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T H E J E W I S H Q U A R T E R LY R E V I E W , Vol. 103, No.

1 (Winter 2013) 101106

Traces of Lurianic Kabbalah: Texts and their Histories

M O R R I S M . FA I E R S T E I N

JOSEPH AVIVI. Kabalat ha-ARI, 3 volumes. Jerusalem: Ben Zvi Institute, 2008. Pp. 1563.

I S A AC L U R I A (153472), the most inuential gure of the sixteenthcentury kabbalistic revival centered in Safed, was at the same time the best known and least understood gure of this important turning point in Jewish religious history. The religious practices that emanated from Safed transformed how Judaism was practiced. New rituals created in Safed and esoteric concepts buried in the Zohar became the centerpieces of Jewish religious life. Kabbalat Shabbat, hakafot on Simhat Torah, ushpizin in the sukkah, and numerous other practices that are universal today were either created in Safed or found in the Zohar and popularized by the Safed kabbalists. At the same time, the mystical theology that animated and explained the mystical signicance of these new customs and practices, which came to be known as Lurianic Kabbalah, was the preserve of a select group of elite mystics who went to great lengths to keep these teachings secret and from being disseminated. Thus, we nd ourselves in a paradoxical position. On the one hand we know a great deal about the life and activities of Isaac Luria. His personal religious practices and those of his circle formed the basis for the new practices that were so widely disseminated. At the same time, we know very little about the mystical theology that Luria taught his disciples and was the mystical underpinning of these practices. The ban on the public teaching of Lurianic Kabbalah and the copying and publication of Lurias mystical teachings made the accurate transmission of these teachings close to impossible. An illustrative example of this problem is the literary legacy of Hayyim Vital, Lurias most important
The Jewish Quarterly Review (Winter 2013) Copyright 2013 Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. All rights reserved.



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disciple. Vital was a graphomane who took copious notes on Lurias lectures and later organized them into longer treatises. During his lifetime he kept these writings in a locked chest and would on rare occasions allow important scholars to read some of his manuscripts for a brief period of time. The scholars who were granted this privilege would try to memorize as much as they could and immediately rush home to copy as much as they could remember. Once, when Vital was very ill and fell into a coma, Joshua Bin Nun, the richest Jew in Safed, gave Vitals brother a hefty bribe for access to Vitals trove of manuscripts. Bin Nun hired as many scribes as he could nd and over the three days that Vital was in the coma managed to have six hundred pages copied. Other pieces of Lurias teachings made their way into circulation through other means. It took more than two hundred years before systematic treatises of Lurias teachings were published and made widely available. In contrast, signicant portions of the writings of Moses Cordovero, the most important Safed kabbalist before Luria, were published by the end of the sixteenth century. This aura of secrecy gave rise to the myth that Isaac Luria wrote very little and what we have of his teachings was refracted through the biases of his disciples, making it virtually impossible to know with any degree of certainty what Luria actually thought and taught. The stealthy and fragmentary nature of the early transmission of Lurianic teachings also contributed to the corruption of texts and misinterpretations. There were also teachings attributed to Luria by close disciples that seemed to contradict each other. The differing interpretations of Lurias teachings by Vital and Joseph ibn Tabul are the best-known example of these differences. Joseph Avivi has devoted many years of scholarship to answering the basic and seemingly elusive question What did Isaac Luria teach? That is, what was Lurias theory of Kabbalah as he himself wrote and taught it? His attempt to answer this question spans three volumes and more than fteen hundred pages. It is pursued through three lines of inquiry: First where are Lurias teachings, as he taught them and wrote about them, to be found? Second, what is the process of divine emanation that Luria taught? and nally, what is the meaning and signicance of this teaching according to Luria? The process of divine emanation is the centerpiece of Lurias mystical teachings and its explication and analysis is the core subject of the majority of writings subsumed under the rubric of Lurianic Kabbalah. Avivi devotes the rst two volumes of his work to a thorough, systematic analysis and description of the Lurianic literary corpus, the writings of Luria himself and the voluminous writings of his disciples and later



