Until the writing and dissemination of the Zohar at the end of the thirteenth
century, Kabbalah had been primarily a Spanish development. By the end
of the fifteenth century the Zohar
was already 200 years old ... but it had never been printed. There were
Kabbalists in many parts of Europe and the Middle East, but not in
large numbers, and its phase of primary innovation was over. The
literature of Neoplatonism had become more accessible, and there was a
temptation to systematise, to be clever and perceptive, to calm the
wilder mythological excesses of the Zohar with the heavy oil of
Hellenistic philosophy. In contrast, as Kabbalah became
comfortable and settled, the political situation for Jews throughout
Europe had become fraught, and there was a growing climate of outright
hostility against the large and ancient community of Spanish Jews.
The final phase of persecution in Spain was the
Edict of Expulsion (Alhambra
Decree) in 1492, the same
year as Columbus sailed to America.
Jews were given the choice of converting, hanging, or leaving. They
could take personal possessions, but not gold, silver or minted money.
Estimates of those affected vary from 80,000 to hundreds of
thousands. Many sailed east to Italy and the Ottoman Empire. Some went
to ancient Jewish communities in North Africa. Many sought refuge in
neighbouring Portugal, a case of "out of the frying pan, and into
the fire", as in 1497 all Jewish children in Portugal were
abducted by the State and baptised. Jews were denied the right to
emigrate. When the plague came to Lisbon, there were the customary
massacres of Jews.
In 1516, swollen with Jewish refugees, Venice
created the first Ghetto, named after an old industrial quarter of the
The effect of the Spanish Expulsion was a
huge influx of Spanish Jews into the towns of the Ottoman Empire. They
brought with them their books and traditions and energy.
Safed, a hill town in Galilee, had a wool industry, and soon
had a large and thriving community. At its peak the town contained an
extraordinary number eminent Talmudists and Kabbalists, including Solomon Alkabetz, Joseph Karo, Moses Cordovero, Isaac
Luria, Hayyim Vital and many others.
It is often the case that before something new can
happen, the past needs to brought into a sharp focus. This was the case
with Moses Cordovero (1522-1570). He
created what was probably the finest summation of Kabbalah until his
time in the monumental Pardes
Rimonim (Garden of Pomegranates).
He founded an
academy for the study of Kabbalah that included two outstandingly
influential pupils, Isaac
Luria (1534-1572) and Hayyim Vital (1543-1620).
It was Isaac Luria who transformed Kabbalah with a
darkly gnostic vision. Gone
was any vestige of Neoplatonism, with its dependent chains of being
harmoniously and providentially supported by the One. Luria's divine
creation was marked by catastrophe. Inspired by a verse in the Zohar that claimed
that God had created many universes and destroyed them, Luria set human
existence amidst the wreckage of failed creation. Like
a mad chemist blowing up the laboratory, the divine powers did not find
a stable configuration, and shattered. Things slipped out of place.
of the divine - sparks of divinity - were carried into the abyss of
darkness. The physical world of Luria's vision is a place of essential
and intrinsic impurity, a mixture of the
divine sparks and the dead husks (klipot).
Mosaic injuctions relating to the pure and impure gained a deep
However, although the universe is fractured, it can be restored by
mystical unifications, and divine sparks can be liberated from the
realms of impurity (see Tikkun
Although Luria's insights appear to come from the Zohar,
his readings are darker and more dynamic, closer to the gnostic myths of
antiquity. It is tempting to believe that his descriptions of a broken
appealed to so many Jews because of their everyday social experience of
being exiled in
a broken universe filled with exclusion and malevolence.
Luria gave all his teachings
orally, and it was Hayyim Vital who created the written
of these new insights. Vital attempted to control the dissemination of
Luria's teachings, but they spread rapidly throughout Europe,
and still predominate to this day.
Messianism was intrinsic to Luria's worldview of
catastrophe and repair. A consequence of the political and social
hostility towards Jews in Europe was the
belief that a Messiah would come and liberate the Jewish people from
their precarious existence at the mercy of hostile powers. There were
various claimants for the title of messiah, but the most important was Sabbetai
Zevi was a charismatic and almost certainly
bipolar. He was subject to extreme swings of mood and behaviour,
oscillating from severe ascetism and piety to shocking acts that
violated Jewish law, and resulted in his expulsion from several
communities. Nathan of Gaza,
a young Kabbalist much influenced by the
Zohar and the ideas of Isaac Luria, had visionary experiences that
disposed him to believe that Zevi was the messiah. A messianic fervour
swept through Jewish communities all over Europe. People
sold their possessions and set sail for the Holy Land.
In 1666 Zevi and followers set out for Istanbul, and Zevi was promptly imprisoned by the Turkish government.
Zevi was pressured to adopt Islam, and he and about three hundred
Jewish families converted. This discredited the Sabbatian movement
amongst most Jews, but the movement did not fade away. His ardent
followers went underground. Sabbateanism rumbled on for centuries and many important
Rabbis were suspected of being crypto-Sabbatians. Various injunctions
against the study of Kabbalah date from the backlash against socially-disruptive messianic madness.
The last major outbreak Sabbatean beliefs occured a century after the death of Zevi. Jacob Frank,
a Jewish travelling merchant from Poland was born into a Sabbatean
family and was influenced by Sabbateans in various communities he
visisted. The cult he created would not have seemed out-of-place in the
1960s. The Frankists shared a belief with the Sabbateans that the
advent of the Messiah meant that the social prescriptions of the Torah
and Talmud were no longer valid, and the old Torah had been replaced by
a new Torah. Frankist celebrations were often direct violations of
traditional Jewish celebrations, and featured orgiastic sexual
encounters. Frankist families adopted Christianity as a stratagem, and
appeared to integrate into eastern European society. This social
camoflage has given rise to many anti-semitic conspiracy theories -
Illuminati, New World Order, Protocols of Zion, Satanism, Blood Libel
etc. A hypothesis that may
have substance is the belief that Sabbatean ideas of sacred sexuality
entered European freemasonry, to surface in quasi-masonic groups such
as the OTO.
The teachings of Isaac Luria, as preserved by Hayyim Vital, went on to
influence Hassidism, a new movement contemporary with the Frankists
which was believed at the time to be another outbreak of Sabbatean
heresy. It is through Hassidism, a vital force within Judaism today,
that the teachings of Isaac Luria became the dominant interpretation of
classical Kabbalah. An enthusiastic and prolix interpreter of Luria, Moses Luzatto,whose
life overlapped both Jacob Frank and the Baal Shem Tov, is important
today because of the accessibility of his works (a large number are
online) and their availability in translation.
Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and his Kabbalistic Fellowship, Lawrence Fine
Sabbatai Sevi, the Mystical Messiah, Gershom Scholem
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