Historical Periods of Jewish Mysticism


Grave of the Ari (Isaac Luria) in Safed

Grave of the Ari (Isaac Luria) in Safed. By Chadica from Jerusalem, Israel – The Grave of the Ari, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35296113

by Prof. Elliot R. Wolfson

Biblical Precursors

The Hebrew Bible is a primary source of reflection and inspiration for virtually all branches of Jewish Mysticism and Esotericism. While we must be careful not to conflate the religion of the ancient Israelites with later periods of Jewish history, it remains clear that certain elements of continuity remain throughout. One of the most important ideas of biblical religion to impact Jewish mysticism is the phenomenon of prophecy and revelatory experience. The texts relating the revelations to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, the people of Israel as a whole at Sinai, and the prophetic inspirations and visions of Ezekiel, Daniel and other prominent personalities in the Bible serve as the foundation for much of the esoteric and mystical traditions of Judaism. The Zohar, for example, is organized as a commentary on the Torah, and contains many descriptions of experience of the Divine that approximate descriptions of prophetic revelation found throughout the Bible.

1st – 7th centuries- Early Jewish Mysticism and Esotericism

The earliest stages of post-biblical Jewish Mysticism and Esotericism begin in the ancient Near East with a number of important texts that draw upon biblical images, such as Ezekiel’s vision of the divine chariot or merkavah, and the ascension of Enoch. The Rabbinic literature of the Talmud and Midrash also contains many images and ideas about the mysteries of the divine realm, the nature of prophecy, the origins of the cosmos, the nature of the human soul, and other matters that went on to have a significant influence on Jewish mysticism.

Important Texts

Sefer Yesirah (2nd – 7th centuries CE)

Sefer Yesirah or “The Book of Creation” is a short treatise of less than 2,000 words that discusses the creation of the universe by means of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the “ten ineffable sefirot.” It is unclear what the ten sefirot exactly are in this context, but it would seem that they refer to entities in the divine realm that are incomprehensible by the human mind, yet nonetheless represent the mysterious nature of God and serve as his tools in the creative process. The focus on the symbolism of the ten sefirot and the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in Sefer Yesirah had a major impact on later Jewish Mysticism and Kabbalah. The symbolism of the ten sefirot is re-emphasized in an innovative and powerful way in the kabbalistic texts that begin to emerge in Southern France in the late 12th century.

Rabbinic Literature

Esoteric speculation can be found in many places in Rabbinic literature. In one famous example in Mishnah Hagigah 2-1 we read, “forbidden sexual relations may not be expounded before three [or more] people, nor the account of creation [ma’aseh bereishit] before two [or more], nor the account of the Chariot [ma’aseh merkavah] before one, unless he is a sage who understand through his own knowledge.” These categories of forbidden or restricted speculation indicate a tradition, already active in the first few centuries of the Common Era among the rabbinic elite, of secret knowledge regarding God, the creation of the universe, and human sexuality. In one cryptic passage in the Talmud, Sanhedrine 65b, we read, “Rav Haninia and Rav Oshaya used to sit the entire day before the commencement of the Sabbath and study the Sefer Yesirah. They created a calf one third the normal size and ate it.” While it remains unclear whether the Sefer Yesirah referred to in this Talmudic text is connected to the Sefer Yesirah mentioned above, it is yet another example of esoteric traditions among the scholars of the Rabbinic period.

Heikhalot/Merkavah Literature

Another group of Jewish mystical texts from the first centuries of the Common Era is the Heikhalot “Chamber” and Merkavah “Chariot” literature. These texts discuss the means of traversing the seven chambers that surround the divine throne or chariot. Each stage of the journey involves entering through the gateways between the courtyards, which are guarded by angels. Only those who are fully adept in the proper recitation of the angelic names can enter and exit unharmed. These visions of the courtyards and throne room of God are reported in the name of famous personalities from the Rabbinic schools, such as Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael. The precise connections between this body of literature and the Rabbinc authors is difficult to determine, but most scholars agree that the traditions related in the Heikhalot and Merkavah literature, especially those texts from the Heikhalot Rabbati and Heikhalot Zutarti collections, date to the Rabbinic period.

