The Popularization of Kabbalah
In the late summer of 1587, Moses Cordovero’s treatise Or Ne’erav (“The Pleasant Light”) was published in Venice.1It was published by “The House of Juan Di Gara.” An annotation on the last page indicates that the typesetting was completed on the thirteenth of Av, 5347. On the publisher, see A. M. Haberman, Ha-Madpis Juan di Gara u-Reshimat Sifrei Beyt Defuso, ed. Y. Yudlov (Lod, 1982). It was a book with several aims. First of all, it was written as a justification for the study of Kabbalah. As well, it contained detailed instructions for beginners on how to commence their Kabbalistic studies. Finally, it constituted an epitome of Cordovero’s great systematic theology of Kabbalah entitled Pardes Rimmonim (“The Pomegranate Orchard”), which as yet remained in manuscript.2Pardes Rimmonim was first printed in Lublin in 1592. Taken as a whole, Or Ne’erav was clearly meant to serve as an elementary text for beginners in Kabbalah. It was also obviously intended as a means toward the popularization of a Judaic world-view which, at least at its inception, had been conceived as an esoteric interpretation of Torah, not meant for the ordinary person.
Historians of Judaism have long seen the sixteenth century as a pivotal period in the development of Kabbalah. The position maintained by Gershom Scholem, that prior to the sixteenth century Kabbalah belonged to relatively small groups of masters and their disciples, who had little desire to propagate their ideas among the masses, has recently been challenged.3Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, p. 244. Cf. Mark Verman, “Mysticism, Indoctrination and Society.” However, Scholem’s emphasis on the centrality for Kabbalah of the sixteenth century, “with its programme of bringing its doctrines home to the community,” retains its essential validity whether or not one also agrees that this program had as its ultimate purpose “preparing [the community] for the coming of the messiah.”4Scholem, Major Trends, p. 250. In particular, Scholem’s point that the ethical (musar) literature of Judaism prior to the sixteenth century shows little trace of Kabbalistic influence, whereas from the sixteenth century onward such works openly reflect the ethos of Kabbalah, is well taken.5Ibid., p. 251. The reservations expressed by Moshe Idel on important parts of Scholem’s presentation of sixteenth-century Kabbalah have left this point unchallenged.6Idel, “One from a Town, Two from a Clan.”
Despite this recognition, the details of the change that was brought about in the position of Kabbalah in the sixteenth century among the broad masses of Jews have been relatively ignored by scholarship. This is at least in part because the concentration of most scholars of Kabbalah on what might be called the academic aspects of Kabbalistic thought has led to a situation in which the popularization of Kabbalah in the sixteenth century has been relatively ignored.7Exceptions to this rule include Louis Jacobs, The Palm Tree of Deborah, and Lawrence Fine, Safed Spirituality. This book, which offers an annotated English translation of the treatise Or Ne’erav, seeks to shed light on the process by which the Kabbalah was to become the possession of every literate Jew.
The Hebrew term kabbalah refers to a body of knowledge “received” through a chain of transmission believed by rabbinic Jews to extend all the way back to the divine revelation at Sinai.8Cf. Mishnah, Avot 1:1. Rabbinic Judaism, the dominant interpretation of Judaism in the medieval and early modern era, assumed as an essential belief that this body of knowledge, called torah (“teaching”), encompassed two divisions—one written, the other oral. The written Torah consisted of the Pentateuch, while the oral Torah contained an authoritative interpretation of the laws and the narrative in the written Torah. Rabbinic Jews further believed that the oral Torah, which had been transmitted in unwritten form from master to disciple for well over a millennium, had begun to be reduced to writing in the form of the Mishnah, which was edited by Rabbi Judah the Patriarch in the second century C.E. The process was continued by the editing of other collections of rabbinic traditions, including the Tosefta, the Gemara in its Palestinian and Babylonian recensions, and numerous collections of midrashim.
The fact that these collections of traditions, designed to be transmitted orally, had been reduced to writing was of concern to rabbinic Jews. Their major conclusion was that the oral traditions had been written down in response to extraordinary circumstances endangering the survival of the oral Torah in its original form of transmission. Maimonides, in the introduction to his code of Judaic law, the Mishneh Torah, states the issue clearly:
Why did our teacher [Rabbi Judah] the Patriarch [write down the Mishnah] and not leave matters as they were? [It was] because he observed that the number of disciples was diminishing, fresh calamities were continually occurring, the wicked kingdom [of Rome] was extending its domain and increasing in power, and Israelites were wandering and emigrating to distant countries. Therefore he composed a work to serve as a handbook for all, the contents of which could be rapidly studied and not be forgotten.9Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, introduction.
In other words, the writing down of the oral Torah was a response to a perceived threat to the “natural” transmission of the Torah. The writing of other rabbinic collections was seen in a similar light.10Ibid. It is noteworthy in this connection that Maimonides relates the writing of his halakhic compendium to his perception of a crisis in the transmission of Torah in his time.
