Safed Timeline

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 city.

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. Remants 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 metaphysical significance. 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 Olam).

Although Luria's insights appear to come from the Zohar, his readings are darker and more dynamic, closer to the gnostic myths of late antiquity. It is tempting to believe that his descriptions of a broken cosmos 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 records 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  (1626-1676).

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.

See Also:

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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