Shiur Komah

One of the most arcane texts from the ancient period of Jewish mysticism and esotericism is the unusual collection of passages referred to as the Shiur Komah, or “Measure of the Stature.” These texts describe the Glory of God in the form of a supernal human body of enormous proportions with names associated with each of the limbs. In later periods of Jewish Mysticism anthropomorphic representations of God plays an important role.

7th – 11th centuries- Mysticism in the Geonic period

Much of what we find from the 7th – 11th centuries reflects a strong influence from the rabbinic and Heikhalot/Merkavah sources. A number of important ideas that developed during this period that had a key impact on later Jewish mysticism. The first major idea that took shape during this period is the re-conceptualization of the Shekhinah “Divine Presence” as more than a name for the presence of God in the world, but rather a kind of hypostasis or entity that can interact with God.

Furthermore, it is during the Geonic period that the Shekhinah is associated with the kenesset yisrael, “the community of Israel,” the idea of gilgul or reincarnation finds its first appearance in Judaism, and the technique of employing gematria “numerology” to the values of Hebrew letters and words in order to uncover sodot or “secrets” hidden within biblical texts becomes widespread.

Two important commentaries on Sefer Yesirah were composed during this period, one by Shabbtai ben Abraham Donnolo (913 – ca. 982), and another by Judah ben Barsillai al Barceloni (late 11th – early 12th). Other important figures from this period included Eleazar Kallir (ca. 6th-8th century), Saadiah ben Joseph Gaon (882-942), Hai Gaon (939 – 1038), Hananel ben Hushiel (d. 1055-56), Nathan ben Yehiel of Rome (d. 1110), Ahima’az of Oria (11th century), and Aaron of Bagdad (mid 9th century).

During the early part of the Geonic period most of the important authors were centered in Babylonia, but toward the end of the period, many of these ideas begin to spread to the Jewish communities of Europe.

12th – 13th centuries- Medieval Jewish Mysticism and the Rise of Kabbalah

Hasidei Ashkenaz

A significant development in the promulgation of mystical and esoteric ideas in the Jewish Communities of Western Christendom was the emergence of a group in the Rhineland known as the Hasidei Ashkenaz or German Pietists. This movement was active from roughly 1250-1350 and had a profound impact on the kabbalistic circles in Spain in the latter part of the 13th century. The three main figures of this group come from the Kalonymide family, starting with Samuel the Hasid (mid 12th century), son of Rabbi Kalonymus of Speyer; Judah the Hasid of Worms (d. 1217), and Eleazar ben Yehudah of Worms, who died between 1223 and 1232. While little of the literary activity of Samuel the Hasid remains, many associate the Sefer Hasidim “Book of the Pious” with the teachings of Judah the Hasid. Eleazar of worms composed numerous works – some of considerable length – that have survived and serve as the most important evidence of the mystical, theological and theosophical speculations of this group.

The Hasidei Ashkenaz placed particular emphasis on ascetic renunciation and ethical discipline. Fasts, abstinence, physical pain and discomfort, and even valorization of martyrdom were all regarded as vehicles to enable mystical illumination, especially in the form of the visualization of the Shekhinah or Divine Presence. God, according to the Hasidei Ashkenaz, is unknowable in his essence, yet he fills all reality and suffuses all being. By practicing ascetic renunciation and contemplating the traditional teachings of the divine mysteries regarding creation, revelation, and the meaning of the Torah, members of this school believed that they could attain the pure love of God in an encounter that was often described in ways that indicate a strong influence from the Heikhalot and Merkavah literature, as well as the Sefer Yesirah. Many scholars believe that the tribulations of the Crusades and the ascetic practices of the surrounding Christian monastic communities had an impact on the particular form of religious and mystical piety of the Hasidei Ashkenaz.

