Sunday, 21 February 2021




One of Segulot disributed by R. Yonatan Eibeschuetz (1690-1764) 


We have dealt with the issue of Segulot (religious amulets) on a number of previous occasions, particularly in relation to the Emden-Eybeschuetz controversies (see links provided below).

In this article, based extensively on the research of Shai A. Alleson-Gerberg[1], we shall examine the strange world of Segulot which was rife within some quarters of rabbinic leadership during the eighteenth century.



Around 1750, one of the most bitter rabbinical conflicts erupted, probably since the Maimonidean controversies of the thirteenth century. R. Yakov Emden (1697-1776) accused the prestigious R. Yonatan Eibeschuetz (1690 – 1764), who had just been elected to lead the important triple community of Altona-Hamburg-Wandsbek, of being a secret follower of Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676), the false messiah who converted to Islam.

Matters came to a head when Segulot written and prescribed by R. Eibeschuetz, which had been distributed to pregnant women to aid in childbirth, were opened and found to contain the name of Shabbatai Tzvi. Apparently, people became suspicious of these Segulot when some of these women died in childbirth.

A short while later, R. Emden publicly declared the Segulot of the esteemed R. Eibeschuetz to be tainted with Sabbatian heresy.



After being openly humiliated by R. Emden, R. Eibeschuetz felt compelled to defend his actions by producing two commentaries in defense of his Segulot. Essentially, he claimed that the Segulot were incorrectly read as a unit and not as the single entities he had intended.

He gave his first commentary/response to R. Shalom Buzaglo. This was concerning the Segulah he had given to the wife of the beadle of the Synagogue, Michal Halberstadt Segal.

His second commentary was published under the title Luchot Eidut, and was in response to the Segulah he had written for the wife of Moredchai Levi of Metz. In this work, R. Eibeschuetz described the process of gestation and birth. However, as Alleson-Gerberg explains, he also alluded to something else:

Eibeschütz does not simply describe birth, but the birth of the messiah. The question of the messiah’s identity in Luhot ‘edut is fundamental, touching on Eibeschütz’s Sabbatianism”



In his Luchot Eidut, R. Eibeschuetz tried to exonerate himself by deliberating on Kabbalistic concepts surrounding the angel called Metatron. He explained the difference between two distinct aspects of the same angel who can manifest as both Mitatron and Metatron. Mitatron has the extra letter “yod”, which as the Safed Kabbalist R. Moshe Cordovero explains, represents the Shechina manifesting through Ten Sefirot (G-dly emanations).[2]

R. Eibeschuetz suggested that the biblical Yakov wanted his beloved son Binyamin to be associated with Mitatron. This was because Mitatron was, in fact, the Shechina (G-d’s presence). This made Mitatron - according to Kabbalah the feminine aspect of G-d - a perfect being with only good and no evil. This was opposed to Metatron who was a mixture of good and evil. For this reason, Yakov called his youngest son Ben Yamin (son of right-hand side) which, in the Kabbalistic model, contains no evil. The left-hand side is always associated with severity or evil.

R. Eibeschuetz continues that Moshe, similarly wanted to be associated with Mitatron and that’s why, in Pharaoh’s palace, he fled from the snake who is associated with Metatron. Metatron represents:

“the secret of birth by the bite of the serpent…the pain of birth pangs”

Moshe, instead, wanted to bring about the messianic redemption through the all-good Mitatron, the Shechina with no admixture of evil.[3]



At this stage, things start to get interesting. Alleson-Gerberg maintains that R. Eibeschuetz’ reference to the Messiah, is actually a reference to his youngest son, Wolf Binyamin Eibeschuetz!

This view is based on an account by R. Emden in his Sefer Hitavkut, produced in 1769, where he records that Wolf Binyamin Eibeschuetz amassed a large following and they referred to him as Yemini ben David and Yemini Kadosh - both titles emphasizing the yamin, the right-hand side - a concept the mystical followers would have been familiar with: Mashiach had to be drawn down from  Mitatron, not Metatron.

Wolf Binyamin Eibeschuetz also seemed to emphasize the name Binyamin when referring to himself. He carved the name Binyamin on the walls of his estate in Altona (he won a lot of money in a lottery); and he wrote a book entitled Darga Yemini (the grade of right-hand-side) which resembled the style of the Zohar.

