The Mystics of Safed

Joseph Caro and Moses Cordovero, icons of Safed mysticism, elaborated on the teachings of the Zohar.

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Reprinted with the permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from Jewish and Christian Mysticism: An Introduction.

A Mystic and Medium

Another major mystical figure of the early modern period was Joseph Caro who emigrated to Turkey after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. In 1536 he left for Safed in Palestine where he served as the head of a large academy. The author of a major compendium of Jewish law, the Shulhan Arukh, Caro joined a circle of Safed mystics.

Believing himself to be the recipient of a heavenly mentor (maggid), Caro identified this maggid with the soul of the Mishnah as well as the Shekhinah [the immanent presence of God]. According to Solomon Alkabetz [another Safed kabbalist and the author of the Lecha Dodi prayer], the revelations of the maggid took the form of utterances through Caro to the circle of mystics. In a letter Alkabetz wrote:

"No sooner had we studied two tractates of the Mishnah than our Creator smote us so that we heard a voice speaking out of the mouth of the saint (Caro), may his light shine. It was a loud voice with letters clearly enunciated. All the companions heard the voice but were unable to understand what was said. It was an exceedingly pleasant voice, becoming increasingly strong. We all fell upon our faces and none of us had any spirit left in him because of our great dread and awe. The voice began to address us saying: 'Friends, choicest of the choice, peace to you, beloved companions. Happy are you and happy those that bore you. Happy are you in this world and happy in the next that you resolve to adorn me on this night. For these many years had my head fallen with none to comfort me. I was cast down to the ground to embrace the dunghills but now you have restored the crown to its former place…Behold I am the Mishnah,the mother who chastises her children and I have come to converse with you.'"

Divine Emanations

Another important mystic of Safed was Moses Cordovero, who collected, organized and interpreted the teachings of early mystical authors. His work constitutes a systematic summary of the kabbalah up to his time, and in his most important treatise, Pardes, he outlined the Zoharic concepts of the Godhead [i.e. those from the Zohar, the masterful Spanish work of kabbalah], the sefirot [the ten divine, dynamic attributes], the celestial powers and the earthly processes. According to Cordovero, God is a transcendent being‑‑he is the First Cause with necessary being, different from the rest of creation.

In line with other medieval thinkers such as Maimonides, Cordovero maintained that no positive attribute can be ascribed to God. Yet despite the affinities between this mystical doctrine and the view of Jewish philosophers, Cordovero stressed that there is a fundamental difference in their conception of God's activity in the cosmos. For the kabbalists the sefirot constitute a bridge between the Ayn Sof [literally, the infinite--God's essential nature] and the universe.

The city of Safed today. Photo credit: istockphoto.com

For Cordovero God is the Ayn Sof as well as an active force in the universe through the process of divine emanation. In his view the sefirot are both substance and vessels‑-they are emanated beings which serve as instruments through which God acts. Such a conception was intended to explain how God is both utterly transcendent yet immanent in the world. In Pardes he emphasized that there is a distinction between the transcendent God who is unmoved and the light which is emanated from his being and is diffused through the sefirot. Such emanation is not necessary; rather it occurs through God's will.

In Cordovero's system the process of emanation of the sefirotis dialectical‑-in order to be revealed, God is compelled to conceal himself. Such concealment constitutes the coming into being of the sefirot. Only the sefirot are able to reveal God‑-for this reason such revealing is the cause of concealment, and concealment is the cause of the process of revelation. Emanation occurs through a constant dynamic of the inner aspects of the sefirot. These aspects form a reflective process within which each sefirah reflects itself in various qualities. These aspects also have a role in the process of creation‑-their inner grades derive from one another in accordance with the principle of causation. Through this inner process the emanation of the sefirot takes place.

The world of emanation is consolidated by a double process‑-direct light (or yashar) (the emanation downward) and reflected light (or hozer) (the reflection of the same process upward). The transition from the world of emanation to the lower world is a constant process. As a result the problem of creation ex nihilo [the idea that God created the world from nothing] does not exist in relation to the universe; it is an issue only with regard to the transition from divine "Nothingness" (Ayin) to the first being (the uppermost aspects of the first sefirah). For Cordovero the first sefirah is outside God's substance. Such a view prohibits any pantheistic interpretation of his system [i.e. the idea that the world is part of God].

Safed Asceticism

In addition to these major figures of sixteenth‑century Safed, other mystics engaged in speculation about God's nature and activity and performed a variety of ascetic acts such as fasting, public confessions of sins, wearing sackcloth and ashes, and praying at the graves of venerable sages. Such self‑mortification was carried to an extreme by Abraham ha‑Levi Beruchim, who wandered through the streets of Safed calling on people to repent; he then led those he attracted to the synagogue, climbed into a sack, and ordered these individuals to throw stones at him.

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Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok

Dan Cohn-Sherbok is a widely published and eminent scholar of Judaism, and is currently Professor of Judaism at the University of Wales, Lampeter.