Kabbalah in Provence and the Sefer ha-Bahir

In the 1180’s a text emerged in Provence region of southern France that has come to serve as a defining moment in the history of Jewish mysticism and esotericism. This text, known as the Sefer ha-Bahir or “The Book of Brightness,” is written in the style of an ancient rabbinic midrash. The book has a complex origin and contains at least some elements that are believed to reflect ancient Near Eastern Jewish traditions. Determining exactly what proportion of the Bahir derives from ancient tradition and what was the innovation of authors living in 12th century Europe remains a question in the scholarship. The most significant feature of the Sefer ha-Bahir is its focus on the ten sefirot as the ten luminous emanations of God that symbolically reveal the realm of inner divine life. The sefirot thus become living and dynamic symbols that represent the unknowable and ineffable secrets of God. By embracing the paradox of a symbolic system of ten divine emanations that represent that which is impossible to represent, the Bahir takes a decisive step that permanently changes the history of Jewish mysticism. Kabbalah refers to those texts that employ the theosophic symbolism of the ten sefirot, while Jewish Mysticism and Esotericism is a broader term includes the earlier texts that do not discuss the sefirot in exactly this manner.

Around this time we also find traditions that associate esoteric speculation with a number of important rabbis in southern France. Abraham ben Isaac of Narbonne (1110-1179), Abraham ben David of Posquiers (1125-1198), also know as Rabad, and Jacob Nazir of Lunel (d. late 12th century) are known to have endorsed kabbalistic and mystical teachings, though little more than a few scattered hints to that affect have been preserved in their own writings. Isaac the Blind (d. ca. 1235), son of Abraham ben David, lived in Narbonne and was the first major rabbi in Europe to specialize in Kabbalah. Most of Isaac the Blind’s teaching were disseminated orally to his students, and only one text, a commentary on Sefer Yesirah, is regarded as his own composition. This commentary is a notoriously difficult text that discusses the sefirot mentioned in Sefer Yesirah in a theosophical manner. One important contribution found in Isaac the Blind’s commentary is the development of the idea that the sefirot emanate from an absolutely unknowable and recondite aspect of God known as ein sof, or “without end.”

Kabbalah in Gerona

In the beginning of the 13th century Kabbalah spread to Spain when the students of Isaac the Blind began moved to Gerona, in the region of Catalonia. Here for the first time books were composed on Kabbalah that were designed to bring these ideas to a wider audience. Some of the most important individuals from this period are Judah ibn Yakar (Nahmanides’ teacher), Ezra ben Shlomo (d. 1238 or 1245), Azriel of Gerona (early 13th century), Moses ben Nahman, also known as Nahmanides (1194-1270), Abraham ben Isaac Gerundi (mid 13th century), Asher ben David (first half of the 13th century), and Jacob ben Sheshet (mid 13th century). In an intriguing letter sent to his students in Gerona, Isaac the blind urges them to stop composing books on Kabbalah, for fear that these ideas could be spread to individuals who would not take them seriously, making them “the subject of jokes in the marketplace.” Despite Isaac the Blind’s criticisms of the literary activities of the Gerona kabbalists, treatises on Kabbalah continued to circulate, and soon spread to other communities in Spain. The influence of Nahmanides at this time was undoubtedly essential for the legitimization of Kabbalah in the Spanish Jewish communities of Catalonia, Aragon and Castile.

Kabbalah in Castile

In the middle of the 13th century Kabbalah spread to Jewish communities living in the cities and towns of Castile. Jacob ben Jacob ha-kohen (mid 13th century) and Isaac ben Jacob ha-Kohen (Mid 13th century) became known for their Gnostic teaching of a demonic realm within God from which evil in the world originates, composed of a set of “sefirot of impurity” that parallel the pure sefirot of God. Their pupil, Moses of Burgos (c.1230/1225 – c. 1300), as well as Todros ben Joseph Abulafia (1220-1298), were significant rabbinic and political leaders of the Castilian Jewish community who wrote important works of Kabbalah. Moses of Burgos was the teacher of Isaac ibn Sahula (b. 1244), author of the famous poetic fable Meshal ha-Kadmoni (1281), as well as a kabbalistic commentary on the Song of Songs. Also active in Castile at this time was Jacob ha-Kohen (mid 13th century), who wrote a kind of Kabbalah that he claimed to be based upon his own visions, and Isaac ibn Latif (ca. 1210-1280), whose writings strike a very delicate balance between kabbalistic symbolism and philosophical speculation.

