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Safed Kabbalah and Renaissance Italy – Tablet Magazine

Safed Kabbalah and Renaissance Italy – Tablet Magazine

Trying to determine an affinity between the outstanding Safedian kabbalist Isaac Luria and the Renaissance Italian curiosity in kabbalah isn’t a simple historic process. It presupposes the potential of documenting an acquaintance, fascination, or even an obsession on the part of kabbalists within the Land of Israel with the quandary sparked by the emergence of Christian kabbalah in Italy. That an consciousness of the issues generated by this form of kabbalah was found in Jerusalem and Safed is clear from quotations from R. Abraham ben Eliezer Halevi and, extra essential, from R. Moses Cordovero, Luria’s acknowledged grasp in kabbalah. Probably the most eminent Christian kabbalist, William Postel, visited the Land of Israel, primarily Jerusalem, in 1549-1550, the start of the flowering of Cordovero and Safedian kabbalists, who might have discovered about this go to. Cordovero was accustomed to R. Moses Basola, himself an acquaintance of Postel from their Italian years. There’s, subsequently, little doubt that Safedian kabbalists knew of this visit, though Postel himself isn’t mentioned by any of them.

Even in a passage by one of the closest kabbalists to Luria, his disciple R. Hayyim Very important—too, a former scholar of Cordovero’s—we might discern curiosity within the transmission of secrets and techniques to Christians. In one among his goals he dedicated to writing, he reported that he arrived in Rome, solely to be arrested by the officials of the “Roman Caesar.” He’s introduced by troopers to the “Caesar” and the latter orders the corridor cleared, leaving them alone. Very important studies his dream as follows: “We have been left by ourselves. I stated to him: ‘On what grounds do you need to kill me? All of you’re misplaced in your religions like blind males. For there isn’t a fact however the Torah of Moses, and with it alone can exist no different fact.’ He (the Roman Caesar) replied: ‘I already know all this and so I sent for you. I do know that you are the wisest and most skilled of males within the wisdom of fact. I, probably the most knowledgeable, want you to divulge to me a few of the secrets and techniques of the Torah and the names of your blessed Lord, for I already recognized the reality.’ … Then I informed him a bit of the knowledge [of kabbalah] and I awoke.”

It is probably that “Caesar of Rome” refers to the pope, with whom no less than two messianic figures, Abraham Abulafia and Solomon Molkho, sought an viewers. Very important was definitely an aspirant to a messianic mission. There isn’t a doubt from the context, where Very important portrays himself as dwelling in a cave with the paupers in Rome, that a messianic background informs the dream.

In response to the above passage, the pope provides complete recognition of the superiority of Very important over different kabbalists, as well as his own acceptance of the reality of Judaism over Christianity. Nevertheless, Very important should have finally associated the phrase Keisar Romi (Roman Caesar) with the destruction of the Second Temple by Titus. The sudden interruption of the dream reflects an unconscious resistance, even while asleep, to the educating of kabbalistic secrets to a gentile. Very important however started to reveal some elements of kabbalah before awakening.

Title web page of ‘De arte cabalistica,’ by Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522), 1517 (The Middle for Jewish History)

Thus, though only in a dream, intellectual change between the best of the kabbalists, the scholar of Luria who had forbidden the export of kabbalah from the Land of Israel, and the pope was imagined to have taken place. Indeed, there’s historical background for this assumption. There are at the very least two examples of dedications of kabbalistic books to the pope previous to Very important’s dream: Reuchlin dedicated his De arte cabalistica to Pope Leo X; and round 1575, Lazarus da Viterbo devoted a Latin kabbalistic treatise on the Jubilee to Gregory XIl. Very important, a kabbalist of Italian extraction and a member of a Calabrian household, had been born within the Land of Israel, but was nonetheless referred to as Hayyim Calabrese.

This dream can also be fascinating from one other perspective: Safed is situated in the Galilee, an space the place Muslim and, to a sure extent, Druze cultures have been dominant, to not point out the Ottoman administration. Some kabbalists lively there in the 16th century got here from Muslim nations, particularly North Africa. Very important even studied occult sciences with Arab masters. R. Joseph Karo visited a tekie, a small Sufi monastery, as he himself confessed.

Yet while there’s little cause to doubt that kabbalists have been acquainted with Muslim thought and mystical practices, each the attraction and repulsion documented in the writings of Safedian kabbalists are formulated relative to cultural processes that have been happening in Italy. To recall a press release of Karo: “Somebody is where his thought is.” However, it is going to be too simplistic to narrate all the primary developments in Safedian kabbalah to Italy, even much less to the notice of the risks inherent in Christian kabbalah. As mentioned above, there were numerous elements behind the arrival of the kabbalists in Safed and the interplay between them there, and all of them contributed to the creativity in the town. So, while emphasizing these subjects, I don’t rule out the potential for a substantial influence of further sources—Muslim, Druze, or different, corresponding to Orthodox Christianity—or the significance of other religious tendencies that flourished in the kabbalistic middle in Safed.


