrew bestiary; a kabbalistic commentary on Song of Songs; and a commentary on several of the Psalms. Mashal HaKadmoni, composed between 1281 and 1284, was centuries later translated into Yiddish and English, and selections therefrom were also translated into German by Moritz Steinschneider and by Micah Joseph Berdyczewski. Although Isaac’s widely circulated masterwork is more moralistic than kabbalistic, it includes three quotations from Midrash HaNe’elam, an early stratum of the composite masterpiece the Zohar (the first known instance of the latter work being quoted). He strongly opposed astrology. His younger brother Meir became a noted kabbalist and wrote kabbalistic commentaries on Seifer Yetzirah, Seifer HaBahir, and Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer.
A disciple of Abraham Abulafia, Joseph ben Abraham Gikatilla (Ba’al HaNisim) (1248–c. 1305/1325 CE) was a native of Medinaceli (Spain). He moved to neighboring Segovia and studied Talmud, philosophy, and secular sciences before immersing himself in kabbalah. He attempted to reconcile philosophy with kabbalah, which he deemed the foundation of philosophy. From the 1270s, his kabbalistic development became interdependent with that of his friend and fellow kabbalist Moses de León, compiler and publisher of the Zohar. He earned a reputation as an eminent kabbalist and as a thaumaturge, and the epithet “Ba’al HaNisim” (“Master of the Miracles”). He indited his masterwork Sha’arei Orah (Gates of Light), a kabbalistic treatise on the symbolism and designations of the 10 divine emanations (sfirot); Sha’arei Tzedek (Sha’ar HaShamayim), another treatise on the 10 divine emanations, reversing their usual sequence; Ginat Egoz (Nut Garden), a tripartite treatise on the central elements of kabbalah: numerology (gematria), acrosticism (notarikon), and permutation (tmurah); Seifer HaNikud, a kabbalistic construal of Hebrew vowels and vocalization; Sod HaHashmal (Peirush Merkavah), a kabbalistic commentary on the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the divine chariot (merkavah); Sodot HaMitzvot, a kabbalistic construal of certain Judaic injunctions; Tzaphnat Paneah (Peirush Haggadah Shel Pesah), a commentary on the Passover Haggadah; Hassagot, a critique of Moses ben Maimon’s Moreh Nevukhim; and Tishuvot, a compilation of responsa. His Sha’arei Orah was later epitomized and translated into Latin by the Jewish apostate Paolo Riccio as De Porta Lucis R. Josephi Gecatilia. His systematic exposition of kabbalah was profoundly influenced by prior kabbalistic works such as Seifer Yetzirah, Heikhalot Rabbati (Pirkei Heikhalot), and Jacob ben Jacob HaKohen’s Seifer HaOrah, as well as by the contemporaneous masterpiece the Zohar. He died in neighboring Peñafiel.
A native of Recanati (Italy), Menahem ben Benjamin Recanati (1250–1310 CE) was reportedly ignorant for some time before being endowed with wisdom. He studied logic and philosophy, which he considered compatible with kabbalah. He indited his masterwork Peirush Al HaTorah, a kabbalistic Torah commentary that stimulated a supercommentary by Mordekhai Jaffe (and that was translated into Latin by Pico della Mirandola); the kabbalistic treatises Ta’amei HaMitzvot and Peirush HaTfilot; and the halakhic treatise Piskei Halakhot. As a kabbalist, he was profoundly influenced by the Hasidei Ashkenaz including Judah ben Samuel HeHasid and Elazar of Worms, as well as by Moses ben Nahman and Shem Tov ibn Gaon, and his writings rely on the Zohar and on Seifer HaBahir. Menahem’s theosophical-theurgical kabbalah marked a departure from the prophetic kabbalah of Abraham Abulafia and a reversion to the mysticism of Jacob ben Jacob HaKohen. His writings proved profoundly influential for later kabbalists Meir ibn Gabbai, Solomon Alkabetz, and Moses Cordovero.
Joseph ben Shalom Ashkenazi (Joseph HaArokh) (c. 1250–1325 CE) was a descendant of Judah ben Samuel HeHasid. A native of Barcelona, Spain, he studied philosophy and kabbalah. He became close colleagues with his kinsman David ben Judah HeHasid. He indited Peirush L’Seifer Yetzirah, a commentary on Seifer Yetzirah (the former of which was often cited and later abridged), and Peirush Kabbali L’B’Reishit Rabbah, a kabbalistic commentary on the Genesis section of Midrash Rabbah. Joseph endeavored in his writings to merge philosophy and kabbalah. He admired the philosophy of Moses ben Maimon, and did not consider the Zohar authoritative. He innovated a speculative and abstruse philosophical-mystical system wherein all existence comprises a series of strata. He deemed the infinite divinity (Ein Sof) above the realm of emanation (atzilut), and maintained that everything in existence undergoes metempsychosis (gilgul), so that death is merely metamorphosis, not termination. His writings proved profoundly influential for later kabbalist Isaac Luria.
