Sunday 3 December 2017



R. Yosef Karo (1488- 1575) is well recognised as the great codifier of Jewish law who was responsible for the Shulchan Aruch.

Many are familiar with the logical and methodical nature of this legal code. For practical purposes today, he is widely regarded as the last of the great codifiers if not the codifier par excellence.
However, not many are aware of an extremely mystical component to his makeup, which may seem rather surprising for someone so steeped in the pragmatism of legal codes.

He kept a diary in which he recorded some of the teachings he had acquired from an apparent spiritual or angelic being, known as a Maggid.

These were later published under the title Maggid Meisharim.

R. Yosef Karo was born in Toledo, Spain in 1488. At the age of four, as a consequence of the Alhambra Decree, he was forced to flee to Portugal – only to be expelled from there in 1497. He then settled in Nikopolis in the Ottoman Empire (now Bulgaria), after the Ottomans had opened their doors to the fleeing Jews. In 1535, after some time in Salonika and Istanbul, he moved to Safed, then also under the Ottomans.


R. Yosef Karo wrote a commentary on legal work Arba’ah Turim - composed by Yaakov ben Asher (1270-1340) – which became known as the Beit Yosef. This then served as the basis for his magnum opus the Shulchan Aruch which he completed in 1555. In this sense, he effectively authored two codes.

Although there was some opposition to the Shulchan Aruch[1], after a century or so it became almost universally accepted as the most authoritative compendium of Jewish law – and still retains that status today.

He further penned a commentary to Rambam’s legal code, the Mishneh Torah, which became known as the Kesef Mishneh.  In it, he provided source references which were omitted in the Rambam’s original text.[2]


As clearly evident, R. Karo wrote extremely technical and legalistic works and codes. It is, therefore, most unusual to see his only openly Kabbalistic writing, the Maggid Meisharim, which comes in the form of a diary he kept of apparent heavenly visitations by Maggid, over a period spanning about fifty years. This diary was published in two parts (in 1646[3] and 1654).

What is most astonishing about Maggid Meisharim is not just the theoretical, but the explicit mystical nature of the writing which include topics like: ‘secrets of creation’, the ‘revelation of Eliyahu haNavi’, ‘resurrection of the dead’, ‘reincarnation’ and ‘dream interpretation’.

Interestingly, Maggid Meisharim appears to have not been officially edited, and it seems as if R. Karo never intended for these copious writings to be published.



Know that I am the Mishna that speaks in your mouth. When you will be expert in the six orders of the Mishna you will be elevated to the highest levels. The conduits of true wisdom will be open before you, for I am the Mishna and within me is true wisdom.”

Therefore take care from today not to let your mind wander from the Mishna as you have done in the past, for although you occupy yourself with Halachic decisions, nevertheless, studying the Mishna will raise you to a higher level.”[4]  


The Mishna was completed at the end of the 200’s and became the major legal text which formed the basis of the Talmud. It was always referenced and used as legal precedent by the Sages.

However, in the 1500’s it assumed a new role, where instead of just being used as a primary legal text to be studied, it began to be recited. This recitation turned the Mishna into a technique for receiving ‘revelation’ which was often achieved through the agency of a Maggid.