It should not be thought, however, that the process of writing down the oral Torah meant that the oral Torah had ceased to exist. Indeed for most Jews there remained within the realm of Torah room for aspects of the Torah which had not been “published.” These continued to be the exclusive province of oral transmission, or, if written, were written in such a way as to be virtually unintelligible and hence in need of oral reinforcement and explanation. Thus the Mishnah, in tractate Ḥagigah, refers to several aspects of Torah, including the sexual taboos (‘arayot), the Account of Creation, and the Account of the Chariot, which were not to be expounded publicly.11Mishnah, Ḥagigah 2:1. The Torah, in other words, still held back certain secrets for oral transmission from master to disciple.
The notion that the Torah still had secrets to reveal became an extremely useful concept when, in the medieval period, Judaism— as well as Islam and Christianity—came into serious intellectual contact with the heritage of the science and philosophy of the ancient Greco-Roman world. For Jews, one of the major shifts which ensued from this contact was the necessity of dealing with the numerous passages in the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic literature which presented God in anthropomorphic terms. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the idea that the anthropomorphic passages in the Bible might be understood literally, while still sincerely believed by many Jews, had become severely problematic for Maimonides and others who took seriously the philosophical proofs for the incorporeality of God. Thus Maimonides equated with atheists, polytheists, and idolaters those who believed in one God but held that God possessed a body and an image.12Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:7. Cf. Rabad’s animadversion to this statement, defending the “authenticity” of Jews who persist in anthropomorphic beliefs.
In order to deal with the implications of the seeming contradictions between the literal sense of the Bible and the findings of science, Maimonides and other medieval Jewish rationalists were compelled to assert that the Torah spoke “in human language”13Cf. Marvin Fox, Interpreting Maimonides: Studies in Methodology, Meta-physics and Moral Philosophy (Chicago, 1990), p. 240. concerning the deity and, therefore, that the words of the Torah, insofar as they indicated things which were “scientifically” impossible—such as attributing human bodily parts or emotions to God—were not to be taken literally but, rather, interpreted metaphorically.
The need to maintain a nonliteral interpretation of the Torah was widely felt among medieval Jewish intellectuals. However, the rationalist interpretations of Maimonides and others were not as widely accepted. In the first place, rationalistic philosophy was a discipline which was demonstrably non-Jewish in origin. Despite attempts to give it a Judaic pedigree,14Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed 1.71. Cf. Isaac Husik, A History of Mediaeval Jewish Philosophy (New York, 1973), p. xvi. the knowledge that philosophy was a foreign importation doubtless tended to lessen its acceptance. Secondly, and far more importantly, philosophy was hard pressed to explain the difference between the remote God of the philosophers, who had no interest in things that were not eternal, such as human beings, and the Biblical God, who played an active role in humankind’s affairs and most particularly in those of His people, Israel. Furthermore, Jewish philosophers often found it hard to explain satisfactorily the details of the legislation in the Torah. Maimonides’ historical explanations of such things as the prohibition of mingling linen and woolen threads (sha’atnez) may have satisfied some, but doubtless left others wondering whether such formulations did not tend to relativize the Torah’s commandments and potentially threaten the continued observance of Torah law.15Cf. Ira Robinson, “Halakha, Kabbala and Philosophy in the Thought of Joseph Jabez,” p. 393.
In contrast with this, Kabbalah offered its adherents a means whereby the Torah in its entirety could be satisfactorily explained in a nonliteralist manner. The details of the commandments no less than their general principles could be understood by referring to Kabbalistic doctrines.16On the Kabbalistic interpretation of the commandments, see Daniel Matt, “The Mystic and the Mizvot,” and Elliot Wolfson, “Mystical Rationalization of the Commandments in Sefer ha-Rimmon,” pp. 222, 249-251. Moreover, care was taken to present the ideas of Kabbalah in such a way as to ensure that they would appear to be entirely intrinsic to the rabbinic tradition. Thus the first major Kabbalistic work, Sefer ha-Bahir,17On the Midrashic nature of the Bahir, see Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 39-44, 49-53, and Joseph Dan, “Midrash and the Dawn of Kabbalah,” pp. 127-139. as well as Kabbalah’s major thirteenth-century exposition, the Zohar,18On the Zohar’s Midrashic approach, see Itamar Gruenwald, “From Talmudic to Zoharic Hermeneutics.” presented themselves as Midrashic expositions of the Torah—in other words, as works in a classical genre.
Kabbalah, which first emerged into the light of day in twelfth-century Provence, and which received its classical statement in the Zohar, in thirteenth-century Spain,19On the Zohar, see Scholem, Major Trends, pp. 156-243; Daniel Matt, Zohar, introduction; and Yehuda Liebes, “How the Zohar Was Written.” understood God’s relationship with the created universe in the following way.