A disciple of Moses ben Nahman, Solomon ben Samuel Petit of France, Solomon ibn Aderet, and Yom Tov Ishvili, Isaac ben Samuel of Akko (1250–1340 CE) was a native of Akko. In 1291, upon the conquest of his hometown by Sultan Al-Ashraf Khalil of the Mameluke Sultanate of Egypt, he escaped the concomitant massacre but was incarcerated with other Jewish captives. After being ransomed, he fled westward to Italy, where he first heard of the Zohar, whose antiquity and authenticity he doubted because he had never heard of it in the Land of Israel, its purported place of origin as a text ascribed to the tanna Shimon bar Yohai. Thereafter he migrated to Spain, where he journeyed through the Hispanic kingdoms of Aragon, Navarre, and Castile, and undertook an investigation of the mysterious provenience of the Zohar. In 1305, he visited Valladolid (Spain), where he finally tracked down fellow kabbalist Moses de León, who confirmed for Isaac that he had obtained the original manuscript of the Zohar, which he had copied and circulated in booklet form from 1280 onward, and even pledged to reveal it to Isaac in neighboring Avila; before he could fulfill his pledge, however, Moses died in neighboring Arévalo en route homeward. Isaac pursued the matter and in Avila encountered a certain David Rafan, who related to him that Moses’ widow and daughter, upon receiving from the wife of the wealthy Joseph of Avila an offer of a large sum of money for the original manuscript, denied the existence of any such manuscript and instead claimed that Moses had self-authored the Zohar and had employed a pseudepigraphical conceit merely as a means of selling more copies. Isaac’s tortuous investigation seemed to conclude without satisfactory results, but in his Otzar HaHayyim, composed some 20 years later, he evidently deemed the Zohar the work of Shimon bar Yohai. He indited Me’irat Einayim, a kabbalistic supercommentary on Moses ben Nahman’s Torah commentary; Otzar HaHayyim, a mystical diary of visions and revelations, adumbrating the means of enabling prophecy; Seifer HaSodot, Likutei (Leket) Shoshanim, and Kettem Paz, kabbalistic treatises; Divrei HaYamim, an autobiography; and a commentary on Seifer Yetzirah. He earned a reputation as an eminent kabbalist expert at employing combinations of letters or divine names (tzeirufim) that reportedly compelled angels to reveal secret insights to him. His writings proved profoundly influential for later kabbalists Elijah de Vidas and Hayyim Vital.
A disciple of Solomon ibn Aderet and Joshua ibn Shuaib, and the younger brother of Isaac ibn Sahula, Meir ben Solomon ibn Sahula (c. 1251–1340 CE) was a native of Guadalajara (Spain) and affiliated himself with kabbalistic circles in his hometown. While it is probable that he participated in the mystical fellowship of the Zohar, as did his older brother, nevertheless his approach to kabbalah remained independent and instead was profoundly influenced by the anonymous Iyun circle, especially by its kabbalistic treatise Midrash Shimon HaTzadik. In his oeuvre he comes across as a severe but unreliable critic of Moses ben Nahman. He indited Biur Peirush HaRamban Al HaTorah, a supercommentary (incomplete) on the kabbalistic portions of Moses ben Nahman’s Torah commentary; a commentary on Seifer Yetzirah; a commentary on Seifer HaBahir; and a kabbalistic commentary on Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer. His influence on later kabbalists was mixed: he was criticized by Solomon Alkabetz but lauded by Meir Poppers.
Bahya ben Asher ben Halava (c. 1255–1340 CE) was a disciple of Solomon ibn Aderet. A native of Zaragoza, Spain, he served in his hometown as a religious judge (dayan) on the rabbinical court (beit din). In 1291, he indited his masterwork Midrash Rabbeinu Bahya, an encyclopedic Torah commentary that stimulated at least 10 supercommentaries and featured prominently in the later popular work Tze’enah U’Re’enah. Bahya adumbrated the fourfold hermeneutical method of biblical exegesis: literal, homiletic, rational/philosophical, and kabbalistic. He also composed Kad HaKemah (Flour Jar), an alphabetically arranged moral-ethical treatise consisting of 60 chapters; Shulhan Shel Arba, regarding the rules of conduct during meals and the banquet of the righteous in the World to Come; and Hoshen HaMishpat, on the nature and extent of prophecy. As a kabbalist, Bahya was profoundly influenced by Moses ben Nahman and Jacob ben Sheshet Gerondi, as well as by Seifer HaBahir and the Zohar.