After elaborating on various calculations (including the Atbash code)[5] involving the letters in the name Eliyahu, together with other techniques including allusions to the Ten Sefirot and Partzufim, we read:
“...With this secret of the final hei [of the Ineffable Name, which receives from the previous three letters, and] is therefore comparable to the body [that receives the soul], Eliyahu becomes clothed in a physical body and appears in this world.
Therefore, when you desire that Eliyahu appear to you, meditate on these matters when you go to sleep, and then he will appear to you.[6]
I shall grant you (permission) to see Elijah, for the Ancient of Days will be clothed in white garments and will sit facing you and will speak to you as a man speaks unto his friend... and although your wife and other men and women will be in your house, he will speak with you and you shall see him but they shall not.[7]
According to Maggid Meisharim (pp. 15, 145 and 100.) R. Yosef Karo's Maggid repeatedly promises him a great privilege - to be burned on the Altar. His ashes will be gathered on the Altar of the Beit haMikdash and will rise like the fragrance of the ketoret or incense, when the words of his scholarship are recited in public. (This may be a reference to Shlomo Molcho whose burning by the church was envied by R. Karo).
The Maggid informs R. Karo (who lived in the 1500’s) that R. Yehudah haNasi (Compiler of the Mishna, who lived in the 200’s) as well as Rambam (who lived in the 1100’s), all endorse his work.[8]
Then the Maggid assures R. Yosef Karo that his Halachic writings are also endorsed by the ‘Heavenly Yeshiva’:
חזק ואמץ אל תירא ואל תחת כי כל אשר אתה עושה ה, מצליח וכל אשר עשית והורית עד היום הזה ה’ מצליח בידך וכן מסכימים במתיבתא דרקיעא חי ה’ כי פסק זה אמת ויציב הלכה למשה מסיני הלכה כוותך … לכן חזק ואמץ אל תירא כי כל אשר עשית והורית עד היום הזה ה’ מצליח ומסכים בו וכן כל מה שתעשה ותורה מכאן והלאה הב”ה

“Be strong and do not fear because G-d will make you successful in all that you are doing...and the Heavenly academy agrees with your (rulings) up to this time. As G-d lives, these (rulings) are true...are like laws from Moshe at Sinai. And all that you do from now on will be successful and sanctioned by G-d.”[9]

R. Karo believed he was a reincarnation of Moshe Rabbeinu and he, therefore, paralleled Moshe’s legislating prowess and his ability to prophecy (which R. Karo achieved through the Maggid).     
R. Yosef Karo had three (according to some perhaps five) wives. Their names are not mentioned - only their father’s names are recorded.
His first wife was the daughter of R. Yitzchak Saba. They were married around 1522 and settled in Salonika.  A few years later, she and three (or possibly four) of their children died of the plague, while still in Salonika.
A year later, he married his second wife, the daughter of R. Chaim Al-Balage of Nicopol, and they moved to Safed. She appears to have been the mother of his son Shlomo.
Around 1565, after his second wife died in Safed, he married his third wife, the daughter of R. Zecharia Vernek. She was the mother his youngest son, Yehudah who was born to R. Karo when he was 82 years old.
This story so far would have passed as relatively normal had we not been privy to Maggid Meisharim which paints a very unusual picture:
The Maggid warned R. Karo not to “write in an accessible way for (other) people to comprehend”, so he wrote some of the sensitive issues in code.
R. Karo believed strongly in reincarnation – and he believed he knew some of the secrets of who was reincarnated into whom. When, for example, it came to his second wife, she was said to have been someone previously known as ‘Shahaktecha[10]. When using the Atbash code, it translates as ‘Betzalel’.
Interestingly Betzalel was a male and was the Biblical architect and builder of the Sanctuary in the desert.
But the Maggid also predicted that R. Karo’s second wife would be ‘nashim kefulot[11] or ‘multiple women’ – meaning that she would have had two separate incarnations, and therefore possess two souls.
The first soul was from Betzalel and the second, also a male, was from the Sage of Mishnaic times, R. Tarfon.[12]
The Maggid Meisharim describes the nature of the two souls:
And I shall give you from this modest and worthy woman (the first wife) another son, for she deserves it because of all she has suffered … and when she departs this life you will marry (your second wife), one after the other, two married/multiple women … and from these (women) you will have gifted sons, knowing His name and studying His Torah.”[13]

R. Tarfon, however, was known to have been rather miserly. He did not want to give money to charity nor did he want to share his knowledge with others. As a punishment, he was to be reincarnated into a woman’s body!
The Maggid Meisharim records the Maggid speaking to R. Karo:
Hence, you witness her charitable behaviour. She does a lot of charity, and she also loves you very much because you let Torah stream by writing books to teach others...and those activities are her ‘tikkun’ (spiritual rectification); therefore she loves you.”[14]

It continues:
 “And when you find out who (he) was in the first incarnation you will be in awe and you will treat her with great respect and you will be ashamed to have marital relations.”[15]
This prediction apparently began while R. Karo was still married to his first wife and while they were still living in Salonika.