God, in His most fundamental reality, is unknown to man and, in principle, unknowable. The only thing known about God in this fundamental reality is His existence. Kabbalists called the God of this fundamental reality Eyn Sof, meaning “without limit,” or even ‘Ayin (“nothingness”), signifying that from the perspective of mankind, there was “nothing” that one could know about Him.
Eyn Sof initiated a process which the Kabbalists called Aẓilut (“emanation”), which eventuated in a system of ten sefirot. The sefirot, taken as a whole, represented God as experienced by human beings. The following is a somewhat simplified depiction of the process. The first sefirah to be emanated, called Keter (“crown”), marked the transition point between Eyn Sof and the sefirotic system. The next two sefirot, Ḥokhmah (“wisdom”) and Binah (“understanding”), represented a male and a female principle, respectively. Ḥokhmah and Binah, in union, produced the seven other sefirot, Gedulah (“greatness”) or Raḥamim (“mercy”), Gevurah (“might”), Tiferet (“glory”), Neẓaḥ (“triumph”), Hod (“splendor”), Yesod (“foundation”), and Malkhut (“kingdom”). The three upper sefirot, Keter, Ḥokhmah, and Binah, were considered relatively less accessible to the human mind than the lower seven, which were taken to represent the sometimes diametrically opposed qualities attributed to God in the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinic literature. Thus God the Merciful was seen as represented by the sefirah Gedulah. God’s attribute of stern justice was embodied in the sefirah Gevurah. Tiferet was the synthesis between mercy and justice.
Though the Kabbalists asserted that all of the sefirot were interrelated and, indeed, that all were One, nonetheless they tended to concentrate their attention on the relationship between two sefirot in particular: Tiferet and Malkhut. Tiferet was seen as the central sefirah and a male principle. Ideally, it was to enter into union with Malkhut, a female principle which marked the point of transition between the realm of the sefirot and the created universe. Through the union of Tiferet and Malkhut flowed the divine energy which created and sustained the universe. When the Tiferet-Malkhut union was consummated, the flow of divine energy was unabated. When the union was interrupted, however, the flow of divine energy ceased sustaining the universe and, instead, served to strengthen the forces of cosmic evil, referred to as the “Other Side” (Sitra A“ra), and conceived as arrayed in a counter-sefirotic structure.
Where Kabbalists found themselves divided was on the question of whether the sefirot, taken as a whole, constituted an “instrument” employed by God for His revelation to His creatures or whether, in fact, the sefirotic realm was God.
Within this divine economy, human beings, and especially the Jews, were not mere passive observers. Kabbalists held that Jews, through their performance of the commandments of the Torah and through their prayers, could influence the sefirotic realm. Prayer and Torah observance, undertaken with the correct intention, would align the sefirot correctly and help accomplish the union of Tiferet and Malkhut. Sin, on the other hand, served to disrupt the harmony of the sefirot, sunder the sefirotic union, and render aid and comfort to the evil forces of the Other Side.
The responsibility of the individual Jew for the well-being of the cosmos was coupled with a belief that events and actions in the human sphere indicated corresponding processes in the sefirotic realm. Thus each earthly action had its sefirotic counterpart. For the Kabbalist, this meant that literally everything was to be related to the divine and was to be understood in a sense beyond its surface meaning.
For its adherents, Kabbalah was clearly a tool of great power and sophistication with which to understand the universe. It was just as clearly the ultimate secret of the Torah. This being so, it was by no means clear whether this secret doctrine was to be publicized to wider circles or not.
Those who wished to teach Kabbalistic doctrines, and, in particular, those who desired to reach a mass audience, were faced with a seemingly unsolvable problem. They were fully convinced that their discipline was none other than Ma’aseh Merkavah, the esoteric lore referred to in the Mishnah. Thus they were seemingly bound by the Mishnah’s prohibition against expounding this material “before even one student.”20Cf. n. 11 above.
In this spirit, one of the first major Kabbalistic masters in twelfth-century Provence, Isaac the Blind, went on record in a letter to Spain against the indiscriminate spread of Kabbalah through public exposition and the composition of Kabbalistic treatises that might fall into the “wrong” hands. His remarks were addressed to circles of students of Kabbalah in Spain who were composing Kabbalistic treatises and even, like Naḥmanides, incorporating Kabbalistic indications in a commentary on the Torah meant for the general public.21Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 393-394. On Nahmanides’ Kabbalistic doctrines, see Moshe Idel, “We Have No Tradition on This,” and Elliot Wolfson, “By Way of Truth.”