According to an account by Issachar Beer, Wolf Binyamin wrote another book, which was not printed, entitled Gevul Binyamin (the border of Binyamin):

“Being still very young he travelled to Vienna and there he joined wanton men and showed desire to rule. And he made himself the messiah and wore Turkish robes and went to Hungary. And many followed him.”[4]

Alleson-Gerberg continues to show how R. Emden recorded that Wolf Binyamin even composed gematrias (numerology) about himself, such as niglah kevod and ki pi (Hashem)[5] which add up to 120, the gematria of Yemini. He also referred to himself by the verse shev le’yemini (sit at my right-hand-side)[6] and keitz ha’yamin (the end of days)[7].

This use of gematria was not lost on R. Emden who made up his own counter gematria where kesil (fool) also adds up to yamini![8]



The messianic overtones are again emphasized by R. Emden who reports that around 1757/8 R. Yonatan Eibeschuetz sent his son for whom he had messianic ambitions, to Sabbatian communities in Turkey, Hungary and Moravia in order to establish himself as the successor of Shabbatai Tzvi.[9]

R. Emden records:

“For in the year 5515 [1755] … It so happened that when Eibeschütz saw that all his evil business was succeeding … he wanted to fulfill the vow that he made to Sabbatai Zvi through his prophet Leible Prostiz [Prosnitz][10], to establish the faith of Sabbatai with all his power and might.…


And when he [i.e., R. Yonatan Eibeschuetz][11] saw that he had aged and failed to accomplish his plots, he decided to set up his boorish son and crown him as his successor … and he let it be known that his son, the boorish lad who lacked all goodness, had won a large sum of money in a lottery and was traveling to distant lands to see the world. And before he left, the spirit of impurity had already sprouted in him and he had secretly revealed hints of Sabbatai’s faith, may his name rot.”[12]



R. Yonatan Eibeschuetz’ work Luchot Edut, which he wrote to exonerate himself and explain the Segulot he had distributed, now seem to be less apologetics and more Sabbatain propagandist with special attention given to the future messianic mission of his son Wolf Binyamin.

R. Eibeschuetz did the same thing when he issued his token anti-Sabbatian ban and also used the opportunity to allude to Sabbatian ideology [See Kotzk Blog: 298) UNIMAGINABLE WRITINGS OF R. YONATAN EIBESCHUETZ :].



Alleson-Gerberg points out that it did not take long for R. Emden to respond to R. Eibeschuetz’ Luchot Edut. R. Emden was quick to compose his Shevirat Luchot haAven (the breaking of the evil tablets) which dealt with each of his opponent’s points one at a time.

Towards the end of R. Emden’s response[13] he makes the most astounding claim: R. Yonatan Eibeschuetz wrote the Segulot, not to aid in childbirth but rather for nefarious purposes.

 Alleson-Gerberg writes:

“Emden’s version follows Eibeschütz’s commentary in a stepwise fashion, yet describes a reverse process of turning the fetus to stillborn.”

R. Emden writes in the harshest of language:

לעשות מן ילד, דלי, דליו שוקים מפסח ומשל בפי כסילים

And now hear the charm of his deeds, to make the child [yeled] weak [dali - limp][14] And know that he was not content until he spilt his blood.”

The Segulot had depictions of the Magen David (Star of David). A whole discussion ensues over the significance of this symbol in the Segulot.

According to R. Eibeschuetz:

“Magen David which is a charm and the best talisman of all for every misfortune … especially for those in childbirth, has 7 points [including the hexagon in the middle] … and 7 times 7 equals mem tet [49] which is Metatron…

… and in this picture of Magen David there are 7 openings [zayin nekavim], and the middle one is the “mouth,” and the “lower mouth” [peh de-lematah] is against the upper mouth [peh de-lema‘alah, which whispers the magical names into a woman’s ear], as is known, and therefore these names come as a cure, to open the ‘lower mouth.’”[15]

Alleson-Gerberg continues:

“In order to press the point that Eibeschütz caused the deaths of children yet to be born with his amulets, he evokes the myth of Kronos-Saturnus, the terrible god who devoured his sons, which appears in his description as the planet Saturn “swallowing” Aquarius (דלי), one of its zodiac constellations and an anagram of the Hebrew word yeled (ילד), ‘child’.”