A disciple of Solomon ibn Aderet, Joshua ibn Shuaib (c. 1280–1340 CE) was a native Spaniard who dwelt in the Hispanic kingdom of Navarre and also might have lived in neighboring Tudela. He preached sermons—replete with halakhah, Jewish thought, ethical studies (mussar), and kabbalah—in local synagogues, exhorting worshipers to observe precepts neglected or ignored and accenting the primacy of the synagogue and of rabbinical courts (battei din). He was well versed in kabbalah and interested in philosophy as well, and was profoundly influenced by the writings of Solomon ibn Gabirol, Bahya ibn Pakudah, Judah HaLevi, Abraham ibn Ezra, Moses ben Maimon, and Moses ben Nahman. In his writings he frequently quotes kabbalistic sources, including Seifer Yetzirah, Seifer HaBahir, the Zohar, and Catalonian kabbalists Ezra of Gerona and Moses ben Nahman. He indited a supercommentary on the kabbalistic portions of Moses ben Nahman’s Torah commentary. His disciples included Meir ibn Sahula and Menahem ibn Zerah.
A disciple of Solomon ibn Aderet and Isaac ben Todros, and a kinsman of Jacob ben Jacob HaKohen and Isaac ben Jacob HaKohen, Shem Tov ben Abraham ibn Gaon (c. 1283–1330 CE) was a native of Soria (Spain), where he studied Talmud and became increasingly intrigued by kabbalah. In 1312, he immigrated to the Land of Israel, where he settled in Jerusalem before moving to Tzfat in 1325. There he initially pursued kabbalistic contemplation, and earned his livelihood as a scribe. He indited Migdal Oz, a defense of Moses ben Maimon’s Mishneh Torah against the animadversions of Abraham ben David, and Kheter Shem Tov, a supercommentary on the kabbalistic portions of Moses ben Nahman’s Torah commentary, completed in 1315. In 1325, he further wrote the quinquepartite kabbalistic work Badei HaAron U’Migdal Hananel, named after his late traveling companion Hananel ben Azkara, and additionally wrote Seifer HaPe’er, a kabbalistic tract on phylacteries (tfilin).
Joseph ben Solomon Taitatzak (c. 1465–1546 CE) was a native of Spain, but was compelled as a result of the 1492 expulsion of Spanish Jewry to emigrate with his family and eventually settled in Salonika (Thessaloniki, Greece), where he became chief rabbi. By 1520, he was acknowledged as a halakhic authority and admired both for his scholarship and for his saintliness. Joseph Karo referred to him as “the light and the holy one of Israel, the crown of the Diaspora”. Joseph was familiar with philosophy, especially that of Thomas Aquinas. He also seems to have been profoundly influenced by the kabbalist Abraham Abulafia, and throughout his life he inclined toward asceticism. According to Elijah de Vidas, for 40 years Joseph only slept on a bed on Sabbath eves, lying on a box every other night of the week. He developed the concept of the heavenly mentor (maggid), and was said to be subject to a divine voice addressing him in Hebrew; a manuscript of the alleged revelations to Joseph is extant. In 1529, he supported the messianic pretensions of Solomon Molkho, who corresponded with Joseph and informed him of his visions. In 1531, he sojourned in Istanbul (Turkey), where he might have met Joseph Karo, but returned to Salonika, where he later died. His disciples included Joseph Karo and Solomon Alkabetz.
A disciple of Joseph Alcastiel and a native of Spain, Meir ben Ezekiel ibn Gabbai (1480/1481–c. 1543 CE) migrated as a child with his family eastward following the expulsion of Spanish Jewry in 1492. From at least 1516, he resided in Tire (Turkey), where he served as a religious judge (dayan) on the rabbinical court (beit din). Thereafter he moved to neighboring Manisa, where he served as chief justice on the rabbinical court. He indited his quadripartite masterwork Mar’ot Elohim (Avodat HaKodesh), a comprehensive summary of kabbalistic doctrine; Tola’at Ya’akov, a kabbalistic explication of the prayer liturgy; and Derekh Emunah, a catechismal exposition of the 10 divine emanations (sfirot), based on Azriel of Gerona’s Sha’ar HaSho’el and incorporating teachings from the Zohar. Meir was a prominent proponent of theurgical kabbalah. He averred that the divine emanations constitute the divine essence, and that conscious union with God (yihud) is the ultimate aim of the world. He might have died in the Land of Israel. He is remembered today as a kabbalistic precursor of Moses Cordovero and Isaac Luria.
Solomon Molkho (c. 1500–1532 CE), a native of Lisbon, Portugal, was born into a family of Jewish converts to Christianity who secretly practiced Judaism (anusim). Originally named Diogo Pires, he became a secretary of the royal council and a transcriber in the appellate court. In 1525, after meeting the charismatic adventurer David Reuveni in Portugal, he circumcised himself and took a Hebrew name. He was forced to flee Portugal and settled in Salonika (Thessaloniki, Greece), where he studied kabbalah and likely encountered Joseph Karo, who admired Solomon greatly. He indited Drashot (Seifer HaMefo’ar), a collection of his mystical sermons. In 1529, he returned to Italy, where he preached of the coming redemption to sizable crowds of Jews and Christians. In 1532, he joined David Reuveni on a mission to Ratisbon (Regensburg, Germany), in the hope of persuading Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to inspire the Jews to resist the Ottomans. In the event, the emperor incarcerated both men then conveyed them to Italy, where an ecclesiastical court in Mantua condemned Solomon to burn at the stake. He refused the late offer of a pardon if he recanted his Judaism and resumed his Christianity, preferring instead martyrdom. Solomon’s career and life may be viewed as an iteration and extension of that of his kabbalistic predecessor Abraham Abulafia.