Those Kabbalists, from the thirteenth through the fifteenth century, who did engage in the writing of Kabbalistic works, generally did so in full consciousness of the fact that they were addressing audiences whose members could not all be trusted with the secrets of the Torah which they were purveying. For this reason they often sought to conceal as well as reveal, in order to make sure that oral direction would still be needed in addition to the written treatises. Thus Abraham ben Eliezer Halevi, a Kabbalist of the generation of the Spanish Expulsion, asserted in one of his works that Kabbalistic authors invariably omitted certain elements from their writings in order to maintain the need for the Kabbalah to be transmitted orally.22Ira Robinson, “Abraham Ben Eliezer Halevi,” p. 198, nn. 21-23. For a similar warning on the inherent danger of delving into the mysteries of Kabbalah without a master and relying solely on what is written in books, see Nahmanides, Derush ‘al Kohelet, in Kilve ha-Rumhan, ed. C. Chavel (Jerusalem, Mossad ha-Rav Kook, 1963), vol. 1, p. 180. Given this approach, one can easily appreciate the extent to which those desiring to popularize Kabbalah had to overcome an ingrained opposition to its widespread dissemination even on the part of Kabbalists, let alone opponents of the discipline. This fact, in addition to the painstaking effort, mentioned earlier, to present the Kabbalah as wholly intrinsic to the Judaic tradition, went a long way toward reducing the expressed opposition to Kabbalah to relatively minor proportions. There were, indeed, Jews who objected vigorously to Kabbalah, for instance on the grounds that the tenfold character of the sefirot could not be reconciled with God’s absolute unity. Apparently, however, these objections were relatively few, perhaps consonant with the limited distribution of Kabbalah within Jewry.23Cf. Idel, Kabbalah, p. 3.
It is thus reasonably clear that the process whereby Kabbalah came to the attention of the Jewish public in its first centuries was slow, halting, and somewhat ambivalent.
This situation began to change in the sixteenth century. In the aftermath of the expulsion from the Iberian peninsula in the 1490s, an upheaval which had the same sort of resonance for Jews of that generation as the Holocaust has for ours, Kabbalah began going public in a big way. Kabbalistic works like the Zohar began to be printed, amid a major controversy regarding the propriety of printing them.24Isaiah Tishby, “Ha-Pulmus ‘al Sefer ha-Zoḥar be-Me’ah ha-Shesh Esreh be-Italiyah.”
More importantly, systematic treatises on Kabbalah began to appear. One of these comprehensive guides to Kabbalah was written by the aforementioned Abraham ben Eliezer Halevi. Entitled Massoret ha-Ḥokhmah (“Tradition of Wisdom”), it was a defense of the discipline of Kabbalah against its detractors, a condemnation of opposing Kabbalistic schools, and a praise of the benefits deriving from the study of Kabbalah. However, the exposition of Kabbalistic doctrine in this work is brief and sketchy in the extreme.25Robinson, “Abraham ben Eliezer Halevi,” pp. 195-200. Similar to Halevi’s work in scope, but somewhat more well known, because printed, is Judah Ḥayyat’s introduction to his commentary on Ma’arekhet ha-Elohut (“The System of Divinity”).26Judah Ḥayyat, commentary on Ma’arekhet ha-Elohut (Mantua, 1558), introduction. On a much grander scale is the work of another contemporary, Meir ibn Gabbai, whose exposition of Kabbalah was entitled ‘Avodat ha-Kodesh (“The Holy Service”). Scholem characterized it as “perhaps the finest account of Kabbalistic speculation before the resurgence of the Kabbalah in Safed.”27Scholem, Kabbalah, p. 69. Cf. Roland Goetschel, Meir Ibn Gabbay.
Most importantly, broad sections of the Jewish public began assimilating the Kabbalistic ethos into their own lives. Nowhere was this process more apparent than in the town of Safed, in the Galilee. After the Ottoman conquest of the Land of Israel in 1517, Safed attracted a large number of Jewish immigrants, largely from among the Spanish and Portuguese exiles and their children. These people settled in the Land of Israel partly because they sought to be in the place where they expected an imminent messianic redemption and partly because it was part of the burgeoning Ottoman Empire, to which many Jews were attracted at this time.28Cf. Yiẓḥak Ben Ẓvi, “Eretz Yisrael Under Ottoman Rule,” in The Jews: Their History, ed. Louis Finkelstein (New York, 1972), pp. 406 ff.
In Safed, many attempts were made to prepare for the expected redemption. Among them were controversial projects like the attempt, in the 1530s, to reintroduce an authentic rabbinic ordination,29Jacob Katz, “Maḥloket ha-Semikhah beyn Rabbi Yaakov Berab veha-Ralbaḥ.” as well as a mass movement for repentance and for observance of the commandments of the Torah which, so our sources inform us, attracted thousands of followers.30Ronit Meroz, Redemption in the Lurianic Teaching, p. 3.