Here again the Sabbatian imagery is evoked because Shabbatai Tzvi was connected to Shabbatai or Saturn which was often depicted in Renaissance iconography as a six-pointed star.[16]

And R. Emden wrote:

“In this amulet, he had distributed the verse ‘For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given’ in five of the [Magen David’s] corners.”[17]

This way, R. Eibeschuetz was perhaps accused of trying to block the energy from the “upper mouth” to the “lower mouth” and cause fatalities through these Segulot.


According to these accounts, we see that not only was R. Eibeschuetz accused of distributing Sabbatian Segulot to aid in childbirth, but another stratum of the controversy is now revealed where he is also accused of “turning the fetus to stillborn”. This seems to have been what prompted people to open up the Segulot and check what was written inside. 

Even for those who today still persist in the belief in the efficacy of Segulot, this imagery and these accusations, claims and counter-accusations are astonishing and shocking to say the least. Nevertheless, this was all taking place within the rabbinical world of the eighteenth century and reveals the astounding belief in Segulot held by both protagonists and antagonists in the Emden-Eibeschuetz controversy.








[1] Shai A. Alleson-Gerberg, The Sabbatian Who Devoured his Son; Jacob Emden’s Anti-Sabbatian Polemics of Cannibalism.

[2] See Moses Cordovero, Pardes Rimonim, Sha‘ar ’ABI‘A, chap. 4 (Kraków, 1592), 93b–94a:


 “[T]his Angel is known by two names: sometimes he is called Metatron [מטטרון], and sometimes Mitatron [מיטטרון] with a [letter] yod. And the meaning is that, when this Angel is the garment [levush] of the Shekhinah, and the Shekhinah conceals herself within him and demonstrates her actions through his agency, then his name becomes Mitatron with a yod [gematria: 10], to indicate the Shekhinah that is constituted of ten [sefirot].” (Translation by Alleson-Gerberg.)


[3] See Luchot Eidut 65b:


“Jacob wanted to place his son [Benjamin] with Mitatron, since he is the Shekhinah [‘the divine presence,’ i.e., the feminine aspect of the Godhead], all holy and good, not Metatron who is both good and evil … therefore he called him Ben Yamin, ‘son of the right side.’ Even Moses, when he wanted to bring about the redemption, which is the secret of birth by the bite of the serpent, who is Metatron, the pain of birth pangs—changed from a serpent to a rod, towards hesed [the divine mercy]; as was told in the Tikkunim, he flees from before it because he wanted to bring about the redemption through the Shekhinah.” (Translation by Alleson-Gerberg.)


[4] Published in Emmanuel Bondi, Mikhtave Sefat Kodesh (Prague, 1857), 78.

[5] Isaiah 40:5.

[6] Psalms 110:1.

[7] Daniel 12:3.

[8] Sefer Hitakvut 27b.

[9] Sefer Hitakvut 51a, 23b.

[10] Leibele Prosnitz was another messianic claimant. R. Eibeschuetz would have had to go 'through' Leibelle Prosnitz because Shabbatai Tzvi died in 1676, and R. Eibeschuetz was born in 1690.

[11] Parentheses mine.

[12] Sefer Hitakvut 51a, 23b, 18a, 19b.

[13] Shevirat Luchot haAven pp. 53a-54b.

[14] Parenthesis mine.

[15] Luchot Eidut 71a.

[16] Klibansky et al., Saturn and Melancholy, plates 30, 37, 38, 40, 47.

[17] Sefat Emet veLashon Zehorit 6a, 15a.

Sunday, 14 February 2021



A leaf from Seridei Bavli.


I have always been fascinated by the often incidental discovery of old important texts that are constantly being made in modern times. These include writings like those of Abulafia, for example, which Gershom Scholem happened to identify in Archives of the Bavarian State Library when he was writing his dissertation in 1919. There were also recent discoveries of the Meiri texts, as well as unpublished Rashi commentaries and other works and even the recovery of some of the more recent censored writing of Rav Kook.

In this article, we shall explore the accidental discovery of parts of the 500-year-old Spanish Talmud which was thought to have been lost forever.[1]



During the 1970s, after much detective work and scholarship, Professor Haim Zalman Dimitrovsky (1920-2011) discovered 550 pages of lost volumes of the Spanish Talmud.