Solomon ben Moses HaLevi Alkabetz (c. 1500/1505–1576/1580/1584 CE) was a disciple of his father Moses Alkabetz, his uncle Joshua Alkabetz, and Joseph Taitatzak. A native of Salonika (Thessaloniki, Greece), he migrated eastward in 1529, sojourning in Adrianople (Edirne, Turkey) and Nicopolis (Nikopol, Bulgaria) to instruct devotees in kabbalah. Once when he and Joseph Karo were studying Torah overnight on the Shavuot festival, a heavenly mentor (maggid) appeared before Joseph, whereupon they instituted the overnight study custom known as “Tikun Leil Shavuot”. In 1535, he immigrated to the Land of Israel, where he settled in Tzfat and became head of the Meron academy. He brought his students to pray and meditate at the graves of righteous forebears in order to apprehend the mystical secrets of the Zohar. He indited the kabbalistic works Otzar Nehmad, Amarot Tihorot, Appiryon Shlomoh, Beit Adonai, Beit Tfilah, Lehem Shlomoh, Mittato Shel Shlomoh, Sukkat Shalom, Avotot Ahavah, and Shomer Emunim. Solomon originated the kabbalistic practice of exiting to the fields to greet the Sabbath with hymns (pizmonim), and composed “Lekhah Dodi”, a famous hymn (pizmon) recited on Friday evenings during the Kabbalat Shabbat service, inspired by the custom of the amora Hanina bar Hama, who on Sabbath eves used to don special garments and proclaim, “Come and let us go forth to greet Queen Sabbath”. His disciples included his brother-in-law Moses Cordovero, Samuel ben Israel de Uceda, and Abraham Galante.
A disciple of Moses Cordovero, Elijah ben Moses de Vidas (1518–1592 CE) became a leading kabbalist in Tzfat. He traveled to Poland but returned to the Land of Israel, where he finally settled in Hebron. In 1575, he indited his masterwork Reishit Hokhmah, a quinquepartite collectanea of moral teachings in the Talmud, Midrash, and Zohar; he later epitomized his encyclopedic tome as Totzeot Hayyim. The work is arranged according to discrete topics: reverence for the divine, love of the divine, repentance, sanctity, and modesty. It was later also abridged by Jacob ben Mordekhai Poggetti/Pavieti as Kitzur Reishit Hokhmah and by Yehiel Melli as Tappuhei Zahav. He died in Hebron, where he was buried in the old Jewish cemetery.
A disciple of Jacob Berab, Joseph Karo, and his brother-in-law Solomon Alkabetz, Moses ben Jacob Cordovero (Ramak) (1522–1570 CE) began studying kabbalah at 20, and by 27 had written his first kabbalistic treatise. He indited his masterwork Or Yakar, a thorough commentary on the Zohar; the systematic kabbalistic tracts Pardes Rimmonim and Elimah Rabbati; the ethical treatise Tomer Dvorah; an introduction to kabbalah, Or Ne’erav; the kabbalistic critique of philosophy Shiur Komah; the kabbalistic Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) commentary Seifer Gerushin; evening prayers for the Shavuot and Hoshana Rabbah festivals, Tikun Leil Shavuot V’Hoshana Rabbah; and the kabbalistic prayer commentaries Zivhei Shlamim and Peirush HaTfilah. Two epitomes were made of Pardes Rimmonim: Menahem Azaryah of Fano’s Pelah HaRimmon and Samuel Gallico’s Asis Rimmonim. Moses generally credited philosophers with refining human understanding of the divine, yet highlighted philosophy’s inability to span the gulf between humankind and God, which he believed could only be bridged by means of a kabbalistic comprehension of the 10 divine emanations (sfirot). His master Joseph said of him: “This judge has penetrated to the depths of the law.” Moses’ metaphysical speculations proved influential for later philosopher Barukh (Benedict) Spinoza. His disciples included Elijah de Vidas, Isaac Luria, Moses ben Mordekhai Galante I, Abraham Galante, Samuel Gallico, and Menahem Azaryah of Fano.