Kabbalah was an integral part of the Safed ethos, and the town became a center for the study and dissemination of Kabbalah without parallel in history. The number of Kabbalists who were concentrated in Safed was relatively sizable. But beyond their actual numbers, they were able to decisively influence the community at large in unprecedented ways. Several liturgical innovations, such as the preliminary service on the eve of the Sabbath (kabbalat shabbat) and the midnight penitential service (tikkun ḥaẓẓot) emanated from these circles and were accepted by Jews throughout the world.31Cf. Fine, Safed Spirituality, introduction.
The influence of the Kabbalists and their teachings on the life of the ordinary Jew did not happen accidentally. The Kabbalists had made a decision to involve the community at large in their discipline.32Meroz points out that this decision was one characteristic of Cordovero and his school but uncharacteristic of Isaac Luria and his disciples. Redemption in the Lurianic Teaching, pp. 4-5. A good part of their motivation for doing so stemmed, doubtless, from the assumption that they were living in the age immediately preceding the messianic redemption. Of this age, the Ra’aya Mehemna had said: “Israel will come to taste of the tree of life which is this book of Zohar. With it they will go out of the Exile with [divine] mercy.”33Ra’aya Mehemna, Zohar III, 124b. Cordovero expected the messianic advent in the period between 1540 and 1589. Cf. Beracha Zak, “Galut Yisrael ve-Galut ha-Shekhinah be-Or Yakar le-Rabbi Mosheh Cordovero.”
A clear implication of this assumption was that now, as never before, there was an obligation to make public the secrets of Kabbalah which had heretofore remained hidden. The most prominent of the Safed Kabbalists to feel this way was Moses Cordovero. Or Ne’erav is one of the major means by which he expressed this imperative.
Cordovero was born in the year 1522 and settled in Safed as a young man.34On Cordovero and his thought, see Yosef Ben-Shlomo, The Mystical Theology of Moses Cordovero, esp. chap. 1. For a summary in English, see his Encyclopaedia Judaica article on Cordovero, vol. 5, cols. 967-970. His teacher of rabbinics was none other than R. Joseph Karo, author of the standard systematization of Halakhah, the Shulḥan Arukh.35On Karo, see R. J. Z. Werblowsky, Joseph Karo. At the age of twenty Cordovero began his Kabbalistic studies under Solomon ha-Levi Alkabetz, whose sister he subsequently married.36On Alkabetz, see Beracha Zak, “Torat ha-Sod shel R. Shelomoh Alkabetz.” He studied, taught, and wrote in Safed until his death in 1570, at the age of forty-eight.
There is a sense in which Cordovero was following the same path in Kabbalah that his master, Karo, had followed in Halakhah. Both were systematizers. Cordovero sought to do nothing less than synthesize a systematic Kabbalistic theology from the exegetical teachings of the Zohar just as Karo had attempted to create a clear methodology for the determination of Jewish law out of the myriad works and opinions of his predecessors.
Cordovero had worked out this systematic theology by the age of twenty-seven in a work he entitled Pardes Rimmonim (“The Pomegranate Garden”). It eclipsed all previous efforts to systematize Kabbalah. In this work, he set forth a comprehensive Kabbalistic account of God, man, and creation that was to become a standard account of the field.37Cf. Scholem, Major Trends, p. 252. If Cordovero has been called the greatest theoretician of Kabbalah, it is mostly due to the Pardes Rimmonim. Indeed, given that the bulk of Cordovero’s writings remained in manuscript for centuries after his death, his vast reputation largely depends on this work.38Thus his Elimah Rabbali was not published until 1881. Shiur Komah was published in 1883. His extensive commentary on the Zohar, Or Yakar, began its publication in the 1960s and is still incomplete. Pardes Rimmonim was not, however, entirely easy of access. It was designed for those who already had a fairly strong background in Kabbalah and its texts. Indeed Cordovero recognized that Kabbalistic novices who read Pardes Rimmonim would be likely to do themselves more harm than good.39Cordovero, Pardes Rimmonim, introduction. It was thus inadequate as a tool with which to attract new adherents to his Kabbalistic ideology and to refute the counterclaims of opponents of Kabbalah and of rival schools of Kabbalistic interpretation.
What, then, of these others? What of those who were interested in the subject but had never approached it and would be lost in its complexities? What of those who, having heard of the subject, were hesitant, not knowing whether they could or should engage in its study? The messianic imperative, which affected Cordovero no less than other Jews of his generation,40See Beracha Zak, “Sheloshah Zemanei Geulah be-Or Yakar le-Rabbi Mosheh Cordovero.” indicated that Kabbalah had to be popularized if its knowledge was to spread among the people in order to hasten the Messiah’s coming. For this reason, among others, Cordovero determined to embody the Kabbalah’s teachings in a form accessible to readers who were not specialists in Kabbalistic studies.