From the 1270’s through the 1290’s a number of important and lengthy kabbalistic books were written by Joseph Gikatilla (1248-1325) and Moses de Leon (1240-1305). These two figures were among the most prolific of the medieval kabbalists, and many of their compositions, such as Gikatilla’s Sha’are Orah “Gates of Light,” went on to become seminal works in the history of Kabbalah. This period of remarkable kabbalistic literary productivity took place during the controversy over the study of Aristotelian philosophy, especially as it took shape in the philosophical works of Moses Maimonides, and the pronounced increase in Christian anti-Jewish proselytizing in western Europe. Both of these may have been a factor in the development of Kabbalah during this decisive moment in its history.

Abraham Abulafia

Abraham Abulafia was born in Spain in 1240 and died some time after 1292. He propounded a kind of Kabbalah that, in addition to many of the typical theosophical motifs, focused on meditative techniques and recitation of divine names, letter permutation, numerical symbolism of Hebrew letters known as gematria, and acrostics, designed to bring one to a state of ecstatic union with God and to attain prophetic illumination. The goal of this mystical and prophetic experience is to untie the “knots” binding the soul to the body and the world. According to his own testimony, Abulafia wrote 26 books of prophecy based on his mystical experiences. Abulafia traveled widely and may have had messianic pretensions. He attempted to have an audience with Pope Nicholas III in 1280 possibly in order to declare himself the messiah. In the 1280’s Solomon ben Abraham ibn Adret of Barcelona (c. 1235-1310) led an attack against him and had Abulafia and his works banned because of his claims that his writings were on a par with those of the biblical prophets. Abulafia was a prolific writer who in addition to his prophetic works – of which only one, sefer ha-Ot, has survived – wrote many books on topics such as Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, commentaries on Sefer Yesirah, and descriptions of meditative techniques.

The Zohar

During the 1290’s in Castile a kabbalistic commentary on the Torah began to circulate that would go on to have a monumental and transformative impact on Judaism and the West. This commentary was written in Aramaic in the name of important Rabbis from the time of the Mishnah in the second century CE. The most prominent Rabbi mentioned in this collection of Kabbalistic writings is Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai. By the end of the 13th century, these texts came to be known by a number of names, but the one that stood the test of time was Sefer ha-Zohar, or “The Book of Splendor.”

A careful reading of the text of the Zohar – which, in its printed form, is almost two thousand pages in length – reveals a pronounced influence of Heikhalot and Merkavah imagery, the writings of the Hasidei Ashkenz, the kabbalists of Provence, Gerona and Castile, as well as some important medieval Jewish thinkers and philosophers such as Judah Ha-Levi and Moses Maimonides. Moreover, a number of foreign words of Spanish origin are found in the text. This has lead scholars to the conclusion that most if not all of the Zohar was composed in Castile toward the end of the 13th century. The earliest citation of a passage from the Zohar literature is found in Isaac ibn Sahula’s Meshal ha-Kadmoni from a part of the Zohar called the Midrash ha-Ne’elam. It is only in the later 1290’s and early 1300’s that we find Jewish scholars citing the Zohar with any consistency.

Gershom Scholem argued that the Zohar was written in its entirety by Moses de Leon. This position has been revised by Yehuda Liebes, who has argued that the Zohar is in fact the product of a group of Spanish kabbalists from the late 13th century in which Moses de Leon is a prominent or perhaps even leading member, but which also includes Yoseph Gikatilla, Todros Abulafia, Isaac ibn Abu Sahula, Yoseph ha-ba mi-Shushan ha-Birah, David ben Yehudah he-Hasid, Yospeh Angelet, Yoseph Shalom Ashkenazi, and Bahya ben Asher.