Dimitrovsky was a profound scholar, having produced the highly significant two-volume magisterial work on R. Shlomo ibn Aderet, published by Mosad haRav Kook in Jerusalem entitled Teshuvot haRashba. His analysis of a responsum and glosses concerning the legality of the renewal of semikhah (ordination) by the rabbis of Safed enabled him to more accurately reconstruct the facts of that controversy.[2] [See The Sanhedrin/Smicha Story.]

Dimitrovsky had studied at the Talmud Torah Eitz Chaim in Jerusalem and then at Merkaz haRav (established by Rav Kook) and then at the Talmud Department of the Hebrew University where he later returned as a professor. He was also a member of the Hagana during the War of Independence.



The very first printing of the Talmud took place in Spain at around 1482, but because of the vicissitudes of the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, very few copies of these early printings remain. According to Adri Offenberg, much historical evidence was destroyed and our knowledge of that period is therefore limited.[3]

However, we do know that the oldest Spanish printed book, Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah, was produced in 1476, just six years before the printing of the Spanish Talmud. It originated from the press of Shlomo Alkabetz at Guadalajara in old Castile in central Spain. He was the grandfather of Shlomo Alkabetz (c. 1505- 1584) the well-known Kabbalist from Safed, who composed Lecha Dodi.

Between 1472 and 1482, at least fifteen Hebrew Books were printed in Guadalajara. The British Library has a collection of five Guadalajara editions.

The paper for these projects was imported from Palermo in southern Italy which was, at that time Spanish control.



The story goes all the way back to the beginnings of the first printing of the Talmud in 1482. The project was interrupted ten years later when the practising Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. Many Jews sought refuge in neighbouring Portugal and the printing was continued there in the southern city of Faro – until they were expelled from Portugal in 1497.

It was at that point, after 1497, that the Spanish edition of the Talmud was lost.



For 500 years people spoke in rumours about this Talmud as it was said to have been a different version of our editions of the Talmud. An oral tradition existed purporting that it differed quite substantially from our editions.

300 years later, from around the nineteenth century, bibliographers were beginning to find and identify old fragments and leaves thought to belong to this lost Talmud but there were no groundbreaking discoveries.



Then, during the 1970s Haim Zalman Dimitrovsky stumbled upon some Talmudic fragments of old texts in a collection held in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and he soon realized that these differed from the standard Talmudic texts he was familiar with.

His interest was piqued and he searched through other repositories of old manuscripts. His hunt took him to explore textual fragments from the Cairo Geniza which were housed at the Vatican, Cambridge and Bodleian Libraries. He also got access to private collections in Israel.

He now knew what to look for because the Spanish Talmud had a unique printing style and layout. Dimitrovsky was even able to identify which leaves were printed first in Spain and later in Portugal.

There were a certain number of lines on a page and he knew the standard width of the margins. The forming of the final letters was different and the representation of G-d’s name was also specific and unique to this style. G-ds name is represented by three and not two letters “yod,” and the letters, “gimel” are elongated. 

On one occasion, while examining an unrelated book from the sixteenth century, he noticed a tear in the cover of the book. Through it, he could see that the binding was stiffened by about 12 pages which were glued together and then covered in cloth. On further investigation, he identified the stiffening pages to be, not worthless scraps of old paper, but priceless texts of the elusive Spanish Talmud.



Dimitrovsky believed that when the printers were exiled from Portugal, they took the yet unbound pages of their Spanish Talmud with them with the intension and hope of carrying on and completing their project which was already fifteen years in the making. After attempting to re-establish their printing business in various places of exile, it seems that eventually, they despaired of ever completing the task they had begun and used the precious paper as binding material for other printing projects. It is most likely that many of the pages were, by then, already missing and they didn’t want to print an incomplete Talmud.



Acting on this assumption, Dimitrovsky decided to ask his colleagues around the world to carefully examine the bindings of Hebrew books printed during the early part of the sixteenth century. This would have been the period immediately following the Expulsions.