Awareness of the emergence of Christian kabbalah might account for an important flip in Isaac Luria’s politics of dissemination of his sort of kabbalah. In response to one of the necessary documents describing the research of Luria’s secrets and techniques in his circle, he explicitly forbade the disclosure of these secrets to kabbalists outdoors his small circle and their dissemination outdoors the Land of Israel. Luria’s college students and those of Very important, themselves mature kabbalists, needed to sign pledges to not disclose Lurianic secrets. This can be a clear-cut change that has not as yet been satisfactorily defined, given the fairly exoteric propensity of his master Cordovero and his disciples. Is it related with the hazard of one other “exile of the Torah”? I’m not positive that the connection between the claim and a certain facet of the ritual of tikkun hatzot relating to the secrets and techniques of the Torah, on the one hand, and the change in Luria’s politics of esotericism, on the opposite, could be demonstrated in a conclusive manner. Yet such a nexus appears plausible.

Finally, Lurianic kabbalah as formulated within the Galilee in its totally different versions is reticent towards philosophical thought. This anti-philosophical bent is definitely not new in the history of kabbalah, and never the strongest. We will simply trace it to earlier sources in Spanish kabbalah, and its reverberations outdoors the Iberian Peninsula after the expulsion. It is apparent that the highly effective reliance on the Zohar, conceived of as an impressed e-book, was accompanied by the rejection of mental speculations in matters of kabbalah.

Within the case of Luria, the centrality of the Zohar—a bit much less evident in Cordovero—was accompanied by a sure purist strategy, far less synthetic, harmonistic, or eclectic than Cordovero’s books. Luria’s works are extra homogenous, in contrast to the extra harmonizing and eclectic works of Cordovero, no less than as regards his most influential guide, Pardes Rimmonim. To a sure diploma, we might describe what’s imagined to be Luria’s thought as a case of counter-Renaissance, to echo Hiram Haydn’s time period. Certainly, the extra magically oriented system of Cordovero is extra consonant with a Renaissance mode present in Pico and his many followers in what’s termed the “occult philosophy.” Furthermore, Cordovero’s cosmoeroticism is far closer to Renaissance theories. In a certain propensity to purism and counter-Renaissance, Luria, surprisingly, is in the identical camp as probably the most adamant critic of kabbalah, Leon Modena.

Then again, Luria, like several of his contemporaries in Safed, lived in an ambience of adherence to an ostensibly historic text, the Zohar, trying to relive the lifetime of the “historic” kabbalists by returning to the place where they believed the Zohar had been composed. Certainly, Liebes has compared Luria to Marsilio Ficino, one other figure who revived an historic body of learning.


There isn’t any doubt that Safedian authors, kabbalists and non-kabbalists, loved a special standing amongst Italian Jews, as they did in different Jewish communities. Not only did essential figures go to Safed, comparable to R. Mordekhai Dato and R. Moses Basola. The numerous laments expressed by Italian rabbis over the demise of R. Joseph Karo are clear testimony to the veneration by which he was held in Italy.

The financial assistance prolonged by Italian Jewry to the Safedian group can also be well-known; one of the foremost figures on this respect was an important kabbalist in Italy at the finish of the 16th and the early 17th century, R. Menagem Azariah of Fano. In his preface to Pellah Harimmon, his compendium of Cordovero’s Pardes Rimmonim, his reverence for Cordovero and Luria knows scarcely any restrict. Thus, it’s clear that the majority Italian kabbalists in the late 16th and early 17th century accepted Safed’s superiority. That recognition was not solely a matter of reverence, a feeling welling up from the special geographic location of Safed within the Holy Land, or the propinquity to sacred tombs. That is probably a reality, but there are further essential dimensions to the veneration of the Safedians. Their intellectual achievements have been spectacular. Karo and Cordovero wrote comprehensive methods, and Luria was imagined by his students, though in several methods, to have produced probably the most systematic exposition of kabbalah, the first in halakhah and the latter two on kabbalah, exemplary achievements which might be milestones in the creativity of generations of Jewish writers before and since. It’s this outstanding contribution to Jewish thought that spurred recognition by Italian thinkers and Jewish authors elsewhere.