The short-lived but venerated Isaac ben Solomon Luria (Isaac Ashkenazi/HaAri/Arizal) (1534–1572 CE) was a disciple of David ibn Abi Zimra, Betzalel Ashkenazi, and Moses Cordovero. A native of Jerusalem, he migrated with his family to Cairo, Egypt after his father’s death. At 15, he married his first cousin, the daughter of his wealthy maternal uncle Mordekhai Frances, and earned his livelihood in commerce, dealing in pepper and grain. After his halakhic studies and collaborations with his master Betzalel, Isaac secluded himself on the Nilotic island Jazirat al-Rawda for seven years, meditating and studying kabbalah. Each Sabbath he visited his family, but remained taciturn and laconic and only spoke in Hebrew. Isaac believed that he was spiritually mentored by the prophet Elijah, and that his soul nightly communed with bygone sages. He indited a kabbalistic commentary on the Zohar section Sifra D’Tzeniuta, and also composed mystical poems in Aramaic for Sabbath services. In 1569, he and his family repatriated to the Land of Israel, where they sojourned in Jerusalem before settling in Tzfat. There he studied kabbalah with Moses Cordovero until the latter’s death in 1570. He earned a reputation as a saintly ascetic, and the epithet “HaAri” (“The Lion”), a contraction of either “HaElohi Rabbi Isaac” (“The Divine Rabbi Isaac”) or “Ashkenazi Rabbi Isaac”. His circle of mystics confessed their sins to each other every Friday. Isaac habitually took long walks with his students around Tzfat, guiding them to unmarked graves of righteous forebears, disclosed to him, he claimed, through spiritual revelations. He innovated a speculative and abstruse mystical system whose doctrines involved divine contraction (tzimtzum), the shattering of vessels containing divine light into fragments possessing sparks (shvirat hakeilim), metempsychosis (gilgul), and restitution (tikun), and he instructed elite initiates orally. He also engaged in metoposcopy. Certain references Isaac made implied a belief in his messianic character. On the Sabbath he wore only white and donned fourfold attire symbolizing the Tetragrammaton. He died during an epidemic, and his grave in Tzfat became a pilgrimage site. Shortly after his death the Ari Ashkenazi synagogue was constructed in Tzfat in his honor, and it remains in use to this day. His disciples included Hayyim Vital and Joseph ibn Tabul.
Hayyim ben Joseph Vital (1542/1543–1620 CE) was a disciple of Moses Alshekh and Isaac Luria. A native of Tzfat, he was also known as Hayyim Calabrese because his family previously resided in Calabria (southwestern Italy). Hayyim studied alchemy for over two years then kabbalah for two years under Isaac Luria before the latter’s premature decease. He succeeded Isaac as the leading kabbalist of Tzfat and committed to writing his late master’s oral teachings, organizing and elaborating upon them. In 1576, he embarked upon a kabbalistic lecture tour in Syria and in Egypt, and declared himself Messiah. In 1577, he returned to the Land of Israel, first to Ein ez-Zeitun then to Jerusalem, where he became chief rabbi and headed an academy, a position in which he served for over eight years. In 1586, he returned to Tzfat for six years, during which time he was ill and unconscious for about a year wherein his writings were copied and circulated without his permission. He alternated between Jerusalem and Tzfat for several years before finally settling in Damascus, Syria, where he led the Sicilian-Jewish expatriate community after 1598. He indited his masterworks Eitz HaDa’at, a Torah commentary, and Eitz HaHayyim (Shmoneh She’arim), an octopartite collection of Lurianic writings, comprising: Sha’ar HaHakdamot, on the 10 divine emanations (sfirot) and Creation; Sha’ar Ma’amarei Rashbi, a commentary on certain passages of the Zohar; Sha’ar Ma’amarei Razal, a commentary on certain Talmudic dicta; Sha’ar HaPsukim, a Torah commentary; Sha’ar HaKhavanot, a bipartite treatise on blessings and prayers; Sha’ar HaMitzvot, a mystical explication of the commandments; Sha’ar Ruah HaKodesh, on meditation, customs (minhagim), contemplative unification, and reparation for sins; and Sha’ar HaGilgulim, on metempsychosis. He also composed a tract on rewards and penalties in the World to Come, Sha’arei Kiddushah; kabbalistic explications of aggadah, Likutei HaShas; a treatise on kabbalistic doctrines, Otzrot Hayyim; a kabbalistic monograph on the patriarch Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Makhpelah, Arba Me’ot Shekel Kessef; and his autobiography, Seifer HaHizyonot. As the primary expositor of Lurianic kabbalah, Hayyim incurred the hostility of Menahem di Lonzano and Jacob Abulafia of Damascus. His disciples included Abraham ben Mordekhai Azulai.
A disciple of Isaac Luria, Joseph ibn Tabul (Joseph HaMa’aravi) (c. 1545–1610 CE) hailed from the Draa region of Morocco. Around 1570, he immigrated to the Land of Israel, where he settled in Tzfat. Upon the decease of his master Isaac, he remained in Tzfat and transmitted Lurianic kabbalah to numerous students of his own for many years. In time Joseph’s relationship with his close colleague Hayyim Vital became rivalrous, doubtless as a result of competition over who would succeed their late master and of certain discrepancies in their construals of Lurianic kabbalah. Later in life he departed the Land of Israel, at least for a time, though it remains uncertain whether he sojourned in Egypt before repatriating to Hebron, or was exiled to Tunisia, or returned to Morocco. He indited Drush Hephtzi-Bah, a complete exposition of Lurianic kabbalah; several commentaries on sections of the Zohar; and various homilies. His writings proved profoundly influential for later kabbalist Shabbtai Sheftel Horowitz. His disciples included Israel Sarug.