A veritable collection of texts from the lost Spanish Talmud began to amass. One interesting find was discovered hidden in the cover of a book of Church Music published in Prague in 1604, now housed in Fales Library at New York University.[4]

These texts have become known as the Guadalajara Talmud fragments, and Dimitrovsky believed that, based on his analysis of the various text fonts used in Guadalajara, Ketuvot was the last of the Guadalajara tractates to be published.



Joshua Bloch and Alexander Marx are of the fascinating opinion that the variances in the Spanish or Guadalajara Talmud, may not actually have been variances. This is because they believe the Spanish version to have been derived directly from old manuscripts which came to Spain from the Gaonic academies in Babylonia.[5] [See The ‘Four Captives’.]

This would place the Spanish edition in a very authentic position in the line of Talmudic transmission:

“Indeed after a careful comparison of the present leaves, one notes a different order of the text, as well as extra lines, words and letters, even elimination of text in certain cases and other variants (including orthography) – amounting to a text significantly unlike that of the Bomberg edition and the much vaunted ‘Vilna Shas’.

Some of these variants are significant enough to change the meaning of the Gemara…

[S]ince this Guadalajara edition was printed prior to the Inquisition, it is free from censorship. Thus whereas the standard editions employ the circumlocution ‘aku’m’ for gentile, here the original reading ‘goy’ is retained.”

[See Daniel Bomberg – The Story of the Tzuras haDaf.]

This astounding discovery and the scholarship surrounding it, shows once again just how rich and broad Torah literature is. These types of modern findings of our lost texts add to the richness of the vast and expanding tapestry of our ancient tradition.




The Italian Geniza

The Cairo Geniza

The Meiri texts

The Censored Writings of Rav Kook

A Recently Discovered Document Showing Rav Kook’s Position on the Authorship of the Zohar.

[1] See The Jewish Week – American Examiner, March 23 1980. p. 8.

[2] Entry on Dimitrovsky, Chaim Zalman, by Shamma Friedman.

[3] Adri K. Offenberg, Some Remarks on the Date and Original Price of a Rare Iberian Hebrew Incunable. Zutot 2001, 114-117.

[4] The Talmud Blog, A Tantalizing Tale of Temura Fragments – Guest Post by Noah Bickart. October 29 2014.

[5] See also H.Z. Dimitrovsky, Sridei Bavli (1979) Vol. I: Introduction, pp.41-43; and Vol II: 296a, 296d.

Sunday, 7 February 2021



Ma'avar Yabbok by R. Aaron Berechia of Modena (d.1639) - a book with prayers for the ill the deceased.


During the 16th and 17th centuries, new rituals and liturgy relating to sickness and dying were introduced to Judaism. In this article, based extensively on the research by Professor Avriel Bar-Levav[1], we will look at how these rituals were first innovated. The intention is not to dwell on uncomfortable matters but rather to show the mechanics of how customs are sometimes brought into Jewish practice from various sources.



Bar-Levav points out that:

 [a]lthough Jewish mourning rituals were already highly developed early in the rabbinic era, structure was not imparted to the deathbed setting itself until the early modern period.

 This means that until around the 17th century there was no general prescription for the process surrounding matters of death and dying. It was only with the emergence of the official institution of the Chevrah Kadisha (Burial Societies) at around that time, that more formal ritual structures began to be followed. The Chevra Kadisha was not only tasked with burial but also with visiting the sick. These societies became very powerful and influential within the communities and their voice was heard.

The first problem was that while well-intentioned, the members of the Chevra Kadisha were not always drawn from the scholarly elite. The second problem was that since no official Halachic protocols or prescriptions were in place for the process of visiting the homes of the dying, the Chevra Kadisha rose to the occasion and arranged for the establishment of a ritual for such occasions.

This is why we find that the first books which started to appear during the 17th century containing prayers and rituals for the last moments, were printed at the behest - not of the rabbis - but of the Chevrot haKadisha. This process began in Italy.

Bar-Levav writes:

The new genre of books for the sick and the dying was a major vehicle for the promotion of the new death rituals, essentially “inventing” a Jewish tradition. Including dozens of books and pamphlets printed in many copies, the genre rapidly extended beyond Italy towards the rest of the Jewish world, both east and west.

These books and pamphlets relating to the sick and the dying proved to be very popular, indicating that an important need within the community had been met.