The Zohar represents in many ways the culmination of a century of tremendous kabbalistic creativity and productivity that began in Provence in the late 12th century and ended in Castile in the late 13th century. The long and rambling poetic discourse of the Zohar engages with everything from the emergence of the ten sefirot from the inner reaches of God and ein sof, the mysteries of creation, the process of revelation, the mystical meaning of the mitzvoth or commandments of Jewish law, meditations on the gendered and highly erotic interactions of the sefirot, expressed in particular in the desire for the Shekhinah, the tenth and lowest of the ten sefirot, to return to her male counterpart and be re-assimilated into God. The authorship of the Zohar argues, in keeping with trends in Kabbalah from earlier in the 13th century, that it is by means of the actions of Jews in the physical world – especially though the performance of commandment and the study of Torah – that the sefirot can be unified and the upper and lower realms can be perfected. These ideas are delivered in a highly cryptic style that presumes that the reader is familiar with many of the main principles of Kabbalah, as well as the biblical and rabbinic literatures. The Zohar encodes its kabbalistic message in a highly complex set of symbols that are in turn said to be only the uncovering of mysteries that are all contained within the words and even the letters of the Torah.

14th – 16th centuries- From the Spanish Expulsion to the Safed Community

By the 14th century Kabbalah began to spread throughout Western Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Treatises such as Ma’arekhet ha-Elohut written by an anonymous author in the early 14th century, along with the commentary on the Torah by Bahya ben Asher and the sermons or Drashot of Joshua ibn Shu’aib (first half of the 14th century), served to spread Kabbalah to wider audiences. Shem Tov ben Abraham ibn Gaon of Soria (13th – 14th centuries) and Elhanan ben Abraham ibn Eskira (13th – 14th centuries) became important kabbalists in Palestine, along with Isaac ben Samuel of Acre (late 13th – mid 14th century), whose Me’irat Einaim became a seminal exposition of the kabbalistic meaning behind the hints and allusions to secret teachings in the works of Nahmanides. Kabbalah began to spread to Italy in the early 14th century through the works of Menahem Recanati, who wrote a popular Kabbalistic commentary on the Torah and a book on the mystical meaning of the commandments. Menahen Ziyyoni of Cologne and Avigdor Kara became important kabbalistic authorities in Germany, while Isaiah ben Joseph of Tabriz spread Kabbalah to Persia and Nathan ben Moses Kilkis wrote his Even Sappir in Constantinople. Two important works written some time in the second half of the 14th century, Sefer ha-Peli’ah, a commentary on the first section of the Torah, and Sefer ha-Kanah, concerning the kabbalistic meaning of the commandments, argue that Jewish law and tradition can only be properly understood according to the Kabbalah, and that both the philosophical and literalist interpretations of Judaism are misguided. A similar sentiment is expressed in the writings of Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov, who attacked the philosophical teachings of Maimonides and blamed them for the growing trend of Jewish conversion to Christianity in Spain in the late 14th century.

Kabbalistic literary activity began to decline in Spain during the 15th century leading up to the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. Though there were important kabbalists still living in Spain during the mid to late 15th century, such as Joseph Alcastiel, Judah Hayat, Joshua ben Samuel ibn Nehmias, Shalom ben Saadiah ibn Saytun and others, many began to migrate even before the expulsion.

The exile of the Spanish Jewish community facilitated the spread of Kabbalah to many centers around the Mediterranean. In Italy there were active schools of kabbalists in the late 15th century including Reuben Zarfati, Jonathan Alemano and Judah Messer Leon, who undoubtedly had an impact on the development of Christian Kabbalah by Giovanni Picco della Mirandola. In North Africa during the late 15th and early to mid 16th centuries, Abraham Sabba, Joseph Alashkar, Mordecai Buzaglo and Shimon ibn Lavi were active teachers and writers.