Israel Sarug/Saruk (c. 1550–1610 CE) was a disciple of Isaac Luria and Joseph ibn Tabul. He was perhaps a native of Cairo, Egypt, where he might have initially encountered his master Isaac and become acquainted with his early kabbalistic teachings and practices. In the 1580s, he immigrated to the Land of Israel, where he settled in Tzfat and immersed himself in kabbalah. He studied the writings of his master Joseph, and of other leading kabbalists such as Hayyim Vital and Moses Jonah, and formulated his own distinctive version of Lurianic kabbalah that incorporated personal speculations and philosophical concepts. In 1594, he migrated to Italy, where he propagated Lurianic kabbalah in various locales across the country, and later lectured in Germany and in Amsterdam, the Netherlands as well. In the course of his itinerancy, he gained numerous adherents including the distinguished kabbalists Menahem Azaryah of Fano, Isaac Fano, and Aaron Berekhiah of Modena. Around 1600, he moved to Ragusa (Italy), and subsequently sojourned in Salonika (Thessaloniki, Greece). Thereafter he migrated to Poland. He indited “Kabbalah”, a kabbalistic essay (published in Joseph Delmedigo’s Matzref L’Hokhmah); Hanhagot Yosher (Tikun Kri/Kri Mikra), hodegetics to asceticism; and Kuntres Ne’im Zmirot Yisrael, a kabbalistic commentary on three of his master Isaac’s liturgical poems (piyutim) for the Sabbath.
A disciple of his father Abraham Horowitz, Solomon Leibush, Joshua Falk, and Meir of Lublin, Isaiah ben Abraham HaLevi Horowitz (Shlah HaKadosh) (c. 1565–1630 CE) was a native of Prague (Czech Republic) but moved as a youth with his father to Poland. He married the daughter of Abraham Maul, a wealthy Jew of Vienna, Austria; he himself became wealthy and throughout his lifetime engaged in philanthropy, especially the sponsorship of scholars. In 1606, he became chief justice on the rabbinical court of Frankfurt, Germany. In 1614, Jews were expelled from Frankfurt during the Fettmilch uprising; Isaiah returned to Prague, where he became chief rabbi, a position in which he served for seven years. In 1621, after his wife’s decease, he immigrated to the Land of Israel, where he settled and remarried in Jerusalem. He indited his bipartite masterwork Shnei Luhot HaBrit (Shlah), an ethical will (tzava’ah); Sha’ar HaShamayim, a kabbalistic commentary on the siddur; Bigdei Yesha, a commentary on Mordekhai ben Hillel HaKohen’s Seifer HaMordekhai; a gloss on Jacob ben Asher’s Arba’ah Turim; a gloss on the Zohar; and a gloss on his father’s monograph on blessings, Emek Brakhah. Isaiah strove to revive the Jewish community of Jerusalem under his spiritual and communal leadership. He was profoundly influenced by the kabbalistic writings of Moses ben Nahman, Joseph Karo, Moses Cordovero, Elijah de Vidas, and Isaac Luria, the ethical writings of Bahya ibn Pakudah, and the halakhic rulings of Moses Isserles and Solomon Luria. Isaiah considered the Torah an ongoing gift: “The Holy One bestowed the Torah and bestows it anew every moment; the flowing source never ceases.” He also believed that spiritual exile, biblically represented by Esau’s field, was “Israel’s battleground”. He was opposed to philosophy, and accented joy in worship and repentance for transgressions, which proved influential for Hasidism. In 1625, he was among 15 Jewish leaders incarcerated by an extortive Ottoman pasha and redeemed for an exorbitant sum. He fled to Tzfat then moved to Tiberias, where he died and was buried near Moses ben Maimon.
Abraham ben Mordekhai Azulai (1570–1643 CE) was a disciple of Hayyim Vital, and a grandson of Abraham Azulai of Fez (whose namesake he was). A native of Fez, Morocco, he descended from a family of Spanish exiles. In 1610, he and his family fled the civil war and anti-Jewish persecutions in Morocco and set sail toward the Land of Israel. After a bout of stormy weather, they docked at the port of Damietta (Egypt) and were spared greater misfortune when their ship was soon carried out to sea and sunk with all of their possessions aboard. Abraham’s signature thenceforth featured a ship in commemoration of his miraculous escape from death. Thereafter the family immigrated to the Land of Israel, where they settled in Hebron. In 1619, plague drove them from Hebron to Jerusalem then onward to Gaza; when the plague subsided, they returned to Hebron. He indited his kabbalistic masterwork on the Zohar, Kiryat Arba (comprising Or HaHamah, Or HaLevanah, and Or HaGanuz); the kabbalistic treatise Hessed L’Avraham; and a semi-mystical Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) commentary, Ba’alei Brit Avraham. He also composed the kabbalistic tracts Ma’aseh Hoshev and Kenaf Renanim, based on Isaac Luria’s Seifer HaKhavanot, which he reedited. Abraham was profoundly influenced by the kabbalah of Moses Cordovero, Isaac Luria, and Hayyim Vital. He died in Hebron. His great-great-grandson was Hayyim Joseph David Azulai.