The first example of such books appears to have been produced in Venice in 1619. The wardens of the Ashkenazi Chevra Kadisha of Venice approached R. Yehuda Aryeh Leone of Modena (1571–1648) and asked him to compose a booklet of prayers and include a ceremony for the sick. The Chevra Kadisha argued that the family members often hid the severity of the illness from the patients in order to protect them – but this never gave the patients the opportunity to spiritually prepare for the inevitable. The Chevra Kadisha, therefore, complained to R. Yehuda Aryeh Leone that:

 [w]hen it is the turn of one of the members of our fraternal society to go to watch over the sick person and keep him company as is our custom, we have no order of service for what to say or how to escort the soul of the dying man.[3]

R. Yehuda Aryeh Leone obliged and called his work Tzori la nefesh u marpe la etzem. He writes that he agreed to produce the booklet under pressure from the Chevra Kadisha, because:

[w]hy should our community be inferior to all the surrounding peoples, and not take care when someone is on his deathbed?”

This indicates that there was a degree of Christian and general societal influence as well, behind the production of the new prayer booklets for these sombre occasions. This new genre was, therefore, by R. Yehuda Aryeh Leone’s admission, not a purely rabbinic innovation.


The next related booklet to appear was Ma’avar Yabbok which was printed in Mantua in 1626 and this became even more popular that the first. It was authored by the Kabbalist R. Aaron Berechia of Modena (d.1639), a nephew of R. Yehuda Aryeh Leone.

According to Bar-Levav this composition “reveals the influence of Christian death rites.” Like his uncle, R. Aaron Berechia was also pressured by his Chevra Kadisha to produce his work. He describes the Chevra Kadisha as follows:

“Not all are learned, but they all aspire gladly to carry out this great commandment. It was there I learned that for some time they have wanted someone to undertake preparation of an order of service, so that they can raise their voices in song and prayer when the soul departs.”[4]

Ma’avar Yabbok contains prayers, readings from the Torah and viduy (confessions) very similar to those recited on Yom Kippur.


Later, R. Naftali haCohen Katz (c. 1645–1719), who was the rabbi of Posen and of Frankfurt am Main, writes rather critically about the Chevrot haKadisha:

I was much surprised by the conduct of the burial societies which come to the sick person close to his death, when he is already dying.

When the sick person sees them he becomes frightened and confused, and senses his approaching death. Although they speak to him consolingly, he does not accept their words, nor do they penetrate his ears. He tells himself that all is over, and that the angel of death is standing behind the door. …

R. Naphtali haCohen Katz effectively says that while the Chevrot haKadisha mean well, they can sometimes do more damage than good, and he continues to make the following suggestion:

It therefore seems to me that the correct thing for these holy societies to do would be to also deal with the sick person’s needs while he is still alive, and to take charge of all his affairs. …

The holy society should come into the picture at the beginning of the illness and take charge of everything. Thus the sick person will not be so terrified when he sees them, and even if he is afraid – he will still be of sound mind, and when they speak to him he will heed their words...

That was why I decided to compile for the sick person, his visitors, and the burial societies, an order of conduct from the beginning to the end of the illness, whether he lives or dies. This order of conduct follows the correct sequence which I sought and found in the holy books, as heaven charged me, to compile prayers, confessions, and supplications for body and soul, both when they are still conjoined and when they part and life ends.[5]

All these three earliest rabbinic compilations show that they were in reaction to the requests or practices of the Chevrot haKadisha.


There had certainly been ritual framing of death long prior to the 16th and 17th centuries - such as in the case of R. Akiva and R. Shimon bar Yochai - but these rituals were essentially pertinent only to the elite. The practices had been reserved exclusively for those who had led intensely spiritual lives which in turn were reflected in the intense ritualization of their deaths. The difference now, in the early modern period with the emergence of the Chevrot haKadisha, was that the ritual became the proclivity of ordinary people and of all people.


This notion of ritualization of death went one step further:  - to the actual ritual ‘rehearsal’ of the last moments itself.