If the objective attainments are the primary supply of reverence, there’s another issue that should have played a task in the aura of sanctity surrounding the picture of the Safedians: they weren’t only preeminent minds in issues of Judaism but belonged to highly effective teams, and their cooperation should have enhanced their achievements as people. Against this, the Italian counterparts of the Safedian kabbalists weren’t organized in a definite grouping. There isn’t any extant written settlement about holding secrets with respect to any group of Italian kabbalists. Normally, Italian kabbalists confirmed little interest in maintaining secrecy. The names of R. Isaac de Lattes, R. Abraham ben Meshullam of San Angelo, R. Berakhiel Kaufmann, R. Mordekhai Dato, R. Abraham Yagel, and R. Moses Basola hardly represent a gaggle. Except the family relationship between the first two, and their widespread sources, it’s exhausting to document a big widespread literary activity besides the participation by some in the venture of printing the Zohar.

From the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, illumination attributed to the Master of the Barbo Missal, Northern Italy, circa 1457 (Collectively owned by the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, and The Metropolitan Museum of Artwork, 2013 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

In contrast to Safedian kabbalah in each its major faculties, which emerged in a small compact place and was organized in comparatively coherent research groups, Italian kabbalah within the second half of the 16th century is marked by the presence of varied individuals. Seen from this vantage, they bore more similarity to the Spanish kabbalists immediately after the Spanish expulsion. Though they could have recognized each other, no one ever described them as a gaggle. They thus characterize a mode of creativity that differs dramatically from the emphasis on the importance of the group present in some kabbalistic circles in Spain: Nahmanides’ circle in Catalonia, the circle of the Zohar in Castile, and the Sefer Hameshiv circle apparently likewise in Castile, or their reverberations in Safed. Within the Galilean town, there’s strong proof that a group, the havurah, typically referred to as the havurah kedushah, the holy fraternity, not only afforded a chance to pursue rabbinic and kabbalistic studies in widespread, however was additionally a fraternity that undertook peregrinations round Safed for mystical purposes. Nor do the Italian Jewish kabbalists comply with the pattern of the Accademia in Florence within the 15th century.

To an considerable extent, kabbalistic literature of the Italian Renaissance amongst Jews and Christians relied on kabbalistic traditions articulated and widespread in Italy within the two centuries preceding the top of the 15th century, principally the writings of Abraham Abulafia and Menahem Recanati. They have been studied and not using a kabbalistic master. The basic work of the Spanish kabbalah, the Zohar, had little impression before its first printing in the mid­-16th century. That is part of a extra philosophical orientation amongst Renaissance Italian Jews, who differed intellectually from the much more particularistic mind-set dominant in Spain after which Safed.

R. Abraham Yagel didn’t develop into a Lurianic kabbalist, however the fact that he was aware of the existence of this kind of kabbalah. In touch with R. Menahem Azariah of Fano, the chief Italian kabbalist who introduced versions of Lurianism, Yagel apparently resisted the new wave of kabbalism. He writes, for example, that he heard that R. Hayyim Very important was a wondrous kabbalist, a scholar of Luria and head of the kabbalists in the Galilee. Does this statement suggest that Very important was certainly an necessary kabbalist, however solely insofar as the kabbalists of Safed are concerned? Such a studying would strongly help a declare made on this research that an awareness of the difference between the 2 facilities isn’t solely a matter of the phenomenology of a modern scholar, however a part of the notice of the 16th-century kabbalist, and that such an awareness influenced his evaluation and allegiance. Yagel’s reticence to adopt the system of Very important and Luria might indicate that this is the actual significance behind the above formulation. In any case, it is obvious that his propensity for both kabbalah and philosophy, together with that of the Renaissance, sparked a resistance towards the mythical tenor of Safedian traditions.

It is very important observe the lengthy Italian custom that recognized the sefirot with Platonic ideas. It perhaps began within the late 13th century with R. Nathan ben Sa’adiah Harar, turning into specific in R. Judah Romano, R. Isaac Abravanel, R. Yebiel Nissim da Pisa, Mordekhai Rossilo, R. Abraham Yagel, R. Azariah de’ Rossi, and then in Leon Modena. Thus, the association of Platonic philosophy with kabbalah, evident in Herrera and in Delmedigo, represents simply another more intense part within the history of the affinities, actual or imaginary, between the 2 forms of speculation. Nonetheless, it’s still an open query whether or not some concepts of sefirot may need been related historically and instantly (or not directly) with Platonism. Nevertheless, it is sure that beginning within the 16th century in Italy, the nexus between the 2 is talked about.