A native of Okopy (Ukraine), Israel ben Eliezer (Ba’al Shem Tov/Besht) (1698/1700–1760 CE) was orphaned as a child and initially earned his livelihood as a school assistant and a synagogue security guard. At 36, he earned a reputation as a charismatic thaumaturge, expert in applying plants’ healing properties and prescribing cures. Around 1740, he moved to neighboring Mezhbizh (Medzhybizh), where he founded and whence he disseminated Hasidism. He employed prayer and study to achieve divine communion, and experienced revelatory dreams and visions. According to Hasidic lore, he had for a heavenly mentor (maggid) the biblical prophet Ahiyah of Shiloh. He eschewed asceticism and considered it displeasing to God. Israel accented that individual salvation preceded the messianic redemption of the world; he taught that adhesion (deveikut) to the divine was a necessary feature of a Jew’s everyday actions and interactions. He believed contemplation of the Torah’s letters was a means of attaining mystical insights, and promulgated the concept of the righteous saint (tzadik) as a spiritually elevated figure who assists sinners in ascending from the depths. His magnetic persona inspired legends that stimulated the contempt of traditional Talmudists (Mitnagdim) and Enlightenment secularists (maskhilim) alike. His great-grandson Nahman of Breslov also became a Hasidic righteous saint. His disciples included Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye, Dov Bär of Mezhirech, Yehiel Mikhael of Zlotchov, Pinhas of Koretz, and Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl.
Shalom ben Moses Buzaglo (1700–1780 CE) was a disciple of Abraham ben Israel Azulai, Jacob Pinto, and Isaiah HaKohen. A native of Marrakesh, Morocco, he studied Talmud and kabbalah. He served as a religious judge (dayan) on the rabbinical court (beit din) of his hometown. Thereafter he was tasked with the collection and remittance of eleemosynary contributions from Jews abroad (halukah) for the collective Jewish community (yishuv) in the Land of Israel, in which capacity he traveled variously throughout Asia and Europe and thereby encountered the leading kabbalists of his era. He was persecuted by the Alaouite sultan of Morocco and even subjected to fire torture (whence his self-styled epithet “brand plucked out of the fire”). In 1745, he fled to London, England, where he dedicated himself to literary activity and later served as a religious judge on the rabbinical court of the Ashkenazic community. He remained neutral in the Emden-Eybeschütz controversy despite solicitations for support from both parties; he recognized that the amulets (keme’ot) circulated among the ailing by Jonathan Eybeschütz possessed a distinct Shabbatean character, but accepted the contention that they had been falsified. He indited his masterwork Mikdash Melekh, a commentary on the Zohar in four volumes (published with Moses Zacuto’s Zoharic commentary); Hadrat Melekh, on difficult Zoharic passages, compiled from the teachings of Isaac Luria and Hayyim Vital; Kisei Melekh, scholia on the Tikunei Zohar; Pnei Melekh, Hod Melekh, and Kvod Melekh, commentaries on the Zoharic sections Sifra D’Tzeniuta, Idra Rabba, and Idra Zuta; and Seifer HaZohar, scholia on the Zohar (published with the text itself). His masterwork was the first systematic commentary on the Zohar ever published; it proved highly popular and was repeatedly reprinted. Several of his manuscripts were preserved in the study house (beit midrash) of the Great Synagogue of London.
The versatile and controversial Moses Hayyim Luzzatto (Ramhal) (1707–1746/1747 CE) was a native of Padua (Italy) and came from one of the most venerable families in Italian Jewry. He became renowned as a prodigy (ilui), studied poetry, and early on composed a hymnal comprising 150 psalms in biblical style. He also penned the dramas Shimshon U’Plishtim (Ma’aseh Shimshon) and Migdal Oz, and a tract on Hebraic rhetoric and style, Lashon Limmudim. From 1727, he believed himself the beneficiary of a heavenly mentor (maggid) who revealed divine secrets to him, which he committed to writing. A scandal arose in connection with his mystical writings and teachings, and in 1730 he reluctantly agreed to curb his kabbalistic activities. In 1735, he migrated via Frankfurt, Germany, where he encountered further censure, to Amsterdam, the Netherlands. There he enjoyed relative peace for several years, and earned his livelihood grinding optical lenses and polishing diamonds. In 1740, he indited his masterwork on ethics, Mesilat Yisharim (The Path of the Righteous), and also composed the Talmud methodology Derekh Tvunot, the ethical-philosophical treatises Derekh HaShem and Da’at Tvunot, and the allegorical drama LaYesharim Tehilah. He further wrote in Aramaic the kabbalistic Torah commentary Zohar Tinyana, and in Hebrew the kabbalistic treatises Shivim Tikunim, Klalei Hokhmat HaEmet, Pithei Hokhmah, Hoker U’Mekubal, Adir BaMarom, Ma’amar HaGe’ulah, Likutei Khavanot, Hibur Al Kohelet, Ma’amar HaVikuah, Peirush Al Aseret HaDibrot, Ma’amar Al HaIkkudim Asher B’Seifer HaZohar, and Peirush L’Tikunim HaMeyuhasim L’Rashbi. Moses was profoundly influenced by Lurianic kabbalah, as well as by Nathan of Gaza and the Shabbatean movement; he even came to consider himself Messiah, or Moses incarnate. In 1743, he immigrated to the Land of Israel, where he settled in Akko. He and his family perished there in a plague; he was buried either in Tiberias next to Akiva ben Joseph, or in Kafr Yasif, a village near Akko. He was claimed variously by traditional Jews as a rabbinical ethicist, by Hasidic Jews as an inspired kabbalist, and by secular Jews as a masterful playwright and poet who is the father of modern Hebrew literature.
