Kabbalah: Origins of a Spiritual Adventure

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ancient kabbalah textThe Kabbalah in Safed developed in two stages. The doctrine introduced by Moses Cordovero was a concise synthesis of the trends prevalent up to his time, whereby he sought to construct a speculative kabbalistic system which he later presented in his works, particularly in Pardes Rimmonim (Garden of Pomegranates). Then, after Cordovero’s death, Isaac Luria Ashkenaz founded his own school, teaching extremely complicated theories intended only for a small circle of initiates.

The study and teaching of Lurianic Kabbalah continued throughout the seventeenth century in Jerusalem and Damascus. The form in which we know it today was presented in Sefer Etz ha‑Hayyim ("Book of the Tree of Life") by Hayyim Vital, Luria's greatest disciple. This version of the Kabbalah was disseminated in Italy at the end of the sixteenth century by Israel Sarug, and from there spread to the rest of Europe. By the end of the following century, this corpus of teachings, edited by Vital and his successors, was a major influence on kabbalists everywhere.

Lurianic Kabbalah, mostly as a philosophical system, became known to the Christian world in a Latin translation, Kabbala denudata (1677‑1684),by Christian Knorr von Rosenroth. Meanwhile, in the Jewish world, the Kabbalah broke out of the narrow circles of mystic intellectuals and became the property of ever-growing numbers of people, affecting the behavior, attitudes and beliefs of a large part of the Jewish nation.

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Eli Barnavi is the Director of the Morris Curiel Center for International Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University