After the disintegration of the center of kabbalah in Safed, Lurianic kabbalistic writings arrived in Italy as early as 1580, when R. Samson Bakki, a scholar of R. Joseph ibn Tabbul, sent a whole Lurianic treatise from Jerusalem to Italy, and R. Ezra of Fano copied Lurianic materials, apparently in the Land of Israel, which he then delivered to Italy. We’re involved right here with one of the modifications Lurianism underwent in Italy, particularly within the manner it was formulated by R. Israel Sarug. Let me start the brief survey of the affinities between the 2 kinds of lore with a quotation from Joseph Delmedigo’s Novelot Hokhma. After quoting at length the descriptions of the first levels of Creation in line with the malbush principle recognized as that of R. Israel Sarug, Joseph Delmedigo writes: “As I introduced beforehand, most of what I wrote right here is taken virtually verbatim from the books of the disciples of Luria. Subsequently, let no thinker criticize our phrases, but if his opinion is correct, he ought to interpret and divert them to the view of the true philosophers, and he will probably be blessed by God.”

The constructive angle towards a philosophical interpretation is conspicuous: the philosopher can be blessed for such an enterprise. What is fascinating is the way through which this interpretation must be carried out: the words of Luria and his disciples must be diverted (the Hebrew is yatteh) so that they could grow to be closer to, or maybe even coincide with, the opinion of the true philosophers. Because of this the latter might possess a type of fact that kabbalistic writings, together with Luria’s, might perhaps approximate but don’t categorical in clear phrases.

It’s useful to examine the way through which an Oriental kabbalist was portrayed by Leon Modena. He describes the activity of R. Israel Sarug: “And I have heard, too, from the mouth of the kabbalist R. Israel Sarug, an impressive pupil of Luria, blessed be his reminiscence … that there isn’t any difference between kabbalah and philosophy. And all that [Sarug] taught about kabbalah, he interpreted by way of philosophy.” I assume that this passage accommodates the phrases of two speakers: those of Sarug, to the effect that there isn’t a distinction between philosophy and kabbalah, and Modena’s personal assertion about Sarug’s interpretation of kabbalah.

Though Modena mentions Plato in reference to two other kabbalists—R. Jacob Nahamias (in accordance with a sworn statement of R. Joseph Delmedigo) and his own scholar R. Joseph Hamis—the Greek philosopher is just not mentioned in Sarug’s own statement or in Modena’s: each use the extra common time period “philosophy.” However, Gershom Scholem interprets this time period as “definitely” referring to “Platonic philosophy.” Alexander Altmann has already questioned this view and pointed out that there is inadequate proof for such an interpretation. A perusal of Sarug’s works reveals no quotation of Plato or any Platonic thinker. We thus should ask ourselves whether or not Modena’s statements about Sarug are dependable or perhaps only a weapon utilized by Modena in his assault on kabbalah. I feel it virtually inconceivable that Modena would falsify a press release of Sarug after which add his interpretation. Sarug presumably taught his version of Lurianic kabbalah without any philosophical quotations. This version was written by Sarug himself or his pupils; this is the which means of the phrase “all he taught about kabbalah.” Afterward, and apparently solely orally, a philosophical interpretation was given.

But how might Sarug supply a philosophical interpretation that had nothing to do with the unique kabbalistic text, much more so in Italy, where some among the many Jewish elite have been engaged in exploring the philosophical culture of the Renaissance? A probable reply to this question could also be that although Platonic philosophy cannot be detected in Sarug’s works, traces of one other philosophy might be hidden in his works and taught orally by Sarug by means of his kabbalistic terms.

I analyzed Modena’s brief assertion to emphasize the selective will of Jewish Italian circles: though transmitting the sacrosanct Lurianic teachings, Sarug claimed that there was no difference between kabbalah and philosophy, no matter that philosophy may be. Maybe we’ve a reverberation of the Renaissance angle towards spiritual information referred to as prisca theologia, which assumed a correspondence between numerous bodies of historic information. I might argue that the insistence on a correspondence between kabbalah and philosophy stands in robust opposition to the Safedian reticence toward philosophy, as talked about above.

The above dynamics of speedy change between Safed and Italy is unparalleled insofar as Safed and one other middle are involved, not solely in Europe but all through all the Jewish world. Nothing comparable is understood relating to the arrival of Cordoverian kabbalah, or relating to the supply of Lurianic kabbalah in print and by oral educating, paralleling the content of the aforementioned documents. The truth is, as we study from the very first strains of the introduction by R. Menabem Azariah of Fano to his Pelah Harimmon, he compiled a minimum of the second model of his compendium of Cordovero’s Pardes Rimmonim on the request of R. Isaac ben Mordekhai of Poland (described as a distinguished scholar who came to review with him) and for the rabbis of Ashkenaz. That is proof that Italy around 1600 turned a middle in itself, a hub from the place kabbalah radiated to the North.


Adapted from “Italy in Safed, Safed in Italy: Toward an Interactive Historical past of 16th-Century Kabbalah,” in David B. Ruderman and Giuseppe Veltri, eds., Cultural Intermediaries: Jewish Intellectuals in Early Trendy Italy. Reprinted with permission of College of Pennsylvania Press. All rights reserved.

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