The Mystics of Safed

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

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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:

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].

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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.