One such venture was an ethical treatise which he titled Tomer Devorah (“The Palm Tree of Deborah”).41See Jacobs, Palm Tree of Deborah, introduction. In it, Cordovero successfully integrated the genre of moral and ethical exhortation, which was fairly widely accepted, with Kabbalistic teachings concerning the sefirot. Thus the exhortation to internalize the qualities of God, such as mercy and lovingkindness, was imbued with the tenfold division of the sefirot such that each sefirah encompassed a moral and ethical principle which Jews were exhorted to make a part of their lives. This work, which was the first of its kind, was followed by numerous others in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries.42Cf. Joseph Dan, Jewish Mysticism and Jewish Ethics.
The other major attempt by Cordovero to popularize his Kabbalistic teaching was the treatise translated here, Or Ne’erav. Because it contains no introduction by the author, we are unable to say with any certainty when it was written or why. From its contents, however, we can readily discern that Cordovero utilized his immense intellectual and pedagogical talents to create a work with a dual purpose. As his son, Gedaliah, who brought the book to press, indicates in his introduction, he abridged the material which was argued in extenso in Pardes Rimmonim. To this abridgement he added, at the beginning of the treatise, “additional chapters … to [cause others to] understand and to teach the usefulness of this discipline and the necessity for learning it.”43Or Ne’erav, p. 3a. Thus, on the one hand, Or Ne’erav served as an argument for the legitimacy of Kabbalah and its study. On the other hand, it presented an epitome of Pardes Rimmonim suitable for people just beginning their Kabbalistic studies.
We will have something to say regarding this latter aspect of Or Ne’erav later on. At present, however, we are interested precisely in the “additional chapters” which come at the beginning. They give us an important insight into the way in which a major Kabbalistic scholar envisaged the study of Kabbalah by beginners at the very time when Kabbalah was emerging to compete openly for a place in the Jewish curriculum.44On the competition for a place in the Jewish curriculum, see Ira Robinson, “Torah and Halakha in Medieval Judaism,” Studies in Religion 13 (1984): 47-55.
With regard to the first purpose of the treatise, that of establishing Kabbalah’s legitimacy as an intellectual discipline, it might be said that Cordovero basically continued the genre of “defenses” of true Kabbalah against its detractors and opponents both within and without the Kabbalist camp.45Cf. Judah Ḥayyat’s introduction to his commentary on Ma’arekhet ha-Elohut. Ḥayyat’s treatment of this subject, though briefer than Cordovero’s, shows a number of interesting parallels with Or Ne’erav. His treatment of his sources is unmistakably Cordoveran in its thoroughness and meticulousness but is nonetheless not terribly original. Indeed, it might even be said that some of the groups Cordovero argued against, such as those who entirely denied that the Torah could be interpreted esoterically, did not constitute a formal school of thought in his day and were included only in order to fill the spectrum of logical possibilities of opposition to his enterprise.46Cf. n. 20 above. If, indeed, little opposition to Kabbalah is documented in this era, the logical possibilities are that Cordovero is either arguing against real points of view that have not come down to us or is simply presenting the potential Kabbalist with a refutation of all possible objections to Kabbalah. What is new in Or Ne’erav is Cordovero’s detailed vision of the ideal Kabbalistic education.
For Cordovero, the ideal student should have attained the age of twenty before commencing his study of Kabbalah. In stating this, he placed himself in conscious opposition to the view that Kabbalistic studies should be limited to those who had achieved the age of “understanding”—forty.47Cf. Mishnah, Avot 5:21. Cf. also Idel, “On the History of the Interdiction Against the Study of Kabbalah Before the Age of Forty.” Though Cordovero does not mention it in this context, he asserts in the introduction to Pardes Rimmonim that his own education in Kabbalah began at the age of twenty. Thus, in a self-reference, he could emphatically state: “Many have acted in accordance with our opinion and succeeded.”48Or Ne’erav, p. 19b; cf. p. 17a.
Cordovero’s own experience with the study of Kabbalah is likely to have inspired him to demand of the potential student that he “first strip from himself the shell of gross pride which prevents him from attaining the truth. He should [then] direct his heart to heaven [to pray] that he not fail.”49Ibid., p. 19b. In the introduction to Pardes Rimmonim, Cordovero claimed to have undergone a similar conversion experience at the age of twenty, in which he renounced worldly vanities and turned to Kabbalah. As he said of himself, at the age of twenty “My Creator aroused me as one who is aroused from sleep, and I said to my soul, ‘Until when will you cause the misbehaving daughter to disappear?’”50Cordovero, Pardes Rimmonim, introduction.