authors who edited and copied the treatises containing the teachings of Lurianic Kabbalah. The starting point is the earliest known writings of Luria himself, and the end point is 1780, about the time when major treatises of Lurias disciples began to be published. The rst major Lurianic treatise to be published was Hayyim Vitals Ets h . ayim, in 1782. Avivis analysis begins with the writings of Luria himself. His interest in this part is not primarily with the ideas found in the particular work but the history of the book aspects of these writings. He follows a similar pattern in treating each document, rst creating a brief description of the text and its contents. Then he adds any information that may be of interest in dating the document or offers information that will contextualize the writing or history of the text. For example, in his fragmentary comments on a section of the Idra Zuta section of the Zohar, Luria cites an opinion of Moses Cordovero on this passage. What is noteworthy is that Luria mentions Cordovero with the encomium indicating that he was still alive. This means that he wrote it before the summer of 1570, when Cordovero died. It is also instructive that Luria mentions Cordovero because he disagrees with his understanding of the particular point. It tells us something about Luria and his selfcondence that he had no problem disagreeing with the most important kabbalist of the generation. Avivi also adds information about where the text is found in manuscripts and where it is cited in the writings of Lurias disciples. Gershom Scholem published an article in which he endeavored to list all the authentic writings of Isaac Luria. Avivi has added to the quantity of texts known to be by Luria and to the depth of our knowledge about them. Subsequent chapters are devoted to Lurias disciples, each one in turn. First and most important is Hayyim Vital, the premier interpreter and transmitter of Lurias teachings. Vitals most inuential work, Ets h . ayim, receives an extended treatment. The literary history of this work is a textbook example of the problems encountered in dealing with Lurianic literature. Vital rewrote parts of this book several times, and after his death, his son, Samuel Vital, reedited it and renamed it Shemone shearim. There were several more efforts by other editors to reorganize this book before it was nally published in 1782. Avivi gives a full and informative analysis of the varied history of this work and its various editions, supplemented by a full bibliographical listing of the many manuscripts that have survived, starting with Vitals own autograph manuscript and concluding with a list of the printed editions of the various rescensions. Throughout, Avivi presents many examples of new research that shed light on previously unresolved issues. Though I had thoroughly explored


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the existing literature on Vitals mystical diary, Sefer hezyonot, and published both a critical Hebrew edition and an English translation, I learned new things from Avivis treatment of this work. It is well known that the name Sefer hezyonot is rst mentioned in H. D. Y. Azulais book Shem hagedolim (1774). However, it has always been a mystery why he gave this name to this work. The original manuscript, in Vitals own handwriting, does not have a title. In the course of his research, Avivi solved this mystery, along with a second one. The full text of the Sefer hezyonot was not published until 1954, edited by the late A. Z. Aescoli. However, a partial version of this work was published in the early nineteenth century, under the title In Praise of Rabbi Hayyim Vital. In the course of his manuscript research, Avivi found a manuscript written by Vitals grandson, Moshe Vital, which solved both mysteries. The younger Vital created an abbreviated version of the Sefer hezyonot, which was in his fathers possession. He named it Sefer hezyonot. This was the manuscript that Azulai saw and discussed in his book, and it was also the basis of the work that was published in the nineteenth century. Another important insight that Avivi gained from his intensive study is that the original manuscript of the Sefer hezyonot is not one treatise, as was assumed by the different editors of the text, including myself. Rather, there are two separate treatises written sequentially, one after the other without any indication that it is a new treatise. The Sefer hezyonot consists of four chapters, each one with its own title. In the rst three chapters, each paragraph is numbered. In the fourth chapter, the rst two paragraphs are numbered but the remainder of the chapter is not. Each of the modern editions adds the missing paragraph numbers. Avivi concludes, on the basis of his research in the whole corpus of Vital manuscripts, that the last chapter is in fact a separate treatise that Vital appended to his mystical diary but was not meant to be a continuation of the three previous chapters. After completing his discussion of Vital and his writings, Avivi continues with a similar analysis of each of Lurias other disciples and their writings, in order of their importance. The most important disciple after Vital was Joseph ibn Tabul. Vital saw him as a rival in many ways and went out of his way to denigrate and insult him in his Sefer hezyonot. A major problem of Lurianic scholarship is that the Lurianic teachings presented by ibn Tabul differ in signicant aspects from Vitals interpretations of the same themes. Avivi presents evidence for the idea that Luria had four distinct groups of disciples, each of which was taught, at a different time, different interpretations of the theory of Divine emanation, the centerpiece of Lurianic Kabbalah. The groups were seen as being on dif-