The well-known ethical work Shnei Luchot haBrit by R. Yeshayahu Horowitz (c.1565–1630), which was first published in 1648, contains a suggestion for a monthly rehearsal of one’s death. The section dealing with the following rituals was an addendum written by his son, R. Yakov Horowitz:

Therefore he [who wishes to prepare for his death] must be merciful to himself, and prepare for death while in good health. His shroud should be ready, for several reasons. First so it can be prepared in holiness, purity, and cleanliness, not by menstruating women and so on. Moreover, he might die and be buried on a holiday by gentiles, in which case they might have to see to his shroud. Furthermore, [it should be ready] so that the making of the shroud will not delay his burial, for the dead have no rest until they return to dust. What is more, when he sees his shroud he will be spiritually awakened and always remember the day of death. …

He should have a written and sealed will.

While he is healthy, he should choose a time to go into seclusion and recite this long confession, imagining himself to be dying. …

Every sensible person should perform the ritual that I am recording, at least on the eve of each new month, which is a minor Day of Atonement. He should fast for the entire day, as on the Ninth of Av, with all stringencies, seriously ponder his deeds, and cling to the shekhina, for at least one hour. He should be in seclusion, his eyes cast down and his heart lifted up, and should remember the [impending] day of death, and surrender himself to death with love, whenever God wills it. He should wear a prayer shawl and phylacteries, and rouse himself [spiritually]. …

It is good that this prayer shawl he wears when confessing be kept and accompany him in the grave, so that his soul will be awoken from above to put on the garments of glory. Amen.

When he confesses while in good health, he should be careful to remain silent after this confession and not utter any idle talk, as if dead and unable to speak. He should also sanctify his sight, keeping his eyes shut as if dead, and the same for all his movements. …

 By these means will he cling to the Lord of life, and his confession will count for him as if he had made a sincere confession on his deathbed. Since he thinks of himself as dead, he will live an eternal life.[6]

This monthly rehearsal was not limited just to the elite but, again, it was directed to all readers of this popular and influential work.



The Zohar, published in around 1290, spoke much about demonology as associated with death and dying. This also contributed - as Bar-Levav points out, due to the influence of printing which popularized the work - to the later ritualization of the concept of demonology as well.

Then, around the 16th and 17th centuries when Chevrot haKadisha were established and death related rituals and liturgy were becoming institutionalized, a similar process of ritualization occurred with the demonology associated with death and dying. The purpose of the Malach heMavet (Angel of Death) was not just to take the soul away, but his task was to tempt the dying person to renounce G-d. In fact, he was regarded as the devil incarnate.[7]

[One must bear in mind that these mystical beliefs in angels and demons were not universal Jewish beliefs as Maimonides, the rationalist, denied their existence in any real sense.]


The main shift that took place during the 16th and 17th century around the rituals of death and dying is that in the past, it was a personal, private and family affair, but with the institutional ritualization imposed by the Chevrot haKadisha, death and dying now took place in “the presence of strangers…[the] professional members of the burial society.”

Bar-Levav explains that this means that:

the space around the deathbed is being reappropriated – shifted from the personal-familial to the public, religious sphere. Language is a central tool in this process: The members of the society know what to say. It is written in a book they hold in their hands. The set religious language of the professional visitors pushes aside the personal language of the family members.

The family no longer have the deathbed under their control. Ownership of the death ritual is now squarely in the hands of the Chevra Kadisha, and the old or sick are allowed to die a “proper death”.

As part of the viduy confession, the Chevra Kadisha recite verses which declare the person’s belief in one G-d and thus avoid the Malach haMavet tempting him or her to a death of heresy. Again, the Chevra Kadisha is now in control of the situation.

Bar-Levav explains that the centrality of the role of fear of the Malach haMavet aided the Chevra Kadisha to remain in control because:

…the most effective as well as the harshest way to exclude the family from the deathbed crisis was tied to…the belief in demons, namely a sense that the danger directly threatened not only the dying person himself but also his close family members.

Based on ideas found in Midrashic[8] and Zoharic[9] literature, certain sexual sins result in the ‘birth’ or formation of “semi human devils”:

According to this notion, the devils present a twofold danger. In the first place, frustrated by their lack of corporeality, they try to capture the body of their human father and penetrate it when his soul exits, causing him great pain.

In the second place, in a situation where the entire family, human and semi-human, is gathered around the dying person, the devils might severely harm their human semi-siblings in their humble state, as a result of jealousy.

For the sake of protection from such danger, children were sometimes dismissed from the room when their father was dying – the result once more being burial society members gaining control of the deathbed scene.