The student, having attained the requisite age and deportment, should also have undergone a rigorous preparatory course in the classic exoteric Jewish texts. Influenced here as elsewhere by Maimonides, Cordovero asserted that the ideal curriculum ought to be divided into three divisions: Scripture, Mishnah, and Talmud.51Cf. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:11-12. Mishnah was defined as the entire range of rabbinic law, while Talmud was meant to refer to pardes (esoteric studies). Thus Cordovero stated:
He [the prospective student] must be accustomed to engaging in profound pilpul [dialectical reasoning] so that he might be accustomed and able to strip [relevant] matters from parables…. He must apply himself to fill his belly with [the study of] the laws of the Gemara and the explanation of the commandments on the literal level in the work of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, the Yad…. He should also guide himself in the study of Scripture—whether [it be] much or little…. [Then] he will not fail.52Or Ne’erav, p. 19b. On pilpul as a Cordoveran concept, see Ben Shlomo, Mystical Theology, p. 29.
Of course, mastery of these preparatory subjects should not become so complete as to inordinately delay the study of Kabbalah. As Cordovero stated:
There are those who imagine that before pursuing [Kabbalah], they must first master the science of astronomy. They have other notions which keep them from following the straight path. They sanctimoniously give themselves the excuse that their bellies are not yet full of the bread and meat of the Gemara. For these poor people, their entire lives will not be sufficient to learn even a bit of [Gemara], let alone to fill their bellies so that they could partake of this science [of Kabbalah] and be sated. Thus the poor people go to their eternal rest bereft of wisdom.53Or Ne’erav, p. 11a.
Beyond proper preparatory study, would-be students of Kabbalah must also possess a strong desire to study the subject for its own sake in order to enter into its mysteries, to know their Master and to achieve a wondrous level in the true acquisition of knowledge of the Torah. To pray before their Master and to unify, through His commandments, the Holy One, blessed be He, and His Shekhinah.54Ibid., p. 17a.
By way of contrast, those who desire to study Kabbalah merely as one discipline among many, and for whom acquiring “a bit of this science is the same … as [acquiring] a smattering of medicine, astronomy, logic, mathematics, and the other sciences,”55Ibid., pp. 16b-17a. were characterized as sinners.
So much for the student of Kabbalah; what must one expect of the teacher of this subject? Cordovero asserted that a student who truly desires to study Kabbalah should take as a teacher someone who has fulfilled the requisite standards for a Kabbalist. Thus, a teacher of Kabbalah must be a person with an adequate background in the exoteric texts, who has mastered Kabbalah for its own sake and not as one discipline among many. To study with a teacher who does not fulfill these conditions will lead the student to error and might eventually result in his losing his faith.56Ibid., p. 23a.
However, what is one to do if one is unable to find a suitable teacher? Does the lack of a qualified teacher mean that one may not begin the study of Kabbalah at all? Cordovero’s answer to this problem is self-study. Doing it by yourself, though it may lead you to error, is preferable to refraining from any attempt to study Kabbalah. In the end, Cordovero asserted, even the erroneous study of Kabbalah has its divine reward.57Ibid., pp. 15a-b. In an era in which teachers of Kabbalah were few and manuscripts of Kabbalistic texts were scattered, it is not unlikely that Cordovero’s accommodating attitude toward self-study reflected the contemporary situation.
Just as Cordovero was exacting with regard to the choice of an instructor, preferring self-study to instruction by an inadequate teacher, so was he exacting with regard to the texts the student should study. Living in an era in which several more or less systematic accounts of Kabbalah were available, Cordovero advised the beginning student to avoid all of them. The authors of these Kabbalistic works, he said, had “compose[ed] their books in riddles and metaphors so that their message is encumbered by much [extraneous] matter. We ourselves would not do this, God forbid. It is improper to place a blemish upon sanctified things.”58Ibid., p. 21b. By contrast, Judah Ḥayyat does recommend Kabbalistic treatises, including those of Nahmanides, Joseph Gikatilla, and Menaḥem Recanati. See the introduction to his commentary on Ma’arekhet ha-Elohut, p. 3b.
Rather than rely upon such books, Cordovero urged students to concentrate mainly on the Zoharic literature and such sanctified works as Sefer Yeẓirah (“Book of Creation”) and Sefer ha-Bahir (“Book of Clear Light”).
[The student] should stick to these books lovingly. He will succeed in [mastering] this science on condition that he delve deeply into them and [devote to them] exceptional study. He will then find explanations for most of what is to be found in the books of the latter commentators, which he need not consult. It is not our intention to declare these [latter works] unfit, God forbid, but rather to indicate to the student the path which is short, though it seems to be long.59Or Ne’erav, pp. 21b-22a.
In pursuing the study of these texts, some times are better for learning than others.
It is certainly easy for a student to study throughout the day. However, the optimum time for gaining profound wisdom is the long night, from midnight on, or on the Sabbath day, which is [itself] a factor. This [also applies to] the eve of the Sabbath, commencing at noontime and on holidays, particularly on Aẓeret [Shavuot]. I have tried this many times and found it to be a marvelously successful day. Also, there is great success [in studying] on Sukkot in the sukkah. These times [1 have] mentioned I have tried. I am speaking from experience.60Ibid., p. 19b. On the concept of midnight in the practice of Safed Kabbalists, see Fine, Safed Spirituality, pp. 17-18.