ferent spiritual levels, and Luria tailored his teachings to the level of the particular group. Avivi argues that this would explain the different and sometimes contradictory presentations of Lurias teachings by his various disciples. The relationship of Israel Saruq to Lurianic Kabbalah is controversial. Saruq purported to be a disciple of Isaac Luria teaching what he said were kabbalistic doctrines he learned from Luria. Some scholars have questioned Saruqs claims to have been Lurias disciple, while other scholars have accepted them. An obvious problem is that Saruqs name does not appear in any of the lists of Lurias disciples found in the writings of Hayyim Vital and others. Another concern is that Saruqs terminology differs from standard Lurianic usage. There are also other differences between the teachings of Saruq and those of Lurias accepted disciples. After an examination of Saruqs writings, Avivi concludes that Saruq did have access to authentic Lurianic writings. However, he taught them and disseminated them with many changes and additions of his own. Therefore, Avivi excludes Saruqs writings from his discussions of Lurias legacy. As for the more basic question of whether Saruq had personal contact with Luria, there is insufcient information to reach a rm conclusion either way and Avivi remains agnostic on this question. Despite the remaining questions about the actual relationship between Saruq and Luria, Saruq is a central gure in the dissemination of Lurianic Kabbalah, or at least his version of Lurianic Kabbalah. He was peripatetic and his journeys took him as far from Israel as Frankfurt and Cracow. He also spent extended periods of time in Italy. Saruq created disciples and left behind copies of his writings wherever he went. Thus, his inuence on the subsequent history of Kabbalah was immense, particularly in Europe. Avivi documents his many travels, places he lived for extended periods of time, and the disciples he left behind. The year 1620 marked the death of Hayyim Vital, the last direct disciple of Isaac Luria. From then until the rst publication of Ets h . ayim in 1782, the history of Lurianic literature was one of editing and disseminating manuscripts. The aura of esotericism surrounding Lurias mystical teachings was preserved. Avivi documents this process and organizes it by period and geographical location. The second part of the second volume is composed of several useful appendices. A list of names of people mentioned in the work includes thumbnail sketches of each gure. This is particularly helpful with regard to the more obscure gures whose information is not readily available. The list is not alphabetical but follows the order in which the gures appear in the book. A numbering system makes it easier to cross refer-


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ence individuals and the discussions about their writing or editing. There are approximately forty high-quality photographic reproductions illustrating manuscripts covering the range of gures from Isaac Luria to H. Y. D. Azulai, in the middle of the eighteenth century. Lastly, there are several samples of critically edited texts to illustrate Avivis approach to the editing of these texts. The third volume is devoted to answering the basic question that was posed at the beginning of the work. What was Lurias theory of Kabbalah, his understanding of the concept of divine emanation and the theological questions relating to it? The volume ends with several indices of people, manuscripts, printed books, and scholarly sources cited in his analysis. Avivi has produced a veritable encyclopedia of Lurianic history and teachings from the time of Isaac Luria (the mid-sixteenth century) until the rst publication of Hayyim Vitals major work in the late eighteenth. His primary focus is on the history of Lurianic literature, and in the course of his research he collected and recorded extensive information about Luria and his disciples that is of value for anyone interested in Lurianic Kabbalah. To give one example: he devotes three pages to an indepth discussion of which liturgy, Ashkenazi or Sephardi, Luria personally favored. Though this may seem unimportant, it is crucial in understanding Lurias mystical prayer intentions (kavanot). In conclusion, Avivis work is the most comprehensive overview of the Lurianic literary corpus and is an indispensable resource for anyone who wants to navigate the esoteric and often mysterious realm that is Lurianic Kabbalah.

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