Isaac Luria & Kabbalah in Safed

After the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, the center of kabbalistic study moved to the town of Safed in northern Palestine.

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Reprinted with permission from Essential Judaism, published by Pocket Books.

In 1492 the Jews of Spain were expelled by royal decree; five years later the Jews of Portugal faced a similar fate. It is hard to overestimate the impact of this disruption. Iberian Jewry had lived in comparative peace with its Muslim and Christian neighbors for hundreds of years. These were the most stable and prosperous Jewish communities since the glory days of Judah and Israel. Suddenly, they were swept into exile like every Jewish community in history before them.

The Sephardic Jews who were forced to leave the Iberian peninsula could carry little in the way of concrete riches, but the treasure of intellectual  achievement they took with them was immense.

kabbalah in safed In no field was this truer than in the realm of Jewish mysticism. And the results of that involuntary exodus could be seen almost immediately. By the 16th century, the Zohar was an integral part of Jewish religious thought, and kabbalistic thinking was becoming part of the mainstream, spurred by the dispersion of its principal adherents. New intellectual centers sprang up in Italy, Turkey, and, most of all, Safed (Tz’fat in Hebrew) in Palestine.

Products of Safed

It was in Safed that Moses Cordovero authored a definitive commentary on the Zohar. It was in Safed that Joseph Caro authored the Shulkhan Arukh, the definitive code of Jewish law. And it was in Safed that the single most influential thinker in all of medieval Jewish mysticism emerged, Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), also known by the acronym Ari (the Lion).

Safed was, and is, a small town in the Galilee, an unlikely place to serve as a locus for some of the finest Jewish minds of the 16th century. But through a complicated series of circumstances, that is pre­cisely what it was. Moses Cordovero had already established himself there, writing his many important kabbalistic works, and Joseph Caro had also settled in Safed before Luria arrived.

Luria taught his esoteric thought to a dozen or so followers before his death at 38 in an epidemic. Rabbi Hayim Vital, his amanuensis [one who dictated Luria's writings], recorded his ideas and, in turn, taught them to a select few, in keeping with Luria’s wishes that they not be disseminated to the masses. But by the 17th century, Luria’s ideas and the unique vocabulary in which they were expressed had not only spread throughout European Jewry; they had become a central pil­lar of traditional Jewish thought, a position they occupy to this day.

Gershom Scholem argues that Luria and his followers devised a religious ideol­ogy that was a direct response to the afflictions of the Jewish people of the time. The exile of the Iberian Jewry was no less a tragedy than the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. An answer was needed to the question of the existence of evil in the world--the sort of evil that had forced thousands of Jews to convert to Christianity at swordpoint, killed countless thousands of other Jews, and finally driven the Iberian Jews into exile.

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George Robinson

George Robinson, author of Essential Judaism, is the recipient of a Simon Rockower Award for excellence in Jewish journalism from the American Jewish Press Association. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsday, Jewish Week, and The Detroit Jewish News.