Joseph Caro

Medieval lawyer and mystic

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Solomon Alkabetz (d. 1576), author of the (Sabbath) hymn Lekhah Dodi, sent an eyewitness account of Caro’s visitation, in a letter from Safed to the mystic brotherhood in Salonika. Here Alkabetz states that during a mystic vigil on the eve of the festival of Shavuot the companions heard a voice speaking out of Caro’s mouth. “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.” Alkabetz then records what the voice said, evidently able to decipher the message.

Caro kept a mystical diary for around forty years in which he recorded the Maggid’srevelations. This work, entitled, Maggid Mesharim (Teller of Upright Words) was first published in Amsterdam in 1704. (The letter of Alkabetz is printed as the introduction to the work) Followers of the Haskalah, embarrassed that one of their heroes, with his keen logical mind should have kept a mystical diary, denied that Caro was the author of the Maggid Mesharim. But its authenticity has been demonstrated beyond doubt.

Students of religious psychology have found rich material for their investigations in the Maggid Mesharim, among other things that in its non-mystical sections the work falls short of Caro’s own acute reasoning. As [Rabbi ] Zevi Ashkenazi [1658-1718, served in Vilna, Budapest, Sarajevo, Amsterdam, London and Lemberg] was reported to have said, “Caro was a far greater scholar than his Maggid.”

Another fascinating feature of the Maggid Mesharim is the manner in which the Maggidaddresses Caro, rebuking him for his shortcomings an holding out to him promise of his future greatness and assuring him that one day he would be worthy of suffering martyrdom for his religion. Whatever one is to make of Caro’s mystical activities, the lie is given to the notion that legalism in religion is incompatible with the mystical approach.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.