R. Karo was intent on re-establishing the Sanhedrin of old and reinstituting the traditional practice of rabbinical ordination which had been abolished.

Here is an extract from Maggid Meisharim referring to the semicha program:

Indeed I am the Mishnah speaking from your mouth...I shall elevate you to be a minister and chancellor on the entire diaspora of Israel in the kingdom of Arabistan, since you have dedicated yourself to cause the return of the ordination (semicha) to its former glory, you will merit to be ordained by all the sages of the land of Israel and by the sages abroad, and by you I shall return ordination to its former glory and I shall cause that you will finish your book.[16]
The Maggid also encouraged R. Karo to finish his book as soon as possible, before a ‘certain’ Rabbi in Krakow would finish his. This rabbi was R. Moshe Isserless (1530 -1572) who wrote a parallel work for Askenazim, which corresponded to R. Karo’s work which was created for Sephardim. According to this account, there appears to have been some rivalry between the two.
The Maggid would frequently rebuke R. Karo and insist he practised a rather ascetic lifestyle:
Regard yourself as standing before the King, King of kings, the Holy One blessed be He, whose Shechinah hovers over you and continuously accompanies you. Accordingly, be wary of taking pleasure in eating, drinking, or marital relations, as I have taught you; such pleasures should be repugnant to you and you should not crave them.”[17]
The Maggid also admonished R. Karo for drinking more than one glass of wine as well as for eating meat.
One wonders how much of this asceticism was later to weave its way into his legal writings.
R. Shlomo Alkabetz, the Kabbalist who composed Lecha Dodi, wrote that he was once present at one of these spiritual visitations by R. Karo’s Maggid, which took place one Shavuot evening:
I have been granted the merit of hearing the voice speaking to the Chassid (R. Yosef Karo); an intense clear voice, and all neighbours heard this and did not comprehend; the revelation was pleasant and the voice became stronger and more powerful, and we fell on our faces and lost consciousness out of reverence and awe”.
Going by what is written in Maggid Meisharim, it is clear that R. Yosef Karo was deeply involved in matters mystical. The question is how much of that mysticism was allowed to spill over into his Halachic writings, which in principle, are not supposed to be practically influenced by Kabbalah.
While it is generally contended that Kabbalah was never allowed to interfere with his Halachik process, opinion is divided on the matter:
According to R. J. Zwi Werblowsky[18], R. Karo was known to have displayed a: “well-known unwillingness to allow kabbalistic considerations or mystical experiences to influence halachic decisions, which, he felt, should be arrived at exclusively by the traditional methods of rabbinic dialectic.”[19]
As a support, he mentions R. Shmuel Vital who also stresses that R. Karo relied solely on regular rabbinical ‘pshat’ not allowing for any mystical considerations at all.
However, Jacob Katz maintains that R. Karo did indeed infuse some considerable amounts of mysticism into his Halacha.
As a support, he shows how R. Karo, in his introduction to the Beit Yosef, clearly admits to using the Zohar as one of his sources of reference.
An example is the hand washing ritual performed in the mornings: The earlier Rishonim were divided as to whether it was a spiritually cleansing ritual (Rashba) or simply a hygienic morning ablution (Rosh). Yet R. Karo chose to follow the less legal and the more mystical approach by requiring the water to be poured into another vessel and not directly onto the ground because of ‘spiritual contamination’. He also prescribed (the Kabbalistic tradition) that the water is first to be poured over the right hand and then the left.
Other examples are the Levi’im pouring water over the hands of Cohanim before the priestly blessings[20] and the notion that women should not attend funerals[21], which have their basis in Kabbalah.
Furthermore, R. Karo wrote that as long as the Zohar does not contradict a Talmudic text, it can ‘gain precedence over other poskim (Halachic decisors)’. This view ‘empowers the kabbalistic text with legal significance.’
In another example, R. Karo states his position that “the Zohar cannot override a Talmudic ruling but can take primacy in medieval debates.”[22]
Reference to the Zohar takes place, according to R. Brody, ‘dozens of times. The inclusion of the Zohar in his writings significantly impacted the influence of Kabbalistic teachings for centuries (to come)’.
He often (although not exclusively) introduces Kabbalistic practices with terms like: ‘some say’, ‘the preferred custom’ or ‘it’s good to be stringent’.
It is significant that at around this time, many Sephardim (such as R. David Ibn Zimra[23] and Yaakov Ibn Chaviv[24]) began to openly quote the Zohar in relation to Halachic matters.
On the other hand, in Eastern Europe, where the Zohar was less known, the Halachic decisors did not defer to it.
In the words of the Maggid Meisharim itself, there is no doubt that R. Karo merged Kabbalah with Halacha:                                                       
Because you have combined (the Law and Kabbalah) all together, all the celestial beings have your interests at heart...”[25]
The two great codifiers, Rambam and R. Karo, wrote non-legal texts as well. To highlight the significant difference between Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed and R. Karo’s Maggid Meisharim, R. Brody poignantly points out how two approaches towards Halachic thought developed:
In Moreh Nevukhim, rabbinic Judaism confronted medieval philosophy, and a rationalistic divine law emerged.  In Magid Mesharim, the scholarly Karo confronts the magid’s world of symbolism and reveals a rich and learned Kabbalistic halakha.”[26]