A disciple of Gidalyah Hayon, Sar Shalom Mizrahi Sharabi (Rashash) (1720–1777 CE) was a native of Sana’a, Yemen. He journeyed first to India, then to Baghdad (Iraq), and finally to Damascus, Syria en route to the Land of Israel, where he settled in Jerusalem and studied kabbalah at the Beit El academy. In 1751, he succeeded his master as head of the academy and thereafter earned a reputation as one of the principal sages of Jerusalem. In 1754, he founded a group of kabbalists, Ahavat Shalom, whose 12 members included Hayyim Joseph David Azulai. He indited a kabbalistic siddur, Sidur HaKhavanot (Sidur HaRashash); a compilation of 70 responsa, Nahar Shalom; a commentary on Isaac Luria’s mystical principles, Rehovot HaNahar; glosses on Hayyim Vital’s Eitz HaHayyim (Shmoneh She’arim), Emet V’Shalom; and a Yemenite edition of Joseph Karo’s Shulhan Arukh. Miraculous legends arose about him being a thaumaturge and a metempsychosis (gilgul) of Isaac Luria to whom the prophet Elijah appeared. He was buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. His disciples included Hayyim Joseph David Azulai.
Hayyim Joseph David Azulai (Hida) (1724–1806/1807 CE) was a disciple of his father Isaac Zerahyah, Jonah Navon, Isaac HaKohen Rapoport, Hayyim ben Moses Attar, and Sar Shalom Mizrahi Sharabi, and the great-great-grandson of Abraham ben Mordekhai Azulai. A native of Jerusalem, he earned a reputation as the leading scholar of his era. He was dispatched as a fundraising envoy (meshulah) and as a rabbinical emissary (shaliah d’rabbanan) of the Jewish communities in the Land of Israel to solicit support for their academies and scholars. From 1753–1758, he traveled to Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and England on behalf of the Hebron academy. He then returned for seven years to Jerusalem, where he served as a religious judge (dayan) on the rabbinical court (beit din) and became a member of his master Shalom’s kabbalistic group, Ahavat Shalom. In 1764, he departed anew for Istanbul (Turkey), but his mission was aborted and he went instead to Cairo, Egypt, where he became chief rabbi, a position in which he served for five years. In 1769, he returned to the Land of Israel, where he settled in Hebron. In 1778, he revisited the Netherlands, and remarried his second wife, Rahel, in Pisa, Italy before finally settling in neighboring Leghorn (Livorno), where he died and was buried. He indited 71 works including his bibliographical/biographical masterworks Shem HaGdolim (listing 1,300 sages and scholars) and Va’ad L’Hakhamim (listing 2,200 of their works). As a student of kabbalah, he was profoundly influenced by Isaac Luria and Hayyim Vital. He was venerated as a righteous figure and miraculous legends arose about him. In 1960, his remains were reinterred in Jerusalem.
For good reason was the term kabbalah applied to this outstanding strand of Jewish mysticism—the esoteric tradition was to a large extent handed down and received not only from master to disciples but, like an heirloom, within particular families: Judah ben Barzillai al-Bargeloni, his descendant Moses ben Nahman, the latter’s grandson David ben Judah HeHasid, and the latter’s kinsman Joseph ben Shalom Ashkenazi; Rabad and his son Isaac Sagi Nahor; Ezra of Gerona and his son-in-law Azriel of Gerona; the famous and illustrious Abulafia clan; the HaKohen brothers and their relative Shem Tov ibn Gaon; the ibn Sahula brothers; and the Azulai dynasty.
Kabbalah is a product of homo mysticus in general and of the Jewish mythos in particular. As an abstruse, post-rational discipline, kabbalah has appealed to spiritual seekers and practitioners fascinated by metaphysical matters and open to speculation. Developed in reaction to medieval rationalism and philosophy, kabbalah propounded imaginative, complex, and radical answers to life’s biggest questions concerning the nature and extent of God, the universe, and existence itself, in so doing educing both the admiration of adherents and the respect of detractors. Its endurance is a testament to its ambition to engage with the unknown and to its daring to fathom the unfathomable.