In addition to studying the optimum texts at the optimum times, the student was to approach his studies in the following way:
First of all, [the student] should review the texts many times, making notes in order to remember his studies fluently. He should not delve too deeply at first. Secondly, he should study the material with great concentration according to his ability…. At times [the amount of time given to] the two forms of study should be increased and sometimes lessened, all according to the need of the hour and the [degree of] peace of mind…. Though it may seem to the student that he does not understand [the texts], he should nevertheless not cease studying, for his Master will faithfully cause him to discover esoteric wisdom…. I have experienced this innumerable times…. Should any subject in this science seem doubtful for [the student], he should wait. For in the course of time the matter will be revealed to him. The essential reward [for the study] of this science is [derived from] waiting for [the revelation of] the mysteries which will be revealed to him in the course of time.61Or Ne’erav, pp. 22a, 32b-33a.
As previously noted, Moses Cordovero’s son, Gedaliah, considered all the material we have dealt with so far as merely prefatory to the essential part of Or Ne’erav, which is the epitome of Pardes Rimmonim. The section of the work containing the epitome is entitled “On the Necessary Preparations for Beginners in This Science.”62Ibid., pp. 33b ff. We noted earlier that Cordovero, in criticizing the authors of other Kabbalistic treatises, stated that his work would differ from theirs. He was presumably saying, though not in so many words, that Pardes Rimmonim was an adequate text for Kabbalistic studies and that Or Ne’erav was a proper way for beginners to be introduced to the material it contained.
It has been observed that Cordovero’s ethical work, Tomer Devorah, pioneered a genre in which Kabbalistic ideas and motifs began suffusing and controlling moral and ethical discourse.63Cf. n. 37 above. It has not been sufficiently noted, however, that Or Ne’erav begins another trend: the publication of abridgements and epitomes of Kabbalistic works. In the seventeenth century, two further abridgements of Pardes Rimmonim appeared.64Menaḥem Azariah of Fano, Pelaḥ ha-Rimmon (1600) and Samuel Gallico, Assis Rimmonim (1601). In addition, Reshit Ḥokhmah (“Beginning of Wisdom”) by Moses Cordovero’s disciple, Elijah De Vidas, who saw his work as a sort of primer leading to the study of Pardes Rimmonim, was issued in abridged form.65Fine, Safed Spirituality, p. 181. Cf. Mordecai Pachter, “Elijah De Vidas’ Beginning of Wisdom and Its Abbreviated Versions,” and Zev Gries, “Iẓẓuv Safrut ha-Hanhagot ha-Ivrit be-Me’ah ha-Shesh Esreh uva-Me’ah ha-Shva Esreh u-Mashmauto ha-Historit.” Other Kabbalistic works, such as Isaiah Hurwitz’s Shnei Luḥot ha-Berit (“The Two Tablets of the Covenant”) also generated abridgements.66Yeḥiel Michel Epstein, Kiẓẓur Shla (Fuerth, 1693).
In any account of the attempt to popularize the study of Kabbalah, Moses Cordovero and his Or Ne’erav deserve a prominent place. However, this is not because the work attained a continuing degree of popularity. It was never completely forgotten amid the welter of books offering an entree to the study of Kabbalah and was reprinted several times.67See Ḥayyim Dov Friedberg, Bet Eked Sefarim (Tel-Aviv, 1956), vol. 1, p. 51. Nonetheless, due partly, perhaps, to its admittedly unfinished character,68The clearest indication of this is that Cordovero did not provide an introduction to the work. and partly to the relative eclipse of Cordoveran Kabbalah by the writings of Isaac Luria and his disciples,69See Meroz, Redemption in the Lurianic Teaching, chap. 1. it never became the important conduit to the study of Kabbalah that it was intended to be. It remains, however, a precious document for historians of Kabbalah and of Jewish education, for it enables us to gain an insight into what a major authority on Kabbalah thought about Kabbalistic education in an era in which that education—like Kabbalah itself— was undergoing tremendous expansion and change.
On the Translation
This translation of Or Ne’erav was prepared on the basis of the first edition (Venice, 1587), the pagination of which is indicated in the text with brackets. The introductory material that prefaced the first edition will be found in the appendices. The text was compared with later editions, particularly that edited by Rabbi Yehuda Zvi Brandwein (Tel-Aviv, 1965), whose notes were often helpful.
Care was taken to render the Hebrew and Aramaic text into a readable English. In order to facilitate this goal, words and phrases not contained in the original, which were considered necessary aids to comprehension, were added in brackets. Quotations from Scripture are printed in italics. In many cases Cordovero did not quote complete phrases or verses; when the omission is at the beginning or end of a quotation this is self-evident, when it occurs in the middle an ellipsis (…) is utilized to indicate that something is missing. No part of Cordovero’s text was omitted from the translation.