By the late 1530’s, Safed had become the most important center in the world for kabbalists. Joseph Karo, a Spanish exile who grew up in the vibrant Jewish communities of Adrinopol and Salonika in Greece and became one of the most prominent rabbinic figures of all time, moved to Safed in 1536. There he composed his legal code, the Shulkhan Arukh, and served as the head of the Beit Din, or Jewish court. Karo was also a accomplished kabbalist who recorded a series of visions and revelation that he received from a maggid or angelic voice in a work entitled Maggid Meisharim. Solomon ben Moses Alkebetz, the author of the famous Jewish liturgical poem Lekha Dodi, sung on Friday nights during the Kabbalat Shabbat service, along with his son-in-law and pupil Moses ben Jacob Cordevero, also moved from Greece to Safed around this time. Cordevero, who studied with Karo, went on to have an enormously productive career as both a teacher and a writer. He composed extensive systematic presentations of kabbalistic ideas, such as his Pardes Rimmonim, a multi-volume commentary on the Torah entitled Or Yakar, and many other books. He also attracted as his students a number of individuals who would go on to have a tremendous impact on the spread of Kabbalistic ideas to the broader Jewish public, including Abraham ha-Levi Berukhim, Abraham Galante, Smauel Gallico, Mordechai Dato, Eliezer Asikri, and Elijah de Vidas.

Isaac Luria

Though he spent only a few years in the city of Safed before his death at a young age in 1572, Isaac Luria had an enormous impact on the community of Safed kabbalists that permanently transformed the history of Jewish mysticism. Luria studied briefly with Cordevero when he arrived in Safed in 1570, but after the latter’s death about six months later, Luria quickly became the preeminent kabbalist of the community. Luria’s meteoric rise was not by virtue of his impressive literary production, since Luria seems to have written little if anything on Kabbalah at that time. Rather, the force of his impact on the kabbalists of Safed was through his charismatic personality and the depth and creativity of his ideas, which he taught orally. Not long after Luria’s death, hundreds of stories of his spiritual powers, his ability to perform magical wonders, to determine the origin of a person’s soul or “soul root,” to read a persons fate by the lines on their forehead and other such miraculous tales began to circulate, testifying to the kind of impression Luria made on the imagination of the community. Despite the fact that Luria wrote very little, his teachings were quickly spread to the broader Jewish community through the writings of his disciples who studied with him during the time he was in Safed. Luria’s students, especially Hayim Vital, went on to write voluminous compositions based on their master’s teachings. These writings quickly spread Lurianic Kabbalah throughout the Jewish communities of North Africa and Europe.

Luria’s kabbalistic teachings were often presented as interpretations of the Zohar, though his symbolism of the ten sefirot becomes significantly more complex with multiple levels and permutations. Luria expanded upon a number of important elements already present in one form or another in Zoharic Kabbalah, such as the coming of the Messiah, the process of creation through tzimtzum or divine self-contraction, shevirat ha-kelim or the “shattering of the vessels” that took place at certain stage in the process of creation, the tikkun or restoration of divine light or “sparks” through Jewish actions and religious practice, and kavvanah or mystical intention necessary for the proper practice of mitzvoth and prayer. Like the Zohar itself, Luria’s Kabbalah contains bold and complex imagery regarding the inner dynamics of the divine realm of the sefirot, and the potential for Jewish actions to rectify – or destroy – the order of the universe in its relation to God.