These words need to be taken in context as there is no doubt that the vast majority of R. Karo’s Shulchan Aruch is clearly and undisputedly based on the accepted principles of Halachic derivation.
So while the content is generally similar the approaches may be different.

As we have seen, the Maggid Meisharim paints a very different, picture of R. Yosef Karo, compared to the popular image he has as the sober codifier par excellence.
Perhaps if we remember the period of Jewish history in which R. Yosef Karo lived – the1500’s - when the Zohar was exerting much influence on rabbinic thinking, it is understandable that these mystical tendencies would have deeply touched him as well.

I remember walking around with huge and heavy tomes of Shulchan Aruch when I was studying for semicha – and yet I had no idea that there was such a mystical angle to its author.
Neither did anyone else I knew.
For some, this revelation is too much to bear and, understandably, there have been attempts to discredit the authenticity of the Maggid Meisharim.
Marvin J. Heller writes:
Caro’s authorship has been disputed. A number of writers, particularly those who did not wish to attribute a mystical work to a leading halachic authority, questioned Caro’s authorship.”
However: “Contemporary evidence comes from R. Solomon Alkabez, who wrote that he and others heard the maggid speak on Shavuot night; R. Hayyim Vital refers to the maggid in Sefer ha-Gilgilim; and R. Moses Cordovero has a quote in Pardes Rimonim (1591) found in Maggid Mesharim...Caro’s children never expressed any doubt as to his authorship.”[27]
It is further interesting to note that although the Maggid foretold that R. Karo would die a martyrs death and that he would be able to restore the semicha ordination to its former status – none of these were actualized. Had the work been a forgery, it is hard to imagine why they would have discredited it by referencing predictions that did not transpire in reality.
We do know that, according to the Chida[28], the publications of Maggid Meisharim as we have them, represent only a fiftieth of the original mystical work.
This means that there must have been so much more material of perhaps even more mystical nature, which we shall never see.
It is fascinating to see how the man responsible for most of our official, sober and technical jurisprudence, may have had a side to himself many could ever have imagined.