Thus, the ritualization of the entire process from sickness to dying and to burial had been institutionalized and, as we have seen, a liturgy and ethical literature had been developed to support it.

It is interesting to note that, to this day, many Chevrot haKadisha are still well-intentioned, still in control of the 'death rituals' and in many communities, are still drawn from the lay leadership.


Bar-Levav does not believe that the ritualization of death and dying was directly related to the influence of Lurianic Kabbalah. He writes:

 In general, it appears necessary to take issue with the school of thought viewing the new Jewish ‘ritualisation of life’ as emerging from…Lurianic kabbalah…

He points to a number of other contributing factors such as printing (from the mid-15th century) which helped with:

the transition from primarily oral traditions to primarily written structures for conveying tradition…and…by the circulation of printed texts accompanying an ever-widening circle of readers.


ritualisation was not only a Jewish phenomenon in this period but also a significant factor in the religious and cultural life of Christian Europe.

On the other hand, one could perhaps argue that the 16th and 17th centuries also saw the innovation of many other new rituals to Judaism which are attributed to the Safed and Lurianic Kabbalists. Although not exclusive to Lurianic Kabbalah but certainly under its influence, these include:

  • The all-night vigils of Tikkun Leil Shavuot and Hoshana Raba;

·        Tikkun Chatzot, or the midnight vigil, although mentioned in the Zohar, became formalized[10] with a standard text;

·        Hoshana Raba changed from a festive day to one of penitence similar to, and an extension of, Yom Kippur;

·        The Fast of the First Born before Pesach[11];

·        The last day of the month became a penitential Yom Kippur Katan;

·        The study of Mishnayot, resembling the word neshama (soul), for the deceased;

·        The inclusion of the Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday evening which is not recorded in the Shulchan Aruch of R. Yosef Karo nor does it appear in any siddurim prior to that time (although afterward it became almost universal);

·        And the introduction of a series of additions to the Siddur (prayer book) which were first added to private texts and then became more universal.

Considering the innovation and inclusion of various new prayers into the liturgy; the establishment of Yom Kippur Katan as a day of penitence; the recitation of Mishnayot for the dead; in addition to the popularity of the practice of exorcisms (where demons were expelled)[12] which were frequently performed by R. Yitzchak Luria (Ari Zal) - the innovations of the final rituals which we have discussed and their accompanying liturgy may, to some extent, be similarly intertwined.

[1] Avriel Bar-Levav, Jewish Rituals for the Sick and Dying. Translations of the texts are by Avriel Bar-Levav.

[2] See also Avriel Bar-Levav, Dying by the Book: Jewish Books for the Sick and the Dying, and the Ritualisation of Death in the Early Modern Period.

[3] Tzori la nefesh u marpe la etzem, Venice 1619, p. 3a.

[4] Ma’avar Yabbok, Mantua 1626, Introduction, p. 13a.

[5] Rabbi Naphtali ha-Kohen Katz, Shaar haHachana, Constantinople 1734, p. 3a

[6] Shnei Luchot haBrit, Pesachim, 145a-146a, (Hagaha).

[7] According to Bar-Levav: “deathbed temptation has an important place in Catholic doctrine and is well known in the Catholic ars moriendi.”

[8] Bereshit Rabba 20, 11.

[9] Zohar II, 231b.

[10] R. Natan Neta Hannover (d. 1683) unified the individual practices into a standard and unified service and ritual, and is known for his Kabbalistic siddur, Shaarei Tziyon. He wrote:

“When I was journeying in the Diaspora I saw two different sights. Many of the very observant were scrupulous in rising at midnight to lament the absence of the Divine Presence. Each one chose his own prayers to the best of his understanding, one in this manner and another in that, and they all wept. About this we should indeed weep and shed tears. So I strove manfully and composed these prayers…” Shaarei Tziyon, Amsterdam 1571, p. 3a. Translation by Avriel Bar Levav.

[11] There is a source for fasting on this day in (the minor Tractate) Soferim 21:3. There is also a source in the Yerushalmi (Pesachim 69a). However, according to R. Yosef Eliyah Henkin, since the fasting is not mentioned in the Bavli, it is not universally binding. (Gevurot Eliyahu, Orach Chaim 143.)

[12] See “Exorcisms” in The Emergence of Charismatic Judaism.