Shabbtai Zvi

By the middle of the 17th century, Kabbalah, especially in the form spread the disciples of Isaac Luria, was widely disseminated throughout the Jewish world. The strong messianic inclination of Lurianic thinking, coupled with a number of traumatic political events – most notably the Chmielnicki massacres of 1648, which destroyed hundreds of Jewish communities throughout eastern Europe and killed many thousands – contributed to the vast popularity of the messianic movement that developed around the charismatic figure Shabbetai Zevi. Born in Ismir to a wealthy merchant family in 1626, Zevi distinguished himself early in life as a gifted student. He was also an avid kabbalist known for his bold tendency to pronounce the divine name, the Tetragrammaton, aloud. He also, according to the historical accounts, seems to have been afflicted with severe manic depression, and during his manic phases he would engage in bizarre deliberate violations of the commandments, including in one instance, marrying himself to a Torah scroll. In the spring of 1665 Shabbetai Zevi arrived in Gaza, where he met Nathan of Gaza, a charismatic kabbalist and renowned healer of the soul. Both quickly became convinced that Zevi was the messiah, and soon won over many of the local rabbis in Palestine and Jerusalem. Letter and writings by Nathan of Gaza, Abraham Miguel Cardozo, and other quickly began to circulate, in which they employed kabbalistic symbolism to argue that the Messiah had arrived in the person of Shabbetai Zevi. As the news spread to the Jewish communities of Europe traumatized by disaster and primed for messianic redemption in the form of a grand kabbalistic tiqqun, the Sabbatian movement gained many adherents, including a number of highly respected rabbis. In the summer of 1666 Zevi was brought before the Turkish Sultan. The historical accounts of what exactly happened in that meeting are unclear, but the result is certain- Shabbtai Zevi converted to Islam. This devastating disappointment brought the movement to a catastrophic end, with most of Zevi’s followers abandoning the hopes they had placed in him. For some, however, the conversion of their Messiah was regarded as a profound kabbalistic mystery that simply needed time to unfold. The followers of Shabbtai Zevi who continued to believe in his messianic identity generally held their belief in secret, and are referred to as crypto Sabbatians. This group developed a complex system of kabbalistic explanation of the life and actions of Shabbetai Zevi. Adherents to the Sabbatian doctrine persisted for several generations, and some exist until today in small numbers. Another small group of Jews at the time of Zevi’s conversion converted to Islam themselves, creating a secret sect known as the Donmeh, who outwardly practiced Islam, but secretly preserved a form of Sabbatian kabbalah.

18th Century Kabbalah and The Rise of Hasidism

After the Sabbatian debacle in the late 17th century, kabbalists became more conservative in the way they discussed and wrote about their mystical ideas, in particular with regard to messianic speculation. Most focused their attention on reconciling the details of Lurianic Kabbalah with the Zohar, and the interpretation of works by earlier authorities. 18th century kabbalistic circles in Ashkenazi lands included Bezalel b. Solomon of Slutsk, Berachiah Berakh Spira, Hayyim b. Menahem Zanzer (d. 1783), and Moses b. Hillel Ostrer (from Ostrog; d. 1785). In Lithuania, Elijah ben Solomon Zalman of Vilna, also known as the Vilna Gaon, was a towering rabbinic authority and Kabbalist. In the Sephardic Jewish communities, Hayyim ha-Kohen of Aleppo and Elijah ha-Kohen ha-Itamari of Smyrna and many others were active kabbalists who wrote extensively. Kabbalah played an important role in the religious life of Jewish communities in Yemen and Kurdistan through the works of such figures as Shalom b. Joseph Shabasi and Joseph Zalah.

An intriguing school of kabbalists developed in Jerusalem in the mid 18th century at the Beit El yeshiva under the leadership of the Yemenite kabbalist Shalom Mizrahi Sharabi, who focused on Lurianic Kabbalah, with a particular emphasis on contemplative prayer. Members of the Bei El yeshiva, which continued to be active for two hundred years until it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1927, dedicated themselves to rigorous regimens of prayer and study. Sharabi and his school came to be recognized as the main authorities of Kabbalah for Jews living in the Muslim world, and Sharabi himself acquired a reputation as a kabbalist almost on a par with Isaac Luria. Some of the most important kabbalists from the Beit El yeshiva include Abraham Azulai of Marrakesh (d. 1741), Abraham Tobiana of Algiers (d. 1793), Shalom Buzaglo of Marrakesh (d. 1780), Joseph Sadboon of Tunis (18th century), Jacob Abi-Hasira (d. 1880); Sasson b. Mordecai Shandookh (1747–1830) Joseph Hayyim b. Elijah (d. 1909).