[1] The Maharshal, for example, opposed the inclusion of the Shulchan Aruch in the canon of Halachic literature. He said:  “Codes generate commentaries, since human language and intellect cannot produce a work of eternal, unambiguous meaning.” (Introduction to Bava Kama)
[2] After R. Karo’s passing his following works were published: Bedek haBayit (additions and correction to his original Beit Yosef). Kelalei haTalmud (a work on Talmudic methodology).  Avkat Rochel (response). Derashot (a collection of speeches). He also wrote commentary to the Mishna as well as supercommentaries to Rashi and Ramban which are no longer extant.
[3]This edition was brought to print by R. Yitzchak Binga in Lublin (1646). The first complete publication of both sets was in Amsterdam 1708. The work was originally titled Sefer haMaggid but was later changed to Maggid Meisharim (after Isaiah 45:19 “I declare that things are right”).
[4] Maggid Meisharim, Bereishit. (Some of these translations are from R. Moshe Miller.)
[5] Atbash is where the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet (alef) becomes the last letter (tav)  - and the second letter (bet) becomes the second-last letter (shin) – making the acronym Atbash.
[6]Maggid Meisharim, Bereishit.
[7] Maggid Meisharim p. 185.
[8] Maggid Meisharim 7.
[9] Maggid Meisharim 381.
[10] Some editions leave this out while other manuscripts by certain copyists record this name.
[11] Some editions use ‘nashim beulot’ or previously married women.[12] See “Revealing the Secret of His Wives” - R. Joseph Karo’s Concept of Reincarnation and Mystical Conception, By Mor Altshuler.
[13] Maggid Meisharim p. 5 and 6.
[14] Magid Meisharim p. 38.
[15] Maggid Meisharim p. 38. We do see, nevertheless, that he was also told that ‘from this woman (his second wife) you will have gifted sons...”
[16] Maggid Meisharim p. 211.
[17] Maggid Meisharim p. 138.

[18] Cited in Halakha and Kabbalah: Rabbi Joseph Karo’s Shulchan Aruch and Magid Mesharim by Shlomo Brody.

[19] Joseph Karo:  Lawyer and Mystic, JPS, 1977, by R.J. Zvi Werblowsky. 
[20] Orach Chaim 128.[21] Yoreh Deah 359.
[22] This is with regard to wearing teffilin on chol hamoed where he rules against some Rishonim and sides with the Zohar’s proscription from wearing teffilin.
[23] Also known as Radbaz.
[24] Author of Ein Yaakov.
[25] Maggid Meisharim 258.
[26] Emphasis mine.
[27] The Seventeenth Century Hebrew Books (2Vols), by Marvin J. Heller. p. 665. (I did, however, come across a reference that R. Karo’s son Yehudah, did not list the work on his list of his father’s writings. Perhaps some of the confusion stems from the fact that R. Karo, evidently, didn’t want Maggid Meisharim to ever be published.)
4 R. Chaim David Azulai (1724-1806).


  1. tefillin on chol chamoed is another kabbalah influenced din in the Mechaber


    I tried looking up the semicha reference note 16, but the version on hebrewbooks has a different page numbering. are you able to give the sedrah ?



  3. Regarding R Karo having a martyr's death, in Maggid Mesharim the Maggid tells him: (paraphrasing) due to a yereda he had, he will no longer be zoche to a martyr's death, and will only be zoche to write the Shulchan Aruch.

  4. I assume Magid Meisharim is a forgery. Is there any evidence of him claiming to have a maggid before this book shows up 7 decades later?

  5. Zwi Werblowsky dedicates chapter three of his book 'J. Karo Lawyer and Mystic' to the textual evidence and the question of who authored the work. His arguments seem quite convincing that it is not a forgery. R. Chaim Vital makes mention of R. Karo's Magid (although he claims he made a few mistakes) [p. 15]. We do know for certainty that the claim of Magidic communication was commonplace among other mystics at that time and into the next century as well.