Israel Baal Shem Tov and the Rise of Hasidism

In the middle of the 18th century a new social phenomenon in the Jewish world began to take root in Poland-Lithuania, centered around the kabbalistic traditions and teaching of Israel b. Eliezer Ba’al Shem Tov, also know as the Besht. The Hasidic movement, as it came to be called, emphasized a democratic religious ideal wherein spiritual achievement is attainable through sincerity, piety and joyful worship. That is not to say that the movement did not have an intellectual component was well – thousands of Hasidic books and treatises were composed in the first few generations of the movement, most of which are infused with kabbalistic motifs and images. As the Hasidic movement gained wide popularity in eastern Europe throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, many elements of the Kabbalah became widely known to the general Jewish public, and Hasidic masters would often incorporate kabbalistic symbols into their sermons and teachings for their communities.

Starting in Podolye, the Besht became famous as a magical healer and wonder-worker – the name “Baal Shem Tov” means “Master of the Good Name” and related to the kabbalistic notion of the power of divine names. Some of his most influential students included Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye, who wrote Toledot Ya’akov Yosef in1780 which was the first written articulation of Hasidism, and Dov Baer of Mezhirech, who became the leader of the second generation of Hasidic Rabbis after the death of the Besht in 1760. Dov Ber’s followers included some who would go on to become renowned leaders of Hasidic communities and authors of important Hasidic works, such as Shneur Zalman of Lyady, Levi Isaac of Berdichev, Aaron (the Great) of Karlin, and Samuel Shmelke Horowitz. Some Hasidic Rabbis became the heads of dynasties that grew over time to include thousands of followers. Some groups still active today, such as Chabad Lubavitch and Breslov, continue to spread their kabbalistically infused teachings to broader Jewish audiences.

Kabbalah in the 20th and 21 Centuries

In addition to the many Hasidic Rabbis and desciples of the Beit El yeshiva who remained active into the 20th century, individuals such as Yehudah Ashlag and his disciple and brother-in-law Yehudah Zevi Brandwein continued to develop and spread knowledge about kabbalistic texts and ideas. Ashlag, who was born in Warsaw but moved to Jerusalem in 1920, composed many important texts and commentaries on the works of earlier kabbalists, including the famous Ma’alot ha-Sullam (1945–60) commentary and translation of the Zohar in 22 volumes, completed by his brother-in-law after his death. Brandwein also wrote commentaries on the works of Moses Cordevero and Isaac Luria, as well as a complete library of Lurianic Kabbalah in 14 volumes. Abraham Isaac Kook, the founding thinker of religious Zionism, was also and avid kabbalists who sought to apply his mystical teaching in social and political action.

In the late 1960’s Philip Berg, born Shraga Feivel Gruberger in Brooklyn, New York, traveled to Jerusalem where he studied with Yehudah Zevi Brandwein. Berg began to open institutes for the study and teaching of Kabbalah, first in Tel Aviv, followed by many more branches throughout the United States and Europe. The branches of Berg’s institute came to be known as The Kabbalah Center, with its main headquarters in Los Angeles, where a number of American celebrities, most notably Madonna, have become associated with the movement. Bergs’ main goal in developing The Kabbalah Center is to spread kabbalistic ideas in ways that are comprehensible and practical in everyone’s daily life. Critics of The Kabbalah Center have argued that Berg’s movement is nothing more than a cynical ploy to profit financially by selling a form of New Age spirituality under the guise of genuine historical Kabbalah to an unsuspecting public. Sales in books, classes, online tutorials, “Kabbalah water,” and red string bracelets bring are a multi-million dollar money maker for The Kabbalah Center. Today the center is co-directed by Berg’s sons, Yehudah and Michael Berg.

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